politics

A Conversation Around Politics, Entrepreneurship, And The Dynamics Of Capitalism with Peter Wehner

TWS 14 | Dynamics Of Capitalism

 

Capitalism is the greatest economic system in human history because it’s lifted more people out of poverty than any system in human history and allowed for the conditions for great human flourishing and great technological advancements. This is according to Peter Wehner, a New York Times contributing Op-Ed writer covering American politics and conservative thought and a popular media commentator on politics. Wehner is also a veteran of three White House administrations and author of the books Wealth and Justice, The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, and The Death of Politics. In this episode, he dives into the aspects and dynamics of capitalism.

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A Conversation Around Politics, Entrepreneurship, And The Dynamics Of Capitalism with Peter Wehner

My guest is incredible. Probably the best top three interviews I’ve had. We are talking about entrepreneurship, but we also weave in capitalism. We talk about a lot of what the theme was in 2018, life, liberty and property. It was awesome to talk to this individual. He is super intelligent and very distinguished. Peter Wehner is my guest and he is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also is a contributing editor at the Atlantic Magazine. He is also a contributing columnist for the New York Times. He is the former Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives and Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush. He has authored a few books, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism and The Death of Politics. Welcome, Peter. It is amazing to have you on. I’m excited about this conversation and to talk to you about your book as well as some of the things that you’ve been preaching.

Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

I talked to you a little bit about what we’ve been doing, which is focusing on the topics that include life, liberty, property from some of John Locke’s writings. As well as what capitalism is, entrepreneurship, and the framework where most people want to be a part of. Not necessarily just in the US but around the world. I look at what you’ve written about and understood it for quite some time studying and looking at where our society is and what has made us successful versus other nations perhaps. How have you come to understand capitalism in general and the aspects and dynamics of capitalism?

My belief is that capitalism is the greatest economic system in human history because it has lifted more people out of poverty than any system in human history and allowed for the conditions for great human flourishing and great technological advancements. Capitalism unmitigated and unrestrained has some problems. Part of what democracies and free societies have to do is to soften some of the rougher edges of that. That’s a prudential judgment. What does that mean? What programs have to be done to do that? You have to weigh the costs and benefits in terms of the effects on economic growth and all the rest.

It’s my belief that capitalism works because it’s most consistent with human nature. I’m a big believer in the idea that you have to confirm your economic and political systems to certain realities about human nature. I think capitalism accords to that and aligns with that. It understands as Adam Smith talked about what selfishness rightly understood is. You have to take into account what drives and motivates people that you can’t believe simply altruism, even though altruism is a part of human life and human experience. People act in ways that advance their self-interest rightly understood. You have to create certain incentives that will lead human beings to act in the ways that are both expected of them but also advances the common good.

I think the American understanding of capitalism, by and large, is the right one. Limited government entrepreneurship, free markets, skepticism about the ability of the centralized government to dictate decisions and believe that it has the capacity to anticipate and direct all aspects of human life. It has improved and right. There’s an epistemological modesty that capitalism understands, which is that you can’t get a small group of very bright people who can run economies. The way that economies work best is letting people by and large to be free to act in ways that want to act.

Let me go into two things that you had said because I find this interesting. It sounds like there’s this altruistic pull of human beings to be charitable to help others, to contribute, give back. There’s also this invisible hand, maybe more self-interested. It seems like those two things are pulling against each other. Are they mutually exclusive or is it may be a mischaracterization of those two concepts?

I don’t think of them as mutually exclusive. I think that they can be complementary. They’re distinct and they’re part of human nature. Think about your own life, the lives of your friends and your family, you probably see both of those elements in them. There are times in which you see altruism, self-sacrifice, selflessness, acts of charity, sympathy and compassion. Those things are real and they exist. They should be encouraged where they can. On the other hand, all of us act in our self-interest as well. That’s the way we’re designed. That’s the way that we operate. Most of life is acting in our self-interest provided that it doesn’t run over the rights of other people, and none of us are completely selfless, self-giving, completely compassionate and completely sympathetic. You have to take that into account.

The way that economies work best is by letting people be free to act in ways that they want to act. Click To Tweet

That’s not a bad thing as long as it’s channeled in the right way. The trick here is to try and take those human realities and direct them in a way that advances the common good. The founders understood this. Their view of human nature was correct, which is that people are capable of virtue and nobility but also acts of recklessness, irresponsibility and evil. You have to take both of those things into account. My own sense, I’m a person of the Christian faith. The Christian understanding of human nature is essentially correct. It’s that too, which is the advice and virtue are intermingled in people’s lives and in people’s hearts. It’s a complicated mix. People in different seasons in life lean in more of one direction than another. The challenge in individual lives, as well as a society, is to try and emphasize, give force and power to the higher things and to mitigate the lower things.

I do want to hit on a few of the things you said. Go to this idea of central powers dictating what people should do or taking care of them is the banner sometimes in which central governances is looked to as a virtue. What is it about that structure that people don’t end up liking? The ideal side of things that they push through or talk about sometimes is intriguing. I see why they would appeal to people, but when it comes down to it, why do people kick against that? Why does that impede human progress or does it?

Let’s take facts and circumstances. Sometimes when the centralized government, the national government who’s acted is advanced, great good, and sometimes, often it’s done the opposite. I’m somebody who believes in limited government and is wary of centralized government. I’m a lifelong conservative. That’s what’s shaped my beliefs in part because the way I understand conservatism is that it’s based very much on the human experience. It’s a negation of ideology, Russell Kirk and others have said. You have to take into account what works for the human condition. I’d say that there are several reasons for it in terms of why one is skeptical with centralized power. One is simply on the efficacy standpoint. Peter Schuck wrote a book about why government fails. He refers to himself in the book as a militant moderate.

He’s not an ideological person, but he’s an empirical look at what it is about a large government that doesn’t work very often, that fails where the efficiency is not what it ought to be. Anybody who’s worked there, if they’re honest, would concede that fact. How often these grand promises and hopes that are sincere and don’t translate into reality. I think you could look at much of the great society and see that. Even programs which have done some good but have also are themselves extremely inefficient like Medicare and Medicaid. I wouldn’t argue that no good comes out of them. I don’t think that’s sustainable, but those programs are not nearly as efficient as they could be.

TWS 14 | Dynamics Of Capitalism

Dynamics Of Capitalism: Most of life is acting in our self-interest provided that it doesn’t run over the rights of other people.

 

I’d say the inefficiency and lack of efficacy for centralized government is something that we need to be alert to. There’s the concern that the founders themselves had and many others who had, which is when you centralize power, there’s the danger of authoritarianism and even totalitarianism. That as the old maximum goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts. We’ve seen time after time that when people get a tremendous amount of power, when it’s unchecked and it’s on challenged, that can lead to some very bad conditions and situations. That was the worry of the founders. That’s the reason that they set up our system of government of checks, balances, and separation of powers because what they wanted was not an efficient government. They wanted a government that protected against tyranny.

I think that’s a second reason that people need to be wary about centralized government. The third reason is that if you go back and you read Adam Smith in a certain way and probably more specifically this idea about which is that there’s this mythology among Progressives, which is that if you get a group of wise men, wise women, they can oversee, conduct, and determine how human society can act and all realms that simply isn’t possible. They can’t do it. There are so many imponderables in lives, so many contingencies in life that the idea that a centralized state or a group of individuals would be able to make those judgments. I just don’t think works.

The fourth thing I’d say is George Will, a marvelous book that he wrote called The Conservative Sensibility writes about the American founding. He says, “That’s essentially what conservative’s need to conserve.” which is the idea of inalienable rights. Natural rights, rights that precede government. His argument and I think it’s a valid point that government, if it gets too large, too centralized, can undermine those natural rights. He makes the case in a pretty persuasive way that the belief in natural rights would tend to lead one toward a more limited government.

Let’s go to your book because you look at the idea of capitalism and just the word itself formulates a specific reaction in people as far as my experience is concerned. It’s not necessarily based on logic and thought through education debate where a person comes to an understanding. It’s more based on what has been heard. What society believes about that word? Talk about your best-selling book, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism and weave that into the conversation. Talking about how that can essentially be a message that will hit on the principles that make capitalism good for society as opposed to what most people react to, which is that it exploits people and takes advantage of people. It’s all about the wealthy and them getting their own.

People are capable of virtue and nobility, but also acts of recklessness, irresponsibility, and evil. Click To Tweet

I coauthor it. It’s a monograph of the American Enterprise Institute with Arthur Brooks, who was for many years President of an American Enterprise Institute. He left to take a professorship at Harvard. Arthur is very good in a very sober and thoughtful voice on this thing. We wrote this book and the situation is more acute than it was when we wrote it. One of our concerns was Americans in general and particularly young Americans were losing faith in capitalism as a system. We see that in polls, and you’re probably more familiar with them than I am. The support for socialism is higher than at any time in my lifetime, probably higher than at any point since the early part of the twentieth century.

You see this in contemporary politics with the Democratic Party who are two of the hottest political figures in democratic politics, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’re both self-proclaimed democratic socialists. If you watch the democratic debates, you see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren essentially taking an anti-private enterprise stance. There’s almost a reflexive hostility to anything having to do with capitalism or corporations. It doesn’t mean that those certain corporations don’t deserve criticism, but it’s a reflex. You’ve seen this rise in respect and to some of the enthusiasm for socialism and the decline in competence and capitalism. That’s a problem. Some of that is undoubtedly a result of the great in 2008. I think that the income gap between the most wealthy and the rest of the society probably had more of an effect on the general public than a lot of people on the right thought that it would.

It seems to have permeated society and the belief that the very rich are making out like bandits, the rest of us are not and so much of the gains in wealth, money from the market, that has happened. We’ve had wage stagnation from pretty much the entire part of the 21st century. Wages had been much flatter and it’s a complicated set of reasons for why that’s happened. I wouldn’t blame that on any single president. Certain deep trends are in play here, which I’m guessing you’ve covered. There seems to be a lack of faith in capitalism. That’s given rise to populism, which I’m wary about as a conservative. I think populism can often be antithetical to capitalism and it can be antithetical to reason itself.

I think it first goes to reason because I would say there’s less reason. It may be the delusion of information that’s all around us and individuals who can’t fit anything else into their head. Therefore they take the efficient approach and leverage the belief system of someone they feel is like them. It’s interesting to see how society has been wired to think a certain way and it’s not necessarily the beliefs associated with reason, debate and personal individual understanding. Its group thinking dictated by very persuasive people like your AOC and Bernie Sanders.

TWS 14 | Dynamics Of Capitalism

Dynamics Of Capitalism: It’s important for the defenders of capitalism and free-market to make those arguments and not to be dismissive toward the critics.

 

I think that’s right. There’s a rage at the system, the establishment of healing. It’s almost a quasi-nihilism. You see this toward capitalism and the politics in general, which is this idea that we have to burn down the village to save it. Things couldn’t be worse. Let’s just toss the whole thing aside. That’s what explains in part of the rise of Donald Trump. I’ve been a very strong and persistent critic of Donald Trump in large part on conservative grounds. What he tapped into is a sense that people wanted a wrecking ball to come in and shatter things. That’s deeply anti-conservative impulse, but he tapped into it effectively.

I’ve told friends of mine who were pro-capitalism and pro-free-market as I am. It is important to do a study or set of studies to understand what happened. What explains the loss of faith in capitalism, the rise in affinity for socialism. Both attitudes and specific episodes and incidents that explain it to understand in a thoughtful way what is driving it. What are the attitudes? What is associated with free-market and capitalism and to think through how do we tell the story? What’s the narrative? What’s the tale we have to tell to remind people why capitalism is a system that has brought so much human flourishing and then so much to encourage human dignity?

I think it was Orwell who said that the first duty of a responsible man is a restatement of the obvious. Sometimes you have to restate what’s obvious or what you thought was obvious. I’ve noticed this in life, in politics, and in economics and all sorts of realms, which is sometimes people forget to make the arguments in some fundamental way. Why is it that we believe what we believe? That’s understandable. You think that certain victories are one, that arguments are settled and you just act on that assumption. Sometimes without quite realizing it, the floor breaks and all of a sudden, that confidence that people had or that understanding those shared assumptions are gone.

I think when it comes to capitalism, it’s quite important for people who are defenders of capitalism and free-market to make those arguments. Not to be dismissive toward the critics, not to laugh at them, not to say these ideas are stupid. Therefore, it shouldn’t be repudiated. Don’t even engage in name-calling, just say socialist and hope that is enough. We have to do more fundamental work to make the case again, and in a sense to win the hearts of ordinary Americans. To explain to them why capitalism is an economic system worthy of their loyalty.

No matter how strong your argument is, it's never as strong as you think it is. Click To Tweet

Let me use some way to abstract of an example as you may use to. There is a documentary that I saw called Behind The Curve. It was essentially about this millions of people that came together stating that the world is flat. That documentary was done by a non-flat-earther. It was interesting because he took this approach and it’s a very irrational thought, but yet millions of people were gravitating toward this. It was all driven by this emotional desire that they have to fit in within a group. Usually, a group of people that don’t believe what everybody else believes. What’s fascinating to the point you just made is the individual who was doing the documentary, they interviewed astrophysicists. They were saying, “Do you know that there’s this group out there, millions of people that believe the earth is flat?”

It’s fascinating because it takes you through this psychological urge of what I think you’re speaking to because the astrophysicists in the end said that, “These people don’t know what we know, so we can’t assume that they do and make an argument from that standpoint.” You have to meet them where they’re at and why they’ve come to that conclusion. If you start to make them wrong or make them feel stupid, it’s just going to strengthen their argument. That fits within the confines of what you’ve been talking about.

That’s a very interesting observation. I’m intrigued. I like to see that documentary. That whole area does fascinate me, I must say. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Jonathan Haidt, who is a marvelous moral psychologist. He used to be at the University of Virginia. He’s now at NYU. He wrote a book called The Righteous Mind. He spends a lot of time with a group called Heterodoxy, which is an effort to defend free speech on campuses against speech codes and so forth. Jonathan himself has been on an interesting journey and interesting pilgrimage. He started out as a traditional person who laughed at Progressive and is much more of a centrist. In part because of what his research has taught him. I’ve learned a lot. He’s a very intelligent, thoughtful guy and a very good guy as well.

His work on confirmation bias and motivated reasoning is outstanding. I’ve learned a lot from it and it goes to the point that you’re making. I think a lot of us believe that the positions others hold and that we hold are derived through some disinterested analysis of the facts, reasoning, and that reasoning has brought us to what we believe, free of emotion and all the rest. What we know about brain science and human nature, the more we’re looking into these things. It is so much of what we believe is a product of transrational or subrational forces. We have dispositions, tropisms, and predilections were products of our families of origin, our life experience, the people we’re around, and the communities we’re a part of.

TWS 14 | Dynamics Of Capitalism

Dynamics Of Capitalism: There is a chance to get some deeper understanding when people feel safe and when they feel heard.

 

That sense of fitting in with communities is extremely strong. We know from brain science that when you get information that confirms what you already believe, it’s a dopamine effect or rush. On the flip side, when there’s information that challenges certain basic assumptions, your brain puts up often a shield to block those things out. It’s genuinely uncomfortable for people to hear information that challenges them. I’d say in my own life, politics and just human relationships, that’s one area where I’ve changed. In the past when I would have differences with people, I would often write long emails, fact base, point-by-point. People who know me would think I was built to respond to some of these issues in terms of debating. Empirical evidence, premise facts to support it, conclusion.

What I’ve discovered is no matter how strong your argument is and it’s never as strong as you think it is. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument. You and I were having a debate. The case I presented against you was overwhelming by any objective standard. The odds are not only that, you wouldn’t change your position if I overwhelmed your case. You would probably, as you were indicating, dig your heels and more. It’s quite rare to shift people. I’ve seen this in theology, in the world of Christianity, in the world of politics and all sorts of world. Where there is a chance to get some deeper understanding is when people feel safe, when they feel heard. When they believe that you know their arguments and at least can state them and understand them even if you disagree with them. If there are a human connection and a human relationship, if you have in a sense standing in somebody else’s life and that will allow them to let you in and to make their case, and vice versa.

Alan Jacobs, who is a professor at Baylor used to be at Wheaton, wrote a book called How to Think. He refers to a foundation that when they conduct debates, the first thing that they require is that the people are debating. Person A states the position of person B in such a fair-minded way that person B believes that it is a fair restatement of their views and vice versa. That is the precondition before the debate goes on. If that thing happened more often, we’d get a lot further along. We know this from the social science evidence. We are as polarized as we have been since reconstruction. It’s a deeply polarized society and when that happens, people tend to go into their own camps and they shut off people who have alternative views. I think that’s happening in all realms, including in the realm that we’re talking about free-market and capitalism. That goes to the larger discussions we’re having, which is how do you make the case in a way that the people who could conceivably be open to an alternative case are.

You’re hitting on everything that has been going through my mind. What you said was brilliant. That’s where I look at just my experience and what I was trying to get to with the whole idea of central governance. People don’t like to be told what to do. There’s this fighting response to it that I think goes into what you were referring to as our unconscious or what’s built into our wiring. That right there includes a lot of when we had to survive where we don’t necessarily have to survive anymore, but yet those instincts are still there. When a person feels attacked, I would assume that it’s very similar to being attacked by the sabertooth tiger or some animal.

Human life and experience is about learning things and recalibrating new facts and conditions that arise and trying to adjust accordingly. Click To Tweet

That’s where I look at AOC and I look at Donald Trump in a way, especially where in a sense they understand psychology. They’re using what people will respond to as talking points and statements. People fall prey to it all the time. I look at the psychology side of things and going to where economics is and usually, the argument for capitalism tends to be rational thinking. I look at how human beings are wired. The majority of it’s emotional. That’s where I look at the values and principles approach has something that intrigues me as opposed to labels like capitalism, Democrats, Progressives or Liberals. It’s looking at principle as opposed to labels because the labels immediately there put you in that camp or excludes you. If you’re in the camp, you’re going to believe what the camp believes and if you’re excluded, you’re not going to believe it.

Labels exist for a reason because they label something. They identify world views, but I think that the labels by and large are probably counterproductive. Once the labels are cast out, then you’re putting people in categories, they’re putting you in categories. It becomes awfully neat, tidy and untrue. It doesn’t allow for flexibility and nuance, which is what human life and experience are about. You learn things, you refine your thinking, you recalibrate, new facts, new conditions arise and you try and adjust accordingly. If you’re in these ideological boxes, it’s very hard.

I’ve had these conversations with Trump supporters because I’m a lifelong conservative and I worked in three Republican administrations and in a Republican White House. I have a lot of friends who are Republicans. I’ve been so critical of Trump. They’re puzzled or upset by it. I’ve had a lot of conversations, many of them good. Sometimes it takes an effort to make sure that the relations don’t fray. It’s been helpful for me because I’ve been able to hear their perspective and understand where they’re coming from. I must say that there are times in which one makes an empirical claim as it relates to Donald Trump that is a criticism of him. Let’s say something about that he has lied and there’s demonstrable evidence that it’s a lie. It’s been fascinating to me how it just doesn’t breakthrough.

It is as if they think that that’s the thread and the whole thing can come apart. If they can see one thing that the whole project comes apart. I’ve experienced this throughout my life in politics, particularly when you’re in the White House. Many of the issues that you confront are complicated issues. They’re very intelligent people arguing different policies and different points of view. Often the decisions are 60/40 or 65/35. It’s not 100% arguments on one side and 0% on the other. That’s part of what discretion, judgment, prudence and wisdom is in governing. It’s the ability to hear these arguments which sound potentially equally persuasive thinking through we choose the one that is most appropriate given the circumstances we’re in. What are the contingencies that we have to anticipate but are unknowable? If you’re deciding a set of policies that you want to roll out, what’s achievable politically and not? What’s the composition of Congress? You might want to push some elements of privatization of Social Security, which you could believe is the right thing to do, but maybe it’s not achievable.

TWS 14 | Dynamics Of Capitalism

The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump

Maybe you have to do something ahead of that. These are all very complicated issues to take into account. Often they are choosing one set of policies over and against another one or 60/40, but then when you get into the actual discussion, those differences disappear and that weighing of pros and cons disappears. It’s as if all the arguments are on one side and not on the other. Once you settled on a position, there seems to be some reflex that we have that says, “I can’t concede a single point to the other side because if I do it, I weaken my case and I can’t possibly weaken my case.” You have people shouting, talking points at each other, talking past each other, and refusing to engage each other and saying, “That’s a valid point. I think you’re right. I just think that the other arguments on my side outweigh the good point that you’re making.” It’s all very complicated and very challenging stuff, but I think in part explains why our politics is as broken as it is.

For the readers, I love having these conversations. Hopefully, this is valuable to you. Some of the things you’re saying, it comes down to this relation to human connection. I think all people want to connect. They want to have a relationship. At the same time, there’s this instinctive protection that they have where they want to look bad. They don’t want to be wrong because what that does is it invalidates their identity to an extent, but when you break down those walls, it’s amazing what can happen. People, either value is a value or a principle is a principle or it’s not. Most people would concede to capitalistic principles if it wasn’t labeled capitalistic principles. These are principles of life in a sense. I’ll end with this and I’ll let you have the final word. There’s something I’ve thought about, which was interesting to me.

I have little kids, two teenagers and a five-year-old. We went to the Disney Aulani Resort on Oahu. When I was there, there’s this central pool section. There were these two guys that had these big earrings, big guys with these tattoos on their arms, hardcore guys. I was able to have a conversation with them. They were there with their kids. We were in this environment in which the walls were broken down and you can have that connection, yet if I went to their neighborhood and was walking down the street at night, the environment changes, walls are up and the outcome is not going to be the same. Human beings are wired in a certain way and we want certain things. They’re very similar yet because of these walls that come up and are reinforced, it’s difficult to have the connection that’s needed in order to make even more progress.

That’s a very interesting story and I think it touches on these deeper truths that we’re talking about. An awful lot of this is what you described, which is a sense of identity. That’s basic to human beings, feeling of belonging, and feeling of community. It’s pretty rare to find people who will take stands that will put them at odds with the community that’s most important to them. That explains a lot of the political tribalism, but we’ve got to find a way to try and break down these walls you’re describing. There’s some lovely verse in the New Testament about breaking down the dividing walls that exist between people. When those walls are up, it usually means that life is going to be harsher, less sympathy, more anger, more antipathy. People begin to view other folks not as individuals that you disagree with, but as enemies at the state, enemies of your cause.

We need other people with other experiences to help us see and to understand. Click To Tweet

What can quickly kick in is the dehumanization, which is if you see things differently than I am. It’s not because you’ve analyzed things wrongly and you made an intellectual error, but you’re morally defective. There must be something wrong with you. If you don’t see things the same way I do, then you don’t value the same things that I do. In fact, you’re a threat to them. We see that in contemporary politics. We know from the data that the attitudes that Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and Conservatives have toward each other. It’s much more personal than ever before. There’s a feeling that these are not just differences of policy, but they are character flaws and faults. If you feel like you’re being attacked on that fundamental level, you’re an alien, a malicious force, a malignant force, that you want to hurt me and you want to hurt everything that I know and love. When that happens, a lot of bad stuff kicks in and we’ve got to break through that. We have to deepen the understanding and sympathy that we have for one another.

In the book that I wrote, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. I tell a story in one of the chapters about CS Lewis and Owen Barfield. CS Lewis was a great medievalist and scholar in England. He was probably the most important Christian apologist of the twentieth century. He started a literary group in England in the 1930s. He and JRR Tolkien were the mainstays of that, but there was a person named Owen Barfield who was a British philosopher and poet and somebody that Lewis knew for many years. Lewis in his book Surprised by Joy describes what he refers to as first friends and second friends. For him, it was a person named Arthur Greeves, somebody who knew since his childhood. He said, “First friends are the individuals that when you start the sentence, they’re able to complete it. They’re your alter ego. They see the world largely the same way that you do process it the same way.” We all need that. That’s part of what human community, human attachment, human relationships bring to us. Lewis described what he referred to as a second friend and that was on Barfield. He said, “The second friend is the person who’s not your alter ego, but your anti-self.”

That’s the person who describes who reads all the same books you do and draws all the wrong conclusions from those books. He has a section where he talks about these debates that he had with Barfield and they were pretty intense. They were esoteric debates, but they were about the role of imagination and reason. Lewis says that he and Barfield would go at it hammer and tong late into the night learning the power of each other’s punches almost unconsciously beginning to absorb what the other person was saying. Out of this dog fight, a community of affection grew. The punch line was that Lewis and Barfield both treasured their relationship precisely because they took all the world somewhat differently than the other. They felt that their aperture of understanding was grayer because they had each other in their life.

Barfield later said that, “When Lewis and I debated, we didn’t debate for victory, we debated for truth.” That’s just an entirely different way of approaching dialogue and conversation, which is, “Do you have something to say where I can learn?” “Can I come out of this conversation knowing something that I didn’t before? Knowing something about you, something about the nature of the world, something about the experience that helps me see things better than I would have?” That goes back to what we were talking about, which is epistemological modesty. Even if in some abstract sense you or I were 100% correct in our understanding of a particular issue, there’s still no way that we could know the full truth and reality of things on any number of issues. That’s not within our capacity. That’s why we need other people with other experiences to help us see and to understand. If we were able to take that to heart and to incorporate it in our lives and embrace it, a lot of things in life would be better than they are.

I’ll say something to that. There’s a concept and idea that I love to use, which is three sides of a coin. Most people look at coins with two sides. There’s the edge, which is the third side. The concept is heads is one opinion, tales is another opinion, but then your opinion should sit on the edge where you should evaluate. Where are the arguments? Where the perspectives are coming from and then rationally come up with your own. I tried to look at that because you’re hitting the nail on the head with a lot of stuff we’ve talked about when it comes to perspective, what truth is, how people come to truths, and then how people change and essentially go from one side of the spectrum to another. Everything you’re hitting on is fascinating. I’d love for our audience to learn about you. Would you mind talking about your book and where they can pick that up? Also, how they can follow you. I know you are contributing to The Atlantic as well as The New York Times. Maybe talk about those outlets so that the audience can follow you.

The book that I just wrote, which was published by Harper Collins is called The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. It’s an account of my life in politics. What I’ve learned, why I believe politics is important. I think it’s a low moment and a dangerous moment, but I make the case that we need to do something about it because justice matters, and politics, it’s about a lot of things. It’s got its dark undersides as all professions do. It’s finally and fundamentally about justice. The book I wrote in less than a year, but it’s the product of a lifetime in politics. People can get that on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or any of the other outlets. I’m a contributing editor for The Atlantic Magazine. I’m a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. I’m a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. People can follow my work there. I’m on Twitter @Peter_Wehner. I write about all sorts of issues. I’ve written about capitalism, politics, faith and friendship, and then from time-to-time, I interview people for The Atlantic. I did a couple of interviews with David Brooks on his book, The Second Mountain, and then with George Will and his book, The Conservative Sensibility. For me, it’s a lovely way to earn a living, which is for me to write, think, talk to intelligent people, and try and learn along the way.

Peter, it’s been such a joy to speak with you. This has been an awesome conversation for me and I’m hoping readers got as much out of it. Thank you again for your time. Thank you for the good that you’re doing. We’ll have to connect in the future sometime.

I’d like to do it. I enjoyed the conversation a lot. Thanks. Take care.

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About Peter Wehner

TWS 14 | Dynamics Of CapitalismPeter Wehner is the author of The Death of Politics. He is a New York Times contributing Op-Ed writer covering American politics and conservative thought and a popular media commentator on politics.

Wehner is also a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and veteran of three White House administrations.

 

 

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Looking At The Markets, The Political Arena, And The World Economy with Dr. David Collum

TWS 13 | Economy

 

Let us talk about the free market as we dive into the insights of Dr. David Collum about the economy, our society, and our future. He is a Betty R. Miller Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University and is a regular and valued presence on the internet commenting on the financial system and the predicaments of our time. Dr. Collum gets philosophical and shares the paradigm and perspective he is using now to look at the markets, the political arena, and the world economy as a whole. Looking into our current situation, Dr. Collum shows how the economy has become about moving money and not goods and services, sharing better ways to distribute.

Watch the episode here:

Listen to the podcast here:

Looking At The Markets, The Political Arena, And The World Economy with Dr. David Collum

I have an interesting guest. We’re going to get into his story and what he does for living as well as something that I became intrigued with. His name is David Collum. He’s a professor at Cornell University. However, he writes a yearly economic review and has done for the last several years. You can find it on PeakProsperity.com, Chris Martenson’s and Adam Taggart’s blog. I’m excited to dive into his insight into the economy, into our society and what he sees as our future. David, welcome to the podcast.

I’m glad to be on.

I did a ton of research into what you wrote about in 2018. I happened to be going to a financial conference up in Whistler right after Ray Dalio was speaking, Howard Marks was speaking and there are a number of others. It helped me have a more refined perspective on what occurred in 2018. What I want to do is dive in briefly to your story because your economic review of things and your formal profession are a little bit different. Would you maybe explain how you came to start writing this annual review?

I didn’t pay any attention whatsoever to the stuff. I did chemistry. Around 1995, I started to pay some attention, some natural things start to develop some savings and you realize that it’s starting to matter. My dad and I used to chat about it when I was a kid. It was natural. As a raging bull for a while after that. In the late ‘90s, I started to notice that things are out of whack. In a fateful moment in July of ‘98, I decided to think for totally out of whack and I dumped half of my equities in cash. Almost to the day we went into that Asian crisis, I feel like I’m a half genius, half idiot. Down in the basement, I said, “If this comes back, I’m dumping the rest.” We came back and by mid ‘99 I had exited equities. There’s some phenomenon where once you go bearish, it’s hard to go on bearish again. Bulls get taught lessons much more dramatically than bears. By ‘99 I dumped all the equities right down to the last share and I was buying gold. I wouldn’t tell anyone though. It was embarrassing to buy gold.

Finally, I fessed up to a couple of people and they go, “Gold?” I said, “Yeah.” That paid off well over the next several years. It took a couple of years to not feel like an idiot though. I read more and more. I was at this chat board run by a guy named Doug Noland. We would chat and I wrote some stuff up at the end of the year and said, “Here’s how my year went and here’s what I’m thinking about.” One day I went viral. I left the containment field. I went from 200 clicks because that’s how many of us were there to quite a few thousand. It turns out one of the guys, named Jessie’s Café Américain, he had started the blog and he put it there. The next year I wrote it again and it got bigger. It was in 2008 or 2009, I decided to get serious. It was my 30th year of investing so I called it 30 Years of Investing from the Cheap Seats.

I laid it all out and all of a sudden, I started getting emails from people around the globe. The most shocking of which was the one I got from Iron Horn and he said, “This got passed to me,” and made some comments. From there, every year got bigger and broader. It had a natural growth rate to it. In 2018, it was about 160 pages. It’s hard to write 160 pages, but it’s hard to do it at the end of the year. I go into some lizard brain to do it. It goes to Zero Hedge, which spreads it around the globe. I’ll take on anything that catches my eye. If an antique catches my eye, I’ll write about antiques. If college finance catches my eye, I’ll write about it. There’s always a section on bonds, valuation and stuff like that.

I don’t necessarily count it by the pages because I’m reading it on a browser. I counted by how skinny that little icon is that you have to drag down. It’s quite a bit of work. Let me dive into a few things that you said. The first is you started to see things differently in the late ‘90s, which gave you a certain perspective. You acted on it. Maybe talk about where that philosophical base came from and maybe how it’s evolved into what that paradigm or perspective is you’re using to look at markets, look at the political arena and look at the world economy as a whole. Maybe you can go through that if you would.

I’m not a trader. I go into a position I usually average in slowly. It can take years. I probably make a trade a year even sometimes. I’m 100% about valuations. What happened to me in ‘98 is I concluded the valuations were at a point where historically win from that point. That’s still true to this day. Of all the cycles I’ve been through, I was in all bonds starting in 1980. People would say, “That was stupid.” I go, “I was making about 15%. It wasn’t that stupid.” When the crash in ’87 occurred, I was reading about it. I was not paying attention, but I realized I should be in equities. After the ‘87 crash, I moved into equities. I moved out again in ’99. I moved into gold, a lot of cash. I had a short position, which is a trade thing for me to do. I’ve done it twice. I will probably never do that again. It worked both times, but I know better now.

Winning doesn’t mean you’re not an idiot. I don’t blame myself. Every decision I make goes through the filter of it doesn’t work, will you forgive yourself? I started buying in ‘09 but I failed to buy not out of fear but out of greed. I started buying it. What a lot of people don’t know is we got down to approximately historical fair value in ’09. They think we are in some basement somewhere. We were nowhere near a basement. I document that exhaustedly especially in ‘18. I was positive that we would have to blow out a lot more. I remember Doug Cliggot saying, “I’ll be buying at this level and then it’ll drop. I will be bullish and at this level I wish I had saved my money.” That was the mode I was in.

When it jumped away from me I said, “This is 1931. We’re going back down again.” Nobody saw the levels of intervention coming. I know hundreds of people saw the mortgage crisis, hundreds and hundreds personally. I can’t find a single person that can point me to a single article where they said before this is over there will be trillions of dollars inserted into this. I can’t find that article anywhere. I failed to catch this road rage created by central banks. I’ve been largely not catching it. I was trading a lot of water and gold and I’m waiting for the next downswing. If my worldview is correct, it’s going to be a nasty one because they’ve blown up a gigantic bubble in both bonds and stocks. When those two start to blow up, I don’t want to be in the splash zone.

You had this perspective of things in ‘09 and then you saw the initial intervention mostly and then it gravitated to QE, how markets would respond short-term and the long-term.

The corporate buyback isn't capitalism. It presupposes that every other aspect of the economy is free market, which is not. Click To Tweet

First and foremost, I joined the club that turned out to be big and wrong that inflation would take hold. It hasn’t. There are people who say it’s there, but it’s not of the magnitude we thought and gold coming out of that bottom. It wasn’t in 2000. If I remember ‘13 where gold started paying dearly for not being right and that’s the thing I blew. I didn’t listen enough. I was like Lacy Hunt, Mike Shedlock, they were deflationists. I bought the bankers line that determined central banker can create inflation. Hunt and Shedlock are the two that I happen to remember well saying, “We are going to have deflation.” It didn’t sit with me and I think they’re correct.

It’s one of those things in hindsight. Everything makes sense as to this move and what it caused. I was looking at foresight when the move is taking place and seeing what impact it’s going to have. Sometimes it’s impossible because it could go a number of different directions. That was ‘09 and the world has changed quite a bit. How has your perspective changed in regard to your philosophy? Valuations no longer make much sense at all. You’ve had a lot of creative corporate finance going on which has continued to grow certain sectors. Ultimately, there are signs that there could be a correction. There are also signs that there might not, but maybe talk through what your experiences have been since 2009 and how your philosophy and perspective have been refined.

It hasn’t changed too much in the sense that of all the bubbles, this one is the one that seems most nonsensical to me. Every previous bubble, there was a good plot line, there was a good story. Whether it was 1929, 1999 or the 1960s where you can always say, “Here’s this revolutionary moment in history and things are rocking and this is why it’s exciting.” Even the South Sea Bubble, they all have a story. The story of this particular bubble is the Fed won’t let us down. That’s a stupid story because they’re incompetent most of the time. They are able to be competent in the short-term, but not able to stop the tides in the long-term and be a cause of a lot of pain when they don’t. I severely blame the Fed for ’09. They’re at ground zero for ‘09. It wasn’t crazy consumers. It was monetary policy.

How do you address those that are like, “The world would have gone to crap and were crumbled if the Fed didn’t intervene?” I hear that quite a bit.

I can live with that idea as long as those people acknowledge that aid has caused it. This is like Ted Bundy is killing people. The second thing I would want them to acknowledge before we would be on the same page is if they’ve been excessive since ‘09. It went off the cliff during Yellen’s term as Fed Chair. She had opportunities to start getting things back to normal and she failed. All excessive QE’s, it’s possible they can see disasters. They’re afraid of it. We now have a Fed who’s afraid of deflation, afraid of a recession. The Fed used to be the root cause of recessions and now they’re trying to avoid them at all costs. When the next one comes, it’s going to be bleak. We’ll have massive corporate debt. I can’t even fathom. Pension funds are underfunded at the top of a bubble. How do you get an underfunded pension when they’re all underfunded? The next brutal correction’s going to send them far into the basement that they’re going to break. They’re going to break right on schedule for the Boomers trying to retire. It’s going to be unpleasant. If the next recession comes and goes and it was garden variety, it’s wrong. I don’t know what to say, but we’re going to be in fetal position on the next one.                                    

I’ve dedicated this season to the theme of capitalism. When you look at free market capitalism and what that philosophy entails and the principles, I would say a lot of economists have understood it for a while and then what it has become. Looking at how that word is used nowadays, there has never been a truly free market, capitalistic system. That’s where you have intervention particularly by central banks and how that does not allow for certain elements of capitalism, mainly failure to occur. It essentially creates unintended consequences and now it’s been creating unintended consequences for the better part of 100 years. If you look at where we’re at, I would say fundamentally when you look at a free market, we would have crashed. Banks would have been out of business. A lot of other businesses would have folded, but that would have been given rise to a more efficient monetary system potentially. We can’t know. It’s all speculation.

You look now at what you mentioned, the fundamentals there when you start to manipulate behavior, you’re essentially deferring the problem to the future. Who knows what that’s going to be? I look at some of the same concerns that you have, the unintended consequences are monstrous. Maybe talk about a few of the big ones. You mentioned pensions. You mentioned the corporate bond market which is massive. Maybe get into those few points which you talk about extensively in your review. Maybe talk about those couple of those main unintended consequences that a lot of this monetary theory has created.

I went completely back to the law on valuations. I presented approximately twenty different metrics of market valuations. They all point to the same story. That is regression to historical mean won’t be a 50% correction. I believe this time at 50% correction, things will break. I don’t know what. These are chaotic systems that you can’t predict. You can predict it, but it will be a mess though. What we have is the appearance of politics getting into the game. At least some of your readers have been paying attention to this modern monetary theory. I’ve tried to get my brain around it. It looks like total nonsense to me. In theory, it’s fine. In practice, it looks like a disaster. It emerged in the context of a budget deficit that’s running 7% or 8% a year. We know in the GDP is running at 2.5% over several years and the budget deficit is running at 7% or 8% that you’re in a death spiral unless you turn it around. The market trends 300% while the GDP ran 30% to the extent everyone I know thinks over time they track. That’s not a good situation. That’s the famous Buffett indicator.

What we’re going to see in the 2020 election, politicians always promise free stuff, but you will be breathless with the level of free stuff being offered in 2020. Goofballs like AOC, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez pulling the Democrats so far left that they’re socialists. I would never have thought there’d be people who were devout socialists in competency for high office. The rallying cry for the Democrats is going to be, “Wall Street got theirs in ‘09. It’s time for us to get ours.” That is going to be a catastrophic spark to cause problems that are almost unimaginable. I don’t know how to go there. If readers are interested, search justice Democrats. Go on an online search. You’ll find out there’s a coup going on within the Democratic Party and its real. I’ve seen videos of Ocasio-Cortez talking about how she got put into power and stuff like that. It’s a strange thing, the new guard of super liberals, super left wings. They are not trying to beat the Republicans. They’re trying to beat the Democrats. There’s a whole bunch of them. This is the real stuff. I wouldn’t have believed it but the first time I saw a presentation of it, there were videos attached showing people talking about it from the past.

What’s happening is there’s a powerful group who’s attempting to find Democrats in districts for which Republicans will never win. There are plenty of those which the people in the district are not happy with their representatives. They’re trying to knock the Democrats out at the primary. Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, is the de facto spokesperson for the Democratic Party. She’s got the microphone. It’s open mic night. She got elected with 15,000 votes in the primary. That’s where she got elected in the primary because she wasn’t going to lose the election. She’s going to lose the primary if she could. This Omar woman, I can’t remember her whole name. There’s about four for these freshman Democrats. This is the surreal part that people have to do a little deep diving. They were recruited by a casting call. They literally put out a call, Ocasio-Cortez said her brothers submitted her name and somehow it’s like they’re putting together a boy band or something. They’re putting together the Bangles and the plan is to start knocking off Democrats. I was wondering why Ocasio-Cortez was hammering the Democrats. She’s done some talks about that because she’s not against the Republicans. She is against the Democrats. This political move has massive implications for free-market economics.

It’s the first that I’ve heard of some of the points that you’re talking about. I look at what has essentially been a huge influx of capital, which I would say created the big bull run from ‘09 until even late 2018. It makes sense that you have a lot of economists at the helm there. You have Wall Street, which for better or for worse, they know how to manage money, they know how to make money and they understand the implications of losing money. You’re essentially saying that now, the influx isn’t going to go into the hands of Wall Street. It’s going to go into the hands of those that don’t understand even the fundamentals of things.

TWS 13 | Economy

Economy: When you start to manipulate behavior, you’re essentially just deferring the problem to the future.

 

My tax guy told me I’m going to pay 10,000 more in taxes this year because of the new tax laws. I didn’t see this coming. Maybe I’m unique. I’ve got an expensive house, got big real estate. If that’s true, April 15th is not going to deliver checks to people. All of a sudden there’s going to be a completely unexpected slowdown. That’s not going to help. We mentioned that all the time, student debt’s destroying a generation. Corporate debt’s nuts, corporate debt’s in a massive bubble. If you start toppling corporate debt structures, that goes straight to the economy.

One of the stats in your report that surprised me was the majority of the Russell 2000 was in junk status.

Something like 50% of the debt. It’s even worse then. 50% of the debt in the S&P is right above junk. When you swept the junk, you set up triggers all over the credit markets because there’s plenty of holders that did by statute, by legality which can’t hold junk. Electric’s a piece of garbage. It’s gone around the drain. Deutsche Bank’s going around the drain. There are a lot of companies that are not bringing enough revenue to pay their debt service.

Everything in essence intertwined and connected even other countries. Whatever is going to be that trigger that starts to release the dominos, who knows? Pensions are catastrophic because of the interest that they’re using as part of their actuarial models, which are not realistic. You add the unfunded liabilities. It’s been surprising to me because we’re in Salt Lake. Goldman Sachs’ biggest office in the world is in Salt Lake. You also have a relatively high percentage of startups getting to certain capitalization levels, but they don’t make any money. They operate based on being able to receive different rounds of funding. You look at how business is being created these days. We have to operate on a profit and I have had developers poached for 40%, 50% more than I was paying them.

I can’t afford that because other companies get funding. They bid up the prices of labor. You see signals everywhere. I tended to be in your camp back in ’09 or 2010. I didn’t see what was coming. I look at, “Is there something else on the horizon that we don’t see coming?” It’s the technological innovations that could potentially impact efficiencies and prices in a deflationary manner. I look at what you’ve gone through and that’s why the 160 pages is incredible research. It’s not stating just talking points, but also the actual proof behind it. I definitely recommend anyone who’s reading this who has some level of insight to check out David’s 2018 report definitely. Looking at these concerns that you brought to the table, I haven’t necessarily looked at the impact of Justice Democrats.

Justice Democrats are political. You’ll find articles about this movement. Who knows what they’ll do? That’s why these risks have appeared, but something like 65% of the population is signing off on the ideas of socialism. Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, society had got through this unbelievable industrial revolution. Society was trying to figure out how an industrial world should be organized. There were central planner types. These were the guys who were at risk of being called Trotsky types. At the time, it was a credible idea that you needed good central control of things in this world that we had entered. There are the free market guys who said, “No, free market capitalism is the way to go.”

One can make the argument that that FDR was about a big compromise where the free market guys basically said, “Let us do our thing and we’ll put safety nets underneath you.” You’d get welfare state beginning. It’s the reason why society does protect weak people at some level. The welfare may be viewed as pejorative, but it gets out of control. It’s not a bad idea. We’re entering a period where we’re going to be looking ahead to a new grand compromise because somehow capitalism hasn’t done itself a service. I’ve been fighting about share buybacks and how corrosive they are and stuff like that. I’ve concluded people don’t even understand what they do and don’t do. The most fundamental level of what a share buyback is, people don’t understand.

Share buyback was illegal, but Glass-Steagall came into place after the Great Depression. It’s down as well. What I’ve discovered in the months I’ve been doing this theme is we’ve never had capitalism. There are capitalistic ideas and principles, but there’s never been a system because the corporate buyback isn’t capitalism. It might be, but at the same time, it should presuppose that every other aspect of the economy is a free market, which is not. Interest rates were manipulated which allowed for the corporate world to capitalize on low-interest rates and finance buybacks. It doesn’t necessarily create productivity in the company. It keeps their valuations at the same level or higher.

One of the ways to look at it is if you have an economy that’s based on goods and services, then all boats rise. This is an economy that develops new ways to do things and people’s boats rise at different rates, but all boats rise. We brought prosperity to ourselves by being fairly free market-oriented. The monetary policy has turned our economy from one of providing goods and services to one of moving money. We turn on CNBC, you don’t hear about capitalism; you hear about finance. As the economy morphs from goods and services to finance, you morph to a zero-sum game economy because no one’s making any. You say, “Yes sir.” What are the biggies? Is Netflix the replacement for US Steel? Is Amazon even the replacement for Standard Oil? Is General Electric being replaced by Facebook? These are stupid ideas.

Now, as the economy becomes about moving money, not goods and services, the little guy’s getting killed. That’s the wealth inequality problem. We will solve the problem not by finding better ways to distribute wealth, we’re going to solve it. I’m not saying it’s a solution is what we’re going to do. We’re going to try to redistribute wealth and redistributing wealth doesn’t work well. An efficient economy has a way of distributing wealth such that it’s fair. It’s not necessarily benign, but it’s fair. The workers get their share. They’re not as skilled as maybe then the upper guys who spent years in college and doing smart things, but they get their share. By pricing capital cheaply, they basically priced labor out of the equation.

Now, it’s cheaper for McDonald’s to get robots than to hire people. I am a little worried that change is always good. People worried about what we are going to do with a buggy whip maker, with cars. They’ll find a way. We’ll figure that out. Change can also be quick that it causes problems. If you add hot water to an ice cube, it cracks. If you’ll let it warm, it slowly melts. Things adjust. If you get too far from equilibrium, you get avalanches, earthquakes and explosions. These are big displacements from equilibrium who are turning the equilibrium.

We brought prosperity to ourselves by being fairly free-market oriented. Click To Tweet

What’s the central mechanism for that balance? What should it be?

First and foremost, the missed opportunity is for the Fed to quit worrying about recessions and let the downturns go. Let the downturns keep shaking out the losers and leaving room for the winners. When I was a kid, my dad was a contractor. He worked in one area and he went into cement pumping. It was this big monster truck that pumped up seven floors. I said, “Why did you go into cement pumping?” He said, “You mean besides I can make money?” I said, “Why that one?” This must have been 1970 or something. He said, “It’s because the truck costs $350,000,” which back then was a pot of money. He says, “I can compete with any other contractor who has the capital to buy that truck. We can both be on the playing fields at the same time.” He says, “What I can’t compete with are wildcatters who come in, undercut my prices and put us both out of business simultaneously.” Making capital precious keeps the meatballs out of the game. It keeps shaking out the losers and keeps the winners. It keeps the honest businessmen, the efficient businessmen in the game. Right now, we’ve got all these businesses that would not exist if we weren’t giving them credit and that is a problem.

That’s also what they consider as the solution where a lot of these technologies are ultimately to make life cheaper, make life better, make life more efficient and solve the world’s electricity issues and food issues. It’s both sides of the argument. What I’m saying is what’s in the middle balancing it all out? Like you said about water, if you go too cold, something happens. If you go too warm, something happens. Who is there dialing the temperature?

It’s the rate of change. Every once in a while, you have a small earthquake. You never get them anymore. If you go for 100 years in California without a serious earthquake, you’re about to get your rear kicked. This is where I blamed the Fed. They kept trying to avoid the corrective measures that would have kept it from getting too far from equilibrium. You asked me how I got into this. The field I’m in chemistry turns out to be complicated. Few people want to go near it. I was told that I couldn’t get funded and things like that. All sorts of contrarian things drove me into this field. What I discovered is absolutely everything that people thought they knew it was wrong, almost to the letter was wrong. We’ve gone through many projects after projects. Not only were the answers to the questions wrong, but the questions themselves were also wrong.

For 35 years, this has been my life. What it has taught me is experts can be dead wrong. I have a few superpowers, none of which you’d normally think of me. I’m not that smart. I have the ability to figure out what I don’t have to do and not doing it. That’s a superpower. The other thing I have the ability to do is to look at a bunch of experts who all tell me something and say, you’re full of crap. Few people have arrogance or the ability to resist the tractor beam, but I can look at a dozen central bankers who say, “This is what we should do,” and I go, “I don’t think so.” That’s a special crazy. I’m supposed to debate one of the vice presidents of one of the federal reserves. That’s a special crazy. It’s scheduled now I’m told on a podcast.

Is it one of the board members?

It’s a guy in St. Louis and it’ll be on Twitter, I guarantee you. It probably will be less than a debate. We’re going to talk about modern monetary theory. He invited himself to my podcast, curiously enough. He chimed in and said, “What about both of us?” At first, I don’t think he knew who he was. I said, “He’s the vice president; you got to say yes to this one.” We’re going to get on and discuss it. He entertains the idea of the modern monetary theory, which in practice is preposterous. I can explain it in theory, but I can’t explain it in practice. He’s an open-minded guy. I don’t think we’re going to clash. I also know that I can’t let it clash because it’s not fair to him. I could say, “Why did you instead do this?” In public he can’t respond to certain questions. I can say, “Isn’t Greenspan an idiot?” What is he going to say? I am going to have to be aware of the fact that I have to approach this differently.

Going back to like my original question, now I know we’re a lot of your philosophy has come from. You have stated theories. Human beings all have that element of fallibility where we form certain opinions, but it’s based on certain amounts of information, but not all information. I don’t know if anyone has all information, but you look at the world in that capacity and you realize that there’s a tremendous amount of trust for people that are considered so-called experts. You put yourself in a political role. You put yourself as part of the Federal Reserve. Suddenly the layers of power create this God-like mentality, but it also creates this incredible fear of being wrong.

That’s where a lot of the issues start because there could be positive results because of current monetary theory and what they’re trying to do. At the same time, they never addressed the consequences and there’s always going to be consequences. I can’t wait for that debate, but what a platform to try to have a discussion with an insider at the Federal Reserve on MMT, which is excellent. At the same time, it’s a modern monetary theory. Calling the question does monetary theory in general and what it does because right now it doesn’t make sense. Maybe you can explain this briefly, but from what I understand, the difference is it’s a creation of money that’s not monetized. There’s no underlying asset. If the Fed prints money, they buy a mortgage or they buy a bond or they buy a treasury. They buy something. This buys nothing.

The modern monetary theory has one of the premises that deficits don’t matter.

There is no debt. You’re never going to have debt. You could print your way out of a deficit.

TWS 13 | Economy

Economy: At the time, it was a credible idea that you needed good central control of things in this world that we had entered. Then there’s the free market guys who said free market capitalism is the way to go.

 

We talked about this many years ago. It is actually about 100 years old. We said, “In theory, the government doesn’t have to tax us at all. They can spend the money created with help from the Central Bank.” What happens is the cost of government shows up as inflation and it erodes your spending power as a tax. There are a lot of problems with this, one of which is that inflation is called a hidden tax. I want the taxes to be in plain sight, so we understand what it is we’re being taxed. The real problem is they make this assertion that taxes are to control the money supply. The claim they make is you spend the money and then you tax to pull that money back. It becomes a chicken and the egg if you’re not careful. Some say, “We’re already doing this, why do you care?” It is also this dismissal of government spending is rampant in that community.

Their idea to curb inflation is up to Congress to curb spending. When was the last time you saw them do that? That in practice goes nuts. When was the last time a guy stood up and said, “We’re going to have an inflation problem? As your senator, I’m proposing a bill that will cut jobs.” That’s not going to happen. It’s a stupid idea. Once in a while, they say something stupendously stupid. For a while it can sound rational. All of sudden they say something that’s mind-bogglingly stupid. I go, “You guys are making it up now.” It’s getting a lot of negative press. In theory, the tax against Larry Summers and Frogman even of all people are fighting it. They’ve shown up at the moment when our deficits look unsustainable. Along comes this theory that’s 100 years old that says, “Deficits don’t matter. Don’t worry about it.”

It’s not a coincidence. This has been fascinating. I wanted to see what your insight is and your philosophy around how you view you view things. Hopefully, the audience got something out of it. In the past, we’ve talked extensively about a lot of the issues we’ve briefly touched on. These are issues that are results. Those results have a cause. The cause is where to start, not trying to change the results by themselves. I look at what the Federal Reserve has done since 1913 and what’s happened since then. You can see a lot of positive things, but also from a fundamental standpoint, you can see a lot of negative things. We’re at unprecedented levels when it comes to the signals of our markets and the levels we’re at whether it’s a debt or otherwise. It’s scary at the same time. It’s always that question in the back of my mind, “What am I not seeing? What do I don’t know that I don’t know?” That’s always been that X variable that’s part of the equation that few people can ever understand until it happens.

When Powell showed up, people who thought they knew Powell as chairman of the FOMC. People said he’s different. He doesn’t care about the markets. He’ll do what’s right and the markets are damned. If they have to correct, they have to correct. Two events occurred that were mind-boggling to the point that those who are likeminded were breathless. It was December 24th when the markets had corrected 16% after a 300% run. They corrected 16% and all of a sudden secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin who’s most famous for his wife. The president’s working group on capital and we go, “That’s not even a blip? What are we doing?”

It’s possible something was going on in the credit markets under the surface. I picked up little murmurs about that. In January, Powell found himself on stage with Yellen and Bernanke. The huge mistake he made was to be on that stage because you do not speak as the Fed jury. You don’t speak extemporaneously onstage. He monitored the idea that the Fed was ready to support the markets. All of a sudden, that was the birth of the Fed, what they call it. The idea the Fed will not let the markets drop. Those two events created this massive January rally that we’ve witnessed. What it did is it showed a lot of serious players that the Fed is weak.

They capitulate. I heard the same thing as far as Powell is concerned but imagine the pressure he’s under. That’s where everybody caves at a certain degree of pressure?

Imagine if the generals in World War II couldn’t imagine dropping guys on Omaha beach. How would that work? If you’re in that position, you can’t be weak. If you can’t make the tough calls, you don’t get to be there, but he is there. He blew it and he looks real. He did a 60 Minutes episode.

I didn’t know he was the one with Yellen and Bernanke. I knew about the 60 Minutes one.

He wasn’t explicitly lying, but it was a massive dose of it. It was a massive dose of highly-engineered statements. When they asked him about wealth inequality, whichever one I know says, “You got the point at the Fed on that.” That’s the whole financing the economy in spades. When they mentioned that to him, he said, “That’s not under our jurisdiction,” which is technically not a lie, but he caused it.

That’s a big thing. That’s one thing that’s scary. At the top levels, there’s little velocity. At the lower levels, that’s where all the velocity is. That’s the main catalyst for higher inflation, but it’s kept at bay because it’s at high levels. It’s interesting Powell’s involvement and what the cause of that is. In the end, if they’re the temperature creator that we’ve been referring to, it’s one of those things where the markets have rebounded because that was not what they were priced for at the end of 2018.

The indicators say we’re close to a recession. We were close in 2015. I said, “A recession is coming.” People laughed. By the end of the year, you can see we were flittering around 0%.

Human beings all have that element of fallibility where we form certain opinions that are based only on certain amounts of information. Click To Tweet

On the yield curve, you are briefly inverted too. There are lots of lots of signs. I’m assuming you don’t sit down and take December off and write 160 pages about things. What are you using during the year to keep a pulse on what’s going on? What feeds are you following, what podcasts? What newsletters? What are you typically paying attention to?

Twitter is a gold mine. It’s big mind sync. If you can manage your Twitter feed better than me, you’re a better person. I happen to like Zero Hedge. You got to have a filter. Zero Hedge is great. I’ve had people tell me I’m an idiot for following Zero Hedge. 700 of my followers follow Zero Hedge. Everyone I know who I think is a big-brained Wall Street genius type, they all follow Zero Hedge. I would say Zero Hedge is indispensable. You can’t believe everything because they get stuff wrong, but they’re way ahead of people. Between those two, the stuff I can pick up on, the fly off Twitter is exciting.

Who are you following on Twitter specifically?

I’ve got a list of about 170 people who are on a list. I’ve got a much larger follower list, but I use my cold list and the guys I watch all the time. I watch it for Hussmann, Felder. My favorite person is Rudy Havenstein. He is a hoot-and-a-half. He’s the comic of Twitter. There are certain journalists I keep track of. Lisa Abramovich is good. Kate Long knows the bond market. Chris Whalen, there’s people coming across the feed all the time. Josh Crumb, Luke Roman. These are all people who are the junkies of financial Twitter, everyone knows their names. We’re all following the same people. They’re all entertaining guys. They don’t all agree, but they’re out there battling and posting. If you’re on Twitter and you’re there to share cooking recipes, it’s a colossal waste of time. I bang on the politics a lot.

When the Mueller report got summarized, I was having a field day for about a day where I was pointing out that 500,000 articles were written on Russian collusion, that is the number in a couple of years. There were people who are completely and utterly clueless and the media is completely and utterly clueless. Who knows about obstruction? The fact of the matter is they blew it. The Democrats blew it. They played their cuts. They believe their own press. It was hysterical to me. It’s like the Covington MAGA hat boy, they completely screwed that up. Every couple of months, they completely screw up a story. You got on Twitter and you’ll see their stupid stuff and you go, “I can’t believe those journalists are missing that.” It’s like a huge cocktail party where everyone’s drunk as a pig in Wall Street.

When’s the debate? What’s the date and time for that?

It’s sometime in April.

Do you have nothing definitive?

If you pay attention to my feed, I can guarantee you it’s going to be posted a few times. I don’t think it would be that exciting. It’d be archaic. I’m playing the straight man through this other guy. I don’t want to name because it hasn’t happened yet, but I think I’ll be poking. He’ll be explaining, I’ll be going, “What about this?” That’ll likely be the tenor. There’s the podcast himself. I like the guy.

Who’s the podcaster? Are you not allowed to say that either?

It’s Mac Abraham. We’ll see what happens. It shouldn’t be combative in my opinion. It should be a nice discussion.

TWS 13 | Economy

Economy: There’s a tremendous amount of trust for people who are considered so-called experts.

 

When you have that type of contention, that never leads to a productive dialogue. I’m excited for you to do that. That should be an incredible experience. We will let our audience know that they can chime in or at least listen in. David, this has been an awesome discussion. Thanks for taking the time. Is the best way for people to follow you Twitter or are there other ways?

If you search my name, the top links are no longer chemistry. @DavidBCollum is my Twitter feed. You can find me there. Anyone who passes the minimum IQ test could find me because I’m in the Department of Chemistry at Cornell. If armed with Google, that is not enough information. You need help. I get emails from people, some rather stunning ones sometimes where I go, “I didn’t expect that one.” I am the Paris Hilton of finance now.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading through your material. Thank you for the research that you do. I know it’s making a difference. Hopefully, with the combined efforts of others that when things start to get a little haywire, there’s enough influence to make sure the decision at the bottom is a good one.

I’ve never been on Twitter through a downturn. That’s going to be fun because my Twitter experience has all been during this big tenure.

You have been bearing one of the biggest runs.

He’s calling you an idiot in public. I’ve been chastised. One guy said semi-complimentary. He said, “People listen to you. You should be more careful.” I said, “If they’re listening to me, they’re in trouble already.”

There are a lot of freedom fighters out there that understand a lot of fundamental principles and basics and see the nonsense in what’s going on. I see why. Typically, that theory isn’t valued. Correction ensues because hindsight is one of the best teachers.

I’ll throw out a lab pitch for your readers. Of the many things I’ve focused on and said, “That doesn’t make sense.” The Roth IRA is a bad idea and is relative to a regular IRA. It has got a mathematical hole in it that’s a monster. I’m looking at this and I figured out and then I go, “Why haven’t people figured this out?” I don’t know.

What is the hole specifically?

The hole is if you get taxed the same at the beginning or at the end, which is the Roth versus the regular. The results are the same. It’s 4th-grade math. Timing’s irrelevant. You are taxed 20% in front of 20% at the end. You’re getting to the penny the same amount. The problem is the Roth IRA, you voluntarily put in money, pay the tax on money at the marginal tax rate. You’re taking the top sliver off like a 35% tax rate for some people. You’re voluntarily paying the high tax rate, whereas in the regular, when you pull it out it comes out over the effective tax rate. It comes out over all the brackets. The effective tax rate uses around 12% to 15% lower.

What if it is higher in the future?

The cost of government shows up as inflation - called hidden tax - and it erodes your spending power as attacks. Click To Tweet

It could be higher but that’s about no one knows. All I know is you’re giving up 12% to 15% upfront based on that logic. I want to ask him, “Why do they market the Roth?” He said, “You’re selling Corvettes, you sell the red one.”

It’s the bet of what you pay now versus the bet of what you pay in the future. The math gets the same rate. You’re paying the same. You can make a bet of not paying now, but then if taxes go up in the future, AOC says 70%.

Against the 70% but you’re still paying the effective tax rate at the end.

How do they calculate the effective tax rate in that regard?

There are actually calculators online that do it.

You put all the margins and it creates the effect.

It comes out starting at 0% and then 5% and goes up to 35%. No one’s effective tax rate is ever higher than their marginal by definition. They would have to drive the tax rate so high that the effective tax rate would soar and that’s almost impossible.

Change the tax code to tax withdrawals.

Even when the margin range was up 80%, 90%. Back in the early ‘60s, the effective rate was way lower.

There are trillions and trillions of dollars in qualified money. It comes down to at what rate you pull it out in the future. That’s the determining factor. David, thanks. This has been insightful. I appreciate your work. We’ll make sure that we get the word out, increase your listeners a little bit. Hopefully, as things start to manifest and a lot of the stuff that’s been deferred for a good part several years, that there’s enough influence out there. The culprits or those that created the whole thing are held accountable.

The system will break and then they’ll blame something else.

TWS 13 | Economy

Economy: The fact of the matter is the Democrats blew it. They played their cuts. They believe their own press that itches.

 

Those guys will be long retired. Alan Greenspan, he’s on his last leg.

His reputation as has dropped. His legacy finally got uncovered.

Have you seen that new documentary? It’s relative to the bailouts and what’s occurred since then as far as what Greenspan’s reputation. It also has some interviews with Bernanke too supposedly. I can’t remember the name. Where we’re at as far as social media, as far as information and how quickly it transfers, accountability is a lot more probable these days, especially at those levels.

If the next recession we get through it without a big deal, then I would say that I called her on. I’d be doing me a call if we get through another one.

It’s one of those things where it’s an artificial manipulation. If it was a free market, there’s going to be a correction. There has to be. If you have a manipulation, then it papers over the problem.

You’re out of manipulation. At some point, you get to the end of the rope and the next one is going to do it. Has it started? I’m on record saying I think it started in December.

With that little correction?

When the NBER announces when the recession started, I’m on record saying, “I think it started in December.” Watching auto sales and stuff like that. When they start, they start ever in perceivably. You don’t notice it. There was a poll done in 1991. They asked 51 economists whether there would be a recession that year and all 51 said no. Not only there was there but when the poll was done we were in it. That shows you how hard it is to detect when it started. When did the avalanche start? You noticed when it finished.

There are many fundamental issues and if it goes, it’s going to go. The talks by Howard Marks are interesting and I’m not sure if you’ve read his book. He hits upon the emotional state of things, the feeling state of things collectively. There’s this fundamental variable, fear, greed or passiveness and what that has to do with market cycles. The book is Mastering the Market Cycle. That’s interesting because Twitter is probably given you a good pulse of what the sentiment is out there.

It is bi-modal. You got the Yahoo saying everything’s wonderful. You got the bear saying, “I think it started.”

I’m excited to see what happens. For those that are in the know, for those that are prepared to make certain decisions, it’s going to be a great opportunity. There’s going to be a lot of people that pay a dear price for it.

Important Links:

About David Collum

TWS 13 | EconomyDavid Collum is the Betty R. Miller Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University and is a regular and valued presence on the internet commenting on the financial system and the predicaments of our time. David has contributed many Year in Review articles and podcasts to the Peak Prosperity community, all of which are available online at www.peakprosperity.com.

 

 

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