Student Debt:  Written Off Debt Doesn’t Mean It’s Gone…

Reuters recently reported that banks wrote off $3 Billion in student loans for the first two months of 2013, an increase of fully 36% higher than the same period last year.  While some will salivate, thinking that the bank is giving up on the loan and there’s an opportunity to escape the stifling debtload, it’s important to recognize one salient fact:  Debt that’s been written off doesn’t mean that it’s gone or dead…it’s just being reassigned. 

Many have now learned that student debt is different from other debt in that it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy; there is no clearing of the slate with the requisite hit to your credit history.  That’s the crucial difference when you hear that a bank is writing off a student’s debt versus any other person’s debt.  The ultimate effect of a written off loan is that it’s treated by the bank as an expense; it’s considered as a cost of doing business and the net loss – face value of the loan less any recoverable amount – is deducted from revenue to determine the profit for the year.  So the banks are saying that they’ve had enough on some loans and will write them off.  But the non-dischargeable nature of the loan doesn’t change and whoever buys that loan – a so-called vulture – will accept the risk of non-payment for the possibly greater return on the debt.  And the fact that this can haunt someone forever means that the vulture has considerable upside to the transaction since there’s no alternative for bankruptcy.  So for the bank, it’s an accounting transaction only and no relief for the student who’s in arrears or default.

One of the lessons that I try to teach the kids is that things don’t just happen, but there’s frequently a reason for why, when and how they happen.  In this case, Bloomberg reported last week that Obama was cutting the collection agency commissions for student loans in default from 16% to 11%.  Prior to this announcement, a debt collector could receive up to 16% of the debt as commission if payments of a sufficient size were realized and it’s this largesse that led to some of the well-documented abuses noted over the past year.  With the President’s action, the commission will decrease to 11% regardless of what’s received, so the effect is to diminish the pressure tactics and abuses.  The second part of the why-when-how aspect is that some of the largest student collection agencies – such as NCO and Pioneer Credit Recovery – are subsidiaries of JPM Chase and Sallie Mae (SLM) respectively.  While I’m not conversant with the arcane details of corporate accounting, I suspect that the write-off involves a shifting of the debt to the subsidiary where it can be recovered at the still pertinent rate of 16% instead of the 11%.  The net effect is that the student debt write-off has been simply front-loaded and shifted as the parent corporations still profit and the students are still pursued.

So what’s the takeaway from this?

  • These bank write-offs are irrelevant for the debtor as they’re still responsible for the debt;
  • This is just another piece of anecdotal evidence that the financial industry has an advanced view of what’s going on within the present administration;
  • While the news of larger write-offs adds to pressure for further action to effectively address the entire issue of student debt, it’s still incumbent upon the parents to help the kids figure out how to obtain the best education possible with the minimum amount of debt, if there has to be debt at all.


The Takeaways on Cyprus

What exactly is Cyprus?  According to Wikipedia, it’s a tiny island nation of approximately one million people located in the eastern Mediterrean.  It’s the long-term home of a small UN monitoring force that has been in place since the 1970s when Turkish troops invaded the island during a dispute between the Turkish-descent Cypriots and Cypriots of Greek descent.  The response of most Americans during that time was The Turks invaded Cyprus?  What would they want with a tree?  But I now have a different response from a kitchen desk thousands of miles away and weeks after the journalists descended.  Despite the multitude of articles about what all of it means, there are three simple takeaways and none involve alphabetic European mechanisms.

The core issue around Cyprus is how to pay for additional bailouts for insolvent institutions that – like occurred in Iceland – threaten to drag down the economy.  The government was offered over 10 billion Euros as a bailout by the "Troika" (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank) but a quid pro quo for the bailout was that the Cypriots themselves had to put up a certain percentage of that money; and if you’re looking for money in the first place, how do you come up with money?  When someone once asked John Dillinger why he robbed banks, he retorted because that’s where the money is and the eyes went to the banks themselves because, well…that’s where the money was.  But the only money in the banks, which needed money to survive, was with the people who actually used the banks for deposits – the customers.  So the first proposal was that the bank depositors, people like us who simply deposit our paychecks in the various saving accounts, wouldbe legally required to "contribute" a specific percentage of their savings deposits to the bank to keep the bank afloat and there was no hope of any return of that money.  In terms that stuff-happy Americans will understand, if the owner of the storage rental units ran into financial problems, he could legally get out of the scrape by simply confiscating and selling 20% of the stuff that people store in their units.  When the Cypriot parliament unequivocably nixed the plan, the Cypriot Prime Minister and Finance Minister met with the Troika representatives and pulled a sleight-of-hand manuever that bypassed the need for the legislature’s approval for implementation. By the wave of the magic administrative wand, the depositors suddenly found themselves creditors.

You need to understand that there is a hierarchy to the ownership of any corporate entity, banks included, and this hierarchy is layered by exposure to risk.  The core of any corporation is the capital put there by the investors but not all investors are created equal and if the firm has major problems, the investors will lose their money; but there are levels at which capital is exhausted.  The shareholders of the stock have the greatest volatility of return and are lowest in the hierarchy; congratulations, you could really do way better than the bondholders but that’s at the risk of a wipeout.  The next level of the hierarchy, whose money is protected in terms of wipeout by the shareholders, are the unsecured creditors.  These are folks who lend to the bank and expect to have their money repaid, but their lending isn’t protected by any claim on collateral.  The next level are the bondholders and even they aren’t equal as the Junior bondholders – presumably named Skip, Corky and Brittani – come before the Senior bondholders.  The difference between the two is that the interest paid on the bonds is higher for the Juniors than the Seniors with the extra money meaning that they bear the higher risk if things truly go south and the capital is threatened.  What the new plan did was to magically alter the status of the depositors, promoting them from simple customers to an actual place in the ownership hierarchy as unsecured creditors who’ve now apparently lent money to the bank by dint of simply opening an account and getting the free toaster (if we were in Spain, we’d actually be getting a Spiderman towel – no crap).  Were this happening here, we’d suddenly find ourselves on the hook for our own bank, even if all we did was open an account.  The hit was minimized for people by making it only for account-holders with more than 100,000 Euros in their accounts, which in Cyprus meant that the majority of those accountholders were Russians using Cyprus for an offshore tax-haven.  See, the only people who have to worry are those nasty Nouveau-Riche Russians who earned their money via kleptocracy…

Both takeaways are inextricably linked to debt levels.  The first takeaway of this story is that the financial/political leadership is aware that the debt levels are too high and is looking for new pools of money to tap into to help ease the debt burden.  But those pools now seen are with the savers, those who have continually set aside money to provide for themselves, and those pools are within the banks.  There are trillions of dollars and Euros in banks that can be used but there has to be a means to access them and the Cyprus situation is the first effort to gain access to those pools of funds.  Because we have yet to see a door close once it’s been opened, expect that the entry will be widened as the situation worsens; the likelihood exists that it will not only geographically spread across borders to this country, but that it will spread across product lines to pension funds, 401ks and IRAs.  There has been a brushfire war against savings in our consumption based economy and this carries it to a new level as the search continues for funds.

The second takeaway is that we now serve the system instead of the system serving us.   Politics and money are inextricably linked and the present political-economic structure now exists to serve itself at the cost of the individual, whose voice resides in the legislature.   When the Cypriot legislature voted down the initial proposal, it was altered so that it no longer required legislative approval and summarily implemented against the will of the people.  Several years ago, Iceland’s legislature told the political-economic structure to pound sand and opted to take the economic hit without a bailout.  It was allowed to do so because it didn’t use the Euro and it’s collapse wasn’t injurious to the European financial structure.  But because of Cyprus’ status as a member of the European Community and it’s use of the Euro, failure was not deemed to be an option.  A Cypriot scenario already occurred in the United States in late 2008.  After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Bush Administration proposed a bailout and was rebuffed by Congress; but it went back again and when the Treasury Secretary warned of possible martial law should it fail.  With the apparent fear that Stryker Assault Vehicles would take up too many parking spaces at the neighborhood convenience stores, Congress folded and approved TARP. 

The third takeaway is that any action here will be clothed in terms of class-warfare.  As measures are implemented that access privately held funds, the refrain for the masses will be that it’s against the rich alone.  The middle class and poor will supposedly be protected, but the definition of who is rich will be arbitrary and will ultimately shift downwards as the dysfunction continues and the rot deepens.  Again, the first efforts are being made as the proposed budget by President Obama proposes limits to how much "the wealthy" can keep in IRAs.  But the fact is that there’s now an overt definition of wealthy and a unilateral presumption that they don’t have the right to have more there than a specific amount.  This is the economic equivalent of German theologian Martin Niemoller’s famous comment: 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

So…first, they came for Cyprus, and I cared nothing…

What Do We Owe Our Elders?

As men take on greater family and personal responsibilities, one of the things that they’ll find is that, like women, they’re generationally sandwiched between childcare and eldercare.  This is especially the case as men marry at a later age and father children at a later age as well.  If women are spending greater amounts of time in the workforce and men are consequently taking on greater responsibility in the household, then it follows that men will also begin to take a greater role in caring for their elderly parents as well.  If you thought that just managing the younger generation was tough, wait until the elder generation is thrown into the mix.  But our society is beginning a wrenching change as the social care network has to come to terms – like the rest of society – with the fact that promises made are greater than the resources available to satisfy them.  As this reframes our thinking, we need to ask ourselves a basic question:  what do owe our elders?

The question is both simple and truly profound as we are forced to confront the promises/resources issue.  Economic uncertainty breeds fear and a look overseas to economically troubled Japan and England – each with far more debt than we have – bears that out.  In January, the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister forcefully suggested that the elderly "hurry up and die" so as to not expend further medical and economic resources; he has since modified his stance after realizing that if the Japanese took his comments to heart, they’d wind up with a country that’s not only Montana’s geographic size but population density as well.  In October 2010, a governor of the Bank of England stated that the elderly there would have to accommodate low interest rates and spend down their savings for the common good; the notion that it should be left intact for future generations is no longer operative as the national resources dwindle in the face of overwhelming liabilities.  My sense is that the major difference between these two nations and our own is only that of a few years, so what they’re encountering now is what we’ll encounter within a few years.  On a different track, there is a new and growing push by the aging baby-boomers to advocate for physician-assisted suicide in the following states – Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.  There are two notable factors about these states.  The first is that while the median age of an American is 36.8 years, the median age is lower in only Arizona and Kansas.  The other notable factor is that of these states, only Arizona and Montana are running without a deficit and Arizona just returned to the black after being hard hit in the 2007 downturn.  Coupling this information provides some insight that aging boomers envision a bleak future at odds with their here-to-fore free-wheeling generational ways and are looking to legalized suicide as an alternative to that path.  While there’s no hard evidence to support it, it’s also probable that the proponents are looking at the outsized cost of end-of-life medical care and wishing to save their families the bills.

I believe wholly in the Bell Curve and how it can be applied to so much of the world around us.  If applied to an average person’s life and encompasses the totality of the person – physical, intellectual, emotional – then it starts the ascent from the left bound and continues upwards until reaching a point in mid-life at which the person is at the peak of their capacities; as they age from that point, the slope descends until death is reached at the end of a long life.  Some curves end prematurely due to an early death, but the analogy holds for people as a whole.  This Family Bell Curve was the operative model for much of American history as three or more generations lived together in a single household where they could assist one another as they were able.  But this model broke after the Second World War as families began to migrate, with adult children moving for personal or professional reasons.  Even the newly affluent elderly moved to climes more conducive to their health and preferences and the result was that a three generational norm decreased to a two generational model, aka the nuclear family.   The affluence of the past three generations made this break survivable as tax revenues were steered by savvy politicians to create social programs that aided the elderly who were in one place while their families were often elsewhere and the Social Security program was expanded far beyond what FDR and the Great Depression-era legislators ever envisioned.  But we’ve gone beyond recession and our present real resources – not the paper and electronic digits emanating from the Federal Reserve – will neither the promises made nor the programs created.   

As we truly begin to renegotiate the generational contracts in a period of lesser resources, what do we owe our elders?  Surprisingly, it’s not very different from what we owe our children.  We parents are now astride the peak of the Bell Curve as we raise ascendant children on one hand and support declining parents on the other and what we owe is applicable on either slope.  

  • We owe them our respect, even if we realize when we become the adults that they possess their own character flaws that might make them individuals with whom we’d not associate were they not our parents.  That doesn’t mean to kow-tow, but it does mean that barring grossly deficient behavior, they deserve to be acknowledged as the people who raised us and brought us up into the world, worthy of our own support.  Perhaps once you more completely understand their own flaws, you can better appreciate what they might have accomplished in your own upbringing.
  • We owe them our time.  This commodity has been stretched as more families turn to multiple part-time jobs to make the ends meet and is increasingly precious for many parents.  But the medical and bureaucratic system that we’ve created is complicated and opaque, difficult to understand from the outside and full of programs that seemingly overlap and confuse as to who they serve.  It’s difficult for those of us who are comfortable with the technological accesses – automated prescription renewal plans for example – but it can be overwhelming and fearful for those who are hard of hearing or recognize their own failing  faculties.  The upshot is that we have to be ready to provide the time to help them navigate these systems at the least, and physically assist them if necessary.
  • We owe them our conversation.  The elderly often have little more than the media to occupy their time and there are commentators on either side of the spectrum who make a bundle from propagating fear and division, separating us from them.  Our words can be the oil that calms their water and we should provide the time to listen and explain.  The unspoken part of this is that we ourselves have to take an interest in what’s occurring around us so that we ourselves understand what’s going on around us.
  • We owe them our support, whether it might be financial, physical or otherwise.  My own parents sent money each month to my paternal grandmother, who managed to accumulate an astonishing quantity of cosmetics and costume jewelry in her lifetime.  If my own parents are financially sound, I can still work in other ways to support them, such as attending medical appointments so that confusion is minimized on the part of both doctor and elder.  Likewise with repairs around the place, such as what my brother-in-law and sister did with my mother.
  • We owe them our adulthood.  Advancing age brings difficult decisions and a person of declining capabilities can find them both terrifying and depressing and it requires our input to help them navigate these decisions.  But some affect not just the elder, but also others and these others can include complete strangers; the status of an elder’s driver’s license is a case in point as the loss of independence brings their decline and eventual death into concrete and clear perspective.  Being an adult means that you have to consider more than just your own self-interest, but also the wider aspects, as difficult as they may be.

What frames my own thinking on what I owe my elders is also this, as self-interested as it may appear.  My job is to teach my children via word and action.  I know that I’m being watched and that the kids are taking their own lessons from how I proceed; while I can preach about what I have to do, it’s crucial that they actually see me do it as well.  It’s vitally important for my wife and I that they see a working model in action because the time will come when they’re astride the Curve and we’re descending.  And the programs that presently exist will likely be curtailed.

File Away for Future Reference…Under ‘C’ for Cyprus (w/Duplicate to ‘I’ for Italy)

Big things happen in some of the most obscure places and the biggie this weekend came out of the tiny Mediterrean island nation of Cyprus.  It was followed a day later by a German bank economist’s opinion that a similar event would be of benefit in Italy.  The two are big precisely for their attack upon private property rights and the possibility of what could – someday – come to a bank near you.

The word came out Saturday morning that the Cypriot government, in order to qualify for an EU bailout, ordered the forced recapitalization of Cypriot banks by unilaterally charging all Cypriot bank depositors a percentage of their savings held in the banks.  Any Cypriot with less than 100,000 Euros in the bank had 6.75% of their savings transferred to a bank recapitalization account; those with greater than savings of 100,000 Euros had 9.9% of their funds taken.  The fact that it was called a tax with the promise that it was "one-time" only doesn’t hide the fact that it was a wholesale confiscation by the sovereign in support of the banking system.  As I write this, the Cypriot parliament is holding up the process but the issue doesn’t seem to be whether or not it’s happening, but instead the extent to which the poorer savers will be shaved versus the wealthier savers.  There will be talk of fairness in the hope that the rhetoric obscures the action and dampens the outrage of the common Cypriot.  In the Italian case, a German bank economist stated that a "one-time" wealth tax – a confiscation – of a percentage of all Italian savings would do wonders for the level of the Italian national debt, bringing it down to manageable levels and relieving the pressure upon the Italian government. 

The fact that each is supposedly a "one-time" occurrence – actual and proposed – is meaningless.  The reality is that any European government can conceivably subvert long-held laws of private property in order to support a system that is undeniably broken.  Even if the money were used to pay for the bailouts, there is no change to the situation which causes the need for the bailout.  Even if spending were brought under control to maintenance levels, the hit to a nation’s GDP will keep the debt/GDP ratio high as the denominator shrinks. 

There’s no guarantee that such an event will occur in this country, but be assured that the European approach is being closely watched by some here.  There’s demagoguery and fear-mongering now over the sequestration that affects only 2% of federal spending.  If our elected leaders won’t even issue a budget and are this cowardly now, wait until we’re further down the road of insolvency; it’s conceivable that the fear of alienating factional supporters would drive our own government to summarily confiscate our savings to "put our house in order".  But that omits the simple fact that they’re wholly unable to control their spending and it will ultimately not be a one-time occurrence as they have to revisit that particular well again.  Assuming that everyone hasn’t simply fled the financial system entirely. 

As I said, there is no guarantee that such an event will happen here, but it’s still instructive to watch the events unfolding in Europe to learn from their mistakes.  The biggest lesson of all however, is that generations of economic lessons to children are now turned on their heads as the war on savers moves from subtle actions to overt, threatening ones.


1837 Redux

I believe that there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by sudden usurpation.  (James Madison, speech, Virginia Convention, 1788)

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, 1816)

It has been urged as an argument in favor of rechartering the present bank that the calling in its loans will produce great embarrassment and distress.  The time allowed to close its concerns is ample, and if it has been well managed its pressure will be light, and heavy only in case its management has been bad.  If, therefore, it shall produce distress, the fault will be its own, and it would furnish a reason against renewing a power which has been so obviously abused.  But will there ever be a time when this reason wil be less powerful?  To acknowledge its force is to admit that the bank ought to be perpetual, and as a consequence the present stockholders and those inheriting their rights as successors be established a privileged order, clothed both with great political power and enjoying immense pecuniary advantages from their connection with the Government.  (Andrew Jackson, Veto Message to Congress on the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, Paragraph 9, 1832)

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.  Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government.  Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions.  In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privilieges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the famers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.  There are no necessary evils in government.  Its evils exist only in its abuses.  If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.  In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles. (Andrew Jackson, Veto Message to Congress on the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, Paragraph 44, 1832)

Whoever controls the volume of money in our country is absolute master of all industry and commerce…when you realize that the entire system is very easily controlled, one way or another, by a few powerful men at the top, you will not have to be told how periods of inflation and depression originate. (James A, Garfield, President)

I personally feel that it’s my duty to consider whether individual employees with no responsibility for, or knowledge of, misconduct committed by others in the same company are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation.  In large multi-national companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can be at stake.  And in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a real factor.  Those are the kinds of considerations in white collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement. (Lanny Breuer, Assistant United States Attorney General, speech to the New York Bar Association, 9/13/12)

I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.  And I think that is a function of the fact that some of the these institutions have become too large. (Eric Holder, United States Attorney General, Senate Testimony, 3/6/13)

The crucial point to be taken from the aforementioned quotes is that there’s been a long-standing distrust of, and tension between, our government and those within the financial sector.  The Founding Fathers wished a government that avoided the pitfalls of their European forebears; hand-in-hand with the despotic nature of uncontrolled royalty was the power and influence gained by the financiers who did business with the royalty.  But a nation needs a cohesive financial sector and it’s there that the ongoing tension occurs as the human tendency to garner wealth and power comes into the nation’s need to rein in such impulses. 

This tension reached a crisis point in Jackson’s administration with the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, run by Nicholas Biddle.  There was no functioning central bank and it was Biddle’s bank which filled the gap by providing credit to smaller banks, based upon the strength of the deposits placed in his bank by the United States government.  But the first real instance of private ambition versus national interest occurred when Biddle began to pressure Jackson for renewal of his congressional charter by withdrawing credit from the smaller banks, causing some to collapse with the resultant loss of the depositors’ funds.  Jackson met that action by weakening Biddle by unilaterally withdrawing the government’s deposits so that Biddle was unable to extend credit to anybody – insuring a banking system collapse and the Depression of 1837.  Jackson knew the result was fore-ordained, yet he did it anyway because to fail would be to surrender the government’s power to one individual, who would have final say on anything to his interest to the exclusion of the greater good. 

American society lives in the moment, a wonderful quality if it means that you forget the slights and feuds that propel much of the rest of the world but problematic since we forget the lessons of our history.  Financial issues continued to abound in any number of ways – bi-metallism, gold standard, periodic booms-and-busts – but the issue of Jackson’s day has been quiet until a rebirth with the financial deregulation in the 1990s.  This was the moment when Reagan’s mantra government is the problem, not the solution went awry and we forgot that government also serves to regulate the worser angels of our nature.  We again went through booms but these were contained by an abundantly easy monetary policy, the equivalent of trying to cure cancer with copious amounts of morphine.  The unrestrained financial sector behaved like something out of A Clockwork Orange, mugging passersby and bragging about it until the crisis of 2008 when they found themselves in a web that would require sovereign intervention, courtesy of the US Congress and the Federal Reserve.  But the best response from a new president would have been a re-institution of financial regulation and a crackdown upon the behaviors that drove us to the crisis brink; instead, trillions of dollars were spent to prop up the financial sector with no curb on the behaviors.  We’ve now found that the large banks – Too Big to Fail – conspired to fix LIBOR while JPM not only lied to their own risk management staff, but lied up the line to the point that Jamie Dimon lied in testimony to the Senate Select Committee.  Goldman routinely does the opposite of what it advises its own client base and money flows throught the proprietary trading desks to float the stock indices divorced from reality.  And the levels of derivative products – which ratchets up the damage levels should this happen again – have risen significantly.

In his speech and interview, former AG Lanny Breuer promoted the notion that while there have been no indictments against any of the entities, there have been indictments of certain individuals; a recurrent thread of commentary is that it’s sooooo hard to get a criminal indictment, that the level of proof required makes it almost impossible whereas the civil route simply requires a level beyond a reasonable doubt.  He further acknowledged – and this is what caused him to leave – that he views the prospect of criminal prosecturion through the lens of collateral damage to the economy; about six weeks later, his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, also acknowledged that he’s concerned about prosecution of the TBTF entities for fear of collateral damage to the economy. 

And here’s where we get back to Jackson and the Second Bank of the United States.  It’s one thing to pursue individuals, but what if the collective culture of the corporate entities is so pervasively corrupt that the present approach is akin to swatting at individual flies when you’re being swarmed?  These acknowledgements by our top Justice officials reveal that the TBTF management actively operates under the cold war doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which outrageous behavior occurs with the understanding that punishment will be muted at best for fear that some plug will be pulled and the entire structure pulled down.  We’ve burdened ourselves with trillions in additional debt and begun a dollar debauch that will ultimately result in a global currency shift; average investors are lured back into a market in which they stand a significantly higher risk of loss with biased information provided by the institutions.  Jackson understood that there was going to be tremendous damage from his stance, but that the rule of law and the common good required that action be taken or the Constitution and nation would be subverted and stunted.  Control of the nation’s interests would be effectively turned over to one person and the history and strides of the past six decades would be nullified.  What would have happened to our nation’s history had power ultimately rested with the monied Nicholas Biddle?  Would there have been a Civil War?  Would there have been an Emancipation Proclamation?

The point is this.  If there’s going to be any significant improvement to the real economy, if there’s going to be a meaningful return to the rule of law, then we have to accept the prospect of real economic pain.  But there continues to be promise to our country if we – our legislators and regulators included – are willing to call the bluff.  The TBTF management will otherwise continue to operate in a realm that’s unchecked with the expectation that all losses and illegalities will be covered until the nation is effectively ruined.  A failure to do so will result in a certain slow death of hope for our youngsters, trapping them in the same semi-employed, unsupportable and truly hopeless state in which their European peers find themselves.  Jackson understood that he owed a responsiblity to future generations of Americans.  It’s time that our leaders recognize the same.


Family Values

If you listen to the media, then you hear the recurrent phrase family values emanating from the conservative side of the spectrum.  The values – faith in God, respect for elders and institutions, love of country, thrift and the like – are packaged by the media in a shiny, neat red-state bow and the sense is that they are so inter-related that the removal of any one of them leads to a yellowing and early expiration date for the remainder.  But parents should decide early on what other values they wish to instill in the kids along with the mainstays; this is especially the case as there can be an effect on the family budget and distinct choices must be made if they’re to be pursued.

In our case, we decided early on that travel and exposure to the great, wide world was important for the kids.  Our wish is to inculcate in them the understanding that there are experiences and vistas beyond the confines of a small town and that there was great value to partaking of them.  The reality however, is that this is a value that costs money with an impact upon our daily lives.  We’ve managed to get around part of the cost by tacking vacations onto business trips so that my wife’s airfare and some of our lodging was covered by the employer.  We’ve managed larger trips by overtly saving each month and refusing certain kid requests by simply uttering the name of the proposed location.  Other choices made overtly support the travel value, such as driving used cars – we’ve had three cars towed away for salvage in our marriage – and refusing to hire anybody to do jobs that we can conceivably do ourselves, such as landscaping, yard and housework.  When I was working to finish a lengthy outdoor project with assistance from Middle, I was glad to hear him say that we probably do more around our own house than most of our neighbors.  

There are other values that we work to instill with the kids and that continues even when they’re well into the teen years.  Do your best.  Understand that debt is as much a dangerous tool as a powersaw, badly damaging if not used with respect and thought.  Question what you hear.  Treat the media’s messages with skepticism.  Some will look at the last two and wonder whether these are actually true values, which are usually associated with virtues; I’d argue that when the message coming from the prevailing media and society is ultimately harmful, then valuing skepticism and free thought is indeed a virtue by itself.

That’s the key part of purposefully working to instill values with the kids.  They’re certainly going to get the prevailing values from the media, and even if you work to control the electronic media, they’ll still get hear those values from their friends. Think what matters to you and then begin the lengthy process of constant reinforcement so that the kids aren’t overwhelmed by the negative values of the prevailing culture.

Just What is Inflation?



(gloomily). It’s too much for one man. (Pause. Cheerfully.) On the other hand what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties.



                                        – Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett, 1949)

Vladimir is one of the protagonists in Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting for Godot, the tale of two men who are simply waiting for the arrival of Godot.  We never see Godot, but we know that he’s expected and it’s precisely this play that reminds me of the ongoing debate of whether global monetary policies – the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank – will foster the inflationary environment that’s been predicted; an environment feared by some and hoped for by others.  But just as the audience wonders about Godot – who he is and what he looks like – so there are some who wonder likewise about inflation.  Just what is inflation and what is the cause?  Likewise, what is this deflation that’s so greatly feared by the central banks?





Teachable Moments:  The $1 Renewal

I live for teachable moments, those instances when you can take an occurrence and turn it into a small lesson.  Some are spur of the moment and some are items that I keep and set aside for later use; today’s mail just provided one of the latter category, an offer from ESPN magazine for a special $1 annual renewal if I use my credit card. 

One of my axioms is the simple if it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true and my eyes floated to the small print – what the big print giveth, the small print taketh away – to look for the answer.  On the upper right corner, several font sizes below the large BEST RENEWAL DEAL! message was Note:  Your subscription will have Automatic Renewal benefits.  See back for details. The upshot of the offer is that if I’m willing to give them my credit card number, then they’ll renew for $1 but the renewal will be ad infinitum at the prevailing rates.  It will certainly be possible to cancel, but the reality is that enough people are either too lazy or stupid to bother trying to walk through the steps and the corporate loss incurred on the offer will be easily overcome by the much greater revenue from the automatic renewals. 

I subscribed to ESPN last year for both my benefit and that of Youngest, who is – as labeled by Eldest – the family  jock.  It’s actually read in the household and will become even moreso as baseball season takes hold and it’s entirely possible that it will be renewed when the subscription expires in about six months.  That said, the offer is something that I’ll share with the kids since I want them to view life with a healthy dose of skepticism.  The lessons, in a bite-size format, are:

  • If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true.  Great offers usually come with strings attached and while there’s a short-term benefit to you, there’s a longer-term benefit to someone else.
  • What the big print giveth, the small print taketh away.  It’s a point to read every contract and especially so in the presence of the kids.  There have been instances when I’ve purposefully slowed down the process by reading a contract in their presence just to make a point.  In this instance, I’ll share the location of the small print so that they can see it after viewing the obvious big print.
  • Is this the kind of purchase for which a credit card is used?  This is purely a judgment call and if you’ve got a points reward card, you might say that it’s entirely appropriate.
  • Are you certain that this magazine is something that you’ll want to read indefinitely?  Can you presently afford it on any budget that you might have?
  • If you have to cancel it in the future, is it easy to do so?  Some organizations have special hoops that must be jumped through in order to actually cancel it.

There might be other items that will come up in conversation and we’ll cross that bridge if necessary.  But for now, the offer will take up residence on the kitchen island and await the arrival of the kids.

Politics, Current Events and Kids

I’m writing this as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is engaged in the eighth hour of his Senate filibuster to stall the vote on John Brennan for the directorship of the CIA.  As happened during Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2010 filibuster, I took the opportunity to play a short live-feed for Middle before the family gathered for dinner; Youngest, Eldest and Eldest’s boyfriend were still not upstairs for the meal.  Regardless, I did make it a point to spend a fair part of the dinner to explain multiple aspects of the political event.

There’s an age differential of eight years between Eldest and Youngest and in such a conversation, it’s helpful to lay the groundwork because a filibuster isn’t an everyday thing (the last one was Senator Bernie Sanders’ filibuster in late 2010).  From there, the conversation moved through to other questions and it was eye-opening to find what they did and didn’t know.&nbsp: What is a filibuster?  What is a drone, why are they used and how extensively are they used?  While it’s easy to say that overseas drone strikes are being used on terrorists, who’s defining who that particular person is and does it matter whether that person is an American citizen?  An unspoken question that ran through my head was whether or not the US government would have attempted to assassinate Tokyo Rose, the American collaborator who broadcast for the Japanese during the Second World War.  As the conversation progressed, I moved it to the heart of the matter, which is whether the President should be allowed to unilaterally decide what American should be summarily executed either abroad or in this country.  One of the kids commented that the President should be able to do what was necessary to protect the country but the conversation swung back to the idea of due process; if the President believes that something should be done – especially to citizens in this nation – shouldn’t there be some process that must be engaged first?  We already force due process for searches and wiretaps, isn’t it in the least bit reasonable to force the executive to prove cause for the taking of a life?

The issue beside that of due process for the proposed potential death of an American citizen was whether drones were a legitimate tool for domestic activity or whether they’re Big Brother overkill; how much should we be surveilled?  Because I believe that the best lessons learned are those that link the larger issues to local life, I brought up the topic of nearby downtown surveillance cameras.  We live near a city which is heavily surveilled, with widespread camera usage through the downtown area and frankly, one of the most surveilled in the nation.  Who owns the cameras and who monitors them?  Who paid for the cameras and their installations and when one response was “tax dollars”, the kid gave an incredulous look when he learned that they were all covered via private funding.  How long are the tapes kept and who oversees the people overseeing the monitors?  Does an unknown person have the right to literally follow us on our way around the city?  My wife shot me a look as the kids laughed when I admitted that I’ve occasionally walked past a camera and flipped it off out of sheer annoyance at their ubiquitous presence; we condemn the use of the middle finger and have punished kids for it, but my response was that in this particular situation, it was a legitimate expression of free speech that registered my displeasure at their use.

The point is this.  Take every opportunity to engage the kids in current events and teach them.  Start with the basics and then build upwards from there, fleshing out their understanding and tying as many loose ends back to the beginning as possible.  Keep the personal invective to a minimum and give them as many facts as possible; they’ll get a good handle on what you think by your conversation but if you think it necessary, save your full opinion for the end and in that case, make it abundantly clear with plain, straightforward language.  It’s our job to prepare them for the world and thinking that they’ll get a good grasp elsewhere is a critical error.

BSA or BS(g)A(y)?

The Boy Scouts of America recently announced that the long-awaited decision on whether to allow gay men and women to serve as scout leaders would be postponed until May of 2013. This decision was met with considerable derision of the gay community and supporters – it was even mocked by Seth Meyers on SNL – who see the issue as another element of social justice; for them, it’s a no-brainer and the delay is simply the reticence of an antiquated old-guard who refuse to yield to what they deem to be morally right.  But reality is never as simple as we would wish, especially in the sound-bite/bit-byte age when issues are shortened to catch phrases that serve as ultimately serve as much intellectual value as a Burma Shave sign.  What are the issues – and potential consequences – that national scout leadership must walk through in making a decision about gay scout leaders?

Full Disclosure:  I’ve been a scout-leader for ten years, serving at the request of two sons; as Youngest leaves the cub scout level, he’s asked that I continue on with him as an adult leader at the boy scout level (5th grade and upwards). 

The debate over gay scout leadership is an example of what occurs when ideologues – on both sides – take up a debate without any real understanding of how an affected organization actually works.  There has been public pressure brought by gay rights activists for years over the issue and with considerable success.  Multiple large cities and school districts have withdrawn support for the organization with a resultant loss in terms of financing and logistics; in Philadelphia for example, the city sought – and finally lost in court – to evict the local scout council from it’s headquaters – privately owned but on city land with a perpetual $1 annual lease – unless it permitted gay leadership. Apart from this legal defeat, other cities and districts have refused permission to use facilities.  Corporations have quietly removed sponsorship for the organization and its events with a resulting loss in funding, and in some cities, the United Way has removed the BSA from it’s umbrella of supported organizations.  As recently as last week, Carly Rae Jepsen joined the band Train in boycotting a national scouting event for which she was scheduled to sing this summer.  The tide of public opinion would certainly appear to flow against the present BSA stance.

But why do they want additional time to sort things through?  The reasons are partly due to internal culture, tragic history and the organization’s infrastructure at the local level. 

Internal Culture

The BSA was founded in 1910 by Lord Baden-Powell in England, and it was created as an organization to create men of character.  Baden-Powell created it with structure and ranks partly because of his own previous military experience and the understanding that boys best grew into good men when they were challenged.  It came out of a different cultural time in which homosexuality was universally condemned and for an organization that concerned itself with helping create good men – the concept of manhood – any challenge to the notion of manhood was a shot to the heart.  Change doesn’t always come easily and in our short-attention span age, the notion that an organization will easily alter its founding conception of manhood is frankly naive; in terms of history, four decades – the timespan since the Stonewall riots – isn’t a long period for social change.  What about the scouts and how they’ve changed over time in other aspects?  The organization was created in a massively predominant Christian culture and while I’m not certain, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there was no thought of including non-whites at the outset.  These would have mellowed as the organization spread throughout the world – scouting now exists in over 160 countries – and after the start of the Civil Rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s, packs and troops began to integrate accordingly.  Likewise, the spread of scouting meant that there was a less-Christian emphasis although there is still a distinct acknowledgement of a Supreme Creator; that said, the acknowledgement of God to a scout can vary according to his own personal faith.  There are faith-based badges for any number of religious beliefs apart from Christianity, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhist.  At the boy scout level, the only acknowledgement  of faith is in the scout law in which a scout pledges to be reverent; there are no rank advancement requirements for religious belief and a scout can be agnostic or atheist.  My comments to a few kids have amounted to the notion that reverent would ultimately mean respectful of another’s faith even if you don’t practice or believe it. 

But the admission of gay scout leaders in this matter is in one respect a different issue from race and creed.  Communications and global awareness have helped spread the idea – operative but imperfect – that there is value to other races and creeds, but the United States is one of a small handful of countries that has actively pursued full equality for gays.  There is a now an understanding that there are good men of any number of races and creeds, but gay leadership for an organization that ultimately exists to help boys learn and grow into good men begs the simple question, what does it mean to be a man?  The question sounds insulting, but it does exist.  Women today decry the state of husbands and fathers – men in general – but the social and economic changes of the past several decades have contributed as traditional roles have also changed accordingly and more than a few men have foundered as their role-model templates simply ceased to exist.  I can attest that there are single mothers bringing their sons to scouting with the idea that the scout leader can provide a strong, operative role model for their boys to become men.  As confused as today’s family situations can be, will a gay leader simply create further confusion for the boys?

Tragic History

The BSA suffered the same damage as the Catholic Church in America as pedophilic leaders surfaced in the organization; the crimes were often not reported and efforts were made to protect the organization at the ultimate expense of the boys.  An onslaught of civil litigation against the BSA starting in the 1970s showed that the organization was wholly unprepared to deal with predators who found that it was an exceptionally easy means to gain access to the boys, who could be stalked and groomed for molestation.  While it isn’t universal – and not shared by me – there is a fear among some scout supporters that the admission of openly gay leaders would increase the possibility of again permitting access of predators to the boys despite the multiple safeguards that have been instituted since those years. 

The concern is accentuated by the opening of the "BSA Perversion Files" in late 2012 as the result of an Oregon Supreme Court decision.  The files – showing approximately 1200 instances in which the BSA handled allegations of sexual abuse from the 1960s to 1985 – renewed awareness of the organization’s handling and sensitivity to the issue and in the eyes of some, overshadow the training and safeguards put in place by the BSA.  The contents of these files are not solely academic; my local paper ran a series of articles highlighting local instances of pedophilia allegations and one of the men named as an alleged pedophile committed suicide within weeks of the particular article. 

BSA Organizational Infrastructure

If change is indeed both right and necessary, then the group most affected by the change has to take great care that it’s done in a manner that the resulting effects aren’t more harmful than the change itself.  This idea is best encapsulated in the absurdity of the Vietnam War remark, we had to destroy the village in order to save it.  While people talk of the BSA as a monolithic organization at the national level, they’re unaware that the group’s organization is a microcosm of some of the divisions within larger American society.  If things aren’t handled properly and with great care, there’s a real risk that the organization will literally gut itself.

The national organization oversees dozens of local/regional councils that exist to support the thousands of cub scout packs and boy scout troops and it’s here that the first inklings of different opinions appear.  The councils for central Arkansas or West Texas, for example, comprise regions with people whose general attitude is considerably different from councils covering Boston or New York.  It sounds academic, but the strongest councils are mostly in those areas that are politically and socially conservative, whether urban, suburban or rural and it’s in these areas that the heart of scouting is located.  But the activist gay communities that most support gay leaders are located in the urban areas that do not have strong concentrations of scouting; there’s considerable risk of strong backlash and damage in the former if the national BSA bows to activist pressure, even with the resumption of funding and the halt of celebrity denunciations. 

Part and parcel of this division occurs at the local levels of scouting, immediately beneath the councils.  For a pack or troop to be officially chartered by the BSA – meaning that they have access to the scout programs, ranks and awards – it must have a sponsoring chartered organization; the chartered organization agrees to provide meeting space for the group and abide by scouting principles.  Many of these organizations provide more just the minimum required and enter into a partnership with the troop so that the local scout leadership also agrees to abide by sponsoring organization policies .  In my case, I’ve not only submitted to a criminal background check for the scouts, but also additional criminal checks to meet the sponsoring church’s child/youth safety policy. The simple reality is that the great majority of sponsoring organizations are individual churches, many of which are of denominations that do not recognize homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for religious reasons.  The heart of that particular question is whether homosexuality is hard-wired from birth or a chosen behavior and for that I have no answer.  On a personal level again, the scout troops in my hometown are sponsored by two churches, neither of which acknowledges homosexuality as acceptable.  If the national organization approves gay leadership, expect a significant number of sponsoring organizations to withdraw their support with the practical effect that hundreds – if not thousands – of local packs and troops would lose their support and be forced to find new homes.  With civic groups decimated themselves by dwindling membership, what other churches are out there to take up the slack? 

The end result – from a social and religious – level is that the BSA would be self-inflicting serious and potentially fatal wounds upon itself. 

The Upshot

Change isn’t easy and frankly, it’s damned hard for anybody.  What makes it harder is that ideologues on each side usually take a scorched earth approach so that the collective value of an organization is minimized unless a particular view is adopted, even if the adoption threatens to overturn everything else positive that’s accomplished.  How many gay adults really wish to lead and does the larger gay community have the right to financially and politically coerce a private organization to amend core beliefs to accommodate them?  For all of the internal damage that could occur from such a switch, what is the larger gay community willing to do to help the BSA?  Simply telling the supporters that it’s now okay to turn on the fiscal taps isn’t going to be enough.  Will the gay community actively step in to help with the infrastructure – while abiding by core scouting principles – or are they going to plant the flag and declare victory, moving on while the BSA tries to recover from it’s wounds? 

Compromise is even more difficult than change.  Supporters on either side have to truly examine their beliefs to determine what’s most important, then lay those lesser notions to rest as they take up the work to build for the future.  Compromise is frankly possible here, as well.  But much will depend on whether the ideologues are willing to lay aside the rhetoric and examine the realities of the situation.

Much of what I write is centered around the family, the economy and society.  I’m a supporter of the scouts and have resolved to remain one after my own son is through the process, as far as he chooses to go, regardless of the decision.  What is so immensely frustrating is that many of the central tenets of the scout law – trustworthy, loyal, honest, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent – are what are so sorely needed by an American society beset by moral and ethical failures.  Do you trust your senator or representative?  Do you believe that the financial system is truly regulated?  Are you respectful of the ideas and beliefs of others, even when they’re at odds with your own?  Can you live within your means?  These aren’t rhetorical questions but lie at the heart of our present national predicament and if there’s ever a time that we needed to prepare leaders with such qualities, it would be now.