Masked Villains – Central Banks

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

We live in a time of Docilians* – those who don’t think for themselves, but simply accept whatever their own personal Messiah reveals to them as the Truth. They are docile creatures until their revealed faith is threatened. Then with spit and spite, they attack the non-believer, threatening job, family and life.

Cancel culture and the Big Steal, Antifa and the Proud Boys, are all symptoms of this same modern sickness. Our mass media, our social media echo chambers and too many of our politicians are conditioning their Docilians to hate the non-believers. Like vultures whose claws tear at the social fabric of our communities, they prevent us from coming together to solve common problems. These visible villains thus impair our communities’ resilience.

And yet, I do not fear these visible villains; I believe that ultimately they will destroy themselves – revolutions do, indeed, eat their children, and even Docilians eventually tire of the cacophony. The dwindling audiences for Hollywood’s vitriol and the waning ratings of the mass media are mute testimony that the masses are voting with their seats.

But I do fear the masked villains – those whose seeming affability deflects attention from their actions; actions that sometimes do even more to impair our resilience. The central banks are a prime example.

As I’ve tried to make clear in previous posts, resilience relies on dispatchable capital. When the poor, in particular, are hammered by disaster they have little wealth or discretionary income to use to bounce back. One way – one of the best ways – to increase our communities’ resilience is to increase the poor’s ability to help themselves. That means finding ways for them to build a rainy day fund, to increase their net worth. Jobs are a part of that, to be sure, but not just “jobs” – the gig economy provides plenty of jobs but damn little opportunity to save significantly.

Across the developed world, central banks are pursuing policies that effectively penalize the poorest among us, while inflating the assets of the richest. Even while the central bankers – the Fed, the ECB, the BoJ, the BoE – sanctimoniously break their arms patting themselves on the back over all of the good they want us to think they’re doing.

Their “good works” rest upon two policy pillars: low interest rates and inflation. Ever since the dot-com bubble of Y2K, interest rates have been trending downward until they are now effectively negative, i.e., every year, our savings accounts are worth less and less. Since the Great Recession, central banks have also been trying to drive up inflation. Hazlitt and others call this a hidden tax that also reduces the purchasing power of our savings. Together these feed a “tangle of pathologies” that prevent the poor from climbing out of poverty.

The wealth the poor are able to accumulate is in their savings and their pensions (if any) and their house. Compare this to the more affluent who have more diversified (less risky) portfolios, including stocks and mutual funds. As noted above, low interest rates reduce the value of savings over time. Low interest rates also reduce the poor’s net worth by reducing the return expected from savings, and the imputed value of pension plans. As the chart shows, the net worth of those without a high school diploma has dropped by a trillion dollars over the last five years, primarily due to the reduction in value of their pensions. In fact, the net worth of the least educated, in constant dollars, is somewhat less than it was 25 years ago!

Low interest rates also impact jobs. Twenty-five years ago, three jobs were being created for every two that were lost because of business closures. Now, we are close to 1-to-1 in the US, and less than that in the EU and Japan. Low interest rates stifle lending to small startups because the reward to a bank for making the loan is so low compared to the loam’s risk. But low interest rates also have a more pernicious impact on jobs: they enable the Amazons of the world to knock out the “Little Guys” unfairly. So you have fewer small businesses meaning fewer jobs, especially for those with less education.

The central banks’ “chasing inflation” is highly regressive. Since the net worth of the poor is so heavily weighted toward savings, inflation means that their savings become less valuable year after year. But inflation also packs a double whammy for the poor – the cost of the things they buy (food, rent and energy) increases faster than the middle class “basket of goods” that make up the official inflation rate. Charles Gave has dubbed the price of food, rent and energy (equally weighted) the Walmart Index. In the US, the nominal rate of inflation is about half the Walmart Index’s 3.3%. Thus, inflation eats up the poor’s earnings making it harder to save.

In preparing this note, I looked at race, educational attainment and income levels. As a group, African Americans are much better off than they were ten years ago – their net worth has doubled. The lowest quintile of wage earners has seen a similar growth in their net worth, mostly over the last five years. It is the less educated poor – no matter their race – who have been hurt the worst by the central bank’s villainy.

If we want our communities to be more resilient, we have to recognize that our central banks’ actions – no matter how well-intentioned – harm those who can least afford it. Further, we have to recognize that education is a key determinant of who is harmed the most. The central banks’ actions are working against us; their smiling faces masking darker deeds. Thus, fewer jobs and increased disparity between rich and poor, based on their education. As I’ve said before, education and opportunity are the keys to lifting the poor out of poverty. In a future post, I will revisit education as a way to mitigate the impacts of these masked villains’ actions.

* Thanks to the Risk-Monger for this telling term.


Future-Focused Education

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,
Don’t stop it’ll soon be here…
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

Christine McVie

Over the summer I wrote about the importance of having an ecosystem that would enable the poor and disadvantaged to succeed – to rise out of poverty. I used a quote from Bobby Unser to identify the key attributes of that ecosystem – preparation and opportunity – and went into some detail about what opportunity is, and isn’t. But opportunity by itself isn’t enough – our enabling ecosystem must help the poor and disadvantaged recognize opportunities and provide them with the tools to seize them.

And that’s where education comes in. A strong educational system is a hallmark of a resilient community. In these communities everyone has a good chance to succeed. Even the poor and disadvantaged are prepared to seize the opportunities that are there for them. While there are already too many voices screaming out what an education should be, let me softly come at it from a slightly different direction.

Obviously, I’m not an educational expert (I’m sure some of you sometimes wonder if I’m even educated, or an expert in anything). But what I think we all need to focus on is education for what. That’s why the song lyrics from Fleetwood Mac – the what is to be ready for whatever tomorrow brings. I want our kids – all of them – to be ready to be able to survive and thrive in the world to come. And I want them – all of them – focused on their futures, and not dwelling on their parents’ past. After all, yesterday’s gone…

A farmer in 1800 would be doing things much the same as his forefathers in the 16 and 1700’s. By 1900, he would be very uncomfortable with the mechanization of farming, but would still recognize many of the basics he knew. That same farmer really would be lost in the world of precision farming based on information technology we have today. Further, he would not be able to cope with the accelerating pace of change in our world; that didn’t happen in his.

So, to me, a future-focused education has to provide the following:

An accurate understanding of the path to the present and possible futures. As I’ve often said before, trajectory doesn’t have to be destiny, but it takes action to set a different course. To be future-focused means knowing how we got where we are, where the world is heading and what its drivers are. This means our education system has to provide an accurate picture of what we know about our past and our present and where the world may be going. That picture can’t be black and white; whether we like it or not, we’re awash in a world of grey. And the picture shouldn’t be just shades of red or blue.

To be more concrete, let me use climate change as an example. The global climate is changing; it is getting warmer on average, and has been (by fits and starts) since the 1700s. Sea levels are rising on average. But the sea level at some locations is actually falling; some locations are actually seeing a long-term cooling trend. Students need to understand what is happening to their local climate. Coastal development coupled with poor land use decisions has resulted in greater devastation due to storms, i.e., the number and intensity of the storms we’re having has stayed about the same but the damage is greater. Students need to be taught the facts not just about climate but about the drivers that have put so many people and so much property in harm’s way.

The ability to learn. The amount of new knowledge is growing exponentially; there is no sign that this is abating. No one can expect to grasp all of it. But being future-focused requires that we are able to restock our mental shelves with new information and cast aside what’s no longer useful. Many have talked about the skills and sources that are necessary for continued learning; often overlooked is the personal element that has to underlie their use. Our education has to help us to find our place in the global kaleidoscope. If we know that and understand the world around us and how it might change we can begin to apply the general lessons of how to learn to gain the knowledge we will need for future success.

Opportunities to form networks. We humans are social animals. For most of us, the networks we form are important components of our success. Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate to have lots of chances to network. As a kid I played football and baseball and soccer in school; I acted in plays; I worked on the high school yearbook. Throughout my life, the networks I’ve formed have provided social and emotional support when I needed it, and helped me to what’s been a great career (or three). Very importantly, my networks have been great indicators of future trends for me.

Our educational system needs to help students form their own networks. These are formed naturally through participation in sports teams, special interest clubs (e.g., chess, 4H, computers, gardening), music or drama groups, or junior ROTC. Not all kids will form lifelong networks (you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink) but we need to make sure they have the chance.

Confidence. Confidence is probably the most overlooked component of success (this applies to communities as well). If you have the confidence of accomplishment you’re more likely to take steps to better yourself. No matter how benevolent our governments, the poor ultimately have to take the steps to lift themselves out of poverty. That means they need to have accomplished something or have developed some special skills (forming networks is one of those skills) to give them the confidence to act to better themselves. Participation in network-forming activities can provide this confidence, but there are other ways – sports, academics, home ec (for women and men), shop (ditto) – where accomplishment can lead to confidence.

In a previous post I noted that kids need “the experience of working with their hands. We have too many who took on too much debt going for a college education that hasn’t prepared them for a career. We need people in the crafts and trades – especially when disaster strikes. Roofers, plumbers, electricians even at the bottom of their professional ladders make much more than the poverty level, giving them the chance to accumulate some wealth.” Becoming confident is arguably more important than simply acquiring academic skills; we’ve all seen examples of kids with high grades who had virtually no life skills or street smarts.

Communication skills. Whether you’re a plumber or a CEO, you have to acquire information if you’re to succeed, especially as the world changes around you. That means you have to be able to read. In a networked world, you have to rely on others sometimes; that means learning to write and to speak coherently. Public speaking is probably the most basic of these skills; it needs to have greater emphasis in education. And our globalized world increases the value of being able to speak a foreign language.

Financial literacy. In an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of being able to handle money. All children need to become financially literate. Ignorance leads to bad decisions in handling money which leads to a lack of reserves when times get bad. This is especially important for the poor; they have less to manage and the greatest need to manage their money wisely.

Technological literacy. Information technology has been the greatest accelerant of change the world has ever seen. However, we are on the cusp of even greater change brought on by the intersection of information technology, psychology and the health sciences. The nature of work will change; life spans will potentially become much longer; how we learn will change. In other words, technology will continue to be a major change agent shaping our futures. Technological literacy thus has to be a key component of a future-focused education.

Ultimately, community resilience is predicated on people and institutions ready to take on the future. That’s why education is more important now than at any time in the past. But education cannot simply be a presentation of a panoply of facts; it has to be focused on preparing everyone – especially the poor and disadvantaged – for the future. Unless the young acquire the knowledge and skills I’ve listed, they will be ill-equipped to deal with future change. And thus our communities will be less resilient. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.