TFTF

Time to Do the Hard Thing

December 13, 2019

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

John F. Kennedy, 1962

When you write for a wide audience, no matter what you say, or how carefully you say it, some people will misunderstand.

Sometimes it’s amusing. Reading through my feedback (and I do read all of it), I get called both heartless capitalist and bleeding-heart socialist… in reaction to the same article.

In fact, I’m neither. I am a capitalist, and proudly so. I believe free markets are the best way to bring maximum prosperity and peace for everyone. But I’m not heartless, nor do I think markets are perfect. Even the best medicines can have serious side effects. That is doubly so when you aren’t taking the medicine correctly.

With a nod to Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride, I don’t think the word capitalism means what we think it means, at least those of us of a certain age. Look at the two charts below from an interview Charles Payne did with David Bahnsen on Fox Business a few weeks ago. Notice that 49% of Millennials favored socialism. But if you ask if they favor “big business” or “free enterprise,” the numbers change significantly.


Source: Fox Business

In the future, I intend to substitute “free market” for capitalism where possible.

Much of the reaction to last week’s Inflationary Angst letter boiled down to, “Get government out of the way and the free market will work.” Others said the opposite: Government must help people even more than it already does. I wish it were that easy. Neither of those options are what we need, and today I will explain why.

French Connection

In my last letter I discussed how standard inflation measures don’t capture the higher living costs most people face, particularly for the very things needed to better themselves. It’s hard to start a business if you have health problems and can’t afford treatment. That college degree that would let you get a promotion is increasingly expensive. And you can’t move to the big cities where better jobs are available if housing costs are out of reach.

We can point to many reasons those are expensive. It’s no coincidence that healthcare, housing, and education are all well-protected from foreign competition. They’re also subject to many regulations that raise costs. Other factors are also at work. Few of them are things the government can change by fiat.

As much as people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren might wish, European-style taxation and government benefits aren’t the answer. They aren’t even working in Europe. We see this in France, where street protests are becoming a way of life.

Here’s an enlightening snippet from a recent Bret Stephens column in The New York Times.

Successive French administrations of both the left and right have been trying to reform this and other aspects of the country’s statist economy for decades, with limited results. Social benefits, once given, are hard to pare, much less withdraw. Hence the frequent strikes: Since 1789, French governments have been acutely sensitive to mass protests, and too often have capitulated to them.

Hence also France’s perennial economic crisis.

The country’s unemployment rate has not fallen below 7 percent since 1983 and is now at 8.6 percent. Long-term unemployment exceeds 40 percent, compared with 13.3 percent in the US. The country’s annual growth rate has barely exceeded an average of 1 percent per year since the 21st century began. It’s expected to come in at 1.3 percent for this year.

As of last year, the median monthly take-home pay was just $1,930, meaning half of all French workers make even less. It’s why the country erupted in protest when Macron proposed raising fuel taxes a few cents per liter.

How much of this is a matter of the French making different, arguably better, choices when it comes to balancing work and leisure? Surely some. And how much of it is made up for by quality public services, strong worker protections, and fewer economic inequalities? Some, too.

Then again, the health service that used to be the toast of Francophiles is overwhelmed, understaffed, and “on the brink of collapse,” according to a report in The Guardian. French universities, while cheap, are overcrowded, underfunded, and notoriously mediocre: “Too easy to get in and too easy to get out,” as one local observer put it. French workers exercise their right to strike roughly seven times more frequently than German workers do, and 125 times more than Swiss ones.

As for income inequality, France is certainly much less unequal than the US. But France’s top 1 percent still held 22 percent of the country’s wealth at the beginning of 2018. That was despite a draconian effort by the previous Socialist government to impose a super-tax on high earners. It raised scant revenue while accelerating the exodus of the rich. Like many European attempts at imposing a wealth tax, it was quickly repealed.

All of this should stand as a stark warning to Democrats. France has the highest overall tax take among OECD countries (46.9 percent of GDP), the highest rate of government spending, (56.38 percent of GDP), the highest rate of safety-net spending, and the third-highest rate of pension spending.

Whatever else all this taxing and spending might be doing, it’s clearly not creating jobs or prosperity.

US median per capita monthly income is about $2,600, considerably more than France. Very few people in the US would be willing to have their incomes cut by 40% in order to live in the French utopia. But if you are going to raise US taxes in the US (you have to combine state and local with federal) the money will have to come from the entire food chain.

     
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Suppressed Competition

Capitalism, at least the free market version, can’t work without competition. It motivates producers to offer the best products at the lowest prices, and lets consumers choose whatever best fits their needs. Yet instead of encouraging and protecting competition, the US government increasingly suppresses it.

Last February I wrote about a then-new book, The Myth of Capitalism, by old friend Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn. They aren’t leftists at all. They respect classical capitalism and want it to work better than it is.

Here’s a quick snippet from the book.

"Free to Choose" sounds great. Yet Americans are not free to choose.

In industry after industry, they can only purchase from local monopolies or oligopolies that can tacitly collude. The US now has many industries with only three or four competitors controlling entire markets. Since the early 1980s, market concentration has increased severely. We’ve already described the airline industry. Here are other examples:

  • Two corporations control 90 percent of the beer Americans drink.
  • Five banks control about half of the nation’s banking assets.
  • Many states have health insurance markets where the top two insurers have an 80 percent to 90 percent market share. For example, in Alabama one company, Blue Cross Blue Shield, has an 84 percent market share and in Hawaii it has 65 percent market share.
  • When it comes to high-speed internet access, almost all markets are local monopolies; over 75 percent of households have no choice with only one provider.
  • Four players control the entire US beef market and have carved up the country.
  • After two mergers this year, three companies will control 70 percent of the world’s pesticide market and 80 percent of the US corn-seed market. The list of industries with dominant players is endless. It gets even worse when you look at the world of technology. Laws are outdated to deal with the extreme winner-takes-all dynamics online. Google completely dominates internet searches with an almost 90 percent market share. Facebook has an almost 80 percent share of social networks. Both have a duopoly in advertising with no credible competition or regulation.

Amazon is crushing retailers and faces conflicts of interest as both the dominant e-commerce seller and the leading online platform for third-party sellers. It can determine what products can and cannot sell on its platform, and it competes with any customer that encounters success.

Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android completely control the mobile app market in a duopoly, and they determine whether businesses can reach their customers and on what terms. Existing laws were not even written with digital platforms in mind.

So far, these platforms appear to be benign dictators, but they are dictators nonetheless.

It was not always like this. Without almost any public debate, industries have now become much more concentrated than they were 30 and even 40 years ago. As economist Gustavo Grullon has noted, the “nature of US product markets has undergone a structural shift that has weakened competition.”

The federal government has done little to prevent this concentration, and in fact has done much to encourage it. Broken markets create broken politics. Economic and political power is becoming concentrated in the hands of distant monopolists.

The stronger companies become, the greater their stranglehold on regulators and legislators becomes via the political process. This is not the essence of capitalism.

True, nothing stops investors from creating competition for Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Well, nothing except that it would take tens of billions of dollars in a very high-risk venture.

Many of today’s large corporations would collapse if we had actually free markets—for instance, insurance companies protected from out-of-state competition. So in one sense, it’s true that we need government out of the way. But we need to remove not just regulations, but also the various subsidies and favors as well.

Do Hard Things

Sadly, I have a hard time getting conservative friends to see this. They think that resisting left-wing policies is enough. But we have to do more than stop bad policies. We have to offer something better than “let nature take its course.”

Tom B., one of my regular correspondents, is a good example. Reacting to last week’s letter, he sent the France article quoted above, and this note.

Wow, John… I gotta admit, I don’t agree with your 80% figure for suffering Americans, maybe it’s 20% or less. Many get healthcare from employers or government, the number getting unsubsidized Obamacare is less than 5M, I think.

When in our history have people not had to relocate for economic opportunity? I’m from a fading steel town in AL, and made my way to the Silicon Valley. Didn’t our ancestors endure far worse hardship to come here? You might also think how government intervention in the three big sectors of housing, education, and healthcare has driven up prices, and that more than the Fed is to blame for inflation.

Europe has far worse economies than ours, yet little problem with drug addiction. These deaths of despair are a unique phenomenon to us that I don’t begin to understand. I do not believe the answers lie in economics, most of these people have marginalized themselves from the economy in ways that are hard to reverse. BTW worker laments are common these days, as they always have been…

When haven’t we seen this? Remember “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair? Haven’t auto assembly lines always required workers to go at a fast pace?

Tom thinks only 20% of Americans are suffering the kind of angst I described. I think it’s more, and to be fair I probably should use Ray Dalio’s 60% line, but let’s go with Tom’s number. It still means some 66 million people are, in his words, “marginalized from the economy in ways that are hard to reverse.”

Hard to reverse? Maybe so, but that’s no reason not to try.

Tom is right: getting everyone connected to the economy and sharing in our prosperity is a big challenge. So was sending men to the moon. When JFK called on Americans to set that goal, he said we do such things because they are hard. The nation went to work and, a remarkably short time later, Neil Armstrong took that one small step, representing us all and indeed, all mankind.

We’re Americans. We can do hard things.

As for those worker laments, maybe their growing prevalence says something important. I think one of our greatest achievements is to have eliminated the kind of working conditions depicted in The Jungle. A capitalism that lets such horrors return, or anything remotely like them, isn’t working like it should.

But humanitarian concerns aside, abandoning millions of people to the wolves probably won’t end well for the top tier. Historically, regimes survived by giving the masses bread and circuses, which worked for a time but had limits. Marie Antoinette learned the hard way. We have limits now, too, and they’re getting closer.

Reach Out & Listen

Whatever happens in the 2020 elections, governing such a bitterly polarized country will be tough. Which means the economic problems I’ve described will fester and probably get worse. That leads nowhere good.

The only way out of this, the only way to preserve what we have and get through the 2020s, is for people to set aside their tribal loyalties, work together, and find solutions. That means none of us will get everything we want. We’ll have to compromise in unpleasant and distressing ways. But the alternatives will be even less pleasant and more distressing.

One alternative, increasingly discussed by serious people, is for the US to simply break up. Let the blue states do their thing and the red states do theirs. The problem: no state is purely blue or red. All have substantial minorities loyal to the other tribe. So it would be messy, to say the least.

We don’t have to put ourselves through that trauma. As I said above, we can do hard things when we have to. Recently I ran across this story about 1970s Durham, North Carolina. Courts had just ordered the city to integrate its schools. Violence was a real possibility.

Two local activists who to that point had basically hated each other were pressured into leading a series of public meetings to ease the process. Ann Atwater was a single, poor black parent and C.P. Ellis led the local Ku Klux Klan. Neither wanted anything to do with the other, but both saw what had to be done.

To plan their ordeal, they met and began by asking questions, answering with reasons, and listening to each other. Atwater asked Ellis why he opposed integration. He replied that mainly he wanted his children to get a good education, but integration would ruin their schools. Atwater was probably tempted to scream at him, call him a racist, and walk off in a huff. But she didn’t. Instead, she listened and said that she also wanted his children—as well as hers—to get a good education. Then Ellis asked Atwater why she worked so hard to improve housing for blacks. She replied that she wanted her friends to have better homes and better lives. He wanted the same for his friends.

When each listened to the other’s reasons, they realized that they shared the same basic values. Both loved their children and wanted decent lives for their communities. As Ellis later put it: ‘I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life… But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.’ After realizing their common ground, they were able to work together to integrate Durham schools peacefully. In large part, they succeeded.

That may seem out of reach now. But if you, like me, remember the segregated South, you know how deep those attitudes were. Somehow people got past them, though not perfectly or easily.

Our greatest enemy isn’t “the other side,” but the feeling on both sides that reconciliation is impossible. I reject that thought. I believe we can get through this period together. Yes, it will be hard. But that’s why we must do it: because it is hard.

My great fear is we’ll have to go through the economic equivalent of World War II before we finally compromise. It may take a new low point to make us bite the bullet—hopefully not a literal one.

As I’ve said in previous letters, there are things we can do to avoid that, but both sides will have to give up some of their ideological “no compromise” positions. They’re going to do that anyway after the Great Reset, from a decidedly lower base. Better to make the hard decisions today.

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Christmas in Puerto Rico, Pat Cox, and More

I’m finishing this letter a little early (Thursday afternoon) because tonight is a very large community Christmas party. Later tonight Pat and Cheryl Cox fly in. We will spend the next three days working on parts of my book. I’m really getting tired of talking about this book and looking forward to finishing it.

We are also deep in planning for the upcoming Strategic Investment Conference which will be in Scottsdale, May 11–14. I really think this will be the best and most unique conference we’ve ever done. Mark your calendars.

With that I will hit the send button. I’m looking forward to Christmas in Dorado Beach. It has been one year since we moved here, and while I admit that taxes were a big reason we came, Shane and I now realize we should have come for the lifestyle and oh yes, the tax situation is better.

Your as busy as ever but more relaxed analyst,

John Mauldin

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Robert Watkins

Dec. 14, 2019, 12:56 p.m.

John,
Perception to most people is reality and perception of what life owes us has become quite utopian!

Where in our constitution does it guarantee our outcome? Should it guarantee our outcome in life at all?  No, the constitution basically maintains all people are equal and have equal opportunity. Now what we do with that opportunity makes all the difference in the outcome of our lives. We need only look at President Obama and Ben Carson to see opportunity is there for even the poor who make great decisions! So what has happened to our perception of what life owes us?

Contentment has surely changed for the majority in the US, the causes are many. As you have mentioned, politicians pitting us against each other to buy votes, is one cause. However, I think the elephant in the room is more a spiritual thing!  As much as we may like to deny it or ignore it, human beings were formed with a longing that only God can fill! Yes, we search for riches,fame and fortune to try to acquire happiness but that happiness is fleeting! The temporary happiness from these things is like a drug addiction, it takes more and more to reach the same level of happiness!

I’m sure many here don’t believe or even want to hear this message,  but let’s for a moment be open minded. As I think you have eluded to the fact that previous generations were much more content, even with much less, how were they happy and content with little or nothing? My answer, most had a relationship with God! The removal of God from all things public and most things private, has caused a great falling away from God causing much discontent and anger. The more worldly and pagan our country becomes the more discontent we will be! To continue this course will bring us to the same downfall s many other great republics!

Henry Arnold

Dec. 14, 2019, 12:51 p.m.

Have you considered the possibility that Progressives are actually better described as Regressive.
For example, organic farming is low yield farming requiring more land use or starvation for billions. One unseen consequence are loss of habitat for wild animals.  Or fighting GMOs will dooming millions to starvation.  Eliminating carbon based fuels would lower the standard of living and shorter lifespans. 

Most every goal of Progressives conflicts with other Progressive goals which leads me to believe that, unlike Frederic Bastiat, they don’t see the consequences of their goals.

How can you compromise with bad ideas?  We don’t need to return to a middle ages standard of living to get along with the Progressives.  We need to beat their ideas.

Gordon Foreman

Dec. 14, 2019, 12:20 p.m.

John,
You wrote, ‘Our greatest enemy isn’t “the other side,” but the feeling on both sides that reconciliation is impossible. I reject that thought.’

Both sides see reconciliation as impossible because both sides (actually, there are far more than two sides to these arguments, but let’s leave that aside for now) are totally convinced that it’s the other side that must change if there is to be any reconciliation. My side has no need to change or compromise. Until something brings a little more humility to both sides - to recognize that the other guys’ position may have some merit - there is no hope to resolve our disagreements.
An even deeper challenge that I see is that nearly all our fights are over false choices. Which do you choose, A or B? But both A and B are faulty, imperfect, and counterproductive choices. And woe betide anyone who tries to bring up C, D, or E as possibilities. They are attacked by both sides, or worse, are simply denied a forum in any site or medium that might attract widespread attention.
I appreciate your letters and writings as attempts to seek workable solutions that might be acceptable to a wide audience, but I suspect that there are forces at work that will take you down if you start to gain any traction. Everyone who is invested in the present model, and who feels threatened by any of your very rational and reasonable suggestions, will attack. The insurance companies, ISPs, beer producers, et al., have worked hard and sucked up to lots of politicians to gain protection from competition, and they will fight even more viciously to maintain that protection.
One more group that you didn’t include in your list are the major media outlets that control the major TV news channels, nearly all of which are controlled by just a few people. They choose what to report, what not to report, and how to spin what is shown. There are alternatives available, but all are generally considered by the brainwashed American populace as propaganda outlets and not reliable, even though they may be as good or better than the mainstream channels they watch every day. One of their main functions is to maintain the narrative within acceptable limits. Nothing but ridicule or silence for anything that might threaten the status quo.

Craig Cheatum

Dec. 14, 2019, 11:40 a.m.

One solution that might unify the country is federal tax reform.  Mathematically, a flat 15% tax rate for personal and corporate (ex operating expenses) tax would pay for current spending when all adjustments are removed.

kenneth.r.portnoy@iname.com

Dec. 14, 2019, 11:20 a.m.

I take issue with the idea: “The only way out of this, the only way to preserve what we have and get through the 2020s, is for people to set aside their tribal loyalties, work together, and find solutions.” ‘

The pivot point is the word, “...people…” Who dat? Your NC Civil Rights example is a case-in-point. The preamble is, “Courts had just ordered….” No amount of kumbaya conversation at the grass roots would have effected integration without the leadership of politicians and judges wielding the power of governmental institutions against embedded culture. The recent resurgence of racism shows the criticality of political leadership to making & sustaining progress. Pick your issue.

It is a problem of politicians and their payors at the pinnacle. Don’t even hint at the people down the pyramid. I could talk with Corey Stewart ‘til ...(Armageddon)...never reaching the substantial impact great leadership could deliver by law, judgements, & regulation; e.g., to hamper the distribution Koch’s and other’s dark money. Loosened law, supportive judgements and defanged regulation got us here. Prying the payors hands from the power tools will not likely come from civil conversations among us peons. It will require the appropriate applications of governmental power. That’s why we have one.

lawrence stirtz

Dec. 14, 2019, 10:30 a.m.

My thought is that we will not get past the monopoly issue until we lose our love affair with size. I know all the arguments it is needed to compete internationally etc, however other nations may be feeling similar pain. Any regulation of acquisitions and mergers bring howls of pain. The benefits seem to flow mostly to the executive teams involved though. We did bust the trusts at one point which at least slowed down aggregation of power a bit. Maybe we need another dose.

cwdurrett@yahoo.com

Dec. 14, 2019, 10:24 a.m.

I totally agree that all sides need to be talking to each other.  Unfortunately there are some social issues that have been pushed to far (abortion, sex identification, politically correctness) and spill over into economics. Single focused blinders will need to be used to exclude these explosive topics.

urm175@yahoo.com

Dec. 14, 2019, 9:47 a.m.

John,
thank you for this article as well as the many others that I have enjoyed reading during the past decade. I would like to respond to this one as it pertains to issues that I have wrestled with myself. Before making my arguments I need to give you a little background:
I came to the US in 1971 as an exchange student from Germany, where I was born and raised. My parents went through some of the worst experiences that mankind has to offer, and being born shortly after the war, I saw the aftermath and watched my parents and their generation struggling to rebuild a functioning country and society. I was born in what used to be East Germany, but got to enjoy the freedoms and advantages of the West, since my parents had the good sense and courage to flee the DDR with their two kids and nothing else. West Germany, of course, was a capitalist country and especially during the 50’s and 60’s the contrast to the East could hardly have been starker. While my remaining relatives in the East suffered under that regime, I grew up with all the advantages that the ‘free Enterprise’ had to offer. At least I believed that until I came to the US. The ‘free Enterprise’ system here was of a different kind. Yes, people here in general had higher incomes, more freedoms and opportunities than their European counterparts, and for an ambitious person it was relatively easy to attain a good living standard….as long as he remained healthy and ideally could go to college. In the 70’s, of course, that was not too expensive here in the US, and could be paid for with some work outside of school and some help from parents. But those times are gone and for most universities these days an after hour job will not pay the fees and living cost anymore. Growing up in Germany I did not have to worry about that, since the University was essentially free, and a Government stipend paid for my living costs. This stipend was available to all students whose parents were unable to pay for it. This stipend even paid for my first two years in the US as an exchange student. To the best of my knowledge, the American exchange students that studied at my University in Germany had no such help, and in fact had to pay tuition to their host University in the US, wile studying abroad.
My point here is this: while I am a strong believer in Capitalism or ‘free Enterprise’, I realize now that without the social services that the Germany version of capitalism provided to me I would not have been able to go to college and get the PhD degree that allowed me to build a good career and attain the higher middle income that I have enjoyed here in the US. The Republicans eschew the idea of free college and free healthcare (without which my father would have died much earlier than he did), but I feel it makes for a stronger society. How many brilliant minds to we leave behind in the US because they happen to be born into families that are unable to pay for even a 4 year college degree. Even for middle income families, especially if there are health issues with just one family member, sending their kids to college is unattainable without incurring life-long debts. I was a college professor, but I left my tenured position to accept a much better paid job in industry in part because I wanted my kids to have the same opportunities that were afforded to me without getting them into debt.
As you do, I think there needs to be a substantial change in the attitudes on the ‘right’ if we want this country to continue to offer equal opportunities to all. Surely, the plans and promises on the ‘left’ are non-starters if they can not be paid for and/or have no chance of getting approved by Congress. We need to find a middle ground in order to get back to the country of ‘unlimited opportunities’ that I, as well as my parents admired.
Finally, by comparing the French system to the US, you have picked the worst. Why not compare the German, Dutch or Skandinavian systems to the US? Their nominal incomes may be somewhat lower, but free college and healthcare, and somewhat less of the income disparity are well worth it to them.
With best regards,
Uwe Muller

aswidener@gmail.com

Dec. 14, 2019, 9:15 a.m.

John,

A great and timely article. As one vehemently opposed to marxism/collectivism, I agree it’s a tactical mistake to repeatedly extol the virtues of America but not acknowledge extant problems. Some on the left may be correct in their assessment of symptoms but fail to realize that a number of industries tilt in huge favor of the powerful because of government, not despite it. Four national beef distributors? What’s the FDA role over decades in that market consolidation? Ask an emergent farmer about whether he/she can freely sell product in their state, or ship across state boundaries under existing law. College prohibitively expensive? How have the feds driven prices through the loan complex? Two beer distributors? Ask a local brewer how difficult and expensive it is to expand because of regulation. Health care too expensive? Ask the office manager of your GP how much 5 minutes of time with your doctor would cost you on a cash basis. I bet they don’t have an answer (not their fault, it’s become an insanely complex cluster). And on and on and on. We must roll back government interference at federal and state levels so that we may have a free market. But we must first acknowledge that the status quo is often NOT free market except for the largest and most powerful. And that’s what many on the left find problematic, even as they reach for the wrong solutions.

Nedland Williams

Dec. 14, 2019, 9:13 a.m.

Our government is picking winners, and “protecting” us from competition.  IPO’s have dried up, because the bigs buy up the competition, since government has made the process so difficult.

It is also picking winners with the safety-net/tax code.  Safety-net payments penalize success in the work place, while the rich are favored with tax deductions, which are 70% used by the wealthy.  What we need is a combined tax code where the effective tax rate goes from negative to the top rate in a smooth curve.

A FlatTax and a modest (the poverty line) UBI will do that.  The UBI takes the place of some safety-net ($0.9T of $2.0T) for the poor and all tax deductions for the rest.  In the process, an efficient tax code will goose the economy by 2% (tax compliance time will be cut more than half).

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