Invest or Die!
This is the first article in a four-part series.
The second part is here.
The third part is here.
The fourth part is here.
A bit hyperbolic? Perhaps.
True in spirit. Yes.
A shameful call to action? Probably.
Chance to call something trash without being cancelled? Absolutely.
While it may seem that I’m being both melodramatic and facetious, this is my classic hyperbole on which I will attempt to argue that the large transfusions of cash being pumped into the US economy over the last twelve
years months from government stimulus programs runs the very real risk of adversely impacting the personal finances and savings of Americans who fail to react accordingly.
Do you enjoy stealing money from your children and grandchildren? Then you are in the majority- hurray!
The above graphic confirms what I've long suspected: Americans love to receive money, especially from the government and even more so if it's free money that they didn't earn. If it deposits directly into their bank account without even having to go to the mailbox, they lose their minds. When you make the mistake of choosing self-employment, checks always travel in the opposite direction to the U.S. Treasury, but if I could get some back, man I would be similarly jazzed. However, anyone assuming this money will be entirely paid back through taxes or taking on new debt really needs to schedule time with me for a crash course in government finance.
Political differences are also on display above and presumably not a huge surprise, as left-leaning Americans tend to be more comfortable with government largesse, while conservatives a little more dismissive (if mostly in theory!) I do admit upfront my concern with this survey- if it is indeed representative- speaks to where financial literacy and morals stand in our country today, especially with Americans who's incomes have not been materially impacted by the pandemic as well as those whose salaries are not directly influenced by their daily effort and productivity, yet remain more than willing to opine on politics and economics, especially on social media (sadly, the gutter of human thought.)
Yes, shots have indeed been fired. It's going to be that kind of post!
In all seriousness, this breakdown does buttress recent election results and consistent political trends of the past several decades. Regardless of one's political affiliation (which is really far more linked to one's upbringing and inherent personality traits, and manifesting in policy preferences- usually only one or a handful- that push us off an arbitrary fence into one of only two polarities of American
propaganda political ideology.) That's why I rarely get too worked up about people's political opinions or take them too seriously - it's highly unlikely they arrived there through an extensive, objective and reasonable evaluation. The quantity of political books (or any non-fiction) on their bookshelf is a first clue for me, and whether or not they consume cable news another. I recognize that cultural preferences masquerading as moral conviction is often hoisted upon us without our input, and at an impressionable age, which is why we maintain the same beliefs we developed in adolescence.) Specifically we're discovering that profligacy - politicians promising gullible constituents cash and prizes usually are popular and get elected, while financial austerity - at least the rhetoric- has become a guaranteed act of political suicide. Maybe it was Adam Smith, or possible Hayek. Like girlfriends, it's sometimes hard to keep up.
Unless someone can think of a successful politician in our lifetime who ran on a platform of sound money, austerity and staunchly against grotesque handouts to Big-[Insert any American Industry]. Go ahead, I'll wait...
Promising the moon and stars seems like it's the way to go to get to the top, but that hasn't always been the case. My grandfather was the last Democratic mayor of Indianapolis, a Blue Dog to the core and knew LBJ and JFK on a first-name basis. And I have no doubt he'd take a flame thrower to the Capitol if he knew our current system was the same one he fought for in the South Pacific in WWII. He couldn't conceive of the government printing and giving out money, it literally wouldn't register. As society becomes increasingly at ease with the thought of impoverishing our children and grandchildren to benefit ourselves today, we forget that our ancestors tended to think, act and behave in a very contrary manner- i.e. striving to instead leave our country and communities in a better place than they entered them. Sadly, that mentality seems to be waning, or at least on the retreat.
Enriching ourselves at the expense of future generations is hardly a new development, of course- nor particularly partisan- but instead something of a popular national pastime. It seems to have begun an exponential pivot upward around about the time we started losing members of my Grandfather's generation towards the final decades of the 20th century. Up until then, spending more than you earned was rare and stigmatized, because the financial and lending infrastructure simply didn't exist- for people, organizations or governments. Before consumer credit's ascendency and the departure from the gold standard in the 70s, you could only spend what you earned, it was as simple as that.
It is interesting to consider the fate of today’s political leaders- specifically at the federal level- if they were unable to print money to solve our problems, as was the case before 1975 when Republican President Richard Nixon "closed the gold window" (when the US dollar was backed by gold, and only more gold or more debt could increase the total amount). In that environment, I suspect Americans more carefully considered their options based on what was best for the country in the long-term and the short-term sacrifices, rather than on their own immediate personal emotions and impulsive desires.)
Would there have been as much broad-based support for nationwide lockdowns in 2020 from a federal government who could not throw out cash from the US Treasury like a Mardi Gras parade, as an unofficial apology for their policies? With the checks written on the backs of current producers, younger generations and the unborn? Perhaps this is a topic we can explore in a future post, but I think previous generations would have engaged in a more ethical and honest conversation than the one we are having now (people are hurting, they have iPhones and Netflix but no savings, send out money now!)
Entitlements have increased from about 5% of all government spending in 1900 to 48% of all government spending (federal, state, and local) in 2015. In crude and non-scientific terms, that might resemble 45% of your own earnings going out to pay for your elderly parents and an unemployed child. You'd probably do it, but it would be a financial strain on your budget. Of course, this number has grown much larger in the past year across all sectors.
At this point it’s hard to ignore our accelerated tumble down the rabbit hole of unprecedented and unpredictable monetary and fiscal policy, one that could lead to uncomfortable outcomes like inflation - seen most easily in the rising costs of common goods and services. Perhaps you’ve noticed the higher prices for everything... groceries, vehicles, clothing, fuel... It's not your imagination, life is getting expensive!
We're also experiencing rising costs in sectors of the economy one might not expect- beaten-down industries like travel and restaurants as well as normally deflationary industries like technology (i.e. flat screen TVs and tablets, etc.). I fear this trend may spell trouble for the majority of Americans who struggle with math, the underlying causes of this dilemma, the potential outcomes and the appropriate solutions to this financial malaise... As such, this is topic I seek to explore in the following four-part series Cash Is Trash.
I find it fascinating that even the people who can observe the actual symptoms of our current abnormality still remain unsure on exactly how to react, or even if they should at all. It shares so many parallels with the recent severe snow storms in Texas, where we found themselves grossly unprepared for surprise temperatures shocks and electric grid failures, even though we had ample warning. I wonder how many of us are likely (or able or even willing) to implement major changes in our lives to prepare for similar climate disruptions. In fairness, it's easy to neglect when temperatures two weeks later are in the 70s!
I’m receiving numerous calls from clients on this very topic, so much so that I find myself repeating the same explanation multiple times a day. Being an efficient and brilliant man myself, I thought it prudent to publish a foundation from which to expound on our financial situation in this first part of the series. Many will understand at least some of these concepts, but I suspect others may be struggling to synthesize them into a concise and effective response. Which is understandable when something happens that hasn't happened in over forty years.
More dollars injected into circulation usually (and famously) leads to all dollars being worth less, therefore requiring more of them to buy the same products and services we bought in the past. This is the definition of inflation that most people are familiar with. In fact, some economists argue that the rapidly appreciating stock and real estate markets are not going up so much as the dollar is actually going down. This is certainly the case for new alternative investments such as cybercurrency (i.e. Bitcoin) and nonfungible tokens ("NFTs") which are by their inherent design proxies for the value of the dollar. That can be hard to grasp for residents of the Texas Hill Country, an area composed of bubble counties in a bubble region in a bubble state in a bubble country- we can revel in our incredible good fortune living within four layers of geography outperforming the economies and markets of virtually any community on Earth. Rejoice! We’re batting four-for-four!
This success is an important point to emphasize because- while life appears relatively good for some of us right now, I am meeting with plenty of clients carrying significant anxiety, frustration and fatigue. Many are not even fully certain why. I feel strongly that no one benefits from a 24-7-365 news cycle in which crisis after crisis rotates every two weeks (or less, depending on the race of the actors), the highly charged political environment or an exploding mental health epidemic that sometimes seems to be afflicting 9 out of every 10 people I engage with in public. I sometimes wonder where I am in that group, and I bet you do to. The point is this period we're living through is not normal, and you are not alone.
At one level, this is all very understandable. In modern terms, 2020 was a very tough year for most of us and there’s a strong chance that 2021 will be equally as challenging. I suspect that will be the case because the true sources of our unhappiness are rarely what we're being led to believe and we tend to be less of a preventative society than we are a treatment-based one. It's way more profitable (and popular) to treat symptoms than to address root causes. Look at our health care system, for instance. We lost 675K Americans to heart disease in 2019, mostly from lifestyle (compared to roughly 340K to COVID in 2020), yet I'd never heard of Dr. Fauci before 2020.
However, if we can maintain a longer and more enlightened perspective, we can acknowledge that life today isn't that bad from a historical perspective. Barring the individual and tragic circumstances that affect us all at some point in our lives (and some more than others), the majority of us are still living our best lives in the greatest place in the greatest time in the history of the world. Evidence abounds to prove that (my expanding waistline and Amazon Prime queue, for instance.)
I posit that many of us harbor at least some degree of unhappiness primarily because we’re being gradually conditioned - by media, entertainment, politics, pharmaceuticals and technology, to name but a few culprits. Let’s be honest: none of these entities- or frankly, the majority of corporate American- benefits from our collective personal contentment. Evidence suggests that much of our disposable spending beyond basic needs is largely a function of seeking additional and usually superfluous validation, fulfillment and felicity. For many, spending money outside of housing/transportation/food/utilities is fundamentally a coping mechanism at it's core, taping the same neurological receptors as food, TV, gambling and pornography. Almost 85% of spending in the United States is done by women, and my perception is they are bearing the blunt of the psychological and professional burden.
Sowing personal and societal discontent in modern America is almost never a bad marketing tactic. Sadly, I often feel I'm in one of the few industries fighting against this strategy, that must resists this cheap trick. I spend a disproportionate amount of my day providing historical perspective (which is being erased and censored for a reason, don't kid yourself), reminding excited clients how blessed they are, that the world is not going to end (this week), this too shall pass and the most important things in their life are free. Few professions could survive with that approach, but it's a burden I gladly shoulder because it happens to be the truth and it's very profitable (for clients!) My general diagnosis is to turn off the TV, go outside and leave the worrying to me.
I enjoy pointing out the various ways that most of us are doing well, in comparison to not only our ancestors but also the majority of our global neighbors and peers. For one, modern Americans no longer have to go outside to use the restroom (unless you live in Ingram,) so that's cool. The truth is that if one were to travel outside of the Hill Country, Texas or the United States, we would quickly discover that we have it better than the vast majority of humanity and in almost every conceivable measurement. If you don’t believe me, please reach out so I can point you towards the abundance of evidence. Better yet, you could pay my travel costs to take you to plenty of countries I've visited that make ours look like heaven on Earth, including several in the developed world.
Thanks to a historic response from Big Pharma, we've developed a vaccine to the deadliest virus in a century- in less than a year, no less- and that is remarkable. God willing, we now appear to be on the downslope of this health catastrophe. And as he promised during his campaign, newly-elected President Biden’s Inauguration Day speech (along with Amanda Gorman's slam poetry) was a more effective weapon against COVID than an entire year of masks, socially distancing and vaccines combined towards bending the COVID curve (see graphic below). With the sudden disappearance of police brutality, racism, social unrest and violence over the winter (or at least the media coverage), I suspect I'm not the only one wishing we could have recruited these heroes a year ago!
Who knew President Biden's election certification in early January was COVID's kryptonite!
Despite some relief on the health front, however, we are not out of the woods yet in regards to our domestic economic challenges. Many in our country and world continue to struggle financially as fallout from 2020. And not just people- but also businesses, organizations and governments. The COVID pandemic- and our government’s response to it- have crippled our national, emotional and economic well-being. As a result, our leaders have – as they are trained, inclined and compensated to do- resorted to historically unprecedented measures to cover up mistakes made initially with even more and greater folly.
The impact of these errors would have led to unimaginable social and political unrest if not for previously inconceivable amounts of cash compensation, each far greater than the entire bailout of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. The most notable of these injections included the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for destroyed businesses (and many that weren't) and CARES Act cash for households, including those filing jointly that made under $112,500 in 2018 or 2019, regardless of individual circumstances and whether you needed it or not. The majority of the country got free cash, which seems as odd to me as it probably does to you.
The chart at the top of this article closely replicates the social-political makeup of my client conversations, with many clients in our more conservative "red" community uncomfortable with the lockdowns and subsequent decisions at the state and federal response. My more left-leaning clients tend to feel they were necessary and in many cases, too small. My advice for folks on both sides of the political aisle is to work towards tempering anger and hostility- emotions that are usually unproductive at best and toxic at worst. I encourage them to instead recognize that this is not a new phenomenon. Politicians are hired and literally trained to give out other people's money; as well as make decisions and rules that sound good as sound bites, seem reasonable in theory, on paper or in a classroom, but which usually manifest poorly in the real world and adversely impact human lives in the process.
Lacking much real world experience, specifically in regards to running a real business or any organization that must be successful to survive, far too many elected leaders still perceive our economy as a machine when it more closely resembles a living ecosystem teeming with billions of organisms each making personal decisions to improve their life. Sometimes those decisions lead to responses our leaders fail to anticipate. This myopia then manifests through novel rules and decisions that usually compound the original error, leaving us in deeper peril. In the worst-case scenario, before long the middle class is dumpster diving to stay alive.
This behavior would be diagnosed as clinically insane in a human being, fraudulent in an organization, and unsustainable in the private sector. But that is the unique power of the state, that's what we as a society have permitted them to do. History will judge whether that is the correct course of action or not, and no one today knows for sure how this will end.
This is honestly not a slight towards our government nor officials- I know many exceptional Americans that have served admirably as civil servants. I have found our military officers and first responders in particular often bastions of reason and altruism. This includes competent and thoughtful existing and retired employees from the state, municipal and federal levels. They will often be the first to tell you how challenging it is to work in these institutions, and how the bureaucracy and red tapes attracts and retains those would not be employable in any other environment.
Unfortunately, as the breadth and depth of power in Washington DC increases and consolidates, it seems almost everything our current political leaders touch, they damage or make worse. The War on Drugs, War on Poverty and War on Terror would be recognized by most as abject and colossal failures. Moreover, I doubt anyone observes the direction of our current educational system, postal service or "heath" care systems as models to be emulated, as sustainable as anything but a parasitic leviathan. Budgets keep expanding while ROI (return on investment) keeps dropping.
We added nutritional information to American food items, but obesity and health problems have exploded. We threw a lot of money at the Affordable Care Act, but I lost my plan and my doctor, and my premiums went up 4x. Just the website alone, healthcare.gov, cost more than $2 trillion (with a T), I'm pretty sure Amazon Web Services (AWS) could have done it for a few million.
As the CDC increased it's influence during the pandemic, cases and deaths kept rising. We spend almost $11K/child on each of the 56M students in the United States, and yet our country continues to fall further and further behind our competitors. If you haven't sat in on a few public school classes recently... my advice is don't. At some point, we'll realize it's not a lack of money that's causing it. But we're not there yet. We continue to think throwing money at the problem that goes far deeper than that will fix the problem. Which is odd since I've never seen that work out in my personal life, and it's not working now.
Some of our departments at the federal level seem to survive based purely on inertia and lethargy and you would be hard-pressed to identify a single government program that works well and is on solid financial footing. I sometimes fear this is an inherent feature of a rapidly expanding centrally-controlled system, something we’ve become so accustomed to we don't even question it anymore- like hearing the words racist or Hitler or trillion. It's ironic then that our own country’s creation and founding documents were introduced into the world to fight against government overreach... but such is the nature of all Republics, I guess.
Our current domestic situation might look familiar if you've ever read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the second-most influential book in America, behind only the Bible, according to the Library of Congress (before it was recently purged by wokeness.) It's a shame that this literary masterpiece is unknown to most Americans. Admittedly, it’s an enormous tomb with many big words and we Americans aren’t particularly literate. Rand was no Shakespeare. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend six months reading Atlas Shrugged (as I did!) to understand its underlying essence, you can just absorb the Cliff Notes by simply observing the last century of American governance at the federal, state and local levels.
After crippling our domestic economy with a cascade of historically bad decisions in 2020, the final solution our elected leaders (and many who weren’t) devised was to print more money out of thin air and distribute it quickly, in what would at best be deemed a disorganized and haphazard fashion. At worst… well, let’s just say I would use different words. Most people I know who received it put it into savings or investments, which speaks volumes. Let's just agree that our grandchildren will never believe that every family earning less than $112,500 got free money.
While we're on the subject of generations, I always like to pause here to recognize that not a single previous American generation prior to the 70's could have conceived of our COVID stimulus response - they literally would not even comprehend the concept of government destroying the currency to mail out free money to people as a combination apology-bribe. Their first thought might have been, "If you have enough money to send me a check, then why are you taking so much out of my paycheck in the first place? And now you want to raise taxes... so how does that work exactly?
They would likewise not connect how their government felt responsibility for their financial well-being in times of crisis. A repossessed vehicle would have been the consequence of borrowing too much to buy it. A student loan in arrears would have been the consequence of picking the wrong school, major or job. Having to cancel your NetFlix or Disney+ subscription would have been disappointing, but hardly an aggrieved microaggression. I suspect they would have simply fallen back on their 3-6
years months of savings, like responsible humans in previous eras. But they also wouldn’t recognize leaders as feckless and nescient to the plight of their constituent base as ours. We all just take that for granted now.
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.”― Albert Einstein
The Current State
It’s been over a year since America's highest paid civil servant, Dr. Anthony Fauci, first implored us not to wear masks (then later to wear masks, then recently to wear two masks), as well as to socially-distance ourselves (unless for social justice, wanton destruction or political funerals). Not to be outdone, President Trump declared that same month that we would need “15 days to stop the spread.” When he shut down inbound travel to China, he was ridiculed and derided by his opponents, but it's now clear he erred in not making it a worldwide shutdown much much sooner, especially given that “the great majority” of the virus introductions to the U.S. came not from China but from European strains. De Blasio, Newsom and Pelosi assumed their rightful places in the hall of shame as well, sitting alongside plenty of their Republican peers. And most famously, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo wrote a book bragging about his success and published it during the second wave of the crisis, despite his (now) widely-known and fatal errors. I can only assume he thought no one would find out, which a disturbing delusion to harbor in the Information Era.
As time moves forward, we now perceive many of our state governors, mayors and other elected leaders as tragically unprepared for this crisis, leading to catastrophic consequences. Surely, you've asked yourself, "Seriously, how did this guy get elected? I wouldn't let him in my house." I've read several books on the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and it always saddens me to think about how much has changed, not only in our reaction to national problems but also what we expect (and don't) from our leaders. Sometimes, it doesn't even feel like the same country.
The introduction of the vaccine shines further light on the dichotomy between the public and private sector response, and could be one of the period's starkest indictments - the sheer pervasiveness of incompetence. President Biden has suggested the remote possibility of being allowed to congregate with family and friends by July 4th, 2021, but had we hired Chick-Fil-A to administer the jabs, I suspect we could have the entire country vaccinated by Easter. Yes, I recognize COVID is primarily an obesity disease with fast food is a top culprit, but you get the point.
As a result, far too many Americans find themselves out of work and with no/low income due to lost economic livelihood, by the same people who swore to protect and serve them. Even more citizens are or will become chronically underemployed or unemployable, facing grim prospects of re-entering the workforce anytime soon and at anywhere near the level and compensation of their previous occupation. With the level of new taxation being proposed for business this year, I have to wonder who will- or can- hire them. I enjoy discussing the tax code...
But I also know that fighting for higher or lower tax rates is a racket perpetuated by con artists on stupid people every couple of years, despite surely knowing it has virtually no impact on revenues (roughly 19%) but devastating effects on employment.
Passing out checks in amounts that will ultimately be worth less than the corresponding rise in their expenses in 2021 is a cruel irony most cannot even fathom. Many families are growing desperate and losing hope. Our Congressional leaders are much more adapt at producing checks than jobs, because so few have ever worked in the private sector, created a productive product or service or know how to balance a budget or make payroll. This new currency will provide an immediate shot to the economies of households and the country, but it will likely be short-lived and when it wears off, we will still be in a similar place to where we are now. It's not the generosity that perturbs me; it's the inefficiency, inefficacy and duplicity of the method. If you know tax rates don't matter, and you know smart people do as well, than why do you lie? And what does that say about your opinion of your constituents?
This dearth of American leadership seems to become more palpable by the day. I think most of us would struggle to put forth five statesmen, captains of industry or cultural icons (of either gender and any race) at the national level that we would promote to our children as a paragon of character and a model for life success. This condition stretches across both aisles and all ideologies, and from elected officials who continue to quibble, cancel and obfuscate while the social and economic environment bounces from one stimulus and Fed pronouncement to the next. As a result, these politicians and bureaucrats refuse to recognize or be held accountable for their own culpability, acknowledge and reverse earlier mistakes or strive to develop real solutions that could legitimately replace the jobs and repair the economy they destroyed. Instead, they continue to do what they do best- which is to choose easy, popular, ineffectual and politically expedient solutions. In this case, with rates at near zero and our borrowing capabilities maxed out, the President and Congress have but one weapon left- the printing press, and only one strategy- financial repression.
This is the story of how we got here and these are the causes,
not so consolidated in my own special, irreverent (and terrifying!) terms. I recognize this was a slog for many, and seemingly irrelevant right now. But this is an absolutely crucial foundation on which to understand how one can still protect wealth and thrive, even when our culture appears to be collapsing all around us. I realize that little in this current environment feels particularly enjoyable or encouraging at the moment, but I have not lost faith- far from it. I encourage clients to retain theirs as well. I know the final chapter has not been written, and I am certain that only difficult times can produce the character, resilience and enlightenment necessary to get to the other side of the breach. We're still a long way off from that as a society, of course, and are going to circle the drain for many more years, and likely decades. We have time to course-correct.
Right now, middle class entitled people- who have fashioned themselves revolutionaries of the #resistance (despite being publicly backed by the vast majority of corporate media and their fascist partner corporations), run by shameless grifters who would make Al Sharpton blush - are protesting nonsense in the streets with Mitt Romney (of private equity LBO fame) and posting it to their Instagram stories and with no irony whatsoever (with BigTech, of course being the third - and most hilarious- leg of the American fascist stool). This is all I need to know that things must be pretty darn good in this country. They'd be taken more seriously if they were protesting their parents for raising grown toddlers, it would be easy since so many of them still live in their parent's home. If you have the world's wealthiest billionaires, BigTech, MSM and largest corporations in your corner and financially supporting you.... well, let's just say the brainwashing is complete and I think you're ready for the dryer.
I also know things aren't too bad because when I turn on the tap, water still comes out and when I flick the switch, my lights still turn on. I've also observed that life is more tolerable and amusing when you make a conscious effort to live with extreme gratitude. A nation of overgrown children complaining specifically because they have no legitimate concerns, this is the the curse of all mass affluenza. When I used to act like them (primarily between ages 2-10), my grandfather used to say to me, "Stop cryin' or I'll give you something to cry about." I'm old enough to remember when you could talk to kids like that without getting cancelled, and there was a real chance he would back up the threat. Today, you call your elders out on social media, and no one beat the hell out of you for it. And we all wonder how we got here.
Hard times create strong men,
Strong men create good times,
Good times create weak men,
Weak men create hard times.
― G. Michael Hopf, author Those Who Remain
I know Americans will rise to the occasion, and solutions are forthcoming. They will certainly arise from the bottom-up and not from the top-down, as so many have become conditioned to believe. I also know that from great tragedy often comes great perspective and enlightenment. This country has been through far worse than COVID, and I welcome the opportunity for our generation to overcome it's third major crisis of the 21st century. We're becoming experts at this kind of stuff.
In Part II of the Cash is Trash series, we'll review the likely impacts of the unorthodox schemes our government has launched thus far, namely money printing and currency debasement. This content will be familiar to most readers, but I’ll try to add some color commentary and useful perspective that may have been
hidden missed by our trusted media sources. I'll try to cancel a few folks, cancel myself and induce some cognitive dissonance, just to confirm we're not all zombies rotating between retail outlets, restaurants and hand-held entertainment.
If I've triggered, trolled, micro-aggressed or violated anyone's safe space (four phrases that didn't exist before social media), that's exciting to me. Really, it means both of us are thinking. Don't get mad, schedule a conversation and enlighten me.
Currency in Circulation Historical (As a Percentage Change from Previous Year). For you Common Core grad, recognize that % change is not the same as quantity.
This is the first article in a four-part series.
The second part is here.
The third part is here.
The fourth part is here.