One Thing & Another

Delray Beach, Florida

Notes From My Journal: The More Things Change…

I wrote this in my journal 12 years ago – in July 2006:

How to Help a Country

The US government has cancelled a contract with Bechtel for a project to build a high-tech children’s hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, The New York Times reported today. Apparently, the American construction giant fell a year behind schedule and was exceeding cost estimates by 150%.

Bechtel was given the job by the Bush administration. Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice championed it. “Now it has become the latest in a series of American taxpayer-financed health projects in Iraq to face over-runs, delays, and cancellations. Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers canceled more than $300 million in contracts held by Parsons, another American contractor.

It’s an interesting pattern. We declare war on a country that is no threat to us, destroy their infrastructure, dismantle their government, disarm their army, kill tens of thousands of their people, and then give hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-payers money to corporate friends of the administration to build high-tech hospital in their cities.

 

If Laura and Condoleezza were really interested in fighting cancer, you’d think they would want those dollars to go more directly to a US-based hospital already battling cancer.

 

Today’s Word: imbroglio (noun)

An imbroglio (im-BROLE-yoh) is an extremely complicated, embarrassing, or perplexing situation.   As used by Robert Louis Stevenson in a short story (“The Destroying Angel”) from More New Arabian Nights: “The conduct of the man with the chin-beard, the terms of the letter, and the explosion of the early morning, fitted together like parts in some obscure and mischievous imbroglio.”

 

Fun Fact

Americans’ appetite for junk food is frightening. Case in point: Taco Bell added Doritos Locos Tacos to its menu in 2012… and sold 100 million of them in the first 10 weeks.

 

From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

How to Make Criticism Work for You

You know when it’s coming. Your boss or colleague sits you down and says, “You know how much I admire you, but…” Or, “Please don’t think of this as criticism, but…”

That’s how my dinner with BL began this evening. Despite all my feigned self-confidence, I had to brace myself to listen.

For 10 minutes (which seemed like an hour), I listened as BL made two observations. One was a criticism about something I considered a virtue. The other was a suggestion for how to run better meetings.

My first reaction was defensive. (“He doesn’t understand because he can’t see the big picture.”) But experience told me to shut up and keep listening.

And so I did. And as I listened, it began to occur to me that, although his perspective wasn’t perfect, his comments were important. He was talking about two real problems for which I was at least partly responsible. These were problems that needed to be fixed.

When he stopped talking, I thanked him, acknowledged the problems, accepted my share of the blame, and promised to do something about them.

Yes, I did squeeze in a sentence or two of self-justification. But mostly I took it standing and responded like a soldier.

And my reward: Satisfaction and hope.

Dinner is over, and I’m back at my computer – feeling good and optimistic about the future. I can see that two of my well-intentioned efforts have been having less-than-intended results. And I have a plan to fix that.

Have you been criticized lately? If not, why not? Come on. Really.

Here’s a suggestion: Ask your boss or a respected colleague for criticism. Make sure he addresses something significant. Go out to lunch with him. Don’t interrupt. Thank him and make yourself a promise to deal with it.

 

Check This Out: From Bill Bonner’s Diary

I’m not an ardent Trump supporter. Nor am I an ardent Trump basher. This gives me the opportunity to irritate virtually all of my friends.

 The truth is I’m appalled at how Americans have responded to Trump’s election. We’ve become a nation of two ravingly mad political fans, as crazy and irrational as any fan of any sport: My team is always right. Your team is always wrong. If you win a game it’s because you cheated. If we win it’s because we are better.

Like me, my friend and partner Bill Bonner doesn’t go in for group-think. In Bill Bonner’s Diary, he’s been covering Trump since before the election. He is definitely not a knee-jerk Trump basher. But he will ask critical questions when Trump does something that seems to make no sense, something that is likely to make America less great.

Here’s a good example that also sheds light on President Eisenhower…

Trump’s Not Like Ike

By Bill Bonner, Chairman, Bonner & Partners

On the front pages, it’s the Trump Show, 24/7… and performances are always sold out.

Many of our readers love it. They’re convinced that America’s president is a genius who will Make America Great Again. No need to read the back pages or wonder exactly how he’ll do it.

Typically, they write to say that we “don’t understand him.” Or that he has done more in 18 months than Obama did in eight years.” Or that, since the other choice was Hillary, our only hope is to “get behind the president.” Or, “Finally, our side is winning… What’s wrong with you?”

It must be as puzzling to readers as it is to us. How could we resist the charm of The Donald? How could we fail to fall under his spell?

Some readers think that there must be a hidden agenda. “You’re a closet liberal…” wrote one. “You’re one of the swamp critters,” wrote another, while a third accused us of “being part of the Deep State.”

The puzzlement goes both ways. While they can’t imagine why we don’t see the halo over his head, we can’t quite figure out what they see at all.

So to gain perspective, we put the old jalopy in reverse… and try to take another look. We’ll back up to those golden green days… of Gun smoke and I Love Lucy… back when America really was great.

 

American Heyday

The real heyday of the American republic was the interwar period between the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The American economy was booming. It had the biggest trade surplus in the world… the strongest manufacturing sector… the strongest currency… and the highest salaries in the world. And the debt from World War II was being paid down.

Elected in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower ended the Korean War, balanced the budget, reduced U.S. debt as a percentage of GDP by nearly 15% (no subsequent president has even come close), and reduced government spending as a percentage of GDP from 20% to 18% (not even Ronald Reagan was able to do that).

He cut defense spending by 20% in 1956 (though it rose later), the Dow doubled, and personal incomes rose 45%.

Eisenhower also resisted the temptation to throw his weight around overseas.

When Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 – with Britain and France eagerly joining in – he refused to take part. Instead, he teamed up with the Soviet Union and threatened to sell British bonds if the UK failed to withdraw.

Of course, Eisenhower was no saint.

Maybe he should have tried to undo Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Maybe he should have disbanded the CIA.

But the currents of history were running too strong in the other direction. Still, the hallmarks of his two terms were peace and prosperity, with relatively fewer win-lose deals imposed by the feds.

 

Ably Served

We should mention that Eisenhower was also ably served at the Fed by William McChesney Martin.

Martin was a Latin scholar from Yale who joined the brokerage firm A.G. Edwards and made full partner two years later.

He gave such a good showing of himself that he was elected to head the New York Stock Exchange at age 31. Then, when World War II broke out, he was drafted and served as a private.

Martin had a simple and modest idea of his mission at the Fed. He sought neither full employment, nor Dow 30,000, nor 2% consumer price inflation.

He neither appeased nor sucked up, neither to Democrats nor Republicans.

Today’s Fed model – based on “dynamic stochastics” – would have been Greek to him… or perhaps, merely ridiculous claptrap.

Negative real interest rates… quantitative easing… and a $4.4 trillion Fed balance sheet – all would have been regarded like a quack, hair-growing elixir… with faint hope and much suspicion.

Instead, the ‘50s Fed chief saw his role as simple to “take the punchbowl away” when the party got out of control. (Richard Nixon blamed Martin’s “tight money” policies for his 1960 presidential election loss.)

Looking over our shoulders – back to when we were still riding a two-wheeler – whatever Eisenhower and Martin were going, it worked.

GDP rose from $355 billion in 1950 to $487 billion in 1960. The rich got richer. The poor got richer too. Jobs were plentiful. And an ordinary man with an ordinary job could support an ordinary family in a perfectly ordinary way.

(Personal footnote: Our father took off his khakis, got a civilian job in Ft. Meade, Maryland, borrowed $4,000 from a local bank, built his own house, and raised four children. Things went downhill soon after, but through no fault of the Eisenhower administration!)

 

Insolvent Phantom

So you’d think that if you were serious about making America great again, you’d want to emulate Ike Eisenhower rather than George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

You’d want to end wars, not start them. You’d want to balance the federal budget, not run the biggest deficits in history. You’d want to reduce federal spending and cut the Pentagon budget, not increase them. You’d want less government, not more – and less debt too, not more of it.

That is, you’d want to do the exact opposite of the Bush and Obama administrations.

But when we look out on the comic splendor of the USA in 2018, we see neither Dwight Eisenhower reincarnated in the White House nor a William McChesney Martin redux at the Fed.

Instead, what we see is what Eisenhower warned us against on January 17, 1961 during the president’s farewell address:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

What is today’s $21 trillion national debt? It is exactly what Eisenhower urged us to avoid – plundering the future… and mortgaging the precious assets of our grandchildren.

But the old general didn’t stop there. He also saw the Deep State taking shape:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

 

Divine Methods

Why did George W. Bush make up the “weapons of mass destruction” fantasy and attack Iraq after he had promised voters a more “humble” foreign policy?

Why did Barack Obama continue the Middle East military misadventures even after he had pledged to end them?

How come Donald J. Trump – who repeatedly criticized America’s losing wars in the Middle East and promised a new “America First” foreign policy – has gotten fully on board with the entire Bush/Obama program, in which no sparrow can fall anywhere in the world without a push from the Pentagon or the CIA?

Why is the Trump government projected to run $1.2 trillion in deficits [in peacetime, during an economic expansion – anticipating total debt of some $30 trillion within 10 years?]

Why is the Fed being run by a disciple of Bush/Obama era Fed chiefs – Bernanke and Yellen – rather than someone in the Martin tradition?

And why would the Pentagon budget be increased, when it could be cut in half and actually improve the safety of the Homeland?

Why?

Because Donald Trump is such a genius that his methods are nearly divine… mysterious… inscrutable… and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals? Does he (and apparently many of our readers) see something we can’t?

Or was it General Eisenhower who saw more clearly than any of us?

Stay tuned.