Tuesday, March 31, 2009

• War On Drugs – Time For A Change

There are no viable, or wise reasons for drug use to remain on the illegal side of the national judicial ledger. Legalization of drugs, starting with marijuana, will be a major step toward society getting back in control of its streets, and its sanity.

The violent circus that is the Mexican drug industry currently arrests the attention of the mainstream media herd which is reacting with “deer-in-the-headlights” amazement. In its stupor, it fears taking a politically incorrect position on the nonsense making up the current laws surrounding drug use. The answer, if one believes the current Administration’s response, is to spend additional taxpayer money and provide other support to Mexico in order to strengthen its own drug war efforts.

Following recent news headlines, one might perceive “drug wars,” as being a Mexican problem that only requires some of our attention and reaction. Not so. Even Canadians are becoming numb to the accumulation of bodies dropping daily from bullets flying through the streets of once docile cities like Vancouver. Vancouver has of late established its presence at the top of an infamous list. It is now home to more violent gangs than any other city on the continent.

The billions of dollars to be made from the traffic and sale of illegal drugs are worth the risk to armies of well-armed criminals. Drug lords from Miami to Toronto have accumulated powerful armies, and vast assets, including legal businesses and expensive real estate. In many neighborhoods, some of the largest gated mansions belong to the kings of the drug business. On our neighborhood street corners, the pushers at the bottom of the drug distribution hierarchy are visible and obvious as they ply their nefarious and toxic trade. We are all being affected by the crimes their clients must commit to raise money for the next hit. Our homes or our neighbors’ homes are subject to “home invasion,” a new crime that has become so common, it has made its way into our daily vocabulary. Everyone you know has been affected negatively by the current and failed war on drugs.

Well beyond our shores, but affecting us very directly, is the wealth that our laws on drugs have provided groups like the Taliban. In Afghanistan the billions in revenue received from feeding the costly demand for its principal export, finance the daily attacks on our soldiers, fund expanding terrorist networks around the world, and finance the growth of Islamic Sharia law governance. Whole countries are now under the control of well-armed, well-connected international drug lords. Dictatorships in countries in West Africa, for example, find themselves particularly attractive to the cocaine supply chain. Their vulnerabilities succumb readily to drug sourced billions. Countries such as Guinea-Bissau have become narco-states, providing convenient launching points for South American cocaine shipment distribution into Europe where a kilo of cocaine sells for about $50,000. In Guinea, diplomatic pouches expedite drug shipments under comfort of Presidential protection. Drug money is establishing a new order in countries like Niger and Mauritania. Drug cartels have become powers unto themselves. North America is their preferred market.

It should now be evident to anyone not blinded by ideology, that the present twenty five year archaic policy on drugs is not only NOT working, it is stimulating and energizing the decay of our society. Our policies positively affect the street price of all drugs, and induce the pusher to action. Prohibition itself, while dissonant with the Constitution, has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry as the never-ending war on drugs continues to fail, but its costs keep increasing. The impact of our policies on our own society is that we pay for the drug trade in lives, in international instabilities, in tax dollars, in personal loss, and in anxiety.

First on the agenda should be legalization of marijuana, reversing misguided laws that were supported by twisted racist social perceptions in Congress with funding from special interests. Allow individuals who decide they absolutely need it, to grow two plants for personal consumption for example. This action alone would vacate thousands of jail cells, but more importantly, it would remove justification for the pusher, and would end the massive inflow of cash into the hands of the drug hierarchy. Marijuana would have no street value.

Let’s take a page from the early ‘30s; defer to the reasons which led to the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, and the repeal of federal prohibitionary laws that unsuccessfully attempted to smother the consumption of alcohol. Ask Al Capone’s ghost how he felt about the repeal of prohibition. It would also be enlightening for anyone on either side of the argument to research the depraved process through which the government brought about the abolition of marijuana. Society has moved on from those very backward percepts, and very peculiar special interest groups.

Legalization of other drugs can be brought under the control of state governments in time, but the lessons learned from the legalization of marijuana and alcohol, will guide the unraveling of laws governing use of cocaine and heroin. Collection of taxes on sale of drugs will be just a beginning. The objective should be to minimize the value of street drugs. There will always be individuals among us seeking alternative levels of consciousness through substance abuse. Our objective as a society is to reduce the impact that these people’s self-abuse has on the rest of us. It is time for a paradigm shift in attitudes and a reversal of the failed Control Substance Act governing the war on drugs.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

• China’s Weak Gambit On A Currency Shift

China is calling for a move toward an obscure international currency known as SDRs (Special Drawing Rights) used by the IMF, to replace the U.S. dollar. The proposal on first blush suggests China is concerned with looming inflation in the U.S. and the devaluation of the debt it holds. While a reasonable concern, why would it push for such a dramatic shift?

The U.S. / China relationship is both complex and fragile. The American consumer has been the principal driving force that has fuelled the Chinese economy into becoming the world’s third largest. The result has been the creation of a communist controlled capitalist system very reliant on a democratic, open society on the other side of the Pacific.

The U.S. has long pressed for Beijing to allow its currency to float. All requests fell on deaf ears. Now with the world is in financial turmoil, and with the U.S. being blamed for mismanaging its own economy, there is some not so subtle muscle flexing being exerted by numerous countries, particularly China. Currency is a major element at the heart of any international debates. China’s suggestion that the world should begin moving away from the dollar changes the dialogue away from demands to see its own currency, the yuan, move higher which would reduce the competitive price edge of its products. Obviously this could in turn very negatively impact its exports. From the U.S. perspective, a rise in the yuan would aid in reducing its mounting deficit with China.

China purchased dollars and will probably purchase more of the Obama packaged U.S. debt. While it can clamor for a move away from the dollar, China has every incentive to see the dollar’s value remain strong, and will not sell its dollar reserves.

So what are we to make of China’s current grandstanding just before the upcoming G20 meeting in early April?

It is understandable that this populous country wants to increase its influence on the world’s financial affairs, and feels emboldened given its almost $1.5 trillion in U.S. securities, nevertheless, the world’s business is done, and continue to be done in U.S. dollars. China and Russia might wish otherwise, however trade is very dependent on the safety and security of the method of payment.

Although there have been abuses in America’s capitalist community, the vast majority of the country’s businesses are well managed organizations who present reliable balance sheets. The Euro has been touted as a potential alternative to the dollar, however the current economic state of countries like Germany, France, England, Italy and others, suggests that they are having difficulty putting their own and collective houses in order, affecting long term confidence on the common European currency. Some of the European member nations also present little reliability as worthy credit risks. For countries such as China and Russia, it would take two or three generations to establish confidence through the evolution of independent, authentic, trustworthy, and transparent organizations populating their economic landscapes.

The Knights Templar became extremely powerful in the middle ages because they could do what others, including whole countries, could not. Their influence was rooted in their reputation as a fighting force. They could guarantee letters of credit paying for goods moving across borders in a disorganized medieval world. America is not in a position to be losing it’s power and influence any time soon. Even as it goes through the process of recuperating from the abuse of its financial system, America remains the principal safe haven for the world’s cash, and the world's principal trading partner.

America holds two critical elements standing in the path of any change to the current status of the dollar; military power, and international confidence in its business sector. It is at this point inevitable that we will see a devaluation of the dollar as the U.S. government prints dollars on its way into unprecedented spending. This action will impact all of America’s creditors, however, it is difficult to envision an unseating of the dollar as the dominant reserve currency and the preferred currency of trade. It is also not likely that Americans will be unseated at the world's foremost consumers, and they buy in dollars.

No matter how much China beats the drums for change, SDRs will remain tools for the IMF to account for its aid to debtor countries, the IMF will not be creating a new super-reserve currency, and the dollar will maintain its position in trade.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

• A.I.G. – A National Embarrassment

America expected, or hoped for, a new administration that would set new standards in leadership, ethics, and diligence over the government of the country. Instead there is growing unease as the nation increasingly realizes that the lack of competence demonstrated by its new leadership regrettably appears to be simply more of the same.

As Obama jumps on the public’s reaction-to-A.I.G.-bonus-bandwagon with requisite teleprompter escorted acrimony, the reality of his administration’s failure to effectively manage taxpayer money is surfacing. What happened to promises of controls over executive pay for bailout recipients? Before signing the checks, shouldn’t agreements have been struck regarding the “use of funds?” This is basic sound business practice, so where is the common sense in the continuing delivery of money with no strings?

Even if, as A.I.G.’s chief executive Edward Liddy suggests, the company has no choice but to honor the bonus commitments made to its employees, it was the Administration’s responsibility to establish parameters for the application of the money. The problem here is not so much that a minor percentage is going to “bonus” money, but that the administration had no idea where the big money is really heading. This, after A.I.G. had already embarrassed its benefactors with a California resort conference, and an English country manor partridge hunt, following the initial protection from bankruptcy with US$85-billion in taxpayer money. Have we forgotten that Geithner was the brilliance behind that original A.I.G. bailout? Is this not evidence of his inability to conduct basic and sound business methodology?

If Geithner was aware that A.I.G. planned to pay bonuses ahead of time, which is apparently the case, why is Obama now seemingly indignant? Is this parade presenting an opportunity that looks too tantalizing to ignore? Perhaps Geithner should now remain well clear of buses.

Barney Frank, the Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee also jumped on the hysteria fuelled opportunity with, “These bonuses are going to people who screwed this thing up enormously, who made terrible decisions." Really? How does he know who they are? Liddy seems to have confidence in them, and he’s only being paid $1 per year to clean up the A.I.G. mess. It seems that Barney Frank’s failure in the whole A.I.G. disintegration is escaping both himself and the MSM.

There are many questions swirling around the A.I.G. fiasco that should be answered if any change is going to be brought to the banking community, including:

- Should Frank’s responsibility in the creation of this mess not be analyzed with more objectivity, and much more scrutiny?

- Is anyone asking how it was that Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, former A.I.G. Chairman and CEO, was able to transfer $2.2 billion worth of A.I.G. stock to his wife less than four years ago while this disaster was being cooked? What employee is worth that much over and above the millions he received in cash? Are any CEOs worth these tens or hundreds of millions?

- Where was Congressional oversight through the past fifteen years of abuse by the company’s executives? Should it not assign a special prosecutor? Shouldn't former employees like Joe Cassano and his dangerous actions be grilled and dissected so that the country can receive a better understanding of the process that produced the mess? Should there not be investigation into the hundreds of millions of dollars that Cassano and his colleagues took each year, draining the coffers that American taxpayers are now being forced to refill?

- Was the A.I.G. Board of Directors actually awake and functioning, and should it now be charged with fraud? Shouldn't all public company Boards of Directors not be restructured and made more accountable?

- Eliot Spitzer was on the hunt, prior to being felled, probing into questionable reinsurance transactions and improper accounting practices of the giant insurer. Spitzer filed a civil suit against the company and its top two executives charging fraud and misrepresentation of reserves, but eventually all investigations and charges were called off. Who really made the rain stop and why? Does Congress care? It didn’t appear to at the time the sheriff was called off the trail. Shouldn't the investigation be re-launched?

- Hank Greenberg and his lieutenants also settled a shareholder suit charging that he and three other executives used a brokerage named C.V.Starr which was under their control, and through which they siphoned commissions and fees from A.I.G., the very company they managed. Why is Congress not calling for an investigation? Taxpayers are heading for complete ownership of this company, they deserve answers?

- Last summer, A.I.G. CEO Martin J. Sullivan received a severance package valued at $47 million when he resigned following $20 billion in write downs. Why is no-one asking for that money back? Why did Congress not cry wolf?

- Is the credit default swap game played by A.I.G. too complicated for any investigation to unravel the decision making line of command? It shouldn’t be. The collateral and guarantees were provided to recipients that are on its books and all transactions can be, or should be, verified. The risks were taken, perhaps with abandon, but still someone made those decisions. Someone, actually many, should be brought to the fore and become accountable for the decisions. The A.I.G. Board and its senior staff at the time should be placed in the sights of a special prosecutor.

- Why is there no investigation of the supposedly venerable J.P. Morgan and its role in launching the A.I.G. explosion into writing insurance on packages of Collateralized Debt Obligations? It seduced A.I.G., a U.S. government backed fish, into the game, by conning its enthralled employees to bite on a risky business concept Morgan and other investment bankers like Goldman Sachs could sell to funds and banks around the world. Citigroup Inc. did Iceland taxpayers a particular favor when it suckered that country into bankruptcy by convincing it to purchase more than its share of these worthless derivatives.

A.I.G. has been used as a personal piggy bank by a long list of senior people, inside and outside the business, and yet here America sits, suffering from the denouement of this abused tragedy of a company. Worse, the taxpayer is having to incur massive debt for the failures of senior executives who are not being punished for crimes that obviously had to have been committed. This company’s central role in the financial meltdown that is affecting the whole world deserves more scrutiny than it is getting from either Congress or the White House. America and its taxpayers deserve better.

Obama’s constant blame of the Bush White House for having created the mess is becoming a tired refrain, and is a misdirection of the real responsibility. The implosion of the financial community was caused by actions stimulated by bi-partisan incompetence. Congress and the Obama Administration appear able to rapidly impose tremendous burdens on current and future taxpayers, but are completely incapable of bringing forth any plan that will clean up the mess, or taking any actions that will reduce the likelihood that such a financial disaster will reoccur. Such is the price of having people in charge who are simply out of their depth while confronting one of the greatest challenges to have faced the country for the past fifty plus years.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

• The Deal To Make With Madoff

The icon embodying our generation’s perception of the more extreme and baser elements pervasive on Wall Street will receive a sentence this summer that will extend far beyond his life expectancy. The devastated thousands of sources that rendered up the $65 billion Madoff fraudulently appropriated will not be satisfied. Neither will society’s need for necessary corrections of the system that continues to sanction thievery.

The mainstream media suggests that his 11 felony counts should spread like shrapnel to his wife and kids, and to his associates. Madoff stated in court that the businesses they ran were, “legitimate, profitable and successful in all respects.” The importance of this court delivered statement is not what he said, but what his claim reveals of the prosecutorial shortcomings in his case. Evidently the prosecutors have not effectively extracted the most important information from this well-connected and very effective scoundrel. Madoff is under no obligation to cooperate since he has no deal with the state. The prosecution attempted to extract admission of conspiracy from him. This accomplished nothing, and his lawyer indicated that Madoff has accepted the fact that he will die in jail.

We have previously written on this case with The Madoff Letter, however, with Madoff’s pleading concluded, we feel strongly that prosecutors should move to make him an offer that will render a maximum of the dispersed capital back to the original investors, and surface a majority of the co-conspirators hiding far beyond the circle of the Madoff family. Most importantly, an effective deal would bring the implementation of wide-ranging fixes to the regulatory cracks that continue to enable such broad abuse on the Street.

To successfully achieve these objectives, let’s set aside the public fury calling for blood, and attempt to extract the highest possible benefit to society. The prosecutors may in future use his family as leverage in extracting information from him, however, with his guilty plea, Madoff has made this unlikely in the near or mid-term, and such efforts could take many years to resolve. Time will work against the prosecution in bringing satisfaction in these cases, and the last thing they should wish for is that harm comes to Madoff in prison.

Going after his family might satisfy emotions, but as such a process evolves through years of judicial wrangling, it will provide little of real value toward the principal objectives. Given that he has accepted his fate, the justice system should make Madoff a deal that would provide him some faint hope before he dies. Give him the prospect of spending some free time with his children and grandchildren before his days are over.

If billions of dollars are recovered from offshore accounts, from foreign feeder funds, and from an endless list of individuals who catered to the Madoff cash collection by accepting kickbacks, does it matter if Madoff once again sees daylight? If the long list of individuals who conspired gets rounded up to join the ranks of the incarcerated, does the greater good become advanced? If the specifics of regulatory shortcomings, and failures or incompetence of the “overseers,” such as Congress and the SEC, receive unprecedented attention, and correcting legislation becomes enacted, would this not reduce future recurrences of colossal or amorphous frauds? Would the 5,000 people whose lives have been dramatically affected not welcome a significant recovery of their capital? Of course.

Make a deal Madoff will not refuse. Provide Madoff sight of the end of his tunnel. Take ego and emotions out of the equation, and make light deals with each member of his family. Exchange the leniency for a complete and specific unraveling of the past thirty years Madoff spent in the more dubious financial chambers of Wall Street, Geneva, London, Monaco or Singapore. Get all names and amounts. Then go after all of them, extraditing many from the comfort of protective jurisdictions while those countries still need all the financial goodwill they can get, and grab the cash these co-conspirators stashed as you bring them to justice on the streets of New York.

Revenge in this case would not positively serve the society Madoff abused, and he is not likely to atone for his crimes. What matters now, more than retaliation on this former NASDAQ Chairman, is the achievement of some restoration, and salvaging as much as is possible of the destruction rendered by this monstrous crime. Let his dream hold contain a whiff of freedom, as he rests uncomfortably in his new austere surroundings. Do whatever it will take for him to cough it all up.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

• The Fourth Estate – R.I.P.?

For generations we have accepted the “press,” as a vital element of democracy. It has been known as The Fourth Estate because it came to represent a counterbalance to the executive, legislature and judiciary. This fourth leg providing balance in our society was given birth through a network of independent single page papers distributed by hand that evolved over two centuries to include radio and television. Its current manifestation, however, no longer plays the role of independent pillar supporting the social triumph that is democracy.

The Fourth Estate brought us news, presented opinions and often played the role of guardian, even becoming an attack dog, when it found abuse of power in one of the three branches of government. We did not assume complete objectivity, which would have been too much to ask of fellow human beings, but we expected truth, and at the very least we demanded a dearth of ideological paddling of particular political creeds.

The past twenty years saw enormous consolidations occur at alarming rates throughout the corporate landscape, to an extent that the term, “too big to fail,” became acceptable, terminology. Through repetition, the phrase evolved into an affirmation, and the insanity of its meaning escaped inquisitive common sense.

These consolidations inevitably affected all areas of media and resulted in the formation of gigantic entertainment and culture empires with some subsidiaries masquerading as news companies. In today’s media sovereignties, the term, “journalism,” no longer applies to any performance or occupation preoccupying their employees. Their commissions have dissolved into endeavors that would more appropriately be called, “celebrity reporting.” The writers and talking heads have themselves become celebrities, and the objects of their reports are celebrities created by the media conglomerates. The “star” making machines are profitable cogs for their masters.

Whether the celebrities are the Hollywood version, the corporate executive edition or the latest political rendition, the pandering dialogue is neither inquisitive nor analytical. Whether addressing business or politics our media has become boringly consistent and vacuous as if every news program or publication was its own adaptation of People magazine. Pretty pictures passing by, saying nothing, providing no insight or truth, but shouting, “look at me, I am a trademark.”

We witnessed in dismay as not a single member of the media questioned the irrational invasion of Iraq. We watched interviews adoringly pander to too many business leaders of corporate America as they abused their positions, and in some cases personally took hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars, from their corporate coffers. More than a few committed acts that should have been considered fraudulent, but were acceptable because everybody else was doing it. The business media simply looked on approvingly as ethics evaporated. They would not dare question celebrity, or inquire uncomfortably of those who had the power to terminate advertising and therefore affect their paychecks. What else can we expect when there is greater concern for the interviewer’s sex appeal or status, than for the quality of the interview. It is not that the interviewers are airheads, far from it. It is simply not their job to delve, probe or question, plowing for truth, while well armed with information. The objective is to attract audience and advertising.

It may be some time before we recover from the lack of analysis into the ideological games that were played by politicians manipulating the levers of influence that created the housing bubble. Not one member of the Administration, present or previous, nor any member of Congress, has been purposefully brought to task by anyone in the mainstream media. We have not benefitted from any vigorous investigate reporting on the creation of the financial fiasco currently being endured and creating stress for all taxpayers. Where are our 21st Century versions of Woodward and Bernstein? The few who attempt such efforts are independent, and considered marginal. Their labors bear little fruit. If the mainstream media doesn’t pick up the story, its likelihood of gaining traction is minimal at best.

It is fortunate that the internet’s pervasive presence provides ample sources for those who wish to research. While there are stimulating ideas coming out of the blogosphere, expecting great things from the net now appears to be misguided. The influential web sites also need advertisers. They rush to attract more eyes than the next, and in so doing, only join the ranks of the irrelevant, ratings obsessed, mainstream media.

And so, we remain passively entertained, perched on the sidelines, as our lives become altered by special interests. We wish we had the time to become energetic participants, but we have jobs, sometimes 2 or 3, the rent is due, and just around the corner tax payments will demand attention. We can’t understand it all and wish some elected official would tell us the truth, for once. We yearn for that unusual political candidate that will once elected, keep promises made on the campaign trail. We wish members of the media would be more objective, and occasionally root out some of the schemes siphoning off our tax dollars for purposes no-one understands or cares enough to follow-up on.

The time has come for the phrase, “too big to succeed,” to take effect, and become entrenched in our vocabulary, particularly as it relates to members of The Fourth Estate. We need to clamor for a refurbishing of the fourth pillar so necessary in the sustenance of a healthy democracy. The accelerating polarization being perpetrated on society by the entertainment and culture industry posing as, “news,” must be reversed, before we return to a state similar to pre-revolutionary France where the Three Estates considered were the Aristocracy, the Clergy, and the People, however, the People had no say in the allocation of their tax money once it was collected.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

• Obama, The Third Tell

Previous articles on this post observing certain “tells,” have hopefully laid useful stepping-stones in the analysis of Obama’s attitude or inclinations towards the nation he leads. The President has just delivered another significant reveal.

During an attempt to turn positive in contrast to his consistent negative affirmations on the economy since his election, Obama said that "profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it.” Whether or not this was a planned attempt to appear reassuring to Wall Street, the statement’s impact was broadly revealing.

Obviously no-one expects that such a “buy” signal from the President will stimulate unfamiliar investors to leap into the markets. If anything, the observation raises concern on his evident lack of familiarity with the most critical elements of the American capitalist system. At the very least he could have taken the time to become familiar with some of the essential vernacular long practiced by the investment community, Wall Street and management of corporate America.

The Dow is down 30% from its election day levels. Although Obama has rushed to stimulate the economy, amplify government presence and government spending, his policies have thus far not found acceptance from Wall Street and the markets. The state of the economy, and its persistence at the top of the priority list, should have provided him some incentive to become educated on the key components of American industry, and the nature of business.

Profit and earnings are usually considered the same thing, therefore the ratio between the two is one. Price-to-earnings ratios on the other hand, have been effective deciding measures used by investors when assessing relative risks inherent in purchasing individual company stocks or baskets of stocks through index funds. The price divided by the earnings through the most recent trailing twelve-month period, provides the P/E ratio, and can easily be compared to that of other companies.

While Obama’s commentary might have been well-meaning, it suggests a general lack of knowledge about profitability and yield. These are the biggest concerns of all business leaders whether they manage large corporations or smaller employers. The success of these companies, their ability to raise capital, and their profitability, will be a source of the much touted, but little defined economic growth that will supposedly result from the stimulus billions. These companies will in future provide a principal source for the cash that will repay the overwhelming debt. Obama will therefore require more than a vague or passing acquaintance with the engines that will enable a return to prosperity, as he leads the charge to inject trillions into bailouts and the so-called stimulus of the economy.

Is this a foretelling of outcomes similar to what we witnessed in the aftermath of Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq? A President completely unaware of all things foreign, made a historically momentous decision to invade another country for still vague or questionable reasons. Are we to assume that in the equally significant decisions that are required when addressing a depressed economy, a complete lack of awareness will somehow surprise us and serve the day with wisdom? Is Obama aware that he absolutely must provide himself a condensed education on the inner workings of small and large businesses?

As we have previously suggested, the 44th President must rapidly acquaint himself with a few fundamental economic elements if he is to become effective in managing the largest economy in the world, and he must absolutely understand inflation, that destructive monster waiting just around the corner. The markets have never been forgiving, and will not likely find comfort where out-of-control spending and excessive debt are the principal measure of the world’s leading government.

The President should also become very inquisitive as to the nature of his nation’s currency, its bonds and its capital markets. On his way to borrowing the trillions of dollars to fund his agenda, he will better understand what he is asking for from the country’s international creditors, and will better comprehend the relative position into which he will be placing his country. Those behind the lending wicket will have little empathy for America’s concerns over currency, national security or trade balances. It is hoped that a little more knowledge will heighten the wisdom during the chastening process of borrowing, and will stimulate the discovery of less expensive paths to economic health. Such appreciation might also provide the administration with some confidence that business and capitalists are not its enemies.

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