Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Review: The Good, The Bad, The Spin

Over the years, I've met several people who have said they're writing a book. I even looked into it once myself, before deciding that blogging is much easier. So when my friend, Bob Conrad, said he was writing a book I didn't think much of it. Those who know Bob better than I do probably weren't surprised when Bob not only finished writing it, but has now had it published.

The Good, The Bad, The Spin is an interesting look at the convergence of journalism, public relations, and on-line technology. Bob uses short, 1-2 page stories to illustrate the points he's making; many of which are first hand accounts of his own experiences. He also uses stories pulled from recent headlines.

One of the main points of the book is the importance of accuracy. Bob is of a scientific mind and he devotes one section of his book to scientific reason versus commonly held beliefs. I can't say I completely agree with him on the primacy of science. Scientists are human too, after all, but a little research goes a long way. The scientific approach is a good one for people working in PR, but there is still the problem of getting facts through the filter of journalists.

And that brings up a second major point of the book, the need for a greater amount of respect among the various types of communicators. Journalists and PR people tend to be wary of each other. A healthy skepticism is always, I believe, a good thing. Pride and turf wars seem to be more common among professional communicators. There are some good lessons here for us bloggers.

When I finished reading the book, I was a little mystified in that there is no formal conclusion, no over-arching theory of everything. After thinking about it, it makes sense that there isn't one. Technology changes rapidly and the state of communication is very much in flux. How this will develop over time is any one's guess. No matter who you are, or how you interact with the on-line world, this book is a good reminder that the ultimate goal of communication is the dissemination of truth.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bernanke's thin line of defense

Senate hearings for the reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke started this week. He is expected to be reconfirmed. Aside from a few Republican Senators, criticism seems to be light. Senator Jim De Mint of South Carolina almost identified the problem. In an exchange with Bernanke (see the video here), De Mint asks about the duties of the Fed. (The questions have been edited for the sake of brevity, the answers are in full).

De Mint: One of the goals is fostering the stability of the financial system in containing systemic risk. Has the Fed accomplished that goal?

Bernanke: No, be we have lots of other co-conspirators in that problem.

De Mint: Another is supervising and regulating the banking system to promote safety and soundness.

Bernanke: We've found some mistakes and we've tried to improve them.

De Mint: Another is conducting the nation's monetary policy in pursuit of the statutory objective of maximum employment.

Bernanke: We've moved monetary policy was much as possible to try to support employment growth, but obviously a 10% unemployment rate is not very satisfactory.

The problems are not so much with Bernanke as they are with the Federal Reserve Bank itself. Trying to manage, or even anticipate the thousands of individual economic decisions made every day by 300 million Americans is likely impossible. It should also be noted that government is very much a part of the system, and therefore plays a role in the systemic risk. All debt requires a buyer- a financier- someone who will take the risk of loaning money in return for the cash flow generated by the interest rate. With Congressional over-spending, the depreciating dollar, and interest rates as low as possible, foreign buyers of federal debt are becoming scarce. The risks outweigh the benefits.

Margaret Thatcher once said that "socialism works until you run out of rich people". It seems to me that the banks and the politicians have run out of consumers, and what we are witnessing is the end of the Consumer Society. Nowhere is it reported on the amount of loans that are rejected. I doubt that anyone even tracks that number. It was always assumed that people would want loans if they could get them. Why spend your own money when you can spend somebody else's. I suspect that assumption is no longer true.

One almost has to feel sorry for Ben Bernanke. Almost. Fed chairmen have always walked a thin line between the halls of power and the money centers. Produce just enough inflation to keep businesses hiring, debt accumulation payable, the bottom lines padded, and the people won't ask questions. Bernanke's misfortune is that after 95 years of Fed secrecy, the truth is coming out. Sharp downturns always unmask the frauds, and our government's monetary policy is one of them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: The Return Of The Great Depression

Ordinarily, I bypass books with prophetic titles. In the case of The Return Of The Great Depression by Vox Day, I was willing to make an exception. I've been lurking on Vox's Blog for years, as well as reading his WND columns, and like most bloggers who have been around for years, he can be counted on to at least be thought provoking. Vox has an eclectic set of interests and his writings are where I was introduced to the Austrian school of economics.

Unlike the Keynesianism, which has made a comeback lately, and the Chicago school of monetarism, which has recently failed, the Austrians place subjectivity as the most important idea when trying to understand an economy. The battle between the scientific, or political economists as Vox calls them, and the philosophical economists, who emphasize logic rather than statistics, seems to me to be the main difference between them all. The Austrians and their offshoots are definitely in the philosophical camp.

As I've grown older, I have come to the realization that nobody really knows anything, so I wasn't too surprised when I got to Chapter 4 entitled, "No One Knows Anything." It is here where Vox's use of logic really shines. He dissects Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross National Product (GNP), and Unemployment numbers (U-3, U-6), and shows how subjective these statistics really are. They all begin with a set of assumptions about future events, then categorized by what the economist believes to be already true. Should any one assumption become untrue, or categorization turn out to be misplaced, the statistic will need to be revised. Since these statistics are revised all the time, this chapter should be required reading for anyone who has ever believed anything in the mainstream press.

For the more politically minded, anyone still wondering what all the fuss over Ron Paul was about last year, this book provides the answers. It includes the best argument from the right against Reagan era monetarism that I've ever read. Like Keynesianism, monetarism requires government intervention and top-down management of the economy. For those on the left, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich comes through looking fairly reasonable, while Paul Krugman's critique of Austrian theory is mercilessly dismembered point by point. There is also a nice section on the early development of Austrian theory, it being a response to the German scientific method that was being adopted by 20th Century fascists.

For myself, I tend to gravitate towards the philosophical rather than the scientific for the simple reason that it is easier to understand. That doesn't mean they're right. To his credit, Vox goes out of his way to explain the various ways he could be wrong. This book is an honest and multi-faceted look at our current situation. We may or may not suffer a full blown depression, but one thing is certain; debt can either be paid (deleveraged) or not paid (defaulted). In either case, we have a hard time ahead. Whether it is next year or next decade, at some point the music stops, the dance ends, and the band will want what is due.