Gravity, Black Holes and Washington, DC

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Guest post by Richard Lowery, Jr.

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Gravity, or gravitation, is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass are brought toward (or gravitate toward) one another.” (1)

This definition is most of what I know about the physics of gravity. I do recall that Albert Einstein said that gravity was not really a force and it involved the curvature of space time. He also said that it was preferable to get the Russian dressing on the side when ordering a corned beef reuben. There is a famous story where Galileo wanted to experiment with gravity by dropping balls off the tower of Pisa. Given that Galileo was a really smart guy and all, I decided to replicate his experiment by dropping bowling balls to the ground but unfortunately dropped one on my foot. The gravity worked like a charm and I celebrated my success by having my friends and family sign the cast on my leg. Gravity is supposed to be the weakest of the four fundamental interactions of nature, but it is no slouch when it comes to dropping heavy objects on your body parts. I later read that four out of five dentists recommend that you should not drop bowling balls on your feet; therefore, you should never do this experiment at home, but if you do, then you should definitely wear very thick socks.

Gravity also involves the existence of black holes in outer space. I am the most layman of laymen so in the most laymen of terms black holes have gravitational fields that are so powerful that matter cannot escape and it disappears. Now when talking about black holes it seems to me that it would not be too much of metaphorical strain to also mention Washington, D.C. Popular culture has absconded with this term and we now sometimes say that a black hole is a place where things vanish without a trace which is quite apropos regarding our nation’s capital since billions of dollars disappear there on a regular basis. At this time I would like to apologize to any galactic black holes that are reading this article and I do not wish to insult them because many black holes that I personally know are very frugal with their money.

Now Washington, DC is awash with taxpayer money, centralized regulatory power and a culture of self-importance. It is chock full of industry associations, consumer groups, trade unions representatives and media types loudly advocating for their perceived notions that some action must be done about this, that or the other thing. Now toss the political class into the mix. These are ambitious carbon based forms of life and most are members of the human species; hence, it is quite normal for them to gravitate toward the concept of being viewed as people of action who will do things to fix a bunch of things.

Human beings like to be perceived as people of action. We generally do not admire the neighbor who lays around all day on the couch but we are attracted to the neighbor that mows the lawn, trims the hedges, paints the garage and builds an addition on to the house in one afternoon. He or she is a person of action. We naturally gravitate toward these types of people just like the bowling ball gravitated toward my foot. This is a good thing in that it builds individual character, strengthens local neighborhoods and has ameliorative effects on civic virtues. Action and movement are good things.

Did I say that action and movement are good things? Well, I still believe that but with the caveat that some action and movement is not so good – particularly much of the top down federal government action where the few boss around the many. The American Founders believed that some action is not so good too which is why they wrote into the U.S. Constitution all the arcane processes to throw sand into the gears of the political elites who endeavor to coercively use public resources get stuff for their constituent’s private benefit. (2) This is action that is misguided.

I herewith propose the theorem called Lowery’s Theory of the Gravitational Pull of Misguided Action:

Scads of Other People’s $$ + Central Power + Contemporary Perceived Notions That Things Must Be Done + Media + Political Elites = Lots of Misguided Expensively Wasteful Stuff Happening

Now I am not opposed to things being done. I like things being done as much as the next person. The American Founders likes things to get done too. But the issue is locational – where should the actions occur? The political observer Yuval Levin describes the U.S. Constitution as a vehicle to open up space where things can happen. Washington, D.C. has lots of good things to do such as secure the border, run the federal judiciary, create a stable monetary system, regulate some issues of moral hazard, and some social safety net management. It should set up broad rules for people to follow because this organizes an environment of space where we can get things done. But the specifics of the things that we choose to do within these spaces should not be promulgated by those at the top because too much action at the top clogs up things below and sucks the air out of the open spaces producing negative consequences. (3) This requires that the political elites trust us – the unwashed masses – and it requires that we stop rattling our tins cups at the political elites – our high and mighty betters – demanding that they do something about everything. But this conflicts with the contemporary popular mindset that the federal government must do something about our “problems” and this belief is sometimes as strong as the belief in the laws of gravity.

It was not so long ago that these notions were less prevalent. For example, there was a severe economic downturn following World War I. President Warren Harding basically did nothing and the economy quickly rebounded.

(Harding who was elected in 1920) inherited one of the sharpest recessions in American history. By July 1921 it was all over and the economy was booming again. Harding had done nothing except cut government expenditure, the last time a major industrial power treated a recession with classic laissez-faire methods, allowing wages (and prices) to fall to their natural level. (4)

Compare this approach to the Hoover/ Roosevelt methods of very active government interaction and centralized economic micromanagement of the 1930’s. The Harding low government action approach resulted in a short recession that was over by 1921, generated steady economic growth and low unemployment that empowered people to make their lives better. The Hoover/ Roosevelt high government action approach was concurrent with the decade long 1930’s economic trauma of an unstable economy, high unemployment, and a whole bunch of agony for whole bunch of people. In 1932 at the depths of the downturn, the U.S. unemployment rate was 23%. By 1938 after all the New Deal activity, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 19%, the U.S. economy was only about the same size as is was ten years earlier and we had experienced the bitter recession of 1937. I am not suggesting that every New Deal intervention was bad, but why the twelve plus years of pain? Where there other forces that aggravated the downturn beyond the normal economic laws of supply and demand of the general public? Did all the direct government intervention, coercive federalism and misguided Central Bank policies contribute to downstream effects that further gummed up the works? Maybe there was a redistributionist and central planning mindset – a zeitgeist – created by the dominant political and intellectual elites that discounted the importance of private actions that soured investment, dampened entrepreneurial confidence and worsened the malaise of inertia? (5) I vote yes to all the above.

The contemporary gravitational pull to do something about “problems” by inserting the coercive powers of the federal government into the lives of people to micromanage their daily activities can have disastrous consequences just like it appears to have had in the past. Whether it is Mr. Obama or Mr. Trump, a hyperactive federal government cannot possibly anticipate, forecast, implement and adjust to the needs of 300 million people. The unintended consequences of misplaced federal government intervention often results in negative downstream effects that exceed the positive benefits of the initial action; to wit, Mr. Obama’s stiffing GM bondholders or Mr. Trump’s apparent penchant for using public resources and presidential influence to alter the capital investment decisions of private companies are micromanagement actions that should not be on the to-do-list of the central government portfolio. These actions should be left to others – be it other levels of government or private individuals.

Government action for the sake of action is not desirable and we need to recognize that beyond the initial perceived benefits often lies a smelly Pandora’s box of wasteful bad things and troublesome secondary effects. We can use the forces of gravity to our benefit, but we should refrain from dropping bowling balls on our feet. We can use the forces of the federal government for our benefit too, but hyperactive micromanagement – from the Left or the Right – is a black hole that should be avoided. (6)

Frightfully Yours,

Richard J. Lowery Jr.

Footnotes:

  1. I googled Wikipedia
  2. Today we call this call these constituents “special interests”. The founders were well aware of this type of wealth redistribution skullduggerry and called these constituents “factions.”
  3. It also has a perverse cultural effect by creating dependancy and eroding private virtures. Perhaps these “soft” negative impacts are in the long term worse than the economic issues.
  4. Paul Johnson, Modern Times (Harper Row, 1983), page 216
  5. I googled the graph at http://humanscience.wikia.com/wiki/Money_%26_Financial_Panics. Unemployment data source is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_Unemployment_1890-2008.gif. The citations in the graph are my own. Beyond government fiscal and regulatory intervention, the Great Depression was also exasperated by the Federal Reserve’s monetary practices and U.S. Trade policy. An excellent book for the general reader on this topic was written by Amity Shales called the “The Forgotten Man.” Certainly, not all 1930’s government action was wrong and some was necessary, but something – aside from a downturn – helped to extend the economic morass.
  6. I want to emphasize that Washington DC produces some good things too. For example, you can get a great corned beef sandwich at the Deli City Restaurant near Langdon Park.