Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nobody Expects ...

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," was a bit made famous in the original Monty Python's Flying Circus television show. In typical Python fashion, it is a bit that goes from a description of problems at an English mill and a simple question to a bizarre scene transition and the appearance of three rather bizarre Cardinals whose arrival was anything but expected and whose confusing description of their weapons and methods (even to themselves) was both humorous and ridiculous. 

I am reminded of this almost daily while listening to the financial segment "After the Bell" on the Brian Wilson Show in the afternoons on AM 1370 WSPD in Toledo, as he discusses the apparent surprise that the government experiences about economic reports with Gary Rathburn of Private Wealth Consultants (Brian sometimes even uses the Python quote himself). It cannot help but make one wonder if perhaps this is the model that government uses in hiring economic experts and calculating key economic indicators. When was the last time that you heard the release of financial data that was not "unexpected"? 

Everyone knows that no one can afford to buy a house, but new housing starts are "unexpectedly low". Everyone knows that jobs are difficult to find, but unemployment is "unexpectedly high". Everyone knows banks are getting burned by mortgages that are under water, but lending is "unexpectedly soft". Everyone knows that there is little money to invest these days, but the market is "unexpected flat". 

Of course such data appears these days to be almost entirely subjective and the poorly hidden secret is that it is also often ruthlessly and politically manipulated. We count the unemployed, unless of course they have given up looking for a job or have run out of unemployment insurance claim money. We calculate the cost of living, but don't include the costs of such "non-essentials" as fuel and food in the equation. We track the federal deficit, but don't include the trillions of dollars in entitlement program shortfalls (like those of Social Security and Medicare) whose existence is well known and which are expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

No matter what numbers they ignore and how they scrutinize and tweak them to fit pre-established conclusions however, the results of the calculations remain a mystery to those whose education and training has led them to seek government employment as experts. It seems that for all of the time, money, and effort expended by government to gather such data, analyze it, and report it to us; the experts government employs are endlessly surprised by the information they themselves generate. No matter what the resources that they have at their command, they seem incapable of understanding data that they are paid to work with every day. 

These government church officers (from Our Lady of the Federal Reserve and Treasury no doubt) seem as clueless of their weapons and duties as the Cardinals of Python fame (and they don't even get to wear the snappy uniforms). In no other field in fact (even weather forecasting) does it appear that there is so much that the experts in the field are surprised by and so little that can be predicted by them from one day to the next. 

One cannot help but speculate whether such surprise is in fact real, or simply a poor attempt to cover something up in the government litter box. Perhaps the unexpected nature of such reports simply serves as a politically expedient excuse for the lack of real progress on the government's part where the national economy is concerned. If the unemployment numbers are unexpectedly high, how can government be expected to do something to lower them? If Medicare is going broke sooner than expected, how can government be expected to anticipate such costs to reduce them? If the national debt is increasing faster than expected, how can we expect government to control its extravagant spending and slow it down? 

It seems that like many terms that have become a running joke in government over the years (military intelligence, spending cuts, or fiscal responsibility), the concept of a 'government expert' on financial matters has become not unexpectedly ... laughable. One cannot help but wonder when this country's financial condition is apparent to even the rank amateur, that it can be so unexpected to the experts in government. 

It therefore appears that when it comes to government financial experts, we should simply no longer even expect them to know what they are doing. We should certainly not expect them to understand the meaning of the information that they gather and interpret. And under no circumstances should we be surprised to find out that the conclusions generated by such data with be something that they did not expect.


Roland Hansen said...

Actually, Tim, it all makes dollars and sense to me. NOT!

Eggs, bacon, and spam.
Spam, spam, spam, eggs, spam, spam, and spam.
Spam, spam, spam, bacon, spam, spam, and spam.
Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, and spam.

Tim Higgins said...


Your menu selection (as it always seems to be) is once again excellent. I regret to inform you however, that in this case, someone has substituted for a bit of spam with rat.

Unfortunately with the government, that always seems to be on the menu.

Roland Hansen said...

Thanks for clearing something up for me. For a moment there, I thought I was having an olfactory hallucination. You have identified it as real. I thought I smelled sonething; now I know I smelled it.