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02/12/2005

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monkyboy

It's not that we don't trust people, it's that we don't trust corporations. How odd that a capitalist supporter would recommend an index fund. No attempt is made to sort out good companies from bad, just hand money to every company.

The last time the government tried to save a program by relaxing restrictions on what it could invest in we got the Savings and Loan fiasco. A few wealthy Republicans, including the Bush family, made millions and the government was left to clean up the mess. Average Americans went broke.

If economists want to be thought of as anything but pseudo-scientists, they need to look at facts instead of feel-good theories. If you had put your money into an index fund in September of 1929, you would have seen your investment drop 90% in value and would have had to wait over 25 years to break even.

The trillions of dollars of debt the government would have to add to its already massive debt to fund private accounts would make the economy as vulnerable to a depression as it was in 1929.

Mindless support of phony capitalism may make for easy boilerplate, but we are talking about the future of real people here. The fact that the Bush administration hasn't even produced a plan for Social Security reform should tell us something. In theory it's great, in practice it will just be a transfer of money from average Americans to the wealthy who currently own almost all stocks.

How about a little disclosure, Dr. Becker? How much stock do you own?

Jay Cline

mb once again demonstrates his pseudo-logic. Instead of randomly picking a moment in history to pin his anti-market arguments, he chooses the one, and only one, date that could possible provide any semblence of credibility to his pseudo-theories.

Also, there is no need to add trillions to fund private accounts. Just take it from the SS tax and use it for social security.

Stick to blogging, mb. I'm not sure you'd survive anywhere else.

I guess I shouldn't be so critical; it does make him feel good, no?

Jay Cline

With regard to the safety of a pay-as-you-go system of social security vs a market-based ownership system in the face of economic collapse, allow me to partially repost something I posted on another blog:

Fortunately, a similar argument for the survivability of private investment accounts, broadly diversified into conservative mutual funds, can also be made. If the market tanks to the point where these retirement funds are permanently devastated, wiping out lifelong savings, well, the economy would be in such shambles that even the tax rolls couldn't provide security. In either system, the national debt would skyrocket to sustain us over the troubles.

Both the 1987 and Tech bubble burst recouped their losses within a couple years. Competent financial advisors at the time told everyone not only to wait it out, but if you had money available, pump it back in to the sharply discounted market.

Even the aftermath of the crash of '29 recouped a large share of the losses in 4 or 5 years. And as those who stand guard over the current SS non-fund constantly point out, we didn't have a national retirement plan then. And our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers survived. Scary? yes. Gut-wrenching and heartbreaking? ya. But survivable. And the ROI on stock investments, through bull and bear markets has proven consistent and fantastic. And the benefits of personal ownership on your own future? As MasterCard says, priceless.

So, mb's scare tactics are no better than that, misleading statistics to scare people into believing only the government can be trusted with that much money.

It'll take somthing more frightening than that to actually make me believe that.

monkyboy

Hehe, don't worry about me, Jay. I make a good living as a mime.

Let's pick another day for you, shall we?

March 30, 2000 - NASDAQ = 5048
Feb. 12, 2005 - NASDAQ = 2076


Hmmm. Anyone buying in at the high is sitting on 41% of what they invested. Explain to me what the robotic free-marketers plan is if the stock market goes in the crapper for twenty years?

Jason Ligon

"Let's pick another day for you, shall we?

March 30, 2000 - NASDAQ = 5048
Feb. 12, 2005 - NASDAQ = 2076"

Interesting that you chose Nasdaq, and not S&P. Also interesting that the assumption is that, in the context of a retirement plan funded periodically, we suddenly are discussing funding 100% of all contributions on one date. Three words that might help you out monkeyboy - dollar ... cost ... averaging.

Jay Cline

mb, Well, there you go again.

Let's pick another useless statistic:

March 11, 2003 - NASDAQ = 1271
Feb. 12, 2005 - NASDAQ = 2076

63% gain in two years, with an index no less.

You really need to find another financial advisor, someone who understands that $1 = 100 cents.

Once again, my arguments stand unmolested.

Jim S

"I have great confidence in the ability of even the poor and less educated to generally look out for themselves, however limited are the opportunities available to them. Judging from some but far from all the comments, many of you do not have that confidence in people."

I have faith in the proliferation of scam artists who, once they have done their work, leave their victims with no way of recovering their lost money. They are convincing. They are smooth. Their line of patter sounds quite reasonable to those with little or no experience judging factors that influence return on investments. What is your solution for them? Will you propose a system that not only imposes stiff criminal penalties on the crooks but replaces the funds lost?

I have faith that there are more Ken Lays, Bernie Ebbers and Jeffrey Skillings in the corporate world that have yet to be discovered. When they are revealed the innocent investors are always the ones who pay far more than the crooks.

I have faith that there is no way to change our system from one that leaves a large number of people closer to the bottom than the top of our economic structures. When they are there it is not only their opportunities but resources that are limited. Only so long as the guaranteed minimum you propose has a secure underpinning and is somewhere above the poverty level can any privatization scheme that is not simply placed on top of the existing system justifiable.

Jay Cline

Jim, care to speculate on the impact of the Ken Lays, Bernie Ebbers and Jeffrey Skillings on an indexed mutual fund during that same time period?

mb, the dollar cost averaging that Jason refers to means that a retirement plan started on your Sep '29 date, faithfully funded every month in a DOW JONES index fund would have returned 300% in the same time frame you said it took to break even.

Like I said, get a better financial advisor.

monkyboy

Americans spend every dime they make, our government is borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars every year from foreigners, our dollar is at record lows, corporate taxes are the lowest they've been in decades, and China is rising up to challenge the U.S. in every aspect of business. Our examples show the volatiliy inherent in the stock market. There is no way to know if today is the peak of the market for the next 50 years.

The only thing we know for sure is that stock brokers, investment bankers, venture capitalists and the rich who currently own almost all stocks (the Republicans' major supporters) will be made very wealthy with private Social Security accounts whether the markets go up or down.

The surest way to guarantee the financial security of average Americans is to balance the federal budget. Borrowing 5+ trillion more dollars on the off change the market will go up continually for 50 years is a sucker bet.

One nice thing for the Republicans, the Social Security debate has distracted us from the pork laden budget Bush gave to congress this month. I'm sure that's just what they wanted.

Mantautas Jonas

I would like to address a few issues outside the box of privitization.

Currently Social Security is a defined benefit plan. The debate seems to be whether to make it a defined contribution plan, which is the trend for companies presently. The idea would be to entitle every retiree a minimum kitty that would then free the government from future obligatory payouts. The question is: what would be a fair minimum amount (not payments) that a person or family needs to survive?

The government's role would be to guarantee a minimum net worth for individuals, instead of a minimum benefit. A person worth a million dollars might not need any subsidy at all, while a pauper would at least have some type of income-producing asset that would provide the necessary funds to survive on.

The consensus is to put the funds into the stock market, which is not only dangerous because of its inherent volatility, but also it might overcapitalize businesses to the point where they would invest in foolish projects that would eventually go bankrupt. The better alternative is to spread the monies into a diverse universe of asset classes, e.g. real estate, business, bonds, foreign investments, etc. that produce a revenue stream, albeit not steady or equally rewarding.

The talk of deficits centers the debate on money flow and ignores governmental assets. Selling off property and such might eliminate debts the government owes. What is the balance sheet for governments, i.e. what are it's assets worth if they were put on the market? Governments, which means federal, state and local, all own massive amounts of real estate that can be collaterized. This is besides vehicles, office equipment and much much more in the way of marketable materials. Britain is suggesting marking gold to market, which increase paper wealth of the US gold supply almost ten times.

Ryan

my problem is not that, as you say, "people are good but stupid" or that you believe privitization is a good thing. if it was a feasible alternative, I would support it too. My problem is that I raised about 5 points (mostly borrowed from Paul Krugman, I must confess) that you totally neglected to mention as you talked in the abstract. We live in the real world, not a fantasy world, and hypotheticals and theories don't work. We need a practical solution to a real and costly problem and you completely failed to realize that. That could be dangerous if someone, say, the head of economic policy for a presidential administration, did the same.

Corey

Jay, you have totally missed the point that was being made.

When something like a bubble burst happens, some people lose everything. They may leap from buildings like in 1929, or they may find themselves with only enough money left for food and rent. THESE people do not benefit from later recovery in "the market" viewed holistically. They are not able to reinvest, or they are dead.

In the context of a debate on social security, it is exactly these people who we are worried about. The fundamental basic assumption of social security in the first place was that EVERY person who works their whole life is entitled to a minimum standard of living in retirement. We did not want to watch ANY old person die of starvation. Because of social security, we have not had to for decades. Social Sequrity has never cared about the people who do well, or those who can afford good financial advisors.

Privatizing social security is a way of ending it, the only way that would not amount to political suicide. In fifty years, Bush will be hated for moving trillions of dollars from the public trust into corporate index funds.

And yes you can make an argument that "the economy" as a whole will be better off, but that is exactly not the point. Social insurance programs are NOT designed to further capitalism, they are designed to mitigate the immoral effects of unrestrained capitalism. You cannot say that some individual people will not lose all their money and starve in old age under the Bush plan. All you can say is that "the economy" will perhaps improve.

Your children will hate you for hijacking social insurance for short term corporate profits. When we all die and people have to once again take to the streets to demand basic minimum social guarantees from their government, they will curse Bush and everyone who supported him.

Those who disregard the lessons of the past are profiting at the expense of the future.

Jay Cline

Corey, I have not missed the point. You are correct in stating that social security is to protect those few who have not been able to create an adequate retirement fund. But 1) that was not the point being argued, and 2) that Social Security has succeeded only by taking the rest of us down. 1) Is a pay-as-you-go the best, or even an adequate method of ensuring the most disadvantaged don't fall between the cracks? No. Is a compulsory savings plan up to the task? Yes.
2) SS currently taxes 15% of the GNI of the country. Objections to the proposed reform say it'd cost $2 trillion dollars to convert. GNI is about $10 trillion, so let's say SS pays out the 15% ($1.5 trillion) and forget about what is happening to the remainder $500 billion.
What is that $1.5 trillion for? Current benefits. If we are not trying to provide a retirement program for all, but a security net for those who would otherwise fall through the cracks, what would you say is an adequate yearly benefit for this net? $20,000? Let's say $30,000. $1.5 trillion distributed in $30,000 allotments is 50 million beneficiaries.Huh? 50,000,000 people on SS getting $30,000 a year every year? I'm not up on my demographics, Corey. How many Americans are currently over 50? Sounds like guaranteed income for all, not a saftey net for a few. Finally, to make the point that MB and I were in disagreement, that the statistics he quoted is proof that private retirement accounts, invested in an indexed mutual fund using dollar cost averaging, are inadequate; well, go to Yahoo.com, download the historical prices for ^DJI (that's the Dow Jones Industrials) and run 'em through a spreadsheet. No need to hire a financial advisor, this sort of basic investment advice is freely available, even here on this blog. The results are surprising (well, not to me).After 45 years of monthly investments of 15% of gross income yielded a nice little nest egg of 50 times your annual salary at retirement, and that assumes you never get more than a cost of living increase to offset inflation. And this was across TWO bubble burst, 1987 and 2001. If you're not greedy and want to retire early, after 35 years, it comes to about 35 times your annual salary. C'mon people. Deep six the polemics and do the math.

TheJew

As it stands, the social security system has never really paid off the massive amount of debt that created by the benefits for the original generation. This debt has been carried forward under this pay as you go system, causing looming insolvency as our population growth rate slows. Currently this debt is considered part of the social security system itself. If however, we use the current debate to borrow funds to infuse into the system that eliminate the rolling debt, we would create long term solvency within the system. An advantage for Democrat constituencies in this case is the shift of this debt from a system with regressive taxes (SSecurity) to one with progressive taxes (general fund).

If this is done by shifting the cost of benefits for current retirees and those over, say, 55 to the general fund and then giving everyone else private accounts (plus a lump sum payout as a function of age distance to 55 from the general fund), young people could attain their currently promised benefits by investing in treasuries, and probably surpass them by diversifying. As Becker suggests, any such diversification must be regulated and subsidized by guaranteeing some level of benefits and constraining investment options to mitigate distortions towards risk taking this guarantee causes. This returns the government to a more natural role as insurer rather then financial planner.

That said, I remain unconvinced that private accounts are the only way to accomplish this reckoning of accounting with reality. I do not see why Becker feels government institutions are doomed by time inconsistency problems (which is essentially what Becker believes the SSecurity “political” problem is). There are many examples of governmental institutions overcoming this difficulty (though some may argue that these victories are temporary and that we are witnessing he beginnings of the time inconsistency problem creeping back into the system). Two prominent examples are the Supreme Court of the United States as well as the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. The Supreme Court is defined (by some people) as the institution in society that must most resist the time inconsistency pressures of decisions, creating a stable body of law that people can be expected to know and follow (because of its stability). The Fed also must make time inconsistent decisions regarding interest rates in election years, yet the US does not experience huge inflations. So there are government institutions that overcome this problem.

(I guess if taken to hyperbolic extreme, we could argue that some small coterie of military and NSA officials defeat time inconsistency problems everyday by not establishing their own military junta.)

One potential solution to the problem of segregating the SS Trust Fund from problems of time inconsistency would be to appoint a long serving (i.e. serves terms longer then the term of the [elected] appointing official) technocrat to administer the system. This would be completely analogous to the other institutions in place that currently do not experience the time inconsistency problem (Bush v. Gore and Greenspan’s support of massive tax cuts notwithstanding).

Jay Cline

tj raises some interesting examples of successful government programs, but arguments against Plato's philosopher-kings notwithstanding, every federal agency he/she doesn't list argue against such an approach.Current federal 'techno-' and not-so-technocrats are nearly as entrenched as tenured professors. I don't see excellence coming out of our current bureaucracies.

monkyboy

How's that dollar cost averaging coming along on Enron, Jay? I bet you are picking up a lot more shares now at $0.03 than when it was at $90+.

Funny you would cite the DJIA as any indicator that long term investments pay off. The DJIA regularly dumps failing companies and adds in more successful ones to keep the Dow going up up up. You don't hear too much about General Railway Signal, Victor Talking Machine or Nash Motors lately. These were all original components of the Dow.

In the last 5 years, companies like Union Carbide, International Paper and Kodak were removed and Intel, Microsoft and Home Depot were added. It's easy to be a winner if you can just dump your losers at no cost. Holders of private SS acounts won't get that option.

Jay Cline

mb, you are learning. There may be hope for you yet. It's easy to be a winner if you can just dump your losers at no cost. Yessir, the Dow Index regularly dumps the losers. But you blow it with the next sentence, Holders of private SS acounts won't get that option. They don't need it; the fund managers of the private indexed mutual funds that will be investing our retirement money DO have that option, and in fact are required to, as they track the Dow index and follow the Dow right along, keeping the winners and dumping the losers. Funny how you always come up with dog statistics and never challenge what I present as facts. I am beginning to understand why you choose the moniker you did.

monkyboy

Jay, you and Dr. Becker seem to have both a child's faith in and a child's understanding of the U.S. stock market. Nobody denies that stocks might be a good investment for an individual. I am saying it's not a good investment for every working American. It's like you find a good restaurant and invite everyone in America to eat there on the same night. Their experience will vary from yours.

The U.S. stock market isn't some imaginary, limitless thing that constantly rewards anyone who invests in it. It is, rather, a quite limited thing that is currently way overpriced.

Five years worth of Social Security money invested in the stock market will buy every single company worth owning outright. What then? Do we funnel SS funds in the walking corpses of the U.S. airline or auto industries? Inflate Ebay and Google to even more ridiculous stock valuations? Put our money into tobacco companies?

In short, if SS money is put into the stock market, there is no picking bad or good stocks, we will own them all. In 20 years, SS money is enough to buy every single U.S. company not bankrupt. And we will have paid waaaaay to much for the priviledge of buying them.

Jay Cline

Facts, mb, facts.This is the second time you have alleged that putting SS funds into the market will flood it and take it over without generating growth.Facts, mb, facts.Five years of $2 trillion dollars does equal $10 trillion dollars, which is the GNI (that is, gross national income, per year). Market capitalization (that is, how much it is worth, # of stocks times the value of the stock) of just the New York Stock Exchange is currently at $20 trillion. I think you are confusing income with net worth.Facts, mb, factsThis is a capitalistic society, our markets are geared to make money. You pump more money into investments, you ARE going to create wealth. You have yet to provide facts to refute my claim that the influx of 401k funds in the 80s and 90s did in fact create new wealth. Hint: in the stock industry, this was called the 401k Revolution.Facts, mb, factsOk, fair is fair. Here are some facts you might understand. The sky is blue only on Tuesday's when the groundhog sees his shadow.Sorry, mb. No more free lessons. Come back when you can make an argument on facts.

BrianF

The Quebec Pension Plan has invested its surplus in the private sector since the beginning, and was set up with structure which was supposed to make it impossible that its investable funds be used for political purposes. Some of its investments have been regarded as intended to support Quebec nationalism, but the policy of insulation worked to the degree that politicians have complained about not being able to direct the QPP's investments.

There doesn't seem to be any particular doubt that, if you hand a government a dollar, it will spend it. When you speak of the effects of a larger deficit, though, presumably you're referring to public perceptions? The Social Security Trust Fund is invested entirely in what I understand are non-marketable U.S. Treasury securities. That means that the surplus goes directly to the Treasury, where it's available for current government spending. Investing the surplus in the capital markets would force the Treasury to borrow in the market if it wanted to maintain the same spending, so the deficit might appear to the press to be bigger, but the markets would be following the net issues of Treasury securities of all types and would be aware that all that was happening was a substitution of one type of bond for another. And since the surplus of funds collected from the payroll tax would be put into the markets, the supply of loanable funds would go up by roughly the same amount as the demand (or by more, if the larger visible deficit discouraged the government from borrowing, for political reasons). Would there actually be much impact on the capital markets?

There are a lot of reasons for supporting investment of the trust fund surplus in the markets, not least of which is the fact that it would give low income retirees some claim on capital income - as it stands, the payroll tax essentially redistributes labour income. It's not clear, however, that most of the benefits couldn't be achieved by investing the trust fund in the market, and at the same time increasing the incentives for private retirement saving. After all, government will always have to be present in the system to act as an ultimate guarantor of people's retirement incomes. The Canada Pension Plan went from investing its surplus in provincial government bonds to investing it in the capital markets a few years ago. And proposals have been floated in Canada to create a private add-on to the Canada Pension Plan, in which individuals could place aditional retirement savings.

The one outcome which does seem to require the introduction of private accounts under Social Security is a higher, forced, savings rate among individuals at the margin of retirement saving.

It might be worth mentioning that the projected change ratio of retired to working population overestimates the impact of the ageing population on the dependency rate: because the youth dependency rate is much lower than in the past the overall dependency rate will not be much higher than it was in the 1960s. It's true that a young dependent doesn't necessarily cost exactly the same amount as an aged dependent, but the raw figures on the size of the aged population relative to the working age population do neglect this. And the retirement of the baby boom group will amount to a significant reduction in the labor supply, which will drive wages up, and ease the burden on the working age population.

Corey

"Deep six the polemics and do the math."

It is always funny to see people make a plea
for rational discourse in the middle of a rant. Pot, meet kettle... the only friend you will ever have.

The math contains averages, and averages smooth out the inequities such that no one notices the extremely poor or the extremely greedy. You want to put my grandma and Bill Gates in the same pool, then divide by 300 million and say, "look! anyone could live on that." The politics are showing through your math.

"They don't need it; the fund managers of the private indexed mutual funds that will be investing OUR retirement money..." (emphasis added)

Wow, the fourth branch of our government eh? Those Boston fund managers have been doing such a grand job of showing their integrity lately, it is no wonder we would trust them with several trillion dollars. Just think of the market timing on THOSE trades! I'm going to open up another Lexus dealership in Boston!

Lets just tax everybody 100% and put it ALL into stocks! After all, with those kind of returns, why waste time producing anything at all! I bet we could last a whole decade just on the inflation of the bubble!

monkyboy

Hehe, Corey.

Jay, The NYSE lists foreign companies' shares as well as domestic, including one third of the most valuable ones. Do we really want to dump our SS money into Chinese factories? In addition, many of the "companies" listed on the NYSE simply hold baskets of shares in other companies. The value of these shares is counted twice or more if you just sum up the market value of all shares on the NYSE.

Under the rosy scenario painted by the paid mouthpieces of Wall Street, ie the Repbulicans and many 'Economists', the only companies worth investing SS money in are those companies that will grow at 5% or more, or those companies that can pay 5% or more in dividends. Using those criteria there are maybe a couple trillion dollars worth of companies at best worth investing in.

More capital certainly does not equal more growth. Look at Japan with trillions of dollars sitting in accounts paying 1% annually. Their economy has been flat for over 10 years. Don't you think this massive amount of available capital would cause their economy to grow? Nope, the best investments they can find is giving it as charity to the US government...

Jay Cline

mb, facts, baby. Where are they? But, to be honest, I like you're reference to the rest of the world. What would be so bad about American ownership in the world economy? That'd solve your Limits to Growth/Club of Rome problem with 'there is no place big enough for the money to go', huh? And China is a bad example. with only a little over $6 trillion in GDP, there is more room on the European continent, with a GDP equal to our own. We could assimilate them first.Corey, yes, we obviously have differing politics. I take no umbrage on that. What do we do about the really needy and poor? $2 trillion a year divided amongst 50 million retirees, SS has solved that. But that is not a program for the needy, that is welfare for all, regardless. I'd have no problem debating the merits of welfare vs. critical safety net programs, but you first have to admit that SS is not a safety net program.Money corrupts? Wow. What a concept! Now, I am not advocating turning a blind eye, but that is not the topic of debate. Those fund managers, whether they are in Boston or LA or Des Moines are already doing a heck of a job investing trillions of dollars. Those guys and gals at the SEC are doing a heck of a job identifying the bad guys/gals. Those guys and gals in the real fourth branch of the government, the media, are doing a heck of a job letting you know about it.Don't hear too much about corruption in China; maybe we should model our society after them.The fund managers are accountable to the people who put their money in the funds, accountable to the regulation and scrutiny of the SEC and the real fourth branch of the government, the media. Yeah, it happens, and it shouldn't be trivialized, but to condemn an entire system because it is only 99.9% perfect is throwing out the baby with the bath water.To get polemic here, if that is to be our standards, we would have to send home all the government agencies that have failed in the past. Like the welfare programs that Clinton finally put a cap on. Two years, baby. We ain't feeding you for life. Welfare creates dependency, stifles innovation, disables the market forces that require success.I believe that those 50,000,000 people should get a good retirement, especially as I will be one soon. How come Big Brother thinks he is more competent than I in planning for it?As for the averages in the math, you really need to do your homework. Dollar cost averaging is not about theoretically "smoothing" out the rough parts, it is all about using averaging (hence the word in its name) to protect investments from natural swings in economic activity. Three smart guys even got a Noble Prize discovering that.Oh, that 'fourth' branch you talk about, it isn't the fourth branch. The people controlling those investments, the people who would and should have ownership, the people who would provide oversight on those hired to do the investing; well, they are right here, in the first three words of the Constitution. That is who has the power, baby.

Jason Ligon

monkeyboy,

Please take this in the best possible light, but you spend a great deal of text arguing against principles you don't seem to understand.

Why would you argue that holding companies such as Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway are not 'real' companies by placing quotation marks around the descriptive noun? Every mutual fund in the land is a company.

Why would you make an arbitrary distinction about the NYSE trading foreign issues? Diversification opportunity is a benefit. If we shouldn't invest in 'chinese factories', should we not invest in GM with its foreign factories, GE with its foreign factories, P&G with its foreign factories, and so forth?

What is with the comment about only investing money in companies that grow at 5% or more? Do you not understand what an index fund is supposed to do? Broad based indices are engineered to track overall performance of some segment of the economy. The S&P 500 is the 500 largest publicly traded US companies, for exampe. The Wilshire 5000 is broader by a factor of 10. The rosy picture is not that every company will grow at 5%, but that segments of the economy will grow at that rate.

The comment about Japan is especially bizarre. Japan's banking system is a complete disaster BECAUSE OF moral hazard created by government protectionism. Japanese companies are not competitive because they were not allowed to fail for decades. Having a high savings rate gives the individual money to invest. Having a government hostile to the creative destruction of capitalism guarantees that you have nowhere to invest it. Voila! Japan.

monkyboy

Jason, Berkshire Hathaway, because it simply holds stock in other companies, can't be counted in the total value of available investments.

If you want to get a 5% return on Social Security money, then the total value of companies available to invest in, assuming they average a 5% return, can be no larger than the GNP of America. Do the math.

Because of government spending and private companies and real estate, etc. That number is significantly less than our current GNP of around $11 trillion.

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