Tom: You’ve said that the U.S. is making some of the same mistakes Japan did and might be headed down the same path, toward another lost decade or even two. Is there anything that can be done to prevent this?
Jim: Oh sure there is, you can always take different courses of action, you can try anything, the question is what’s the right course of action. The reason I said that is, in the early 1990s, Japan faced problems such as we’re facing now, and they refused to let people go bankrupt, they propped up the banks, they propped up a lot of companies, and they came to be known as the zombie banks and zombie companies, and as you know the Japanese talk about the 1990s as the lost decade. But now you’re talking about two lost decades. Their stock market is down 75% from where it was 23 years ago. That is not a typo, it’s down 75%. We’re going the same way. We refuse to let people go bankrupt, prop up everybody in sight, and the problem with that is you’re rewarding incompetence, you’re bailing out incompetence, rather than allowing new people, new energy, new capital, and new competition. It’s called the green shoots, from Joseph Schumpeter. One of the great beauties of capitalism is creative destruction, which allows the green shoots of new energy, and new capital, and new ideas to develop. They’re not allowing that in the United States these days, just as Japan refused to allow it for the last 23 years.
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Tom: I noticed in your email signature you listed a site called govathome.com. Can you say a little about that site’s mission?
Jim: Well, when I wrote my first book Investment Biker back in the early 1990s, among several suggestions, one was that instead of sending congressmen and senators to Washington, we let them stay at home and vote from home. Instead of spending their days and nights interacting with lobbyists and with each other, they’d spend their days and nights interacting with all of us. And they’d vote at the local high school gym or the mayor’s office or something. Now in 1789, of course you had to send everybody to the same place, and Washington was halfway for most people. But that’s 1789. If you were going to establish a government or anything else in 2015, you would not set it up that way. We now have computers, we have efficient home mail delivery which they didn’t have. And you would do it in much different ways now. You would have computer conferencing, etc. We could do it now, as I said, if you were setting it up now, you would probably do it that way. Any 18 year old with half a brain would set it up that way, better than all of the 78 year-olds who are running Washington, D.C. I just suggest that we make the congressmen stay home, sure they can go to Washington two or three weeks a year if they really feel they have to, but if the lobbyists had to come see the congressmen, and they had to do it exposed to all the voters, we’d probably have much different laws, we’d have a much different government, we’d all have much different lives. Now we send 535 senators and congressmen to Washington, where they’re immediately descended upon by lobbyists and bureaucrats, and they have their own agenda, but it’s not the same agenda that most voters in America would even comprehend, much less support. So it’s a suggestion to change with the times. Is it going to happen by 2015? Absolutely not. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. Maybe other countries or other generations might do something like that.
Tom: It sounds like you’re saying that our political system has a systemic problem, it has too much inertia and can’t change… even if smart people agree that there’s a better way, the switching costs are too high and we can’t get from where we are to where we want to be. You’ve said something analogous with technology, about how emerging countries are leapfrogging the United States.
Jim: Certainly in some ways, yes, I mean if you go to some countries now, people don’t have telephones with land lines, they just completely leapt over that whole thing. We all used to have telephones with copper wires coming in. Most new countries don’t have land lines, they don’t have all those copper wires, et cetera. They don’t need it, they just completely leapt over all that. That’s been the story throughout history, the way people have developed, something new comes along, people develop it rather than go with the old ways, and people still stuck with the old technology and the old ways usually have to change or get passed by.