When's the last time one of our civic leaders said something that made you think, "Hmmm. I've never thought that before"? From Ben Franklin to Richardson Dilworth to legendary banker John Bunting, we once had leaders who possessed oceanic curiosity, who asked questions and questioned answers, and who stood up to conventional wisdom.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to lunch with just such a throwback. Richard Vague, 57, is a Rittenhouse Square resident who made his first fortune in the credit-card business as founder and CEO of First USA Bank and then Juniper Financial. Two years ago, he struck again, selling a company called Energy Plus for $190 million. Since then, he's underwritten the Philly Fringe Festival, remaking the Philly arts community. And he's bankrolled the groundbreaking gene-therapy cancer research of Dr. Carl June at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
But Vague's boldest move may lie ahead. He's hired his own band of heterodox economists to discover the secret to predicting economic calamity - and is convinced another crisis is well on its way. He's even suggesting a cure that will no doubt make him a traitor to his banking class.
"Only in the short term," Vague corrected me recently at Table 31, smiling mischievously. "In the long run, I'm talking about doing things that will help the economy and the banks."
While a banker in the early to mid-aughts, Vague noticed a sudden 85 percent surge in private debt - credit card, mortgage, personal, and business loans. His company's chief economist told him not to worry his pretty little head, his first run-in with the purveyors of economic conventional wisdom. But Vague cashed out, presciently figuring the bill would soon come due.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, he was stunned to hear the debate centering solely on public debt. Liberal economists argued for massive public spending, conservatives argued for federal budget austerity, and politicians debated a 3 percent change in the income-tax rate. It was a political script masquerading as economic problem-solving. Vague started researching private debt, and his troublesome findings should change the way we talk about the economy.
Vague discovered a smoking gun. The Great Depression and the Great Recession were the only two periods in the last century preceded by two things: a private debt-to-gross domestic product ratio greater than 150 percent, combined with a decade of more than a 40 percent surge in national private debt. There's $24 trillion in consumer and business debt in the U.S. economy - dwarfing the federal debt, money supply, and the nation's GDP. What does this mean?
"It's just stunning," said Vague, who has gone so far as to hire a second team of economists to check his work and try to debunk his findings. "It means that it's private debt that matters most."
Here's the scary part: Since 2008, our private debt levels have remained at nearly the same prerecession level. "Within the next few months, we'll come out with a scorecard that will predict the next financial crisis," Vague said.
Meantime, he's working on a radical solution that will, as he put it with a glint in his eye, "stir up some trouble." It's called debt restructuring - a euphemism for debt forgiveness. He and his team are still building the model, but it would be something like a menu of one-time amnesty options: say, a 24-month period in which college student-loan balances would be wiped clean, which would have more of an economic stimulus than any government spending. But that runs straight into the conventional wisdom of "moral hazard" - that such a "bailout" would give rise to a nation of deadbeats.
"That is the issue that looms in front of us," Vague said. "I can visit with anybody about this, and they agree with me all the way to the final point, when I say that, mathematically, the best way out of this trap is debt restructuring. They freeze up because they think of people not paying their bills as a sin. I don't believe it. I don't think you change people's nature by restructuring debt for the long-term good of the economy. . . . Debt is a contract. Contracts are restructured all the time. My entire career in banking, we had a loan-restructuring group."
Here's where Vague's boardroom friends must be quaking in their Ferragamos. "It's in the best interest for those who have capital for there to be a belief that not paying a loan back is a sin," he said.
As a former banker arguing for widespread loan forgiveness, he has a certain credibility, kind of like Nixon going to China. "I've never been an ideologue," Vague said. "I'm an empiricist. What I'm saying, and what I'll continue to say, is that this is just a question of math, folks."
For some time now, the same-old, same-old arguments have played out. The left wants to increase taxes and spend to jump-start growth. The right wants to cut taxes and put government on an austerity plan. It's Keynes vs. Friedman - both of whom are long dead. Isn't it high time for a new animating idea, driven by data, designed to get us out of this slow-growth, sideways recovery? And who would have thought that it would come from a guy we regularly see at Parc or walking the Square, this courtly Texas transplant, his face buried in a tome he can't stop talking about called Debt: The First 5,000 Years?
As we were getting up to go, I asked Richard Vague why he's gone to the lengths he has - hiring dueling teams of economists, taking on the Herculean task of changing America's economic philosophy.
"I've been very, very blessed," he said. "I don't have to work, and that's been true for some time. What motivates me is the same thing that leads me to fund Carl June. It matters, you know?"