Posts

Market Corrections Inspire Dangerous Political Panic by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Some kinds of inflation people really hate, like when it affects food and gas. But now, with the whole of the American middle class heavily invested in stocks, there is another kind inflation people love and demand: share prices that increased forever.

Just as with real estate before 2008, people seem addicted to the idea that they should never go anywhere but up.

This is the reason that stock market corrections are so dangerous. The biggest danger is not economic. It is political. Such corrections push politicians and central bankers to undertake ever-more nutty political in do order to fix them.

To make the point, Donald Trump immediately blamed China, which has the temerity to sell Americans excellent products at low prices. Bernie Sanders blamed “free trade,” even though the United States is among the most protectionist in the world.

Nothing in this world is more guaranteed to worsen a correction that a trade war. But so far, that’s what’s been proposed.

Tolerance for Downturns

It was not always so. In the 1982 recession, the Reagan administration argued that it was best to let the market clear and grow calm. Once the recession cleaned up misallocations of resources, the economy would be well prepared for a growth path. Incredibly, the idea was sold to the American people, and it proved wise.

That was the last time in American history we’ve seen anything like a laissez-faire attitude prevail. After the 1990s dot com boom and bust, the Fed intervened in an effort to repeal gravity. After 9/11, the Fed intervened again, using floods of paper money to rebuild national pride. That created a gigantic housing bubble that exploded 7 years later.

By 2008, the idea of allowing markets to clear became intolerable, and so Congress spent hundreds of billions of dollars and the Fed created trillions in phony money, all to forestall what desperately needed to happen.

Now, with dramatic declines in stock markets around the world, we are seeing what happens when governments and central banks attempt to counter market forces.

Markets win. Every time. But somehow it doesn’t matter anymore. There’s no more science, no more rationality, no more concern for the long term, so far as the Fed is concerned. The Fed is maniacally focused on its member banks’ balance sheets. They must live and thrive no matter what. And the Fed is in the perfect position now to use public sentiment to bolster its policies.

The Right and Wrong Question 

In the event of a large crash, the public discussion going forward will be: What can be done to re-boost stock prices? This is the wrong question. The right question should be: What were the conditions that led to the unsustainable boom in the first place? This is the intelligent way to address a global meltdown. Sadly, intelligence is in short supply when people are panicked about losing their retirement funds they believed were secure.

Back when people thought about such things, the great economic Gottfried von Haberler was tapped by the League of Nations to write a book that covered the whole field of business cycle theory as it then existed. Prosperity and Depressioncame out in 1936 and was republished in 1941. It is a beautiful book, rooted in rationality and the desire to know.

The book covers six core theories: purely monetary (now called Chicago), overinvestment (now called Austrian), sudden changes in cost (related to what is now called Real Business Cycle), underconsumption (now called Keynesian), psychological (popular in the financial press), and agricultural theories (very old fashioned).

Each one is described. The author then turns to solutions and their viability, assessing each. The treatise leans toward the view that permitting the recession (or downturn or depression) run its course is a better alternative than any large policy prescription applied with the goal of countering the cycle.

Haberler is careful to say that there is not likely one explanation that applies to all cycles in all times and in all places. There are too many factors at work in the real world to provide such an explanation, and no author has ever attempted to provide one. All we can really do is look for the primary causes and the factors that are mostly likely to induce recurring depressions and recoveries.

He likened the business cycle a rocking chair. It can be still. It can rock slowly. Or an outside force can come along to cause it to rock more violently and at greater speed. Detangling the structural factors from the external factors is a major challenge for any economist. But it must be done lest policy authorities make matters worse rather than better.

The monetary theory posits that the quantity of money is the key factoring in generating booms and busts. The more money that flows into an economy via the credit system, the more production increases alongside consumption. This policy leads to inflation. The pullback of the credit machine induces the recession.

The “overinvestment” theory of the cycle focuses on the misallocation of resources that upsets the careful balance between production and consumer. Within the production structure in normal times, there is a focus on viability in light of consumer decisions. But when more credit is made available, the flow of resources is toward the capital sector, which is characterized by a multiplicity of purposes. The entire production sector mixes various time commitments and purposes. Each of them corresponds with an expectation of consumer behavior.

Haberler calls this an overinvestment theory because the main result is an inflation of capital over consumption. The misallocation is both horizontal and vertical. When the consumer resources are insufficient to realize the plans of the capitalists, the result is a series of bankruptcies and an ensuing recession.

Price Control by Central Banks

A feature of this theory is to distinguish between the real rate of interest and the money rate of interest. When monetary authorities push down rates, they are engaged in a form of price control, inducing a boom in one sector of the production structure. This theory today is most often identified with the Austrian school, but in Haberler’s times, it was probably the dominant theory among serious specialists throughout the world.

In describing the underconsumption theory of the cycle, Haberler can hardly hide his disdain. In this view, all cycles result from too much hoarding and insufficient debt. If consumer were spend to their maximum extent, without regard to issues of viability, producers would feel inspired to produce, and the entire economy could run off a feeling of good will.

Habeler finds this view ridiculous, based in part on the implied policy prescription: endlessly inflate the money supply, keep running up debts, and lower interest rates to zero. The irony is that this is the precisely the prescription of John Maynard Keynes, and his whole theory was rooted in a 200-year old fallacy that economic growth is based on consumption and not production. Little did Haberler know, writing in the early 1930s, that this theory would become the dominant one in the world, and the one most promoted by governments and for obvious reasons.

The psychological theory of the cycle observes the people are overly optimistic in a boom and overly pessimistic in the bust. More than that, the people who push this view regard these states of mind as causative of economic trends. They both begin and end the boom.

Haberler does not deny that such states of mind are important and contributing elements to making the the cycle more exaggerated, but it is foolish to believe that thinking alone can bring about systematic changes in the macroeconomic structure. This school of thought seizes on a grain of truth, and pushes that grain too far to the exclusion of real factory. Interestingly, Haberler identifies Keynes by name in his critique of this view.

Haberler’s treatise is the soul of fairness but the reader is left with no question about where his investigation led him. There are many and varied causes of business cycles, and the best explanations trace the problem to credit interventions and monetary expansions that upset the delicate balance of production and consumption in the international market economy.

Large-scale attempts by government to correct for these cycles can result in making matters worse, because it has no control over the secondary factors that brought about the crisis in the first place. The best possible policy is to eliminate barriers to market clearing — that is to say, let the market work.

The Fed is the Elephant in the Room

And so it should be in our time. For seven years, the Fed, which controls the world reserve currency, has held down interest rates to zero in an effort to forestall a real recession and recreate the boom. The results have been unimpressive. In the midst of the greatest technological revolution in history, economic growth has been pathetic.

There is a reason for this, and it is not only about foolish monetary policy. It is about regulation that inhibits business creation and economic adaptability. It’s about taxation that pillages the rewards of success and pours the bounty into public waste. It is about a huge debt overhang that results from the declaration that all governments are too big to fail.

Whether a correction is needed now or later or never is not for policymakers to decide. The existence of the business cycle is the market’s way of humbling those who claim to have the power and intelligence to outwit its awesome and immutable forces.

Jeffrey A. Tucker
Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Hillary Clinton’s Ideological Vortex of Power and Planning by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Just trust her. Truly, just trust her: to know precisely how much energy we ought to use, where it should come from, how it should be generated, how we should get from here to there, and the effects that her plan will have on the global — the global! — climate, not just in the near term but decades or a century from now.

If you do this, you will have embraced “science,” “reality,” “truth,” and “innovation,” and, also, “our children.” If you don’t go along, you not only reject all those good things; you are probably also a “denier,” the catch-all epithet for anyone doubtful that the brilliance of Hillary Clinton and her czars know better than the rest of humanity how to manage their energy needs into the future.

Hillary’s campaign seems designed to prove that F.A. Hayek was a prophet.

That brilliant economist spent 50 years explaining, in book after book, that the greatest danger humanity faced, now and always, was a presumption on the part of intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats that they know better than the emergent and evolving wisdom of social forces.

This presumption might seem like science but it is really pretense. Civilization arises from, is protected by, and advances through the dispersed knowledge of billions of individual decision makers and the institutions that arise from them.

Hayek called the issue he was investigating the knowledge problem. Society needs to know how to use scarce resources, how to navigate a world of uncertainty, how to form rules that turn struggle into peace. It is a problem solved through freedom alone. No ruler, no scientist, no intellectual can substitute for the evolving process of decentralized decision making and trial and error.

The message is bad news for people like Hillary, who is supposed to embody the ideology called “liberalism” in America. Yet it is anything but liberal. It seems to know only one way forward: more top-down control. That’s a tough sell in times when everything good so obviously comes from anything but government, and, meanwhile, governments are responsible for every failing sector from health to education to foreign wars.

But here’s the problem. People like Hillary Clinton are stuck in an ideological vortex with no way out. Government planning is their thing, and they refuse to recognize its failures. So they press on and on, even to the point of preposterous implausibility, such as the claim that government can know everything that is necessary to know in order to plan the entire energy sector with the aim of managing the climate of the world.

Economist Donald Boudreaux puts matters this way: “why should someone who cannot ensure the proper use of a single private server be trusted with the colossal power necessary to design and to oversee the remaking of a trillion-plus dollar sector of the U.S. economy (a sector, by the way, in which this person has zero experience)?”

With this presumption comes the inevitable hypocrisy.

After unveiling her plan to ration energy use and plaster the country with solar panels, Ms. Clinton boarded a private jet that uses more fuel in one flight hour than I use in a year. “The aircraft, a Dassault model Falcon 900B, burns 347 gallons of fuel per hour,” wrote the muckraker who did a public service in exposing this. “The Trump-esque transportation costs $5,850 per hour to rent, according to the website of Executive Fliteways, the company that owns it.”

Notice how rarely it is mentioned that the US military, with hundreds of bases in over a hundred countries, is the worst single polluter on the planet. If we really believe in human-caused climate change, this might be a good place to start cutting back. But no, there’s not a word about this in any of Hillary’s plans. Government gets to do what it must do. The rest of us are supposed to pay the price, bicycling to work and powering our homes with sunshine and windmills.

When I first read about her energy plan, my response was: Why would any self-interested politician make the need for reduced living standards a centerpiece of her campaign? After all, her speech was made in a setting piled high with bicycles (oddly reminiscent of Mao’s China), while demanding a precise path forward for energy and everything that uses it (oddly reminiscent of Lenin’s first speech after he took control of Russian economic life).

As it turns out, people aren’t that interested. Sure, most people tell pollsters that they favor renewable energy to stop climate change. You have to say that or else risk being denounced as a denier. On the other hand, it seems like very few people really care enough to forgo the benefits of modern life, which is probably what will save civilization itself from plans like hers. Note that days after release, her pompous video only had only 54K views — pathetic given her celebrity and how much money her campaign is spending, but encouraging that nobody seems to put much stock in her plan for our future.

It’s extraordinary how quickly one branch of the political class has leapt from the delicate and ever-changing science of climate monitoring to the absolute certainty that extreme and extremely specific application of government force is the way to deal with it. Writes Max Borders: “The sacralization of climate is being used as a great loophole in the rule of law, an apology for bad science (and even worse economics), and an excuse to do anything and everything to have and keep power.”

The last point is critical. Everything done in the name of public policy in our lifetimes has become a handful of dust, yielding little more than unpayable debts and unworkable programs, and leaving in its wake an apparatus of compulsion and control that robs society of its inherent genius.

What to do? Give up? That’s not an option for these people. Instead, they find a new frontier for their schemes, a new rationale to sustain a failed model of social and economic organization.

I can think of no better words of rebuke but the closing of Hayek’s Nobel speech in 1974:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.

He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will.

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Yes, it surely ought to.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Is the “Austrian School” a Lie?

Is Austrian economics an American invention? by STEVEN HORWITZ and B.K. MARCUS.

Do those of us who use the word Austrian in its modern libertarian context misrepresent an intellectual tradition?

We trace our roots back through the 20th century’s F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (both served as advisors to FEE) to Carl Menger in late 19th-century Vienna, and even further back to such “proto-Austrians” as Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say in the earlier 19th century and Richard Cantillon in the 18th. Sometimes we trace our heritage all the way back to the late-Scholastic School of Salamanca.

Nonsense, says Janek Wasserman in his article “Austrian Economics: Made in the USA”:

“Austrian Economics, as it is commonly understood today,” Wasserman claims, “was born seventy years ago this month.”

As his title implies, Wasserman is not talking about the publication of Principles of Economics by Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school. That occurred 144 years ago in Vienna. What happened 70 years ago in the United States was the publication of F.A. Hayek‘s Road to Serfdom.

What about everything that took place — most of it in Austria — in the 74 years before Hayek’s most famous book? According to Wasserman, the Austrian period of “Austrian Economics” produced a “robust intellectual heritage,” but the largely American period that followed was merely a “dogmatic political program,” one that “does a disservice to the eclectic intellectual history” of the true Austrian school.

Where modern Austrianism is “associated with laissez-faire economics and libertarianism,” the real representatives of the more politically diverse tradition — economists from the University of Vienna, such as Fritz Machlup, Joseph Schumpeter, and Oskar Morgenstern — were embarrassed by their association with Hayek’s bestseller and its capitalistic supporters.

These “native-born Austrians ceased to be ‘Austrian,'” writes Wasserman, “when Mises and a simplified Hayek captured the imagination of a small group of businessmen and radicals in the US.”

Wasserman describes the popular reception of the as “the birth of a movement — and the reduction of a tradition.”

Are we guilty of Wasserman’s charges? Do modern Austrians misunderstand our own tradition, or worse yet, misrepresent our history?

In fact, Wasserman himself is guilty of a profound misunderstanding of the Austrian label, as well as the tradition it refers to.

The “Austrian school” is not a name our school of thought took for itself. Rather it was an insult hurled against Carl Menger and his followers by the adherents of the dominant German Historical School.

The Methodenstreit was a more-than-decade-long debate in the late 19th century among German-speaking social scientists about the status of economic laws. The Germans advocated methodological collectivism, espoused the efficacy of government intervention to improve the economy, and, according Jörg Guido Hülsmann, “rejected economic ‘theory’ altogether.”

The Mengerians, in contrast, argued for methodological individualism and the scientific validity of economic law. The collectivist Germans labeled their opponents the “Austrian school” as a put-down. It was like calling Menger and company the “backwater school” of economic thought.

“Austrian,” in our context, is a reclaimed word.

But more important, modern Austrian economics is not the dogmatic ideology that Wasserman describes. In his blog post, he provides no actual information about the work being done by the dozens of active Austrian economists in academia, with tenured positions at colleges and universities whose names are recognizable.

He tells his readers nothing about the  books they have produced that have been published by top university presses. He does not mention that they have published in top peer-reviewed journals in the economics discipline, as well as in philosophy and political science, or that the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics consistently packs meeting rooms at the Southern Economic Association meetings.

Have all of these university presses, top journals, and long-standing professional societies, not to mention tenure committees at dozens of universities, simply lost their collective minds and allowed themselves to be snookered by an ideological sleeper cell?

Or perhaps in his zeal to score ideological points of his own, Wasserman chose to take his understanding of Austrian economics from those who consume it on the Internet and elsewhere rather than doing the hard work of finding out what professional economists associated with the school are producing. Full of confirmation bias, he found what he “knew” was out there, and he ends up offering a caricature of the robust intellectual movement that is the contemporary version of the school.

The modern Austrian school, which has now returned to the Continent and spread across the globe after decades in America, is not the dogmatic monolith Wasserman contends. The school is alive with both internal debates about its methodology and theoretical propositions and debates about its relationship to the rest of the economics discipline, not to mention the size of the state.

Modern Austrian economists are constantly finding new ideas to mix in with the work of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and Hayek. The most interesting work done by Austrians right now is bringing in insights from Nobelists like James Buchanan, Elinor Ostrom, and Vernon Smith, and letting those marinate with their long-standing intellectual tradition. That is hardly the behavior of a “dogmatic political program,” but is rather a sign of precisely the robust intellectual tradition that has been at the core of Austrian economics from Menger onward.

That said, Wasserman is right to suggest that economic science is not the same thing as political philosophy — and it’s true that many self-described Austrians aren’t always careful to communicate the distinction. Again, Wasserman could have seen this point made by more thoughtful Austrians if he had gone to a basic academic source like the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and read the entry on the Austrian school of economics.

Even a little bit of actual research motivated by actual curiosity about what contemporary professional economists working in the Austrian tradition are doing would have given Wasserman a very different picture of modern Austrian economics. That more accurate picture is one very much consistent with our Viennese predecessors.

To suggest that we do a disservice to our tradition — or worse, that we have appropriated a history that doesn’t belong to us — is to malign not just modern Austrians but also the Austrian-born antecedents within our tradition.

Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

B.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus is managing editor of the Freeman.

The Crowding-Out Tipping Point: Increasing economic growth means shrinking government by James A. Dorn

The size and scope of government in the United States today would have been beyond the imagination of the American founders. For more than a century after the Constitution’s ratification, Americans took limits on government power seriously.

At the start of the 20th century, total government spending was less than 10 percent of GDP, with the majority of spending taking place at the state and local levels. In 1900, federal spending was a mere 2.8 percent of GDP compared to 21.1 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, state and local spending stood at 5 percent of GDP in 1900, but reached 11.5 percent in 2014. Overall government spending now stands at nearly 33 percent of GDP.

That tectonic shift is largely due to the growth of entitlements and the regulatory state. Nearly half of federal spending goes toward Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; government imposes huge regulatory costs on the private sector; and the higher taxes needed to finance big government erode economic incentives to work, save, and invest.

How big is too big?

There is a growing body of evidence that bigger government means slower growth of real GDP. Once the level of total government spending as a percentage of GDP reaches a tipping point, estimated to be from 15 percent to 25 percent of GDP, additional expansion crowds out private productive investment and slows economic growth. An overreaching government diminishes economic freedom and limits private exchange opportunities, restricting the range of choices open to individuals.

In a pioneering study of the link between government growth and national wealth, which appeared in the fall 1998 issue of the Cato Journal, economists James Gwartney, Randall Holcombe, and Robert Lawson found that a 10 percentage point increase in government spending as a percentage of GDP decreases real GDP growth by 1 percentage point. Thus, if government spending went from 25 percent of GDP to 35 percent, real GDP growth would slow over the longer term by a full percentage point. They also found that a 10 percentage point increase in the government’s share of GDP lowered private investment by 1.6 percentage points.

Factors of growth

One of their study’s key findings was that secure property rights — which includes a legal system that protects persons and property, enforces contracts, and limits the power of government by a just rule of law — play an important role in promoting economic growth.

The late Bernhard Heitger, an economist at the Kiel Institute for World Economics, more fully developed the positive relationship between property rights and economic growth in his pathbreaking article in the winter 2004 Cato Journal. In that article, Heitger distinguished between proximate and ultimate determinants of economic growth. The former are well known: additions to physical and human capital and technological progress (also known as “total factor productivity”). But Heitger was interested in the question of what drives capital accumulation and innovation. His answer: the structure of property rights and the associated incentives.

Conventional growth theory took private property rights and incentives as givens. Heitger rigorously showed that private property rights and the rule of law are the ultimate sources of economic growth and the wealth of nations. Well-defined private property rights improve efficiency and increase per capita income. In turn, as a nation grows richer, people demand stronger protection of their property rights, advancing institutional change.

Using data from an international cross-section of countries from 1975–95, Heitger found that “a doubling of the property rights index more than doubles per capita income” and that “more secure property rights significantly raise the accumulation of physical and human capital.”

Bauer’s foresight

That outcome would not have surprised Peter Bauer, a pioneer of development economics. He was critical of the simplistic idea that physical capital accumulation is the key determinant of economic growth. As early as 1957, in his classic Economic Analysis and Policy in Underdeveloped Countries, Bauer noted:

It is misleading to think of investment as the only or the principal determinant of development. Other factors and influences, such as institutional and political forces, the qualities and attitudes of the population, and the supply of complementary resources, are often equally important or even more important.

In the same book, Bauer also anticipated modern endogenous growth theory, stating: “It is more meaningful to say that capital is created in the process of development, rather than that development is a function of capital.” What mattered to Bauer, and to other classical liberals, in the process of development was freedom — namely, the freedom to pursue one’s happiness without government interference except to protect life, liberty, and property. (See James A. Dorn, “Economic Development and Freedom: The Legacy of Peter Bauer.”)

In that sense, Bauer argued that “the principal objective and criterion of economic development” is “the extension of the range of choice, that is, an increase in the range of effective alternatives open to people.” Free markets — resting on effective private property rights — and free people are thus the ultimate determinants of economic growth. When government expands beyond its core functions, it undermines the primacy of property, diminishes the principle of freedom, and erodes the wealth of nations.

The United States falls

The loss of economic freedom in the United States is revealed in the annual Economic Freedom of the World Report, published by the Fraser Institute along with the Cato Institute and a number of global think tanks. In 2000, the United States was the second most economically free country in the world, based on data from 1998. Today it is ranked 12th, based on 2012 data.

To move up the freedom ladder, the United States needs to change the climate of ideas and recognize the importance of private property rights and the rule of law. A legal framework that safeguards persons and property means incentivizing individuals to take responsibility for their actions and allowing people to learn from their mistakes. It means cutting back the size and scope of government and not bailing out businesses.

The nature of government is coercion; the nature of the market is consent. The “great constitutional charter” that George Washington referred to in his first inaugural address (April 30, 1789) was intended to bind Congress to the powers enumerated in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson reiterated Washington’s admonition by stating in his first inaugural address (March 4, 1801): “The sum of good government” is “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Wise and frugal

The challenge for the 114th Congress is to return to “a wise and frugal government.” A first step would be to understand the detrimental effects of expanding government power on economic liberties — especially on private property rights. If history has taught us anything, it is that the size and scope of government matter, both for freedom and prosperity.

ABOUT JAMES A. DORN

James A. Dorn is vice president for monetary studies, editor of the Cato Journal, senior fellow, and director of Cato’s annual monetary conference.