LESSONS LEARNED #13: “If you were to live under the socialist maxim ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his need’ you would find yourself surrounded by needy people with no ability.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 13th, 2010

KEY TO CIVILIZATION growth is the food supply.  Food surpluses in particular.  Before dependable food surpluses, life was short, harsh and miserable.  Especially for women.  When they weren’t working in the fields they were giving birth and raising children.  High infant mortality rates, though, inhibited population growth.  Most of the children women gave birth to didn’t survive to adulthood.  So there was a constant state of child rearing.  But few children survived to help with the business of family life.

Malnutrition and famine were common.  Feudalism provided a precarious balance between life and death.  For centuries the common people (i.e., peasants) eked out survival on their landlord’s manor.  The lord owned the land.  The peasants worked it.  Most of the bounty went to their lord.  But they kept what they grew on a small strip of land for themselves.  Just enough for subsistence.

But England changed all that.  By 1750, her agricultural output was second to none.  Private property.  Free market economy.  Capitalism.  Increased productivity.  Specialization.  These all combined to provide incentive.  Incentive produced food surpluses.  Food surpluses produced profits.  Reinvested profits improved farm yields.  This produced more profit.  And the cycle continued.  In less than a century feudalism would disappear from England.  There, you either worked land you owned or were paid wages to work land owned by others.  People began to live longer and healthier lives. 

The British Empire ruled the civilized world in the 19th century.  Representative government.  Abolition of slavery.  Free trade.  The Industrial Revolution.  These things, and others, gave them wealth, power and moral authority.  A lot of good came from this island kingdom.  Including the United States.  They weren’t perfect.  There was a learning curve.  But the modern capitalistic economy which they gave us liberated the masses.  It let us do what we wanted to do, not just what we had to do.  In particular, women, who could do more than just raise families and work in the fields.  One day, she could even become prime minister of Great Britain.

FOOD SURPLUSES BEGET industrialization.  Food surpluses beget everything, really.  Food surpluses release human capital to do everything else we do besides farming.  England was at the van of this modernization.  Others followed.  In time. 

Russia abolished serfdom (i.e., feudalism) in 1861.  Industrially backwards at the time, this liberty awakened a dormant human capital.  They followed the English model.  In time, with the advent of steamship and rail transportation, Russian grain competed with other European producers.

Joseph Stalin, looking to jump ahead in the industrialization process, implemented collective farming in the late 1920s.  He turned away from the English model.  The government became land owners.  It was feudalism on a grand scale.  Large collective farms would produce vast food surpluses that could feed industrial cities.  And there would still be surpluses left over to export to raise capital to build these industrial cities.  At least, that was the plan.

With less incentive came less productivity.  What land the former serfs had come to own was lost to the state.  The state took so much of the harvest that there was little food left for those who labored to grow it.  And the price the state paid for their crops was less than it was before collectivization.  The ‘free’ serfs were earning less and working more.  They didn’t like it.  And chose not to participate.  Collectivization became forced collectivization. 

Deportations, terror, murder and famine followed.  Perhaps more than 5 million starved to death during the famine of 1931 and 1932.  Others were to follow.

Forced collective farming produced famines elsewhere.  In China, during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, forced collectivization produced even greater famine deaths.  Historians estimate that 20-30 million, maybe more, starved to death in the famine of 1959–62.  Though hard numbers aren’t available, North Korea suffered a devastating famine in the late 1990s that claimed millions.  But in the West, in the 20th century, famine was unheard of.  When the United States suffered during the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, there was no corresponding famine despite the loss of productive farmland.

WITH INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY comes incentive.  With incentive comes productivity.  A small island nation of free land owners could produce grain to feed themselves with surplus left over for export.  Nations with great fertile tracts farmed by forced collectivization led to famine.  Slaves have little incentive other than to subsist.  The collective good means little to them when they are starving.  They continue to sacrifice.  And continue to suffer.  Even if they do produce a few more bushels of grain.  So if the suffering is the same, what is the incentive to work harder?

As individual liberty declines, those in power tend to exploit those they rule.  In the name of the state.  Or the common good.  This is easy to see when it results in famine or revolution.  Not easy to hide those things.  But it is a little more difficult to see when the results are more benign.  Longer unemployment benefits, for example.  I mean, those are pretty nice.  Hard to see the downside in them.  As it is in other benefits these rulers give us.  So we are seduced as they whisper these sweet nothings in our ears.  And soon we willingly cede our liberty.  A little at a time.

WITH THE RISE of individual liberty, there was a corresponding decline in the ruling elite thanks to representative government.  Great Britain gave this gift to us and the United States took it to incredible heights.  The oppressed everywhere immigrated to the United States to feed a growing industrial demand.  Being new, we did not know all the affects of industrialization.  When the bad things came to light, we addressed them.  Great Britain, for example, was one of the first to protect women and children from the worse of industrial society.  Still, working conditions could be harsh.  As could life in the industrial cities.  Poverty.  Filth.  Disease.  And it was the wretched state of life in these slums that gave birth to a new school of thought on industrialization. 

In 1844 Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the English Working-Class to expose life in these slums.  He would collaborate 4 years later with Karl Marx on a treatise called The Communist Manifesto.  And from this Marxism, Communism, socialism, collectivism, etc., would follow.  As economic systems go, these would all prove to be failures.  But the essence of them lives on.  State planning.

You see, it was capitalism that gave us the industrial slums.  And that was good propaganda for a ruling elite looking to rule again.  So they whispered sweet nothings into our ears.  They talked about a Social Utopia.  From each according to his ability to each according to his need.  Fair taxation (i.e., only the ‘rich’ pay taxes).  Social safety nets (paid for by taxes of the rich).  Shorter workdays.  Longer paid vacations.  More government benefits.  A burgeoning welfare state.  Free stuff for everyone.  Again, paid for by taxing the rich who have exploited the working class.

What evolved was the elimination of the middle class.  You had the evil rich (and the middle class were, for all intents and purposes, rich because they didn’t need government help) whose wealth the government taxed away.  And the poor.  The poor who the government would now take care of.  If elected.  And they were.  They seduced a great many people with their utopian vision.  Even in the West. 

Great Britain and the United States would fall to this seductress, too, thanks to the Great Depression.  It was capitalism that gave us the Great Depression, after all.  The greed of the money people.  And so these great nations declined from greatness.  They became welfare states, too.  They had short respites during the 1980s.  Margaret Thatcher helped rejuvenate Great Britain.  Ronald Reagan, the United States.  But the ruling elite whispered more sweet nothings in our ears and the decline continues.

In 2010, our appetite for state benefits appears to be insatiable.  And we may have run out of wealth to tax away to pay for it.  California is on the brink of bankruptcy.  New Jersey elected a governor who proposed draconian spending cuts to stave off bankruptcy.  Other ‘blue’ states (i.e., states who vote Democrat) are also in trouble.  Underfunded pension obligations.  Demands of teacher unions.  Of government worker unions.  Everyone is there with their hand out.  None of them are willing to sacrifice for the common good.  No, they expect others to do the sacrificing.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION has increased federal spending to such record levels that Communist China is concerned about our fiscal/monetary policies.  As they should be; they hold a lot of our debt.  The federal government has ‘bailed out’ private industry and taken de facto control.  They have created a healthcare entitlement that will cost more than a trillion dollars.  More spending is coming.  And it is all for the greater good.  They are vilifying those who are not poor, taxing away what wealth they can from them and giving it to the poor.  When about half the electorate doesn’t pay any income taxes, there is little opposition to raising taxes on those who do.  For if the ‘rich’ complain, the government vilifies them.

Where will it all end?  It is difficult to say.  How will it end?  Badly.  We can look at Europe who we seem to be emulating.  They’re further down The Road to Serfdom than we are.  With the excessive government spending, there will have to be greater government revenue (i.e., taxes).  Previous methods of taxation may prove insufficient.  Hello value added tax (VAT).  It’s all the rage in Europe.  It’s a multiple tax.  At every stage of production, government is there.  Taxing.  From the raw materials to the final assembly, government is there at every stage.  Taxing.  VATs will increase government revenue.  But they will also make every day life more expensive.  VATs increase the sales price of everything you buy.  And you pay it again at checkout.  It’s everywhere.  Everything will cost more.  From manicures to lattes to toilet paper to tampons.  And this is a tax everyone pays.  Even the poor.  It is a regressive tax.  The rich will pay more, but the poor will feel it more.  This hidden tax will take a larger portion of what little the poor has.

But how bad can it really get?  In 2010, I guess the answer would be to look at Greece to see what happens when a country can no longer sustain her welfare state.  And the people aren’t all that keen on losing the government benefits they’ve grown accustomed to.  It isn’t pretty.  But when you start down that road (from each according to his ability to each according to his need), the taking and giving always get bigger.  It never gets smaller.  And when you reach a critical point, government just can’t sustain it any longer.  And it crashes.  Like in Greece.

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LESSONS LEARNED #3 “Inflation is just another name for irresponsible government.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2010

PEOPLE LIKE TO hate banks.  And bankers.  Because they get rich with other people’s money.  And they don’t do anything.  People give them money.  They then loan it and charge interest.  What a scam.

Banking is a little more complex than that.  And it’s not a scam.  Countries without good banking systems are often impoverished, Third World nations.  If you have a brilliant entrepreneurial idea, a lot of good that will do if you can’t get any money to bring it to market.  That’s what banks do.  They collect small deposits from a lot of depositors and make big loans to people like brilliant entrepreneurs.

Fractional reserve banking multiplies this lending ability.  Because only a fraction of a bank’s total depositors will ask for their deposits back at any one time, only a fraction of all deposits are kept at the bank.  Banks loan the rest.  Money comes in.  They keep a running total of how much you deposited.  They then loan out your money and charge interest to the borrower.  And pay you interest on what they borrowed from you so they could make those loans to others.  Banks, then, can loan out more money than they actually have in their vaults.  This ‘creates’ money.  The more they lend the more money they create.  This increases the money supply.  The less they lend the less money they create.  If they don’t lend any money they don’t add to the money supply.  When banks fail they contract the money supply.

Bankers are capital middlemen.  They funnel money from those who have it to those who need it.  And they do it efficiently.  We take car loans and mortgages for granted.  For we have such confidence in our banking system.  But banking is a delicate job.  The economy depends on it.  If they don’t lend enough money, businesses and entrepreneurs may not be able to borrow money when they need it.  If they lend too much, they may not be able to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if they do something wrong or act in any way that makes their depositors nervous, the depositors may run to the bank and withdraw their money.  We call this a ‘run on the bank’ when it happens.  It’s not pretty.  It’s usually associated with panic.  And when depositors withdraw more money than is in the bank, the bank fails.

DURING GOOD ECONOMIC times, businesses expand.  Often they have to borrow money to pay for the costs of meeting growing demand.  They borrow and expand.  They hire more people.  People make more money.  They deposit some of this additional money in the bank.  This creates more money to lend.  Businesses borrow more.  And so it goes.  This saving and lending increases the money supply.  We call it inflation.  A little inflation is good.  It means the economy is growing.  When it grows too fast and creates too much money, though, prices go up. 

Sustained inflation can also create a ‘bubble’ in the economy.  This is due to higher profits than normal because of artificially high prices due to inflation.  Higher selling prices are not the result of the normal laws of supply and demand.  Inflation increases prices.  Higher prices increase a company’s profit.  They grow.  Add more jobs.  Hire more people.  Who make more money.  Who buy more stuff and save more money.  Banks loan more, further increasing the money supply.  Everyone is making more money and buying more stuff.  They are ‘bidding up’ the prices (house prices or dot-com stock prices, for example) with an inflated currency.  This can lead to overvalued markets (i.e., a bubble).  Alan Greenspan called it ‘irrational exuberance’ when testifying to Congress in the 1990s.  Now, a bubble can be pretty, but it takes very little to pop and destroy it.

Hyperinflation is inflation at its worse.  Bankers don’t create it by lending too much.  People don’t create it by bidding up prices.  Governments create it by printing money.  Literally.  Sometimes following a devastating, catastrophic event like war (like Weimar Germany after World War II).  But sometimes it doesn’t need a devastating, catastrophic event.  Just unrestrained government spending.  Like in Argentina throughout much of the 20th century.

During bad economic times, businesses often have more goods and services than people are purchasing.  Their sales will fall.  They may cut their prices to try and boost their sales.  They’ll stop expanding.  Because they don’t need as much supply for the current demand, they will cut back on their output.  Lay people off.  Some may have financial problems.  Their current revenue may not cover their costs.  Some may default on their loans.  This makes bankers nervous.  They become more hesitant in lending money.  A business in trouble, then, may find they cannot borrow money.  This may force some into bankruptcy.  They may default on more loans.  As these defaults add up, it threatens a bank’s ability to repay their depositors.  They further reduce their lending.  And so it goes.  These loan defaults and lack of lending decreases the money supply.  We call it deflation.  We call deflationary periods recessions.  It means the economy isn’t growing.  The money supply decreases.  Prices go down.

We call this the business cycle.  People like the inflation part.  They have jobs.  They’re not too keen on the deflation part.  Many don’t have jobs.  But too much inflation is not good.  Prices go up making everything more expensive.  We then lose purchasing power.  So a recession can be a good thing.  It stops high inflation.  It corrects it.  That’s why we often call a small recession a correction.  Inflation and deflation are normal parts of the business cycle.  But some thought they could fix the business cycle.  Get rid of the deflation part.  So they created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) in 1913.

The Fed is a central bank.  It loans money to Federal Reserve regional banks who in turn lend it to banks you and I go to.  They control the money supply.  They raise and lower the rate they charge banks to borrow from them.  During inflationary times, they raise their rate to decrease lending which decreases the money supply.  This is to keep good inflation from becoming bad inflation.  During deflationary times, they lower their rate to increase lending which increases the money supply.  This keeps a correction from turning into a recession.  Or so goes the theory.

The first big test of the Fed came during the 1920s.  And it failed. 

THE TWO WORLD wars were good for the American economy.  With Europe consumed by war, their agricultural and industrial output decline.  But they still needed stuff.  And with the wars fought overseas, we fulfilled that need.  For our workers and farmers weren’t in uniform. 

The Industrial Revolution mechanized the farm.  Our farmers grew more than they ever did before.  They did well.  After the war, though, the Europeans returned to the farm.  The American farmer was still growing more than ever (due to the mechanization of the farm).  There were just a whole lot less people to sell their crops to.  Crop prices fell. 

The 1920s was a time America changed.  The Wilson administration had raised taxes due to the ‘demands of war’.  This resulted in a recession following the war.  The Harding administration cut taxes based on the recommendation of Andrew Mellon, his Secretary of the Treasury.  The economy recovered.  There was a housing boom.  Electric utilities were bringing electrical power to these houses.  Which had electrical appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, etc.) and the new radio.  People began talking on the new telephone.  Millions were driving the new automobile.  People were traveling in the new airplane.  Hollywood launched the motion picture industry and Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse.  The economy had some of the most solid growth it had ever had.  People had good jobs and were buying things.  There was ‘good’ inflation. 

This ‘good’ inflation increased prices everywhere.  Including in agriculture.  The farmers’ costs went up, then, as their incomes fell.  This stressed the farming regions.  Farmers struggled.  Some failed.  Some banks failed with them.  The money supply in these areas decreased.

Near the end of the 1920s, business tried to expand to meet rising demand.  They had trouble borrowing money, though.  The economy was booming but the money supply wasn’t growing with it.  This is where the Fed failed.  They were supposed to expand the money supply to keep pace with economic growth.  But they didn’t.  In fact, the Fed contracted the money supply during this period.  They thought investors were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  (They were wrong).  So they raised the cost of borrowing money.  To ‘stop’ the speculators.  So the Fed took the nation from a period of ‘good’ inflation into recession.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930.  But they were discussing it in committee in 1929.  Businesses knew about it in 1929.  And like any good business, they were looking at how it would impact them.  The bill took high tariffs higher.  That meant expensive imported things would become more expensive.  The idea is to protect your domestic industry by raising the prices of less expensive imports.  Normally, business likes surgical tariffs that raise the cost of their competitor’s imports.  But this was more of an across the board price increase that would raise the cost of every import, which was certain to increase the cost of doing business.  This made business nervous.  Add uncertainty to a tight credit market and business no doubt forecasted higher costs and lower revenues (i.e., a recession).  And to weather a recession, you need a lot of cash on hand to help pay the bills until the economy recovered.  So these businesses increased their liquidity.  They cut costs, laid off people and sold their investments (i.e., stocks) to build a huge cash cushion to weather these bad times to come.  This may have been a significant factor in the selloff in October of 1929 resulting in the stock market crash. 

HERBERT HOOVER WANTED to help the farmers.  By raising crop prices (which only made food more expensive for the unemployed).  But the Smoot-Hawley Tariff met retaliatory tariffs overseas.  Overseas agricultural and industrial markets started to close.  Sales fell.  The recession had come.  Business cut back.  Unemployment soared.  Farmers couldn’t sell their bumper crops at a profit and defaulted on their loans.  When some non-farming banks failed, panic ensued.  People rushed to get their money out of the banks before their bank, too, failed.  This caused a run on the banks.  They started to fail.  This further contracted the money supply.  Recession turned into the Great Depression. 

The Fed started the recession by not meeting its core expectation.  Maintain the money supply to meet the needs of the economy.  Then a whole series of bad government action (initiated by the Hoover administration and continued by the Roosevelt administration) drove business into the ground.  The ONLY lesson they learned from this whole period is ‘inflation good, deflation bad’.  Which was the wrong lesson to learn. 

The proper lesson to learn was that when people interfere with market forces or try to replace the market decision-making mechanisms, they often decide wrong.  It was wrong for the Fed to contract the money supply (to stop speculators that weren’t there) when there was good economic growth.  And it was wrong to increase the cost of doing business (raising interest rates, increasing regulations, raising taxes, raising tariffs, restricting imports, etc.) during a recession.  The natural market forces wouldn’t have made those wrong decisions.  The government created the recession.  Then, when they tried to ‘fix’ the recession they created, they created the Great Depression.

World War I created an economic boom that we couldn’t sustain long after the war.  The farmers because their mechanization just grew too much stuff.  Our industrial sector because of bad government policy.  World War II fixed our broken economy.  We threw away most of that bad government policy and business roared to meet the demands of war-torn Europe.  But, once again, we could not sustain our post-war economy because of bad government policy.

THE ECONOMY ROARED in the 1950s.  World War II devastated the world’s economies.  We stood all but alone to fill the void.  This changed in the 1960s.  Unions became more powerful, demanding more of the pie.  This increased the cost of doing business.  This corresponded with the reemergence of those once war-torn economies.  Export markets not only shrunk, but domestic markets had new competition.  Government spending exploded.  Kennedy poured money into NASA to beat the Soviets to the moon.  The costs of the nuclear arms race grew.  Vietnam became more and more costly with no end in sight.  And LBJ created the biggest government entitlement programs since FDR created Social Security.  The size of government swelled, adding more workers to the government payroll.  They raised taxes.  But even high taxes could not prevent huge deficits.

JFK cut taxes and the economy grew.  It was able to sustain his spending.  LBJ increased taxes and the economy contracted.  There wasn’t a chance in hell the economy would support his spending.  Unwilling to cut spending and with taxes already high, the government started to print more money to pay its bills.  Much like Weimar Germany did in the 1920s (which ultimately resulted in hyperinflation).  Inflation heated up. 

Nixon would continue the process saying “we are all Keynesians now.”  Keynesian economics believed in Big Government managing the business cycle.  It puts all faith on the demand side of the equation.  Do everything to increase the disposable money people have so they can buy stuff, thus stimulating the economy.  But most of those things (wage and price controls, government subsidies, tariffs, import restrictions, regulation, etc.) typically had the opposite effect on the supply side of the equation.  The job producing side.  Those policies increased the cost of doing business.  So businesses didn’t grow.  Higher costs and lower sales pushed them into recession.  This increased unemployment.  Which, of course, reduces tax receipts.  Falling ever shorter from meeting its costs via taxes, it printed more money.  This further stoked the fires of inflation.

When Nixon took office, the dollar was the world’s reserve currency and convertible into gold.  But our monetary policy was making the dollar weak.  As they depreciated the dollar, the cost of gold in dollars soared.  Nations were buying ‘cheap’ dollars and converting them into gold at much higher market exchange rate.  Gold was flying out of the country.  To stop the gold flight, Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar. 

Inflation soared.  As did interest rates.  Ford did nothing to address the core problem.  During the next presidential campaign, Carter asked the nation if they were better off than they were 4 years ago.  They weren’t.  Carter won.  By that time we had double digit inflation and interest rates.  The Carter presidency was identified by malaise and stagflation (inflation AND recession at the same time).  We measured our economic woes by the misery index (the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate).  Big Government spending was smothering the nation.  And Jimmy Carter did not address that problem.  He, too, was a Keynesian. 

During the 1980 presidential election, Reagan asked the American people if they were better off now than they were 4 years ago.  The answer was, again, ‘no’.  Reagan won the election.  He was not a Keynesian.  He cut taxes like Harding and JFK did.  He learned the proper lesson from the Great Depression.  And he didn’t repeat any of their (Hoover and FDR) mistakes.  The recession did not turn into depression.  The economy recovered.  And soared once again.

MONETARY POLICY IS crucial to a healthy and growing economy.  Businesses need to borrow to grow and create jobs.  However, monetary policy is not the be-all and end-all of economic growth.  Anti-business government policies will NOT make a business expand and add jobs no matter how cheap money is to borrow.  Three bursts of economic activity in the 20th century followed tax-cuts/deregulation (the Harding, JFK and Reagan administrations).  Tax increases/new regulation killed economic growth (the Hoover/FDR and LBJ/Nixon/Ford/Carter administrations).  Good monetary policies complimented the former.  Some of the worst monetary policies accompanied the latter.  This is historical record.  Some would do well to learn it.

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