The Chicago School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 5th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetarists believe in Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Fiat Money

Keynesian economics supports hands-on government management of the economy.  Using fiscal and monetary policy to move the aggregate demand curve at will to end business cycles.  The boom bust cycles between inflation and recession.  Leaving only the inflationary boom times.   Using tax and spend fiscal policies.  Or simply printing money for government expenditures.  For in Keynesian economics consumption is key.  The more of it the better.  And when people stop buying things the government should step in and pick up the consumption slack.

The Austrian school is a more hands-off approach.  The markets should be free.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the business cycle should remain.  For it is a necessary part of the economy.  Part of the automatic pricing mechanism that adjusts supply to meet demand.  When people demand more prices go up.  Encouraging businesses to expand production to sell at these higher prices (inflationary expansion).  Then when supply exceeds demand businesses have excessive inventory that they can’t sell anymore at those higher prices.  So they cut their prices to sell off this excessive supply (deflationary recession).  Also, that hands-off approach means no playing with monetary policy.  Austrians prefer a gold standard to prevent central bank mischief that results in inflation.

The Chicago school of economics takes a little from each of these schools.  Like the Austrians they believe that government should take a hands-off approach in the economy.  Markets should be free with minimum government intervention.  But unlike Austrians, they hate gold.  And blame the gold standard for causing the Great Depression.  Instead, they believe in the flexibility of fiat money.  As do the Keynesians.  But with a strict monetary policy to minimize inflation (which is why proponents of this school were also called monetarists).  Unlike the Keynesians.  For monetarists believe only a government’s monetary policy can cause runaway inflation.

(This is a gross simplification of these three schools.  A more detailed and comprehensive study would be a bit overwhelming as well as extremely boring.  But you get the gist.  At least, for the point of this discussion.)

We used Gold and Silver for Money because it was Durable, Portable, Divisible, Fungible, Scarce, Etc.

At the heart of the difference between these schools is money.  So a refresher course on money is in order.  Money stores wealth temporarily.  When we create something of value (a good or a service) we can use that value to trade for something we want.  We used to barter with other creative people who made value of their own.  But as the economy got more complex it took more and more time to find people to trade with.  You had to find someone who had what you wanted who also wanted what you had.  If you baked bread and wanted shoes you had to find a shoemaker who wanted bread.  Not impossible.  But it took a lot of time to find these people to trade with.

Then someone had a brilliant idea.  They figured they could trade their good or service NOT for something THEY wanted but something OTHER people would want.  Such as tobacco.  Whiskey.  Or grain.  These things were valuable.  Other people would want them.  So they could easily trade their good or service for one of these things.  And then later trade it for what they wanted.  And money was born.  For various reasons (durable, portable, divisible, fungible, scarce, etc.) we chose gold and silver as our money of choice.  Due to the inconvenience and danger of carrying these precious metals around, though, we stored our precious metals in a vault and used ‘receipts’ of that deposit as currency.  And the gold standard was born.

To understand the gold standard think of a balance scale.  The kind where you put weights on one side to balance the load on the other.  When the scale balances the weight of the load equals the sum of the weights needed to make the scale balance.  Now imagine a scale like this where the VALUE of all goods and services (created by talented people) are on one side.  And all the precious metal in the gold standard are on the other.  These must be in balance.  And the sum of our currency must equal the amount of precious metal.  (Because they are ‘receipts’ for all that gold and silver we have locked up someplace.)  This prevents the government from creating inflation.  If you want to issue more money you have to put more precious metal onto the scale.  You just can’t print money.  For when you do and you don’t increase the amount of precious metal on the scale you depreciate the currency.  Because more of it equals the same amount of precious metal.  For more currency to equal the same amount of precious metal then each unit of currency has to be worth less.  And when each unit is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same things they bought before.  Thus raising prices.  If a government prints more currency without adding more precious metals on the scale they increase the value of that precious metal when MEASURED in that currency.  It becomes worth more.  In other words, you can trade that precious metal for more of that depreciated currency than before they depreciated it.  You do this too much and eventually people will prefer the precious metal over the currency.  They’ll lose faith in the currency.  And when that happens the economy collapses.  As people move back towards a barter system.

Milton Friedman wanted the Responsibility of the Gold Standard without Gold’s Constraint on increasing the Money Supply

A healthy economy needs a stable currency.  One that people don’t lose faith in.  Imagine trying to shop without money.  Instead, taking things to trade for the groceries you need.  Not very efficient.  So we need a stable currency.  And the gold standard gives us that.  However, the thing that makes gold or silver a stable currency, its scarcity, creates a liability.  Let’s go back to that balance scale.  To the side that contains the value of all goods and services.  Let’s say it increases.  But the precious metal on the other side doesn’t.  Which means the value of that precious metal increases.  The currency must equal the value of that precious metal.  So the value of the currency increases.  And prices fall.  It takes less of it to buy the same things it bought before.  Not a bad thing for consumers.  But it plays havoc with those who borrowed money before this appreciation.  Because they now have to repay money that is worth more than when what is was worth when they borrowed it.  Which hurt farmers during the 1920s.  Who borrowed a lot of money to mechanize their farms.  Which helped to greatly increase farm yields.  And increased food supplies while demand remained unchanged.  Which, of course, lowered farm prices.  The supply increased on the scale.  But the amount of gold didn’t.  Thus increasing the value of the gold.  And the currency.  Making prices fall.  Kicking off the deflationary spiral of the Great Depression.  Or so say the monetarists.

Now the monetarists wanted to get rid of the gold supply.  The Keynesians did, too.  But they wanted to do it so they could print and spend money.  Which they did during the Seventies.  Creating both a high unemployment rate and a high inflation rate.  Something that wasn’t supposed to happen in Keynesian economics.  For their solution to fix unemployment was to use inflation to stimulate aggregate demand in the economy.  Thus reducing unemployment.  But when they did this during the Seventies it didn’t work.  The Keynesians were befuddled.  But not the monetarists.  Who understood that the expansion of the money supply (printing money to spend) was responsible for that inflation.  People understood this, too.  And had rational expectations of how that Keynesian policy was going to end.  Higher prices.  So they raised prices before the stimulus could impact unemployment.  To stay ahead of the coming inflation.  So the Keynesian stimulus did nothing to reduce unemployment.  It just caused runaway inflation.  And raised consumer prices.  Which, in turn, decreased economic activity.  And further increased unemployment.

Perhaps the most well known economist in the Chicago school was Milton Friedman.  Who wanted the responsibility of the gold standard.  But without gold’s constraint on increasing the money supply to meet demand.  The key to monetarism.  To increase the money supply to match the growth in the economy.  To keep that scale balanced.  But without gold.  Instead, putting the money supply directly on the scale.  Printing fiat money as needed.  Great power.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  And if you abuse that power (as in printing money irresponsibly) the consequences of that abuse will be swift.  Thanks to the rational expectations of the people.  Another tenet of the Chicago school.

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Tax Cuts, Gold Standard, Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, New Deal, Great Society, Stagflation, Ronald Reagan and Class Warfare

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 28th, 2012

History 101

The Twenties saw one of the Greatest Explosions in Economic Growth in History despite being on a Gold Standard 

There is a duality in economics.  There is Keynesian economics.  And the Austrian School.  The Keynesians believe in central banking.  Forcing interest rates below market rates.  Purposely creating a permanent but ‘manageable’ inflation rate.  And other government interventions into markets.  The Austrians believe in a strong currency.  Even bringing back the gold standard.  Letting the markets set interest rates.  Are against purposely creating inflation.  And oppose government intervention into markets.  So these two schools are sort of the Yin and Yang of economics.  The dark and the light.  The wrong and the right.  The Keynesian and the Austrian.

So it’s not surprising to see periods of history where these two schools bump up against each other.  As we transition from good economic times to bad economic times.  And vice versa.  When politicians change policies for political reasons.  Or when politicians change policies for economic reasons.  When the Keynesians are out of power and want to get back into power.  Or the Keynesians are in power, have destroyed the economy and the electorate wants to throw them out.  Starting shortly after World War I.  When John Maynard Keynes’ ideas came to light.  Economic policies that used smart people and an active, benevolent government.  Exactly what Woodward Wilson and his progressives were looking for.  Who wanted to quantify human behavior and improve it.  With an activist and scientific government.  To bless the United States with their brilliance again now that the war was over.  And return to the new enlightened way.  Helping people everywhere to be better citizens.  And fixing all the ‘faults’ of free market capitalism.

But the progressives lost the 1920 election.  The voters favoring Warren Harding’s message to return to normalcy.  And rejecting the progressives and their new scientific ways of government.  They wanted jobs.  And that’s what Harding gave them.  By cutting taxes.  Thanks to the advice of his brilliant treasury secretary.  Andrew Mellon.  And getting out of the way of businesses.  When he died Calvin Coolidge continued his policies.  And the Twenties roared.  It was one of the greatest explosions in economic growth in history.  Where credit was plentiful.  Despite being on a gold standard.  As the United States electrified.  And modernized.  Electric power.  Telephones.  Radio.  Electric appliances.  Movies.  Even on the farm.  Where mechanization provided bountiful harvests and inexpensive food.  The Roaring Twenties were great times for consumers.  The average American.  Thanks to minimal governmental interference into the free market.  And capitalism.  But, alas, that wouldn’t last.

Ronald Reagan won in a Landslide based on an Economic Platform that was Austrian to the Core 

It was the mechanization of the farm that began the process that lead to the Great Depression.  The average American benefited greatly from those low food prices.  But not the farmers who went into debt to mechanize their farms.  And when those European World War I soldiers traded their rifles for plows the American farmers lost some valuable export markets.  Farmers were struggling with low prices.  And heavy debt.  Some defaulted on their debt.  Causing bank failures in the farming regions.  Which soon spread throughout the banking system.  And when president Hoover came to office he was going to help the farmers.  For Hoover, though a Republican, was a progressive.  He brought back activist government.  He interfered with the free market.  To fix these problems.  Price supports for farmers to import tariffs.  Raising costs for businesses.  And prices for consumers.  Then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff launched an all out trade war.  Crashing the economy.  And giving us the Great Depression.

The 1930s was a lost decade.  FDR’s New Deal policies increased the size of government.  And their reach into the free market.  Which prolonged the Great Depression.  But nothing they tried worked.  Despite trying their progressive brilliance for some ten years.  It took World War II to pull the United States out of the Depression.  When the government at last allowed businesses to pursue profits again.  And got out of their way.  This surge in economic activity continued after the war and through the Fifties.  And into the Sixties.  With none other than JFK cutting taxes in a very Austrian way.  Yes, Kennedy was an adherent to the Austrian school.  But LBJ wasn’t.  And when he took over things changed.  The progressives were back.  Calling themselves liberals now.  And instead of the New Deal they gave us the Great Society.  Which grew the government even larger than the New Deal did.  And the Great Society spent the money.  Along with putting a man on the moon and the Vietnam War, government spending exploded.  The Keynesians were hitting their prime.  For once they could do all of the great things they always said they could.  And in the process fix a ‘broken’ free market system.  Finally having brilliant people in all the right places in government.  Making brilliant policies to help people live better lives.

And then came the Seventies.  The government was spending so much that they turned to the printing presses.  Because they could.  Thanks to central banking.  Even if it was hamstrung by gold.  You see, at that time the dollar was convertible into gold.  And with the Americans printing so much money and depreciating the dollar countries holding U.S. dollars said, “Screw that.”  And converted their dollars into gold.  That great sucking sound they heard in the Seventies was the sound of U.S. gold reserves getting sucked out of the country.  Well, even though the Keynesians hated gold they didn’t want to see all their gold reserves disappearing.  So Nixon did something very Keynesian.  And decoupled the dollar from gold.  Freeing the government at last to spend as irresponsibly as the Keynesians wanted.  And spend they did.  Turning the printing presses on high.  Depreciating the dollar ever more and causing double digit inflation.  Worse, all that Keynesian spending did nothing for the economy.  There was high unemployment as well as inflation.  An unusual phenomenon as you typically had one or the other.  Not both.  But this was stagflation.  A Keynesian phenomenon.  And you measured how bad it was by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate.  Giving you the misery index.  And the misery was pretty high during the Keynesian Seventies.  It was so miserable that they joked about it on Saturday Night Live.  With Dan Aykroyd impersonating Jimmy Carter.  Joking about high nice it would be to own a $400 suit.  And how nice it was just to make a phone call to get the printing presses to print more money.  The people thought Aykroyd’s Carter was funny.  But they didn’t care for the real one all that much.  And made him a one term president.  As Ronald Reagan won in a landslide.  Based on an economic platform that was Austrian to the core.  Including a promise to return responsibility to government spending by reinstating a gold standard.  (Which was a political ‘bridge too far’.)

The Electorate paying Federal Income Taxes fell from 80% when Reagan was in Office to about 50% by 2009 

The Eighties were so prosperous that the Keynesians, liberals and progressives derisively call them the decade of greed.  They tried everything within their power to rewrite history.  Calling the exploding economic activity ‘trickle down’ economics.  But the figures don’t lie.  Despite the liars figuring.  The inflation rate fell.  Interest rates fell.  The unemployment rate fell.  And despite the cuts in tax rates the government was never richer.  Tax revenue collected under the reduced rates nearly doubled.  But there was little cutting in government spending.  Flush with all that cash they kept spending.  In part to rebuild the military to win the Cold War.  Which Reagan won.  But all the social spending continued, too.  Which led to some record deficits.  Not the trillion dollar deficits of the Obama administration.  But large nevertheless.  Which provided the meme to explain away the prosperity of the Eighties.  “But at what cost?” being the common refrain.  They talk about the deficits.  But very conveniently leave out that part of how tax revenues doubled at the reduced tax rates.

Well, as time passed the Keynesians got back into government.  In the late Nineties as they kept interest rates low again to stimulate the economy.  Creating the dot-com bubble.  And the early 2000s recession.  George W. Bush cut taxes.  Brought the economy out of recession.  But then the Keynesians went back to playing with those interest rates.  Kept them artificially low.  Creating a great housing bubble.  And the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.

Keynesian economics have failed throughout the last century of trying.  And taxpayers clearly saw this along the way.  Voting for Austrian policies every time economic policy mattered.  Especially after another failure of Keynesian policy.  Every time their policies failed, though, the Keynesians had an excuse.  Supply shocks.  Liquidity traps.  Something.  It was always something that caused their policies to fail.  But it was never the policies themselves.  Despite Mellon, Harding, Coolidge, Kennedy and Reagan proving otherwise.  So they had to try something else.  And they did.  Class warfare.  They transferred the tax burden to the wealthier.  Reduced the number of people paying federal income taxes.  And gave ever more generous government benefits.  This took the failed ideology out of the equation.  Making it easier to win elections.  For when Reagan was in office more than 80% of the electorate were taxpayers.  And Austrian economics won at the polls.  The Nineties ended with only about 65% of the electorate paying federal income taxes.  By 2009 that number shrunk to about only half of the electorate.  Which gave the tax and spend Keynesians an edge over responsible-governing Austrians.  Because people who don’t pay income taxes will vote for policies to increase taxes on those who do.  Not because of concern over economic policy.  But just to get free stuff.  Something Keynesians learned well.  When at first you fail just buy votes.  And then you can continue your failed policies to your heart’s content.

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