The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published February 27th, 2012)

Because of the Unpredictable Human Element in all Economic Exchanges the Austrian School is more Laissez-Faire

Name some of the great inventions economists gave us.  The computer?  The Internet?  The cell phone?  The car?  The jumbo jet?  Television?  Air conditioning?  The automatic dishwasher?  No.  Amazingly, economists did not invent any of these brilliant inventions.  And economists didn’t predict any of these inventions.  Not a one.  Despite how brilliant they are.  Well, brilliant by their standard.  In their particular field.  For economists really aren’t that smart.  Their ‘expertise’ is in the realm of the social sciences.  The faux sciences where people try to quantify the unquantifiable.  Using mathematical equations to explain and predict human behavior.  Which is what economists do.  Especially Keynesian economists.  Who think they are smarter than people.  And markets.

But there is a school of economic thought that doesn’t believe we can quantify human activity.  The Austrian school.  Where Austrian economics began.  In Vienna.  Where the great Austrian economists gathered.  Carl Menger.  Ludwig von Mises.  And Friedrich Hayek.  To name a few.  Who understood that economics is the sum total of millions of people making individual human decisions.  Human being key.  And why we can’t reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  Because you can’t quantify human behavior.  Contrary to what the Keynesians believe.  Which is why these two schools are at odds with each other.  With people even donning the personas of Keynes and Hayek to engage in economic debate.

Keynesian economics is more mainstream than the Austrian school.  Because it calls for the government to interfere with market forces.  To manipulate them.  To make markets produce different results from those they would have if left alone.  Something governments love to do.  Especially if it calls for taxing and spending.  Which Keynesian economics highly encourage.  To fix market ‘failures’.  And recessions.  By contrast, because of the unpredictable human element in all economic exchanges, the Austrian school is more laissez-faire.  They believe more in the separation of the government from things economic.  Economic exchanges are best left to the invisible hand.  What Adam Smith called the sum total of the millions of human decisions made by millions of people.  Who are maximizing their own economic well being.  And when we do we maximize the economic well being of the economy as a whole.  For the Austrian economist does not believe he or she is smarter than people.  Or markets.  Which is why an economist never gave us any brilliant invention.  Nor did their equations predict any inventor inventing a great invention.  And why economists have day jobs.  For if they were as brilliant and prophetic as they claim to be they could see into the future and know which stocks to buy to get rich so they could give up their day jobs.  When they’re able to do that we should start listening to them.  But not before.

Low Interest Rates cause Malinvestment and Speculation which puts Banks in Danger of Financial Collapse

Keynesian economics really took off with central banking.  And fractional reserve banking.  Monetary tools to control the money supply.  That in the Keynesian world was supposed to end business cycles and recessions as we knew them.  The Austrian school argues that using these monetary tools only distorts the business cycle.  And makes recessions worse.  Here’s how it works.  The central bank lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply (via open market transactions, lowering reserve requirements in fractional reserve banking or by printing money).  Lower interest rates encourage people to borrow money to buy houses, cars, kitchen appliances, home theater systems, etc.  This new economic activity encourages businesses to hire new workers to meet the new demand.  Ergo, recession over.  Simple math, right?  Only there’s a bit of a problem.  Some of our worst recessions have come during the era of Keynesian economics.  Including the worst recession of all time.  The Great Depression.  Which proves the Austrian point that the use of Keynesian policies to end recessions only makes recessions worse.  (Economists debate the causes of the Great Depression to this day.  Understanding the causes is not the point here.  The point is that it happened.  When recessions were supposed to be a thing of the past when using Keynesian policies.)

The problem is that these are not real economic expansions.  They’re artificial ones.  Created by cheap credit.  Which the central bank creates by forcing interest rates below actual market interest rates.  Which causes a whole host of problems.  In particular corrupting the banking system.  Banks offer interest rates to encourage people to save their money for future use (like retirement) instead of spending it in the here and now.  This is where savings (or investment capital) come from.  Banks pay depositors interest on their deposits.  And then loan out this money to others who need investment capital to start businesses.  To expand businesses.  To buy businesses.  Whatever.  They borrow money to invest so they can expand economic activity.  And make more profits.

But investment capital from savings is different from investment capital from an expansion of the money supply.  Because businesses will act as if the trend has shifted from consumption (spending now) to investment (spending later).  So they borrow to expand operations.  All because of the false signal of the artificially low interest rates.  They borrow money.  Over-invest.  And make bad investments.  Even speculate.  What Austrians call malinvestments.  But there was no shift from consumption to investment.  Savings haven’t increased.  In fact, with all those new loans on the books the banks see a shift in the other direction.  Because they have loaned out more money while the savings rate of their depositors did not change.  Which produced on their books a reduction in the net savings rate.  Leaving them more dangerously leveraged than before the credit expansion.  Also, those lower interest rates also decrease the interest rate on savings accounts.  Discouraging people from saving their money.  Which further reduces the savings rate of depositors.  Finally, those lower interest rates reduce the income stream on their loans.  Leaving them even more dangerously leveraged.  Putting them at risk of financial collapse should many of their loans go bad.

Keynesian Economics is more about Power whereas the Austrian School is more about Economics

These artificially low interest rates fuel malinvestment and speculation.  Cheap credit has everyone, flush with borrowed funds, bidding up prices (real estate, construction, machinery, raw material, etc.).  This alters the natural order of things.  The automatic pricing mechanism of the free market.  And reallocates resources to these higher prices.  Away from where the market would have otherwise directed them.  Creating great shortages and high prices in some areas.  And great surpluses of stuff no one wants to buy at any price in other areas.  Sort of like those Soviet stores full of stuff no one wanted to buy while people stood in lines for hours to buy toilet paper and soap.  (But not quite that bad.)  Then comes the day when all those investments don’t produce any returns.  Which leaves these businesses, investors and speculators with a lot of debt with no income stream to pay for it.  They drove up prices.  Created great asset bubbles.  Overbuilt their capacity.  Bought assets at such high prices that they’ll never realize a gain from them.  They know what’s coming next.  And in some darkened office someone pours a glass of scotch and murmurs, “My God, what have we done?”

The central bank may try to delay this day of reckoning.  By keeping interest rates low.  But that only allows asset bubbles to get bigger.  Making the inevitable correction more painful.  But eventually the central bank has to step in and raise interest rates.  Because all of that ‘bidding up of prices’ finally makes its way down to the consumer level.  And sparks off some nasty inflation.  So rates go up.  Credit becomes more expensive.  Often leaving businesses and speculators to try and refinance bad debt at higher rates.  Debt that has no income stream to pay for it.  Either forcing business to cut costs elsewhere.  Or file bankruptcy.  Which ripples through the banking system.  Causing a lot of those highly leveraged banks to fail with them.  Thus making the resulting recession far more painful and more long-lasting than necessary.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  At least, according to the Austrian school.  And much of the last century of history.

The Austrian school believes the market should determine interest rates.  Not central bankers.  They’re not big fans of fractional reserve banking, either.  Which only empowers central bankers to cause all of their mischief.  Which is why Keynesians don’t like Austrians.  Because Keynesians, and politicians, like that power.  For they believe that they are smarter than the people making economic exchanges.  Smarter than the market.  And they just love having control over all of that money.  Which comes in pretty handy when playing politics.  Which is ultimately the goal of Keynesian economics.  Whereas the Austrian school is more about economics.

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Christmas and Keynesian Stimulus

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 23rd, 2013

Economics 101

(Originally published December 24th, 2012)

Christians may not like the Crass Commercialization of Christmas but the Left Loves It

The Left does not have a war on Christmas per se.  For they love the consumer spending part of Christmas.  Which is pure Keynesian.  People go into debt to spend more money at retailers.  They love that part of Christmas.  What they don’t like is the religious stuff.  Especially Jesus.

They don’t like Jesus because He is the God the Christians worship.  Their Lord and Savior.  It’s these Christians that bother the Left.  Because of their opposition to birth control (mostly Catholics), abortion and having fun in general.  The kind of fun adults enjoy.  The kind of things Christians frown on.  Premarital sex.  Gay love.  Drinking and using drugs.  Coarse language and sexual situations on television shows and in the movies.  Things they champion on the Left.  Which makes the Left hate Christianity.  Which they see as nothing but a great killjoy.

It’s the moralizing the Left does not like.  But the one thing Christians don’t like about Christmas, its crass commercialization, they do like.  So the Left will try to band images of Christ from Christmas displays wherever they can.  Despite Christmas being the celebration of Christ’s birth.  But they will gather in Rockefeller Center to party when they light the Christmas tree.  Though they would prefer that we call it the holiday tree.

Retailers often become Profitable for the Year only because of this Temporary Spending Surge at Christmas

So there are two Christmases.  The one where Christians celebrate the birth of Christ.  Wish for peace on earth.  And good will towards man.  And the other Christmas.  The one marked by the orgy of consumer spending.  Much of it funded by one-time Christmas bonuses.  A celebration of demand-side Keynesian economics.  Where people spend their hard earned money instead of saving it.  And when their money runs out they spend even more using their credit cards.

Keynesians have a bunch of charts and graphs showing how great a stimulus this Christmas spending is to the economy.  And mathematical formulas.  They can tell you about the velocity of money. How fast money travels through the economy when it goes from consumer to seller.  The seller then becomes consumer.  And spends the money they just received.  Then the person who receives this money in a sales transaction goes out and spends it as a consumer.  And on and on it goes.  Flying through though the economy at breakneck speed.  Generating a whole lot of economic activity.

Retailers often become profitable for the year only because of this spending surge at Christmas.  In fact, to handle this surge in business they hire a lot of people at Christmas time.  Part-time people.  Proving again that pumping money into the economy creates jobs.  The main tenet of Keynesian monetary policy.  Pump cash into the economy and people will spend it.  Something the Keynesians have been doing since Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold in 1971.  Ending any semblance of responsible monetary policy.  And recessions forever.  At least, that was the plan.

Keynesian Stimulus is nothing more than an Orgy of Temporary Consumer Spending just like at Christmas Time

When the economy slows down and people stop buying stuff businesses have to lay off workers.  So they won’t build stuff that no one will buy.  Laid off workers no longer have money to buy things.  Which causes other business to lay off workers.  So THEY won’t build stuff that no one will buy.  It’s a vicious cycle.  In fact, we call it the business cycle.  The boom-bust cycle.  From expansion to contraction.  From an economy hiring people to an economy laying off people.

Keynesian economics was supposed to remove the contraction side of the business cycle.  By picking up the spending slack.  When consumers stopped spending money the government would step in and replace their spending.  We call it stimulus spending.  Often spending money the government doesn’t have.  So they run a deficit (i.e., borrow money).  Or simply print money.  Which they did a lot of in the Seventies.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, you just can’t do that.  For when you print money you devalue it.  Which raises prices.  As it takes more of these devalued dollars to buy what they once did.

And this is why Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Because a Keynesian stimulus is nothing more than an orgy of consumer spending.  Just like at Christmas time.  Which happens only for a limited time.  Businesses hire temporary part-time workers at Christmas because this spending does not last.  As it does not last during a Keynesian stimulus.  It doesn’t create any full-time jobs.  Because employers know it is only temporary.  And they know that higher prices will soon follow.  As they do after Christmas when the discounting ends.  Which will reduce future economic activity.  As it does after Christmas.  Once the deals end so too ends the orgy of consumer spending.  Leaving people to deal with the aftermath.  Depleted bank accounts.  A lot of credit card debt.  And a little buyer’s remorse.

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Keynesian Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 14th, 2013

Economics 101

(Originally published February 20th, 2012)

John Maynard Keynes said if the People aren’t Buying then the Government Should Be

Keynesian economics is pretty complex.  So is the CliffsNotes version.  So this will be the in-a-nutshell version.  Keynesian economics basically says, in a nut shell, that markets are stupid.  Because markets are full of stupid people.  If we leave people to buy and sell as they please we will continue to suffer recession after recession.  Because market failures give us the business cycle.  Which are nice on the boom side.  But suck on the bust side.  The recession side.  So smart people got together and said, “Hey, we’re smart people.  We can save these stupid people from themselves.  Just put a few of us smart people into government and give us control over the economy.  Do that and recessions will be a thing of the past.”

Well, that’s the kind of thing governments love to hear.  “Control over the economy?” they said.  “We would love to take control of the economy.  And we would love to control the stupid people, too.  Just tell us how to do it and our smart people will work with your smart people and we will make the world a better place.”  And John Maynard Keynes told them exactly what to do.  And by exactly I mean exactly.  He transformed economics into mathematical equations.  And they all pretty much centered on doing one thing.  Moving the demand curve.  (A downward sloping graph showing the relationship between prices and demand for stuff; higher the price the lower the demand and vice versa).

In macroeconomics (i.e., the ‘big picture’ of the national economy), Keynes said all our troubles come from people not buying enough stuff.  That they aren’t consuming enough.  And when consumption falls we get recessions.  Because aggregate demand falls.  Aggregate demand being all the people put together in the economy out there demanding stuff to buy.  And this is where government steps in.  By picking up the slack in personal consumption.  Keynes said if the people aren’t buying then the government should be.  We call this spending ‘stimulus’.  Governments pass stimulus bills to shift the demand curve to the right.  A shift to the right means more demand and more economic activity.  Instead of less.  Do this and we avoid a recession.  Which the market would have entered if left to market forces.  But not anymore.  Not with smart people interfering with market forces.  And eliminating the recession side of the business cycle.

Keynesians prefer Deficit Spending and Playing with the Money Supply to Stimulate the Economy

Oh, it all sounds good.  Almost too good to be true.  And, as it turns out, it is too good to be true.  Because economics isn’t mathematical.  It’s not a set of equations.  It’s people entering into trades with each other.  And this is where Keynesian economics goes wrong.  People don’t enter into economic exchanges with each other to exchange money.  They only use money to make their economic exchanges easier.  Money is just a temporary storage of value.  Of their human capital.  Their personal talent that provides them business profits.  Investment profits.  Or a paycheck.  Money makes it easier to go shopping with the proceeds of your human capital.  So we don’t have to barter.  Exchange the things we make for the things we want.  Imagine a shoemaker trying to barter for a TV set.  By trading shoes for a TV.  Which won’t go well if the TV maker doesn’t want any shoes.  So you can see the limitation in the barter system.   But when the shoemaker uses money to buy a TV it doesn’t change the fundamental fact that he is still trading his shoemaking ability for that TV.  He’s just using money as a temporary storage of his shoemaking ability.

We are traders.  And we trade things.  Or services.  We trade value created by our human capital.  From skill we learned in school.  Or through experience.  Like working in a skilled trade under the guidance of a skilled journeyperson or master tradesperson.  This is economic activity.  Real economic activity.  People getting together to trade their human capital.  Or in Keynesian terms, on both sides of the equation for these economic exchanges is human capital.  Which is why demand-side economic stimulus doesn’t work.  Because it mistakes money for human capital.  One has value.  The other doesn’t.  And when you replace one side of the equation with something that doesn’t have value (i.e., money) you cannot exchange it for something that has value (human capital) without a loss somewhere else in the economy.  In other words to engage in economic exchanges you have to bring something to the table to trade.  Skill or ability.  Not just money.  If you bring someone else’s skill or ability (i.e., their earned money) to the table you’re not creating economic activity.  You’re just transferring economic activity to different people.  There is no net gain.  And no economic stimulus.

When government spends money to stimulate economic activity there are no new economic exchanges.  Because government spending is financed by tax revenue.  Wealth they pull out of the private sector so the public sector can spend it.  They take money from some who can’t spend it and give it to others who can now spend it.  The reduction in economic activity of the first group offsets the increase in economic activity in the second group.   So there is no net gain.  Keynesians understand this math.  Which is why they prefer deficit spending (new spending paid by borrowing rather than taxes).  And playing with the money supply.

The End Result of Government Stimulus is Higher Prices for the Same Level of Economic Activity

The reason we have recessions is because of sticky wages.  When the business cycle goes into recession all prices fall.  Except for one.  Wages.  Those sticky wages.  Because it is not easy giving people pay cuts.  Good employees may just leave and work for someone else for better pay.  So when a business can’t sell enough to maintain profitability they cut production.  And lay off workers.  Because they can’t reduce wages for everyone.  So a few people lose all of their wages.  Instead of all of the people losing all of their wages by a business doing nothing to maintain profitability.  And going out of business.

To prevent this unemployment Keynesian economics says to move the aggregate demand curve to the right.  In part by increasing government spending.  But paying for this spending with higher taxes on existing spenders is a problem.  It cancels out any new economic activity created by new spenders.  So this is where deficit spending and playing with the money supply come in.  The idea is if the government borrows money they can create economic activity.  Without causing an equal reduction in economic activity due to higher taxes.  And by playing with the money supply (i.e., interest rates) they can encourage people to borrow money to spend even if they had no prior intentions of doing so.  Hoping that low interest rates will encourage them to buy a house or a car.  (And incur dangerous levels of debt in the process).  But the fatal flaw in this is that it stimulates the money supply.  Not human capital.

This only pumps more money into the economy.  Inflates the money supply.  And depreciates the dollar.  Which increases prices.  Because a depreciated dollar can’t buy as much as it used to.  So whatever boost in economic activity we gain will soon be followed by an increase in prices.  Thus reducing economic activity.  Because of that demand curve.  That says higher prices decreases aggregate demand.  And decreases economic activity.  The end result is higher prices for the same level of economic activity.  Leaving us worse off in the long run.  If you ever heard a parent say when they were a kid you could buy a soda for a nickel this is the reason why.  Soda used to cost only a nickel.  Until all this Keynesian induced inflation shrunk the dollar and raised prices through the years.  Which is why that same soda now costs a dollar.

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GDP Growth, Recession, Depression and Recovery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 18th, 2013

Economics 101

Gross Domestic Product is basically Consumer Spending and Government Spending

In the 1980 presidential campaign Ronald Reagan said, “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job.  A depression is when you lose yours.  And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”  A powerful statement.  And one that proved to be pretty much true.  But don’t look for these definitions in an economics textbook.  For though they connect well to us the actual definitions are a little more complex.  And a bit abstract.

There is a natural ebb and flow to the economy.  We call it the business cycle.  There are good economic times with unemployment falling.  And there are bad economic times with unemployment rising.  The economy expands.  And the economy contracts.  The contraction side of the business cycle is a recession.  And it runs from the peak of the expansion to the trough of the contraction.  A depression is basically a recession that is really, really bad.

But even these definitions are vague.  Because getting an accurate measurement on economic growth isn’t that easy.  There’s gross domestic product (GDP).  Which is the sum total of final goods and services.  Basically consumer spending and government spending.  Which is why the government’s economists (Keynesians) and those in the Democrat Party always say cutting government spending will hurt the economy.  By reducing GDP.  But GDP is not the best measurement of economic activity.

Even though Retail Sales may be Doing Well everyone up the Production Chain may not be Expanding Production

One problem with GDP is that the government is constantly revising the numbers.  So GDP doesn’t really provide real-time feedback on economic activity.  The organization that defines the start and end points of recessions is the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).  And they often do so AFTER the end of a recession.  One metric they use is GDP growth.  If it’s negative for two consecutive quarters they call it a recession.  But if there is a significant decline in economic activity that lasts a few months or more they may call that a recession, too.  Even if there aren’t two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth.  If GDP falls by 10% they’ll call that a depression.

There’s another problem with using GDP data.  It’s incomplete.  It only looks at consumer spending.  It doesn’t count any of the upper stages of
production.  The wholesale stage.  The manufacturing stage.  And the raw commodities stage.  Where the actual bulk of economic activity takes place.  In these upper stages.  Which Keynesian economists ignore.  For they only look at aggregate consumer spending.  Which they try to manipulate with interest rates.  And increasing the money supply.  To encourage more consumer spending.  But there is a problem with Keynesian economics.  It doesn’t work.

When economic activity slows Keynesian economic policies say the government should increase spending to pick up the slack.  So they expand the money supply.  Lower interest rates.  And spend money.  Putting more money into the hands of consumers.  So they can go out and spend that money.  Thus stimulating economic activity.  But expanding the money supply creates inflation.  Which raises prices.  So consumers may be spending that stimulus money but those businesses in the higher stages of production know what’s coming.  Higher prices.  Which means people will soon be buying less.  And they know once these people spend their stimulus money it will be gone.  As will all that stimulated activity.  So even though retail sales may be doing well everyone up the production chain may not be expanding production.  Instead, wholesalers will draw down their inventories.  And not replace them.  So they will buy less from manufacturers.  Who will buy fewer raw commodities.

The continually falling Labor Force Participation Rate suggests the 2007-2009 Recession hasn’t Ended

So retail sales could be doing well during an economic contraction.  For awhile.  But everything above retail sales will already be hunkering down for the coming recession.  Cutting production.  And laying off people. Making unemployment another metric to measure a recession by.  If the unemployment rate rose by, say, 1.5 points during a given period of time the economy may be in a recession.  But there is a problem with using the unemployment rate.  The official unemployment rate (the U-3 number) doesn’t count everyone who can’t find a full-time job.

U-3 only counts those people who are looking for work.  They don’t count those who take a lower-paying part-time job because they can’t find a full-time job.  And they don’t count people who give up looking for work because there just isn’t anything out there.  Getting by on their savings.  Their spouse’s income.  Even cashing in their 401(k).  People doing this are an indication of a horrible economy.  And probably a pretty bad recession.  But they don’t count them.  Making the U-3 unemployment rate understate the true unemployment.  A better metric is the labor force participation rate.  The percentage of those who are able to work who are actually working.  A falling unemployment rate is good.  But if that happens at the same time the labor force participation rate is falling the economy is still probably in recession.  Despite the falling unemployment rate.

The NBER sifts through a lot of data to decide whether the economy is in recession or not.  Do politics enter their decision-making process?  Perhaps.  For they said the 2007-2009 recession ended in 2009.  The U-3 unemployment rate had fallen.  And GDP growth returned to positive territory.  But the labor force participation rate continued to fall.  Meaning people were disappearing from the labor force.  Indicating that the 2007-2009 recession hasn’t really ended.  In fact, one could even say that we have been in a depression.  For not only did a lot of our neighbors lose their jobs.  A lot of us lost our jobs, too.  And because the president who presided over the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression didn’t lose his job in 2012, there has been no recovery.  So given our current economic picture the best metric to use appears to be what Ronald Reagan told us in 1980.  Which means things aren’t going to get better any time soon.

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Christmas and Keynesian Stimulus

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 24th, 2012

Economics 101

Christians may not like the Crass Commercialization of Christmas but the Left Loves It

The Left does not have a war on Christmas per se.  For they love the consumer spending part of Christmas.  Which is pure Keynesian.  People go into debt to spend more money at retailers.  They love that part of Christmas.  What they don’t like is the religious stuff.  Especially Jesus.

They don’t like Jesus because He is the God the Christians worship.  Their Lord and Savior.  It’s these Christians that bother the Left.  Because of their opposition to birth control (mostly Catholics), abortion and having fun in general.  The kind of fun adults enjoy.  The kind of things Christians frown on.  Premarital sex.  Gay love.  Drinking and using drugs.  Coarse language and sexual situations on television shows and in the movies.  Things they champion on the Left.  Which makes the Left hate Christianity.  Which they see as nothing but a great killjoy.

It’s the moralizing the Left does not like.  But the one thing Christians don’t like about Christmas, its crass commercialization, they do like.  So the Left will try to band images of Christ from Christmas displays wherever they can.  Despite Christmas being the celebration of Christ’s birth.  But they will gather in Rockefeller Center to party when they light the Christmas tree.  Though they would prefer that we call it the holiday tree.

Retailers often become Profitable for the Year only because of this Temporary Spending Surge at Christmas

So there are two Christmases.  The one where Christians celebrate the birth of Christ.  Wish for peace on earth.  And good will towards man.  And the other Christmas.  The one marked by the orgy of consumer spending.  Much of it funded by one-time Christmas bonuses.  A celebration of demand-side Keynesian economics.  Where people spend their hard earned money instead of saving it.  And when their money runs out they spend even more using their credit cards.

Keynesians have a bunch of charts and graphs showing how great a stimulus this Christmas spending is to the economy.  And mathematical formulas.  They can tell you about the velocity of money. How fast money travels through the economy when it goes from consumer to seller.  The seller then becomes consumer.  And spends the money they just received.  Then the person who receives this money in a sales transaction goes out and spends it as a consumer.  And on and on it goes.  Flying through though the economy at breakneck speed.  Generating a whole lot of economic activity.

Retailers often become profitable for the year only because of this spending surge at Christmas.  In fact, to handle this surge in business they hire a lot of people at Christmas time.  Part-time people.  Proving again that pumping money into the economy creates jobs.  The main tenet of Keynesian monetary policy.  Pump cash into the economy and people will spend it.  Something the Keynesians have been doing since Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold in 1971.  Ending any semblance of responsible monetary policy.  And recessions forever.  At least, that was the plan.

Keynesian Stimulus is nothing more than an Orgy of Temporary Consumer Spending just like at Christmas Time

When the economy slows down and people stop buying stuff businesses have to lay off workers.  So they won’t build stuff that no one will buy.  Laid off workers no longer have money to buy things.  Which causes other business to lay off workers.  So THEY won’t build stuff that no one will buy.  It’s a vicious cycle.  In fact, we call it the business cycle.  The boom-bust cycle.  From expansion to contraction.  From an economy hiring people to an economy laying off people.

Keynesian economics was supposed to remove the contraction side of the business cycle.  By picking up the spending slack.  When consumers stopped spending money the government would step in and replace their spending.  We call it stimulus spending.  Often spending money the government doesn’t have.  So they run a deficit (i.e., borrow money).  Or simply print money.  Which they did a lot of in the Seventies.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, you just can’t do that.  For when you print money you devalue it.  Which raises prices.  As it takes more of these devalued dollars to buy what they once did.

And this is why Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Because a Keynesian stimulus is nothing more than an orgy of consumer spending.  Just like at Christmas time.  Which happens only for a limited time.  Businesses hire temporary part-time workers at Christmas because this spending does not last.  As it does not last during a Keynesian stimulus.  It doesn’t create any full-time jobs.  Because employers know it is only temporary.  And they know that higher prices will soon follow.  As they do after Christmas when the discounting ends.  Which will reduce future economic activity.  As it does after Christmas.  Once the deals end so too ends the orgy of consumer spending.  Leaving people to deal with the aftermath.  Depleted bank accounts.  A lot of credit card debt.  And a little buyer’s remorse.

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Economic Stimulus

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 5th, 2012

Economics 101

Prices match Supply to Demand letting Suppliers know when to bring more Goods and Services to Market

There is a natural ebb and flow to the economy.  Through good times and bad.  And you can tell which way the economy is heading by prices in the market place.  When prices are rising times are typically good.  As people are gainfully employed with money to spend.  As they compete with each other for the goods and services in the market place demand rises.  Growing greater than the supply of goods and services.  So prices rise.  Because when there are fewer goods and services they are worth more money.  For those who have them to sell.  Because demand is so great people are willing to pay top dollar for them.  To get them while supplies last.  This attracts the attention of other suppliers.  Who want to cash in on those high prices.  So they bring more goods and services to market.

In time supply catches up to demand.  And passes it.  Suddenly the market has more goods and services than people are buying.  As inventories grow retailers stop buying so much from their wholesale suppliers.  Who in turn stop buying so much from their manufacturers.  Who in turn stop buying so much from their raw material suppliers.  And manufacturers and their raw material suppliers begin laying off workers.  So there are fewer people gainfully employed with money to spend.  The fewer gainfully employed buy less than the more gainfully employed.  Causing inventories to grow larger as more goods are going into them than are coming out of them.  So they start cutting prices.  To unload these inventories before people start buying even less.  Because they spent a lot of money to build those inventories.  And it costs to hold these items in warehouses and stockrooms.

And that’s the natural ebb and flow of the economy.  What economists call the business cycle.  That goes from an expanding economy to a contracting economy.  From boom to bust.  From inflation to recession.  Something normal.  And natural.  Though it could be unpleasant for those who lose their jobs.  But it’s something that must happen.  To correct prices.  You see, prices make all of this work automatically.  They match supply to demand.  Letting suppliers know when to bring more goods and services to market.  And when they’ve brought too much.  When the economy goes into recession prices fall.  Which tells suppliers that supply exceeds demand.  And that anything additional they bring to market will not sell.  As they incur costs to bring things to market this is very good information to have.  So they don’t waste money.  Leaving their businesses short of cash.  Possibly causing their businesses to fail.

Whenever we Devalue the Dollar with Inflationary Monetary Policy Prices Rise

No one likes losing their job.  Because they need income to pay their bills.  And the government doesn’t like people losing their jobs.  Because they tax those incomes to pay the government’s bills.  And unemployed people pay no income taxes.  So the government tries to tweak the economy.  At the federal level.  To extend the inflationary periods of the business cycle.  And they do that with inflationary monetary policy.  Using their monetary powers to keep interest rates below the true market interest rate.  Hoping it will encourage suppliers and consumers to keep borrowing and spending money.  Even though supply had already caught up to and passed demand.  Such that everyone that wanted to buy something could.  While every supplier that wanted to sell something couldn’t.

Some people take advantage of these lower interest rates.  Some people will remortgage their homes to lower their monthly payment.  Which will give them a little more disposable cash each month.  Which they may use to buy more stuff.  But other people will take this opportunity to buy a large house just because of the low interest rate.  As some businesses may borrow to expand their business just because of the low interest rate.  Not for unmet demand.  These actions may not help the economy.  In fact they may hurt the economy in the long-term.  When the inevitable recession comes along and they are so overextended they may not be able to pay their bills.  They may lose their house.  Or their business.  For the worst thing to have whenever you suffer a reduction in revenue or income is debt.

But there is an even worse effect of that inflationary monetary policy.  When you increase the money supply you increase the total amount of dollars in the economy.  But they’re chasing the same amount of goods and services.  Which makes each dollar worth less.  Requiring more of them to buy the same things they once did.  Which is why whenever we devalue the dollar with inflationary monetary policy prices rise.  So, yes, there may be an initial expansion of economic activity.  But some people will have inflationary expectations.  That is, they know prices will go up in the very near future.  So they won’t increase production.  Why?  While an initial burst of economic activity may draw down those bloated inventories those coming higher prices will increase business costs.  Which businesses will have to pass on in the prices of their goods.  And how do higher prices affect consumers?  They buy less.  So manufacturers are not going to expand production when price inflation is going to reduce their sales in the long run.

Cutting Taxes and Reducing Costly Regulations have Stimulated Economic Activity every time they’ve been Tried

Perhaps the worst effect of inflation is the false information those higher prices give.  When consumer demand rises so do prices.  And it’s a signal to suppliers to bring more goods and services to market.  But when prices rise because of a depreciated dollar and NOT due to higher consumer demand, some may bring more goods and services to market when there is no demand for it.  So you have rising prices.  And expanding production.  Producing more goods than the market is demanding.  Creating a bubble.  Adding a lot of stuff to the market place at very inflated prices.  That no one is buying.  Then the bubble bursts.  And recession sets in.  As businesses lay off workers to adjust supply to meet actual demand.  And those inflated prices fall back to market values.  The higher inflationary monetary policy pushed those prices up the farther they have to fall.  And the more painful the recession will be.

You see, inflationary monetary policy interferes with the natural ebb and flow of the economy.  And the automatic price mechanism that matches supply to demand.  By trying to expand the inflationary side of the business cycle, and contract the recessionary side, governments make recessions longer.  And more painful.  Which is why Keynesian stimulus policies (lowering interests rates and deficit spending) don’t stimulate long-term economic activity.  Yet it is what most governments turn to whenever the economy slows. While there is another way to stimulate economic activity.  One that is not so popular with most governments.  Across the board tax cuts on business and personal incomes.  And reducing costly regulations on businesses.  These make a more business-friendly environment.  Encouraging businesses to expand and hire people.  Because these actions will have a positive impact on a business’ long-term outlook.  And with consumers having more disposable income (thanks to the cuts in personal income tax rates) businesses know there will be a market of any increase in production.

So there you have two ways to stimulate economic activity.  One way that works (tax cuts and reducing costly business regulations).  And one that doesn’t (lowering interest rates and deficit spending).  So why is the one that doesn’t work chosen by most governments over the one that does?  Because governments like to spend money.  It’s how they build constituencies.  By giving generous benefits to voters.  But to do that they need tax revenue.  Lots of tax revenue.  Produced by increasing tax rates as often as they can.  So they cannot stand the thought of cutting taxes.  Ever.  Which is why they always choose inflationary policies over tax cuts.   Even though those policies fail to stimulate economic activity.  As proven throughout the era of Keynesian economics.  While cutting taxes and reducing costly regulations have stimulated economic activity every time they’ve been tried.

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Unemployment

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 1st, 2012

Economics 101

When Prices Rise Businesses Increase Output and when Prices Fall they Decrease Output

No one likes losing their job.  Even if you hate your job.  In fact, that’s why so many people stay in jobs they don’t like.  Because it’s easier than finding a new job that provides decent pay and benefits.  Sure, there are some aggressive go-getters out there who advance themselves up the earnings ladder by making career moves.  But most people prefer a steady paycheck that meets their needs.  At least, meets their needs with only a modicum of complaining.

But resigned to our places of employment as we may be change happens.  And we lose our jobs.  For a variety of reasons.  Mostly through the ebb and flow of the free market economy.  The normal business cycle.  The boom-bust cycles of the economy.  On the boom side prices rise as people are buying a lot of things.  High prices translate into business profits.  So businesses increase output to sell at those high prices.  And other businesses enter the market.  Adding jobs to the economy.  Retailers increase their orders at their wholesale suppliers.  Who increase their factory orders.  And the factories increase their orders with their suppliers.  Adding a lot of jobs to the economy.  And lowering the unemployment rate.

But eventually too many businesses flood the market with their goods and services.  Supplying more than the people can buy.  So stuff sits on shelves longer.  Retailers reduce their orders at their wholesale suppliers.  So inventories grow at the wholesalers.  So they cut their factory orders.  Leaving the factories with excess production.  So they cut back and reduce their orders with their suppliers.  As everyone cuts back on their business operations they lay off workers.  Removing jobs from the economy.  And increasing the unemployment rate.

When Capitalism destroys some Back-Breaking and Unpleasant Jobs it creates New and Better Jobs

The business cycle is normal.  And necessary.  By using prices in the market place it constantly adjusts supply to demand.  Making sure we efficiently use capital (raw materials, factories, equipment, etc.).  And human resources (labor, research, engineering, etc.).  When we under-utilize capital and human resources prices tend to rise (demand increases).  Encouraging an increase in supply.  The boom time.  When we over-utilize capital and human resources prices tend to fall (demand falls).  Encouraging a decrease in supply.  The bust time.  Or recession.  The business cycle maintains the optimum amount of economic activity automatically.  If we let this process operate automatically.  Yes, there will be recessions.  But they will typically be short in duration.  The less prices rise during the boom the shorter the duration.  The higher prices rise during a boom the longer the duration.  But one thing for certain is that prices have to fall to correct to actual demand.  And that only happens with a recession.

There are other contributors to unemployment besides the normal business cycle.  Like structural unemployment.  Such as when technology changes and makes old jobs obsolete.  A lot of ditch diggers lost their jobs when we developed mechanized excavating equipment.  People in the whale oil business lost their jobs when John D. Rockefeller brought kerosene to the market.  The Pony Express riders lost their jobs with the advent of the telegraph.  The telephone put telegraph operators out of work.  Cell phones put people in the phone booth industry out of a job.  And destroyed a lot of jobs in the pager industry.  The personal computer put a lot of secretaries and typists out of work.  The DVD destroyed jobs in the VCR industry (and those little video cassette rewinding machines).  When they found asbestos caused lung cancer it destroyed the asbestos industry.  The Internet is putting the printed newspapers out of business.  Digital cameras destroyed jobs in the instant camera business (e.g., Polaroid).  And email and texting is causing the U.S. Postal Service to go bankrupt.

There are always unemployed people.  Thanks to the normal business cycle.  Structural unemployment.  Even to changes in consumer preferences that puts some businesses out of business.  (Wearing legwarmers was a fashion trend that sold well in the Eighties but disappeared by the Nineties.)  So there are always people losing their jobs.  But that’s normal.  And necessary.  For all of those new technologies and new consumer preferences create new industries.  And new jobs.  Jobs they staff from the unemployed.  So while free market capitalism destroys some jobs it creates new ones.  Jobs that are often better than the ones destroyed.  Such as back-breaking and unpleasant manual labor jobs replaced by less back-breaking and less unpleasant jobs.  Such as the ditch diggers being replace by a machine and an operator.  And all those workers who build, transport, fuel and maintain those machines.

Some of our Worst Recessions have happened since the Keynesians set out to make Recessions a thing of the Past

Then there’s a worse kind of unemployment.  The kind government causes.  In part with their policies that are not business-friendly.  That increase the cost of business.  Which reduces the number of jobs they can create.  Such as increasing taxes and tariffs.  And mandatory employee costs.  Such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment taxes, health insurance, etc.  As well as corporate income taxes.  Regulatory compliance costs.  And a minimum wage.  Which discourages hiring unskilled workers.  As well as increases pay levels for those earning above the minimum wage.  Who expect a much higher pay than minimum wage because of their education and/or experience.

So these policies depress the job market.  Because they increase the cost of business.  Then they compound their anti-business policies with bad monetary policy.  Keynesian economists don’t like capitalism.  Or the private sector.  Because of the business cycle.  Keynesians say they can get rid of the business cycle.  By doing what the private sector won’t do.  Hire people during times of recession.  Keynesians encourage the government to run deficits during recessions so they can spend money.  Creating government jobs.  And by creating government projects (e.g., building roads and bridges) for the private sector.  Creating jobs that the private sector won’t.  They even push interest rates below where the market would have them.  By expanding the money supply.  To encourage business to borrow money to expand their businesses for a consumer demand that isn’t there.  And they encourage consumers to buy big ticket items like houses and cars.  To further go into debt to stimulate economic activity.

The problem with these Keynesian policies is that they interfere with the automatic price mechanism to match supply to demand.  So when prices tell suppliers to reduce output these policies encourage them to increase output.  So while they may actually stimulate some economic activity it is not real economic activity.  Not driven by real demand.  Prices will continue to rise as if the boom is continuing.  The inflation created by that expansion of the money supply will even increase prices further still.  Which means when the correction happens those prices have a lot farther to fall.  Making the recession longer.  And more painful.  So the Keynesians not only failed to remove the bust-side of the business cycle.  They made the bust-side last longer than it normally would have had there been no government intervention.  Which is why some of our worst recessions have happened since the Keynesians set out to make recessions a thing of the past.

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Recession and Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2012

Economics 101

A Depression is an Exceptionally Bad Recession 

When campaigning for the presidency Ronald Reagan explained what a recession, a depression and a recovery were.  He said a recession is when your neighbor loses his job.  A depression is when you lose your job.  And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.  This was during the 1980 presidential election.  Where Reagan included that famous question at the end of one of the debates.  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  And the answer was “no.”  Ronald Reagan surged ahead of Jimmy Carter after that and won by a landslide.  And he won reelection by an even bigger landslide in 1984.

There are a couple of ways to define a recession.  Falling output and rising unemployment.  Two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  A decline in new factory orders.  The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, officially marks the start and end dates of all U.S. recessions.  They consider a lot of economic data.   It’s not an exact science.  But they track the business cycle.  That normal economic cycle between economic expansion and economic contraction.  The business cycle has peaks (expansion) and troughs (contraction).  A recession is the time period between a peak and a trough.  From the time everyone is working and happy and buying a lot of stuff.  Through a period of layoffs where people stop buying much of anything.  Until the last layoff before the next economic expansion begins.

A depression has an even more vague science behind it.  We really don’t have a set of requirements that the economy has to meet to tell us we’re in a depression.  Since the Great Depression we haven’t really used the word anymore for a depression is just thought of as an exceptionally bad recession.  Some have called the current recession (kicked off by the subprime mortgage crisis) a depression.  Because it has a lot of the things the Great Depression had.  Bank failures.  Liquidity crises.  A long period of high unemployment.  In fact, current U.S unemployment is close to Great Depression unemployment if you measure more apples to apples and use the U-6 rate instead of the official U-3 rate that subtracts a lot of people from the equation (people who can’t find work and have given up looking, people working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, people underemployed working well below their skill level, etc.).  For these reasons many call the current recession the Great Recession.  To connect it to the Great Depression.  Without calling the current recession a depression.

Whether Inventories sell or not Businesses have to Pay their People and their Payroll Taxes

So what causes a recession?  Good economic times.  Funny, isn’t it?  It’s the good times that cause the bad times.  Here’s how.  When everyone has a job who wants a job a lot of people are spending money in the economy.  Creating a lot of economic activity.  Businesses respond to this.  They increase production.  Even boost the inventories they carry so they don’t miss out on these good times.  For the last thing a business wants is to run out of their hot selling merchandise when people are buying like there is no tomorrow.  Businesses will ramp up production.  Add overtime such as running production an extra day of the week.  Perhaps extend the working day.  Businesses will do everything to max out their production with their current labor force.  Because expanding that labor force will cause big problems when the bloom is off of the economic rose.

But if the economic good times look like they will last businesses will hire new workers.  Driving up labor costs as businesses have to pay more to hire workers in a tight labor market.  These new workers will work a second shift.  A third shift.  They will fill a manufacturing plant expansion.  Or fill a new plant.  (Built by a booming construction industry.  Just as construction workers are building new houses in a booming home industry.)  Businesses will make these costly investments to meet the booming demand during an economic expansion.  Increasing their costs.  Which increases their prices.  And as businesses do this throughout the economy they begin to produce even more than the people are buying.  Inventories begin to build up until inventories are growing faster than sales.  The business cycle has peaked.  And the economic decline begins.

Inventories are costly.  They produce no revenue.  But incur cost to warehouse them.  Worse, businesses spent a lot of money producing these inventories.  Or I should say credit.  Typically manufacturers buy things and pay for them later.  Their accounts payable.  Which are someone else’s accounts receivable.  A lot of bills coming due.  And a lot of invoices going past due.  Because businesses have their money tied up in those inventories.  But one thing they can’t owe money on is payroll.  Whether those inventories sell or not they have to pay their people on time or face some harsh legal penalties.  And they have to pay their payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, withholding taxes, etc.) for the same reasons.  As well as their Workers’ Compensation insurance.  And they have to pay their health care insurance.  Labor is costly.  And there is no flexibility in paying it while you’re waiting for that inventory to sell.  This is why businesses are reluctant to add new labor and only do so when there is no other way to keep up with demand.

The Fed tries to Remove the Recessionary Side of the Business Cycle with Small but ‘Manageable’ Inflation

As sales dry up businesses reduce their prices to unload that inventory.  To convert that inventory into cash so they can pay their bills.  At the same time they are cutting back on production.  With sales down they are only losing money by building up inventories of stuff no one is buying.  Which means layoffs.  They idle their third shifts.  Their second shifts.  Their overtime.  They shut down plants.  A lot of people lose jobs.  Sales fall.  And prices fall.  As businesses try to reduce their inventories.  And stay in business by enticing the fewer people in the market place to buy their reduced production at lower prices.

During the economic expansion costs increased.  Labor costs increased.  And prices increased.  Because demand was greater than supply.  Businesses incurred these higher costs to meet that demand.  During the contraction these had to fall.  Because supply exceeded demand.  Buyers could and did shop around for the lowest price.  Without fear of anything running out of stock and not being there to buy the next day.  Or the next week.  And when prices stop falling it marks the end of the recession and the beginning of the next expansion.  When supply equals demand once again.  Prices, then, are key to the business cycle.  They rise during boom times.  And fall during contractions.  And when they stop falling the recession is over.  This is so important that I will say it again.  When prices stop falling a recession is over.

Jimmy Carter had such a bad economy because his administration still followed Keynesian economic policies.  Which tried to massage the business cycle by removing the contraction side of it.  By using monetary policy.  The Keynesians believed that whenever the economy starts to go into recession all the government has to do is to print money and spend it.  And the government printed a lot of money in the Seventies.  So much that there was double digit inflation.  But all this new money did was raise prices during a recession.  Which only made the recession worse.  This was the turning point in Keynesian economics.  And the end of highly inflationary policies.  But not the end of inflationary policies.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) still tries to remove the recessionary side of the business cycle.  And they still use monetary policy to do it.  With a smaller but ‘manageable’ amount of inflation.  During the great housing bubble that preceded the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession the Fed kept expanding the money supply to keep interest rates very low.  This kept mortgage rates low.  People borrowed money and bought big houses.  Housing prices soared.  These artificially low interest rates created a huge housing bubble that eventually popped.  And because the prices were so high the recession would be a long one to bring them back down.  Which is why many call the current recession the Great Recession.  Because we haven’t seen a price deflation like this since the Great Depression.

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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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The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 27th, 2012

Economics 101

Because of the Unpredictable Human Element in all Economic Exchanges the Austrian School is more Laissez-Faire

Name some of the great inventions economists gave us.  The computer?  The Internet?  The cell phone?  The car?  The jumbo jet?  Television?  Air conditioning?  The automatic dishwasher?  No.  Amazingly, economists did not invent any of these brilliant inventions.  And economists didn’t predict any of these inventions.  Not a one.  Despite how brilliant they are.  Well, brilliant by their standard.  In their particular field.  For economists really aren’t that smart.  Their ‘expertise’ is in the realm of the social sciences.  The faux sciences where people try to quantify the unquantifiable.  Using mathematical equations to explain and predict human behavior.  Which is what economists do.  Especially Keynesian economists.  Who think they are smarter than people.  And markets.

But there is a school of economic thought that doesn’t believe we can quantify human activity.  The Austrian school.  Where Austrian economics began.  In Vienna.  Where the great Austrian economists gathered.  Carl Menger.  Ludwig von Mises.  And Friedrich Hayek.  To name a few.  Who understood that economics is the sum total of millions of people making individual human decisions.  Human being key.  And why we can’t reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  Because you can’t quantify human behavior.  Contrary to what the Keynesians believe.  Which is why these two schools are at odds with each other.  With people even donning the personas of Keynes and Hayek to engage in economic debate.

Keynesian economics is more mainstream than the Austrian school.  Because it calls for the government to interfere with market forces.  To manipulate them.  To make markets produce different results from those they would have if left alone.  Something governments love to do.  Especially if it calls for taxing and spending.  Which Keynesian economics highly encourage.  To fix market ‘failures’.  And recessions.  By contrast, because of the unpredictable human element in all economic exchanges, the Austrian school is more laissez-faire.  They believe more in the separation of the government from things economic.  Economic exchanges are best left to the invisible hand.  What Adam Smith called the sum total of the millions of human decisions made by millions of people.  Who are maximizing their own economic well being.  And when we do we maximize the economic well being of the economy as a whole.  For the Austrian economist does not believe he or she is smarter than people.  Or markets.  Which is why an economist never gave us any brilliant invention.  Nor did their equations predict any inventor inventing a great invention.  And why economists have day jobs.  For if they were as brilliant and prophetic as they claim to be they could see into the future and know which stocks to buy to get rich so they could give up their day jobs.  When they’re able to do that we should start listening to them.  But not before.

Low Interest Rates cause Malinvestment and Speculation which puts Banks in Danger of Financial Collapse

Keynesian economics really took off with central banking.  And fractional reserve banking.  Monetary tools to control the money supply.  That in the Keynesian world was supposed to end business cycles and recessions as we knew them.  The Austrian school argues that using these monetary tools only distorts the business cycle.  And makes recessions worse.  Here’s how it works.  The central bank lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply (via open market transactions, lowering reserve requirements in fractional reserve banking or by printing money).  Lower interest rates encourage people to borrow money to buy houses, cars, kitchen appliances, home theater systems, etc.  This new economic activity encourages businesses to hire new workers to meet the new demand.  Ergo, recession over.  Simple math, right?  Only there’s a bit of a problem.  Some of our worst recessions have come during the era of Keynesian economics.  Including the worst recession of all time.  The Great Depression.  Which proves the Austrian point that the use of Keynesian policies to end recessions only makes recessions worse.  (Economists debate the causes of the Great Depression to this day.  Understanding the causes is not the point here.  The point is that it happened.  When recessions were supposed to be a thing of the past when using Keynesian policies.)

The problem is that these are not real economic expansions.  They’re artificial ones.  Created by cheap credit.  Which the central bank creates by forcing interest rates below actual market interest rates.  Which causes a whole host of problems.  In particular corrupting the banking system.  Banks offer interest rates to encourage people to save their money for future use (like retirement) instead of spending it in the here and now.  This is where savings (or investment capital) come from.  Banks pay depositors interest on their deposits.  And then loan out this money to others who need investment capital to start businesses.  To expand businesses.  To buy businesses.  Whatever.  They borrow money to invest so they can expand economic activity.  And make more profits.

But investment capital from savings is different from investment capital from an expansion of the money supply.  Because businesses will act as if the trend has shifted from consumption (spending now) to investment (spending later).  So they borrow to expand operations.  All because of the false signal of the artificially low interest rates.  They borrow money.  Over-invest.  And make bad investments.  Even speculate.  What Austrians call malinvestments.  But there was no shift from consumption to investment.  Savings haven’t increased.  In fact, with all those new loans on the books the banks see a shift in the other direction.  Because they have loaned out more money while the savings rate of their depositors did not change.  Which produced on their books a reduction in the net savings rate.  Leaving them more dangerously leveraged than before the credit expansion.  Also, those lower interest rates also decrease the interest rate on savings accounts.  Discouraging people from saving their money.  Which further reduces the savings rate of depositors.  Finally, those lower interest rates reduce the income stream on their loans.  Leaving them even more dangerously leveraged.  Putting them at risk of financial collapse should many of their loans go bad.

Keynesian Economics is more about Power whereas the Austrian School is more about Economics

These artificially low interest rates fuel malinvestment and speculation.  Cheap credit has everyone, flush with borrowed funds, bidding up prices (real estate, construction, machinery, raw material, etc.).  This alters the natural order of things.  The automatic pricing mechanism of the free market.  And reallocates resources to these higher prices.  Away from where the market would have otherwise directed them.  Creating great shortages and high prices in some areas.  And great surpluses of stuff no one wants to buy at any price in other areas.  Sort of like those Soviet stores full of stuff no one wanted to buy while people stood in lines for hours to buy toilet paper and soap.  (But not quite that bad.)  Then comes the day when all those investments don’t produce any returns.  Which leaves these businesses, investors and speculators with a lot of debt with no income stream to pay for it.  They drove up prices.  Created great asset bubbles.  Overbuilt their capacity.  Bought assets at such high prices that they’ll never realize a gain from them.  They know what’s coming next.  And in some darkened office someone pours a glass of scotch and murmurs, “My God, what have we done?”

The central bank may try to delay this day of reckoning.  By keeping interest rates low.  But that only allows asset bubbles to get bigger.  Making the inevitable correction more painful.  But eventually the central bank has to step in and raise interest rates.  Because all of that ‘bidding up of prices’ finally makes its way down to the consumer level.  And sparks off some nasty inflation.  So rates go up.  Credit becomes more expensive.  Often leaving businesses and speculators to try and refinance bad debt at higher rates.  Debt that has no income stream to pay for it.  Either forcing business to cut costs elsewhere.  Or file bankruptcy.  Which ripples through the banking system.  Causing a lot of those highly leveraged banks to fail with them.  Thus making the resulting recession far more painful and more long-lasting than necessary.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  At least, according to the Austrian school.  And much of the last century of history.

The Austrian school believes the market should determine interest rates.  Not central bankers.  They’re not big fans of fractional reserve banking, either.  Which only empowers central bankers to cause all of their mischief.  Which is why Keynesians don’t like Austrians.  Because Keynesians, and politicians, like that power.  For they believe that they are smarter than the people making economic exchanges.  Smarter than the market.  And they just love having control over all of that money.  Which comes in pretty handy when playing politics.  Which is ultimately the goal of Keynesian economics.  Whereas the Austrian school is more about economics.

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