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 Eurozone to fail because they will Never have the Fiscal or Political Union Required to make a Currency Union Work

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 11th, 2011

Week in Review

The Eurozone is doomed.  For the things they say they need to do they just can’t agree to do (see Like it or not, the euro is doomed by Hibah Yousuf posted 12/9/2011 on CNN Money).

European leaders, particularly from France and Germany — the eurozone’s two largest economies — have had very different views on the ultimate role of the fiscal compact, and the latest proposals are just “too little, too late, and miss the structural problem,” said Leach.

Germany has been strongly opposed to sending the ECB down a path of printing money to stabilize Europe’s economy.

“Printing money is associated with hyperinflation, the collapse of the Weimer Republic, and the rise of Hitler,” noted Leach. “From a German perspective the question is that, once the ECB has lost its virginity printing money, just how promiscuous could it become.”

Hyperinflation and the collapse didn’t happen when they started printing money.  These happened after they printed a lot of money.  It was a progression.  For it takes time to make your currency worthless.  Which is something the Germans don’t want to experience again.  Because it didn’t end well for them the first time.

Afseth said the fiscal union needs to focus more on boosting economic growth, rather than just pushing for budgetary discipline and fiscal austerity. And it needs to advocate for pooling the eurozone’s debt together, so the region can issue eurobonds, another highly contentious topic among Europe’s political leaders.

Despite the multitude and extent of the political disagreements that could lead to the eurozone’s crumble in the near-term, more optimistic experts say Europe’s leaders will likely find a middle ground to avoid the severe economic consequences.

“The political arguments are strong, but they come against a hard economic reality,” said Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments in Edinburgh, Scotland, noting that the costs for a single country leaving the eurozone could amount to at least 15% or 25% of its economy, if not more.

There are those who want the European Central Bank (ECB) to assume the debt of the member states.  Like the U.S. did in 1790.  But the Americans already had a currency union.  And a political union.  As well as a common language.  A common heritage.  Common institutions.  A national post office.  And a lot of other common things.  With only about 100 years of history.  And despite all of this the idea of assumption did not go over well.  It took a fight.  And some wheeling and dealing.  Europe, on the other hand, has only a common currency.  And they’ve been around for about 2,000 years of history.  So chances are all they will have is a common currency.  And they may not be able to save that.

The Eurozone was the answer to the United States.  The world’s number one economy.  Because within her borders was the largest free trade zone in the world.  Which exploded her economic growth to the top spot.  The Eurozone was to replicate that in Europe.  A united states of Europe.  And it worked.  But it probably won’t last.  If only one nation drops out of the Eurozone it could reduce the economy of the united states of Europe by 25%.  And if one goes more will probably follow.  This economic powerhouse will be united no longer.  And it will probably plunge Europe into recession.

“A break-up could result in very major recession in Europe, and so it’s hard to imagine how any politicians and governments could possibly make a conscious, voluntary decisions to leave the eurozone,” said Milligan.

So clearly the Euro failing will be too painful to endure.  So painful that the member states will try everything within their power to prevent that.  Including trying to get the ECB to issue Eurobonds.  And print money.  Much like Richard Nixon did when he abandoned the gold standard in 1971.  Saying he was then a Keynesian, too.  And the U.S. spun out of control with double digit inflation rates.  High unemployment.  Stagflation.  And it wasn’t Keynesian economics that finally fixed this mess.  It was the anti-inflation policies of Paul Volcker of the central bank.  He raised interest rates.  And stopped printing money.  This fixed the inflation problem.  Then Ronald Reagan fixed the economic problem.  By cutting taxes.  Something the Europeans may not be physiologically able to do.

So it really doesn’t matter what they do.  For the end will be the same.  It may be sooner or later.  But the Eurozone will most probably dissolve.  Because they will never have the fiscal or political union required to make a currency union work.

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Can’t see the Fiscal Forest for the Monetary Trees

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2011

He won’t Drill but he will Draw from the Strategic Reserve

The Great Recession lingers on.  As high oil prices hit consumers hard.  Gas prices are back to $4/gallon territory.  Leaving consumers with less disposable income.  Home values are declining in a deflationary spiral.  Wages are stagnant.  Unemployment is high.  And there’s inflation in food and consumer goods.  All driven by the high price of oil.  And all that quantitative easing (QE) that has depreciated the U.S. dollar (which we buy and sell oil with in the global market).

The demand for oil is soaring.  And yet President Obama put a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In fact, the U.S. isn’t drilling anywhere.  Which has forced the U.S. to import more foreign oil.  Because of this squeeze on supply.  Economics 101 tells you when demand increases supply should increase to meet that growing demand.  When it doesn’t, prices rise.  Like they are.  And the QE just compounded that problem.  When the dollar is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same amount of oil it used to.  Which means higher prices at the pump.  From demand outpacing supply.  And a weaker dollar.

The president’s solution to the high gas prices?  Blame the oil companies.  Because their profits were too high.  It had nothing to do with his policies that restricted the supply of oil on the market.  Of course, with an election coming up and gasoline prices too close to $4/gallon, he’s changed his position on that (see Loss of Libya oil bigger disruption than Katrina: IEA by Simon Falush and Zaida Espana posted 6/24/2011 on Reuters).

On Thursday, the International Energy Agency which represents the major oil consumers agreed to release 60 million barrels from emergency stockpiles, sending crude prices tumbling.

Imagine that.  Increase supply.  And prices fall.  For awhile, at least.  Because once these 60 million barrels are gone, the prices will just go back up where they were.  Unless there is a real increase in supply.  Like more drilling in the Gulf.  The Atlantic.  The Pacific.  In Alaska.  We know it works.  Increase supply.  And prices fall.  So why not just increase supply with more drilling?  Instead of drawing down our strategic reserves (America’s share being 30 million of the 60 million barrels).  Which, incidentally, we’ll have to replace.

Energy Policy Driven by the 2012 Election

Even the White House is all but admitting this move is purely political (see The wrong reason for depleting the strategic oil reserve posted 6/23/2011 on The Washington Post).

So on Thursday Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney argued that oil demand is likely to rise over the summer. In other words: It’s vacation season, and the White House is worried about high prices through the summer driving months.

Therein, perhaps, is a political emergency, at least in the White House view: President Obama’s reelection prospects will be harmed if national discontent over high gasoline prices continues. The oil release could be seen as a way for the president to take credit for gas prices that are falling anyway, or as an indirect, pre-election stimulus.

Personally, the president doesn’t have a problem with the high cost of gasoline.  His administration wants it high.  The higher the better.  They’d like to see it European high (see Times Tough for Energy Overhaul by Neil King Jr. and Stephen Power posted 12/12/2008 on The Wall Street Journal).

In a sign of one major internal difference, Mr. Chu [who became Obama’s Energy Secretary] has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.

“Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” Mr. Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in September.

To make the more expensive green energy less expensive in comparison.  And an easier sell to the American people.  Pleasing his liberal base.  But there’s an election coming.  And high gas prices don’t help you win elections.  Especially during record long-term unemployment.  Even though it goes against every fiber in his body to act to bring down the cost of gasoline, he will.  If it’ll help his reelection chances.  It’s not like he’s going to lose his liberal base.  Who else are they going to vote for?  The conservative?  Not likely.  They’re always going to vote for the most liberal candidate in the race.  And that will still be him.  Despite encouraging more oil consumption.

The Fed doesn’t know why the Economy is in the Toilet

The president needs to get the price down at the pump.  Where people really feel the full weight of his economic policies.  Because the economy isn’t going to get better anytime soon (see Serial disappointment posted 6/23/2011 on The Economist).

THE Fed attracted attention this week for downgrading its forecast not just for this year, but for 2012, as well. More striking is how often it does this. As my nearby chart shows [follow the above link to see chart], the Federal Open Market Committee has repeatedly ratcheted down its forecasts of out-year growth. The latest downward revision is particularly large, and in keeping with the pattern: when the current year disappoints, they take a bit out of the next, as well.

There’s been a steady downward progression of economic projections.  Despite the stimulus.  And the quantitative easing.  Nothing has worked.  When the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, was asked why the economy was not responding to the government’s actions his reply was rather Jeff Spicoli: I don’t know.  And he’s supposed to be an expert in this field.

Mr Bernanke does not need lessons about the painful deleveraging that follows crises. His pioneering work with Mark Gertler on the Great Depression introduced the “financial accelerator”, the mechanism by which collapsing net worth crushes the real economy. This concept has been rechristened the “balance sheet recession” by Richard Koo. Stephen Gordon admits he is new to the term and notes (with some nice charts contrasting America with Canada) “it’s not pretty”. (HT to Mark Thoma). Yet until now Mr Bernanke seemed to think America had learned enough from both the 1930s and Japan to avoid either experience. Reminded by a reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun that he used to castigate Japan for its lost decade, Mr Bernanke ruefully replied, “I’m a little bit more sympathetic to central bankers now than I was 10 years ago”…

Mr Koo has argued that quantitative easing cannot help in a balance sheet recession; only fiscal policy can. Does Mr Bernanke secretly agree? He may believe as strongly as he did a decade ago that sufficiently aggressive monetary policy can prevent deflation, but not that it can create enough demand to restore full employment. This does not rule out QE3; it only means it will be pursued with less hope about the results than a year ago.

The Great Depression (during the 1930s) is a complex topic.  And monetary policy played a big role in making a bad situation worse.  In particular, the numerous bank runs and failures can be blamed on the Federal Reserve.  Starving the banks for capital when they most needed it.  But there was a whole lot more going on.  And it wasn’t the stock market crash that caused it.  World War I (1914-1918) is probably more to blame.  That war was so devastating that it took the combatants a decade to recover from it.  And during that time America exploded in economic activity and fed the world with manufactured goods and food.  We call it the Roaring Twenties.  But eventually European manufacturing and farming came back.  Those lucrative export markets went away.  And America had excess capacity.  Which had to go away.  (A similar boom and bust happened in the U.S. following World War II.)  Then all the other stuff started happening.  Including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Kicking off a trade war.  It was all too much.

Japan’s lost decade (the 1990s) followed their roaring Eighties.  When the government partnered with business.  And interest rates were low.  The economy boomed.  Into a great big bubble.  That popped.  Because they stimulated the economy beyond market demand. 

The lesson one needs to take away from both of these deflationary spirals is that large government interventions into the private market caused most of their woes.  So the best way to fix these problems is by reducing the government’s intervention into the private market.  Because only the private market knows how to match supply to demand.  And when they do, we have business cycles.  That give us only recessions.  Not depressions.

Like a Dog having Puppies

The market is demanding more oil.  But the U.S. is not meeting that demand.  So gasoline prices are up.  To lower those prices we need to bring more oil onto the market.  And you don’t do that by shutting down the oil business.

We have high unemployment.  And excess capacity.  That’s not a monetary policy problem (interest rates).  It’s a fiscal policy problem (tax and regulation).  No one is going to borrow money to add jobs to build more stuff when no one is buying.  But if you cut taxes and reduce regulations to make running a business highly profitable, people will build businesses here.  Create jobs.  And hire people.  Even if they have to ship everything they make halfway around the world to find someone who is buying. 

Running the economy is not rocket science.  Because it runs itself.  Like a dog having puppies.  Everything will be fine.  If greedy politicians just keep their hands out of it.  But they don’t.  And they love printing money.  Because they love to spend.  But the problem is that they can’t see the fiscal forest for the monetary trees.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #15: “Most people would rather hear a pleasant lie than an unpleasant truth.” -Old Pithy.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 25th, 2010

“DO THESE JEANS make my ass look big?”  Men don’t like this question.  And when their wife or girlfriend ask it, they know to tread lightly.  Unless the relationship is on the outs.  In which case they may answer with something like, “No, it’s your fat ass that makes those jeans look big.”

If the man cares for the woman.  If he loves her.  If he ever expects to have sex with her again, he’ll say something nice.  No matter how much more of her there is to love back there.  It’s called a white lie.  Normally, we don’t base our relationships on lies.  But when it comes to the butt, though, lies are good.  They spare hurt feelings.  Should a person’s genes not bless them with a heavenly derriere to display in a tight pair of jeans.

White lies don’t hurt people.  In fact, we use them in order not to hurt people.  Such lies don’t have consequences.  And people may know you are lying.  Even expect you to lie.  It shows you care enough to make someone feel better about something you know they’re sensitive about.  Like her big butt.  Or his performance in bed (“Whew, that was the best five minutes of my life.  Really.”).

WHEN YOUR CHILD IS learning a musical instrument, he may make more noise than music.  But you encourage him.  Or her.  You tell them they’re good.  That they’re getting better every day.  And, yes, you would love for them to play in front of your visiting family.  And when they do, the family applauds and tells them they’re good, too.  Your child is encouraged.  And he or she keeps practicing.  A little white lie and no one gets hurt.

Suppose your daughter wants to sing.  She listens to the reigning pop queens and sings along.  Only thing is, she’s tone deaf.  She doesn’t sing well at all.  In fact, when she does sing, you start looking for a hurt cat because you’re sure no human could make such inhuman noise.  But you don’t want to hurt her feelings.  And you’re sure it’s just a passing phase.  So you tell her how wonderful she sounds.  No one gets hurt.  Nothing can go wrong with that, can it?

Well, suppose her school is having a talent show. Anyone can simply walk up to an open mike and do whatever they want.  And she wants to sing.  In front of her friends.  In front of her classmates.  In front of the 2 kids that always tease her.  Now the issue is a little more complex.  Do you tell her the truth about her singing and hurt her feelings.  Or do you let her sing.  And risk the kids laughing at her.  And teasing her about it afterwards?

BUT IT’S NOT just the white lies we want to hear.  Say your husband is staying later and later at work.  You call to see what time to expect him for dinner but there’s no answer.  When he comes home late you tell him you were worried.  You called and there was no answer.  He apologizes for worrying you and says he was with a client.  You’re relieved.

Or you come home from work and your wife isn’t there.  Concerned, you call her and there’s no answer.  When she comes home she says she was at the gym with a friend and left her cell in her gym bag.  You’re relieved.  Then she goes upstairs to shower.  Funny, you think.  She usually showers at the gym.

Learning about infidelity is not easy.  And it’s painful.  You ignore signs as long as you can.  You believe the lies.  You want to.  You need to.  Then you find an earring in the car that isn’t yours.  Or you bump into your wife’s friend who says she misses her now that she quit going to the gym.  Soon, the evidence forces you to face the awful truth.  And it kills you inside.  Divorce.  The children.  It’s just the beginning of so much bad to come.

SO WE LIKE it when people lie to us.  At times.  For the truth can be disagreeable.  Ugly.  Painful.  And we’d rather not have that pain.  No, we’d rather live life in a sitcom where there is always a good laugh and rarely anything bad ever happens. 

Politicians know this.  They know that most people don’t like the harsh realities of life.  So when they need to get elected, they lie to us.  No one wants to pay more taxes.  So the politicians promise that only the rich will pay any new taxes.  But massive government spending requires massive taxation.  And taxing the rich just can’t pay for it all. 

George Herbert Walker Bush promised no new taxes.  He said, “Read my lips.  No new taxes.”  He raised them.  Didn’t want to.  Said he had to.  To balance the budget.  Because he and Congress didn’t want to cut spending.  Same with Bill Clinton.  He promised there would be no middle class tax increase.  But there was.  He said he tried as hard as he could not to but had to.  Again, the spending thing.  No one wants to cut spending.  It doesn’t help win elections.

But we wanted to believe the lie during the campaign.  They promise us everything and say it won’t cost anything.  That’s what we want to hear.  We don’t want to hear the intricacies of monetary and fiscal policy.  That increased taxation dampens economic activity.  Decreases incentive for risk takers.  So they take fewer risks.  Create fewer jobs.  Which increases unemployment.  But we don’t want to hear this.  We just want the free stuff.  Just promise it.  Tell us it’s free.  And we’ll vote for you.

LITTLE WHITE LIES have little consequence.  We say them because we care about someone.  Other lies, though, do.  Big ones.  If we fall for them.  If we believe in an ever-expanding welfare state, we’ll keep voting ourselves the treasury.  Until we’ve emptied it.  And when there’s no more money, we’ll say, well, it was nice while it lasted.  But all good things must come to an end.  Or we’ll riot.

Or we’ll cut spending elsewhere to fund our insatiable appetite for free stuff.  Maybe we won’t build a new aircraft carrier.  Or we’ll close an overseas Air Force base.  Or we’ll reduce the size of our conventional forces.  Because we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, we may think a large standing army is not necessary anymore.  But it was that large projection of force that gave us that sense of security.  It scared the bad guys.  Because the ability to project force, and the will to do so, will create consequences if the bad guys do act. 

During the dot.com boom of the 1990s, times were good and we got complacent.  During those good times, though, the bad guys hit Americans in a series of attacks (World Trade Center bombing, Tanzanian Embassy bombing, Kenyan Embassy bombing, Khobar Towers bombing, the USS Cole attack).  We didn’t fight back.  We lied to ourselves.  We didn’t want to believe that America was under attack.  Head in the sand, we wanted to continue to enjoy the good times.  This only emboldened our enemies.  They saw that America didn’t have the will to fight back.  So they upped the ante.  And in 2001, they attacked on 9/11.  And that attack was just too great not to awake a slumbering giant.

WE MAY NOT like the unpleasant things in life.  But they are part of life.  And we have to deal with them.  However unpleasant they are.  They are what they are.  No matter how we try to rationalize them away.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 13th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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