Government Spending

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 18th, 2012

Economics 101

Money is a Temporary Storage of Wealth used to Reduce the Search Costs in the Barter System

What came first?  Money?  Or the things we buy with money?  Here’s a hint.  Once upon a time there was no money.  Yet we still had things.  We bought things without money, you ask?  Yes.  We did.  And we bought things the only way we could before there was money.  We traded.  We bartered.  We traded things.  Things we built.  Things we grew.  Things we dug out of the ground.  Things.

These things had value.  Value we created with our labors.  Either by digging something valuable out of the ground.  Growing something of value.  Or making something useful that people valued.  And something people were willing to trade something they produced that had value.  These people created value.  They created wealth.  They were wealth creators.  And when they come together to trade the valuable products of their labors they were trading wealth.  After their bartered trade all parties in that trade walked away believing they came out ahead in that trade.  For each walked away with something they valued more.

But the barter system proved to be inefficient.  As the economy became more complex there were so many things to trade for.  And people valued some things more than they valued others.  Which sometimes made it difficult to find someone to trade with.  Search costs increased.  People spent more time looking for people to trade with than they did producing wealth.  Which is why people created money.  A temporary storage of wealth.  Using money greatly reduced search costs.  Instead of finding someone to trade with that also wanted what you had to trade all you had to do was find what you wanted.  Then trade your money for it.  Then the seller could take that money and trade it for something he wanted.  Regardless if the person was interested in anything he produced.

Ultimately People don’t want Money, they want the Things they can Trade Money For

No one likes paying taxes.  They’re one of those necessary evils to live in a civilization.  Because they are the only way to pay for public goods.  Early public goods may have consisted of a granary to store food.  And an army.  To protect your civilization from the hostile environment around it.  Government could tax the grain producers by taking a portion of their crops for the public granary.  And to feed the army.  They could tax the shoemakers and take some shoes for the army to wear.  And so on.  The government would tax the producers by taking a small percentage of what they produced to provide the public goods.   

Money changed this a little.  Instead of shipping a portion of grain from all the grain producers to the public granary the grain producers paid their taxes in money.  For it was easier to collect money from all the grain producers than it was collecting grain.  Then the government would use that tax money to purchase grain to fill the public granary.  Even having the local grain producers compete with each other to fill that large public purchase of grain at the lowest price.  Just like buyers and sellers used money to make their trades easier so did government use money to make public spending easier.  But one thing didn’t change.  Money was only a temporary storage of wealth.  The buyers and sellers created wealth.  And the government took a portion of the wealth they created.

This is a crucial point in understanding government spending.  Money isn’t what’s important.  It’s those things of value the wealth producers create that is important.  Because ultimately people don’t want money.  They want the things they can trade that money for.  Those wonderful things creative wealth producers bring to market.  Things government does NOT produce.  Even though they can print money they cannot produce these things of value.  Other people do.  Other people who incur costs.  Who pay for supplies.  And provide pay and benefits to their employees.  Which is why they don’t like paying taxes.  Because it leaves them less to spend on their business.  Or on themselves.  And they don’t like the government printing money.  Because money is a temporary storage of wealth.  And when you arbitrarily increase the amount of money in circulation for the same amount of wealth in the economy you cause inflation.  More dollars chasing the same amount of goods.  So the dollar is worth less than it was before the inflation.  And because the dollar is worth less it takes more of them to buy what they once did.  Meaning prices increase.  Which is why people don’t like inflation.

A Country never went Bankrupt by Spending too Little

So even though the government has the power to print money responsible governments don’t.  Because inflation causes a lot of economic damage.  So governments rely on taxes to fund their public goods.  But excessive taxation also causes economic damage.  By pulling wealth out of the private sector.  Leaving business owners with less.  And increasing the cost of business.  Making it difficult to hire more people.  Which lowers economic activity.  For the more people who work and earn a paycheck the more people are in the market place buying things.  So it’s important for governments not to tax too much.  Which means they shouldn’t spend too much.

Of course that’s easier said than done.  Because people tend to vote for politicians that give them free stuff.  Which is why politicians love to spend.  And to tax.  Tax and spend.  And during good economic times when government coffers are flush with cash they tend to spend more.  And tax more.  Because they can.  But they all run into the same problem.  Government raises revenue on economic activity.  By applying tax rates on income, sales, value added, property, etc.  The government collects a small percentage on these items based on the tax rate.  When income, sales, value, etc., are large that tax rate generates a lot of revenue.  When income, sales, value, etc., are low that tax rate generates a lower amount of revenue.  And when governments spend too much during the good times they raise their spending obligations.  Based on that robust economic activity.  But when the economic activity becomes less robust there is a problem.  Tax revenues fall.  Because those tax rates are taking a percentage of a smaller income, sales, value, etc.  So tax revenue falls while those spending obligations remain the same.  Leading to a budget shortfall.  Which leaves them with two choices.  Cut spending.  Or borrow money.

Well, people rarely vote for people that take stuff away from them.  So the politicians borrow money.  And they keep borrowing money.  Because their spending obligations were based on the rosiest of projections of economic activity.  Which rarely happens in real life.  So they borrow.  And they borrow more.  Soon they have to borrow to pay the interest on what they’ve borrowed previously.  Soon the debt grows so great that the credit rating agencies lower their credit rating.  Making future borrowing more expensive as they have to pay a higher interest rate.  Some may turn to higher tax rates.  But that also lowers economic activity.  Which reduces overall tax revenue.  Some may turn to printing money. Which also lowers economic activity.  And overall tax revenues.  By causing inflation.  And raising prices.  Which eventually leads a country down the road to bankruptcy.  And on their knees begging for a bailout.  Which is the ultimate destination for all nations with excessive government spending.  To throw themselves on the mercy of those countries who have lived within their means.  Which rarely ends well.  Because they expect the bankrupt country to start living within their means.  Meaning austerity.  Which the people accustomed to generous government spending are not too keen on in the least.  And often reply to austerity demands with a little rioting in the streets.

There is one simple way to avoid all of these troubles, though.  All a nation has to do is NOT spend so much.  If they do then they will never have a financial crisis.  For a country never went bankrupt by spending too little.

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Insurance and Risk Management

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 2nd, 2012

Economics 101

By collecting a Small Fee from Many Policy Holders Insurance Companies can Afford to Pay for the Large Losses of a Few

Insurance has one purpose.  To protect wealth.  People work hard accruing wealth.  Buying a house.  Cars.  College fund for the kids.  Retirement 401(k)s and IRAs.  It takes a long time to earn the money that lets us have these things.  And they take a constant stream of payments to sustain them.  And we are always at risk of losing them.  Something can interrupt that stream of payments to sustain them.  An accident or illness that prevents us from working.  Burying us in a stack of unexpected bills.  A tree could fall onto the house during a bad storm.  You could total your car while driving to work in a thick fog.  A wife could lose her husband leaving her to raise their children on her own.

These are very real risks that we must manage.  Because we need to protect our wealth.  We buy house and car insurance so we can keep or replace our houses and cars because we can’t afford to buy new ones should we lose the old ones.  We buy life insurance to provide for our families should we die.  We buy health insurance so an accident or disease doesn’t wipe out our savings, college fund and retirement investments.  Because we do do these things we can manage the risks in life.  So that something unexpected and incredibly expensive doesn’t take everything away that we worked so hard for.

Managing our risks allows us to live our lives.  To plan for the future.  A future that has a price tag.  A future that takes a lifetime of accumulating wealth to pay for.  And to protect the wealth that provides for our families and our retirements we buy insurance.  Groups of people join together and pay a small fee for an insurance policy that will protect a very large amount of wealth.  So if we have an unexpected and very expensive event in our lives our insurance will protect our wealth by paying for our losses.  By collecting a small fee from hundreds of thousands of policy holders insurance companies can afford to pay for the large losses of a few.  Allowing life to go on.  As best as it can following these  unexpected events.  So even in the worst of events families can keep their homes.  Keep their kids in their schools.  Protect their kids’ future by keeping their college fund intact.  Replace their property.  Allowing life to go on as close to what it was before the event.  All thanks to insurance.

Bad Insurance Risks have an Advantage over Insurance Companies due to Asymmetric Information and Adverse Selection

Insurance companies provide this valuable service.  But it isn’t easy.  Because insurance isn’t a science.  But statistical analysis.  And risk analysis.  Which is how they determine the cost of their insurance policies.  A critical part for the survival of insurance companies.  So they can continue to provide this valuable service.

Insurance companies are at a disadvantage because of asymmetric information.  Meaning their customers know more about how great a risk they are than the insurance company.  For example, reckless drivers don’t offer that information when someone is quoting a policy for them.  For they want a low price.  Not a high price that reckless drivers normally get charged.  This is a problem mostly with young drivers.  Older drivers have a driving record.  If it’s a safe record they get a low quote.  If the record includes many points and at-fault accidents they will get a high quote.  Young drivers, though, don’t have a driving record yet.  This is where the statistical analysis comes in.  On average young men drive more recklessly than young women.  Based on the statistical evidence.  So they charge young men higher rates than they charge young women.  Problem solved.  But this causes another problem.

Not all young women are good drivers.  But by charging young women lower rates some bad women drivers are getting a rate lower than their risk warrants.  Which means insurance companies will lose money insuring these drivers at rates below their risk level.  In fact, this will attract more high-risk drivers.  Thus increasing an insurance company’s risk exposure.  And as they pay out claims that exceed the premiums they collect they have to raise insurance rates for all women drivers.  Thus discouraging some good drivers from buying insurance because of the higher premiums.  Thus increasing the percentage of high-risk drivers.  Which forces the insurance companies to raise their premiums again to cover these higher losses.  We call this problem adverse selection.  Where pricing plans to manage risk ends up increasing risk.  One way around this is by group coverage.  Like in health insurance.  Where everyone at a company buys insurance in exchange for a lower group rate.  Including the high-risk people.  And the low-risk people.  Thus avoiding adverse selection.

Economic Growth is the Creation of Wealth and our Insurance Protects that Wealth

When is insurance not insurance?  When it is health insurance.  At least as it is today.  It still acts like insurance for the unexpected and catastrophic accident or illness.  But it is anything but insurance for most everything else.  The latest example in the media these days being birth control.  Which is neither an unexpected nor a catastrophic expense.  For there are few expenses that are more expected and more affordable than birth control.  Unlike, say, chemotherapy.  Or trauma care in the emergency room.  Both of which are unexpected.  And very, very expensive.

When insurance pays for everything for everybody it is no longer managing risk.  Insurance companies are no longer collecting a small fee from all policy holders to pay for the large losses of a few.  Instead they’re collecting a large fee from everyone to pay for the costs of everyone.  Or more precisely, they’re collecting a large fee from the employers who provide health insurance to their employees.  So the recipients of all those free health care goodies don’t see their costs.  Which is how they’ve been able to include everything but the kitchen sink in today’s health care insurance policies.  Causing the price of health insurance to soar.  Hurting families.  Businesses.  And the economy as a whole.

A healthy economy allocates scarce resources to where we use them most efficiently.  When we do we create the most goods possible from these scarce resources.  Making society as a whole better off.  By improving the standard of living for society as a whole.  But by turning health insurance into a welfare program it increases the cost of doing business.  Which puts downward pressures on wages.  Preventing real wages from keeping pace with the rise in consumer prices.  Leaving workers with less disposable income.  Which translates into weak economic growth.  And a stagnant or declining standard of living.

Economic growth is the creation of wealth.  And our insurance protects that wealth.  When we convert that insurance into welfare, though, we put our wealth at risk.  By putting greater pressures on that stream of payments to sustain our wealth.  Our future plans.  And our families.

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Property Rights and Contracts

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 26th, 2012

Economics 101

We put a lot of Money and Time into Maintaining Property we Own so we can Enjoy it Exclusively

Have you ever bought the Brooklyn Bridge?  I hope not.  For if you have someone probably conned you.  Unless you bought it from the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT).  Because they currently own the Brooklyn Bridge.  And are the only ones who can sell it.  But the last I checked they weren’t selling.  So I doubt they sold it to you.  If you are about to enter into negotiations to buy the Brooklyn Bridge I suggest you do a title search first.  To verify that the seller in fact owns the property.  Has the right to sell the property.  And that the seller is selling the property ‘free and clear’.  To make sure you don’t have to pay any outstanding construction bills for work completed on the bridge that the DOT didn’t pay.  Then and only then should you buy your bridge.  So you can enjoy the pride of bridge ownership.  While charging tolls.  And getting rich.

This illustrates a central point about buying and selling things.  Property rights.  Which lets us buy things.  And sell them.  For to sell something we must first own it.  And to buy something we must know that we can own it.  Because if we’re not sure we can own it we’re not going to exchange our hard-earned money for it.  And once we own something we’re going to use it however we wish to use it.  At least that’s what we expect to do.  If we buy a house with a pool in the yard we’re going to want to use that pool exclusively.  Because we paid for it.  And keep it clean.  By maintaining the pool filters and pumps.  Adding chlorine.  Vacuuming the bottom.  We’re going to put a lot of money and time into maintaining that pool so we can enjoy it.  Our little tropical paradise in our own backyard.  But we’re not going to do all of that if just anyone can walk into our yard and use our pool whenever they damn well please.  For if that were the case we wouldn’t spend the time and money in the first place.  We’d look for a pool we could use for free.  Like everyone else who thought they could walk into our yard and use our pool whenever they damn well please.

Or would we?  Let’s say someone in your neighborhood just moved in.  They put in a nice in-the-ground pool.  Spent a fortune on it.  Kept it pristine.  And used it exclusively.  They were happy.  Until the subprime mortgage crisis hit.  And all of a sudden they owed far more on their mortgage than the house was worth.  So one night they just disappeared.  And let the bank have the house.  Once you notice their house is empty you think about that pool.  And decide what could it hurt if you went over for a swim?  You go there.  Notice they left the pumps and filters on.  And the pool is still pretty clean.  So you enjoy a swim or two.  Others find out.  And go over for a swim.  A lot of them.  The pool is crowded.  And not so clean anymore.  No one is skimming the garbage out of it.  Or maintaining the chlorine level.  Some of the kids are even peeing in the pool instead of getting out of it.  Soon the pool begins to smell bad.  Algae is growing.  The filters plug up.  With the water flow blocked the pumps strain and trip the circuit breaker.  Stopping the pumps.  And the filtering.  The crud they filtered out backs up into the pool.  Soon the water turns a greenish gray.  And looks more like a stagnant pond where dead fish float on the surface than the pristine tropical paradise it once was.

We can trace most Pollution and Environmental Damage back to the Tragedy of the Commons

Economists call this the Tragedy of the Commons.  Which is what happens when we poorly define our property rights.  In our example the pool was clean and enjoyable when someone owned the pool.  When no one owned the pool (after the previous owners abandoned it) the pool became dirty and no longer enjoyable.  Why?  Because when we own something we have an incentive to take care of it.  For our long-term enjoyment.  When no one owns it no one has an incentive to take care of it.  Some may try but others will continue to pollute.  Because they don’t own it.  And have no incentive to spend the time and money to keep it clean.  Especially when others are still polluting.  So no one tries to keep the pool clean.  They’ll enjoy it while they can.  And when the pollution gets so bad they will move on and find something else to enjoy. 

We can trace most pollution and environmental damage back to the Tragedy of the Commons.  If you love the beach so much that you buy a house on it you will keep your beach clean.  You’re not going to litter it with cigarette butts, empty bottles, food wrappers, used condoms, etc.  A public beach, on the other hand, is a different story.  Just as people will take their trash to a public field to dump it.  Because they don’t own that land and have no incentive NOT to pollute it.  And it’s cheaper than taking their trash to the private landfill that charges a fee.  Who helps to keep America beautiful by burying our trash.  And when the landfill is full someone else will buy it and make a beautiful golf course out of it.  Or something else.  As long as someone owns it something nice will happen with that land.  To maintain the value of that land to the landowner.

When you own something it has value to you.  Such as a logging company cutting down trees on land they own.  Because this land has value they will not over-log it.  And when they cut down trees they will plant new seedlings.  So the land continues to have value.  Because they will be able to cut down these seedlings after they grow into trees.  Or the future owner of that land will be able to.  Who will buy that land because it has value.  Whereas there is no incentive for a private logger working on public land NOT to over-log it.  Or to plant seedlings.  Because they don’t own that land.  Anything they don’t cut down some other logging company will.  And without any property rights to that land they won’t plant any seedlings.  Because nothing will prevent anyone else from cutting these down once they grow into trees.

Well Defined Property Rights allow Buyers and Sellers to Enter into Contracts with one Another

To do all of this buying and selling we need well defined property rights.  Clearly spelling out what the seller owns.  And what exactly the buyer is buying.  For example, a logging company buying a tree farm may want to drill an exploratory well to see if there is oil or natural gas under that land.  So he or she will want to make sure that the terms of the sale include all mineral rights.  Paying additional for these rights if necessary.  Or getting the tree farm at a lower price than other comparable tree farms because the seller wants to retain the mineral rights.

Well defined property rights allow buyers and sellers to enter into contracts with one another.  Contracts clearly state the terms of sale and any other special provisions.  Such as the seller retaining his or her right to have his or her pick of one tree anywhere on that land once a year in the month of December.  As long as buyer and seller freely enter into these agreements they expect each other to honor the terms of the contract.  And only when both parties honor the terms of the contract does the ownership of property transfer from one party to another.

Property has value.  Even the Brooklyn Bridge.  And well defined property rights protect that value.  Because the DOT owns that bridge they spend money to maintain that bridge.  A well-maintained bridge provides value for those who want to cross the East River.  Currently the various taxes they pay to the city and state make their way to the DOT.  To pay for that maintenance.  But if the city of New York found itself in serious financial trouble they could sell the Brooklyn Bridge.  To a private person.  Who wants to put up toll booths on the bridge.  The city gets a large sum of money to help with their financial trouble.  And the new private owner gets a revenue stream in the form of tolls.  And the city of New York will, of course, screw those crossing the East River.  Because they’ll now have to pay a toll to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.  But they won’t get any of their taxes back.  Because governments rarely if ever cut their taxes.  The city and the private person do well because they both have well defined property rights.  And a contract.  The people using the bridge don’t.  They had no contract with the city that clearly stated the terms for their use of that bridge.  And will continue to pay the taxes that paid their crossing fees.  As well as the new tolls.  Which is business as usual.  Because government always screws the taxpayers.  Who are always at a disadvantage when it comes to property rights and contracts when dealing with the government.  For government has the power to break contracts and take property.  Unlike private persons entering into contracts.  Who only transfer the ownership of property by mutual consent.

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Rule of Law

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 21st, 2011

Economics 101

To take Civilization to the Next Level required the Rule of Law

Agriculture advances gave us food surpluses.  Food surpluses gave us a division of labor.  The division of labor gave us trade.  Money made that trade more efficient.  And religion allowed great gatherings of people to live together in urban settings.  Which was a start.  But it didn’t solve all the ills of packing a lot of people together in a crowded urban setting.

Religion did bring people together.  But organized civilization needs leadership.  And having a leadership position over the masses gives one great powers.  For good.  As well as bad.  And all too often leaders have become intoxicated on that power.  Especially if that leader was also the god that the people worshipped.  Who felt they could do anything they wanted.  To anyone they wanted.  And often did.

But it’s just not leaders who failed to choose good.  A lot of the people did, too.  Some people cheated each other.  Stole from each other.  Didn’t honor their agreements.  Fights broke out.  Some harmed others.  Even killed people.  Clearly, religion alone wasn’t enough to get everyone to live in peace and harmony.  They needed something more.  Some basic ground rules.  Rules of the game.  The game being living together in a crowded urban setting.  Working together.  And entering into economic transactions.  What they needed to take civilization to the next level was the Rule of Law.

We use the Rule of Law to Clearly Identify and Protect our Private Property

The key for economic development rested on the principle of private property.  Economic activity is based on trade.  To trade you need first to create things to trade.  Often requiring costs and great personal effort to create these things.  Which people will gladly undertake.  As long as if they own what they create.  And are free to do whatever they wish with it.  Keep it.  Use it.  Or trade it.

We use the Rule of Law to clearly identify and protect our private property.  We define what is ours.  And forbid others to take what is ours without our consent.  If they do they will be punished under the law.  Which will deter some.  And those undeterred will face the consequences.  Thus producing a safer environment to live in.  Where we are safe in our persons and property.  Especially in crowded urban settings.

This encouraged greater economic activity.  With more opportunity to trade.  Sometimes we didn’t exchange things after concluding our negotiations.  Instead entering into a contract for an economic exchange.  Such as summarizing the terms for the exchange of a piece of land.  Or for a future farm crop.  Agreements we freely and consensually enter into.  Because we trust the Rule of Law to protect and enforce these agreements.

Private Property Rights and Contracts are the Indispensible Requirements of any Free Market Economy

The Rule of Law picked up where religion left off.  For those who did not wish to choose good behavior.  Whether it be people in the masses.  Or the leaders.  The Rule of Law became supreme.  Everyone was answerable to the laws of the land.  Today, government leaders often swear an oath to support and defend these laws.

And by clearly setting the ground rules for economic exchange, the Rule of Law unleashed economic activity.  Perhaps more so than any other thing.  By establishing private property rights.  And creating contracts.  The indispensible requirements of any free market economy.

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