FT167: “When we lived more austerely there was no need for painful austerity to cure a bloated government.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 26th, 2013

Fundamental Truth

Wise Men in Governments can Do Anything but Pay for their Nanny States

Economics changed in the early Twentieth Century.  America once again had a central bank.  Progressives were expanding the role of government.  And a new economist entered the scene that the progressives just loved.  For he was a macroeconomist who said government should have an active role in the economy.  A role where government tweaked the economy to make it better.  Stronger.  While avoiding the painful corrections on the downside of a business cycle.  Something laissez-faire capitalism caused.  And could not prevent.  But if wise men in government had the power to tweak the private sector economy they could.  At least this is what the progressives and Keynesian economists thought.

That economist was, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  Who rewrote the book on economics.  And what really excited the progressives was the chapter on spending an economy out of a recession.  Now there were two ways to increase spending in an economy.  You can cut tax rates so consumers have bigger paychecks.  Or the government can spend money that they borrow or print.  The former doesn’t need any government intervention into the private sector economy.  While the latter requires those wise men in government to reach deep into that economy.  Guess which way governments choose to increase spending.  Here’s a hint.  It ain’t the one where they just sit on the sidelines.

Governments changed in the Twentieth Century.  Socialism swept through Europe.  And left social democracies in its wake.  Not quite socialism.  But pretty close.  It was the rise of the nanny state.  Cradle to grave government benefits.  A lot of free stuff.  Including pensions.  Health care.  College educations.  And a lot of government jobs in ever expanding government bureaucracies.  Where wise men in government made everything better for the people living in these nanny states.  And armed with their new Keynesian economic policies there was nothing they couldn’t do.  Except pay for their nanny states.

According to John Maynard Keynes raising Tax Rates reduces New Economic Activity

The problem with a nanny state is things change.  People have fewer babies.  Health care and medicines improve.  Increasing lifespans.  You put this together and you get an aging population.  The death knell of a nanny state.  For when those wise men in government set up all of those generous government benefits they assumed things would continue the way they were.  People would continue to have the same amount of babies.  And we would continue to die just about the time we retired.  Giving us an expanding population of new workers entering the workforce.  While fewer people left the workforce and quickly died.  So the tax base would grow.  And always be larger than those consuming those taxes.  In other words, a Ponzi scheme.

But then change came.  With the Sixties came birth control and abortion.  And we all of a sudden started having fewer babies.  While at the same time advances in medicine was increasing our lifespans.  Which flipped the pyramid upside down.  Fewer people were entering the workforce than were leaving it.  And those leaving it were living a lot longer into retirement.  Consuming record amounts of tax money.  More than the tax base could provide.  Leading to deficit spending.  And growing national debt.

Now remember those two ways to increase spending in the economy?  You either cut tax rates.  Or the government borrows and spends.  So if cutting tax rates will generate new economic activity (i.e., new spending in the economy) what will a tax increase do?  It will decrease spending in the economy.  And reduce new economic activity.  Which caused a problem for these nanny states with aging populations.  As the price tag on their nanny state benefits eventually grew greater than their tax revenue’s ability to pay for it.  So they increased tax rates.  Which reduced economic activity.  And with less economic activity to tax their increase in tax rates actually decreased tax revenue.  Forcing them to run greater deficits.  Which added to their national debts.  Increasing the interest they paid on their debt.  Which left less money to pay for those generous benefits.

President Obama’s Non-Defense Spending caused a Huge Spike in the National Debt not seen since World War II

It’s a vicious cycle.  And eventually you reach a tipping point.  As debts grow larger some start to question the ability of a government to ever repay their debt.  Making it risky to loan them any more money.  Which forces these countries with huge debts to pay higher interest rates on their government bonds.  Which leaves less money to pay for those generous benefits.  While their populations continue to age.  Taking you to that tipping point.  Like many countries in the Eurozone who could no longer borrow money to pay for their nanny states.  Who had to turn to the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.  Which did provide those emergency loans.  Under the condition that they cut spending.  Money in exchange for austerity.  Something that just galls those Keynesian economists.  For despite all of their financial woes coming from having too much debt they still believe these governments should spend their way out of their recessions.  And never mind about the deficits.  Or their burgeoning debts.

But these Keynesians are missing a very important and obvious point.  The problem these nations have is due to their inability to borrow money.  Which means they would NOT have a problem if they didn’t need to borrow money.  So austerity will work.  Because it will decrease the amount of money they need to borrow.  Allowing their tax revenue to pay for their spending needs.  Without excessive tax rates that reduce economic activity.  Making the nanny state the source of all their problems.  For had these nations never became social democracies in the first place they never would have had crushing debt levels that cause sovereign debt crises.  But they did.  And their populations aged.  Making it a matter of time before their Ponzi schemes failed.  Something no nation with a growing nanny state and an aging population can avoid.  Even the United States.  Who kept true to their limited government roots for about 100 years.   Then came the progressives.  The central bank.  And Keynesian economics.  Putting the Americans on the same path as the Europeans (see US Federal Debt As Percent Of GDP).

Debt as Percent of GDP and Wars R2

With the end of the Revolutionary War they diligently paid down their war debt.  Which was pretty much the entire federal debt then.  As the federal government was as limited as it could get.  Then came the War of 1812 and the debt grew.  After the war it fell to virtually nothing.  Then it soared to pay for the Civil War.  Which changed the country.  The country was bigger.  Connected by a transcontinental railroad.  And other internal improvements.  Which prevented the debt from falling back down to pre-war levels.  Then it shot up to pay for World War I.  After WWI the Roaring Twenties replaced progressivism and quickly brought the debt down again.  Then Herbert Hoover brought back progressivism and killed the Roaring Twenties.  FDR turned a bad recession into the Great Depression.  By following all of that Keynesian advice to spend the nation out of recession.  From the man himself.  Keynes.  The massive deficit spending of the New Deal raised the debt higher than it was during World War I.  Changing the country again.  Introducing a state pension.  Social Security.  A Ponzi scheme that would struggle once the population started aging.

Then came World War II and the federal debt soared to its highest levels.  After the war a long decline in the debt followed.  At the end of that decline was the Vietnam War.  And LBJ’s Great Society.  Which arrested the fall in the debt.  Its lowest point since the Great Depression.  Which was about as large as the debt during the Civil War and World War I.  Showing the growth in non-defense spending.  Then came Reagan’s surge in defense spending to win the Cold War.  Once the Americans won the Cold War the debt began to fall again.  Until the Islamist terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Halting the fall in the debt as the War on Terror replaced the Cold War.  Then came the Great Recession.  And President Obama.  Whose non-defense spending caused a huge spike in the national debt.  Taking it to a level not seen since World War II.  When an entire world was at war.  But this debt is not from defense spending.  It’s from an expanded nanny state.  As President Obama takes America into the direction of European socialism.  And unsustainable spending.  Which can end in only but one way.  Austerity.  Painful austerity.  Not like the discomfort of the sequester cuts that only were cuts in the rate of future growth.  But real cuts.  Like in Greece.

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The Roaring Twenties and the Stock Market Crash of 1929

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 23rd, 2013

History 101

The Roaring Twenties gave us the Modern World and one of the Greatest Economic Booms in History

When the steam engine hit the American farm it increased farm production.  By mechanizing the farm fewer farmers could farm more land.  Allowing American farmers to produce bumper crops.  Creating a boom in farm exports.  Especially during World War I.  As Europeans farmers exchanged their plows for rifles Europe had no one to grow their food.  So even though the mechanization of the American farm caused crop prices to fall the increase in sales volume brought in more farm revenue.  Life was good for the American farmer.  For businesses manufacturing all of that mechanized farm equipment.  And the banks making loans to farmers so they could mechanize their farms.

The1920 presidential election pitted a progressive Democrat against a conservative Republican.  The progressive promised to raise tax rates to pay down the war debt.  Andrew Mellon, Warren Harding’s treasury secretary, found that high tax rates were counterproductive.  They actually reduced tax revenue.  As wealthy people invested their money out of the country to avoid high tax rates.  So when Harding won the election they cut tax rates.  With no need to shelter their income the wealthy invested their money in the United States.  Pouring their money into the domestic economy caused great economic activity.  Great returns on investment.  And great income tax revenue.  The wealthy paid almost three times as much in tax revenue.  While the tax burden on the poor fell.  And the national debt fell by one third.

Harding died in office but Calvin Coolidge continued his policies.  He slashed government spending along with those tax cuts.  Pulling the government out of the private sector economy.  And the private sector economy responded.  Creating a lot of jobs.  Unemployment fell to as low as 2%.  And living standards soared.  For everyone.  Not just those in the unions.  In fact, this general rise in living standards weakened the unions.  For you didn’t need to belong to a union to live well.  It was the beginning of the modern world.  Brought about by a burst of innovation and manufacturing that lasted 8 years.  One of the greatest economic booms in history.  Henry Ford’s moving assembly line made the car affordable for the working man.  Auto registrations rose from 9 million in 1921 to 23 million by 1929.  An increase of 156%.  And keeping pace with the auto manufacturers were their suppliers.  Metal, steel, paint, lumber, leather, cotton, glass, rubber, etc.  And especially the oil industry.  That made lubricating oils and greases.  And the gasoline that powered all of these cars.  With so many jobs per capita income increased from $522 in 1921 to $716 in 1929.  An increase of 37%.  With people earning more home ownership soared.  And this boom in economic activity didn’t end there.

Herbert Hoover thought Government could better Manage the Economy than Messy Laissez-Faire Free Market Forces

Electric utilities were bringing the new electric power to industrial users and private homes during the Twenties.  Industry was using 300% more electric power than they were in 1899.  And it changed home life.  As electric clothes irons, vacuum cleaners, clothes washers, toasters and refrigerators became common household items by the end of the Twenties.  Households that had a telephone increased by 51% during the Twenties.  People were watching movies.  And saw the first talkies in the Twenties.  The radio also became a household fixture with some 7.5 million radio sets sold by 1928.   The economy was booming.  The middle class was expanding.  Consumer prices fell due to increases in productivity giving people more disposable income than they ever had before.  Causing an increase in consumer spending.  Allowing 1 in 5 Americans to own a car.  And increasing the number of people who could afford to fly from 40,000 in 1920 to 417,000 in 1930.  An increase of 943%.  So Americans were buying a lot.  But they were also saving a lot.  And investing.  Some 28% of American families owned stock.  Something once the exclusive privilege of the rich.  Wage earners were even buying life insurance policies to provide for their families in the event of their death.  Things were happening in the United States during the Twenties.  And the innovation and economic tsunami coming out of America had those in Europe worried.  So worried that they were discussing forming a United States of Europe to compete with the American system.

But all was not good.  During the Twenties those Europeans traded their rifles back for plows.  Reducing the export market for American farmers.  And when European governments threw up tariffs on America farm goods that export market disappeared.  Putting great surpluses into the American market.  Causing crop prices to fall further.  Crashing farm incomes.  Making some farmers unable to service their debt for all of that mechanized equipment they financed.  And when they defaulted on their loans en masse banks in the farming regions failed.  And when they did the money supply contracted.  The Federal Reserve made no effort to stop this contraction.  Which had a cooling effect.  Tapping the breaks on an expanding economy.

Coolidge chose not to run for a second term.  His successor, Herbert Hoover, was a progressive Republican.  And was everything Coolidge was not.  Hoover favored a big government perfecting the country.  He was a professional bureaucrat.  He loved bureaucracies.  And he loved paperwork and forms.  Which he wanted to bury private business in.  He thought the government could manage the economy better than messy laissez-faire free market forces.  Those very forces that created the Roaring Twenties.  He wanted to partner government with business.  With the emphasis on government.  (As president he increased the size of the Commerce Department and deepened its reach into the private sector economy.)

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused Investors to Dump their Stocks causing the Stock Market Crash of 1929

The Federal Reserve misjudged the stock market.  They thought it was nothing but speculation.  Citing radio maker RCA’s stock price’s meteoric rise.  So the Fed tapped the breaks further to cool this ‘speculative’ fervor.  Further contracting the money supply.  But this wasn’t speculation.  The rate of growth in radio sales actually was greater than the rate of growth in the stock price.  Making it more likely that the stock was undervalued.  Not overvalued.  But the Fed went ahead and contracted the money supply anyway.  Making it difficult for business to get funding for continued growth.  Despite there still being people out there who hadn’t bought a car, a house, electric appliances or a radio yet.  And wanted to.

In 1929 a new tariff bill was moving through Congressional committees.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Which would raise taxes on imports by up to 30%.  Which would greatly increase the cost of business.  Because most if not all of American manufacturing used some imported raw materials.  Which would increase their selling prices.  Making them less competitive.  Worse, if the U.S. slapped tariffs on imports it was certain their trading partners would respond with some retaliatory tariffs.  Which would just shut down their export markets.  Much like those tariffs shut down the export markets for American farmers.  Then in the autumn of 1929 the Smoot-Hawley Tariff passed critical votes in committee.  Sending the tariff bill on its way to becoming law.  This was not good news for investors.

It was all too much.  The coming expansion of government regulation over the private sector economy.  Higher taxes to pay for this bigger government.  The contraction of the money supply.  And then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Investors could read the writing on the wall.  None of this would be good for business.  It would just smother the economic growth of the Twenties.  For if you increase businesses’ costs and decrease their markets you will slash their profits.  Which will reduce the value of these companies.  And reduce the value of their stock prices.  As investors live by the adage of “buy low, sell high” they’d want to sell those stocks fast before the Smoot-Hawley Tariff sent their prices into a tailspin.  Which they did.  Causing a great selloff starting in October.  That led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Now contrast that with a true speculative bubble.  The dot-com bubble.  Where investors poured money into these dot-com companies eager to find the next Microsoft.  Aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve that was keeping interest rates artificially low.  To encourage all sorts of investment.  Including ones driven by irrational exuberance.  So investors were bidding those stock prices into the stratosphere.  For companies that had no profits.  For companies that didn’t have a product or service to sell.  But these investors were looking with great anticipation at their future profits.  Even though they really didn’t understand the Internet.  They just knew that computers were involved.  Which is what made Microsoft rich.  Producing software to run on computers.  And every investor was sure their dot-com was going to produce something to run on computers.  Making that company rich.  And their investors.  But when the start-up capital ran out there were no earnings to replace it.  And the speculative bubble burst beginning on March 11, 2000.  And those highly overvalued stock prices began to fall back to earth.  With the tech-laden NASDAQ losing 78% of its value before it was all over.  Now THAT is a speculative bubble that the Federal Reserve should have tried to prevent.  Not the economic boom of the Twenties where companies were building real things that real people were buying.

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Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Progressivism, Great Depression, Creeping Socialism, Social Security, Baby Boom and Baby Bust

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 15th, 2013

History 101

The Policies of Herbert Hoover and FDR caused and prolonged the Great Depression

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) took Rahm Emanuel’s advice.  Long before Rahm Emanuel gave it.  FDR did NOT let a good crisis go to waste.  And as far as crises go, none were better than the Great Depression.  After the government’s bad policies (wage and price controls, higher taxes, Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, etc.) caused the Great Depression and then their monetary contraction caused the massive bank failures the poverty rate soared for senior citizens.  FDR saw that suffering and thought here was a way to forever lock in the senior vote.  Give seniors a government pension.  And put the fear of God in them that the opposition wants to take it away.

At the turn of the Twentieth century the new thing in politics was progressivism.  Smart government people intervening into our private lives to make things better.  The size of the federal government exploded during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  He gave us the Federal Reserve System.  America’s central bank.  That would prevent anything like the Great Depression from ever happening.  Which it failed to do.  As the Great Depression happened on their watch.  He gave us a permanent federal income tax.  He attacked the U.S. Constitution.  Making the case for expansive presidential powers.  And used the courts to get around Congressional opposition.  As well as the U.S. Constitution.

The political opposition fought back against Wilson’s power grab.  Defeating the progressive successor in the next election.  And returning the country to normalcy.  Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge undid much of the anti-business policies of the Wilson administration.  Returning the nation to prosperity.  And giving us the Roaring Twenties.  Where the nation modernized with electric power, the automobile, radio, etc.  Unlike the speculative dot-com bubble of the Nineties.  Where investors poured money into dot-com companies that never made anything to sell.  The Federal Reserve was a little loose with their monetary policy causing some inflation in the Twenties.  But the economic activity was so robust that it absorbed that inflation.  Then the progressives got back in power.  First the Republican Herbert Hoover.  Then the Democrat FDR.  Whose policies caused and prolonged the Great Depression.

When FDR gave us Social Security it only cost Employer and Employee each 1 Cent of every Dollar up to $3,000

FDR was picking up where Wilson left off.  Expanding the federal government.  And the power of the presidency.  Using the federal courts like Wilson to bypass Congress.  And the U.S. Constitution.  Marking yet another departure from the free market capitalism that founded the country.  And made it the world’s number one economy.  It was a creeping socialism.  At least, that’s how the political opposition saw.  Especially with Social Security.  Which helped tip the power from the states to the federal government.  Just as Thomas Jefferson feared a strong executive would do.

Of course, the progressives played on our emotions.  These were, after all, destitute seniors.  We had to take care of these people.  Our fathers.  Our mothers.  Our grandparents.  Who sacrificed for us.  Now it was time to sacrifice a little for them.  And they promised it would be a little.  Both employer and employee would only pay 1 cent on every dollar earned up to $3,000 a year.  That’s all.  Only $30 a year (about $483.58 today).  And how could such a small amount be socialism?  The problem was that it didn’t stay only 1 cent on every dollar earned up to $3,000 a year.  The tax rate went up.  As well as the maximum taxable earnings.  The government has increased them both.  Often.

(source: Historical Social Security Tax Rates)

That low tax rate lasted barely a decade.  Then they started raising the maximum taxable earnings.  Not much for the first 30 years or so.  But once the Seventies arrived that maximum amount grew at an accelerated rate.  Despite the increasing tax rate.  Thanks to President Nixon decoupling the dollar from gold.  And ushering in the era of out of control Keynesian economics.  Where the government inflated the money supply like there was no tomorrow.  Devaluing the dollar at an alarming rate.  Which is why they increased the maximum amount of earnings at an accelerated rate.  Because constantly devaluing the dollar reduced what those Social Security checks could buy.  So they had to keep making those checks bigger.  And that required more tax revenue.

The Social Security Tax Rate held Steady during the Nineties thanks to the Dot-Com Bubble and Japan’s Lost Decade

But it’s worse than that.  For it’s just not bad monetary policy forcing the increases in the tax rate as well as in the maximum taxable earnings.  Something else happened during the Seventies.  Birth rates fell.  The baby boom ended in the Sixties.  But not the baby making activities.  They just continued along without producing new taxpayers.  Thanks to birth control and abortion.  Also, over the years they expanded the Social Security program to provide for more than just those destitute seniors.  So the benefits of the program greatly increases just as the falling birth rate reduce the growth rate of tax revenue.  As the number of people leaving the workforce grew at a greater rate than those entering the workforce.  Which is why when you convert the dollars into constant dollars the graph doesn’t change much.

We finance most wars with inflation.  By printing money to expand the money supply.  To give the government all the cash they need to buy the instruments of war.  And to pay, feed and clothe their military personnel.  We can see this rapid inflation during World War II as the real dollar amount of the maximum taxable earnings fell.  That changed in 1951.  When they started to increase that maximum amount.  That and the higher tax rate stabilized things for awhile.  Then the Seventies came along.  Where both the tax rate and the maximum taxable earnings amount continued to rise.  Even in real dollars.  Reflecting the growth in benefits.  And the fall in tax revenue.  Thanks to the baby bust following the baby boom.

The tax rate held steady during the Nineties thanks to the surpluses of the Clinton administration.  Due to that dot-com bubble.  And Japan’s Lost Decade.  Whose bad economic times helped boost the American economy.  Still they had to keep raising the maximum earnings amount.  As the baby boomers started retiring.  Then Clinton’s dot-com bubble burst.  Giving George W. Bush a recession to start his presidency.  His tax cuts pulled us out of that recession.  Then Bill Clinton’s revamping of the Community Reinvestment Act caught up with us.  Giving us the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.  And the Great Recession.  Which President Obama tried to ameliorate by reducing the employee’s Social Security tax rate from 6.2% to 4.2% in 2011.  For his near trillion dollar stimulus bill failed to end the Great Recession in 2009.  As his Social Security tax cut failed to do in 2011.  Which was not enough to overcome his anti-business policies (such as Obamacare).  All he did was starve Social Security of hundreds of billions in revenue.  Making the Social Security funding problem worse in the long run.  Requiring even higher tax rates than that once promised 1% (for both employer and employee).  On earnings more than that promised $3,000 (about $48,000 today).

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The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2012

Technology 101

(Original published December 21st, 2011)

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.

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Tax Cuts, Roaring Twenties, Farm Prices, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, New Deal, Great Depression and the Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 6th, 2012

History 101

(Originally published March 20, 2012)

Tax Cuts and the Small Government Policies of Harding and Coolidge gave us the Roaring Twenties

Keynesians blame the long duration of the Great Depression (1929-1939) on the government clinging to the gold standard.  Even renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman agrees.  Though that’s about the only agreement between Keynesians and Friedman.   Their arguments are that the US could have reduced the length and severity of the Great Depression if they had only abandoned the gold standard.  And adopted Keynesian policies.  Deficit spending.  Just like they did in the Seventies.  The decade where we had both high unemployment and high inflation.  Stagflation.  Something that’s not supposed to happen under Keynesian economics.  So when it did they blamed the oil shocks of the Seventies.  Not their orgy of spending.  Or their high taxes.  And they feel the same way about the Great Depression.

Funny.  How one price shock (oil) can devastate all businesses in the US economy.  So much so that it stalled job creation.  And caused high unemployment.  Despite the government printing and spending money to create jobs.  And to provide government benefits so recipients could use those benefits to stimulate economic activity.  All of that government spending failed to pull the country out of one bad recession.  Because of that one price shock on the cost of doing business.  Yet no one talks about the all out assault on business starting in the Hoover administration that continued and expanded through the Roosevelt administration.

Herbert Hoover may have been a Republican.  But he was no conservative.  He was a big government progressive.  And believed that the federal government should interfere into the free market.  To make things better.  Unlike Warren Harding.  And Calvin Coolidge.  Who believed in a small government, hands-off policy when it came to the economy.  They passed tax cuts.  Following the advice of their treasury secretary.  Andrew Mellon.  Which gave business confidence of what the future would hold.  So they invested.  Expanded production.  And created jobs.  It was these small government policies that gave us the Roaring Twenties.  An economic boom that electrified and modernized the world.  With real economic growth.

If an Oil Shock can prevent Businesses from Responding to Keynesian Policies then so can FDR’s all out War on Business

The Roaring Twenties was a great time to live if you wanted a job.  And wanted to live in the modern era.  Electric power was spreading across the country.  People had electric appliances in their homes.  Radios.  They went to the movies.  Drove cars.  Flew in airplanes.  The Roaring Twenties was a giant leap forward in the standard of living.  Factories with electric power driving electric motors increased productivity.  And reduced air pollution as they replaced coal-fired steam boilers that up to then powered the Industrial Revolution.  This modernization even made it to the farm.  Farmers borrowed heavily to mechanize their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever.  Bumper crops caused farm prices to fall.  Good for consumers.  But not those farmers who borrowed heavily.

Enter Herbert Hoover.  Who wanted to use the power of government to help the farmers.  By forcing Americans to pay higher food prices.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.  Thinking that a boom in the stock market was from speculation and not the real economic growth of the Twenties.  So they contracted the money supply.  Cooling that real economic growth.  And making it very hard to borrow money.  Causing farmers to default on their loans.  Small rural banks that loaned to these farmers failed.  These bank failures spread to other banks.  Weakening the banking system.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Passed in 1930.  But it was causing business uncertainty as early as 1928.  As the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was going to increase tariffs on just about everything by 30%.  Basically adding a 30% tax on the cost of doing business.  That the businesses would, of course, pass on to consumers.  By raising prices.  Because consumers weren’t getting a corresponding 30% pay hike they, of course, could not buy as much after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Putting a big cramp in sales revenue.  Perhaps even starting an international trade war.  Further cramping sales.  Something investors no doubt took notice of.  Seeing that real economic growth would soon come to a screeching halt.  And when the bill moved through committees in the autumn of 1929 the die was cast.  Investors began the massive selloff on Wall Street.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929.  The so-called starting point of the Great Depression.  Then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law.  And the trade war began.  As anticipated.

Of course, the Keynesians ignore this lead up to the Great Depression.  This massive government intrusion into the free market.  And the next president would build on this intrusion into the free market.  Ignoring the success of the small-government and tax cuts of Harding and Coolidge.  As well as ignoring the big-government free-market-intrusion failures of Herbert Hoover.  The New Deal programs of FDR were going to explode government spending to heights never before seen in peace time.  Causing uncertainty like never seen before in the business community.  It was an all out assault on business.  Taxes and regulation that increased the cost of business.  And massive government spending for new benefits and make-work programs.  All paid for by the people who normally create jobs.  Which there wasn’t a lot of during the great Depression.  Thanks to programs like Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Homeowners Loan Corporation, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Public Works Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Glass–Steagall Act, Securities Act of 1933, Civil Works Administration, Indian Reorganization Act, Social Security Act, Works Progress Administration, National Labor Relations Act, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, Surplus Commodities Program, Fair Labor Standards Act, Rural Electrification Administration, Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, etc.  Oil shocks of the Seventies?  If an oil shock can prevent businesses from responding to Keynesian policies then an all out war on business in the Thirties could do the same.  And worse.  Far, far worse.  Which is why the Great Depression lasted 10 years.  Because the government turned what would have been a normal recession into a world-wide calamity.  By trying to interfere with market forces.

Only Real Economic Growth creates Jobs, not Government Programs

The unemployment rate in 1929 was 3.1%.  In 1933 it was 24.9%.  It stayed above 20% until 1936.  Where it fell as low as 14.3% in 1937.  It then went to 19.0%, 17.2% and 14.6% in the next three years.  These numbers stayed horrible throughout the Thirties because the government wouldn’t stop meddling.  Or spending money.  None of the New Deal programs had a significant effect on unemployment.  The New Deal failed to fix the economy the way the New Dealers said it would.  Despite the massive price tag.  So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

What finally pulled us out of the Great Depression?  Adolf Hitler’s conquering of France in 1940.  When American industry received great orders for real economic growth.  From foreign countries.  To build the war material they needed to fight Adolf Hitler.  And the New Deal programs be damned.  There was no time for any more of that nonsense.  So during World War II businesses had a little less uncertainty.  And a backlog of orders.  All the incentive they needed to ramp up American industry.  To make it hum like it once did under Harding and Coolidge.  And they won World War II.  For there was no way Adolf Hitler could match that economic output.  Which made all the difference on the battlefield.

Still there are those who want to blame the gold standard for the Great Depression.  And still support Keynesian policies to tax and spend.  Even today.  Even after 8 years of Ronald Reagan that proved the policies of Harding and Coolidge.  We’re right back to those failed policies of the past.  Massive government spending to stimulate economic activity.  To pull us out of the Great Recession.  And utterly failing.  Where the unemployment rate struggles to get below 9%.  The U-3 unemployment rate, that is.  The rate that doesn’t count everyone who wants full time work.  The rate that counts everyone, the U-6 unemployment rate, currently stands at 14.9%.  Which is above the lowest unemployment rate during the Great Depression.  Proving once again only real economic growth creates jobs.  Not government programs.  No matter how many trillions of dollars the government spends.

So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

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Great Depression, Monetary Expansion, Keynesian, Smoot Hawley Tariff, Gold Window, Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2012

History 101

There was Real Economic Activity in the Twenties so the Great Depression should only have been a Recession

The Great Depression began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Which led to a period of record unemployment.  On average the unemployment rate was 13.46% during the Thirties.  Or, if you don’t count all of the make-work government jobs, 18.23%.  So what caused this unemployment?  Was it the expansionary monetary policy of the Twenties?  The Keynesians thought so.  Even the economists from the Austrian school of economics thought so.  The only ones to have predicted the Great Depression.  So were they right?  A little bit.

Yes, there was monetary expansion during the Twenties.  So a recessionary correction was inevitable.  But a depression?  When you look at the economic activity of the Twenties, no.  The Roaring Twenties were a transformative time.  It was when we began to say goodbye to the steam engine.  And said hello to electricity.  We said goodbye to the horse and buggy.  And said hello to the automobile.  We said goodbye to the horse and plow.  And said hello to the tractor.  As well as said hello to radio, motion pictures, air travel, electric lighting and electric appliances in the home, etc.  So there was real economic activity in the Twenties.  It wasn’t all a bubble.  So the Great Depression should have only been a regular recession.  But it wasn’t.  So what happened?

Government.  The government interfered with market forces.  Based on Keynesian advice.  They said the government needed to increase aggregate demand.  As that demand would encourage businesses to expand and hire new workers.  Thus lowering the unemployment rate.  And part of increasing demand was keeping wages from falling.  So people had more money to spend.  Of course, if employers were to continue to pay higher wages that meant that prices could not fall.  Like they normally do during a recession.  So the Keynesian advice was to prevent the market from correcting prices to match supply to demand.  Prolonging the inevitable recession.  But there was more bad government policy.

The Keynesian Cure for Unemployment is Inflation

The stock market was soaring in the late Twenties.  Because of that real economic growth.  So what happened to that economic growth?  Well, in part, the Smoot Hawley Tariff of 1930.  Which was in committee in 1929 before the great crash.  But investors saw it coming.  And they knew tariffs rising as much as 50% were going to cool those hot earnings they’ve been enjoying.  As well as Herbert Hoover’s progressive plans.  Who would go on to double income tax rates.  When Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election the writing was on the wall.  And investors bailed.  Especially when the Smoot Hawley Tariff was moving through committee.  Because raising the cost of doing business does not help business.  So the great earnings ride of the Twenties was ending and the investors sold their stocks to lock in their profits.  Precipitating the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And the record unemployment that would follow.  And the Great Depression.

So the Keynesians got it wrong during the Thirties.  Their next grand experiment would be in the Seventies.  As government spending took off thanks to the Vietnam War, the Great Society and the Apollo moon program.  There was so much spending that they had to print money to pay for it all.  As they did, though, they devalued the dollar.  Which became a problem.  As the U.S. at the time agreed to exchange gold for dollars at $35/ounce.  So when the Americans made their dollar worth less our trading partners decided to take our gold instead.  Gold flew out of the gold window.  So to stop this gold flow out of the country Nixon did what any Keynesian would do.  No, he didn’t cut back spending.  He decoupled the dollar from gold.  Slamming the gold window shut.  Without any advanced warning to the world.  So we now call this action he took on August 15, 1971 the Nixon Shock.  The Keynesians were thrilled.  Because they now had no restraint in printing new money.

The reason Keynesians were happy to be able to print more money was because that was their cure for unemployment.  Inflation.  When the economy goes into recession it was just a simple matter of expanding the money supply.  Which lowers interest rates.  Which makes businesses who had no intention to expand their businesses borrow money to expand their businesses.  So to pull the economy out of recession they inflated the money supply.  And did it work?  No.  Of course it didn’t.  It just raised prices.  Increasing the cost of business.  As well as leaving consumers with less real income.  So, no, the economy didn’t improve.  It just stagnated.  The average unemployment rate during the Seventies was 6.21%.  While the average inflation rate was 7.08%.  Also, the top marginal tax rate of 70%.  Which didn’t help the anti-business environment.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Great Recession were Direct Consequences of Bad Monetary Policy

So the Keynesians failed.  Again.  Their inflationary monetary policy only made things worse during the Seventies.  All of that inflation just kept pushing prices ever higher.  Ensuring that the inevitable recession to correct those prices would be long and painful.  Which it was.  In the early Eighties.  Then Paul Volcker rang out all of that inflation.  And Ronald Reagan began bringing the top marginal tax rate down until it was at 28% by the end of the decade.  Making a more favorable business environment.  So business grew.  And began to hire new workers.  Teaching an economic lesson some in government refused to learn.  Keynesian inflationary monetary policies did not work.

During the Nineties the Keynesians were back.  Inflating the money supply slowly but surely to continue an economic expansion.  Making money available to borrow.  And borrow it people did.  Creating a long and sustained housing boom that would last for about 2 decades.  That expansionary monetary policy gave us cheap mortgages.  Making it very easy to buy a house.  Housing prices rose.  And continued to rise during those two decades.  Then President Clinton had his Justice Department tell banks to lower their standards for approving mortgages for the unqualified.  So everyone could buy a house.  Even if they couldn’t afford to pay for it.  Ushering in the subprime mortgage industry.  Further increasing the demand for houses.  And further driving up housing prices.  Making the inevitable correction a long and painful one.

Meanwhile, there was something new in the market place in the Nineties.  The Internet.  And new Internet start-ups (dot-coms) flooded the market.  Investors poured money into them.  Even though they didn’t have a product to sell.  And had no earnings.  But investors were exuberant.  And irrational.  Kids flooded into universities to get degrees in computer science.  To staff all of those Internet start-ups.  Companies went public.  Creating a stock market bubble as investors scrambled to buy their stock.  They raised a boatload of money from those IPOs.  And spent it all.  Many without producing anything to sell.  And when that money ran out they went bankrupt.  Bursting that stock market bubble.  And throwing a lot of computer scientists out of a job.  Causing a painful recession in the early 2000s that George Bush helped mitigate with tax cuts.

And low interest rates.  People were back buying houses.  But this time they were buying McMansions.  Because that easy monetary policy gave us cheap mortgage rates.  And subprime, no-documentation, zero down loans, etc., made it easier than ever to buy a house.  Housing prices soared.  And builders flooded the market with more McMansions.  Pushing prices ever higher.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were buying those toxic subprime mortgages from banks to encourage them to approve more toxic subprime mortgages.  Pushing the inevitable correction further and further out.  Running up prices so high that their fall would be a long and painful one.  Which it was when the subprime mortgage crisis hit.  As well as the Great Recession.  Direct consequences of bad monetary policy.  And the government’s interference into market forces.

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The Federal Reserve, Roaring Twenties, Stock Market Crash, Banking Crises, Great Depression and John Maynard Keynes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 25th, 2012

History 101

The Federal Reserve increased the Money Supply to Lower Interest Rates during the Roaring Twenties

Benjamin Franklin said, “Industry, perseverance, & frugality, make fortune yield.”  He said that because he believed that.  And he proved the validity of his maxim with a personal example.  His life.  He worked hard.  He never gave up.  And he was what some would say cheap.  He saved his money and spent it sparingly.  Because of these personally held beliefs Franklin was a successful businessman.  So successful that he became wealthy enough to retire and start a second life.  Renowned scientist.  Who gave us things like the Franklin stove and the lightning rod.  Then he entered his third life.  Statesman.  And America’s greatest diplomat.  He was the only Founder who signed the Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France (bringing the French in on the American side during the Revolutionary War), Treaty of Paris (ending the Revolutionary War very favorably to the U.S.) and the U.S. Constitution.  Making the United States not only a possibility but a reality.  Three extraordinary lives lived by one extraordinary man.

Franklin was such a great success because of industry, perseverance and frugality.  A philosophy the Founding Fathers all shared.  A philosophy that had guided the United States for about 150 years until the Great Depression.  When FDR changed America.  By building on the work of Woodrow Wilson.  Men who expanded the role of the federal government.  Prior to this change America was well on its way to becoming the world’s number one economy.   By following Franklin-like policies.  Such as the virtue of thrift.  Favoring long-term savings over short-term consumption.  Free trade.  Balanced budgets.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the gold standard.  Which provided sound money.  And an international system of trade.  Until the Federal Reserve came along.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) is America’s central bank.  In response to some financial crises Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act (1913) to make financial crises a thing of the past.  The Fed would end bank panics, bank runs and bank failures.  By being the lender of last resort.  While also tweaking monetary policy to maintain full employment and stable prices.  By increasing and decreasing the money supply.  Which, in turn, lowers and raises interest rates.  But most of the time the Fed increased the money supply to lower interest rates to encourage people and businesses to borrow money.  To buy things.  And to expand businesses and hire people.  Maintaining that full employment.  Which they did during the Roaring Twenties.  For awhile.

The Roaring Twenties would have gone on if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding/Mellon/Coolidge Policies

The Great Depression started with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And to this date people still argue over the causes of the Great Depression.  Some blame capitalism.  These people are, of course, wrong.  Others blamed the expansionary policies of the Fed.  They are partially correct.  For artificially low interest rates during the Twenties would eventually have to be corrected with a recession.  But the recession did not have to turn into a depression.  The Great Depression and the banking crises are all the fault of the government.  Bad monetary and fiscal policies followed by bad governmental actions threw an economy in recession into depression.

A lot of people talk about stock market speculation in the Twenties running up stock prices.  Normally something that happens with cheap credit as people borrow and invest in speculative ventures.  Like the dot-com companies in the Nineties.  Where people poured money into these companies that never produced a product or a dime of revenue.  And when that investment capital ran out these companies went belly up causing the severe recession in the early 2000s.  That’s speculation on a grand scale.  This is not what happened during the Twenties.  When the world was changing.  And electrifying.  The United States was modernizing.  Electric utilities, electric motors, electric appliances, telephones, airplanes, radio, movies, etc.  So, yes, there were inflationary monetary policies in place.  But their effects were mitigated by this real economic activity.  And something else.

President Warren Harding nominated Andrew Mellon to be his treasury secretary.  Probably the second smartest person to ever hold that post.  The first being our first.  Alexander Hamilton.  Harding and Mellon were laissez-faire capitalists.  They cut tax rates and regulations.  Their administration was a government-hands-off administration.  And the economy responded with some of the greatest economic growth ever.  This is why they called the 1920s the Roaring Twenties.  Yes, there were inflationary monetary policies.  But the economic growth was so great that when you subtracted the inflationary damage from it there was still great economic growth.  The Roaring Twenties could have gone on indefinitely if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding and Mellon policies (continued by Calvin Coolidge after Harding’s death).  There was even a rural electrification program under FDR’s New Deal.  But Herbert Hoover was a progressive.  Having far more in common with the Democrat Woodrow Wilson than Harding or Coolidge.  Even though Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were all Republicans.

Activist Intervention into Market Forces turned a Recession into the Great Depression

One of the things that happened in the Twenties was a huge jump in farming mechanization.  The tractor allowed fewer people to farm more land.  Producing a boom in agriculture.  Good for the people.  Because it brought the price of food down.  But bad for the farmers.  Especially those heavily in debt from mechanizing their farms.  And it was the farmers that Hoover wanted to help.  With an especially bad policy of introducing parity between farm goods and industrial goods.  And introduced policies to raise the cost of farm goods.  Which didn’t help.  Many farmers were unable to service their loans with the fall in prices.  When farmers began to default en masse banks in farming communities failed.  And the contagion spread to the city banks.  Setting the stage for a nation-wide banking crisis.  And the Great Depression.

One of the leading economists of the time was John Maynard Keynes.  He even came to the White House during the Great Depression to advise FDR.  Keynes rejected the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  And the policies favored by the Austrian school of economics (the only people, by the way, who actually predicted the Great Depression).  Which were similar to the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  The Austrians also said to let prices and wages fall.  To undo all of that inflationary damage.  Which would help cause a return to full employment.  Keynes disagreed.  For he didn’t believe in the virtue of thrift.  He wanted to abandon the gold standard completely and replace it with fiat money.  That they could expand more freely.  And he believed in demand-side solutions.  Meaning to end the Great Depression you needed higher wages not lower wages so workers had more money to spend.  And to have higher wages you needed higher prices.  So the employers could pay their workers these higher wages.  And he also encouraged continued deficit spending.  No matter the long-term costs.

Well, the Keynesians got their way.  And it was they who gave us the Great Depression.  For they influenced government policy.  The stock market crashed in part due to the Smoot Hawley Tariff then in committee.  But investors saw the tariffs coming and knew what that would mean.  An end to the economic boom.  So they sold their stocks before it became law.  Causing the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Then those tariffs hit (an increase of some 50%).  Then they doubled income tax rates.  And Hoover even demanded that business leaders NOT cut wages.  All of this activist intervention into market forces just sucked the wind out of the economy.  Turning a recession into the Great Depression.

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FT127: “Obamacare is a lot like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in terms of scaring the bejesus out of businesses.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 20th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Roaring Twenties gave us Automobiles, Electric Power, Radio, Movies, Telephones and Air travel

In 1921 there were 9 million automobile registrations.  That jumped to 23 million by 1929.  An increase of 156%.  That’s a lot more cars on the roads.  In the Roaring Twenties we made cars out of steel, paint and glass.  Inside we fitted them with lumber, cotton and leather.  We put rubber tires on them.  And filled their fuel tanks with gasoline.  So this surge in car ownership created a surge in all of these industries.  Extraction of raw materials.  Factories and manufacturing plants to build the equipment to extract those raw materials.  As well as the machinery to build these automobile components.  And the moving assembly lines in assembly plants to assemble these automobiles.  The plants, warehouses and automobile dealers created a surge in the construction industry.  And all the industries that fed the construction industry.  Including the housing industry to house all these gainfully employed workers.

And this was just the auto industry.  Which wasn’t the only industry that was booming during the Roaring Twenties.  Thanks to the hands-off government policies of the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge businesses introduced us to the modern world.  Electric power came into its own.  By 1929 about 80% of all installed horsepower was electrical.  And it entered our homes.  Electric lighting and electric appliances.  Vacuum cleaners.  Washing machines.  Refrigerators.  All of this required even more raw material extraction from the ground.  More manufacturing equipment and plants.  More wholesale and retail construction.  And more housing to house all of these workers earning a healthy paycheck.

And there was more.  The Roaring Twenties gave us broadcast radio in our electric-powered homes.  Free entertainment, sports broadcasts and news.  Paid for by the new industry of advertising.  Competing with radio was another growing industry.  Motion pictures.  That by the end of the Roaring Twenties were talkies.  And speaking of talking there was a lot of that on the new telephone.  In our homes.  Interconnecting all of these industries was ship, rail and truck transportation.  Even air travel took off during the Twenties.  More raw material extraction.  More equipment.  More manufacturing.  More construction.  And jobs.  More and more jobs.  The hands-off government policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations created the great Bull Market of the Twenties.  Explosive economic activity.  Real economic growth.  Creating low-cost consumer goods to modernize America.  Increase her productivity.  Making her the dominant economic power in the world.  The Europeans were so worried about America’s economic prowess that they met in 1927 at the International Economic Conference in Geneva to discuss the American problem.  And how they were going to compete with the American economic juggernaut.  Because the free market capitalism of the New World was leaving the Old World in the dust.

Herbert Hoover was a Republican in Name Only that FDR once Admired but Calvin Coolidge Despised

This was real economic growth.  It was not speculation.  This wasn’t artificially low interest rates creating an asset bubble.  Working Americans bought homes and cars.  And furnishings.  Businesses produced these to meet that demand.  They had growing sales.  And growing profits.  Which increased their stock prices.  Investors wanted to own their stocks because these companies were making money.  And with the world modernizing these stock prices weren’t going anywhere but up in the foreseeable future.  Unless something changed the business environment.  Well, something did.

Despite the roaring economy Calvin Coolidge did not run for a second term.  Which was a pity.  For his successor, Herbert Hoover, was a Republican in name only.  He was a big time progressive.  Who wanted to use the power of government to make the world perfect.  A devout believer in the benevolence of Big Government.  He added about 2,000 bureaucrats to the Department of Commerce.  FDR at one time admired him (before he ran against him for president).  Coolidge despised him.  Under Hoover the federal government intruded into the private sector.  His economics were Keynesian.  He, too, worshipped at the altar of demand.  He believed high wages were the key to prosperity.  For people with more money buy more.  And all that buying created demand for businesses to meet.  Even during a recession he believed wages should not fall.  Despite the fact that’s what recessions do on the back side of the business cycle.  Lower prices and wages.  And lay off people.

By the Twenties American farmers were mechanizing their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever before.  Agriculture prices fell.  At first this wasn’t a problem as there were export markets for their bumper crops.  Thanks to a war-devastated Europe.  But eventually the European soldiers returned to the farm.  And the Europeans didn’t need the American food anymore.  Even places tariffs on U.S. imports to their countries to help their farmers get back on their feet.  Add in a bad winter that killed livestock.  Some bad insect infestation in the summer.  Add all this together and you had the beginning of the great farm crisis.  Debt defaults.  Bank failures.  And the contraction of the money supply.  Which the Federal Reserve (the Fed) did not step in to compensate for by expanding the money supply.  Which was sort of their purpose for being in existence.  As there was less money to borrow business could longer borrow to continue their growth.  Because of the time factor in the stages of production to expand production required borrowing money.  To make matters worse the Fed was actually pulling more money out of circulation.  Because they looked at the rising stock prices and concluded that speculators were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  Thus inflating stock prices.  But it wasn’t speculators running up those prices.  It was an economic boom that was running up those stock prices.  Until the government put a stop to that, at least.

Bad Government Policy didn’t Create the Roaring Twenties but Bad Government Policy ended Them

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was close to becoming law in the fall of 1929.  It was moving through committees on its way to becoming law.  This tariff would raise the tax on all imports by about 30%.  The idea was to protect domestic supplies and manufacturers.  But even in 1929 it was a global economy.  A lot of imports entered the stages of production.  Which meant costs would be increasing throughout the stages of productions.  Greatly increasing the input costs of all those businesses enjoying those high stock prices.  Which would raise their prices (to cover those higher input costs).  Reducing their sales.  And slashing their profits.  Add this to the contracting money supply and it painted a very bleak picture for business.

With demand sure to fall due to a massive new tariff that was about to become law businesses cut back.  To get rid of what was about to become excess capacity.  For they were smart.  And understood what affected their businesses.  And you know who else were smart?  Investors.  Who looked at this tariff and saw a locomotive engineer about to slam on the brakes.  And if Congress passed this into law after 1928 Coolidge wasn’t going to be there to veto the law.  So they all came to the same conclusions.  The bull market was coming to an end.  And they wanted to sell their stock to lock in their stock gains.  Which caused the great sell-off of 1929.  And the stock market crash.  Starting the Great Depression.

People still debate the cause of the Great Depression.  A popular argument is that greedy investors caused it by speculating in the stock market.  Or that greedy businesses out-produced demand.  But the economics of the Roaring Twenties don’t support this.  This wasn’t people buying big houses because interest rates were low.  This was the electrification of America.  Cars.  Telephones.  Radio.  Movies.  Air travel.  This was broad and real economic growth.  Bad government policy didn’t create it.  But bad government policy ended them.  And it was the expectations of even worse government policies that yanked the rug out from underneath the economy.  By causing a business contraction and stock market sell-off.  Much like Obamacare is doing to businesses today.  Scaring the bejesus out of them.  For they have no idea what their future costs will be under Obamacare.  So they are doing their best to prepare for it.  By not expanding their businesses.  By not hiring anyone.  And sitting on their cash.  To prepare for the worst.  Much like businesses did in 1928.  Which explains why the Great Recession lingers on.

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Roaring Twenties, Farmers, Mechanization, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, Great Depression and Taxi Medallions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 12th, 2012

History 101

The New Economic Reality of Farming was that we needed Fewer Farmers in the Age of Mechanization

The Roaring Twenties was a decade of solid, real economic growth.  The world modernized during the Twenties.  Electric power, telephone, radio, motion pictures, air travel, etc.  So much of what we take for granted today became a reality during the Roaring Twenties.  But there was a downside.  Farmers borrowed money to mechanize their farms.  As farms mechanized they produced great crop yields.  Bringing bumper crops to market.  There was so much food brought to market that prices plummeted.  Reducing farm incomes so much that they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to mechanize their farms.  They defaulted.  Causing banks to fail.

By the late Twenties all the European farmers who fought in World War I were back on the farm.  And were feeding Europe again.  So not only were the Americans producing bumper crops they were losing a large export market.  Forcing farm prices down further.  There were simply more farmers than the economy was demanding thanks to the new efficiencies in farming.  But because there were so many farmers they were an important political constituency.  They were still casting a lot of votes.  So the politicians stepped in.  With a complete disregard to economic principles.  And tried to help the farmers.  With rent-seeking policies.

The farmers were hurting.  So they wanted to transfer some wealth from the masses to the farmers.  As in rent-seeking.  As opposed to profit-seeking.  Instead of creating wealth (profit-seeking) they were transferring wealth (rent-seeking).  And they did this with price supports.  They raised the price of their crops above market value.  Forcing Americans to make sacrifices in their lives so they could afford to pay higher food prices to help the farmers.  So the farmers wouldn’t have to adjust to the new economic reality of farming.  We need fewer farmers in the age of mechanization.  But it just didn’t end with higher prices.  The government would buy excess food grown by these ‘too many farmers’ and destroy it.  Or pay farmers NOT to grow food.  Then they took it up a notch.  And slapped tariffs on imported food.  Further raising the price of food.

In an Effort to raise Farming Prices the Rent-Seekers caused the Great Deflation of the Great Depression

Food tariffs were just one part of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  This act pretty much raised the tariff on everything the U.S. imported.  Greatly increasing the cost of all imports.  To protect the domestic producers from cheap foreign competition.  But there was a problem with increasing the cost of all imports.  It increased the price of whatever we built with those imports.  So much so that when they were discussing this act in Congress businesses across America knew the boom of the Twenties would end.  As did investors investing in these companies.  So even before the bill became law it caused a huge stock selloff.  Which led to the stock market crash of 1929. 

At first the higher prices helped American businesses.  Their revenue increased.  Everyone thought the tariff act was a success.  But as prices went up costs went up throughout the manufacturing pipeline.  Prices grew so high that people stopped buying.  Inventories accumulated so they cut production.  And then laid people off en masse.  Causing a great recession.  Then further rent-seeking solutions (more governmental intervention into the free market) turned that recession into the Great Depression.  What started out as a problem for overly efficient farmers turned into a national crisis.  In an effort to raise farming prices they caused the great deflation of the Great Depression.  As prices fell so did revenues.  Making it very difficult to service debt.  More people defaulted on their debt.  And more banks failed.

When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act became law our trading partners answered in kind.  Leading to a great trade war.  So on top of everything else what limited export markets we had shut down as well.  As the trade barriers went up economic activity decreased.  David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage worked in reverse.  Increasing opportunity costs.  When international markets closed less efficient domestic industries took their place.  Pulling resources from more efficient uses.  Raising the cost of those resources.  Adding these cost increases on top of the tariffs.  Which further increased prices.  And further lowered economic activity.  Adding further woe onto the Great Depression.

The Medallion System dates back to the Medieval Guilds and Restricts Entry into the Cabbie Market

As the Great Depression languished on few people filled the streets of New York City (NYC).  At least few people with money who had to go places.  There were more cabs than people needed.  Supply exceeded demand.  Putting a downward pressure on taxi fares.  And increasing the time a cabbie had to work to earn some decent money.  Usually the market steps in and corrects such a situation.  Forcing some cabbies out of the cabbie business.  But not in NYC.  There they used the power of government to address this surplus of supply.  And introduced the medallion system.

This was the kind of rent seeking that dated back to those medieval guilds.  The medallion restricted entry into the cabbie market.  By limiting the number of cabs in NYC.  Every cab (at least those who can pick up passengers who hail a cab at the curb) must have a medallion permanently affixed to their cab.  Which they must purchase from the city.  Or transfer from another cab.  Currently, if you want to drive a taxi cab in NYC you better have some deep pockets.  Or have the kind of credit that lets you get a very large mortgage.  For the medallion system exists to this day.  And that medallion may cost you close to a half million dollars.

If you ever wondered why it sometimes takes so long to hail a cab in NYC this is the reason.  Rent-seeking.  As in the medallion system.  Which works just like tariffs.  Reducing supply.  And increasing prices for consumers.  So the rent-seekers can use the power of government to transfer wealth.  Instead of using innovation to create wealth.  And bringing that wealth to the market place to trade.  Instead they choose to take more wealth from the market place than they bring to it.  With the help of government.  And their rent-seeking policies.  Thus reducing overall wealth in the economy.  Which reduces economic activity.  And does nothing to help lift an economy out of recession.  Or out of a Great Depression. 

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President Obama is not Telling the Truth about our Economic Past

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 31st, 2012

Week in Review

President Obama attacks rugged individualism.  Entrepreneurialism.  And the American spirit.  What he calls ‘you’re on your own economics’.  Lying about what hasn’t worked in the past.  For he is either lying or he is incredibly uninformed when it comes to American economic history (see Obama: “You’re On Your Own” Economics Doesn’t Work posted 3/30/2012 on Real Clear Politics).

“It’s been tried in our history and it hasn’t worked,” Obama said. “It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the Great Depression. It didn’t work when we tried it in the last decade. We just tried this. What they’re peddling has been tried — it did not work!”

When the government left people alone in the Twenties that decade roared.  The ‘leave the people alone’ policies of the Harding (and then the Coolidge) administration gave us the Roaring Twenties.  A remarkable decade of technological growth.  Both in the cities and on the farms.  We mechanized.  We electrified.  We talked to people all over the country on the new telephones.  We went mobile in our new automobiles.  We listened to the radio in our homes.  We used electric appliances in our homes.  We went to theaters to watch the new motion pictures.  People flew in airplanes.  The Roaring Twenties were a seminal time.  It marked the beginning of the modern world we know today.  And it was full of real, solid economic growth.  Until the progressive Herbert Hoover took over.  And after he got rid of ‘you’re on your own economics’ everything went to hell.

The Great Depression was a wholly made government disaster.  Massive interventions into the private sector economy.  Price supports.  A horrendous tariff bill (the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act).  And the resulting trade war.  And then in the midst of all of this the Federal Reserve System destroyed the banking system.  By NOT being the lender of last resort.  Causing a cascade of bank failures.

The Seventies was Keynesian Economics at its pinnacle.  It was everything President Obama believes in and wants today.  Massive government spending.  Paid for by massive taxes, borrowing and printing.  The polar opposite of ‘you’re on your own economics’.  Which were an abject failure.  Even Keynesian Economists have to qualify the Seventies to explain away the stagflation (high unemployment AND high inflation) their policies gave us.  Ronald Reagan fixed the Keynesian train wreck with exactly ‘you’re on your own economics’.  It was so successful that Keynesians call it the decade of greed.  A moniker no one can place on the Seventies.

So why is the president saying things that aren’t true?  Because they want those failed Keynesian polices back.  They want to tax and spend like there’s no tomorrow.  For they like the power.  The control.  And the ability to buy votes.  Which is the only way they can win elections.  Because no one will willingly vote for their failed policies of the past.

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