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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 28th, 2012

History 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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