FT218: “The withholding tax is the greatest sin government ever perpetrated against the people.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 18th, 2014

Fundamental Truth

The tariff was the funding source for most of government for about a century.

Once upon a time there was no federal income tax.  No estate tax.  No gift tax.  No payroll tax.  No capital gains tax.  And no corporate tax.  Taxes we take for granted today didn’t exist a century or so ago.  The country was a lot leaner back then.  People kept most of their money.  And took care of their families.

The federal government used to fund everything thing they did with tariffs.  A tax on imports.  Paid in ports.  As ships unloaded their goods.  Far away from most people.  And few people complained.  Our first excise tax was a different story.  A 7 cent per gallon of whiskey incited the Whiskey Rebellion.  After fighting the Revolutionary War to escape the oppressive taxation policies of Great Britain the people were in no mood for a new tax.  The whiskey tax lasted for about a decade.  Then they repealed it.

This left tariffs as the funding source for most of government for about a century.  But even that grew controversial.  And began the divisions between North and South.  The North protected its industry with protective tariffs on iron products, textiles (wool and cotton) and agricultural goods.  Shipped from the more industrialized Britain.  Which Britain responded to with tariffs of their own.  On cotton and other agricultural products grown in the South.  So the more the North protected their industries the more difficult it made for the South to export their raw goods.

In 1913 the progressives reintroduced the income tax and taxed the rich at 1%.

This wasn’t the only difference of opinion the North and South had.  And their differences resulted in war.  The North was able to win the American Civil War with its expansive industry.  But the war devastated the country.  Especially the South.  Which lost about 8.6% of her population.  To get an idea of what an 8.6% population decline is consider this.  That percentage of the current U.S. population is approximately 27 million.  So the losses the South suffered were similar to what the Soviets lost on the Eastern Front during World War II.

The South may have lost more of its population.  But the North suffered nearly the same number of war dead.  She just had a larger population to begin with.  To run all of that industry that won the war.  America’s first modern war was a costly one.  And one that President Lincoln had to turn to a new source of revenue.  The federal income tax.  Which taxed the rich.  At 3%.  Then it taxed the super rich at 5%.  But after they paid down the war debt they repealed America’s first income tax.

Then came the progressives.  And their taxes.  In 1913 they reintroduced an income tax.  Taxing the rich at 1%.  And the super rich at 6%.  To fund an expanding federal government.  Then came World War I.  To fund the war they increased the tax rate on the rich to 15%.  And the super rich at 77%.  The top marginal rate fell during the Twenties.   But FDR raised it back up during the Great Depression.  Until it reached 94%.  Where for every dollar they earned in and above the top income bracket they got to keep only 6 cents.

Few would be able to write a check on tax day to pay their full tax bill.

Then came all the other taxes.  And they just kept coming. Our tax bill grew to staggering amounts.  Which posed a problem for the taxing authorities.  As people just didn’t keep that kind of money around.  They worked.  They raised their families.  And what little they had left they put into the bank for their retirement.  Making it very difficult for them to pay their tax bill when it came.  Especially when it was 30% or more of their entire income.  So what to do?

The Founding Fathers created a nation out of a tax rebellion.  And then when that nation levied its first excise tax they got a little rebellion of their own.  Being opposed to taxes is part of the American DNA.  So the taxing authorities had to somehow hide the large amount of taxes we were paying.  That is, they had to reduce the transparency of these taxes.  For if you don’t know what you’re paying in taxes you really can’t get mad at paying high taxes.

Enter the withholding tax.  The greatest sin government ever perpetrated against the people.  For it takes our money before we ever get it.  Conditioning us to accept ‘net’ pay as the norm.  And making ‘gross’ pay some meaningless payroll jargon.  Because you can’t spend ‘gross’ pay.  You can only spend ‘net’ pay.  Which is the only pay people care about.  Making it not only easier to hide the soaring amount of taxes people were paying.  But because it’s so easy to hide what we’re paying they could raise those taxes to confiscatory heights.  Because we never have that money in our hands.  We never see it.  It goes from our employer to the taxing authorities.  Which is the only way they could collect these soaring amounts.  For few would be able to write a check on tax day to pay their full tax bill.  As people just don’t keep that kind of money around.

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The Democrats win Elections because they are Good at Lying and Manipulating People

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 5th, 2013

Politics 101

The Southern Democrats fought to Maintain Slavery, Formed the KKK and Implemented Jim Crowe Laws

Children love candy.  And sweet treats.  They will gorge themselves on them.  And ruin their dinner.  Or sicken themselves so much from these sweet treats that they will vomit.  If parents let them.  But parents don’t.  Sometimes making for some unhappy children.  But parents don’t do this because they are mean.  They do this because it’s best for the children.

Politicians are a lot like parents.  Bad parents.  Because their ‘children’ can vote.  And because they can they will feed them all the sweet treats they so desired.  No matter how bad they are for them.  No matter how bad they are for the country.  Why?  Parents will do what’s best for their children.  While politicians do what’s best for them.

The Southern Democrats fought to maintain slavery.  They formed the KKK following the Civil War and the emancipation of their slaves.  They then implemented Jim Crowe laws to segregate the South.  That were in effect until 1965.  Then the Southern Democrats opposed the Civil Rights Act (1964).  One of the longest serving and most revered Southern Democrats, Robert Byrd, was an Exalted Cyclops in the KKK.  And he filibustered the Civil Rights Act.  Yet at his death the Democrats eulogized him with great awe and reverence.  Despite all of this Democrats say Republicans are the racists.  And blacks overwhelmingly vote Democrat.  Why?

The Democrats destroyed the Black Family with AFDC and Public Housing

Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.  The Republicans won the Civil War.  They maintained martial law in the South following the war to protect the emancipated slaves.  They did not form the KKK.  Nor did any of them serve as the Exalted Cyclops.  They opposed Jim Crowe laws.  And fought for the Civil Rights Act.  So why is it that the general perception is that Republicans are racists while those with a racist past, Democrats, are not?  Because the Democrats are real good at lying and manipulating people.  That’s why.  And they’re bad parents.

One of the greatest political feats in the history of the United States was the turning of blacks against their emancipators and defenders.  And changing their allegiance to the people who once enslaved and oppressed them.  And how did they do this?  With the Great Society.  Full of tasty treats.  Especially for blacks in the poor inner cities.  The candy?  Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  And public housing.  Which just destroyed the black family.  As the nanny state replaced the black father.  And gathered these single mothers and their fatherless children in crime ridden public housing of the inner cities.

Without a strong male role model in a child’s life they tend to get in trouble.  Because a single mother cannot discipline children as much as two parents can.  So a fatherless child strays.  They run with others who pull them further into trouble.  And when the state gathered large groups of fatherless children in public housing they ran in gangs.  Creating the crime that made public housing crime ridden.  And because all these kids went to the same schools they took their trouble into the schools.  Leading to lower graduation rates.  Fewer college enrollments.  Higher unemployment.  And lower median incomes.  This is what the Democrats gave blacks with their nanny state.  And they got them dependent on the nanny state.  So they continued to vote Democrat.  Even though voting Democrat was the worst thing blacks could have done.  Based on what Democrats have done to the black family.

If You raise the Price of the McDonald’s Burger there is no Cost Savings by eating the McDonald’s Burger

Today minimum wage workers across the country were demanding that the government raise the minimum wage to about twice what it is.  To $15/hour.  For these entry level jobs.  The Democrats support this.  For it’s more candy for their children.  Even though it’s not good for them.  For these are not careers.  Nor should they be.  These are entry-level jobs for people with no skills.  So they can gain some rudimentary skills to help them with their next step up their career ladder.  People don’t go to medical school and then work at McDonald’s.  No, they go to medical school explicitly so they don’t have to work a minimum wage job.  And those who don’t have to work a minimum wage job all of their life have a better life.  Both monetarily.  And personally.  With the satisfaction of doing something that gives their life greater meaning.

Of course if they raise the minimum wage to $15/hour minimum wage workers will lose their jobs.  For if you raise the labor rate prices will rise.  And sales will fall.  And with fewer sales businesses will lay off some of their minimum wage workers.  And the Democrats know this.  They’ve worked hard to get tariff protection to protect their union brethren in the automotive industry.  Because those higher wages raised the price of cars.  And reduced sales.  Hence the tariff protect6ion.  To force people to pay more for their cars.  By forcing the price of the competition higher.  So they can continue to sell cars built with their more costly union labor.  So Democrats know higher labor costs raise prices and reduce sales.  So why do they want a higher minimum wage?

People buy fast food because of the value.  They get a decent bang for the buck.  But if you reduce that bang people will buy less.  For if McDonald’s costs as much as a delicious burger at, say, Red Robin, which burger do you think the people will buy?  They’re going to buy the Red Robin burger.  For if you raise the price of the McDonald’s burger there is no cost savings by eating the McDonald’s burger.  So they won’t.  The Democrats know this, too.  But they also know by giving their children this candy they can get their vote.  It will make their children’s lives worse in the long run but that’s okay.  As long as they can get their vote now.  For that’s all that is important.  Not the lives they destroy by being bad parents.

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Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Westinghouse, Boeing, Gates and Tariffs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 10th, 2013

History 101

Ford brought the Price of Cars down and Paid his Workers more without Tariff Protection

Andrew Carnegie grew a steel empire in the late 19th century.  With technological innovation.  He made the steel industry better.  Making steel better.  Less costly.  And more plentiful.  Carnegie’s steel built America’s skylines.  Allowing our buildings to reach the sky.  And Carnegie brought the price of steel down without tariff protection.

John D. Rockefeller saved the whales.  By making kerosene cheap and plentiful.  Replacing whale oil pretty much forever.  Then found a use for another refined petroleum product.  Something they once threw away.  Gasoline.  Which turned out to be a great automotive fuel.  It’s so great that we use it still today.  Rockefeller made gasoline so cheap and plentiful that he put the competition out of business.  He was making gasoline so cheap that his competition went to the government to break up Standard Oil.  So his competition didn’t have to sell at his low prices.  And Rockefeller made gasoline so inexpensive and so plentiful without tariff protection.

Henry Ford built cars on the first moving assembly line.  Greatly bringing the cost of the car down.  Auto factories have fixed costs that they recover in the price of the car.  The more cars a factory can make in a day allows them to distribute those fixed costs over more cars.  Bringing the cost of the car down.  Allowing Henry Ford to do the unprecedented and pay his workers $5 a day.  Allowing his workers to buy the cars they assembled.  And Ford brought the price of cars down and paid his workers more without tariff protection.

George Westinghouse decreased the Cost of Electric Power without Tariff Protection

George Westinghouse gave us AC power.  Thanks to his brilliant engineer.  Nikola Tesla.  Who battled his former employer, Thomas Edison, in the Current Wars.  Edison wanted to wire the country with his DC power.  Putting his DC generators throughout American cities.  While Westinghouse and Tesla wanted to build fewer plants and send their AC power over greater distances.  Greatly decreasing the cost of electric power.  Westinghouse won the Current Wars.  And Westinghouse did that without tariff protection.

After losing out on a military contract for a large military transport jet Boeing regrouped and took their failed design and converted it into a jet airliner.  The Boeing 747.  Which dominated long-haul routes.  Having the range to go almost anywhere without refueling.  And being able to pack so many people into a single airplane that the cost per person to fly was affordable to almost anyone that wanted to fly.  And Boeing did this without tariff protection.

Bill Gates became a billionaire thanks to his software.  Beginning with DOS.  Then Windows.  He dominated the PC operating system market.  And saw the potential of the Internet.  Bundling his browser program, Internet Explorer, with his operating system.  Giving it away for free.  Consumers loved it.  But his competition didn’t.  As they saw a fall in sales for their Internet browser programs.  With some of their past customers preferring to use the free Internet Explorer instead of buying another program.  Making IE the most popular Internet browser on the market.  And Gates did this without tariff protection.

Tariff Protection cost American Industries Years of Innovation and Cost Cutting Efficiencies

Carnegie Steel became U.S. Steel.  Which grew to be the nation’s largest steel company.  Carnegie had opposed unions to keep the cost of his steel down.  U.S. Steel had a contentious relationship with labor.  During the Great Depression U.S. Steel unionized.  But there was little love between labor and management.  There were a lot of strikes.  And a lot of costly union contracts.  Which raised the price of U.S. manufactured steel.  Opening the door for less costly foreign imports.  Which poured into the country.  Taking a lot of business away from domestic steel makers.  Making it more difficult to honor those costly union contracts.  Which led the U.S. steel producers to ask the government for tariff protection.  To raise the price of the imported steel so steel consumers would not have a less costly alternative.

During World War II FDR was printing so much money to pay for both the New Deal and the war the FDR administration was worried about inflation.  So they put ceilings on what employers could pay their employees.  With jobs paying the same it was difficult to attract the best employees.  Because you couldn’t offer more pay.  So General Motors started offering benefits.  Health care.  And pensions.  Agreeing to very generous union contracts.  Raising the price of cars.  Which wasn’t a problem until the imports hit our shores.  Then those union contracts became difficult to honor.  Which led the U.S. auto makers to ask the government for tariff protection.  To raise the price of those imported cars so Americans would not have a less costly alternative.

These two industries received their tariffs.  And other government protections.  Allowing them to continue with business as usual.  Even though business as usual no longer worked.  So while the foreign steel producers and auto makers advanced their industries to further increase quality and lower their costs the protected U.S. companies did not.  Because they didn’t have to.  For thanks to the government they didn’t have to please their customers.  As the government simply forced people to be their customers.  For awhile, at least.  The foreign products became better and better such that the tariff protection couldn’t make the higher quality imports costly enough to keep them less attractive than the inferior American goods.  With a lot of people even paying more for the better quality imports.  Losing years of innovation and cost cutting efficiencies due to their tariff protection these American industries that once dominated the world became shells of their former selves.  With General Motors and Chrysler having to ask the government for a bailout because of the health care and pension costs bankrupting them.  Something Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Westinghouse, Boeing or Gates never had to ask.

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Tariffs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 9th, 2013

Economics 101

The Proponents of Tariffs say they will Protect Infant Industries and Domestic Jobs

Tariffs.  What are they?  And what are they for?  A tariff is a tax.  Or a duty.  The government applies tariffs to imported goods.  Making them more expensive.  So people have to spend more money for them.  Leaving them less money to spend on other things.  Which seems counterintuitive to trying to increase economic activity.  Increasing prices the consumers pay, leaving them less money to buy other stuff.  So why do they do it?

The argument for tariffs is typically to protect ‘infant’ industries.  To give them a chance to get off the ground and establish themselves.  So they can later compete with this more developed and less costly foreign competition.  Which they couldn’t do if those foreign competitors can sell goods just as good if not better at lower prices.

Another argument is that tariffs protect domestic jobs.  A lot of imported goods are less costly than the same domestically produced goods.  Because of less costly labor in these other countries.  Often developing economies.  Unlike the developed economies who pay their people more.  And give them more benefits.  All paid for with the higher prices the people pay for their goods.  Tariffs raise the prices of foreign goods so they are not less costly than the domestically produced goods.  To get people to buy domestic goods.  Thereby saving domestic jobs.

Americans have to Pay about $1.25 more for a Bag of Sugar than the Rest of the World

These arguments make tariffs sound noble and good.  For they’re helping the little guy.  And protecting middle class jobs from cheap labor in foreign countries.  But they also hurt the little guy.  And poor families.  Because tariffs raise the price of the things they have to buy.  For example, tariffs on sugar imports raise the price Americans pay for sugar higher than people can buy sugar outside of the United States.  So the sugar they buy, and anything that contains sugar as an ingredient that they buy, is higher than it would be if the sugar tariffs weren’t there.

The US population in 2012 was 313,914,040.  Let’s assume the adult population is approximately 250 million.  And that half of them buy sugar.  How many sugar producers are there in the United States?  Far, far fewer than 125 million.  The Washington Post noted in 2007 that there were only about 6,000 sugar farmers.  About 0.002% of the population.  While the sugar buyers are closer to 40% of the population.  Or more if you include the things we buy that have sugar in them.  The numbers are approximate but the point is clear.  The people helped by tariffs are an infinitesimally small number while the people hurt by tariffs are a much, much larger number.

Let’s crunch some numbers.  While people outside of the United States can buy a bag a sugar for $1 Americans have to pay $2.25.  Or $1.25 more.  To protect American jobs in the sugar industry.  The 6,000 sugar farmers.  Let’s triple this number for the corn farmers (for high fructose corn syrup) and the sugar companies.  Rounding it out to an even 20,000 jobs that sugar tariffs protect.  If half of all adults buy a bag of sugar that’s $156 million pulled out of the economy that goes to, for lack of a better term, Big Sugar.  Let’s say these adults buy two bags a year.  Bringing the transfer from the 125 million (sugar consumers) to the 20,000 (Big Sugar) to $312.5 million.  Let’s double that number to include everything we buy that includes sugar as an ingredient.  And then double that number to account for all the sugar and corn subsidies.  Bringing the total annual wealth transfer from consumers to Big Sugar to approximately $1.25 billion.

Tariffs transfer Wealth from the Many to the Few and Reduce Economic Activity

That’s an enormous amount of wealth transferred from less rich people to richer people.  From consumers to Big Sugar.  But is it accurate?  Well, according to an article published in the Washington Post, yes.  The article states:

The Government Accountability Office has estimated that the sugar program costs consumers and food processors between $1 billion and $2 billion annually in higher prices for sugar and a vast array of products that contain it. Meanwhile, the new sugar subsidy would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year, according to economists and U.S. officials.

So our crude calculation may be on the light side.  This is a lot of money taken out of the pockets of hundreds of millions of consumers to protect 20,000 or so well-paying jobs.  Nearly half of the US population supporting less than 0.02% of the population.  And those tariffs paid that 0.02% very well.  Because Big Sugar is very profitable.  And can pay their people very well.  As they have tariffs to increase their selling prices and subsidies to lower their costs.  Which greatly fattens the bottom line.

In the United States the price of sugar is so high that businesses have turned to high fructose corn syrup for their sweetener.  Which our tax dollars also subsidize.  Making it a very profitable industry.  And as an added bonus for Big Sugar, some studies have indicated that high fructose corn syrup doesn’t satiate your appetite like regular sugar.  Causing us to overeat.  Which lets the soda pop industry sell more soda pop.  The (sweetened) food industry sell more food.  And, of course, Big Sugar sell more sweetener.  Making them richer.  And the people poorer.  As well as obese.  All of this to protect a very few jobs in some very old industries.  Transferring wealth from the many to the few.  And reducing economic activity.  Pretty much the exact opposite of what the proponents of tariffs say tariffs will do.  But what they in fact do.  Help the few.  At the expense of the many.

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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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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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President Obama’s Green Initiatives did not Create Jobs or Save the Planet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 2nd, 2012

Week in Review

If the Energy Department was a private corporation it would be the ideal bailout target for a company like Bain Capital.  Inept management, poor investments and bad strategic policy.  It has everything.  So much so that it would be easier for the bailout team to ask them at Energy what actually worked.  It would keep the initial meeting much shorter (see Difference Engine: To and from the grid posted 6/1/2012 on The Economist).

Since then, interest rates have fallen, while the price of solar panels has tumbled even more so—thanks to Chinese overcapacity. Meanwhile, electricity rates (at least those in southern California) have risen noticeably. Your correspondent reckons photovoltaic solar systems now cost half as much as they did four years ago.

Two things could make or break America’s affair with solar power. One concerns the ushered in by the economic stimulus bill of 2009. Many of those temporary tax credits are now coming to an end. If nothing is done to extend them, the incentives will fall from a peak of over $44 billion in 2009 to $16 billion this year and $11 billion by 2014. That could bring the solar-installation business to a screeching halt and wipe out tens of thousands of green jobs. The industry’s future depends largely on the outcome of the November election….

The irony is that those who invest their own money to generate clean electricity from solar panels on their rooftops are likely to be the last to benefit from it environmentally. Nowadays, most people work outside the home during the day and consume the bulk of their residential electricity in the evening and during the night. In California, that is when the state—which meets only 70% of its electricity requirement from its own resources—relies heavily on cheap electricity imported from dirty coal-fired power stations elsewhere in the country. This situation will only be exacerbated if, as expected, plug-in battery vehicles, needing to be recharged overnight, account for an increasing share of the Californian fleet.

That aside, all your correspondent now has to worry about is whether the 31% anti-dumping tariff recently imposed on Chinese solar-panel makers really does deter them. Having seen such trade spats play out many times before, he suspects the tariffs will only spur Chinese firms to acquire the few remaining American solar-panel makers so that they can carry on manufacturing in low-cost Wuxi or Shanghai and do their final assembly in middle America (presumably with local subsidies to boot).

So solar panels have never been cheaper thanks to the Chinese.  Which is good.  These lower prices will encourage people to save the planet by installing solar panels onto their roofs.  Unless the government raises these low prices with a 31% anti-dumping tariff.  Hmm.  Looks like you have to choose between saving the planet.  And providing green jobs.  For as this anti-dumping tariff clearly shows you can’t have both.

And because jobs are more important than the environment the government is subsidizing the clean energy industry.  Let’s crunch some numbers.  They say we could lose “tens of thousands of green jobs.”  So let’s assume there were 80,000 jobs created in the first year.  And they declined by 10,000 every year to reflect with the growing number of bankruptcies in the green energy sector.  Dividing the incentive by the cost in the first year you get a cost of about $550,000 for each job created.  If do the same for the last year you also get a cost of about $550,000 for each job created.  That’s a lot of money to pay someone.  And I’m guessing that the Chinese aren’t paying their employees a half million each in wages and benefits.  Not when they’re making these solar panels so cheap that the U.S. has to slap an anti-dumping tariff on them.

Of course these numbers don’t include the $500 billion the government blew on Solyndra.  Or the other Solyndras out there.  Which when you factor all of these in these green jobs are costing the taxpayer probably in excess of a million dollars each.  For what?  To pay someone a $50,000 wage on an assembly line so he or she can take these earnings and stimulate the economy?  Talk about a negative return on investment.  And the president is attacking Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital past?  If Bain Capital took over the United States government to turn it around to get a sensible return on tax dollar investments guess who would be the first fired from his job?  The incompetent chief executive that spent a million dollars plus to get $50,000 worth of stimulus.

And the kicker is that none of this matters.  When solar power is available people are at work.  When people are home cranking up their air conditioners and plugging in their electric cars for the night the sun is down and coal-fired power plants are meeting this peak demand.  So we get nothing.  No jobs.  And we don’t even save the planet.  We just get higher taxes and more debt.  A pretty crappy deal if you ask me.  We have coal.  We should just use coal.  And not demonize it.  We’d arrive at the same outcome.  Only with fewer taxes and less debt.  And cheaper electricity.  Because we’d be bringing more coal-fired plants on line.  Now that is a smart turnaround plan.  The kind of turnaround that could end up in the win column at Bain Capital.

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British Corn Laws and Empire, the U.S. Free Trade Zone and the Eurozone

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 29th, 2011

History 101

With the Royal Navy, the Steamship, the Railroad and the Telegraph, Great Britain Peacefully Ruled and Led the World

The British Corn Laws were on the books from 1815 to 1846.  To protect domestic cereal farmers from less expensive food imports.  By adding a tariff to these grain imports.  Increasing their price.  So they weren’t any cheaper than the domestically grown grain.  Interestingly it was the few great landowners who wanted these tariffs.  Not the people who had to buy the food.  For paying more for food meant they had less to spend on clothing and other things.

When it came to consumer prices the people were always for free trade.  Because whatever they earned it never seemed enough.  So paying more in taxes was never a good thing.  These wealthy landowners even put forth the argument that paying higher food prices meant higher wages.  In a feeble attempt to maintain these tariffs.  They said that manufacturers just wanted cheaper food so they could pay cheaper wages.  Because if food wasn’t that expensive their workers wouldn’t need as much pay.  And, of course, the greedy manufacturers would just pocket more profits.  Much like the greedy landowners were doing thanks to the Corn Laws.  But their greed was somehow different.

Well, free trade won out.  Eventually.  And they repealed the Corn Laws in 1846.  And, as expected, food prices plummeted.  Soon they imported more food than they grew.  Because it was cheaper.  And it freed up more money for use elsewhere in the economy.  Stimulating innovation and invention.  Taking the Industrial Revolution to new heights.  And raising the standard of living for all people.  Not just the wealthy landowners.  The British Empire reached its zenith in the 19th century.  After the defeat of Napoleon there was about a century of peace called the Pax Britannica.  Where Great Britain became the global policeman.  With the Royal Navy, the steamship, the railroad and the telegraph, Great Britain peacefully ruled and led the world.

The U.S. was a Large Free Trade Zone with a Common Currency, Language, People and Customs

The British were the most advanced nation in the 19th century world.  And the richest.  Her empire dominated trade.  Her rule of law and common currency made that trade efficient.  It was a giant free trade zone within her empire.  But it couldn’t last.  The cost of maintaining the empire, plus a world war, was just too much.  Her economic might faded.  While another rose.  In a former colony.  The United States.

The sun never set on the British Empire.  Because it was that big.  Reaching around the globe.  Connected by long lines of communication.  And an imperial British culture uniting different peoples.   Who knew different cultures, laws and money.  Whereas as the United States had all the advantages of empire (size and range of resources) without any of the disadvantages.  The U.S. was a large free trade zone with a common currency, language, people and customs.  The states comprising the U.S. were as big as countries in other parts of the world.  But trade could flow between any two states without custom duties, tariffs or even inspections.  It was truly free.

When the Industrial Revolution reached the United States, the economy took off and never looked back.  By the end of the 19th century she was challenging the British Empire.  And rapidly overtook her.  There was another global policeman in town.  All because of a giant free trade zone that was as big as a continent.

The ‘United States’ of Europe created the Eurozone and a Common Currency (the Euro) to Compete with the U.S.

The United States is such the perfect model of free market capitalism that Europe created the Eurozone and a common currency (the Euro) to compete with the U.S.  And it worked.  For awhile.

The ‘united states’ of Europe as a whole has a larger economy than the U.S.  But they have their problems.  For a common currency is only part of America’s success.  The U.S. is a united federation of states with one set of federal laws, language and culture for interstate commerce.  Something Europe doesn’t have.  And probably never will.  European countries have far too much history and culture.  And nationalism.  They will never unite politically.  Like the United States.  Or the British Empire, for that matter.

The key to the British Empire was that it was British.  One currency.  One language.  One set of laws.  One culture.  For interstate trade, at least.  Just like in the country that surpassed her.  The United States.  Still, there’s nothing wrong with being a smaller economic power than the U.S.  As long as you have free trade your people can enjoy a high standard of living.  Without the added responsibility of being the global policeman.

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Raising the Debt Ceiling may be Worse than Default

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 30th, 2011

Despite U.S. Debt Crisis, U.S. still the World’s Safe Asset of Choice

As Congress debates over the debt ceiling…blah blah blah…Armageddon.  Funny thing is, the U.S. debt problem is not that bad.  When compared to the debt problem in Europe (see Err, over here by Schumpeter posted 7/29/2011 on The Economist).

AS THE August 2nd deadline for a resolution of America’s debt-ceiling row approaches, other news is being drowned out. America’s debt debacle provokes rubber-necking fascination but the euro crisis is still the bigger threat to financial stability.

The chances (admittedly diminishing with time) are that America will get its house in order and avoid default; and that a ratings downgrade will happen but not threaten the pre-eminence of Treasuries as the world’s safe asset of choice. In contrast, the euro area’s crisis is already in full swing and policymakers, as this week’s issue of The Economist makes plain, have not found a way to stop it.

Things are worse in the European Union.  Especially the Eurozone.  And though Armageddon is at hand in the U.S., we’re still the “world’s safe asset of choice.”  So the end of the world as we know it may not be at hand.  But the out of control government spending and debt is fast approaching European levels.  So if we don’t cut our spending and reduce our deficits, we will follow lockstep behind Europe into fiscal ruin.  And then, of course, Armageddon.  

Partisan Democrats decry Republican Partisanship

So this Republican partisanship needs to end.  They need to be bipartisan.  Like the Democrats.  That is, when they’re not being partisan themselves (see For Reid, Durbin, and Obama, a (very) partisan record on debt ceiling by Byron York posted 7/30/2011 on The Washington Examiner).

A look at Reid’s record, however, shows that in the last decade his own voting on the issue of the debt ceiling is not only partisan but perfectly partisan. According to “The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases,” a January 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, the Senate has passed ten increases to the debt limit since 2000.  Reid never voted to increase the debt ceiling when Republicans were in control of the Senate, and he always voted to increase the debt ceiling when Democrats were in control…

At look at Durbin’s record shows that he, too, has voted along absolutely partisan lines.  In the last decade, Durbin never voted to increase the debt ceiling when Republicans were in control and always voted to increase the debt ceiling when Democrats were in control.  As for Obama, there were four votes to raise the debt ceiling when he was in the Senate.  He missed two of them, voted no once when Republicans were in charge, and voted yes once when Democrats were in charge.

So the Democrats have a history of being just as partisan as the Republicans.  Even now, as they decry the Republican’s partisanship, they refuse to compromise at all on what they’ve always wanted.  More taxes.  And more borrowing.  So they can spend a lot more.

Democrats open to Compromise, as long as it’s the Republicans doing the Compromising

And they’ve drawn a line in the sand.  No meaningful cuts without new taxes (see Senate Kills Debt Bill, Bipartisan Talks on Hold by Steven T. Dennis posted 7/29/2011 on Roll Call).

“We’ve got a closet full of triggers,” he said. But, he added, “I came to the conclusion that we are negotiating with ourselves. The Republicans will not agree to any triggers that have any revenues in it.”

And Reid noted that Democrats have drawn a line in the sand against any cuts to entitlement programs without revenue.

The Republicans refuse to raise taxes because America is still wallowing in the Great Recession.  Democrats refuse to drop their request to raise taxes.  And flat out refuse to cut entitlements.  Like Social Security.  Medicare.  And the new Obamacare.  Because, though fiscally responsible, it’s not politically expedient.  Which is going to become a BIG problem soon.

Repeal Obamacare and all our Current Troubles go Away

Health care spending will take the U.S. to European levels of spending and debt (see CMS Projections Confirm Runaway Health Care Spending by Kathryn Nix posted 7/29/2011 on The Foundry).

As the economy recovers and the major provisions of Obamacare kick in, national health spending is projected to grow at quite a clip—increasing, on average, 5.8 percent each year. By 2020, the nation will spend $4.54 trillion on health care, or close to 20 percent of GDP. (For the sake of comparison: In 2010, federal tax revenue totaled 14.9 percent of GDP, and all federal spending combined amounted to 23.8 percent of GDP.)

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining.  An S&P report calls for real spending cuts of $4 trillion or more over 10 years to avoid the credit downgrade.  And look at this.  Obamacare will cost $4.54 trillion over some 10 years.  Imagine that.  Save the AAA bond rating.  Leave Social Security and Medicare intact.  And all you have to do is cut one program that no one is receiving any benefits from yet.  Repeal Obamacare.  And all our current troubles go away.

Or you can Devalue the Currency

Of course, that’s one way of solving the current crisis.  There appears to be another.  One that is a bit more destructive (see Answers to the 7 big “what-ifs” of debt default by Lauren Young posted 7/30/2011 on Reuters).

Traders say Asian central banks, among the world’s biggest dollar holders, have been steady buyers of alternatives to the dollar such as the Singapore dollar and other Asian currencies as well as the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars. “Foreigners are at the vanguard of the drop in the dollar,” says Dan Dorrow, head of research at Faros Trading, a currency broker/dealer in Stamford, Connecticut. “I don’t think anyone expects a catastrophic U.S. default. But a downgrade will make them more aggressive in moving away from the dollar…”

The bottom line? It will be more expensive to travel overseas, drink French wine or buy Japanese cars.

A little trade war anyone?  A weak currency is like a tariff.  It makes imports so expensive that we stop buying them.  And buy American instead.  Thus increasing U.S. GDP.  And there is a corollary to this.  Can you guess what that is?  Here’s a hint.  It does something to our exports.  And our vacation market.

Fixing our Economy by Destroying other Economies

A weak currency not only makes your imports more expensive, it also makes your exports less expensive.  Which helps your export market.  And encourages people to vacation in your country because those stronger, foreign currencies can buy so much more (see U.S. Economy: Growth Trails Forecasts as Consumers Retrench by Shobhana Chandra posted 7/29/2011 on Bloomberg).

The improvement in the difference between imports and exports added another 0.6 point [of U.S. GDP].

Overseas sales will remain a backstop for factories. Dow Chemical Co. (DOW), the largest U.S. chemical maker, said demand is “strong” in markets abroad.

“We captured strong growth in Latin America, and the emerging geographies more broadly, while North America experienced moderate growth,” Andrew Liveris, chief executive officer, said on a July 27 conference call with analysts.

So perhaps this is the grand plan.  Increase spending to unsustainable levels.  Incur record debt.  This spending and debt triggers a downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt.  Which devalues the U.S. dollar.  Which places a de facto tariff on imports.  And provides a subsidy for our exports.  And it makes the U.S. a vacation destination.  Until our trading partners retaliate for fixing our economy by destroying their economies.  Like everyone is saying the Chinese are doing by keeping their own currency weak.

Repealing Obamacare would Please the Credit Rating Agencies

So the only bright spot in the U.S. economy is other economies.  Where they’re experiencing growth.  And can easily afford U.S. goods.  Which is about the only market buying them these days.  But for the world’s largest economy (for now) to rely solely on exports can be a bit risky.  Especially if it triggers a trade war.  Which, incidentally, helped trigger the Great Depression.

No, it would probably be more prudent to keep that AAA rating by cutting spending.  Before we spend ourselves to European ruin.  That’s the key to everything.  In particular cutting the fastest growing government expenditure.  Health care.  Which makes repealing Obamacare made to order.  No one is benefitting from it yet.  So no one will even notice this cut.  Other than the credit rating agencies.  Who will stand up and applaud this action. 

For just raising the debt ceiling doesn’t solve the real problem.  In fact, raising the debt ceiling without the $4 trillion in spending cuts will just push us closer to European ruin.

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LESSONS LEARNED #63: “There is no such thing as a monopoly in free market capitalism.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 28th, 2011

Even the mighty Coke-Pepsi Duopoly can’t stop People from Drinking Tap Water

Coke and Pepsi have a near monopoly in the cola market.  Or a duopoly.  They dominate.  And they’re bitter enemies.  Few brands are locked in such a bitter struggle that we call it war.  The Cola Wars.  They are archenemies.  Even though they may cooperate by alternating their discounting to limit their losses.  One month Coke may be on sale.  The following month, Pepsi.  They’re big and their powerful and when you ask for a Coke at a restaurant you’ll either get a Coke.  Or they’ll ask you if Pepsi is okay.  Or vice versa.  Because they own the market.

But do they?  There’s always another choice.  At a restaurant, we can order ice tea.  Hot tea.  Coffee.  Orange drink.  Beer.  Wine.  A cocktail.  Or even water.  Ditto at the grocery store.  Walk down an aisle and there’s more to choose than Coke or Pepsi.  RC Cola, for one.  And then there’s the un-cola (7-Up).  VernorsA&W Root BeerSquirtDr. PepperCrushSnapple.  And other name brands that aren’t owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.  Not to mention all the store brands.  And, of course, tap water.  Which I personally drink with most of my meals.  Even though there’s nothing finer than a Coke or Pepsi to wash down a greasy pizza.

Try as they might Coke and Pepsi can’t limit entry into the beverage market.  The barriers they can erect are minimal.  They can offer a special price to a store or restaurant in exchange for keeping out their hated rival, but they can’t prevent people from asking for tap water.  Or from people simply going elsewhere to get the Coke or Pepsi product they want.  Or the million other options out there.  And if they raise their prices in their ‘duopoly’, people will just seek out those other options.  Yes, they may be able to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in blind taste tests.  But if the price isn’t right, they’ll enjoy RC Cola just fine.  Or even the store brand cola.

Go ahead and Tax our Tea.  We’ll just drink Coffee Instead.

You see, to keep out the competition, you need the power of government.  Just ask the sugar importers.  Who would love to sell to the cola companies.  But don’t.  Because government has erected a barrier to that market.  Now, we don’t know what their highly guarded secret recipes are, but we do know that they each use the same sweetener.  High fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  They don’t use sugar.  Why?  Because Big Ag lobbied Congress to slap high tariffs on imported sugar.  Which they have.  Now the price of sugar is so high the cola companies use HFCS instead.  Though that may be changing as of late with a new round of health concerns about HFSC.  But that’s a whole other story.

To limit consumer choice, you need government to step in.  Because only government can write laws to erect market barriers.  For example, the last straw of British oppression before America’s Declaration of Independence was about a British law that erected a market barrier.  British Americans, being of British stock, liked their tea.  But they didn’t like paying the high price of East Indian Company tea.  In the Mercantile economics of the day, everything bought and sold in the British Empire shipped on British ships through British ports.  Indian opium shipped on British ships to China (via Calcutta).  The British than used the proceeds from those sales to purchase tea.  Which they shipped on British ships back to London.  Where they paid a duty on it.  And then on to America.  Where the colonists paid a tax on it.  All these markups made their tea pretty expensive.

Famine and recession caused financial problems for the East India Company.  To help alleviate their problems, British Parliament stepped in.  Said they could ship their tea directly to British North America (without going through London).  And sell it tax-free in the colonies.  Which made all other tea more expensive.  Which did not go over well with the American tea merchants.  Or the colonists in general.  This led to the Boston Tea Party.  American Independence.  And the switch from drinking tea to drinking coffee in America.  Because even when there is only one tea that is legal to drink, there is always another choice.

Rockefeller benefited Consumers.  The ICC did not.

People love Teddy Roosevelt for his trust busting.  Attacking the big robber barons.  To help the little guy.  And one of the big guys the little guys loved to hate was John D. Rockefeller.  Of Standard Oil fame.  Rockefeller was richer than most nations.  And some people just hated that.  He made his wealth by making refined oil products affordable to the consumer.  And he was a great environmentalist.  He saved the whales by replacing whale oil with kerosene.  And his relentless research and development made every bit of refined oil into a useful product.  While his competitors dumped most of their waste back into the environment.  Not Rockefeller.  He hated waste.  He even experimented in finding the least number of welds it would take to hold an oil barrel together.  He invented vertical integration (controlling industries up and down the product pipeline from the collection of raw resources to the sale of a finished product).  He not only made refined oil products cheap.  He made them plentiful.  Which made America the world’s leading economic power.  Successful corporations follow his example today.

Sure, he put a lot of his competitors out of business.  But it wasn’t because he was a monopoly.  It was because he was just that much better.  He produced refined products better and cheaper than his competition.  By the time the trust busters busted up Standard Oil, competition was coming into being on the Standard Oil model.  Which ultimately produced more refined products at lower costs.  He forced the competition to step up to his level which benefited consumers.  While the trust busters tried to bring Rockefeller down to his competitor’s level which benefited his competitors.  Not the consumers.  No, consumers did very well by John D. Rockefeller.  He created and produced at a relentless rate.  He didn’t ask for government help.  Unlike his competitors.  Who complained to the government.  (It is never a consumer that complains about predatory pricing).  Because when you can’t compete legitimately, you petition government for special favors.  Much like some of the railroads did.

Building a railroad is costly.  And takes a lot of friends in government.  At all levels.  Because you have to lay track through federal land, state land, county land as well as through cities.  Of course, everyone wanted that track to go through their land because the railroad was the way to ship goods.  And people.  So the system was ripe for corruption.  And it often was.  Once built some shippers complained about unfair shipping rates compare to what others got.  Rockefeller, for example, was highly criticized for getting better rates by far than any of his competitors.  Of course, he shipped by far more product than any of his competitors.  Which probably had a lot to do with his rates.  But the government saw that things were unfair in the railroad business.  So they stepped in.  And created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).  Which was to right all the wrongs.  Which, of course, it didn’t.  It just made it easier for the big companies to fix things in their favor.  For they now had a single governing body to buy.  Which made it easier to buy political influence.

But none of this made a difference to save the railroads.  They started to die in the Fifties.  Of arrogance.  When people asked the big railroad executives what business they were in, they replied, “The railroad business.”  But they weren’t.  They were in the transportation business.  What’s the difference?  The ‘railroad’ business had only other railroads for competition.  The transportation business had cars, trucks and, eventually, planes, as competition.  So even though those who used the power of government to restrict other railroads from entering their markets, there was still competition.  The interstate highways and the automobile killed passenger rail.  And the trucking industry almost killed the freight railroads.  What saved them was realigning their operations into the transportation business.  Intermodal transportation combined container ships, railroads and trucks into a seamless and cost efficient transportation system.  Roadrailers took that concept to a higher level.  These are truck trailers that can be pulled by a locomotive without the need of a rail flatcar.  Trucks deliver these trailers to a rail yard.  They add a train bogey to the trailer.  Put it on the track.  Couple them together.  And attach them to a single locomotive.  Very little non-revenue weight.  Making it very efficient.  John D. Rockefeller would be impressed.

In a Free Market there is always a Choice

Wherever there is a market there is competition.  For any market where a profit can be made will attract others to that market.  Companies can try to restrict competitors.  But that’s all they can do.  Try.  Because if it’s a free market, it’s open to competition.  There are no barriers that a competitor can’t overcome.  Except one legislated by government.  And competitors can even crack that barrier.

And this is what it takes to make a monopoly.  Government.  Railroads had monopolies for awhile.  But creative business people found a way to crack their government-imposed monopoly.  Truckers came in and shipped at rates lower than the ICC said was fair.  Of course, fair is a relative term.  What’s fair to the railroad is not fair to the shipper.  Or the consumer.  But a trucker shipping at rate that he can cover his expenses and support his family is fair to everyone.  Except the railroad who depended on government instead of innovation for their business profits.

Coke and Pepsi can fight their cola wars but they can’t keep out competition.  There’s always root beer, ginger ale, orange drink, beer, wine, liquor, water, coffee or tea.  And even when government uses their full weight and power to create and maintain a tea monopoly, tea drinkers can simply become coffee drinkers.  For in a free market there is always a choice.  Always.

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