DRI-128 for week of 12-28-14: The Student-Loan Bubble: Blackboard Economics Strikes Again

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

The Student-Loan Bubble: Blackboard Economics Strikes Again

The subjugation of print and broadcast news media by the Internet has changed many aspects of the news business, but crisis mode still predominates. The financial crisis gave the Great Recession its headline stories, the biggest of which were the housing bubble and accompanying subprime-mortgage loan scandals. Ever since then the New Media have been beating the bushes for their next big crisis. The front-running nominee seems to be the impending student-loan debacle.

News outlets across the political spectrum have vied for shrillest note of alarm in detailing the deplorable state of the student-loan market. In fact, this use of the term “market” is highly stylized, similar to its use in government bonds, home mortgages and military-defense. Ever since 2010, the federal government has effectively monopolized the market for student loans obtained for purchase of higher education. This monopoly operates in a manner analogous to the federal monopoly on home mortgages enjoyed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And a popular consensus has formed around the idea that the student-loan result will duplicate that in home mortgages; namely, a bubble with disastrous economic consequences for the economy at large.

The Outlines of the Disaster in the Making

Why is everybody all het up? Here are the outlines of the disaster as the various sources see it coming:

Between the years 2003-2013 college tuition has risen by almost 80%. To put this rise in perspective, consider that it is roughly double the rise in the average cost of medical care over the same time period. That sounds bad, but a price increase is not a bad thing ipso facto. Marked increases in quality can account for a higher price, for example, by causing increases in demand. Demand can increase for other reasons, too. Might higher tuition derive from these causes?

Surveys have demonstrated that tenured professors now average between six and nine hours of teaching per week at public universities, compared to the former average of nine to twelve hours. A majority of courses are now taught by non-tenured faculty, consisting of full-time, non-tenured faculty members, part-time adjunct faculty and graduate students. In order to believe that students are now receiving higher-quality teaching, we must believe that this motley mix are better teachers than the older, better credentialed tenured faculty members.

On its face, that proposition seems wildly far-fetched. In fact, it is not at all unusual to observe younger, non-tenured faculty members winning teaching awards and popularity polls. But this still doesn’t make a case for higher-quality education, for if it were generally true then it would argue for the separation of teaching and research altogether. And indeed, this may well be the optimal organization of labor in higher education. We will never know until we deregulate the industry, cutting off all government funds and allowing markets to determine the question.

The real source of tuition increases is not an organic increase in demand for higher education. Since 1999, the total volume of student loans has grown by 511%. Thus, the felt, effective demand for higher education has increased dramatically because it is an artificial, subsidized demand.

This has led to about $1 trillion being allocated to student loans – more money than is currently tied up on consumer credit-card debt. The so-called average individual owes about $24,000. This form of personal debt is very tenacious. Unlike most forms of personal debt, it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Only death can extinguish it.

Not surprisingly, the high rate, volume and burden of student-loan debt have produced defaults on that debt. Some $146 billion worth of student-loan defaults have been recorded to date. The default rate stands at its highest level since 1996.

Where there is default, there are those seeking to deflect it. There is even a term used to describe this practice; it is called forbearance. A Wall Street Journal op-ed (“The Hidden Student-Debt Bomb,” by Jason Delisle, WSJ 12/31/14) describes the practice and its spread.

Forbearance is the generic term for various means of avoiding on-time payment of student loans. Of the total $1 trillion in student loan debt outstanding, the amount in forbearance is $125 billion and rising.

The standard forbearance benefit is usually granted by the company servicing the loan. The student calls the company and requests forbearance. Upon receipt, the student receives postponement of payments for as long as three years. Since this benefit is granted at the discretion of the company, there need be no qualifying criteria, although there are sometimes income qualifications.

Forbearance can also be used to cure a delinquency status. As author Delisle notes, this becomes rather quaint – accrued interest and principal accumulates on the loan so that the initial too-onerous-to-pay amount is now bulked up considerably by the time the next payment is due. Really, then, Delisle argues, forbearances should be treated as equivalent to delinquencies and defaults rather than as a treatment for them. Thus, their steady upward march in recent years (12.5% of repayments in 2006, 13.3% in 2013 and 16% of the $778 million in repayment today) is reason for alarm.

Another technique bases forbearance on ability to repay, or income. At an income of 150% of a poverty-level income or less, payment is zero. As income rises, payments rise on an ascending scale to between 1% and 15% of income. At some point – either 10, 20 or 25 years, depending on the precise details of the program – remaining debt is forgiven completely and taxpayers pick up the remaining tab. The interesting feature of income-based programs is their separation from standard amortization principles of debt repayment. For example, the most generous income-program cases do not even cover the accrued interest on the student loan! Thus, there is really no pretense that the loan will ever be repaid under these circumstances – the program just gives the student a thin layer of epidermis in the game. According to Delisle, “the Obama administration estimated in 2012 that the average amount forgiven in income-based repayment plans will be $41,000 per borrower” (!).

Since those loans represent expenditures financed by the federal government, that means that the money was acquired by the federal government in one of the three standard (and exclusive) ways: by taxing, borrowing and “printing” (e.g., creating). That means that taxpayers have already paid for it or will pay for it in the future. If students do not repay their loans, that means that taxpayers will bear the burden. Then again, even if students do repay the loans, the only form of “repayment” taxpayers get is reimbursement to the Treasury, which defrays future expenses on some other boondoggle. But even if you discount the dubious notion that taxpayers are repaid by students, it is clear that the practice of forbearance encourages students to take on heavy debt loads and later shed them at taxpayer expense.

One obvious paradox is that the overall U.S. economy has been improving recently while the pattern of delinquency, default and forbearance on student loans has been increasing. This makes no economic sense. That makes Delisle wonder whether the purpose of student loans is political rather than economic.

Regular readers of this space should already have reached that conclusion by this point. Before broaching this issue fully, we should pause to ponder the question: Exactly what is the economic purpose of student loans for higher education underwritten by the federal government?

The Orthodox Economic Case for Government Subsidies to Higher Education

The economic case for subsidies to higher education by government can be found in virtually every undergraduate economics textbook. It is cited as an example of a positive externality. Ordinarily, an economic transaction involves a buyer and a seller – the benefits of the good being purchased are confined to the buyer and the costs of production were incurred by the seller. Education, it is claimed, benefits everybody, not just the student. So, there are benefits “external” to the parties immediately involved in the purchase, making the externality a “positive” one. (The presence of external costs would be a negative externality; pollution flowing from a production site would be an example.) Because students take only their own future benefits into consideration when weighing an investment in their human capital, they will not purchase enough education. It is up to government to subsidize education to make up for this inherent flaw in the free market. True, you and I are forced to pay for the education of others, but that is justified by the benefits we receive from their education – better goods and services that they produce, better conversation that they make with us, better government that they give us and more.

Even the apostle of free markets and laissez-faire, Milton Friedman, gives lip service to this argument in his treatise Capitalism and Freedom. And just as Keynesians like Ben Bernanke cite Milton Friedman’s slightest obiter dictum as support for their loose-money policies, so have government spenders cited him in support of spending on higher education.

This is a classic case of what the late Nobel laureate Ronald Coase called “blackboard economics.” Teachers will develop an argument on the blackboard, “prove” it using the assumptions they assert under the terms of their model. Then – because they probably had a vested interest to promote in the first place – they proceed to promote policies that are based on its validity.

“Economic policy involves a choice among alternative social institutions, and these are created by the law or are dependent on it. The majority of economists do not see the problem in this way. They paint a picture of an ideal economic system and then, comparing it with what they observe (or think they observe), they prescribe what is necessary to reach this ideal state without much consideration for how this could be done. The analysis is carried out with great ingenuity but it floats in the air. It is, as I have phrased it, ‘blackboard economics.’ There is little investigation of how the economy actually operates, and in consequence it is hardly surprising that we find…that the factual examples given are often quite misleading.”

Coase cited two famous blunders by famous Nobel Prize-winning economists. Paul Samuelson, author of the all-time bestselling economics text, followed the precedent set by several generations of economists going back to John Stuart Mill in the 19th century by flatly stating that lighthouses were an example of a positive externality and could only be provided by government, never privately in a free market. In reality, private lighthouses flourished for centuries. James Meade declared that bee pollination of orchards could never be handled by free markets, blithely overlooking the fact that beekeeping in the U.S. had done just that for many decades at the time (the early 1950s) that he wrote. Ironically, despite his suggestive term, Coase never applied his logic to higher education itself.

Coase implies strongly that the problem with “blackboard economics” is a lack of empirical investigation. He was trained at the London School of Economics and taught for many years in the Law School at the University of Chicago. Thus, he was exposed to the influence of two famous philosophical positivists, John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard Keynes) and Milton Friedman. Both men developed a school of economic logic and practice that was very widely taught and practiced within the profession. It preached that economists should not only develop hypotheses but test them empirically using formal statistical inference. Only those hypotheses that pass the tests – that is, the ones that are empirically sound – should be vetted for policy purposes.

This philosophy is purportedly based on the habits developed by the natural sciences – physics, biology, chemistry et al. It sounds – or, more precisely, sounded– attractive, which accounts for its onetime dominance of the profession. It now lies in ruins. Few theorists pretend to “test” economic hypotheses today, although everybody goes on mechanically employing statistical tools and looking for new ones. The concept of “statistical significance” today brings a blush to professional cheeks after its scandalous misuse by generations of social scientists.

Coase made a minor point, all right; economists were arrogant for not at least peeking out the windows of their ivory towers before applying the theories they formulated so carelessly. But the decisive point is theoretical, not empirical. The externalities argument is badly reasoned in the first instance. Coase himself proved this when he laid the groundwork for the so-called “Coase Theorem,” which shows that when transactions costs are disregarded, the existence of an externality does not make a case for government involvement. The two parties involved have an incentive to bargain their way to a solution.

The positive externality argument for government subsidies to higher education has an even bigger hole in it, one big enough to drive a truck holding $1 trillion through.

When Is An Investment Not An Investment?

When we stand back and view the positive externality argument and today’s reality of student-loan spending by government in some sort of perspective, it is blindingly obvious that something is missing. Something vital was overlooked all along in the mad rush to get money in the hands of students. What was it, exactly?

After Forbes Magazine published one of the cautionary articles referred to earlier, a young student sent in a dissenting response. His economic arguments were chillingly naïve: Since the loans are made and supported by the government, the private sector is “protected” against the fallout from default, unlike the case with the mortgage default on subprime loans; the loans are not securitized via derivative assets and thus have less potential for harm. But most telling of all is his closing comment that “after all, education is not a cost, it is an investment.”

Incredible as it seems, this is the same hazy-crazy-lazy blue-skies frame of mind with which economists themselves have approached the subject. Let us rectify this carefree, careless approach with some incisive thinking. Education is a good. The purchase of education by an individual is an investment that entails a cost. The cost is the highest-valued alternative foregone by that individual in the purchase as it is viewed BY THAT INDIVIDUAL. The benefit is the discounted present value of the future benefits expected to accrue from the human capital created as they are viewed BY THAT INDIVIDUAL. Nobody else’s views matter in evaluating this investment. Nobody else can evaluate the benefits because they are his or her benefits – nobody else’s. Nobody else can evaluate the cost because it is his or her cost – nobody else is foregoing the alternative(s).

Are there other people who gain in some way from that individual’s education? Fine – let them subsidize his or her education, if they want to. If they want to run the risk that he or she will purchase too little education, let them run it. If they don’t perceive sufficient benefit to them from his or her education to subsidize it, then the only sensible policy is to treat that external benefit as negligible. In practice, we see various people and institutions willing to subsidize the educations of others.

Now the shortcoming of the current system sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. As it stands out now, the education decision is NOT an investment – because the individual making it considers only benefits, not costs. By manipulating the system, the student-borrower can slide out from under a very substantial proportion of the nominal cost.

And that’s not all. The investment decision is further distorted by the fact that, when the buyer perceives the cost to be zero or very low, the quantity demanded will be very high. Thus, the price – tuition – will be driven artificially high. Expansion of capacity – that is, supply – comes rather slowly because public funding to build more universities or expand existing ones comes from legislatures, while private universities are funded largely from endowments.

The Political Basis of the Current System

Delisle’s conjecture about the political basis of the current system is well-founded. Conservatives sometimes act as if sin originated with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, though, and iniquity in public education goes back over a century. The economists who formulated the positive externality theory worked for the government, as do most economists today. The 20th century saw education become a captive of the state. The subjection of students via student loans is only the latest foray by a marauding government.

The current design of student-loan programs is not the result of laxity or well-meaning over-generosity, but of political calculation. The concept of “predatory lending” has absolutely no meaning in a private, free-market economy because private, profit-seeking businesses have no incentive to write bad loans. But government does and the student-loan program is the locus classicus of predatory lending a la government. Its purpose is to entrap students in loans from which they have no alternative except to default. Government is both their benefactor – for “giving” them a college education – and their savior – for rescuing them from financial ruin and penury with forbearance. Thus, government has now created a built-in, guaranteed constituency. Moreover, this new constituency comes complete with an army of bureaucrats that also owe their jobs to government. Bureaucrats first of all to administer the loans in the first place – fill out the forms and check eligibility (as if!) and recruit new borrowers and keep the loans flowing; bureaucrats later on to administer the forbearance phase in which de-facto defaults are carefully managed and nurtured to their soft landings.

Both these new constituencies will vote for big government forever.

And “forever” lasts just as long as it takes for the money to run out and the ultimate financial debacle to take down the whole monetary and financial system.

Bust Up the Blackboard 

Most utter debacles come about in spite of economic theory and logic. This one was carefully engineered with the aid of economics and economists. We cannot fine-tune out way out of this disaster. The only way out is to privatize education at all levels. Severing the financial lifeline of these subsidies is the only way to kill this two-headed student-loan beast that devours our real income with each mouth.

DRI-248 for week of 10-19-14: The Economic Inoculation Against Terrorism

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Economic Inoculation Against Terrorism

Last week’s EconBrief analyzed the military adventures undertaken by Great Britain and the United States over the last two centuries and found uncanny and unsettling similarities. In particular, we detected a growing tendency to intervene militarily to settle disputes coupled with a growing distaste for war per se. Given the lack of close substitutes for complete victory in military conflict, this is a disastrous combination.

Both Great Britain and the United States found increasing need to use military force but were increasingly reluctant to apply maximum force with promptness and dispatch. The British dithered when confronted by Islamic fanaticism in the Sudan and ended up suffering the loss of a national hero, vast prestige and the need to intervene finally anyway. The British then faced one revolt after another in southern Africa, Ireland, India and Palestine. In each case, they reacted in measured ways only to be excoriated when finally forced to take stronger action. Ultimately, they abandoned their empire rather than take the actions necessary to preserve it.

Compare the actions taken by Great Britain in India against the passive resistance led by Gandhi with those that would have been taken by, say, a totalitarian nation like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or Communist China. The British were repeatedly forced to back down from using force against Gandhi – not by superior force or numbers wielded by the Mahatma but by their own moral qualms about exerting the force necessary to prevail. By contrast, Gandhi would never have gained any public notice, let alone worldwide acclaim, had he lived and operated under the Third Reich. Hitler’s minions would have murdered him long before he rose to public prominence. In Soviet Russia, Gandhi would have earned a bullet in the back of his head and unmarked burial in a mass grave. In Red China, Gandhi would either have undergone re-education or joined the faceless millions on the funeral pyre in tribute to revolutionary communism.

Lawrence in Arabia: Visionary or Myopic Mystic?

Director David Lean’s magnificent film Lawrence of Arabia acquainted the world with the story of British Col. T.E. Lawrence, an obscure officer who seized the opportunity to unite disparate and warring Arab tribes in guerilla warfare against the Germans in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Playwright Robert Bolt’s screenplay depicts the Arabs as simple, childlike victims of wily colonial exploiters. Lawrence is a martyr who seeks to restore Arabs to their former historical glory by casting out the foreign devils from Arabia – “Arabia for the Arabs.”

Lawrence is continually frustrated in his campaign to organize the Arabs into an effective and cohesive fighting force. Tribal and religious divisions separate Arabs from each other almost as much as from the Turks.  Why can’t they view themselves as Arabs, he wonders, rather than as members of particular tribes or sects?

When Lawrence succeeds in whipping his guerilla force into fighting shape, he turns them into a virtual column of the British army and becomes instrumental in winning the war in the Middle East. He assumes that, once united in war, the Arabs will remain so in peacetime. They will stand fast against the British and French colonialists and reclaim their heritage. When this hope proves illusory, he retreats home to England in disillusion.

The perspective of economics allows us the insight that Lawrence was doomed to disappointment from the start. In wartime, people of all races, creeds and nationalities are able and willing to put aside personal priorities in favor of the mutual overriding priority of winning the war. At war’s end, however, there is no longer any single overriding priority strong enough to claim universal allegiance. Now each pursues his or her own interest. Of course, this pursuit of individual interest can still produce broadly beneficial results. Indeed, it should do just that – provided the disciplining forces of free markets and competition are given free play. But in post-World War I Arabia, the ideas of Adam Smith and free markets were as alien as Dixieland jazz. Economically, Arabia was primitive and aboriginal. Its tribes were dedicated to warfare and plunder – just as the aboriginal peoples of Australia, New Guinea, North America, South America and Africa were before modern civilization caught up with them. There was a tradition of trade or exchange in aboriginal culture – but no tradition of freedom, free markets and property rights.

The Flame that Ignited the Arab Spring

Of course, Arab society did not stall out completely at the aboriginal stage of primitive, nomadic desert life. Arabs were naturally blessed with copious quantities of petroleum, the vital economic resource of the 20th century. Though mostly unable to develop this resource themselves, they did play host to companies from Western industrialized nations that created infrastructure for that purpose. The resulting cultural interaction paved the way for modernization and a measure of secularization. Thus, from a distance the major cities of the Middle East might be hard to distinguish from those of the West. Up close, though, the differences are stark.

The noted South American economist and political advisor Hernando De Soto led a joint research study into the origins of the Arab Spring of 2011. He recounted his experiences in the recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Capitalist Cure for Terrorism” (Saturday-Sunday, October 11-12, 2014). The seminal event of this movement was the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi. Judging from Western coverage of the Middle East, one would expect him to have been unemployed, disaffected and despairing of his plight. As De Soto and his team discovered, the truth was far different.

Bouazizi was not unemployed. He was a street merchant, one of the most common occupational categories in the Arab world. He began trading at age 12, graduating to the responsible position of bookkeeper at the local market by the time he was 19. At the time of his death, he was “selling fruits and vegetables from different carts and sites;” i.e., he was a multi-product, multiple-location entrepreneur. It seems clear that he was not driven to extremity by idleness and despair. So what drove him to public suicide?

Like most of his trade, Bouazizi operated illegally. His dream was to obtain the capital to expand his business into the legal economy. He wanted to buy a pickup truck for delivering his vegetables to retail outlets. He longed to form a legal company as an umbrella under which to operate – stake clear title to assets, establish collateral, get a loan for the truck.

This dream seems modest to America ears. But for Bouazizi it was unattainable. “Government inspectors made Bouazizi’s life miserable, shaking him down for bribes when he couldn’t produce [business] licenses that were (by design) virtually unobtainable. He tired of the abuse. The day he killed himself, inspectors had come to seize his merchandise and his electronic scale for weighing goods. A tussle began. One municipal inspector, a woman, slapped Bouazizi across the face. That humiliation, along with the confiscation of just $225 worth of his wares, is said to have led the young man to take his own life.”

“Tunisia’s system of cronyism, which demanded payoffs for official protection at every turn, had withdrawn its support from Bouazizi and ruined him. He could no longer generate profits or repay the loans he had taken to buy the confiscated merchandise. He was bankrupt, and the truck that he dreamed of purchasing was now also out of reach. He couldn’t sell and relocate because he had no legal title to his business to pass on. So he died in flames – wearing Western-style sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered jacket, demanding the right to work in a legal market economy.”

Asked if Bouazizi had left a legacy, his brother replied, “Of course. He believed the poor had a right to buy and sell.”

Mohamed Bouazizi was not alone. In the next two months, at least 63 people in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt set themselves afire in imitation of and sympathy with Bouazizi. Some of them survived to tell stories similar to his. Their battle cry was “we are all Mohamed Bouazizi.” It became the rallying cry of the Arab Spring, bringing down no fewer than four political regimes.

The Western news media have been heretofore silent about the true origins of the Arab Spring. It did not originate in “pleas for political or religious rights or for higher wage subsidies.” None of the “dying statements [of the 63] referred to religion or politics.” Instead, the survivors spoke of “economic exclusion,” a la Bouazizi. “Their great objective was ‘ras el mel‘ (Arabic for ‘capital’), and their despair and indignation sprang from the arbitrary expropriation of what little capital they had.”

Das Kapital or Capital?

Nobody speaks with greater force on this subject than Hernando De Soto. He is the Latin American Adam Smith, the South American champion of free markets and property rights. He is now the world’s leading property-rights theorist, having ascended upon the deaths of Ronald Coase and Armen Alchian. And he put his own ideas into successful practice in his home country of Peru by leading the world’s only successful counter-terrorist movement in the 1980s.

The Shining Path was a Marxist band of terrorist revolutionaries who tried to overthrow the Peruvian government in the 1980s. They were led by a onetime university professor named Abimael Guzman. Guzman posed as the champion of Peru’s poor farmers and farm workers. He organized Peru’s Communist Party around the idea of massive farming communes and used the Shining Path as the recruiting arm for these communes. Some 30,000 resistors were murdered. Officials were kidnapped and held for ransom. This strategy gave Shining Path control of the Peruvian countryside by 1990.

De Soto was the government advisor charged with combatting Shining Path. He didn’t forswear the use of military force, but his first move was toward the library and the computer rather than the armory. “What changed the debate, and ultimately the government’s response, was proof that the poor in Peru weren’t unemployed or underemployed laborers or farmers, as the conventional wisdom held at the time. Instead, most of them were small entrepreneurs, operating off the books in Peru’s ‘informal economy.’ They accounted for 62% of Peru’s population and generated 34% of its gross domestic product – and they had accumulated some $70 billion worth of real-estate assets [emphasis added].

This new learning completely confuted the stylized portrayal of poverty depicted by Guzman and his Shining Path ideologues. It enabled De Soto and his colleagues to do something that is apparently beyond the capabilities of Western governments – eliminate three-quarters of the regulations and red tape blocking the path of entrepreneurs and workers, allow ordinary citizens to file complaints and legal actions against government and provide formal recognition of the property rights of those citizens. An estimated 380,000 businesses and 500,000 jobs came out of the shadows of the informal economy and into the sunlight of the legal, taxed economy. One result of this was an extra $8 billion of government revenue, which rewarded government for its recognition of the private sector.

Having put the property rights of the poor on a firm footing, De Soto could now set about eradicating Shining Path, confident that once it won the guerilla war it would not lose the peace that followed. In true free-market fashion, Peru reworked its army into an all-volunteer force that was four times its previous size. They rapidly defeated the guerillas.

In this connection, it is instructive to compare the effect of military intervention in Peru with that undertaken elsewhere. The military interventions undertaken by the U.S. and earlier by Great Britain served to recruit volunteers for terrorist groups by creating the specter of a foreign invader imposing an alien ideology on the poor. In Peru, volunteers flocked to an anti-terrorist cause that was empowering them rather than threatening them, enriching them and their neighbors rather than bombing them.

Peru stands out because the economic medicine was actually given. Other links between poverty, terrorism and lack of property rights can be cited. In the 1950s and 60s, Indonesia was home to Communist and terrorist movements. It was also a land that consistently thwarted its entrepreneurs, many of whom were immigrant Chinese, in ways reminiscent of an Arab state. The southern half of Africa has long been known for stifling entrepreneurship through bureaucratic controls and monopoly, often combined with nepotism and corruption. This began as a colonial inheritance and has passed down to the line of despots that has ruled Africa since the advent of independence.

All We Are Saying Is Give Economics a Chance

The American public is repeatedly sold the proposition that the world is dangerous and becoming more so with each passing day. Alas, the kind of military interventions practiced by the U.S. have not lessened the danger in the past and have, in fact, increased it. The only tried-and-true, time-tested solution to the problems posed by terrorism is economic, not military. We refer retrospectively to World War II as “the good war” because our cause seems so unimpeachably just when juxtaposed alongside the evils of Fascism and the Holocaust. But it is not moral afflatus and good intentions that justify war. It is the postwar economic miracles worked in German and Japan that set an invisible seal on our rosy memories of World War II. By contrast, for example, the defeat of Germany in World War I now seems Pyrrhic because the war and subsequent draconian peace terms produced Germany’s interwar economic upheaval and resulting lurch into Fascism.

The evil of war lies in the rarity of its success, not the oft-cited barbarity of its practice. The U.S. went to war in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iran and Afghanistan to counter real evils. We enjoyed considerable military success and achieved some of our goals. But we did not achieve victory. Last week’s EconBrief reminds us how overwhelmingly difficult it was even for Great Britain and the U.S. – each far and away the foremost military power of its day – to achieve their ends through war. Only in South Korea was long-term success attained, and there it was due to economic victory rather than military victory.

Careful study of world poverty and terrorism will uncover an economic phenomenon, against which military measures are largely unavailing and police tactics are merely a stopgap.

“They” Can’t Adapt to Free Markets and Institutions

One entrenched obstacle to adopting Hernando De Soto’s game plan against terrorism is the conventional thinking that certain cultures are inherently unable to absorb the principles of economics and free markets. This argument is so vaguely made that it is never clear whether proponents are arguing the genetic or cultural inferiority of the affected peoples. Recently it has been applied to former Soviet Russia when attempts to acclimate the Russian people to free markets failed. The interesting thing about this episode is that it began with the proposition that Western economic consultants could design market institutions and then superimpose them on the Russian people. In other words, elite analysts began by assuming that Russians could easily adapt to whatever economic system was designed by others for their benefit, but then took the polar opposite position that Russians were incapable of adapting to free markets. No provision was made for the possibility that – having lived for centuries under rigid autocracy – Russians might need time to adapt to free institutions.

For centuries, Chinese were considered inferior and suitable only for low-skilled labor. That is the task to which most immigrant Chinese were consigned in 19th-century America. While Chinese in China failed to achieve economic development throughout most of the 20th century, immigrant Chinese were the world’s great ethnic economic development success story. Eventually Taiwan and mainland China joined the ranks of the developed world and another development myth bit the dust.

When the short-term results of the Arab Spring dislocations disappointed many in the West, Arabs became the latest people accorded the dishonor of being deemed unable to accommodate freedom and free markets. Perhaps the most concise response to this line of thought was given indirectly by Arab leaders responding to De Soto’s charge that their countries lacked the legal infrastructure to bring the poor into the formal economy. “You don’t need to tell us this,” one replied. “We’ve always been for entrepreneurs. Your prophet chased the merchants from the temple. Our prophet was a merchant!” In other words, the Arab tradition accommodates trade, even if their legal system is hostile to it.

Once again, this space stresses the distinction between the Rule of Law – which abhors privilege and worships freedom – and mere adherence to statutory law – which often cements tyranny into place.

Bringing Free Markets and Property Rights to the Middle East

As far as Western elites and the Western news media are concerned, the only kind of Middle East economic reform worth mentioning is foreign aid. But over a half-century of government-to-government foreign aid has proven to be an unqualified disaster. Economists like William Easterly and the late Lord Peter Bauer have written copiously on the pretentions of Western development economists and the corruption of Western development agencies. This is the deadest of dead ends.

De Soto’s approach is the only institutional approach worth considering. Apparently, it is actually receiving consideration by the beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, commissioned De Soto and his team to study Egypt’s informal economy. That study found that Egypt’s poor get as much income from capital, in the informal economy, as they do from salaries in the formal economy. More precisely, some 24 million salaried citizens earn about $21 billion per year in salaries while owning some $360 billion in unrecognized assets that throw off roughly an equivalent amount of yearly income. As De Soto recognizes, this income is approximately 100 times the total of all Western financial, military and development aid to Egypt. It is also “eight times more than the value of all foreign direct investment in Egypt since Napoleon invaded more than 200 years ago.”

The problem is that much of this value is locked up in bureaucratic limbo. “It can take years to do something as simple as validating a title in real estate.”

 This is the real secret to achieving economic development in the Middle East. It is also the secret to fighting terrorism and preserving American security.

DRI-296 for week of 4-27-14: Is Gross Output the Rightful Successor to GDP?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Is Gross Output the Rightful Successor to GDP?

Last week, we lamented the failure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to do its job; namely, to accurately depict the welfare of U.S. citizens. That failure has been chronic since its inception in the late 1930s, but became acute with the rise of the digital age. GDP measures the monetary value of final goods by calculating value added at each stage of the production process. The digital economy puts the emphasis on free goods and substitutes for many goods and services that formerly added to GDP’s monetary total. Thus, GDP and consumer welfare can often move in opposite directions in today’s economy.

Last week, Austrian economist Mark Skousen’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal previewed the release of a new measure of economic output by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That measure is called “Gross Output.” It measures total sales through the production chain from raw materials through to the wholesale level. At the wholesale and retail levels, the measure includes value added.

This addition to the national income accounts is the first major innovation since the modification of gross national product called gross domestic product, made over fifty years ago. It is a personal triumph for Skousen, who pioneered the concept of Gross Output with his 1990 book, The Structure of Production. In it, Skousen introduced what he called “Gross Domestic Expenditures (GDE).” It is a more consistent measure of Gross Output than the BEA’s new measure because GDE also includes total sales at the wholesale and retail stages of production. (The somewhat vague rationale given by a BEA researcher for this seeming inconsistency is that there is “no further transformation” of goods at the wholesale and retail stages.)

Despite the difference between his measure and Gross Output, Skousen is convinced that the latter will improve markedly on GDP. He believes that Gross Output is much the better descriptor of the economy. And, with the help of a second change that has received virtually no publicity, Gross Output may also prove to be a vastly superior analytical tool for understanding changes in economic activity.

Gross Output vs. GDP

Skousen quotes the director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Steven Landefeld, who calls Gross Output a measure of the “make economy.” That is, Skousen elaborates, a “supply-side statistic, a measure of the production side of the economy.” This contrasts diametrically with GDP, a measure of the “use economy,” or the consumption (demand) side of the economy.

Oddly, Gross Output is not a new measure; it dates back to the beginning of the national income accounts in the 1930s. As Skousen notes, it is the statistical counterpart to the input-output analysis developed by Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief. (Indeed, its data were even listed in the accounts under “benchmark input-output tables”.) What is new is the attention paid to it; henceforth, it will be released quarterly. Previously, intervals between releases were as long as five years and the date lagged two or three years in arrears of the release year. Now we can directly compare Gross Output with GDP.

What will a comparison of the two achieve? Heretofore, the single-minded concentration on GDP has nurtured a certain mindset among economic and financial commentators, particularly those in the broadcast media. That mindset pictures an economy that is demand-driven, with the leading component of demand being consumer demand and government spending following close behind. For decades, commentators have robotically insisted that “consumer spending drives the economy.” The corollary to this maxim is that consumer saving is bad and counterproductive because what is saved is not spent, a “leakage” from the flow of income and expenditure. In fact, this is exactly what generations of undergraduate students learned in their macroeconomics course, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this toxic thinking seeped into the popular discourse.

In 2012, GDP was $16.42 trillion. But Gross Output was $28.69 trillion. Consumer spending was 68% of GDP; that explains it preeminence in popular thinking. But consumer spending was less than 40% of Gross Output. Business spending, encompassing fixed investment and production of intermediate goods, comprises over 50% of Gross Output. That is, the totality of business investment actually exceeds consumption spending. Only 20% of the labor force is employed in the consumer (e.g., retail and leisure) sector. 15% work for government, but a whopping 65% work in the mining, manufacturing and service industries. If we substitute Skousen’s personal measure, Gross Domestic Expenditures, for Gross Output, the contrast with GDP is even more marked.

The components of the Conference Board’s fabled Index of Leading Economic Indicators are almost all connected to the “early” stages of production – that is, those farthest from consumption. These include new orders by manufacturers, non-defense capital goods purchases, and new building permits. The stock market reflects a secondary market in assets, not consumption goods. Claims for unemployment insurance relate to intermediate (labor) markets, not consumption-good markets. Retail sales are not among the leading indicators. Skousen notes the intriguing datum that, in 2012, the so-called “consumer confidence index” was conceptually altered to reflect “average consumer expectations for business conditions.”

Why do forecasters look to measures of Gross Output, production and intermediate inputs rather than GDP and consumption? Because they are looking at where the action really is. The “make” economy is 3-4 times more volatile than the “use” economy. In the Great Recession of 2008-2009, for example, nominal GDP declined by only 2%, but Gross Output fell by over 7% and its intermediate inputs components dropped by over 10%. Since the recovery began in 2009, Gross Output has increased by over 5% annually, compared to much smaller increases for GDP.

Gross Output from an Accounting Standpoint

To devotees of accounting, the combination of “gross domestic product” and “gross output” must seem strange, even outré. If GDP is the “gross” measure of domestic output, how can Gross Output also be “gross?” If both of these terms purport to measure output, shouldn’t at least one of them be “net?” As a matter of fact, the standard national income accounts include a secondary measure of national product called “net national product;” it subtracts depreciation from GDP, thus converting the investment component to net investment. Ugh – what a semantic mess.

It is clear, though, that Gross Output is the real “gross” magnitude. Putting it differently, GDP is already a “net” figure even before depreciation is subtracted, because its value-added construction nets out a substantial portion of input cost from the total sales figure. This subtraction is sensible when consumption is the only datum of interest. But the whole point of this notable change in statistical direction is that it isn’t – we desperately need to focus intensely on saving, investment and asset accumulation as well.

The distinction between a “make” economy and a “use” economy has a traditional rationale in business accounting – the “sources and uses of cash” statement is a valuable tool for gauging a company’s processes and productivity. In this case, it is the nation’s sources and uses of national income and product that are contrasted by Gross Output and GDP.

Macroeconomic Theory and the National Income Accounts

Mark Skousen criticizes GDP because it “creates much mischief in our understanding of how the economy works.” Right. He goes on to say that “in particular, it has led to the misguided notion that consumer and government spending drive the economy rather than saving, business investment, technology and entrepreneurship.” Right again. The public has been taught not merely to worship consumer spending but spending in general. Instead of accepting the fact that production is necessary to create the real income that we consume, they have swallowed the fairy tale that the spending itself creates the income that pays workers and business owners. Repeated doses of that viral contagion have gradually built up immunity in the body politic to massive federal-government spending and budget deficits.

But what the public doesn’t know is that economists themselves are schizophrenic on this issue. The macroeconomic theory of aggregate demand and Keynesian economics, deploying government spending to reduce unemployment and eliminate recessions via the multiplier, applies strictly to the short run. In the long run, economists switch to a theory using diametrically opposed logic. Nobel laureate Robert Solow’s theory of long-run economic growth treats saving as both beneficial and necessary to increase investment and economic growth. Skousen notes that subsequent research by Robert Barro of HarvardUniversity has confirmed the value of Solow’s theory, linking economic growth to “increased technology, entrepreneurship, capital formation and productive savings and investment.”

How is it possible for economists to simultaneously believe both theories, considering that the long run is defined as a succession of short runs? Well, natural scientists have never developed the “unified field theory” that would reconcile contradictions in their different fields. Of course, changing the subject by pointing to other people’s mistakes isn’t even an excuse for living with contradiction, let alone a justification.

At least the profession is finally doing something about this yawning lacuna. But rather than reforming economic theory, the economics profession has chosen instead to begin by reforming the data collection process. Skousen diplomatically chooses to accept the party line that “Gross output is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare. Both are required in a complete system of accounts.” This is the view of mainstream economists Landefeld, Dale Jorgenson and William Nordhaus in “A New Architecture for the U.S. National Accounts.”

No, these economists have simply brought the national accounts into line with the theoretical contradiction between short-run Keynesian economics and Solow’s long-run growth theory. A next step would be to straightforwardly face the failures of GDP itself. But incorporating Gross Output into the accounts is certainly a step in the right direction.

Disaggregating the National Income Accounts

That step is only part of the recent reversal in policy by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which is clearly designed to decouple the national income accounts from their longtime rigid linkage with Keynesian macroeconomic theory. This month, for the first time, the components of national output are available in disaggregated form by industry. On April 25, 2014, GDP became available at the industry level for 22 industry groups.

When Keynes published his General Theory in 1936, national aggregates of income and output – that is, consumption/saving and consumption/investment, respectively – were not collected because economists had not previously couched theory in these specific aggregative terms. The closest they had come to aggregative analysis was the Quantity Theory of Money, developed centuries earlier by men like John Locke and David Hume. It had developed a linkage between the total quantity of money in circulation, the speed with which it circulated, the general level of prices and the volume of goods or (alternatively) transactions.

Keynes criticized classical economics for not being aggregative enough, for failing to capture effects that could be good on a small scale but bad when they occurred economy-wide. He demanded that theory suppress detail at the individual, firm and industry level and concentrate only on the national level. The national income accounts followed in his wake and were modeled in accordance with his macroeconomic theory. Keynesian theory broke with precedent by arguing in monetary terms; economists have always known that it is the real quantity of goods and services that constitute economic wealth, not money per se. But the only way to aggregate the incredibly diverse volume of goods and services in a huge, modern economy is by expressing all values in monetary terms. Because the national income accounts followed Keynesian theory in structure, they preserved this strict monetary nexus. And this left them vulnerable to the innovative practices of the digital age that provided consumers with goods at zero prices, thereby severing the monetary nexus and posing the puzzle of accounting for these transactions.

Now, for the first time ever, the tight linkage between Keynesian economic theory and the national income accounts have been broken. This reflects the Bureau’s recognition of the need for disaggregation.

It is ironic that this has occurred just as GDP has become well-nigh irrelevant in the digital age, as last week’s EconBrief demonstrated. But the BEA’s behavior is thoroughly typical of and consistent with a bureaucracy threatened with obsolescence. To drop GDP, their signature statistical product, would be unthinkable, no matter how superfluous or inaccurate it has become. After all, a bureaucrat’s primary objective is preservation of his or her bureaucratic mandate, upon which the bureaucrat’s income and prestige depend. By redesigning the product, the agency can make a show of responding to public demand and of improving its procedures – meanwhile delicately ignoring the ever-growing irrelevance of GDP.

All these changes – the introduction of Gross Output, the disaggregation down to industry-level data, the divorce from Keynesian theory – respond to another gnawing problem that dates back to the 1930s. The competing theory that Keynes defeated was formulated by his rival, F.A. Hayek. Hayek’s theory was couched in terms of relative prices; changes in the general level of prices were mentioned only in passing. The national level of investment was only incidental; the important issue was the relative amount of investment in long-lived production processes compared to investment in shorter processes. But in order to study his theory using data from the national income accounts, those accounts would have to collect data at the industry level. Their refusal to do this for over 70 years greatly hindered the empirical debate on the Austrian business-cycle theory.

The Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle and the Need for Statistical Disaggregation

Mark Skousen, a well-known practitioner of Austrian economics, celebrated one important change in the national income accounts but completely neglected another one. That change bears on another theoretical controversy from the 1930s: the Austrian theory of the business cycle.

That theory is very well-known to a small number of people and completely unknown to most people. It played a key role in the history of economic theory. When John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936, he was coming off a five-year fight for intellectual predominance in economics with F.A. Hayek, the Austrian economist whose business-cycle theory had taken the economics profession by storm in 1931.

Hayek developed his theory by synthesizing the monetary theory of his mentor, Ludwig von Mises, with the interest-rate theory of the Swedish theorist, Knut Wicksell. (Mises, in turn, had relied on Austrian capital theorist Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk.) Although Hayek’s theory has been popularized and simplified by American followers of the Austrian school like Roger Garrison, Gerald O’Driscoll and Mario Rizzo, the guts of Hayek’s theory comprise what today is known as the Austrian theory of the business cycle.

Bohm-Bawerk maintained that time is a key component of economic production because human beings exhibit positive time preference. That is, they prefer consumption sooner rather than later, all other things equal. Thus, production processes that are more roundabout must be more productive in order to be favored over less time-consuming ones. The productive side of the economy therefore should be thought of as a capital structure consisting of different processes of varying lengths. When you pick fruit off a tree or drink from a stream you are engaging in the shortest kind of production process. At the other extreme, some processes have a dozen or more stages stretching from raw material to ultimate consumption.

The value of the capital goods in the process is dependent on the estimated value of the consumption good(s) at the end of the process. The consumption value is estimated by discounting the estimated future value of the consumption good(s) using an interest rate that reflects the opportunity cost of the resources used to produce them.

Changes in market interest rates affect the discounting process by changing the estimated values derived from it. The longer the process and the farther into the future it stretches, the larger the effect. A decline in interest rates will make participation in longer-lived production processes more valuable and attractive to businessmen, while having little or no effect on the value of output from the shortest production processes.

Wicksell originated the concept of the natural rate of interest. This was a conceptual tool he used to refer to the market rate of interest at which the amount of loanable funds supplied to the market by savers exactly equaled the amount of investment funds demanded by businessmen at a given term to maturity. This was Wicksell’s way of describing a condition of perfect time coordination between people who plan to consume in the future (savers) and people who plan to produce goods to be consumed in the future (businessmen who invest in capital goods). Free-market interest rates act to equate the desires of these two independent groups across time in the same way that prices of goods equilibrate the quantities of goods that consumers and producers wish to buy and sell, respectively, at the same time.

But when central banks create money that is pumped into loan markets by banks, this created money is indistinguishable from funds supplied by savers. In other words, it lowers the market interest rate just as if savers were voluntarily supplying more funds to enable increased future consumption. The lowered interest rate causes a (temporary) investment boom. It causes businessmen to invest more in longer-lived production processes and less in shorter ones. But this change in capital structure does not match the actual desires of savers, whose future consumption plans will determine the success or failure of the longer-lived investments.

Sooner or later, this mismatch will emerge and the malinvestments caused by the government money creation and artificially lowered interest rates will come to grief. The working out of this process, the precise content of “sooner or later” and the nature and extent of the grief were the subject of furious theoretical contention in the 1930s and early 40s. They remain so today, at least among those knowledgeable in the subject.

It is worth noting, however, that the general pattern of government money creation, lowered interest rates, investment boom or “bubble” and subsequent bust has been observed in the U.S. and around the world throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The most recent case was the worldwide housing bubble that burst with such force beginning in 2006.

The Business Cycle in Theory and Practice: GDP vs. Gross Output

If we grant the importance of business cycles in general and the Austrian theory in particular, how does the comparison between GDP and Gross Output affect these issues?

It would be useful to know when we have entered a cyclical downturn. It would also be useful to be able to validate the worth of a business-cycle theory using information collected in the national income accounts.

GDP has proved to be of little value on both counts. Time and again, we have found ourselves mired in recession, only to eventually find that the recession started much earlier. Again, the Great Recession is the most recent example; we didn’t learn until late 2008 that the recession had begun in December, 2007.

GDP has been even more worthless in deciding between rival business-cycle theories. Theorists agree on little else but the fact that investment must be the pivotal factor in a cycle. It is the volatile factor, whereas consumption tends to be stable by comparison. (Theories of under-consumption have abounded throughout history, but they have been so naïve that economists have shunned them.) Yet, as we have seen, consumption is the focus of GDP, not investment.

Consider Austrian business-cycle theory as it is conveyed by each measure. In the standard accounts, Gross Output has been calculated but only released irregularly and in arrears by two or three years. So it is useless for diagnostic purposes. The standard investment categories didn’t disaggregate and dealt only with value added, not total sales. Thus, they did not convey the fact that Gross Output is “far more volatile” (Skousen’s words) than GDP. We want a measure of output that will reflect an increase in investment when the lower interest rate triggers an investment boom. Ideally, it should happen quickly enough to allow the central bank to “pop” an incipient bubble by raising interest rates. (Admittedly, that notion seems quaint in the current “zero-interest-rate” environment ushered in by the Fed’s “quantitative easing” policies.)

Gross Output attacks the volatility problem, and Skousen’s full-on measure, GDE, is even more effective on that score. Indeed, Gross Output was developed specifically to stress the importance of investment and saving in production. But the remaining problem, the high level of aggregation, is a traditional weakness of macroeconomics. Artificially low interest rates do not increase all investment uniformly – they increase long-lived investment relative to short-term investment. In order for this distinction to be clear in the accounts, those accounts must disaggregate down to the industry level to delineate different investment stages. We must be able to actually tell that long-lived investments are increasing markedly while short-lived ones are not. The national income accounts have never offered that kind of clarity because they have never been disaggregated to the industry level – until now.

It is odd that Skousen, a modern Austrian economist, devoted an entire op-ed to the introduction of Gross Output without mentioning the introduction of industry level disaggregation. The combination of these two changes promises to be revolutionary. There has never been a one-two punch like this in the history of U.S. government statistics gathering.

DRI-234 for week of 11-17-13: Economists Start to See the Light – and Speak Up

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Economists Start to See the Light – and Speak Up

In order for dreadful economic policies to be ended, two things must happen. Economists must recognize the errors – then, having seen the light, they must say so publicly. For nearly five years, various economists have complained about Federal Reserve economic policies. Unfortunately, the complaints have been restrained and carefully worded to dilute their meaning and soften their effect. This has left the general public confused about the nature and degree of disagreement within the profession. It has also failed to highlight the radicalism of the Fed’s policies.

Two recent Wall Street Journal economic op-eds have broken this pattern. They bear unmistakable marks of acuity and courage. Both pieces focus particularly on the tactic of quantitative easing, but branch out to take in broader issues in the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

A Monetary Insider Kneels at the Op-Ed Confessional to Beg Forgiveness

Like many a Wall Street bigwig, Andrew Huszar has led a double life as managing director at Morgan Stanley and Federal Reserve policymaker. After he served seven years at the Fed from 2001-2008, good behavior won him a parole to Morgan Stanley. But when the Great Financial Crisis hit, TARP descended upon the landscape. This brought Huszar a call to return to public service in spring, 2009 as manager of the Fed’s program of mortgage-backed securities purchases. In “Confessions of a Quantitative Easer” (The Wall Street Journal, 11/12/2013), Huszar gives us the inside story of his year of living dangerously in that position.

Despite his misgivings about what he perceived as the Fed’s increasing subservience to Wall Street, Huszar accepted the post and set about purchasing $1.25 trillion (!) of mortgage-backed securities over the next year. This was the lesser-known half of the Fed’s quantitative-easing program, the little brother of the Fed’s de facto purchases of Treasury debt. “Senior Fed officials… were publicly acknowledging [past] mistakes and several of those officials emphasized to me how committed they were to a major Wall Street revamp.” So, he “took a leap of faith.”

And just what, exactly, was he expected to have faith in? “Chairman Ben Bernanke made clear that the Fed’s central motivation was to ‘affect credit conditions for households and businesses.'” Huszar was supposed to “quarterback the largest economic stimulus in U.S. history.”

So far, Huszar’s story seems straightforward enough. For over half a century, economists have had a clear idea of what it meant to stimulate an economy via central-bank purchases of securities. That idea has been to provide banks with an increase in reserves that simultaneously increases the monetary base. Under the fractional-reserve system of banking, this increase in reserves will allow banks to increase lending, causing a pyramidal increase in reserves, money, spending, income and employment. John Maynard Keynes himself was dubious about this use of monetary policy, at least during the height of a depression, because he feared that businesses would be reluctant to borrow in the face of stagnant private demand. However, Keynes’ neo-Keynesian successors gradually came to understand that the simple Keynesian remedy of government deficit spending would not work without an accompanying increase in the money stock – hence the need for reinforcement of fiscal stimulus with monetary stimulus.

Only, doggone it, things just didn’t seem to work out that way. Sure enough, the federal government passed a massive trillion-dollar spending measure that took effect in 2009. But “it wasn’t long before my old doubts resurfaced. Despite the Fed’s rhetoric, my program wasn’t helping to make credit any more accessible for the average American. The banks were only issuing fewer and fewer loans. More insidiously, whatever credit they were issuing wasn’t getting much cheaper. QE may have been driving down the wholesale cost for banks to make loans, but Wall Street was pocketing most of the extra cash.”

Just as worrisome was the reaction to the doubts expressed by Huszar and fellow colleagues within the Fed. Instead of worrying “obsessively about the costs versus the benefits” of their actions, policymakers seemed concerned only with feedback from Wall Street and institutional investors.

When QE1 concluded in April, 2010, Huszar observed that Wall Street banks and near-banks had scored a triple play. Not only had they booked decent profits on those loans they did make, but they also collected fat brokerage fees on the Fed’s securities purchases and saw their balance sheets enhanced by the rise in mortgage-security prices. Remember – the Fed’s keenness to buy mortgage-backed securities in the first place was due primarily to the omnipresence of these securities in bank portfolios. Indeed, mortgage-backed securities served as liquid assets throughout the financial system and it was their plummeting value during the financial crisis that caused the paralyzing credit freeze. Meanwhile, “there had been only trivial relief for Main Street.”

When, a few months later, the Fed announced QE2, Huszar “realized the Fed had lost any remaining ability to think independently from Wall Street. Demoralized, I returned to the private sector.”

Three years later, this is how Huszar sizes up the QE program. “The Fed keeps buying roughly $85 billion in bonds a month, chronically delaying so much as a minor QE taper. Over five years, its purchases have come to more than $4 trillion. Amazingly, in a supposedly free-market nation, QE has become the largest financial-market intervention by any government in world history.”

“And the impact? Even by the Fed’s sunniest calculations, aggressive QE over five years has generated only a few percentage points of U.S. growth. By contrasts, experts outside the Fed…suggest that the Fed may have [reaped] a total return of as little as 0.25% of GDP (i.e., a mere $40 billion bump in U.S. economic output).” In other words, “QE isn’t really working” –

except for Wall Street, where 0.2% of U.S. banks control 70% total U.S. bank assets and form “more of a cartel” than ever. By subsidizing Wall Street banks at the expense of the general welfare, QE had become “Wall Street’s new ‘too big to fail’ policy.”

The Beginning of Wisdom

Huszar’s piece gratifies on various levels. It answers one question that has bedeviled Fed-watchers: Do the Fed’s minions really believe the things the central bank says? The answer seems to be that they do – until they stop believing. And that happens eventually even to high-level field generals.

It is obvious that Huszar stopped drinking Federal Reserve Kool-Aid sometime in 2010. The Fed’s stated position is that the economy is in recovery – albeit a slow, fragile one – midwived by previous fiscal and monetary policies and preserved by the QE series. Huszar doesn’t swallow this line, even though dissent among professional economists has been muted over the course of the Obama years.

Most importantly, Huszar’s eyes have been opened to the real source of the financial crisis and ensuing recession; namely, government itself. “Yes, those financial markets have rallied spectacularly…but for how long? Experts…are suggesting that conditions are again ‘bubble-like.'”

Having apprehended this much, why has Huszar’s mind stopped short of the full truth? Perhaps his background, lacking in formal economic training, made it harder for him to connect all the dots. His own verdict on the failings of QE should have driven him to the next stage of analysis and prompted him to ask certain key questions.

Why did banks “only issu[e] fewer and fewer loans”? After all, this is why QE stimulated Wall Street but not Main Street; monetary policy normally provides economic stimulus by inducing loans to businesses and (secondarily) consumers, but in this case those loans were conspicuous by their absence. The answer is that the Fed deliberately arranged to allow interest payments on excess reserves it held for its member banks. Instead of making risky loans, banks could make a riskless profit by holding excess reserves. This unprecedented state of affairs was deliberately stage-managed by the Fed.

Why has the Fed been so indifferent to the net effects of its actions, instead of “worry[ing] obsessively about the costs versus the benefits”? The answer is that the Fed has been lying to the public, to Congress and conceivably even to the Obama Administration about its goals. The purpose of its actions has not been to stimulate the economy, but rather to keep it comatose (for “its” own good) while the Fed artificially resuscitates the balance sheets of banks.

Why did the Fed suddenly start buying mortgage-backed securities after “never [buying] one mortgage bond…in its almost 100-year history”? Bank portfolios (more particularly, portfolios of big banks) have been stuffed to the gills with these mortgage-backed securities, whose drastic fall in value during the financial crisis threatened the banks with insolvency. By buying mortgage-backed securities like they were going out of style, the Fed increases the demand for those securities. This drives up their price. This acts as artificial respiration to bank balance sheets, just as Andrew Huszar relates in his op-ed.

The resume of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is dotted with articles extolling the role played by banks as vital sources of credit to business. Presumably, this – rather than pure cronyism, as vaguely hinted by Huszar – explains Bernanke’s obsession with protecting banks. (It was Bernanke, acting with the Treasury Secretary, who persuaded Congress to pass the enormous bailout legislation in late 2008.)

Why has “the Fed’s independence [been] eroding”? There is room for doubt about Bernanke’s motivations in holding both short-term and long-term interest rates at unprecedentedly low levels. These low interest rates have enabled the Treasury to finance trillions of dollars in new debt and roll over trillions more in existing debt at low rates. At the above-normal interest rates that would normally prevail in our circumstances, the debt service would devour most of the federal budget. Thus, Bernanke is carrying water for the Treasury. Reservoirs of water.

Clearly, Huszar has left out more than he has included in his denunciation of QE. Yet he has still been savaged by the mainstream press for his presumption. This speaks volumes about the tacit gag order that has muffled criticism of the Administration’s economic policies.

It’s About Time Somebody Started Yellin’ About Yellen

Kevin Warsh was the youngest man ever to serve as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors when he took office in 2006. He earned a favorable reputation in that capacity until he resigned in 2011. In “Finding Out Where Janet Yellen Stands” (The Wall Street Journal, 11/13/2013), Warsh digs deeper into the views of the new Federal Reserve Board Chairman than the questions on everybody’s lips: “When will ‘tapering’ of the QE program begin? and “How long will the period of ultra-low interest rates last?” He sets out to “highlight – then question – some of the prevailing wisdom at the basis of current Fed policy.”

Supporters of QE have pretended that quantitative easing is “nothing but the normal conduct of monetary policy at the zero-lower-bound of interest rates.” Warsh rightly declares this to be hogwash. While central banks have traditionally lowered short-term interest rates to stimulate investment, “the purchase of long-term assets from the U.S. Treasury to achieve negative real interest rates is extraordinary, an unprecedented change in practice… The Fed is directly influencing the price of long-term Treasurys – the most important asset in the world, the predicate from which virtually all investment decisions are judged.”

Since the 1950s, modern financial theory as taught in orthodox textbooks has treated long-term U.S. government bonds as the archetypal “riskless asset.” This provides a benchmark for one end of the risk spectrum, a vital basis for comparison that is used by investment professionals and forensic economists in court testimony. Or rather, all this used to be true before Ben Bernanke unleashed ZIRP (the Zero Interest Rate Policy) on the world. Now all the finance textbooks will have to be rewritten. Expert witnesses will have to find a new benchmark around which to structure their calculations.

Worst of all, the world’s investors are denied a source of riskless fixed income. They can still purchase U.S. Treasurys, of course, but these are no longer the same asset that they knew and loved for decades. Now the risk of default must be factored in, just as it is for the bonds of a banana republic. Now the effects of inflation must be factored in to its price. The effect of this transformation on the world economy is incalculably, unfavorably large.

Ben Bernanke has repeatedly maintained that the U.S. economy would benefit from a higher rate of inflation. Or, as Warsh puts it, that “the absence of higher inflation is sufficient license” for the QE program. Once again, Warsh begs to differ. Here, he takes issue with Bernanke’s critics as much as with Bernanke himself. “The most pronounced risk of QE is not an outbreak of hyperinflation,” Warsh contends. “Rather, long periods of free money and subsidized credit are associated with significant capital misallocation and malinvestment – which do not augur well for long-term growth or financial stability.”

Déjà Va-Va-Vuum

Of all the hopeful signs to recently emerge, this is the most startling and portentous. For centuries – at least two centuries before John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory and in the years since – the most important effect of money on economic activity was thought to be on the general level of prices; i.e., on inflation. Now Warsh is breaking with this time-honored tradition. In so doing, he is paying long-overdue homage to the only coherent business-cycle theory developed by economists.

In the early 1930s, F.A. Hayek formulated a business-cycle theory that temporarily vied with the monetary theory of John Maynard Keynes for supremacy among the world’s economists. Hayek’s theory was built around the elements stressed by Warsh – capital misallocation and malinvestment caused by central-bank manipulation of the money supply and interest rates. In spite of Hayek’s prediction of the Great Depression in 1929 and of the failure of the Soviet economy in the 1930s, Hayek’s business-cycle theory was ridiculed by Keynes and his acolytes. The publication of Keynes’ General Theory in 1936 relegated Hayek to obscurity in his chosen profession. Hayek subsequently regained worldwide fame with his book The Road to Serfdom in 1944 and even won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974. Yet his business-cycle theory has survived only among the cult of Austrian-school economists that stubbornly refused to die out even as Keynesian economics took over the profession.

When Keynesian theory was repudiated by the profession in the late 1970s and 80s, the Austrian school remained underground. The study of capital theory and the concept of capital misallocation had gone out of favor in the 1930s and were ignored by the economics profession in favor of the less-complex modern Quantity Theory developed by Milton Friedman and his followers. Alas, monetarism went into eclipse in the 80s and 90s and macroeconomists drifted back towards a newer, vaguer version of Keynesianism.

The Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the subsequent Great Recession and our current Great Stagnation have made it clear that economists are clueless. In effect, there is no true Macroeconomic theory. Warsh’s use of the terms “capital misallocation” and “malinvestment” may be the first time since the 1930s that these Hayekian terms have received favorable mention from a prominent figure in the economic Establishment. (In addition to his past service as a Fed Governor, Warsh also served on the National Economic Council during the Bush Administration.)

For decades, graduate students in Macroeconomics have been taught that the only purpose to stimulative economic policies by government was to speed up the return to full employment when recession strikes. The old Keynesian claims that capitalist economies could not achieve full employment without government deficit spending or money printing were discredited long ago. But this argument in favor of artificial stimulus has itself now been discredited by events, not only in the U.S. and Europe but also in Japan. Not only that, the crisis and recession proceeded along lines closely following those predicted by Hayek – lavish credit creation fueled by artificially low interest rates long maintained by government central banks, coupled with international transmission of capital misallocation by flexible exchange rates. It is long past time for the economics profession to wrench its gaze away from the failed nostrums of Keynes and redirect its attention to an actual theory of business cycles with a demonstrated history of success. Warsh has taken the key first step in that direction.

The Rest of the Story

When a central bank deliberately sets out to debase a national currency, the shock waves from its actions reverberate throughout the national economy. When the economy is the world’s productive engine, those waves resound around the globe. Warsh patiently dissects current Fed policy piece by piece.

To the oft-repeated defense that the Fed is merely in charge of monetary policy, Warsh correctly terms the central bank the “default provider of aggregate demand.” In effect, the Fed has used its statutory mandate to promote high levels of employment as justification for assuming the entire burden of economic policy. This flies in the face of even orthodox, mainstream Keynesian economics, which sees fiscal and monetary policies acting in concert.

The United States is “the linchpin in the international global economy.” When the Fed adopts extremely loose monetary policy, this places foreign governments in the untenable position of having either to emulate our monetary ease or to watch their firms lose market share and employment to U.S. firms. Not surprisingly, politics pulls them in the former direction and this tends to stoke global inflationary pressures. If the U.S. dollar should depreciate greatly, its status as the world’s vehicle currency for international trade would be threatened. Not only would worldwide inflation imperil the solidity of world trade, but the U.S. would lose the privilege of seigniorage, the ability to run continual trade deficits owing to the world’s willingness to hold American dollars in lieu of using them to purchase goods and services.

The Fed has made much of its supposed fidelity to “forward guidance” and “transparency,” principles intended to allow the public to anticipate its future actions. Warsh observes that its actions have been anything but transparent and its policy hints anything but accurate. Instead of giving lip service to these cosmetic concepts, Warsh advises, the Fed should simply devote its energies to following correct policies. Then the need for advance warning would not be so urgent.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that we have so little confidence in the Fed’s ability to “drain excess liquidity” from the markets. We are not likely to give way in awed admiration of the Fed’s virtuosity in monetary engineering when its pronouncements over the past five years have varied from cryptic to highly unsound and its predictions have all gone wrong.

Is the Tide Turning?

To a drowning man, any sign that the waters are receding seems like a godsend. These articles appear promising not only because they openly criticize the failed economic policies of the Fed and (by extension) the Obama Administration, but because they dare to suggest that The Fed’s attempt to portray its actions as merely conventional wisdom is utterly bogus. Moreover, they imply or (in Kevin Warsh’s case) very nearly state that it is time to reevaluate the foundations of Macroeconomics itself.

Is the tide turning? Maybe or maybe not, but at last we can poke our heads above water for a lungful of oxygen. And the fresh air is intoxicating.

DRI-297 for week of 10-20-13: Bad News on the Journalism Watch

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Bad News on the Journalism Watch

“Never ascribe to venality that which can be explained by mere stupidity.” Many a pundit and commentator would profit from this bit of folk wisdom. Economists have more occasion to remember it than most – but heeding it sometimes requires more forbearance than any human should have to display.

“Bad News for Social Security Recipients”

A recent AP story appeared on MSN with the video caption reading: “Bad News for Social Security Recipients.” The sub-head broke the bad news: “Social Security Raise to be Among Lowest in Years.” The piece was bylined to one Stephen Ohlemacher.

The body of the story revealed that the facts were as advertised. “For the second straight year, millions of Social Security recipients can expect historically small increases in their benefits come January. Preliminary figures suggest a benefit increase of roughly 1.5%, which would be among the smallest since automatic increases were adopted in 1975, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.” So far, so good – or bad, depending on how you choose to put it. The story says that retirees saw an annual increase in those benefits of comparatively small magnitude. It relies on our casual understanding that most retirees depends on Social Security benefits for the bulk of their annual income.

The punchline – with the emphasis on “punch” – comes with the next line. “Next year’s raise will be small because consumer prices, as measured by the government’s Consumer Price Index, went up only 1.6% this past year.” If you’re an economist, you stare in silent disbelief at this line before the involuntary reaction hits, like the reflex when the doctor strikes your knee with the rubber hammer. You shout in disbelief, or derision, or anger, or merriment. You can’t believe what you just read – that anybody could write this as honest reporting or commentary.

Contrary to the headline, this isn’t bad news for social-security recipients. It is bad news for journalism.

The Return of the Broken-Window Fallacy

The purpose of a Cost of Living Index (COLA) is to compensate those covered by it for price changes. In theory, benefits indexed to consumer prices should rise by an amount just sufficient to enable consumer purchasing power to remain intact after price increases. That is, any combination of consumer goods affordable before the price increases should be affordable after the price increases and COLA adjustment. In practice, no price index works that well because the enormous number of goods and typically vast array of price changes defeat the best efforts of any price index to reflect every nuance and variation.

Nonetheless, it makes absolutely no sense to say that it is “bad news when prices don’t go up [much] because that results in only a small upward COLA adjustment.” That is tantamount to saying that you suffered the bad fortune of a minor auto accident because you could only collect a small collision-insurance reimbursement.

It is best that prices don’t go up at all, just as it is best that you suffer no auto accident whatsoever. It may be the case that, because your personal consumption pattern is so idiosyncratic, the price index that determines your COLA does not adequately compensate you for the actual price increases that your particular consumption goods suffered over the survey period. (Just as it may also be true that your insurance adjustor does not adequately reward you for the actual damages your car suffers in an accident.) If the price index or insurance adjustment fails to adequately protect you, that is “bad news,” but stable prices and safe driving are not bad things just because you cannot collect on the respective forms of insurance that protect you when they break down.

And to say otherwise, as reporter Ohlemacher plainly does, is just crazy.

The 19th-century French economic Frederic Bastiat earned immortality by identifying the fallacy of the broken window. Even as early as 1848, self-appointed economic savants were declaring that destructive events such as vandalism were disguised blessings because their cleanup and reconstruction afforded employment and income to carpenters, glaziers, stonemasons and such. It was Bastiat who pointed out the fallacy in this solemn nonsense. The time and effort spent in reconstruction is lost to new construction, while the end result simply gets us back to square one, prior to the destruction. If the destruction had never happened, those same carpenters, glaziers, stonemasons, et al, could have been building new structures, leaving us better off than before. It is clearly folly to suggest that wealth can be enhanced by destroying wealth, then building it up again.

In the present day, it is just as fallacious to claim that the relative lack of a disaster is a bad thing because it denies us the opportunity to be compensated for the disaster. At least in theory, all that compensation accomplishes is… well, compensation. It just gets us back to even, back to square one. At best. If the compensation is imperfect, it may not even do as well as that. And all forms of inflation indexation are imperfect.

The Nuts and Bolts of Indexation

A great microeconomist once described blackboard analysis in the classroom as “getting down on our hands and knees” to examine a problem closely. The issue of indexation for price changes affects so many people that it merits minute examination. Let’s haul out the nuts and bolts of the problem highlighted by this news story and get down on all fours with them.

Last year, many thousands of prices changed over the course of the calendar year. Enough of them rose to cause the Consumer Price Index – which we can think of as a kind of weighted average of all price changes – to rise by a modest amount just under 2%. This rise in the price index triggered a “cost-of-living-adjustment” (COLA) in the benefits paid out by the Social Security Administration. Hurrah!

But wait – we cheered when Social Security benefits went up, but we forgot to boo the price increases that occurred last year, before the benefit increase took place. After all, the benefit increase is only intended to compensate us for price increases that have already taken place in the past, when our Social Security payments were stuck at their previous lower level. Assuming the CPI perfectly adjusts to account for all the price increases, the price index change and the resulting upward revision in our benefits will exactly compensate us for the price increases. Now our buying power is back to where it was at the start of last year, before the price increases took place. So there is really no great reason to cheer, since the COLA is only getting us back to even, so to speak, in terms of our purchasing power.

Except we’re not even, are we? Or rather, we weren’t even last year, when we had to buy goods and services for the whole year with prices higher but possessing only our lower pre-indexation benefit amount. Alas, our COLA indexation comes in arrears; as long as inflation persists, our real income is like a dog always chasing its tail but never quite able to catch it. Of course, indexation is one heck of a lot better than nothing, but it is not a panacea for the detrimental effect of inflation on fixed incomes.

Think back to the news story. The bad news for Social Security recipients is that the coming year’s benefit adjustments are among the smallest ever. Why? “Next year’s raise will be small because consumer prices…haven’t gone up much in the past year.” Well, if small price increases produce small benefit increases and larger price increases would have produced larger benefit increases, then the author is clearly implying that larger price increases would have brought good news this year instead of bad news. But we just showed that larger price increases last year would have made recipients even worse off last year than they actually were – then this year’s benefit increase would merely have gotten them back to even.

So the author is wrong. No, that doesn’t quite capture it. He is gloriously, symmetrically wrong, in the sense that his flatfooted declaration is the exact opposite of the truth. This is truly industrial-strength stupidity. But that isn’t all.

No price index works perfectly. As soon as the statistician introduces more than one good or service into the index, unavoidable imprecision crops up. When thousands of goods are indexed, this problem mushrooms. That is why the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates so many different versions and subsets of the various price indices, of which the Consumer Price Index is merely the best known. The statisticians are trying valiantly to tailor these sub-indices to the income and consumption patterns of identifiable groups. This is another way of saying that, in actual practice, indexation using the CPI as its base does not exactly compensate for the previous year’s price changes. Moreover, the degree of variance from the ideal differs from person to person and group to group.

At least in principle, this technical imprecision might work in either direction – either in or against the consumer’s favor. As it happens, though, our news story makes certain claims on that score. “Advocates for seniors say the government’s measure of inflation doesn’t accurately reflect price increases older Americans face because they tend to spend more of their income on health care. Medical costs went up less than in previous years but still outpaced other consumer prices, rising 2.5%. ‘This (COLA) is not enough to keep up with inflation, as it affects seniors,’ said Max Richtman, who heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. ‘There are some things that became cheaper but they are not the things that seniors buy. Laptop computers have gone down dramatically but how many people at 70 are buying laptop computers?'”

In other words, the author of our news story has introduced evidence that the COLA fails to compensate Social Security recipients for purchasing power lost to inflation. He has introduced no counterbalancing evidence, even though ample evidence to the contrary is available. (Some will be adduced below.) Now how does the author’s central contention – that Social Security recipients face bad news created by the failure of prices to rise more last year – look? According to the logic and evidence the author has written into his own article, the author’s own conclusion looks even stupider than it did when first stated. To recipients’ disadvantage that the COLA adjustment is attained in arrears, the author has now added the further disadvantage that the adjustment allegedly fails to compensate Social Security recipients for the full effects of inflation on their purchasing power. Both of these disadvantages are triggered by price increases; the bigger the price increase, the more wounding the disadvantage.

The author’s industrial-strength stupidity has now ratcheted up to industrial-strength stupidity squared.

Stupidity, Yes – But What Else?

The author of this story displayed stupidity on an epic scale. That much is beyond doubt. Is stupidity alone enough to account for such a breathtaking display? Might there be a concealed agenda at work to motivate such blindness to elementary logic?

Not so long ago, a news story underwent a fairly rigorous editing process prior to publication. It is highly unlikely that any national publication would have allowed anything as ghastly as this to slip past its editors. But today, journalism as it once was no longer exists. Its place has been taken by advocacy thinly veiled as reporting or commentary.

The prevailing bias is leftward in general and pro-Obama-administration in particular. The Obama issue du jour is – or was, when the article appeared – the federal-government shutdown. Sure enough, much of the article’s content is intended to rake up sympathy for Social Security recipients, the largest entitlement group whose check receipts were threatened by the shutdown.

The bad-news recipients are characterized as “millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and retirees.” They are wholly dependent on government for their incomes, which are now – for the second year in a row – “historically small.” And, to top it off, “the exact size of the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, won’t be known until the Labor Department releases the inflation report for September. That was supposed to happen Wednesday, but the report was delayed by the government shutdown. [emphasis added]…The Social Security Administration has given no indication that raises would be delayed because of the shutdown, but advocates for seniors said the uncertainty was unwelcome…More than one-fifth of the country is waiting for the news.”

A story can also be slanted by what is left out as well as what is included. While Mr. Ohlemacher’s story plants the impression of seniors as badly used by the CPI, economist Michael Boskin has the opposite impression in his Wall Street Journal op-eds over the years. In 2005, Boskin estimated that CPI indexing overestimated inflation by 80-90 basis points, or nearly one full percentage point. More recently, n the course of listing numerous ways in which the federal government can save money by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in its budget, Boskin suggests switching Social Security indexation to the chained CPI, which would estimate inflation more conservatively than does the current version. (The chained CPI would adjust the index every month for “upper-level substitution bias” – a recondite way of describing the fact that the index currently captures economic substitution induced by price changes better for close substitute goods than for more distant substitutes.) Formerly, straight-news stories would have cited opposing views like this one, for “balance.” These days, a balanced story is a rarity.

It is tempting to believe that ideological or partisan political bias blinded the author to his egregious mistakes and nourished a single-minded search for stories that conformed to a pre-set template of “helpless victims endangered by short-sighted government shutdown.”

Another ideological agenda on display in the article is that of the victimized group. Here it is seniors. The above-quoted reference to COLA bias against senior consumption patterns is the tipoff. But there is no mention of the fact that economists warned for years that Social Security benefits over-compensated for inflation. Instead, we get bite-sized quotes from victims picked for their emotive power.

“‘It is very important to get the COLA because everything else you have in your life is on an upward swing, and if you’re on a downward swing, that means your quality of life is going down,’ said Gaskins [Alberta Gaskins, of the District of Columbia, who “is concerned about household bills], who retired from the Postal Service in 1989.” Somehow, the juxtaposition of Ohlemacher’s inane analysis of indexation, his dry technical explanations of COLAs and price changes and the “Gaskins Swing Index” lends a surreal aura to this article. It almost seems as though Ohlemacher approached a garden-fresh set of facts on Social Security and set out to knead, pound and stretch them into as much propaganda dough as he could mold. The result doesn’t rise and leaves a mess in the oven for the reader to deal with.

Yesterday’s Hack is Today’s Hero

In the journalistic jungle of yesteryear, writers who sold their soul for a buck were called “hacks.” They were understood to be willing to say anything on behalf of anybody who paid their (not too elevated) price. Today’s front-line reporters have adopted the work habits and standards of yesterday’s hacks. But unlike the hacks, they do not suffer for it by being relegated to the fringes and netherworld of journalism. A search on Mr. Ohlemacher reveals that he writes often for salon.com, MSN and the Associated Press. Copious samples of his work are available online. His do not appear to be the credentials of a hack. But the reasoning displayed in this article is an insult to the discipline of economics. The fact that Ohlemacher’s piece includes some technical details about COLAs and their calculation does not mitigate the gravity of his offense as outlined above.

Still… there is that old adage to contend with. “Never ascribe to venality that which can be explained by mere stupidity.”

DRI-315 for week of 9-22-13: What Has Happened to the Labor Market?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

What Has Happened to the Labor Market?

The performance of the labor market should be gauged using multiple indices, but is commonly judged by only one. The unemployment rate currently stands at 7.3%, having fallen from a cyclical height of almost 10%. Although that may seem like sizable progress, 7.3% unemployment is unheard of almost four-and-a-half years into a cyclical recovery. Even more startling is the swan-dive done by labor-market participation, which has declined to its lowest point since 1978. These data coincide with repeated extensions in unemployment-benefit tenure and increased enrollments in the food-stamp (SNAP) program. SNAP now provides food to about one in seven American families.

Taken together, these facts suggest an ominous change in the U.S. labor market. The Wall Street Journal recently brought that change into sharper focus by interviewing a leading expert-participant in the labor market.

Bob Funk owns Express Employment Services, headquartered in Oklahoma City, OK. EES is the fifth-largest employment agency in the country, with annual sales of $2.5 billion and 60 franchises scattered across the land. Funk estimates that EES will place about a half-million applicants in jobs over the coming year. Clearly, he has a vested interest, but that cuts both ways – his financial stake in the market hones his perceptions all the more keenly. And he cuts to the bone in his analysis of what is wrong with the U.S. labor market.

The Great Shift

Like many an interviewee, Funk is promoting a product in which he has a personal interest. EES will soon release a study called “The Great Shift,” which sounds the alarm about the deterioration of the U.S. labor market. Few men are better qualified to pronounce on this topic than Funk, whose company places both blue- and white-collar workers ranging from the lowest level maintenance worker to hard-hat construction workers to high-level executives.

In the simplest terms, the U.S. labor market is morphing from a market that works well into one that fails or works poorly. Many forces are bleeding the life out of the U.S. labor market. In the interview, Funk and interviewer Steve Moore highlight the most pernicious of these.

Loss of work ethic. “In my 40-some years in this business,” Funk declares, “the biggest change I’ve witnessed is the erosion of the American work ethic. It just isn’t there today like it used to be.” If this sounds suspiciously familiar, perhaps that is because it echoes the lament of every older man – successful or not – pining for lost youth. That is probably why it has not fired the imagination of the public at large.

But business owners have no trouble connecting with Funk’s message. Funk’s list of the specific attributes necessary to success on the job – being on time, taking a conscientious approach to the job, treating every task seriously and being willing to do anything including work overtime – will light a fire of recognition in the eyes of every employer who reads it.

According to Journal interviewer Stephen Moore, Funk “thinks the notion of the ‘dead-end job’ is poisonous because it shuts down all sense of possibility and ambition…If low-level employees show a willingness to work hard,” Funk maintains that “most employers will gladly train them with the skills to fill higher-paying jobs.” Neither Funk nor Moore trouble to explain why employers would be so generous, but the point is worth developing. Contrary to the impression created by politicians and the news media, most job training occurs on the job rather than in academic and vocational institutions. Since the employer will have to train anybody who fills a higher-paying position anyway, it will generally be easier and cheaper to train an internal candidate rather than import one who must be wholly indoctrinated into company procedures. But any employer wants a trainee whose can-do attitude, enthusiasm and demonstrated productivity make the investment in training odds-on to succeed. That’s why holders of so-called “dead-end” jobs can actually have a leg up on outside applicants, and why so many of the rich and famous got started at the entry level.

Alas, as Moore puts it, Funk “fears that too many of the young millennials who come knocking on his door view a paycheck as a kind of entitlement, not something to be earned. He is also concerned that the trendy concept of ‘life-balancing’ is putting work second behind leisure.”

Some readers will find this jaundiced picture too one-sided. Surely there must be some people who see openings for hard work as an opportunity for economic advancement and personal improvement. Sure enough, Funk unhesitatingly identifies just such a class of go-getters. “I guess I’m a little prejudiced to the immigrants and especially Hispanics,” Funk admits. (Note the refreshing use of the word “prejudiced” in its correct, non-pejorative sense.) “They have an amazing work ethic. They don’t want handouts and are grateful to have a job. Our company has a great success rate with these workers.” Moore, who has decades of interaction with academic and government economists, observes grimly that “this focus on work effort is seldom, if ever, discussed by policy makers or labor economists when they ponder what to do about unemployment. To most liberals, the very topic is taboo and is disparaged as blaming the economy’s victims.” Moore tactfully refrains from pointing out that the benefits of immigration, too, are taboo among mainstream conservatives; they see only a camera-negative vision of immigrants as criminal, disease-ridden, welfare-sucking, invasive forces of destruction.

The relative attractions of subsidized leisure. When Moore pressed Funk “to explain what Washington can do to get Americans back on the job,” Funk replied that “the first step would be to start shrinking the ‘vast social welfare state programs that have become a substitute for work. There’s a prevalent attitude of this generation of workers that the government will always be there to take care of them.'” Funk mentions unemployment benefits, health care and food stamps as examples of welfare-state subsidies that kill the incentive to take entry-level jobs, but he reserves special condemnation for the Social Security disability program.

Funk considers disability, which now serves some 14 million recipients, the most-abused federal-government program. EES has discovered that over half of the disability claims filed by its workers are fraudulent, he claims. When the company challenges claims in court, “we win over 90% [of the time].”

Government regulation. Funk characterizes the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) as “an absolute boon for my business.” Why? The legislation requires businesses with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health care for their employees. ObamaCare defines “full-time” employment as 30 hours (!) or more per week. This has led to the already-notorious business categories known as “49ers” (businesses that cap their full-time employment at 49 workers) and “29ers” (businesses that cap their employee work week at 29 hours). “Firms are just very reluctant to hire full-time workers,” Funk says. “So they are taking on more temporary help, which is what we do.” While ObamaCare is statutory law, it will be implemented by an executive agency, the IRS. Its provisions have the substance of regulation and legislators were acting exactly as regulators do when they passed it. Indeed, the overwhelming public opposition to the bill gives it even more of the substance of regulatory fiat.

As Moore notes, “the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers [Funk] places in jobs are EEC employees. He pays their salary, benefits and payroll taxes and the firms that hire the workers reimburse EEC for those costs plus a commission. This feature of the temporary-worker industry allows companies trying to fill job openings to do so in a way that sidesteps ObamaCare’s mandates. After an on-the-job trial of several months, companies often offer the workers permanent positions.”

The function now performed by Funk’s temp agency was formerly performed routinely by business firms themselves without need for a middleman. Workers were hired under terms called “probation,” which stated that if the relationship did not prove mutually satisfactory they would be discharged. But the federal government overlaid the employer-worker relationship with so many “protections” ostensibly designed to promote worker security that businesses couldn’t discharge workers who didn’t work out without running the risk of a lawsuit. And a lawsuit was sure to result in either a settlement or a trial; either way the business would incur a significant cost. So businesses simply stopped hiring. Workers became more “secure,” all right – if they already had a job. But workers looking for a job became less secure, because businesses no longer had the choice of hiring on a hunch with the fallback option of discharging the worker if the hire didn’t work out. Apparently most people lost sight of the fact that the probationary period also gives a worker the same chance to try the job on for size. (The implicit stance behind government labor-market regulation seems to be that “fairness” demands gross asymmetry – employers must meet tremendous obligations while workers enjoy lots of “rights.” This implies that fairness and freedom are incompatible.) This is still another of the many ways in which government itself contributes to higher and longer unemployment through its own policies.

Fund adds “the problem isn’t just ObamaCare, though. It’s the entire assault on employers coming out of Washington – everything from the EEOC to the Dodd-Frank monstrosity. Employers are living in a state of fear.” One terrorized industry not mentioned by either Funk or Moore has been trucking, where the Department of Transportation has launched a veritable war on employment. DOT has revamped its regulatory modus operandi in favor of a statistical data base that has turned veteran drivers with previously spotless driving records into risky or even prohibitive employees. Frequent agency threats to require expensive health diagnostic checks for sleep apnea have cast a pall over the profession. DOT’s long delays in making up its mind on allowable hours of service for truckers left the industry hanging. And trucking firms have also felt the sting of the agency’s new regulatory scheme. Truck drivers already feel the breeze of a sword of Damocles swinging over their head, in the form of technological obsolescence impending due to eventual development of self-driving vehicles. The federal government acts as if duty-bound to beat technology to the punch by driving truckers out of the industry first.

The jobs mismatch. At one time, it was conventional thinking that an increase in job openings would lead to a decrease in unemployment and an increase in employment. The stunning exit of workers from the labor force has played hob with convention; the unemployment rate has fallen at the same time that the volume of employment has also declined sharply. When we probe for the reasons behind the out-migration of workers, the most striking datum is the mismatch between the types of workers sought and those now unemployed or no longer looking for work. When an unemployed worker’s job-search efforts are repeatedly met with rejection, surrender becomes easier to understand.

Funk claims that EES usually has around 20,000 jobs that it can’t fill owing to a lack of qualified applicants. Moore lists the most sought-after fields as “accounting (thanks to Dodd-Frank’s huge expansion of paperwork), information technology, manufacturing-robotics programming, welding and engineering. He’s mystified why EES has so much trouble filling thousands of information-technology jobs when so many young, working-age adults are computer literate.”

The idea of a mismatch between available job-seekers and available jobs has been around for at least a century. In economics textbooks, it is called “structural unemployment.” If the number of unfilled jobs is exactly equal to the number of unfulfilled job-seekers, this might mean that employer and employee just haven’t gotten together yet. But if this condition persists for a long while, this suggests that job and job-seeker are somehow incompatible. At first glance, this seems like the sort of problem that might arise in a modern economy due to the absence of central economic planning by government. After all, how do we know that the “right” number of engineers, accountants and welders will be trained and packed off to the labor market? Doesn’t this require rational planning by somebody – or bodies – who can see the whole “big picture” on a gigantic planning board?

It turns out that free markets are supremely qualified to handle this sort of problem because only free markets can transmit the information about the kind and quantity of jobs needed to the precise people who can help to solve the problem – namely, the would-be engineers, accountants, welders, et al. And the problems of matching are far too big to be solved by central planners – not merely too big, but too subtle and complex, as much a matter of subjective perceptions as objective information. That is why private for-profit agencies like EES, which exploit both the incentives and the information offered by the price system, outperform the state employment agencies.

The persistence of imbalances, whether structural or frictional, implies that prices are not being allowed to do their job. In the low-skilled segment of the market, the minimum wage is the longtime culprit. Recent increases in both the federal and state minimum wages would be bad enough under any circumstances, but in this climate they constitute criminal economic-policy malpractice. At the executive level, the recurring attempts to legislate CEO pay do nothing to improve the welfare of consumers but do hinder the workings of the market for executive talent.

It is the middle of the labor market that has suffered most conspicuously, and acutely, from meddlesome non-market forces. In order to get and hold a job as an accountant, engineer or IT specialist, fluency in mathematics is an absolute prerequisite. (Mere numeracy no longer suffices in accounting, since today’s accountant must command enough computer-related expertise to service his clientele.) The only thing American schools teach worse than mathematics is reading, which is another prerequisite for most high-end jobs. In contrast, foreign students tend to be well versed in mathematics, which explains the agitation to make visas available to high-skilled immigrants.  The educational deficit may not explain the entire skills deficit, but it is surely the beginning of wisdom on the issue.

The long-running failure of American public schools. Public-school reform in America now enters its second century. The breath of fresh competitive air blown in by charter schools and vouchers has brought the first genuine, effective reform to K-12 education. But the education establishment dies hard. With the death of the old telecommunications monopolies, teacher’s unions are the leading political force in many statehouses. The stubborn persistence of labor-market imbalances in math-, reading- and computer-skilled jobs has its corollary in the stubborn persistence of the political power of teachers’ unions.

How do teachers’ unions hurt educational performance? They are structured to favor incumbent teachers over newcomers, which means that they insist upon seniority as the basis for pay and advancement rather than actual teaching productivity. Even worse, it means that the tenure system reigns unchallenged. “Teacher is by far the most corrupt social institution in our time,” Funk flatly declares. “It doesn’t reward excellence or weed out bad teachers.”

Contrast tenure with the rule of free markets, in which business failure is penalized by financial failure. Success is rewarded with high(er) profits, which encourages entry of new firms and imitation by other businesses. All this is utter anathema to public schools, which abhor failure and exit by a public school – unless the school district itself decrees it for cost reasons, of course. There is no particular, automatic reward for successful teaching performance – in particular, no immediate and unequivocal financial reward for good teachers. (Indeed, in higher education it is axiomatic that good teachers usually fail to achieve tenure because they spend too much time concentrating on teaching and not enough worrying about the “research” that will lead to tenure.)

While it is true that change is finally coming, it proceeds at a glacial pace because it moves along the choked roadway marked “politics” rather than the speedy autobahn of free markets. Unions dictate the terms on which vouchers are allowed to exist (if at all) and operate; they dictate the funds allocated to charter schools. This is akin to running a poultry farm by appointing the fox foreman and letting him control access to the chicken house.

What Does This Pattern Remind You Of?

When we put the pieces of this labor-market pattern together, they form a familiar picture. For decades, Europe has produced the same picture: dreadful work ethic, open-handed government subsidies killing off the incentive to take entry-level jobs or work at all, smothering government regulation, declining academic performance, powerful unions blocking reform, increasing mismatch between available jobs and worker skills. Not only that, but the Continent’s long-running virus of sluggish growth and high unemployment has recently spread to the U.S.

Most ominous of all is the serial banking and financial crises experienced by countries within the Eurozone. They began with tiny, insignificant little Greece, whose troubles couldn’t possibly be big enough to harm anybody else. Besides, Greece was an outlier, an exception. Its people were exceptionally lazy, its banks horribly inept, its regulation unusually lax – or so the party line ran among the commentators and mainstream news media.

Soon, though, the financial woe spread to Portugal, Spain and Italy. France began to look shaky. Every few months a new crisis flared up. Each time, finance ministers and heads of state appeared to assure us that this new fix has achieved financial peace in our time – until the next crisis. And then came recession – again.

For years, the American labor movement has been holding up Europe as its model. Incredible as this may seem, labor leaders have pooh-poohed the high rates of unemployment and low rates of economic growth in Europe. They have maintained that people in Europe were happier than Americans. They were more secure. Wasn’t this worth putting up with a little more unemployment, a little less material wealth? Goods and services weren’t all that important, were they, when stacked up against the really important values in life?

Lately, though, we haven’t heard much of this rhetoric. Partly this was because riots and discord in Europe were blatantly at odds with the party line about the bovine placidity and content of the populace there. Partly it was because the American Left was now peddling a new party line about the rapine and plunder of the 99% by the 1%, and they needed to extend this paradigm internationally in order to demonize the phenomenon of globalization. And it’s pretty hard to harmonize the picture of happiness with one of rape and plunder.

The real importance of our growing resemblance to Europe, however, is that is raises the specter that we will follow in their financial footsteps. The mainstream news media has a history of disregarding the views of men like Bob Funk. But the carbon-copy example of Europe lends a chilling credence to his views. It happened there and is still happening there, which makes it that much tougher to pretend that it can’t happen here.

DRI-310 for week of 9-15-13: What is Wrong with President Obama’s Claim that the Government Rescued the American Economy?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

What is Wrong with President Obama’s Claim that the Government Rescued the American Economy?

This week marked the unofficial five-year anniversary of the 2008 Financial Crisis, inaugurated by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. In the world of politics and news media, disasters are celebrated as religiously as triumphs and advances. President Barack Obama delivered a solemn recapitulation of the Crisis and his administration’s actions over the ensuing five years. The President’s use of rhetoric has built a solid constituency that has swept him into the White House twice. A full understanding of economics allows us to understand why his actions (and his justifications for them) have been so popular, why his explanation of events is wrong and what the true nature of the Crisis was (and is).

The ICU Metaphor: Government as Emergency Physician, the Economy as Critically Ill Patient

President Obama described his primary duty as “making sure we recover from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes.” By implying a crisis from which recovery is problematic, the President draws a clear analogy with emergency medicine. A patient faces a medical crisis; the doctor’s overriding goal is recovery; failure will result in death. Although the President mixes this metaphor several times, the basic structure of life-or-death emergency and problematic outcome is preserved.

In a medical emergency, a series of catastrophic events creates a crisis. This is the format in which President Obama recounted the economic history of the past five years. It was “five years ago this week that the financial crisis rocked Wall Street and sent an economy already in recession into a tailspin.” “…Some of the largest investment banks in the world failed; stocks markets plunged; banks stopped lending to families and small businesses.” And, hearkening explicitly to the medical metaphor, “the auto industry – the heart beat of American manufacturing – was flat-lining…By the time I took the oath of office, the economy was shrinking by an annual rate of more than 8 percent. Our businesses were shedding 800,000 jobs each month. It was a perfect storm that would rob millions of Americans of jobs and homes and savings that they had worked a lifetime to build. And it laid bare the long erosion of a middle class that, for more than a decade, has had to work harder and harder to keep up.”

In a hospital ER, a worst-case scenario will compel doctors to invoke the protocol known as “Code Blue,” a crash program to restore vital signs in the face of complete collapse. This was the Obama administration analogue: The federal government had to “…act…quickly through the Recovery Act” to “arrest the downward spiral” and “put a floor under the fall” by “put[ting] people to work…teachers in our classrooms, first responders on the streets.” The government “helped responsible homeowners modify their mortgages” and “jump-start[ed] the flow of credit.” Thanks to these and other measures, the President concluded triumphantly, “we saved the auto industry.”

Once the emergency has been met and the patient is out of immediate danger, doctors can then proceed with the process of rehabilitation. This may involve a hospital stay of short or long duration or possibly a trip to an outpatient facility and extended therapy. President Obama outlines his analogue of the American economy’s recovery after he saved it: The Obama administration “pushed back against the trends that have been battering the middle class… took on the broken health-care system…invested in new technologies… put in place new rules that we need to finalize before the end of the year, by the way, to make sure the job is done… and …locked in tax cuts for 98% of Americans.” All this was accomplished in exchange for “ask[ing] those at the top to pay a little more.”

How is the patient progressing, five years on? What is the economic prognosis? “So, if you add it all up, our businesses have added 7.5 million new jobs [over the last 3.5 years]” and “the unemployment rate has come down.” The housing market is “healing.” Financial markets are “safer.” Today, we “sell more goods made in America to the rest of the world than ever before… generate more renewable energy than ever before…produce more natural gas than anybody.” Why, “just two weeks from now, Americans [are] finally going to have a chance to buy quality, affordable health care on the private marketplace… we’ve cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis [and] begun to lay the foundation for economic growth and prosperity.”

In true doctorly fashion, the President issued some caveats. It seems that the “top 1% of Americans took home 20% of the nation’s income last year…most of the gains have gone to the top one-tenth of 1%.” Congress should be focused on issues such as “How do we grow the economy faster? How do we create better jobs? How do we increase wages and incomes; how do we increase opportunity… how do we create retirement security….” Government, of course, will have to make “the investments necessary” to achieve all these goals. Government will assume “the critical role in making sure we have an education system …for a global economy.” Congress will enable all this via the budget it passes – provided the quixotic Republicans don’t gum up the works with their monomaniacal insistence on “cuts” to trim the budget deficit. How can they say this when “the deficits are falling faster than at any time since before I was born”?

The Facts are Secondary

It would be easy to get hung up on the facts of President Obama’s “medical report.” Here and there he departs from metaphor to into boldfaced, bald-faced lie. Obama’s bland claim that “we saved the auto industry” doesn’t survive even a fast glance, unless the Ford Motor Company was exiled from the industry by a FISA court in the last five years. Ford didn’t receive any government subsidies, whereas General Motors and Chrysler each got a full-monte bailout makeover. It was telling that the former Big 3 all downsized to broadly similar degrees. In other words, they really underwent a reorganization process even though two of them were spared formal bankruptcy. Now, their lean, mean status has put them back on the front pages of business sections and spawned banner headlines reporting land-office sales of new models. The “salvation” of the auto industry can be ascribed to Ford’s refusal to be bailed out and the successful reorganization of the Big 2.

The President’s dire recollection of the imminent doom of investment banking is droll considering his unrelenting class-warfare assaults on Wall Street, the 1% and bankers generally. Ironically, the big banks who received bailouts were doing little investment banking at the time and are doing even less today. Moreover, neither Bear Stearns (whose failure was masked by its sale) nor Lehman Brothers qualify as among the biggest investment banks, so it is not clear which mega-bank failures the President is referring to.

These are mere quibbles, though, compared to the major point at issue, which is the fundamental basis of President Obama’s rhetoric. To what extent is his medical metaphor rooted in analytical reality?

The Utter Poverty of the ICU Analogy

It is likely that most of the President’s audience did not parse his metaphor as thoroughly as we are about to do. But they instinctively grasped that he was speaking figuratively. They probably experienced a déjà vu feeling of urgency, reminiscent of September, 2008 – a sense that something bad was happening and that something needed to be done quickly to stop it before the world fell apart. How apt was the President’s metaphor; how accurately did it depict the concrete economic reality? Was it true to reality or was it merely the language of political theater, intended to push the emotional buttons of his audience and achieve the desired effect?

The analogy between a modern economy – consisting of hundreds of millions of interacting individuals, and one single patient – suffering a critical illness and facing death – is very bad. There is little or no commonality between the two.

The patient is a single, holistic entity. The economy is an abstraction, made up of many millions of such entities. The patient’s existence is threatened. The economy’s existence is not threatened by a financial crisis, despite the apocalyptic language tossed about indiscriminately by the President. (To be sure, President Obama is only following the example set by Treasury Secretary O’Neill, who spoke darkly of “fac[ing] the abyss” and falsely warned Congress that unthinkable horrors would follow a failure to pass immediate bailout legislation.) The U.S. and every other advanced industrial nation have faced financial crises periodically since the 19th century. No nation has ceased to exist as a result of such a crisis. Indeed, as a first approximation, the individuals within the nation are not threatened with extinction by a financial crisis either, although many people may face a diminution in their standard of living.

A single patient is saved by doctors who utilize resources that originate outside the patient; e.g., outside his or her body. These include medicines, blood for transfusions, glucose and other basic forms of stabilizing fluids and numerous other forms of extraneous assistance ranging from diagnostic tools to organs for transplantation. A government instituting a “recovery program” – whether a Code Blue-type of emergency-bailout plan or intermediate assistance such as Fed Chairman Bernanke’s quantitative-assistance scheme or a longer term program for economic growth – can only use resources that originate inside the economy itself. The resources must come from somewhere and no government has the power to spontaneously generate resources out of thin air. Even money that is borrowed from foreign sources must be paid for by repaying principal and interest and in other ways as well. (A country that enjoys the privilege of “seigniorage” because its money is a “vehicle currency” held for transactions and investment purposes by foreigners may perhaps evade repayment longer than would normally be the case.) Really, “the economy” can be conceived in global terms, since the bailouts were a transnational operation on both sides.

Consider how hampered ER doctors would be if they had to rely on only the patient’s own resources and reserves of strength in fighting emergency illness or injury. Well, that is a fair analogy of the constraints governments face in “rescuing” their citizens from financial crises. Actually, that only begins to describe the limitations of government corrective action. Doctors can learn tremendous amounts about their patients via diagnostic tools like X-rays and cat scans and blood tests. But the information governments would have to know in order to “rescue” an economy is widely dispersed in fragmentary form among hundreds of millions of people. Not only that, much of that information is subjective and wouldn’t be useful to anybody except the particular individuals that possess it.

Doctors can rely on the patient’s help because the patient wants to live. The emergency efforts exerted by the hospital staff often succeed because they are a voluntary cooperative enterprise in which the patient fully cooperates. Governments operate on the basis of coercion and compulsion. This is necessary because governments can acquire resources to help some people only by taking resources away from other people. Coercion is a shaky basis for production and maintenance. If it were a superior form of economic endeavor, the totalitarian dictatorships of the 19th and 20th centuries would have been history’s great success stories. Instead, they were tragic, ghastly failures. The resistance to the bailouts of the big banks is only one of the pushbacks suffered by the federal government’s rescue program. The Fed’s Zero Interest-Rate Program (ZIRP) left millions of elderly Americans adrift without a suitable income-producing vehicle, given the artificially low interest rates imposed on fixed-income investments by the government policy. This population has become highly restive, not to say mutinous. Millions of Americans have left the labor force because the extension of unemployment benefits has made idleness more attractive than work – and because government regulation of the labor market has simply made job creation too costly and dangerous to businesses. These are all cases in which Americans oppose a program ostensibly designed to rescue them from economic emergency and privation.

This highlights the overarching dissonance in the Obama ICU analogy. Treating the economy as a single organic unity fulfills the old socialist dream originally enunciated by the French philosopher Saint-Simon, who declared that a nation should be run as though it were one single huge factory. The pretense that there really is a “nation as a whole” rather than a reality consisting of 312 million individuals allows governments to enact dreadful economic policies like the Economic Recovery Act. Pumping money into an amorphous entity called “the economy” ignores the individual interactions and logical connections that make up a functioning economy. We cannot even draw a useful analogy between the warring organisms within the human body and claim that government is helping the “good” organisms (e.g., people) against the “bad” ones for the good of the “whole body” (e.g., the nation). Doctors know how to separate good from bad organisms for the survival of a single patient; governments have no objective basis for transferring real income from some people to others for the good of the nation.

The Real Nature of Economic Crisis, Financial or Otherwise

Finance differs from non-monetary economic theory in dealing with the allocation of resources over time rather than at a single (hypothetical) point in time.  Thus, complicating topics such as saving, borrowing, interest rates and debt intrude on the analysis. A financial crisis occurs when a gross mismatch between the saving/investing and borrowing/lending desires of the public places financial institutions and mechanisms in jeopardy of failure. The only cure for the crisis is realignment between the value of goods people are willing to commit to future consumption and the value of goods producers commit to make available in the future. Proper alignment implies that the interest rates established in the markets for loanable funds equalize the amounts of borrowing people want to do for each future term to maturity with the amounts of money available for lending in the future. Sooner or later, there is no substitute for this curative process. When values are once again realigned, the resulting pattern of resources will require that businesses wrongly created and jobs formerly occupied due to the crisis will no longer exist. Once again, there is no substitute for this corrective process.

The U.S. has suffered recurrent financial crises throughout its history. Each financial crisis had one thing in common with all others. They all ended. The first financial crisis was in 1807. Another one – a big one – followed in 1837.The biggest one of all may have been in 1873. But none of them went on forever and none of them caused the death of the U.S. economy – whatever that might be interpreted to mean.

Keynesian economics was neither a necessary not a sufficient condition for recovery from a financial crisis. It was not necessary because Keynesian economics was not invented until 1936; numerous financial crises had come and gone by that time. It was not sufficient because the U.S. economy suffered financial crises after the invention of Keynesian economics that were unaffected, even worsened, by the implementation of Keynesian policies.

Bailouts of big banks were no more necessary than were the bailouts of GM and Chrysler. (Once again, blame should go primarily to the architects of these measures, Treasury Secretary O’Neill and Fed Chairman Bernanke – but the policies were wholeheartedly supported by President Obama.) These measures are often supported even by many so-called free-marketers, some of whom cite Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman’s claim that widespread bank failures triggered a massive decline in the money supply that caused the Great Depression. As an explanation of the Depression, Friedman’s view is misleading at best, but even if accepted it does not remotely justify bank bailouts. Friedman was famous for insisting that the Fed could, and should, have increased the money supply to counter the reverse-money-multiplier effects of the bank failures. His famous quip that the Fed could even drop money from helicopters if necessary illustrated his view that the Fed had countless ways to get money into the hands of the public. Bailing out banks – the realization of moral hazard under fractional-reserve banking regulation – has nothing to do with increasing the money supply. That is exactly what Ben Bernanke proceeded to prove with his program of quantitative easing. By creating money hand over fist after the banks had already been bailed out, Bernanke was closing the barn door after allowing the animals to escape!

Citations of Milton Friedman as authority for the bank bailouts by Ben Bernanke and other left-wing economists are an example of what the Soviet KGB used to call “disinformation” and what magicians refer to as “misdirection.” They are designed to confuse and mislead an opponent by presenting a false trail of reasoning and evidence.

The Real Threat to Life and Limb Posed by Economic Crisis

The only form of economic crisis that can, and has, threatened life and limb throughout human history is a monetary crisis. Only a monetary crisis can overturn the entire basis for trade or exchange, making it impossible or prohibitively difficult for people to exchange goods and services. This poses an immediate threat to life and limb because almost everybody specializes rather narrowly in their production. Specialization increases productivity and increases real incomes – provided people are able to exchange the fruits of their productive specialty for the consumption goods they love. But if and when they cannot do this, specialization turns into a nightmare. People cannot acquire the goods and services they know and love. At best, this is an incredible nuisance. At worst, it is a clear and present danger to life and limb.

Technically, it is true that an economy – or, more properly, a nation – will eventually recover from a monetary crisis, too. But prior to recovery, famine, pestilence and death may visit the nation beset by crisis. Ancient Rome was one nation felled by monetary crisis; the crisis not only caused havoc but weakened the Republic so much that it could no longer fight off its enemies. In Germany’s WeimarRepublic; the chaos caused by hyperinflation put the public’s sole focus on day-to-day survival. This completely delegitimized the democratic government and paved the way for Hitler. His authoritarian rule was seen as preferable to the ineffectual efforts of socialists who could no longer fulfill the promises of security that had won them election.

More recently, we have witnessed the devastating effects in such places as Zimbabwe, where hyperinflation was the last refuge of the scoundrel, Mugabe. The failure of investment projects financed by foreign loans, coupled with land-redistribution policies that dispossessed capable farming operations, had decimated the productive capacity of Zimbabwe’s economy. Unemployment reportedly approached 80%. To finance his administration’s regional wars and pay the government’s bills, President Mugabe permitted money creation on a scale not seen since the Weimar inflation. As we would expect, the result was the disintegration of trade and a retreat into dictatorship, subsistence, barter.

Thus, monetary collapse – not financial crisis – is the only real economic approximation to the emergency-threat-of-death metaphor rhetorically brandished by President Obama.

This is a sobering thought, since it suggests that America does, after all, face a potentially life-threatening menace in its not-too-distant future. It is the threat of hyperinflation and monetary collapse presented by the $4 trillion in excess reserves sitting on the accounts of American banks. This money is currently receiving interest, thanks to the change in policy allowing interest to be paid on excess reserve accounts. Should that status change, though, the money might be loaned out to businesses and promptly spent. This large volume of money chasing domestic goods would bid up prices with alacrity. The resulting hyperinflation would jeopardize the value of U.S. money. That is a disaster waiting to happen.

The threat is not in our past. It lies ahead of us, in our future. President Obama’s policies did not save us from it. Rather, they now threaten us with it.

Should we temper this conclusion with the reminder that the unprecedented money creation of the last few years is the work of the Federal Reserve and its Chairman, Ben Bernanke? Is the President exempt from criticism owing to the Fed’s independence from political influence and control?

President Obama has not moved to replace Bernanke. The President has not even expressed disapproval of the Fed Chairman’s policies. And the current favorite to succeed Bernanke early next year, Janet Yellen, is widely considered to favor even looser monetary policy than Bernanke, if such a thing can be imagined. Presumably, if President Obama disapproved, he could find another Fed Chairman. So far, there is no indication that he will do that.

Rhetoric Matters

The problem with President Obama’s recounting of events during and since the Financial Crisis of 2008 is not his errors of fact, glaring though they are. His rhetoric is built upon a superficially attractive but utterly wrongheaded metaphor – Obama Administration policies as ICU measures taken to rescue an economy that is likened to a critically ill patient. The metaphor leads directly to the wrong diagnosis of the Crisis and the wrong medicine for the patients, who are 315 million individuals rather than indistinguishable parts of one gigantic whole.

DRI-326 for week of 9-1-13: Quantity vs. Quality in Economists

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Quantity vs. Quality in Economists

Students of economics have long complained that economics texts focus too much on quantity and not enough on quality when evaluating goods. The same issue arises when comparing economists themselves. The career of Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, who died this week at age 102, is a polar case.

Economists advance by publishing articles in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. The all-time leader in the number of articles published is the late Harry G. Johnson. Despite dying young at age 53, Johnson compiled the staggering total of 526 published articles during his lifetime.

The use of advanced mathematics and abstract modeling techniques has enabled economists to rack up impressive publications scores by introducing slight mathematical refinements that add little to the substantive meaning or practical value of their achievement. When asked to account for the comparative modesty of a list of publications only one-fourth the size of Johnson’s, Nobel Laureate George Stigler countered, “Yeah, but mine are all different.”

Coase stands at the other extreme. His complete list of articles numbers fewer than twenty, but two of those are among the most-frequently consulted by economists, lawyers and other specialists, not to mention by the general public. He published a long-awaited, widely noticed book in 2012 despite having passed his centenary the year before. His life is an advertisement for the value of quality over quantity in an economist.

Another notable aspect of Coase’s work is its accessibility. In an age when few professional contributions can be read and understood by non-specialists, much less by interested non-economists, Coase’s work is readily comprehensible by the educated layperson. Now is the time to rehearse the insights that made Coase’s name a byword within the economics profession. His death makes this review emotionally as well as intellectually fitting.

Why Do Businesses Exist?

At 26 years of age, Ronald Coase was a left-leaning economics student. He pondered the following contradictory set of facts: On the one hand, socialists ever since Saint-Simon had advocated running a nation’s economy “like one big factory.” On the other hand, orthodox economists declared this to be impossible. Yet some highly successful corporations reached enormous size.

Who was right? It seemed to Coase that the answer depended on the answer to a more fundamental question – why do businesses exist? Be it a one-person shop or a huge multinational corporation, a business arises voluntarily. What conditions give birth to a business?

Coase found the answer in the concept of cost. (In his 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm,” Coase used the term “marketing costs,” but the economics profession refined the term to “transactions costs”.) A business arises whenever it is less costly for people to organize into a hierarchical, centralized structure to produce and distribute output than it is to produce the same output and exchange it individually. And the business itself performs some activities within the firm while outsourcing others outside the firm. Again, cost determines the locus of these activities; any activity more cheaply bought than performed inside the firm is outsourced, while activities more cheaply done inside the firm are kept internal.

Like most brilliant, revolutionary insights, this seems almost childishly simple when explained clearly. But it was the first lucid justification for the existence of business firms that relied on the same economic logic that business firms themselves (and consumers) used in daily life. Previously, economists had been in the ridiculous position of assuming that businesses used economic logic but arose through some non-economic process such as habit or tradition or government direction.

Today, we have a regulatory process that flies in the face of Coase’s model. It implicitly assumes that markets are incapable of correctly organizing, assigning and performing basic business functions, ranging from safety to hiring to providing employee benefits. To make matters worse, the underlying assumption is that government regulatory behavior is either costless or less costly than the correlative function performed by private markets. As Coase taught us over 75 years ago, this flies in the face of the inherent “nature of the firm.”

The “Coase Theorem”

In mid-career, while working amongst a group of free-market economists at the University of Virginia, Ronald Coase made his most famous discovery. It assured him immortality among economists. Just about the best way to make a name for yourself is to give your name to a theory, the way John Maynard Keynes or Karl Marx did. But in Coase’s case, the famous “Coase Theorem” was actually devised by somebody else, using Coase’s logic – and Coase himself repudiated the use to which his work was put!

To appreciate what Coase did – and didn’t do – we must grasp the prior state of economic theory on the subject of “externalities.” Tort case law contained examples of railroad trains whose operation created fires by throwing off sparks into combustible areas like farm land. The law treated these cases by either penalizing the railroad or ignoring the damage. A famous economist named A. C. Pigou declared this to be an example of an “externality” – a cost created by business production that is not borne by the business itself because the business’s owners and/or managers do not perceive the damage created by the sparks to be an actual cost of production.

Rather than simply penalizing the railroad, Pigou observed, the economically appropriate action is to levy a per-unit tax against the railroad equal to the cost incurred by the victims of the sparks. This would cause the railroad to reduce its output by exactly the same amount as if it had perceived its sparks to be a legitimate cost of production in the first place. In effect, the railroad “pays” the costs of its actions in the form of reduced output (and reduced use of the resources necessary to provide railroad transport services), rather than paying them in the form of a fine. Why is the former outcome better than the latter? Because the purpose is not to hurt the railroad as retaliation for its hurting the farmer, the way one child hurts another in revenge for being hurt. A railroad is a business – in effect, it is a piece of paper expressing certain contractual relationships. It cannot feel hurt the way a human being can, so the fine may make the farmer feel better (if he or she received the fine as proceeds of a tort suit) but does not compensate for the waste of resources caused by having the railroad produce too much output. (“Too much” because resources will have to be devoted to repairing the damage caused by the sparks, and consumers value the resources used to do this more than the farmer values the loss.) In contrast, when the costs are factored into the railroad’s production decision, everybody values the resulting output of railroad services and other things as exactly worth their cost.

Of course, the catch is that somebody has to (1) realize the existence of the externality; and (2) calculate exactly how much tax to levy on the railroad to neutralize (or internalize) the externality; and then (3) do it. In the manner of a philosopher king, Pigou declared that this task should be assigned to a government regulatory bureaucracy. And for the next half-century (Pigou was writing in the early 1900s), mainstream economists salivated at the prospect of regulatory agencies passing rules to internalize all the pesky externalities that liberals and bureaucrats could dream up.

In 1960, Ronald Coase came along and gave the world a completely new slant on this age-old problem. Consider the following type of situation: you are flying from New York to Los Angeles on a low-price airline. You have settled somewhat uncomfortably into your seat, survived the takeoff and are just beginning to contemplate the six-hour flight when the passenger in front of you presses a button at his side and reclines his seatback – thereby preempting what little leg room you previously had. Now what?

This is not actually the example Coase used – it was used by contemporary economist Peter Boettke to illustrate Coase’s ideas – but it is especially good for our purposes. Using the same logic Coase applied to his examples, we reason thusly: It would be completely arbitrary to assign either of us a property right to the space preempted by the seatback. Why? Because the problem is not to stop bad people from doing bad things. Instead, we are faced with a situation in which ordinary people want to do good things that are in some sense contradictory or offsetting in their effects. On the airplane, my wish to stretch out is no more or less morally compelling than his to recline. The problem is that  we can’t do both to the desired extent at the same time without getting in each other’s way; e.g., offsetting each other’s efforts.

Indeed, this is true of most so-called externalities, including the railroad/farmer case. Case law usually treated the railroad as a nefarious miscreant imposing its will on the innocent, helpless farmer. But the railroad’s wish to provide transport services is just as reasonable as the farmer’s to grow and harvest crops. It is not unthinkable to enjoin the railroad against creating sparks – but neither should we overlook the possibility of requiring the farmer to protect against sparks or perhaps even not locate a farm within the threatened area. Indeed, what we really want in all cases is to discover the least-cost solution to the externality. That might involve precautions taken by the railroad, or by the farmer, or emigration by the farmer, or payment by the railroad to the farmer as compensation for the spark damage, or payment by the farmer to the railroad as compensation for spark avoidance.

 

In general, it is crazy to expect an uninvolved third party – particularly a government regulator – to divine the least-cost solution and implement it. The logical people to do that are the involved parties themselves, who know the most about their own costs and preferences and are on the scene. These are also the people who have the incentive to find a mutually beneficial solution to the problem. In our airline example, I might offer the man in front of me a small payment for not reclining. Or he might pay me for the privilege of reclining. But either way, we will bargain our way to a solution that leaves us both better off, if there is one. One of us would object to any proposed solution that did not leave him better off.

Of course, it would be useful for bargaining purposes to have an assignment of property rights; that is, a specification that I have the right to my space or that the man in front of me has the right to recline. That way, the direction of compensatory payments would be clear – money would flow to the right-holder from the right-seeker.

What if bargaining does not produce an efficient outcome, one that both parties can agree on? That means that the right-holder values his right at more than the right-seeker is willing to pay. But in that case, no government tax would produce an efficient outcome either.

On the airline, suppose that I value the leg room preempted by the reclining seat at $10. Suppose, further, that airline policy gives him the right to recline. If I offer him $6 not to recline, he will accept my offer if he values reclining at any amount less than $6 – say, $5. Notice that we are now both better off than under the status quo ante bargain. I get leg room I valued at $10 – or course, I had to pay $6 for it, but that is better than not having it at all, just as having the airline’s cocktail is better than being thirsty even though I had to pay $5 for it. He loses his right to recline, but he gets $6 instead – and reclining was only worth $5 to him. He is better off, just as he would be if he accepted an airline’s offer of $500 to surrender his seat and take a later flight, as sometimes happens.

We cannot even begin to estimate how many times people solve everyday problems like this through individual bargains. The world would be vastly better off if we were trained from birth in the virtues of a voluntary society where bargaining is a way to solve everyday disputes and make everybody better off. That training would stress the virtues of money as the lubricant that facilitates this sort of bargain because it is readily exchangeable for other things and because it is the common denominator of value. Instead, most of us are burdened by an instinctive tribal suspicion that money is evil and bargaining is used only to seek personal advantage at the expense of others. Experienced businesspeople know otherwise, but throughout the world the Zeitgeist is working against Coase’s logic. More and more, government and statutory law are held up as the only fair mechanism for resolving disputes.

University of Chicago economist George Stigler used Coase’s logic to devise the so-called Coase theorem, which says that when the transactions costs of bargaining are zero, the ultimate price and output results will be the same regardless of the initial assignment of property rights. This is true because both parties will have the incentive to bargain their way to an efficient improvement, if one exists. The assignment of property rights will affect the wealth of the bargainers, because it will determine the direction of the money flow, but economists are concerned with welfare (determined by prices and quantities), not wealth. No government regulatory body can improve on the free-market solution.

Coase disagreed with the theorem named after him – not because he disputed its logic, but because he foresaw the results. Economists would use it to look for circumstances when transactions costs were low or non-existent. Instead, Coase wanted to investigate real-world institutions such as government to compare its transactions costs to those of the market. He knew that real-world transactions costs were seldom zero but that government solutions almost never worked out as neatly in practice as they did on the blackboard. In fact, he invented the phrase “blackboard economics” to refer to solutions that could never work in practice, only on a theoretical blackboard, because real-world governments never had either the information or the incentive necessary to apply the solution.

Why China Became Capitalist

Ronald Coase devoted his last years to learning how and why China evolved from the world’s last major Communist dictatorship to the world’s emerging economic superpower. In Why China Became Capitalist, he and his research partner Ning Wang delivered an account that contravened the popular explanation for China’s rise. China’s ruling central-government oligarchy has received credit for the country’s emergence as the growth leader among developing nations. Since the Communist Party retained political control throughout the growth spurt, it must have been responsible for it – so the usual explanation runs. Coase and Wang showed that government’s presence as the agency in charge of political life does not automatically entitle it to credit for economic growth.

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 rescued China from decades of terror, famine and dictatorship. Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, was an economist who outlined a program of state-run investment in heavy industry called the “Leap Outward.” This resembled the various Five-Year Plans of Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin in general approach and in overall lack of results. Hua’s successors, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, abandoned the Leap Outward in favor of an emphasis on agriculture and light industry. Although Deng was the political figurehead who garnered the lion’s share of the publicity, Chen was the guiding spirit behind this second centralized plan designed to spur Chinese economic growth. It placed less emphasis on production of capital goods and more on consumer goods. Chen allowed state-controlled agricultural prices to rise in an effort to stimulate production on China’s collective farms, which had failed disastrously under Mao, resulting in approximately 40 million deaths from famine. He also allowed state-run enterprises a measure of autonomy and private profit, heretofore unthinkable under Communism.

Although these central-government measures were the ostensible spur to China’s remarkable growth run, Coase and Wang assign actual responsibility to the resurgence of China’s private economy. Private farms had always existed as part of the nation’s 30,000 villages and towns, much as neighboring Russians continued to nurture their tiny private plots of land alongside the Soviet collective farms. And, just as was the case in Russia, the smaller private farms began to outdo the larger collectives in productivity and output. Mao fanatically insisted on agricultural collectivization, but his death freed private farmers to resume their former lives.  By late 1980, the Beijing government was forced to officially acknowledge the private farms. In 1982, China formally abandoned its costly experiment with collective agriculture and de-collectivized its farms. Official grain prices were allowed to rise and grain imports were permitted.

Agriculture wasn’t the only industry that flourished at the local level. Small businesses in rural China labored under official handicaps; their access to raw materials was not protected and they had no officially sanctioned distribution channels for their output. But they bought inputs on the black market at high prices and groomed their own sales representatives to scour the nation drumming up business for their goods. These local Davids outperformed the state-run Goliaths; they were the real vanguard of Chinese economic growth.

Growth was slower in China’s major cities. Mao had sent some 20 million youths to the countryside to escape unemployment in the cities. After his death, many of these youths returned to the cities – only to find themselves out of work again. They demonstrated and formed opposition political movements, sometimes paralyzing daily life with their protests. This forced Beijing to permit self-employment for the first time – another Communist sacred cow sacrificed to political expediency. This, in turn, created an urban class of Chinese entrepreneurs. This led to yet another government reaction in the form of Special Economic Zones, somewhat reminiscent of the U.S. “enterprise zones” of the 1980s. Economic freedom and lower taxes were allowed to exist in a controlled environment; Chinese officials hoped to encourage controlled doses of capitalist prosperity in order to save socialism.

Gradually, the limited reforms of the Special Economic Zones became more general. Increased freedom of market prices was introduced in 1992, taxes were lowered in 1994 and privatization of failing state-run enterprises began in the mid-1990s. For the first time, China began to replace local and regional markets with a single national market for many goods.

Coase and Wang identify perhaps the most important but least-known capitalist element to arise in China as the improved pursuit of knowledge. They accurately attribute the recognition of knowledge’s role in economics to Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek and note the increasing popularity of books and articles by Hayek, his mentor Ludwig von Mises and classical forebears such as Adam Smith. The economics profession has pigeonholed the subject of knowledge under the heading of “technical coefficients of production,” but the authors know that this is only the beginning of the knowledge needed to make a free-market economy work. The knowledge of market institutions and the dispersed, specialized “knowledge of particular time and place” that can only be collated and shared by free markets are even more important than technical knowledge about how to produce goods and services.

The upshot of China’s private resurgence has been to make the country a “laboratory for capitalist experimentation,” according to Coase and Wang. That laboratory has brewed a recipe for unparalleled economic growth since the 1990s, leading to China’s admittance into the World Trade Organization in 2001. The final piece of the puzzle, the authors predict, is a true free market for ideas – the one thing that Western economies have that China lacks. When this falls into place, China will become the America of the 21st century.

Thus did Ronald Coase add a landmark study in economic history to his select resume of classic works.

Quality vs. Quantity

Never in the history of economics has one economist achieved so much productivity with so little scholarly output. Ronald Coase economized on the scarce resources of time and human effort (ours) by devoting the longest career of any great economist to specializing in quality, not quantity, of work.

DRI-309 for week of 8-25-13: What Does ‘Social’ Mean Today?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

What Does ‘Social’ Mean Today?

For decades, European political parties have rallied around the banner of “social democracy.” Today, Catholic churches throughout the world solemnly urge their congregants to work for “social justice.” Businesses have long been advised to practice “social responsibility.” Certain investment funds are now organized around the principle of “social investing.” Celebrities advertise the possession of a finely honed “social conscience.”

The rhetorical weight carried by the word “social” has never been heavier. Judging by this, one would suppose that the adjective’s meaning is well-defined and universally understood. Assuming that to be so, it should be relatively easy to explain its meanings above, as well as many other similar ones.

That turns out to be far from true. A great economist and social theorist called “social” the great “weasel word” of our time. In the words of the old popular song, how long has this been going on?

Well over two hundred years, believe it or not. The great English philosopher Lord Action accurately observed that, “Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.” Those people who invoke the word “social” as a holy sacrament will be outraged to learn its pedigree. For the rest of us, though, the knowledge should prove illuminating.

“What is Social?”
One man above all others made it his business to learn the history and meaning of the word “social.” F.A. Hayek was a leading European economist before World War II, and among his friends were the Freiburg School of German economists who styled themselves the “Soziate Marktwirtschaft” or “Social Market” economists. Why, Hayek wondered, didn’t they simply call themselves “free-market” economists? What magic did the word “social” weave to gain precedence over the idea of freedom?

Over the years, Hayek morphed from world-class economist to world-renowned social philosopher. His fascination with the rhetorical preeminence of “social” eventually produced the article “What Is ‘Social?’ What Does It Mean?” It was published in 1957, then reworked and republished in 1961. In it, Hayek performed feats of semantic archaeology in order to expose the pedigree of “social” in economics and political philosophy.

Hayek’s research produced a scathing assessment. He declared that “the word ‘social’ has become an adjective which robs of its clear meaning every phrase it qualifies and transforms it into a phrase of unlimited elasticity, the implications of which can always be distorted if they are unacceptable, and the use of which…serves merely to conceal the lack of any real agreement between men regarding a formula upon which… they are supposed to be agreed.” It is symptomatic of “an attempt to dress up slogans in a guise acceptable to all tastes.” The word “always confuses and never clarifies;” “pretends to give an answer where no answer exists,” and “is so often used as camouflage for aspirations that have nothing to do with the common interest… .” It has served as a “magical incantation” and used to justify end-runs around traditional morality.

Whew. Can one word that is thrown around so casually and so widely really justify this indictment? Let’s briefly take one example of its usage and try on a few of Hayek’s criticisms for size.

The Example of “Social Justice”
A popular reference source (Wikipedia) has this to say about the concept of “social justice.” “Social justice is justice exercised within a society, particularly as it is applied to and among the various social classes of a society. A socially just society is one based on the principles of equality and solidarity;” it “understands and values human rights as well as recognizing the dignity of every human being.”

The origin of the phrase is ascribed to a Jesuit priest in 1840. It was used to justify the concept of a “living wage” in the late 19th century. The Fascist priest Father Coughlin (curiously, his Fascism goes unremarked by Wikipedia) often employed the term. It became a mainspring of practical Catholic teaching and of the Protestant Social Gospel. Social theorist John Rawls developed a theory of equity intended to give substance to a secular version of social justice.

We can easily locate all of the characteristics identified by Hayek even in this short précis. The definition of “social justice” as “justice exercised within a society” is tautological; this expresses the communal syrup that the word pours over every subject it touches. The “principles of equality and solidarity” sound satisfactorily concrete, but the trouble is that there are no such principles – unless you’re willing to sign off on the notion that everybody is supposed to be equal in all respects. “Solidarity,” of course, is the complementary noun to “social;” each purportedly sanctifies without really saying anything substantial. As such, solidarity became the all-purpose buzzword of the international labor movement. It implies fidelity to an unimpeachable ideal without defining the ideal, just as “social” implies an ideal without defining it.

The reference to “human rights” may well seem obscure to those unfamiliar with the age-old left-wing dichotomy between “property rights” and “human rights” – a false distinction, since all rights are human rights by implication. There may some day be a society that recognizes the dignity of every human being, but the sun has not yet shone on it. Thus, social justice illustrates Hayek’s reference to an underlying lack of agreement masked by a façade of universal accord. The roll call of dubious subscribers to the concept, ranging from Fascists to socialists to left-wing extremists and simplistic activists, dovetails perfectly with a concept of “unlimited elasticity,” which masquerades “in the guise acceptable to all tastes” as a “magical incantation” used to justify dubious means to achieve allegedly noble ends.

The Basic Uses of “Social”
Devotees of the various “social” causes have used the word in certain basic recurring ways. Each of them displays Hayek’s characteristics. We can associate these generic uses with specific “social” causes and government actions.

First, there is the plea for inclusiveness. As originally developed, this had considerable justification. As Hayek admitted, “in the last [19th] century…political discussion and the taking of political decisions were confined to a small upper class.” The appending of “social” was a shorthand way of reminding the upper classes that “they were responsible for the fate of the most numerous and poorest sections of the community.” But the concept “seems somewhat of an anachronism in an age when it is the masses who wield political power.” This is probably the dawn of the well-worn injunction to develop a “social conscience.” We associate the mid-19th century with famous “social” legislation ranging from the end of debtor’s prisons and reform of poor laws to the repeal of the Corn Laws in England.

Second, “social” is a plea to view personal morality abstractly rather than concretely by assigning to it remote consequences as well as immediate ones. For example, traditional ethics implores the businessman to treat his employees and customers fairly by respecting their rights and not hurting them. But “social responsibility” demands that businessmen know, understand and affect the consequences of all their buying decisions as well. They should refuse to buy inputs produced using labor that is paid “too little,” even though this benefits their own customers and workers, because it ostensibly hurts the workers who produce those inputs.

This stands the economic logic of free markets on its head. Businessmen are experts on their own business and the wants of their customers. Free markets allow them to know as little as possible about the input goods they buy because this economizes on information – which is scarce – and on the use of businessmen’s time – which is likewise scarce. But the illogic of “social responsibility” demands that businessmen specialize in learning things it is difficult or impossible for them to know instead of things they normally learn in the course of doing business. This is so absurdly inefficient it is downright crazy; instead of doing what they do best, businessmen are supposed to divert their attention to things they know little about and disregard the value generated by the free market.

The crowning absurdity is that “socially responsibility” expects businessmen to accept on faith the assertions of activists that buying goods produced with low-wage labor hurts the workers who produce those goods. And this is dead wrong, since it does just the opposite – by increasing the demand for the goods labor produces, it increases the marginal product of labor and labor’s wage. The same illogic is sometimes extended even farther to consumers, who are even less well placed to gauge the remote consequences of their personal buying decisions and, thus, are even more at the mercy of the bad economics propounded by “social” theory activists.

Thirdly, “social” theory demands that government also reverse its traditional ethical role by treating individuals concretely rather than abstractly. The traditional Rule of Law requires government to judge individuals by abstract rules of justice – and that the same abstract rules apply to all individuals. But “social justice” requires government to judge individuals according to their respective merits, which requires treating different individuals by different rules; e.g., repealing the traditional Rule of Law. Contemporary examples of this repeal abound: affirmative action, bailouts for firms adjudged “too big to fail,” eminent domain for the benefit of private business, augmented rights granted to certain politically identifiable groups while basic rights are denied to others, and on and on, ad nauseum.

Finally, “social” theory clearly implies the upsetting of traditional morality by the substitution of “social” criteria for traditional moral criteria. Although it seems superficially that traditional moral criteria are without rational foundation, this is misleading. In fact, those criteria evolved over thousands of years because they were conducive to a successful order within humanity. As the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset reminds us, “order is not a pressure imposed on society from without, but an equilibrium which is set up from within.” The word “equilibrium” implies the existence of change which culminates in a new, improved order. Social evolution is thus comparable to economic equilibrium, in which new goods and services are subject to a market test and accepted or rejected. Surviving moral criteria are abstract rules that may not benefit every single individual in every single case but that have demonstrated powerful survival value for humanity over thousands of years. And these rules are subject to a powerful evolutionary test over time.

In contrast, “social” theory substitutes the concrete, ad hoc rules adapted to each situation by self-appointed social theorists. These self-appointed experts reject free competition in both economics and political philosophy; thus, these social theories do not receive the same rigorous evolutionary tests that vetted traditional morality.

Both the impersonal workings of the free economic market and the abstract, impersonal workings of the “market” for morality and social philosophy seem to be harsh because there is no inherent spokesman or advocate to explain their operation to the public. Economists have failed to perform this task for free markets, while the influence of moral arbiters like clergymen and philosophers has waned in recent decades. The plans of “social” theorists appear to be kind because they are designed with appearance in mind rather than to actually attain the results they advertise.

Corollaries to the Uses of “Social”
Certain corollary effects of these uses are implied and have, in fact, emerged. When the appeal to the communal of “social” effects of our actions predominates over our personal actions, our personal responsibility for our own lives and welfare erodes. And sure enough, the widespread reluctance to take responsibility for individual actions is palpable. Why should we take responsibility for saving when the federal government takes our money by force for the ostensible purpose of saving and investing it for our individual retirement uses? Thus does saving decline, asymptotically approaching zero. Why should we accept responsibility for our own errors when we are forced to take responsibility for the errors of others by taxation, criminal justice, economic policy and a host of other coercive actions by government? Hence the growing tendency to claim universal “rights” to goods and services such as food, health care, housing and more.

The irony is that each of us is the world’s leading expert on our self. “Social” policy forces us to shoulder responsibility for people and things we aren’t, and can never be, expert on, while forswearing responsibility for the one person on whom our expertise is preeminent. In economic terms, this cannot possibly be an efficient way to order a society.

This leads to another important point of information theory. The demands of “social” theory imply that certain select individuals possess talents and information denied to the rabble. These are the people who decide which particular distribution of income or wealth is “socially just, which business actions are or aren’t “socially responsible, what linguistic forms are or aren’t “socially aware,” and so forth.

The elevation of some people above others is practiced predominantly by government. In order to reward people according to merit, government must in principle have knowledge about the particular circumstances of individuals that justify the rewards (or deny them, as the case may be). In practice, of course, government is so distant from most individuals that it cannot begin to possess that kind of knowledge. That is why the concept of group rights has emerged, since it is often possible to identify individual membership in a group. Race, gender, religion, political preference and other group affiliations are among the various identifiers used to justify preferential treatment by government.

The blatant shortcomings of this philosophy have now become manifest to all. One need not be a political philosopher steeped in the Rule of Law to appreciate that envy now plays a pivotal role in politics and government. Rather than concentrate on producing goods and services, people now focus on redistributing real income and wealth in their own favor. This is the inevitable by-product of a “social” theory focused on fairness rather than growth. The laws of economics offer a straightforward path toward growth, but there is no comparably unambiguous theory of fairness that will satisfy the competing claimants of “social” causes.

And once again, the shortcomings of “social” theory as magnified by a further irony. For decades, government welfare programs have been recognized as failures by researchers, the general public and welfare recipients themselves. Only “social theorists,” bureaucrats and politicians still support them. This is bad enough. But even worse, the rejection of free markets by “social” theorists has eliminated the only practical means by which individual merit might be used as the basis for compensatory social action. Although you are the world’s leading expert on you and I am the leading authority on me, you will sometimes gain authoritative information about me. By allowing you to keep your own real income and the freedom to utilize it as you see fit, I am also allowing to conduct your own personal policy of “social justice.” This concept of neighborhood or community charity is one form of tribalism that has persisted for thousands of years because it is clearly efficient and has survival value. Yet it is one of the first victims of government-imposed “social justice.” Bureaucrats resent the competition provided by private charity. Even more, they resent watching money used privately when it could have been siphoned off for their own use.

Socialism
What is the relation between the adjective “social” and the noun “socialism?” Socialism had roots traceable at least to the Middle Ages, but its formal beginnings go back to the French philosophers Saint-Simon and Comte in the 18th century. It was Saint-Simon who visualized “society” as one single organic unity and longed to organize a nation’s productive activity as if it were one single unified factory.

It is this pretense that defines the essence of socialism and the appeal of its adjectival handmaiden, “social.” Participation in the sanctifying “social” enterprise at once washes the participant clean of sin and cloaks pursuit of personal gain in the guise of altruism and nobility. It makes the participant automatically virtuous and popular and “one with the universe” – well, part of a subset of like-minded people, anyway.

Socialism sputtered to life in 19th-century revolutionary Europe and enjoyed various incarnations throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. It has failed uniformly, not just in achieving “the principles of equality and solidarity” but in providing goods and services for citizens. Failure was most complete in those polities where the approach to classical socialism was closest. (In this regard, it should be remembered that the Scandinavian welfare states fell far short of Great Britain on the classic socialist criterion of industrial nationalization.) Yet socialism as an ideal still thrives while capitalism, whose historical preeminence is inarguable, languishes in bad odor.

Hayek’s criticisms of “social” explain this paradox. Socialism’s shortcomings are its virtues. Its language encourages instant belief and acceptance. It smoothes over differences, enveloping them in a fog of good feeling and obscurantism. It promises an easy road to salvation, demanding little of the disciple and offering much. Words are valued for their immediate effects, and the immediate effects of “social” are favorable to the user and the hearer. True, it is an obstacle to clear thinking – but when the immediate products of clear thinking are unpalatable, who wants clear thinking, anyway?

“Social” keeps the ideal of socialism alive while burying its reality. As long as “social” prefaces anything except an “ism,” the listener has license to dissociate the adjective from the noun and luxuriate in the visceral associations of the former while ignoring the gruesome history of the latter.

Just One LIttle, Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weenie Word
F.A. Hayek closed his essay on “social” by saying, “it seems to me that a great deal of what today professes to be social is, in the deeper and truer sense of the word, thoroughly and completely anti-social.” Hayek was right that “such a little word not only throws light upon the process of the evolution of ideas and the story of human error, but … also exercises an irrational power which becomes apparent only when… we lay bare its true meaning.”

Who would have dreamed that one word could say so much?

DRI-280 for week of 7-7-13: Unintended Consequences and Distortions of Government Action

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Unintended Consequences and Distortions of Government Action

The most important cultural evolution of 20th-century America was the emergence of government as the problem-solver of first resort. One of the most oft-uttered phrases of broadcast news reports was “this market is not subject to government regulation” – as if this automatically bred misfortune. The identification of a problem called for a government program tailored to its solution. Our sensitivity, compassion and nobility were measured by the dollar expenditure allocated to these problems, rather than by their actual solution.

This trend has increasingly frustrated economists, who associate government action with unintended consequences and distortions of markets. Since voluntary exchange in markets is mutually beneficial, distortions of the market and consequences other than mutual benefit are bad things. Economists have had a hard time getting their arguments across to the public.

One reason for this failure is the public unwillingness to associate a cause with an effect other than that intended. We live our lives striving to achieve our ends. When we fail, we don’t just shrug and forget it – we demand to know why. Government seems like a tool made to order for our purposes; it wields the power and command over resources that we lack as individuals. Our education has taught us that democracy gives us the right and even the duty to order government around. So why can’t we get it to work the way we want it to?

The short answer to that is that we know what we want but we don’t know how government or markets work, so we don’t know how to get what we want. In order to appreciate this, we need to understand the nature of government’s failures and of the market’s successes. To that end, here are various examples of unintended consequences and distortions.

Excise Taxation

One of the simplest cases of unintended, distortive consequences is excise taxation. An excise tax is a tax on a good, either on its production or its consumption. Although few people realize it, the meaningful economic effects of the tax are the same regardless of whether the tax is collected from the buyer of the good or from the seller. In practice, excise taxes are usually collected from sellers.

Consider a real-world example with purely hypothetical numbers used for expository purposes. Automotive gasoline is subject to excise taxation levied at the pump; e.g., collected from sellers but explicitly incorporated into the price consumers pay. Assume that the price of gas net of tax is $2.00 per gallon and the combination of local, state and federal excuse taxes adds up to $1.00 per gallon. That means that the consumer pays $3.00 per gallon but the retail gasoline seller pockets only $2.00 per gallon.

Consider, for computational ease, a price decrease of $.30 per gallon. How likely is the gasoline seller to take this action? Well, he would be more likely to take it if his total revenue were larger after the price decrease than before. But with the excise tax in force, a big roadblock exists to price reductions by the seller. The $.30 price decrease subtracts 15% from the price (the net revenue per unit) the seller receives, but only 10% from the price per unit that the buyer pays. And it is the reduction in price per unit paid by the buyer that will induce purchase of more units, which is the only reason the seller would have to want to reduce price in the first place. The fact that net revenue per unit falls by a larger percentage than price per unit paid by consumers is a big disincentive to lowering price.

Consider the kind of case that is most favorable to price reductions, in which demand is price-elastic. That is, the percentage increase in consumer purchases exceeds the percentage decrease in price (net revenue). Assume that purchases were originally 10,000 gallons per week and increased to 11,200 (an increase of 12%, which exceeds the percentage decrease in price). The original total revenue was 10,000 x $2.00 = $20,000. Now total revenue is 11,200 x $1.70 = $19,040, nearly $1,000 less. Since the total costs of producing 1,200 more units of output are greater than before, the gasoline seller will not want to lower price if he correctly anticipates this result. Despite the fact that consumer demand responds favorably (in a price-elastic manner) to the price decrease, the seller won’t initiate it.

Without the excise taxation, consumers and seller would face the same price. If demand were price-elastic, the seller would expect to increase total revenue by lowering price and selling more units than before. If the increase in total revenue were more than enough to cover the additional costs of producing the added output, the seller would lower price.

Excise taxation can reduce the incentive for sellers to lower price when it is imposed in specific form – a fixed amount per unit of output. When the excise tax is levied ad valorem, as a percentage of value rather than a fixed amount per unit, that disincentive is no longer present. In fact, the specific tax is the more popular form of excise taxation.

The irony of this unintended consequence is felt most keenly in times of rising gasoline prices. Demagogues hold sway with talk about price conspiracies and monopoly power exerted by “big corporations” and oil companies. Talk-show callers expound at length on the disparity between price increases and price decreases and the relative reluctance of sellers to lower price. Yet the straightforward logic of excise taxation is never broached. The callers are right, but for entirely the wrong reason. The culprit is not monopoly or conspiracy. It is excise taxation.

This unintended consequence was apparently first noticed by Richard Caves of Harvard University in his 1964 text American Industry: Structure, Conduct, Performance.

ObamaCare: The 29’ers and 49’ers

The recent decision to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act – more familiarly known as ObamaCare – has interrupted two of the most profound and remarkable unintended consequences in American legislative history. The centerpiece of ObamaCare is its health mandates: the requirement that individuals who lack health insurance acquire it or pay a sizable fine and the requirement that businesses of significant size provide health plans for their employees or, once again, pay fines.

It is the business mandate, scheduled for implementation in 2014, which was delayed in a recent online announcement by the Obama administration. The provisions of the law had already produced dramatic effects on employment in American business. It seems likely that these effects, along with the logistical difficulties in implementing the plan, were behind the decision to delay the law’s application to businesses.

The law requires businesses with 50 or more “full-time equivalent” employees to make a health-care plan available to employees. A “full-time-equivalent” employee is defined as any combination of employees whose employment adds up to the full-employment quotient of hours. Full-time employment is defined as 30 hours per week, in contradiction to the longtime definition of 40 hours. Presumably this change was made in order to broaden the scope of the law, but it is clearly having the opposite effect – a locus classicus of unintended consequences at work.

Because the “measurement period” during which each firm’s number of full-time equivalent number of employees is calculated began in January 2013, firms reacted to the provisions of ObamaCare at the start of this year, even though the business mandate itself was not scheduled to begin until 2014. No sooner did the New Year unfold than observers noticed changes in fast-food industry employment. The changes took two basic forms.

First, firms – that is, individual fast-food franchises – cut off their number of full-time employees at no more than 49. Thus, they became known as “49’ers.” This practice was obviously intended to stop the firm short of the 50-employee minimum threshold for application of the health-insurance requirement under ObamaCare. At first thought, this may seem trivial if highly arbitrary. Further thought alters that snap judgment. Even more than foods, fast-food firms sell service. This service is highly labor-intensive. An arbitrary limitation on full-time employment is a serious matter, since it means that any slack must be taken up by part-timers.

And that is part two of the one-two punch delivered to employment by ObamaCare. Those same fast-food firms – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, et al – began limiting their part-time work force to 20 hours per week, thereby holding them below the 30-hour threshold as well. But, since many of those employees were previously working 30 hours or more, the firms began sharing employees – encouraging their employees to work 20-hour shifts for rival firms and logging shift workers from those firms on their own books. Of course, two 20-hour shifts still comprises (more than) a full-time-equivalent worker, but as long as the total worker hours does not exceed the 1500-hour weekly total of 50 workers at 30 hours, the firm will still escape the health-insurance requirement. Thus were born the “29’ers” – those firms who held part-time workers below the 30-hour threshold for full-time-equivalent employment.

Are the requirements of ObamaCare really that onerous? Politicians and left-wing commentators commonly act as if health-insurance were the least that any self-respecting employer could provide any employee, on a par with providing a roof to keep out the rain and heat to ward off freezing cold in winter. Fast-food entrepreneurs are striving to avoid penalties associated with hiring that 50th full-time-equivalent employee. The penalty for failing to provide health insurance is $2,000 per employee beginning with 30. That is, the hiring of the 50th employee means incurring a penalty on the previous 20 employees, a total penalty of $40,000. Hiring (say) 60 employees would raise the penalty to $60,000.

A 2011 study by the Hudson Institute found that the average fast-food franchise makes a profit of $50,000-100,000 per year. Thus, ObamaCare penalties could eat up most or all of a year’s profit. The study’s authors foresaw an annual cost to the industry of $6.4 billion from implementation of ObamaCare. 3.2 million jobs were estimated to be “at risk.” All this comes at a time when employment is painfully slow to recover from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the exodus of workers from the labor force continues apace. Indeed, it is just this exodus that keeps the official unemployment rate from reaching double-digit heights reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Our first distortion was an excise tax. The ObamaCare mandates can also be viewed as a tax. The business mandates are equivalent to a tax on employment, since their implementation and penalties are geared to the level of employment. The Hudson study calculated that, assuming a hypothetical wage of $12 per hour, employing the 50th person would cost the firm $52 per hour, of which only $12 was paid out in wages to the employee. The difference between what the firm must pay out and what the employee receives is called “the wedge” by economists, since it reduces the incentive to hire and to work. The wider the wedge, the greater the disincentive. Presumably, this is yet another unintended consequence at work.

ObamaCare is a law that was advertised as the solution to a burgeoning, decades-old problem that threatened to engulf the federal budget. Instead, the law itself now threatens to bring first the government, then the private economy to a standstill. In time, ObamaCare may come to lead the league in unintended consequences – a competition in government ineptitude that can truly be called a battle of the all-stars.

The Food Stamp Program: An Excise Subsidy

In contrast to the first two examples of distortion, the food-stamp program is not a tax but rather its opposite number – a subsidy. Because food stamps are a subsidy given in-kind instead of in cash – a subsidy on a good in contrast to a tax on a good – they are an excise subsidy.

Food stamps began in the 1940s as a supplement to agricultural price supports. Their primary purpose was to dispose of agricultural surpluses, which were already becoming a costly nuisance to the federal government. Their value to the poor was seen as a coincidental, though convenient, byproduct. Although farmers and the poor have long since exchanged places in the hierarchy of beneficiaries, vestiges of the program’s lineage remain in its residence in the Agriculture Department and the source of its annual appropriations in the farm bill. (Roughly 80% of this year’s farm bill was given over to monies for the food-stamp program, which now reaches some 47.3 million Americans, or 15% of the population.)

The fact that agricultural programs help people other than their supposed beneficiaries is not really an example of unintended consequences, since we have known from the outset that price supports, acreage quotas, target prices and other government measures harm the general public and help large-scale farmers much more than small family farmers. The unintended consequences of the food-stamp program are vast, but they are unrelated to its tenuous link to agriculture.

Taxes take real income away from taxpayers, but – at least in principle – they fund projects that ostensibly provide compensating benefits. The unambiguous harm caused by taxes results from the distortions they create, which cause deadweight losses, or pure waste of time, effort and resources. Subsidies, the opposite number of taxes, create similar distortions. The food stamp program illustrates these distortions vividly.

For many years, program recipients received stamp-like vouchers entitling them to acquire specified categories of foodstuffs from participating sellers (mostly groceries). The recipient exchanged the stamps for food at a rate of exchange governed by the stamps’ face value. Certain foods and beverages, notably beverage alcohol, could not be purchased using food stamps.

Any economist could have predicted the outcome of this arrangement. A thriving black market arose in which food stamps could be sold at a discount to face value in exchange for cash. The amount of the discount represented the market price paid by the recipient and received by the broker; it fluctuated with market conditions but often hovered in the vicinity of 50% (!). This transaction allowed recipients to directly purchase proscribed goods and/or non-food items using cash. The black-market broker exchanged the food stamps (quasi-) legally at face value in a grocery in exchange for food or illegally at a small discount with a grocery in exchange for cash. (In recent years, bureaucrats have sought to kill off the black market by substituting a debit card for the stamp/vouchers.)

The size of the discount represents the magnitude of the economic distortion created by giving poor people a subsidy in excise form rather than in cash. Remarkably, large numbers of poor people preferred cash subsidies to markedly that $.50 in cash was preferred to $1.00 worth of (government-approved) foodstuffs. This suggests that a program of cash subsidies could have made recipients better off while spending around half as much more money on subsidies and dispensing with most of the large administrative costs of the actual food-stamp program.

Inefficiency has been the focus of various studies of the overall welfare system. Their common conclusion has been that the U.S. could lift every man, woman and child above the arbitrary poverty line for a fraction of our actual expenditures on welfare programs simply by giving cash to recipients and forgoing all other forms of administrative endeavor.

Of course, the presumption behind all this analysis is that the purpose of welfare programs like food stamps is to improve the well-being of recipients. In reality, the history of the food-stamp program and everyday experience suggests otherwise – that the true purpose of welfare programs is to improve the well-being of donors (i.e., taxpayers) by alleviating guilt they would otherwise feel.

The legitimate objections to cash subsidy welfare programs focus on the harm done to work incentives and the danger of dependency. The welfare reform crafted by the Republican Congress in 1994 and reluctantly signed by President Clinton was guided by this attitude, hence its emphasis on work requirements. But the opposition to cash subsidies from the general public, all too familiar to working economists from the classroom and the speaking platform, arises from other sources. The most vocal opposition to cash subsidies is expressed by those who claim that recipients will use cash to buy drugs, alcohol and other “undesirable” consumption goods – undesirable as gauged by the speaker, not by the welfare recipient. The clear implication is that the food-stamp format is a necessary prophylactic against this undesirable consumption behavior by welfare recipients, the corollary implication being that taxpayers have the moral right to control the behavior of welfare recipients.

Taxpayers may or may not be morally justified in asserting the right to control the behavior of welfare recipients whose consumption is taxpayer-subsidized. But this insistence on control is surely quixotic if the purpose of the program is to improve the welfare of recipients. And, after all, isn’t that what a “welfare” program is – by definition? The word “welfare” cannot very well refer to the welfare of taxpayers, for then the program would be a totalitarian program of forced consumption run for the primary benefit of taxpayers and the secondary benefit of welfare recipients.

The clinching point against the excise subsidy format of the food-stamp program is that it does not prevent recipients from increasing their purchases of drugs, alcohol or other forbidden substances. A recipient of (say) $500 in monthly food stamps who spends $1,000 per month on (approved) foodstuffs can simply use the food stamps to displace $500 in cash spending on food, leaving them with $500 more in cash to spend on drugs or booze. In practice, a recipient of a subsidy will normally prefer to increase consumption of all normal goods (that is, goods whose consumption he or she increases when real income rises). Any excise subsidy, including food stamps, will therefore be inferior to a cash subsidy for this reason. In terms of economic logic, an excise subsidy starts out with three strikes against it as a means of improving a recipient’s welfare.

So why do multitudes of people insist on wasting vast sums of money in order to make people worse off, when they could save that money by making them better off? The paradox is magnified by the fact that most of these money-wasters are politically conservative people who abhor government waste. The only explanation that suggests itself readily is that by wasting money conspicuously, these people relieve themselves of guilt. They are no longer troubled by images of poor, hungry downtrodden souls. They need feel no responsibility for enabling misbehavior through their tax payments. They have lifted a heavy burden from their minds.

The Rule, Not the Exception

These common themes developed by these examples are distortion of otherwise-efficient markets by government action and unintended consequences resulting from the government-caused distortions. By its very nature, government acts through compulsion and coercion rather than mutually beneficial voluntary exchange. Consequently, distortions are the normal case rather than the exception. Examples such as those above are not exceptions. They are the normal case.