DRI-135 for week of 1-4-15: Flexible Wages and Prices: Economic Shock Absorbers

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Flexible Wages and Prices: Economic Shock Absorbers

At the same times that free markets are becoming an endangered species in our daily lives, they enjoy a lively literary existence. The latest stimulating exercise in free-market thought is The Forgotten Depression: 1921 – The Crash That Cured Itself. The author is James Grant, well-known in financial circles as editor/publisher of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” For over thirty years, Grant has cast a skeptical eye on the monetary manipulations of governments and central banks. Now he casts his gimlet gaze backward on economic history. The result is electrifying.

The Recession/Depression of 1920-1921

The U.S. recession of 1920-1921 is familiar to students of business cycles and few others. It was a legacy of World War I. Back then, governments tended to finance wars through money creation. Invariably this led to inflation. In the U.S., the last days of the war and its immediate aftermath were boom times. As usual – when the boom was the artifact of money creation – the boom went bust.

Grant recounts the bust in harrowing detail.  In 1921, industrial production fell by 31.6%, a staggering datum when we recall that the U.S. was becoming the world’s leading manufacturer. (The President’s Conference on Unemployment reported in 1929 that 1921 was the only year after 1899 in which industrial production had declined.) Gross national product (today we would cite gross domestic product; neither statistic was actually calculated at that time) fell about 24% in between 1920 and 1921 in nominal dollars, or 9% when account is taken of price changes. (Grant compares this to the figures for the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009, which were 2.4% and 4.3%, respectively.) Corporate profits nosedived commensurately. Stocks plummeted; the Dow Jones Industrial average fell by 46.6% between the cyclical peak of November, 1919 and trough of August, 1921. According to Grant, “the U.S. suffered the steepest plunge in wholesale prices in its history (not even eclipsed by the Great Depression),” over 36% within 12 months. Unemployment rose dramatically to a level of some 4,270,000 in 1921 – and included even the President of General Motors, Billy Durant. (As the price of GM’s shares fell, he augmented his already-sizable shareholdings by buying on margin – ending up flat broke and out of a job.) Although the Department of Labor did not calculate an “unemployment rate” at that time, Grant estimates the nonfarm labor force at 27,989,000, which would have made the simplest measure of the unemployment rate 15.3%. (That is, it would have undoubtedly included labor-force dropouts and part-time workers who preferred full-time employment.)

A telling indicator of the dark mood enveloping the nation was passage of the Quota Act, the first step on the road to systematic federal limitation of foreign immigration into the U.S. The quota was fixed at 3% of foreign nationals present in each of the 48 states as of 1910. That year evidently reflected nostalgia for pre-war conditions since the then-popular agricultural agitation for farm-price “parity” sought to peg prices to levels at that same time.

In the Great Recession and accompanying financial panic of 2008 and subsequently, we had global warming and tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia to distract us. In 1920-1921, Prohibition had already shut down the legal liquor business, shuttering bars and nightclubs. A worldwide flu pandemic had killed hundreds of thousands. The Black Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series at the behest of gamblers.

The foregoing seems to make a strong prima facie case that the recession of 1920 turned into the depression of 1921. That was the judgment of the general public and contemporary commentators. Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce under Republican President Warren G. Harding, who followed wartime President Woodrow Wilson in 1920, compiled many of the statistics Grant cites while chairman of the President’s Conference on Unemployment. He concurred with that judgment. So did the founder of the study of business cycles, the famous institutional economist Wesley C. Mitchell, who influenced colleagues as various and eminent as Thorstein Veblen, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and John Kenneth Galbraith. Mitchell referred to “…the boom of 1919, the crisis of 1920 and the depression of 1921 [that] followed the patterns of earlier cycles.”

By today’s lights, the stage was set for a gigantic wave of federal-government intervention, a gargantuan stimulus program. Failing that, economists would have us believe, the economy would sink like a stone into a pit of economic depression from which it would likely never emerge.

What actually happened in 1921, however, was entirely different.

The Depression That Didn’t Materialize

We may well wonder what might have happened if the Democrats had retained control of the White House and Congress. Woodrow Wilson and his advisors (notably his personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty) had greatly advanced the project of big government begun by Progressive Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. During World War I, the Wilson administration seized control of the railroads, the telephone companies and the telegraph companies. It levied wage and price controls. The spirit of the Wilson administration’s efforts is best characterized by the statement of the Chief Price Controller of the War Industries Board, Robert Brookings. “I would rather pay a dollar a pound for [gun]powder for the United States in a state of war if there was no profit in it than pay the DuPont Company 50 cents a pound if they had 10 cents profit in it.” Of course, Mr. Brookings was not actually himself buying the gunpowder; the government was only representing the taxpayers (of whom Mr. Brookings was presumably one). And their attitude toward taxpayers was displayed by the administration’s transformation of an income tax initiated at insignificant levels in 1913 and to a marginal rate of 77% (!!) on incomes exceeding $1 million.

But Wilson’s obsession with the League of Nations and his 14 points for international governance had not only ruined his health, it had ruined his party’s standing with the electorate. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding was elected President. (The Republicans had already gained substantial Congressional majorities in the off-year elections of 1918.) Except for Hoover, the Harding circle of advisors was comprised largely of policy skeptics – people who felt there was nothing to be done in the face of an economic downturn but wait it out. After all, the U.S. had endured exactly this same phenomenon of economic boom, financial panic and economic bust before in 1812, 1818, 1825, 1837, 1847, 1857, 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1903, 1907, 1910 and 1913. The U.S. economy had not remained mired in depression; it had emerged from all these recessions – or, in the case of 1873, a depression. If the 19th-century system of free markets were to be faulted, it would not be for failure to lift itself out of recession or depression, but for repeatedly re-entering the cycle of boom and bust.

There was no Federal Reserve to flood the economy with liquidity or peg interest rates at artificially low levels or institute a “zero interest-rate policy.” Indeed, the rules of the gold-standard “game” called for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to stem the inflation that still raged in the aftermath of World War I. Had it not done so, a gold outflow might theoretically have drained the U.S. dry.  The Fed did just that, and interest rates hovered around 8% for the duration. Deliberate deficit spending as an economic corrective would have been viewed as madness. As Grant put it, “laissez faire had its last hurrah in 1921.”

What was the result?

In the various individual industries, prices and wages and output fell like a stone. Auto production fell by 23%. General Motors, as previously noted, was particularly hard hit. It went from selling 52,000 vehicles per month to selling 13,000 to 6,150 in the space of seven months. Some $85 million in inventory was eventually written off in losses.

Hourly manufacturing wages fell by 22%. Average disposable income in agriculture, which comprised just under 20% of the economy, fell by over 55%. Bankruptcies overall tripled to nearly 20,000 over the two years ending in 1921. In Kansas City, MO, a haberdashery shop run by Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson held out through 1920 before finally folding in 1921. The resulting personal bankruptcy and debt plagued the partners for years. Truman evaded it by taking a job as judge of the Jackson County Court, where his salary was secure against liens. But his bank accounts were periodically raided by bill collectors for years until 1935, when he was able to buy up the remaining debt at a devalued price.

In late 1920, Ford Motor Co. cut the price of its Model T by 25%. GM at first resisted price cuts but eventually followed suit. Farmers, who as individuals had no control over the price of their products, had little choice but to cut costs and increase productivity – increasing output was an individual’s only way to increase income. When all or most farmers succeeded, this produced lower prices. How much lower? Grant: “In the second half of [1920], the average price of 10 leading crops fell by 57 percent.” But how much more food can humans eat; how many more clothes can they wear? Since the price- and income-elasticities of demand for agricultural goods were less than one, this meant that agricultural revenue and incomes fell.

As noted by Wesley Mitchell, the U.S. slump was not unique but rather part of a global depression that began as a series of commodity-price crashes in Japan, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, India, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia. It encompassed commodities including pig iron, beef, hemlock, Portland cement, bricks, coal, crude oil and cotton.

Banks that had speculative commodity positions were caught short. Among these was the largest bank in the U.S., National City Bank, which had loaned extensively to finance the sugar industry in Cuba. Sugar prices were brought down in the commodity crash and brought the bank down with them. That is, the bank would have failed had it not received sweetheart loans from the Federal Reserve.

Today, the crash of prices would be called “deflation.” So it was called then and with much more precision. Today, deflation can mean anything from the kind of nosediving general price level seen in 1920-1921 to relatively stable prices to mild inflation – in short, any general level of prices that does not rise fast enough to suit a commentator.

But there was apparently general acknowledgment that deflation was occurring in the depression of 1921. Yet few people apart from economists found that ominous. And for good reason. Because after some 18 months of panic, recession and depression – the U.S. economy recovered. Just as it had done 14 times previously.

 

It didn’t merely recover. It roared back to life. President Harding died suddenly in 1923, but under President Coolidge the U.S. economy experienced the “Roaring 20s.” This was an economic boom fueled by low tax rates and high productivity, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1980s. It was characterized by innovation and investment. Unfortunately, in the latter stages, the Federal Reserve forgot the lessons of 1921 and increases the money supply to “keep the price level stable” and prevent deflation in the face of the wave of innovation and productivity increases. This helped to usher in the Great Depression, along with numerous policy errors by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.

Economists like Keynes, Irving Fisher and Gustav Cassel were dumbfounded. They had expected deflation to flatten the U.S. economy like a pancake, increasing the real value of debts owed by debtor classes and discouraging consumers from spending in the expectation that prices would fall in the future. Not.

There was no economic stimulus. No TARP, no ZIRP, no QE. No wartime controls. No meddlesome regulation a la Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The Harding administration and the Fed left the economy alone to readjust and – mirabile dictu – it readjusted. In spite of the massive deflation or, much more likely, because of it.

The (Forgotten) Classical Theory of Flexible Wages and Prices

James Grant wants us to believe that this outcome was no accident. The book jacket for the Forgotten Depression bills it as “a free-market rejoinder to Bush’s and Obama’s Keynesian stimulus applied to the 2007-9 recession,” which “proposes ‘less is more’ with respect to federal intervention.”

His argument is almost entirely empirical and very heavily oriented to the 1920-1921 depression. That is deliberate; he cites the 14 previous cyclical contractions but focuses on this one for obvious reasons. It was the last time that free markets were given the opportunity to cure a depression; both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt supervised heavy, continual interference with markets from 1929 through 1941. We have much better data on the 1920-21 episode than, say, the 1873 depression.

Readers may wonder, though, whether there is underlying logical support for the result achieved by the deflation of 1921. Can the chorus of economists advocating stimulative policy today really be wrong?

Prior to 1936, the policy chorus was even louder. Amazing as it now seems, it advocated the stance taken by Harding et al. Classical economists propounded the theory of flexible wages and prices as an antidote to recession and depression. And, without stating it in rigorous fashion, that is the theory that Grant is following in his book.

Using the language of modern macroeconomics, the problems posed by cyclical downturns are unemployment due to a sudden decline in aggregate (effective) demand for goods and services. The decline in aggregate demand causes declines in demand for all or most goods; the decline in demand for goods causes declines in demand for all or most types of labor. As a first approximation, this produces surpluses of goods and labor. The surplus of labor is defined as unemployment.

The classical economists pointed out that, while the shock of a decline in aggregate demand could cause temporary dislocations such as unsold goods and unemployment, this was not a permanent condition. Flexible wages and prices could, like the shock absorbers on an automobile, absorb the shock of the decline in aggregate demand and return the economy to stability.

Any surplus creates an incentive for sellers to lower price and buyers to increase purchases. As long as the surplus persists, the downward pressure on price will remain. And as the price (or wage) falls toward the new market-clearing point, the amount produced and sold (or the amount of labor offered and purchases) will increase once more.

Flexibility of wages and prices is really a two-part process. Part one works to clear the surpluses created by the initial decline in aggregate demand. In labor markets, this serves to preserve the incomes of workers who remain willing to work at the now-lower market wage. If they were unemployed, they would have no wage, but working at a lower wage gives them a lower nominal income than before. That is only part of this initial process, though. Prices in product markets are decreasing alongside the declining wages. In principle, fully flexible prices and wages would mean that even though the nominal incomes of workers would decline, their real incomes would be restored by the decline of all prices in equal proportion. If your wage falls by (say) 20%, declines in all prices by 20% should leave you able to purchase the same quantities of goods and services as before.

The emphasis on real magnitudes rather than nominal magnitudes gives rise to the name given to the second part of this process. It is called the real-balance effect. It was named by the classical economist A. C. Pigou and refined by later macroeconomist Don Patinkin.

When John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory of Employment Interest and Income in 1936, he attacked classical economists by attacking the concepts of flexible wages and prices. First, he attacked their feasibility. Then, he attacked their desirability.

Flexible wages were not observed in reality because workers would not consent to downward revisions in wages, Keynes maintained. Did Keynes really believe that workers preferred to be unemployed and earn zero wages at a relatively high market wage rather than work and earn a lower market wage? Well, he said that workers oriented their thinking toward the nominal wage rather than the real wage and thus did not perceive that they had regained their former position with lower prices and a lower wage. (This became known as the fallacy of money illusion.) His followers spent decades trying to explain what he really meant or revising his words or simply ignoring his actual words. (It should be noted, however, that Keynes was English and trade unions exerted vastly greater influence on prevailing wage levels in England that they did in the U.S. for at least the first three-quarters of the 20th century. This may well have biased Keynes’ thinking.)

Keynes also decried the assumption of flexible prices for various reasons, some of which continue to sway economists today. The upshot is that macroeconomics has lost touch with the principles of price flexibility. Even though Keynes’ criticisms of the classical economists and the price system were discredited in strict theory, they were accepted de facto by macroeconomists because it was felt that flexible wages and prices would take too long to work, while macroeconomic policy could be formulated and deployed relatively quickly. Why make people undergo the misery of unemployment and insolvency when we can relieve their anxiety quickly and compassionately by passing laws drafted by macroeconomists on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors?

Let’s Compare

Thanks to James Grant, we now have an empirical basis for comparison between policy regimes. In 1920-1921, the old-fashioned classical medicine of deflation, flexible wages and prices and the real-balance effect took 18 months to turn a panic, recession and depression into a rip-roaring recovery that lasted 8 years.

Fast forward to December, 2007. The recession has begun. Unfortunately, it is not detected until September, 2008, when the financial panic begins. The stimulus package is not passed until January, 2009 – barely in time for the official end of the recession in June, 2009. Whoops – unemployment is still around 10% and remains stubbornly high until 2013. Moreover, it only declines because Americans have left the labor force in numbers not seen for over thirty years. The recovery, such as it is, is so anemic as to hardly merit the name – and it is now over 7 years since the onset of recession in December, 2007.

 

It is no good complaining that the stimulus package was not large enough because we are comparing it with a case in which the authorities did nothing – or rather, did nothing stimulative, since their interest-rate increase should properly be termed contractionary. That is exactly what macroeconomists call it when referring to Federal Reserve policy in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when they blame Fed policy and high interest rates for prolonging the Depression. Shouldn’t they instead be blaming the continual series of government interventions by the Fed and the federal government under Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt? And we didn’t even count the stimulus package introduced by the Bush administration, which came and went without making a ripple in term of economic effect.

Economists Are Lousy Accident Investigators 

For nearly a century, the economics profession has accused free markets of possessing faulty shock absorbers; namely, inflexible wages and prices. When it comes to economic history, economists are obviously lousy accident investigators. They have never developed a theory of business cycles but have instead assumed a decline in aggregate demand without asking why it occurred. In figurative terms, they have assumed the cause of the “accident” (the recession or the depression). Then they have made a further assumption that the failure of the “vehicle’s” (the economy’s) automatic guidance system to prevent (or mitigate) the accident was due to “faulty shock absorbers” (inflexible wages and prices).

Would an accident investigator fail to visit the scene of the accident? The economics profession has largely failed to investigate the flexibility of wages and prices even in the Great Depression, let alone the thirty-odd other economic contractions chronicled by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The work of researchers like Murray Rothbard, Vedder and Galloway, Benjamin Anderson and Harris Warren overturns the mainstream presumption of free-market failure.

The biggest empirical failure of all is one ignored by Grant; namely, the failure to demonstrate policy success. If macroeconomic policy worked as advertised, then we would not have recessions in the first place and could reliably end them once they began. In fact, we still have cyclical downturns and cannot use policy to end them and macroeconomists can point to no policy successes to bolster their case.

Now we have this case study by James Grant that provides meticulous proof that deflation – full-blooded, deep-throated, hell-for-leather deflation in no uncertain terms – put a prompt, efficacious end to what must be called an economic depression.

Combine this with the 40-year-long research project conducted on Keynesian theory, culminating in its final discrediting by the early 1980s. Throw in the existence of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, which combines the monetary theory of Ludwig von Mises and interest-rate theory of Knut Wicksell with the dynamic synthesis developed by F. A. Hayek. This theory cannot be called complete because it lacks a fully worked out capital theory to complete the integration of monetary and value theory. (We might think of this as the economic version of the Unified Field Theory in the natural sciences.) But an incomplete valid theory beats a discredited theory every time.

In other words, free-market economics has an explanation for why the accident repeatedly happens and why its effects can be mitigated by the economy’s automatic guidance mechanism without the need for policy action by government. It also explains why the policy actions are ineffective at both remedial and preventive action in the field of accidents.

James Grant’s book will take its place in the pantheon of economic history as the outstanding case study to date of a self-curing depression.

DRI-291 for week of 7-27-14: How to Debate Bill Moyers

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

How to Debate Bill Moyers

In the course of memorializing a fellow economist who died young, Milton Friedman observed that “we are all of us teachers.” He meant the word in more than the academic sense. Even those economists who live and work outside the academy are still required to inculcate economic fundamentals in their audience. The general public knows less about economics than a pig knows about Sunday – a metaphor justly borrowed from Harry Truman, whose opinion of economists was famously low.

Successful teachers quickly sense that they have entered their persuasive skills into a rhetorical contest with the students’ inborn resistance to learning. Economists face the added handicap that most people overrate their own understanding of the subject matter and are reluctant to jettison the emotional baggage that hinders their absorption of economic logic.

All this puts an economist behind the eight-ball as educator. But in public debate, economists usually find themselves frozen against the rail as well (to continue the analogy with pocket billiards). The most recent case of this competitive disadvantage was the appearance by Arthur C. Brooks, titular head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), on the PBS interview program hosted by longtime network fixture Bill Moyers.

Brooks vs. Moyers: An Unequal Contest

At first blush, one might consider the pairing of Brooks, seasoned academic, Ph D. and author of ten books, with Moyers, onetime divinity student and ordained minister who left the ministry for life in politics and journalism, to be an unequal contest. And so it was. Brooks spent the program figuratively groping for a handhold on his opponent while Moyers railed against Brooks with abandon. It seemed clear that each had different objectives. Moyers was insistent on painting conservatives (directly) and Brooks (indirectly) as insensitive, unfeeling and uncaring, while Brooks seemed content that he understood the defensive counterarguments he made in his behalf, even if nobody else did.

Moyers never lost sight of the fact that he was performing to an audience whose emotional buttons he knew from memory and long experience. Brooks was speaking to a critic in his own head rather than playing to an alien house whose sympathies were presumptively hostile.

To watch with a rooting interest in Brooks’ side of the debate was to risk death from utter frustration. In this case, the only balm of Gilead lies in restaging Brooks’ reactions to Moyers’ sallies. This should amount to a debater’s handbook for economists in dealing with the populists of the hard political left wing.

Who is Bill Moyers?

It is important for any debater to know his opponent going into the debate. Moyers is careful to put up a front as an honest broker in ideas. Brooks’ appearance on Moyers’ show is headlined as “Arthur C. Brooks: The Conscience of a Compassionate Conservative,” as if to suggest that Moyers is giving equal time in good faith to an ideological opponent.

This is sham and pretense. Bill Moyers is a professional hack who has spent his whole life in the service of the political left wing. While in his teens, he became a political intern to Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson. After acquiring a B.A. degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, Moyers got an M.A. from the Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. After ordination, he forsook the ministry for a career in journalism and left-wing politics, two careers that have proved largely indistinguishable for over the last few decades. He served in the Peace Corps from 1961-63 before joining the Johnson Administration, serving as LBJ’s Press Secretary from 1965-67. He performed various dirty tricks under Johnson’s direction, including spearheading an FBI investigation of Goldwater campaign aides to uncover usable dirt for the 1964 Presidential campaign. (Apparently, only one traffic violation and one illicit love affair were unearthed among the fifteen staffers.) A personal rift with Johnson led to his resignation in 1967. Moyers edited the Long Island publication Newsday for three years and he alternated between broadcast journalism (PBS, CBS, back to PBS) and documentary-film production thereafter until his elevation to the presidency of the SchumanCenter for Media and Democracy in 1990. Now 80 years old, he occupies a position best described as “political-hack emeritus.”

With this resume under his belt, Moyers cannot maintain any pretense as an honest broker in ideas, his many awards and honorary degrees notwithstanding. After all, the work of America’s leading investigative reporters, James Steele and Donald Barlett, has been exposed in this space as shockingly inept and politically tendentious. Journalists are little more than political advocates and Bill Moyers has thrived in this climate.

In the 1954 movie Night People, Army military intelligence officer Gregory Peck enlightens American politician Broderick Crawford about the true nature of the East German Communists who have kidnapped Crawford’s son. “These are cannibals…bloodthirsty cannibals who are trying to eat us up,” Peck insists. That describes Bill Moyers and his ilk, who are among those aptly characterized by F.A. Hayek as the “totalitarians in our midst.”

This is the light in which Arthur Brooks should have viewed his debate with Bill Moyers. Unfortunately, Brooks seemed stuck in defensive mode. His emphasis on “conscience” and “compassion” seemed designed to stress that he had a conscience – why leave the inference that this was in doubt? – and that he was a compassionate conservative – as opposed to what other kind, exactly? Thus, he began by giving hostages to the enemy before even sitting down to debate.

Brooks spent the interview crouched in this posture of defense, thereby guaranteeing that he would lose the debate even if he won the argument.

Moyers’ Talking Points – and What Brooks Should Have Said

Moyers’ overall position can be summarized in terms of what the great black Thomas Sowell has called “volitional economics.” The people Moyers disapproves of – that is, right-wingers and owners of corporations – have bad intentions and are, ipso facto, responsible for the ills and bad outcomes of the world.

Moyers: “Workers at Target, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart need food stamps to survive…Wal-Mart pays their workers so little that their average worker depends on $4,000 per year in government subsidies.”

Brooks: “Well, we could pay them a higher minimum wage – then they would be unemployed and be completely on the public dole…”

Moyers: “Because the owners of Wal Mart would not want to pay them that higher minimum wage [emphasis added].

 

WHAT BROOKS SHOULD HAVE SAID: “Wait a minute. Did you just say that the minimum wage causes higher unemployment because business owners don’t want to pay it? Is that right? [Don’t go on until he agrees.] So if the business owners just went ahead and paid all their low-skilled employees the higher minimum wage instead of laying off some of them, everything would be fine, right? That’s what your position is? [Make him agree.]

Well, then – WHY DON’T YOU DO IT? WHY DON’T YOU – BILL MOYERS – GO BUY A MCDONALD’S FRANCHISE AND PAY EVERY LOW-SKILLED EMPLOYEE CURRENTLY MAKING THE MINIMUM WAGE AND EVERY NEW HIRE THE HIGHER MINIMUM WAGE YOU ADVOCATE. SHOW US ALL HOW IT’S DONE. DON’T JUST CLAIM THAT I’M WRONG – PROVE IT FOR ALL THE WORLD TO SEE. THEN YOU CAN HAVE THE LAUGH ON ME AND ALL MY RIGHT-WING FRIENDS.

[When he finishes sputtering:] You aren’t going to do it, are you? You certainly can’t claim that Bill Moyers doesn’t have the money to buy a franchise and hire a manager to run it. And you certainly can’t claim that the left-wing millionaires and billionaires of the world don’t have the money -not with Tom Steyer spending a hundred million dollars advertising climate change. The minimum wage has been in force since the 1930s and the left-wing has been singing its praises for my whole life – but when push comes to shove the left-wing businessmen pay the same wages as the right-wing businessmen. Why? Because they don’t want to go broke, that’s why.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO SAY THIS: The audience for Bill Moyers’ program consists mainly of people who agree with Bill Moyers; that is, of economic illiterates who do their reasoning with their gall bladders. It is useless to use formal economic logic on them because they are impervious to it. It is futile to cite studies on the minimum wage because the only studies they care about are the recent ones – dubious in the extreme – that claim to prove the minimum wage has only small adverse effects on employment.

The objective with these people is roughly the same as with Moyers himself: take them out of their comfort zone. There is no way they can fail to understand the idea of doing what Moyers himself advocates because it is what they themselves claim to want. All Brooks would be saying is: Put your money where your mouth is. This is the great all-purpose American rebuttal. And he would be challenging people known to have money, not the poor and downtrodden.

This is the most straightforward, concrete, down-to-earth argument. There is no way to counter it or reply to it. Instead of leaving Brooks at best even with Moyers in a “he-said, he-said” sort of swearing contest, it would have left him on top of the argument with his foot on Moyers’ throat, looking down. At most, Moyers could have limply responded with, “Well, I might just do that,” or some such evasion.

Moyers: “Just pay your workers more… [But] instead of paying a living wage… [owners] do stock buy-backs…”

Brooks: [ignores the opportunity].

WHAT BROOKS SHOULD HAVE SAID: “Did you just use the phrase ‘LIVING WAGE,’ Mr. Moyers? Would you please explain just exactly what a LIVING WAGE is? [From here on, the precise language will depend on the exact nature of his response, but the general rebuttal will follow the same pattern as below.] Is this LIVING WAGE a BIOLOGICAL LIVING WAGE? I mean, will workers DIE if they don’t receive it? But they don’t have it NOW, right? And they’re NOT dying, right? So the term as you use it HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH LIVING OR DYING, does it? It’s just a colorful term that you use because you hope it will persuade people to agree with you by getting them to feel sorry for workers, isn’t it?

There are over 170 countries in the world, Mr. Moyers. In almost all of those countries, low-skilled workers work for lower wages than they do here in the United States. Did you know that? In many countries, low-skilled workers earn the equivalent of less than $1,000 per year in U.S. dollars. In a few countries, they earn just a few hundred dollars worth of dollar-equivalent wages per year. PER YEAR, Mr. Moyers. For you to sit here and use the term “LIVING WAGE” for a wage THIRTY TO FIFTY TIMES HIGHER THAN THE WAGE THEY EARN IS POSITIVELY OBSCENE. Don’t you agree, MR. MOYERS? They don’t die either – BUT I BET THEY GET PRETTY HUNGRY SOMETIMES. What do you bet – MR. MOYERS?

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO SAY THIS: The phrase “living wage” has been a left-wing catch-phrase longer than most people today have been alive. Its use is “free” because users are never challenged to explain or defend it. It sounds good because it has a nice ring of urgency and necessity to it. But upon close examination it disintegrates like toilet tissue in a bowl. There is no such wage as a wage necessary to sustain life in the biological sense. For one thing, it would vary across a fairly wide range depending on various factors ranging from climate to gender to race to nutrition to prices to wealth to…well, the factors are numerous. It would also be a function of time. Occasionally, classical economists like David Ricardo and Karl Marx would broach the issue, but they never answered any of the basic questions; they just assumed them away in the time-honored manner of economists everywhere. For them, any concept of a living wage was pure theoretical or algebraic, not concrete or numerical. Today, for the left wing, the living wage is purely a polemical concept with zero concreteness. It is merely a club to beat the right wing with. It is without real-world significance or content.

Given this, it is madness to allow your debate opponent the use of this club. Take the club away from him and use it against him.

Bill Moyers: “Wal Mart, which earned $17 billion in profit last year…”

Arthur Brooks: [gives no sign of noticing or caring].

WHAT ARTHUR BROOKS SHOULD HAVE SAID: “You just said that Wal Mart earned $17 billion in profit last year. You did say that, didn’t you – I don’t want to be accused of misquoting you. Does that seem like a lot of money to you? [He will respond affirmatively.] Why? Is it a record of some kind? Did somebody tell you it was a lot of money? Or does it just sort of sound like a lot? I’m asking this because you seem to think that sum of money has a lot of significance, as though it were a crime, or a sin, or special in some way. You seem to think it justifies special notice on your part. You seem to think it justifies your demanding that Wal Mart pay higher wages to their workers than they’re doing now. And my question is: WHY? Unless my ears deceive me, you seem to be making these claims on the basis of the PURE SIZE of the amount. You think Wal Mart should “give” some of this money to its low-skilled workers – is that right? [He will agree enthusiastically.]

OK then. Here’s what I think: WHY DON’T YOU, MR. MOYERS? [He will pretend not to understand.] I MEAN EXACTLY WHAT I SAID. WHY DON’T YOU DO IT, MR. MOYERS, IF THAT’S WHAT YOU BELIEVE? [He will smile or laugh: “Because I’m not Wal Mart, that’s why.] BUT YOU ARE, MR. MOYERS. OR YOU CAN BE. ANYBODY CAN BE. FOR THAT MATTER, THOSE WAL-MART WORKERS WHOSE WELFARE YOU CLAIM TO CARE FOR SO MUCH CAN BE, TOO. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS BUY WAL-MART STOCK. IT TRADES PUBLICLY, YOU KNOW.

IF YOU THINK WAL- MART SHOULD GIVE ITS MONEY AWAY, THEN BUY WAL-MART STOCK, TAKE THE IVIDENDS YOU PAY YOU AND GIVE THE MONEY AWAY TO WHEREEVER YOU THINK IT SHOULD GO. AFTER ALL, ONCE YOU BUY WAL MART STOCK…NOW YOU’RE WAL-MART. YOU OWN THE COMPANY. AT LEAST, YOU OWN A FRACTION OF IT, JUST LIKE ALL THE OTHER OWNERS OF WAL-MART DO. YOU WANT WAL MART TO GIVE ITS PROFITS AWAY? OK, GIVE THEM AWAY YOURSELF. WHY SHOLD THE GOVERNMENT WASTE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN BUREAUCRATIC OVERHEAD IN ACCOMPLISHING SOMETHING THAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH CHEAP FOR THE COST OF A DISCOUNT BROKERAGE COMMISSION?

And you can deduct it from your income tax as a charitable contribution…MR. MOYERS.

As far as that’s concerned, as a matter of logic, if Wal-Mart’s workers really agree with you that Wal-Mart is scrooging away in profits the money that should go to them in wages, then the workers could do the same thing, couldn’t they? They could buy Wal-Mart’s stock and earn that share of the profit that you want the company to give them. It’s no good claiming they don’t have the money to do it because they’d not only be getting a share of these profits you say are so fabulous, they’d also be owning the company that you’re claiming is such a super profit machine that it’s got profits to burn – or give away. If what you say is really true, you should be screaming at Wal-Mart’s workers to buy shares instead of wasting time trying to get the government to take money away from Wal-Mart so some of it can trickle down to the workers.

Of course, that’s the catch. I don’t even know if YOU YOURSELF BELIEVE THE BALONEY YOU’VE BEEN SPREADING AROUND IN THIS INTERVIEW. I don’t think you even know the truth about all three of those companies that you claim are so flush with profits. To varying degrees, they’re actually in trouble, MR. MOYERS. It’s all in the financial press, MR MOYERS – which you apparently haven’t read and don’t care to read. McDonald’s has had to reinvent itself to recover its sales. Wal-Mart is floundering. Target has lost touch with its core customers. And the $17 billion that seems like so much profit to you doesn’t constitute such a great rate of return when you spread it over the hundreds of thousands of individual Wal Mart shareholders – as you’re about to find out when you take my advice to put your money where you great big mouth is – MR. MOYERS.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO SAY THIS: The mainstream press has been minting headlines out of absolute corporate profits for decades. The most prominent victim of this has been the oil companies because they have been the biggest private companies in the world. Any competent economist knows that it is the rate of return that reveals true profitability, not the absolute size of profits. Incredibly, this fact has not permeated to the public consciousness despite the popularity of 401k retirement-investment accounts.

Buying Wal-Mart stock is just another way of implementing the “put your money where your mouth is” strategy discussed earlier. If Bill Moyers’ view of the company were correct – which it isn’t, of course – it would make much more sense than redistributing money via other forms of government coercion.

The Goal of Debate

If you play poker and nobody ever calls your bluff, it will pay you to bluff on the slightest excuse. In debate, you have to call your debate opponent’s bluffs; otherwise, you will be bluffed down to your underwear even when your opponent isn’t holding any cards. Arthur Brooks was just as conservative in his debating style as in his ideology – he refused to call even Moyers’ most ridiculous bluffs. This guaranteed that the best outcome he could hope for was a draw even if his performance was otherwise flawless. It wasn’t, so he came off poorly.

Of course, he was never going to “win” the debate in the sense of persuading hard-core leftists to convert to a right-wing position. His job was to leave them shaken and uncomfortable by denying Bill Moyers the ease and comfort of taking his usual polemical stances without fear of challenge or rebuttal. This would have delighted the few right-wingers tuned in and put the left on notice that they were going to be bloodied when they tried their customary tactics in the future. In order to accomplish this, it was necessary to do two things. First, take the battle to Bill Moyers on his own level by forcing him to take his own advice, figuratively speaking. Second, clearly indicate by your contemptuous manner that you do not respect him and are not treating him as an intellectual equal and an honest broker of ideas. People react not only to what you say but to how you say it. If you respect your opponent, they will sense it and accord him that same respect. If you despise him, this will come through – as it should in this case. That is just as important as the intellectual part of the debate.

In a life-and-death struggle with cannibals, not getting eaten alive can pass for victory.

DRI-265 for week of 2-23-14: False Confession Under Torture: The So-Called Re-Evaluation of the Minimum Wage

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

False Confession Under Torture: The So-Called Re-Evaluation of the Minimum Wage

For many years, the public pictured an economist as a vacillator. That image dated back to President Harry Truman’s quoted wish for a “one-armed economist,” unable to hedge every utterance with “on the one hand…on the other hand.”

Surveys of economists belied this perception. The profession has remained predominantly left-wing in political orientation, but its support for the fundamental logic of markets has been strong. Economists have backed free international trade overwhelmingly. They have opposed rent control – which socialist economist Assar Lindbeck deemed the second-best way to destroy a city, ranking behind only bombing. And economists have denounced the minimum wage with only slightly less force.

Now, for the first time, this united front has begun to break up. Recently a gaggle of some 600 economists, including seven Nobel Laureates, has spoken up in favor of a 40% increase in the minimum wage. The minimum wage has always retained public support. But what could possibly account for this seeming about-face by the economics profession?

The CBO Study

This week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a study that was hailed by both proponents and opponents of the minimum wage. The CBO study tried to estimate the effects of raising the current minimum of $7.25 per hour to $9 and $10.10, respectively. It provided an interval estimate of the job loss resulting from President Obama’s State of the Union suggestion of a $10.10 minimum wage. The interval stretched from roughly zero to one million. It took the midpoint of this interval – 500,000 jobs – as “the” estimate of job loss because… because…well, because 500,000 is halfway between zero and 1,000,000, that’s why. Averages seem to have a mystical attraction to statisticians as well as to the general public.

Economists looking for signs of orthodox economic logic in the CBO study could find them. “Some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.” The minimum wage is a poorly-targeted means of increasing the incomes of the poor because “many low-income workers are not members of low-income families.” And when an employer chooses which low-wage workers to retain and which to cut loose after a minimum-wage hike, he will likely retain the upper-class employee with good education and social skills and lay off the first-time entrant into the labor force who is poor in income, wealth and human capital. These are traditional sentiments.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s hired gun at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Chairman Jason Furman, looked inside the glass surrounding the minimum wage and found it half-full. He characterized the CBO’s job-loss conclusion as a “0.3% decrease in employment” that “could be essentially zero.” Furman cited the CBO estimate that 16.5 million workers would receive an increase in income as a result of the minimum-wage increase. Net benefits to those whose incomes currently fall below the so-called poverty line are estimated at $5 billion. The overall effect on real income – what economists would call the general equilibrium result of the change – is estimated to be a $2 billion increase in real income.

The petitioning economists, the CBO and the CEA clearly are all not viewing the minimum wage through the traditional textbook prism. What caused this new outlook?

The “New Learning” and the Old-Time Religion on the Minimum Wage

The impetus to this eye-opening change has ostensibly been new research. Bloomberg Businessweek devoted a lead article to the supposed re-evaluation of the minimum wage. Author Peter Coy declares that “the argument that a wage floor kills jobs has been weakened by careful research over the past 20 years.” Not surprisingly, Coy locates the watershed event as the Card-Krueger comparative study of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1994. This study not only made names for its authors, it began the campaign to make the minimum wage respectable in academic economic circles.

“The Card-Krueger study touched off an econometric arms race as labor economists on opposite sides of the argument topped one another with increasingly sophisticated analyses,” Coy relates. “The net result has been to soften the economics profession’s traditional skepticism about minimum wages.” If true, this would be sign of softening brains, not skepticism. The arguments advanced by the re-evaluation of the minimum wage have been around for decades. Peter Coy is saying that, somehow, new studies done in the last 20 years have produced different results than those done for the previous fifty years, and those different results justify a turnabout by the economics profession.

That stance is, quite simply, hooey. Traditional economic opposition to the minimum wage was never based on empirical research. It was based on the economic logic of choice in markets, which argues unequivocally against the minimum wage. Setting a wage above the market-determined wage will create a surplus of low-skilled labor; e.g., unemployment. Thus, any gains accruing to the workers who retain their jobs will come at the expense of workers who lose their jobs. The public supports the minimum wage on the misapprehension that the gains come at the expense of employers. This is true only transitorily, during the period in which some firms go out of business, prices rise and workers are laid off. During this short-run transition period, the gains of still-employed workers come at the expense of business owners and laid-off workers. But once the adjustments occur, the business owners who survive the transition are once again earning a “normal” (competitive) rate of profit, as they were before the minimum wage went up. Now, and indefinitely going forward, the gains of still-employed workers come at the expense of laid-off workers and consumers who pay higher prices for the smaller supply of goods and services produced by low-skilled workers.

The still-employed workers are by no means all “poor,” despite the face that they earn the minimum wage. Some are teenagers in middle- or upper-class households, whose good educations and social skills preserved their jobs after the minimum-wage hike. Some are older workers whose superior discipline and work skills made them irreplaceable. The workers who rate to lose their jobs are the poorest and least able to cope – namely, first-time job holders and those with the fewest cognitive and social skills. The minimum wage transfers income from the poor to the non-poor. What a victory for social justice! That is why even the left-wing economists like Alan Blinder formerly pooh-poohed the minimum wage as a means of helping the poor. (While he was Chairman of the CEA under President Clinton, Blinder was embarrassed when the arguments against the minimum wage in his economics textbook were juxtaposed alongside the administration’s support of a minimum-wage increase.)

This does not complete the roster of the minimum wage’s defects. Government price-setting has mirror-image effects on both above-market prices and below-market prices. By creating a surplus of low-skilled labor, the minimum wage makes it costless for employers to discriminate against a class of workers they find objectionable – black, female, politically or theologically incorrect, etc. Black-market employment of illegal workers – immigrants or off-the-books employees – can now gain a foothold. Business owners are encouraged to substitute machines for workers and have done so throughout the history of the minimum wage. In cases such as elevator operators, this has caused whole categories of workers to vanish. This expanded range of drawbacks somehow never finds its way into popular discussions of the minimum wage, which are invariably confined to the effects on employment and income distribution.

“If there are negative effects on total employment, the most recent studies show, they appear to be small,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  The trouble is that the focus of the minimum wage is not properly on total employment. The minimum wage itself applies only to the market for low-skilled labor, comprising roughly 20 million Americans. There are certainly effects on other labor and product markets. But it is difficult enough to estimate the quantitative effect of the minimum wage on the one market directly affected, let alone to gauge the secondary impact on the other markets comprising the remaining 300 million people. The Obama administration, the vocal economists, the Bloomberg Businessweek and the political Left are ostensibly concerned with the poor. Why, then, do they insist on couching employment effects only in total terms?

It is clear that the same reasons why economists have traditionally chosen not to confuse the issue by dragging in total employment are also the reasons why economists now choose precisely to do so. They want to confuse the issue, to disguise the full magnitude of the adverse effects on low-skilled workers by hiding them inside the much smaller percentage effect on total employment. That is what allows CEA Chairman Jason Furman to brag that the “CBO’s central estimate…leads to a 0.3% decrease in employment… [that] could be essentially zero.” 500,000 is not 0.3% of 20 million (that would be 60,000) but rather 0.3% of the larger total work force of around 170 million. 0.3% sounds like such a small number. That’s almost zero, isn’t it? Surely that isn’t such a high price to pay for paying people what they’re worth – or what a bunch of economists think they’re worth, anyway.

But we digress. Just what is it that causes those “apparently small” effects on total employment, anyway? “Higher wages reduce turnover by reducing job satisfaction, so at any given moment there are fewer unfilled openings. Within reasonable ranges of a minimum wage, the churn-reducing effect seems to offset whatever staff reductions occur because of higher labor costs. Also, some businesses manage to pass along the costs to customers without harming sales.”

This is mostly warmed-over sociology, imported by economists for cosmetic purposes. American industry is pockmarked with industries plagued by high turnover, such as trucking. If higher wages were a panacea for this problem, it would have been solved long since. Today, we have a minimum wage. We also have a gigantic mismatch of unfilled jobs and discouraged workers. The shibboleth of businesses “passing along” costs to consumers with impunity was a cherished figment imagined in books by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s and 60s, but neither Galbraith nor today’s economists can explain what hypnotic power businesses exert over consumers to accomplish this feat.

The magic word never mentioned by Peter Coy or the 600 economists or Jason Furman is productivity. Competitive markets enforce a strict link between market wages and productivity – specifically, between the wage and the discounted marginal value product of the marginal worker’s labor. Once that link is severed, the tether to economic logic has been cut and the discussion drifts along in never-never land. The political Left maunders on about the “dignity of human labor” and “a living wage” and “the worth of a human being” – nebulous concepts that have no objective meaning but allow the user to attach their own without fear of being proven wrong.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s cover features a young baggage handler holding a sign identifying his job and duties, with a caption reading “How Much Is He Worth?” Inside the magazine, a page is taken up with workers posing for pictures showing their jobs and their own estimation of their “worth.” These emotive exercises may or may not sell magazines, but they prove and solve nothing. Asking a low-skilled worker to evaluate their own worth is like asking a cancer victim what caused their disease. Broadcast journalists do it all the time, but if that were really valuable, we would have cured cancer long ago. If a low-skilled worker were an expert on valuing labor, he or she would qualify as an entrepreneur – and would be set up to make some real money.

A Fine-Tuned Minimum Wage

Into the valley of brain death rode the 600 economists who supported a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. Their ammunition consisted of fine-tuning based on econometrics. Let us hear from Paul Osterman, labor economist of MIT. “To jump from $7.25 to $15 would be a long haul. That would in my view be a shock to the system.” Mr. Osterman, exercising his finely-honed powers of insight denied to the rabble, is able to peer into the econometric mists and discern that $10.10 would be …somehow… just right – barely felt by 320 million people generating $16 trillion in goods and services, but $15 – no, that would shock the system. In other words, that first 40% increase would be hardly a tickle, but the subsequent 38% would be a bridge too far.

In any other context, it would be quite a surprise to the economics profession to discover that the study of econometrics had advanced this far. (The phrase “science of econometrics” was avoided advisedly.) For decades, graduate students in economics were taught a form of logical positivism originally outlined by John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard Keynes) and developed by Milton Friedman. Economic theory was advanced by developing hypotheses couched in the form of conditional predictions. These were then tested in order to evaluate their worth. The tests ranged from simple observation to more complex tests of statistical inference. Hypotheses meeting the tests were retained; those failing to do so were discarded.

Simple and attractive though that may sound, this philosophy has failed utterly in practice. The tests have failed to convince anybody; it is axiomatic that no economic theory was ever accepted or rejected on the basis of econometric evidence. And the econometric tools themselves have been the subject of increasing skepticism by economists themselves as well as the outside world. One of the ablest and most respected practitioners, Edward Leamer, titled a famous 1983 article, “Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics.”

The time period pictured by Peter Coy as an “econometric arms race” employing “increasingly sophisticated” tools and models overlapped with a steadily growing scandal enveloping the practice of econometrics – or, more precisely, statistical practice across both the natural and social sciences. Within economics alone, it concerned the continuing failure of the leading economists and economic journals to correctly enforce the proper interpretation of the term “statistical significance.” This failure has placed the quantitative value of most of the econometric work done in the last 30 years in question.

The general public’s exposure to the term has encouraged it to regard a “statistically significant” variable or event as one that is quantitatively large or important. In fact, that might or might not be true; there is no necessary connection between statistical significance and quantitative importance. The statistician needs to take measures apart from ascertaining statistical significance in order to gauge quantitative importance, such as calculating a loss function. In practice, this has been honored more in the breach than the observance. Two leading economic historians, Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Ziliak, have conducted a two-decade crusade to reform the statistical practice of their fellow scientists. Their story is not unlike that of the legendary Dr. Simmelweis, who sacrificed his career in order to wipe out childbed fever among women by establishing doctors’ failure to wash their hands as the transmitter of the disease.

This scandal could not be more relevant to the current rehabilitation of the minimum wage. The entire basis for that rehabilitation is supposedly the new, improved econometric work done beginning in 1994 – the very time when the misuse and overemphasis of statistical significance was in full swing. The culprits included many of the leading economists in the profession – including Drs. Card and Krueger and their famous 1994 study, which was one of dozens of offending econometric studies identified by McCloskey and Ziliak. And the claim made by today’s minimum-wage proponents is that their superior command of econometrics allows them to gauge the quantitative effects of different minimum-wages so well that they can fine-tune the choice of a minimum wage, picking a minimum wage that will benefit the poor without causing much loss of jobs and real income. But judging the quantitative effect of dependent variables is exactly what econometrics has done badly from the 1980s to the present, owing to its preoccupation with statistical significance. The last thing in the world that the lay public should do is take the quantitative pretensions of these economists on faith.

This doesn’t sound like a profession possessing the tools and professional integrity necessary to fine-tune a minimum wage to maximize social justice – whatever that might mean. In fact, there is no reason to take recent pronouncements by economists on the minimum wage at face value. This is not professional judgment talking. It is political partisanship masquerading as analytical economics.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the $2 billion net gain in real income projected by the CBO if the minimum wage were to rise to $10.10 is a minute percentage gain compared to the size of a $16 trillion GDP. (It is slightly over 0.001%.) The notion of risking a job loss of one million for a gain of that size is quixotic. Even more to the point, the belief that economists can predict gains or losses of that tiny magnitude in a general equilibrium context using econometrics is absurd. The CEA and the CBO are allowing themselves to be used for political purposes and, in the process, allowing the discipline of economics to be prostituted.

The increasing politicization of economics is beginning to produce the same effects that subservience to political orthodoxy produced on Russian science under Stalin. The Russian scientist Lysenko became immortal not because of his scientific achievements but because of his willingness to distort science to comport with Communist doctrine. The late, great economist Ronald Coase once characterized the economics profession’s obsession with econometrics as a determination to “torture the data until it confesses.” Those confessions are now taking on the hue of Soviet-style confessions from the 1930s, exacted under torture from political dissidents who wouldn’t previously knuckle under to the regime. Today, politically partisan economists torture recalcitrant data on the minimum wage in order to extract results favorable to their cause.

The CBO and the CEA should have new stationery printed. Its logo should be an image of Lubyanka Prison in old Soviet Russia.