As Soon As The First Nation Leaves, A Trickle Will Turn To A Cascade…

If enacting a levy on Cypriot depositors was a call for a bank run, then saying that the actions in Cyprus are a “template” for future recapitalisations in other Eurozone countries — as the Dutch Euro Group President Jeroen Djisselbloem did yesterday —  was screaming it from the rooftops awash in a demented stupour, drunk on bullshitty Smets-Wouters DSGE and the ridiculous notion that the Euro is sustainable.


This question, I think, needs answering:

Dijsselbloem is yet to respond to the question, other than to say that his claim that it was a “template” did not in fact mean that he meant that it was a template. 

Tyler Durden jokes that the only conceivable reason for this could be an insane pseudo-Keynesian conspiracy to trick people and businesses holding cash to go out and spend or invest it, thus raising aggregate demand and generating recovery:

Last week, when we commented on the absolutely idiotic Eurogroup proposal (now voted down and replaced by an equally idiotic “bank resolution” proposal which will see uninsured deposits virtually wiped out) to tax uninsured and insured deposits, we jokingly suggested that this may be merely the latest ploy by the legacy status quo to achieve one simple thing: force depositors across the continent (and soon, world) to pull their money out of a malevolent, hostile banking system and push that money into stocks, or simply to spend it.

Given the utter folly of the levy itself and the subsequent comments, this might as well be as good an explanation as any. The easiest and quickest way to destroy the fractional financial system is to convince depositors around Europe or the world that their deposits are under threat. The European policy elite has displayed a slavish tendency to protect bondholders from losses, but not depositors upon whom the banking system is utterly dependent. If bondholders do not buy bonds, then it becomes harder for governments to finance themselves (although it must be noted that around the world, interest rates are at all-time-lows in every developed country with its own currency, suggesting a run on bonds by bond vigilantes is a relatively small possibility). But if depositors withdraw their money en mass, the banking system collapses.

I believe that this slavish devotion to preventing losses is fundamentally unhealthy, as capitalism without the potential for loss is robbed of any internal stabilisation mechanism. If bondholders or depositors cannot lose their money, they have no incentive to be prudent with it. But with the danger of a Eurozone bank run looming putting bondholders ahead of depositors is unhealthier still. Protecting government borrowing at the expense of confidence in the banking system is a dire error.

And it is not like there is really a hard choice between the interests of bondholders and depositors. If the European policy elite would deal with the huge social upheaval that the Euro system has created — namely, very high unemployment, youth unemployment and slack resources following the burst housing bubble in the periphery — then both depositors and bondholders could sleep easier at night. All this would take is a firm, long-term commitment from domestic and supernational governments to lending, tax incentives and spending to support business growth. A Europe that is growing, producing additional goods, services, energy and resources that people want and need will be far more stable than one that is shrinking and weakened (in both supply and demand) by forced and centrally-planned fiscal consolidation imposed by the policy elite. People want jobs, contrary to the assumptions of certain neoclassical economists who believe that all unemployment is voluntary. People want business, not to be subject to humiliation and subjugation to meet an arbitrary debt target set by delusional central planners actively weakening economic activity. And, the only way for peripheral nations to get this is through leaving the Euro, which may very well soon start to happen. And once it does, a trickle will turn to a cascade as the leavers begin to quickly recover from their Merkel-inflicted wounds.

In the long run, 25% unemployment in Spain and Greece (as well as elevated unemployment throughout the periphery) will come back to hurt the core, whether that is through weak demand for core-produced goods and services, social unrest, Eurozone-rupture, etc. And Dijsellbloem may yet see how foolish his template was.

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Economists vs the Public

They don’t agree:


My responses:

Question 1 — Agree

Economists in Sapienza and Zingales’ study resolutely agreed that it is hard to predict stock prices. A majority of the public agreed with the statement, but not so resolutely. Stock prices are the culmination of transactions between humans, and human behaviour is hard to predict because it is often irrational and informed by cognitive fallacies.

Question 2 — Agree, with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Economists were vastly more bullish on the stimulus’ effect on unemployment than the general public. And the data is actually quite unkind toward the economists’ view — the real unemployment path was far worse than the path projected by those in the Obama administration who promoted the stimulus. However, this is more of a symptom of the stimulus’ designers underestimating the depth of the economic contraction that the financial crisis caused. There is no doubt that the stimulus created jobs and lowered the unemployment rate in the immediate term. Whether the jobs created were really useful and beneficial — and to what extent the stimulus was a malinvestment of capital  — is another question entirely, and one which can only be answered in the long run.

Question 3 — Agree

Economists overwhelmingly agreed that market factors are the chief cause behind variation in petrol prices. The public agreed, but to a lesser extent. Presumably, the dissenting public and dissenting economists see government intervention as a more significant force? Certainly, the present global oil market is a precarious pyramid of supply chains balanced on the back of the petrodollar empire. But the market reflects these factors.  When governments start a war, that is reflected in the oil price. That’s a force that the market responds to. If a central planner was directly setting the oil price (rather than merely influencing it) — as is the case in communist countries — that would be a price determined by non-market forces.

Question 4 — Uncertain

Economists were broadly certain that a carbon tax is less costly than mileage standards. I think this is far too general a question. Without nuts-and-bolts policy proposals, it is not really possible to assess which would be more costly.

Question 5 — Uncertain, leaning toward Disagree.

This was the only question where economists and the public were largely agreeable — and economists were largely split. As I stated above, the “success” of the stimulus package can only really be assessed in the longer run, and even then there are difficulties with measurement. Generally, I suspect very much that the various interventions in 2008 onward have preserved and supported economically unsustainable and inefficient sectors and industries that ought to have been liquidated and rebuilt (especially the financial industry, but also other sectors, e.g. Detroit). Had the government in 2008 followed the liquidationary trend in the market, the slump would have been much deeper, unemployment would have risen much higher, but the eventual rebound may have been much quicker and stronger.

Question 6 — Agree

This is where economists and the public disagree the most. It is the point on which the public was the most bullish, and economists almost unanimously bearish. Economists in general seem to believe that what they define as free trade is best, even when it destroys domestic supply chains and drastically decreases manufacturing employment. To economists, this means that the American government should not discriminate against foreign products but buy for the best product and the best price. This ignores some important externalities. Buying American certainly supports American jobs, because money goes to American companies, and toward American salaries. This might foster inefficient and otherwise-unsustainable industries, but if the American public chooses to favour American products for their government, that is their right. And a strong domestic manufacturing base is no bad thing, either.

The Return of Mercantilism

Mercantilist trade policies have returned in a big, big way.

Dani Rodrik:

The liberal model views the state as necessarily predatory and the private sector as inherently rent-seeking. So it advocates a strict separation between the state and private business. Mercantilism, by contrast, offers a corporatist vision in which the state and private business are allies and cooperate in pursuit of common objectives, such as domestic economic growth or national power.

The mercantilist model can be derided as state capitalism or cronyism. But when it works, as it has so often in Asia, the model’s “government-business collaboration” or “pro-business state” quickly garners heavy praise. Lagging economies have not failed to notice that mercantilism can be their friend. Even in Britain, classical liberalism arrived only in the mid-nineteenth century – that is, after the country had become the world’s dominant industrial power.

A second difference between the two models lies in whether consumer or producer interests are privileged. For liberals, consumers are king. The ultimate objective of economic policy is to increase households’ consumption potential, which requires giving them unhindered access to the cheapest-possible goods and services.

Mercantilists, by contrast, emphasize the productive side of the economy. For them, a sound economy requires a sound production structure. And consumption needs to be underpinned by high employment at adequate wages.

These different models have predictable implications for international economic policies. The logic of the liberal approach is that the economic benefits of trade arise from imports: the cheaper the imports, the better, even if the result is a trade deficit. Mercantilists, however, view trade as a means of supporting domestic production and employment, and prefer to spur exports rather than imports.

Today’s China is the leading bearer of the mercantilist torch, though Chinese leaders would never admit it  – too much opprobrium still attaches to the term.

I have three things to add.

First, states around the world including in the West, and especially America, have massively adopted corporatist domestic policies, even while spouting the rhetoric of free trade and economic liberalism publicly. One only has to look at the growth trend in American Federal spending to see that America has drifted further and further and further away from its free market rhetoric, and toward a centrally planned economy.

Second, the key difference between a free market economy, and a corporatist command economy is the misallocation of capital by the central planning process. While mercantile economies can be hugely productive, the historic tendency in the long run has been toward the command economies — which allocate capital based on the preferences of the central planner — being out-innovated and out-grown by the dynamic free market economies, which allocate capital based on the spending preferences of consumers in the wider economy.

Third, these two facts taken together mean that the inherent long-term advantage of the free market system — and by implication, of the United States over the BRICs — has to some degree been eradicated. This means that the competition is now over who can run the most successful corporatist-mercantilist system. The BRIC nations, particularly China, are committed to domestic production and employment, to domestic supply chains and domestic resource strength. America continues to largely ignore such factors, and allow its productive base to emigrate to other nations. And the production factor in which America still has some significant advantage — design, innovation, and inventions — has been eroded by the fact that the BRIC nations can easily appropriate American designs and innovations, because these designs are now being manufactured predominantly outside of America, and because of (American) communication technologies like the internet. This is the worst of both worlds for America. All of the disadvantages of mercantilism — the rent-seeking corporate-industrial complex, the misallocation of capital through central planning, the fragility of a centralised system — without the advantage of a strong domestic productive base.

Is Marxism Coming Back?

It is true that as the financial and economic crises roll on, as more and more disasters accumulate, as more people are thrown into unemployment and suffering that more and more of us will question the fundamentals of our economic system. It is inevitable that many will be drawn to some of the criticisms of capitalism, including Marxism.

The Guardian today published a salutary overview of this revival:

In his introduction to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, Professor Eric Hobsbawm suggests that Marx was right to argue that the “contradictions of a market system based on no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’, a system of exploitation and of ‘endless accumulation’ can never be overcome: that at some point in a series of transformations and restructurings the development of this essentially destabilising system will lead to a state of affairs that can no longer be described as capitalism”.

That is post-capitalist society as dreamed of by Marxists. But what would it be like?It is extremely unlikely that such a ‘post-capitalist society’ would respond to the traditional models of socialism and still less to the ‘really existing’ socialisms of the Soviet era,” argues Hobsbawm, adding that it will, however, necessarily involve a shift from private appropriation to social management on a global scale. “What forms it might take and how far it would embody the humanist values of Marx’s and Engels’s communism, would depend on the political action through which this change came about.”

Marxism is a strange thing; it provides a clean and straightforward narrative of history, one that irons out detail and complication. It provides a simplistic “us versus them” narrative of the present. And it provides a relatively utopian narrative of the future; that the working classes united will overthrow capitalism and establish a state run by and for the working classes.

Trouble is, history is vastly more complicated than the teleological narrative provided by dialectical materialism. The economic and social reality of the present is vastly more complicated than Marx’s linear and binary classifications. And the future that Marx predicted never came to fruit; his 19th Century ideas turned into a 20th Century reality of mass starvation, failed central planning experiments, and millions of deaths.

Certainly, the system we have today is unsustainable. The state-supported financial institutions, and the corporations that have grown up around them do not live because of their own genius, their own productivity or innovation. They exist on state largesse — money printing, subsidies, limited liability, favourable regulation, barriers to entry. Every blowup and scandal — from the LIBOR-rigging, to the London Whale, to the bungled trades that destroyed MF Global — illustrates the incompetence and failure that that dependency has allowed to flourish.

The chief problem that Marxists face is their misidentification of the present economic system as free market capitalism. How can we meaningfully call a system where the price of money is controlled by the state a free market? How can we meaningfully call a system where financial institutions are routinely bailed out a free market? How can we meaningfully call a system where upwards of 40% of GDP is spent by the state a free market? How can we call a system where the market trades the possibility of state intervention rather than underlying fundamentals a free market?

Today we do not have a market economy; we have a corporate economy.

As Saifedean Ammous and Edmund Phelps note:

The term “capitalism” used to mean an economic system in which capital was privately owned and traded; owners of capital got to judge how best to use it, and could draw on the foresight and creative ideas of entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers. This system of individual freedom and individual responsibility gave little scope for government to influence economic decision-making: success meant profits; failure meant losses. Corporations could exist only as long as free individuals willingly purchased their goods – and would go out of business quickly otherwise.

Capitalism became a world-beater in the 1800’s, when it developed capabilities for endemic innovation. Societies that adopted the capitalist system gained unrivaled prosperity, enjoyed widespread job satisfaction, obtained productivity growth that was the marvel of the world and ended mass privation.

Now the capitalist system has been corrupted. The managerial state has assumed responsibility for looking after everything from the incomes of the middle class to the profitability of large corporations to industrial advancement. This system, however, is not capitalism, but rather an economic order that harks back to Bismarck in the late nineteenth century and Mussolini in the twentieth: corporatism.

The system of corporatism we have today has far more akin with Marxism and “social management” than Marxists might like to admit. Both corporatism and Marxism are forms of central economic control; the only difference is that under Marxism, the allocation of capital is controlled by the state bureaucracy-technocracy, while under corporatism the allocation of capital is undertaken by the state apparatus in concert with large financial and corporate interests. The corporations accumulate power from the legal protections afforded to them by the state (limited liability, corporate subsidies, bailouts), and politicians can win re-election showered by corporate money.

The fundamental choice that we face today is between economic freedom and central economic planning. The first offers individuals, nations and the world a complex, multi-dimensional allocation of resources, labour and capital undertaken as the sum of human preferences expressed voluntarily through the market mechanism. The second offers allocation of resources, labour and capital by the elite — bureaucrats, technocrats and special interests. The first is not without corruption and fallout, but its various imperfect incarnations have created boundless prosperity, productivity and growth. Incarnations of the second have led to the deaths by starvation of millions first in Soviet Russia, then in Maoist China.

Marxists like to pretend that the bureaucratic-technocratic allocation of capital, labour and resources is somehow more democratic, and somehow more attuned to the interests of society than the market. But what can be more democratic and expressive than a market system that allows each and every individual to allocate his or her capital, labour, resources and productivity based on his or her own internal preferences? And what can be less democratic than the organisation of society and the allocation of capital undertaken through the mechanisms of distant bureaucracy and forced planning? What is less democratic than telling the broad population that rather than living their lives according to their own will, their own traditions and their own economic interests that they should instead follow the inclinations and orders of a distant bureaucratic-technocratic elite?

I’m not sure that Marxists have ever understood capitalism; Das Kapital is a mammoth work concentrating on many facets of 19th Century industrial and economic development, but it tends to focus in on obscure minutiae without ever really considering the coherent whole. If Marxists had ever come close to grasping the broader mechanisms of capitalism — and if they truly cared about democracy — they would have been far less likely to promulgate a system based on dictatorial central planning.

Nonetheless, as the financial system and the financial oligarchy continue to blunder from crisis to crisis, more and more people will surely become entangled in the seductive narratives of Marxism. More and more people may come to blame markets and freedom for the problems of corporatism and statism. This is deeply ironic — the Marxist tendency toward central planning and control exerts a far greater influence on the policymakers of today than the Hayekian or Smithian tendency toward decentralisation and economic freedom.

Free Market Ecology

These gargantuan global conferences where the emissaries of governments meet in hallowed halls to thrash out a global planning agenda — dressed in the clothes of ecology, or sustainable development, or whatever the buzzword of the day — are a waste of time.

They are a waste of time for the taxpayer, who has to stump up to pay for such efforts. They are a waste of time for the protestors who swarm to such events holding placards and shouting slogans. They are a waste of time for the ecologists who — whether right or wrong — believe that the present shape of human civilisation is unsustainable. Possibly the only group that really benefits are the self-perpetuating bureaucratic classes, who often take home huge salaries they could never earn in the private sector.

And the Malthusian targets of the bureaucracy have a history of missing.

The Guardian notes:

Rio+20 was intended as a follow up on the 1992 Earth Summit, which put in place landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity, as well as commitments on poverty eradication and social justice. Since then, however, global emissions have risen by 48%, 300m hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6bn people. Despite a reduction in poverty, one in six people are malnourished.

If these bureaucratic classes knew the first thing about economics or markets, they would begin to question whether such conferences — and all the promises, intergovernmental commissions, and regulatory pledges they spawn — are necessary. The more I question, the more I come to believe that all that is needed to halt any man-made ecological crises are free markets and free speech.

The history of human civilisation has been one of triumph over the limits of nature. While we have had our ups and downs, recent projections of imminent ecological ruin — such as those in the 1970s produced by Ehrlich and Holdren and the Club of Rome, or earlier by Keynes, Malthus and Galton (etc) — have all failed to materialise. But the trend goes back much further, into the distant past. Throughout our history our species has done what has been necessary to survive. Humanity has lived on this planet for upwards of 500,000 years, and through that time, we have survived a myriad of climate changes — solar variation, atmospheric variation, cycles of glaciation, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts, and a host of other phenomena.

It will be no different this time. We are dependent on our environment for our life and for our future. That is widespread knowledge, and so as the capable and creative species that we are, we have already developed a wide array of technological solutions to potential future environmental problems. This is a natural impulse; humanity as individuals and as a species hungers for survival, for opportunities to pass on our genes.

As I wrote last month:

If we are emitting excessive quantities of CO2 we don’t have to resort to authoritarian centralist solutions. It’s far easier to develop and market technologies (that already exist today) like carbon scrubbing trees that can literally strip CO2 out of the air than it is to try and develop and enforce top-down controlling rules and regulations on individual carbon output. Or (even more simply), plant lots of trees and other such foliage (e.g. algae).

If the dangers of non-biodegradable plastic threaten our oceans, then develop and market processes (that already exist today) to clean up these plastics.

Worried about resource depletion? Asteroid mining can give us access to thousands of tonnes of metals, water, and even hydrocarbons (methane, etc). For more bountiful energy, synthetic oil technology exists today. And of course, more capturable solar energy hits the Earth in sunlight in a single day than we use in a year.

The only reason why these technologies are not widespread is that at present the older technologies are more economically viable. Is that market failure? Are markets failing to reflect our real needs and wants?

No; those who so quickly cry “market failure!” fail to grasp markets. Certainly, I think GDP is a bad measure of economic growth. But throwing out the concept of money altogether as a measure of society’s needs and wants is completely foolish. Markets are merely an aggregation of society’s preferences. Capital and labour is allocated as the market — in other words, as society — sees fit. As Hayek showed in the 1930s, the market gives society the ability to decide how a good or service should be distributed based on individuals willingness to give money for it. The market gives feedback to producers and consumers through the price mechanism about the allocation of resources and capital, which in turn allows on the basis of individual consensual decisions corrections that prevent shortages and surpluses. Under a planned system there is no such mechanism.

The fact that greener technologies have not yet been widely adopted by the market is merely a symptom of the fact that society itself is not yet ready to make a widespread transition. But the fact that research and development and investment continues to pour into green technologies shows that the market is developing toward such an end.

Solar consumption has gone parabolic:

And so it will continue; as society evolves and progresses, the free market — so long as there is a free market — will naturally reallocate resources and labour based on society’s preferences. Without a free market — and since 2008 when the banks were bailed out and markets became junkiefied intervention-loving zombies, it is highly dubious that there is such a thing as a free market in the West — planners will just end up guessing at how to allocate resources, labour and capital, and producing monstrous misallocations of capital.

The political nature of such reallocation is irrelevant; whether the centralists call themselves communists or socialists or environmentalists, their modus operandi is always the same: ignore society’s true economic preferences, and reallocate resources based on their own ideological imperatives (often for their own enrichment).

My view is that the greatest threat to the planet’s ecology is from the centralists who wish to remove or pervert the market mechanism in order to achieve ideological goals. It is not just true that removing the market mechanism retard society’s ability to evolve into new forms of production, resource-allocation, and capital-allocation based on society’s true preferences. The command economies of the 20th Century — particularly Maoist China and Soviet Russia — produced much greater pollution than the free markets. Under a free market, polluters who damage citizens or their property can be held to account in the market place, and through the court system.There is no such mechanism through the kind of command of economy that the centralists seem to wish to implement.

The answer is not central planning and government control. The answer is the free market. 

Chinese Chaos is the Immediate Threat to the Dollar

In twenty or thirty years, I expect future monetary historians looking back on this period of history to frequently misquote Ernest Hemingway:

How did the dollar die? First it died slowly — then all at once.

The slow death began with the dollar’s birth as a global reserve currency. America was creditor and manufacturer to the world, and the capitalist superpower. People around the globe transacted overwhelmingly in dollars. Above all else, people needed dollars to conduct trade, and they were willing to pay richly for them, and for dollar-denominated debt .

By the ’90s America began enjoying a tremendous free lunch — the world provided America with goods, resources and services, and Americans provided the global reserve currency, as well as acting as world military policing global shipping. Why manufacture at home, or produce resources at home when the world wants your currency? To get what you want, all you have to do is run your printing press — which was much easier after 1971, when Nixon ended the gold exchange standard. In a flat free-trade world, supply chains and technology agglomerated wherever the labour was cheapest, which was predominantly Asia. So America let her industrial base and her domestic supply webs degenerate, to enjoy the free lunch that the dollar brought:

The next leg of the story is that foreigners realised that actually maybe the necessity of the dollar was an illusion. With America no longer the world’s manufacturer or creditor, who needs America? If you need a consumer, there are billions of people and trillions of dollars, and trillions of dollars worth of resources in Asia, and South America, and Europe. America’s government is deeply-indebted, and its military is bogged-down in difficult conflicts around the world.

As Ron Paul noted:

We are like a man who used to be rich and is in the habit of paying for everybody’s meals and announces at a lavish dinner that he will pay the bill, only to then turn to the fellow sitting nearby and say, “Can I use your credit card? I will pay you back!”

While fund managers continue to refer to the dollar and the US treasury as a safe haven, America’s sovereign creditors seem to feel quite differently.

As Zhang Jianhua of the People’s Bank of China put it:

No asset is safe now. The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency — gold.

The shift away from the dollar has quickly manifested itself in bilateral and multilateral agreements between nations to ditch the dollar for bilateral and multilateral trade, beginning with the chief antagonists China and Russia, and continuing through Iran, India, Japan, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

So the ground seems to have fallen out from beneath the petrodollar world order.

Yet at the same time, the powers moving away from the dollar have a lot invested in the system. The two biggest sovereign holders of US treasuries are Japan and China. China alone holds $3 trillion of US currency, and $1 trillion of debt. They have no reason to crash the value of their own assets. Their planned endgame appears to be a slow, phased and managed transition to a new global reserve currency. China wants to gradually reduce their exposure to America, transferring to harder assets.

Yet history rarely turns out how nations have planned, and China itself seems increasingly beset with domestic problems.

From Bloomberg:

China’s biggest banks may fall short of loan targets for the first time in at least seven years as an economic slowdown crimps demand for credit, three bank officials with knowledge of the matter said.

A decline in lending in April and May means it’s likely the banks’ total new loans for 2012 will be about 7 trillion yuan ($1.1 trillion), less than an estimated government goal of 8 trillion yuan to 8.5 trillion yuan, said one of the officials, declining to be identified because the person isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Banks are relying on small and mid-sized companies for loan growth after demand from the biggest state- owned borrowers dropped, the people said.

The drying up of loan demand attests to the severity of China’s slowdown and may add pressure on Premier Wen Jiabao to cut interest rates and expand stimulus measures. The economy may grow in 2012 at its slowest pace in 13 years, a Bloomberg News survey showed last week, as Europe’s debt crisis curbs exports, manufacturing shrinks and demand for new homes wanes.

China may be a manufacturing powerhouse, and the spider at the heart of global trade, but its domestic and social order looks in a state of disarray, pock-marked with ghost citiesindustrial accidents and ecological disasters. And throwing stimulus money into an economy already recording screeching inflation will be like throwing fuel onto a fire.

As the Chinese (and wider Asian) economic picture becomes bleaker, pressure will grow on politicians to take more drastic and rash measures. They may try to rally the disaffected behind them with an increasingly confrontational nationalistic attitude to America. And unable to match America militarily, their major outlet would be economic warfare — competitive devaluation, threats, tariffs, export controls, and an all-out assault on the dollar reserve standard. Additionally, American policymakers also encumbered with huge economic problems may look to economic warfare as policy — the standout example is Mitt Romney’s desire to brand China as a currency manipulator for accumulating US treasuries and impose tariffs, even while the Treasury upgrades the PBOC to primary dealer status.

This brewing firestorm suggests that rather than the gradual transition that all parties claim to desire we are likely to see a much faster and more volatile one. I don’t know which straw will break the camel’s back, but it is likely to come sooner, rather than later. First slowly — now all at once.

Keynesianism & Eugenics

The theory of output as a whole, which is what The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money purports to provide, is much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state.

John Maynard Keynes

In looking at and assessing the economic paradigm of John Maynard Keynes — a man himself fixated on aggregates — we must look at the aggregate of his thought, and the aggregate of his ideology.

Keynes was not just an economist. Between 1937 and 1944 he served as the head of the Eugenics Society and once called eugenics “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.” And Keynes, we should add, understood that economics was a branch of sociology. So let’s be clear: Keynes thought eugenics was more important, more significant, and more genuine than economics.

Eugenics — or the control of reproduction — is a very old idea.

In The Republic, Plato advocated that the state should covertly control human reproduction:

You have in your house hunting-dogs and a number of pedigree cocks. Do not some prove better than the rest? Do you then breed from all indiscriminately, or are you careful to breed from the best? And, again, do you breed from the youngest or the oldest, or, so far as may be, from those in their prime? And if they are not thus bred, you expect, do you not, that your birds and hounds will greatly degenerate?  And what of horses and other animals? Is it otherwise with them? How imperative, then, is our need of the highest skill in our rulers, if the principle holds also for mankind? The best men must cohabit with the best women in as many cases as possible and the worst with the worst in the fewest,  and that the offspring of the one must be reared and that of the other not, if the flock is to be as perfect as possible. And the way in which all this is brought to pass must be unknown to any but the rulers, if, again, the herd of guardians is to be as free as possible from dissension.  Certain ingenious lots, then, I suppose, must be devised so that the inferior man at each conjugation may blame chance and not the rulers and on the young men, surely, who excel in war and other pursuits we must bestow honors and prizes, and, in particular, the opportunity of more frequent intercourse with the women, which will at the same time be a plausible pretext for having them beget as many of the children as possible. And the children thus born will be taken over by the officials appointed for this.

Additionally, Plato advocated “disposing” with the offspring of the inferior:

The offspring of the inferior, and any of those of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them. That is the condition of preserving the purity of the guardians’ breed.

In modernity, the idea appears to have reappeared in the work first of Thomas Malthus, and later that of Francis Galton.

Malthus noted:

It does not, however, seem impossible that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men. Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt: but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and perhaps even longevity are in a degree transmissible. As the human race could not be improved in this way, without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable, that an attention to breed should ever become general.

Galton extended Malthus’ thoughts:

What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly. As it lies within his power, so it becomes his duty to work in that direction.

Margaret Sanger — the founder of Planned Parenthood — went even further, claiming that the state should prevent the “undeniably feeble-minded” from reproducing,  and advocated “exterminating the Negro population”.

And these ideas — very simply, that the state should determine who should live, and who should die, and who should be allowed to reproduce — came to a head in the devastating eugenics policies of Hitler’s Reich, which removed around eleven million people — mostly Jews, gypsies, dissidents, homosexuals, and anyone who did not fit with the notion of an Aryan future — from the face of the Earth.

Of course, the biggest problem with eugenics is that human planning cannot really control nature. Mutation and randomness throw salt over the idea. No agency — even today in the era of genetics — has the ability to effectively determine who should and should not breed, and what kind of children they will have.

As Hayek noted:

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Keynes’ interest in this topic appears to have descended from his contempt for the individual, and individual liberty. He once wrote:

Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these.

The common denominator in all of these examples — and in my view, the thing that brought Keynes toward eugenics — is the belief that the common individual is too stupid to be the captain of his own destiny. Instead, the state — supposedly equipped with the best minds and the best data — should centrally plan. Eugenicists believe that the state should centrally plan human reproduction, while Keynesians believe that the state should centrally engineer recovery from economic malaise through elevated spending. Although it would be unwise to accuse modern Keynesians of having sympathy for eugenics, the factor linking both of these camps together is John Maynard Keynes himself.

Keynes’ description of an economic depression — that a depression is a fall in the total economic output — is technically correct. And many modern Keynesian economists have made worthwhile contributions — Hyman Minsky, Steve Keen, Michael Hudson, and Joe Stiglitz are four examples . Even the polemicist Paul Krugman’s descriptive work on trade patterns and economic agglomeration is interesting and accurate.

The trouble seems to begin with prescriptions. Keynesianism dictates that the answer to an economic depression is an increase in state spending. And on the surface of it, an increase in state spending will lift the numbers. But will momentarily lifting the numbers genuinely help the economy? Not necessarily; the state could spend millions of dollars on subsidies for things that nobody wants, wasting time, effort, labour and taxes and thus destroying wealth. And the state can push a market into euphoria — just as Alan Greenspan did to the housing market — creating the next bubble and the next bust, requiring an even bigger bailout. State spending creates additional dependency on the state, and perverts the empirical market mechanism — the genuine underlying state of demand in a market economy — which signals to producers what to produce and not produce. Worst of all, centralist policies almost always have knock-on side-effects that no planner could foresee (causality is complicated).

So Hayek’s view on the insuperable limits to knowledge applies as much to the economic planner as it does to the central planner of human reproduction.

While eugenicists and Keynesians make correct descriptive observations — like the fact that certain qualities and traits are inheritable, or more simply that children are like their parents — their attempts to use the state as a mechanism to control these natural systems often turns out to be drastically worse than the natural systems that they seek to replace.

As Keynes seems to admit when — in the German language edition of his General Theory — he noted that the conditions of a totalitarian state may be more amenable to his economic theory, the desire for control may be the real story here.

Keynesianism brings more of the economy under the control of the state. It is a slow and creeping descent into dependency on the state. As we are seeing in Europe today, cuts in state spending in a state-dependent economy can cause deep economic contraction, providing the Keynesian more confirmation for his idea that the state should tax more, and spend more.

That is, until nature intervenes. Just as a state-controlled eugenics program might well spawn an inbred elite suffering hereditary illnesses as a result of a lack of genetic diversity (as seems to have happened with the inbred elite Darwin-Galton-Wedgwood clan), so a state-controlled economy may well grind itself into the dirt as it runs out of innovation as a result of a lack of economic diversity. Such a situation is unsustainable — no planner is smarter than nature.

Anything the Government Gives You, the Government Can Take Away

From the Guardian:

A majority of doctors support measures to deny treatment to smokers and the obese, according to a survey that has sparked a row over the NHS‘s growing use of “lifestyle rationing”.

Some 54% of doctors who took part said the NHS should have the right to withhold non-emergency treatment from patients who do not lose weight or stop smoking. Some medics believe unhealthy behaviour can make procedures less likely to work, and that the service is not obliged to devote scarce resources to them.

And that’s the trouble with services and institutions run from the taxpayer’s purse, administered by centralists and bureaucrats. It becomes a carrot or a stick for interventionists to intervene in your life. Its delivery depends on your compliance with the diktats and whims of the democracy, or of bureaucrats. Your standard of living becomes a bargaining chip. Don’t conform? You might be deemed unworthy of hospital treatment.

It seems innocuous to promise all manner of services in exchange for taxes. Citizens may welcome the convenience, the lower overheads, the economies of scale. They may welcome a freebie, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. They may feel entitled to it.

Many words have been spent on the problems of dependency; that rather than working for an honest living, the poor may be sucked into a vortex of entitlement, to such an extent that they lose the desire to produce. A tax-sucking multi-generational underclass can develop. Individuals can live entirely workless lives, enjoying a semi-comfortable existence on the teat of the taxpayer, enjoying the fruits — financial handouts, free education, free healthcare, a free home — of social engineers who believe that every problem under the sun can be remedied by government largesse and throwing money at problems. And who can blame them? Humans have sought out free lunches for as long as there have been humans.

Welfare dependency is generally assumed to be viewed negatively in the corridors of power. After all, broad welfare programs mean greater spending, and that very often means great debt. And why would a government want to be in debt? Surely governments would prefer it if more of the population was working and productive and paying taxes?

But it is easier to promote behaviour desired by the state when a population lives on state handouts. And for states that might want to influence the behaviour of their citizens — their resource consumption, their carbon footprint, their moral and ethical beliefs, or their attitude toward the state — this could be an attractive proposition. It might cost a lot to run a welfare system, but it brings a lot of power to influence citizens.

And increasingly throughout the Western world, citizens are becoming dependent on the state for their standard of living. In the UK, 92% of people are dependent on the socialist NHS for healthcare. 46 million Americans receive food stamps. That gives states a lot of leverage to influence behaviour. First it may be used in a (relatively sensible) attempt to curtail smoking and obesity. Beyond that, the sky is the limit. Perhaps doctors or bureaucrats may someday suggest withholding treatment or dole money from those who exceed their personal carbon or meat consumption quota? A tyrant could even withhold welfare from those who do not pledge their undying allegiance or military service to a regime or ideology (it happened many times last century). An underclass of rough and hungry welfare recipients is a fertile recruiting ground for military and paramilitary organisations (like the TSA).

With the wide expansion of welfare comes a lot of power, and the potential for the abuse of power. Citizens looking for a free lunch or an easier world should be careful what they wish for. Welfare recipients take note: you depend on government for your standard of living, you open yourself up to losing your liberty.

Rome & Central Planning

Central planning — like war — never changes. It has always been a powerful and effective way of achieving an explicit objective (e.g. building a bridge, or a road), but one that has has always come with detrimental side-effects. And the more central planners try to minimise the side-effects, the more side-effects appear. And so the whack-a-mole goes on.

This was true in the days of Rome, too.

From Dennis Gartman:

Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian. Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with the imminent danger of barbarian invasion, he issued in A.D. 301 an edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services. Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor. The government – which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits – brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control. “In every large town,” we are told, “the state became a powerful employer, standing head and shoulders above the private industrialists, who were in any case crushed by taxation.” When businessmen predicted ruin, Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty could be made secure. The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely with external danger.

The task of controlling men in economic detail proved too much for Diocletian’s expanding, expensive, and corrupt bureaucracy. To support this officialdom – the army, the courts, public works, and the dole – taxation rose to such heights that people lost the incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion. Thousands of Romans, to escape the tax gatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among the barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all their debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.

So much for the view that increasing aggregate demand is the recipe for wider prosperity; Diocletian surely raised it a lot. But that didn’t really accomplish much, either in terms of wider prosperity, or in terms of the sustainability of the Roman civilisation. Raised aggregate demand is only useful if it contributes to creating and producing things that society needs and wants. And as Hayek brutally demonstrated, central planning is notoriously useless at determining what people actually want.

Of course, no modern centralist (e.g. Krugman) explicitly endorses price controls although, I am sure some of the more Hayekian or Paulian-minded among us will point out among other things that the minimum wage and the setting of interest rates are both kinds of price control. Diocletian however, was far more expansive.

From Wiki:

The first two-thirds of the Edict doubled the value of the copper and bronze coins, and set the death penalty for profiteers and speculators, who were blamed for the inflation and who were compared to the barbarian tribes attacking the empire. Merchants were forbidden to take their goods elsewhere and charge a higher price, and transport costs could not be used as an excuse to raise prices.

The last third of the Edict, divided into 32 sections, imposed a price ceiling - a maxima - for over a thousand products. These products included various food items (beef, grain, wine, beer, sausages, etc), clothing (shoes, cloaks, etc), freight charges for sea travel, and weekly wages. The highest limit was on one pound of purple-dyed silk, which was set at 150,000 denarii (the price of a lion was set at the same price).

And how did it work out?

The Edict did not solve all of the problems in the economy. Diocletian’s mass minting of coins of low metallic value continued to increase inflation, and the maximum prices in the Edict were apparently too low.

Merchants either stopped producing goods, sold their goods illegally, or used barter. The Edict tended to disrupt trade and commerce, especially among merchants. It is safe to assume that a gray market economy evolved out of the edict at least between merchants.

Bernanke of course is much more sophisticated; he uses the facility of the primary dealer banks to hide the currency inflation necessary to monetise government debt. Central planning wins again? No; central planning always comes with unpredictable boomerang side effects.

I suppose, though, that it is comforting that history is repeating itself. After the horrors of mediaeval feudalism, we pulled ourselves up anew from the wastes of history.

Fractional Reserve Banking & Fragility

Fractional reserve banking means that the money supply is not in fact determined by the central bank (or by gold miners, politicians or economists, etc) but mostly by lenders. The problem is the fragility of any such a system to liquidity crises. If 10% of investors decide to withdraw funds at the same time, banks will quickly be illiquid. If 20% of investors do, bank failures will usually pile up. The system’s stability is contingent on society’s ability to not panic.

It is my belief that this fragility has been totally overlooked. Many have fallen into the lulling notion that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — and that that fear can be conquered by rationality. This is to ignore man’s animal nature: the unforeseen, the unexpected, and the wild (all of which occur very, very frequently in nature and markets) make humans fearful, and panicky — not by choice, but by impulse. This is the culmination of millions of years of evolution — primeval reality is unconquerable, immutable and obvious. More than half a century after Roosevelt and Keynes markets still crash, fortunes are lost, and millions of grown men and women still tremble in irrational, primitive fear.

Fractional reserve, of course, still has its defenders.

From Paul Krugman:

I thought I’d say a word about one particular idea that sounds plausible to some people but is actually quite wrong: banning fractional reserve banking.

I know that’s a popular theme among some Austrians. But it’s actually neither a good idea nor even feasible.

The crucial thing is to understand what banks do. And it’s not mostly about money creation! Instead, what banks are for is helping to improve the tradeoff between returns and liquidity.

Like a lot of people, my insights draw heavily on Diamond-Dybvig (pdf), one of those papers that just opens your mind to a wider reality. What DD argue is that there is a tension between the needs of individual savers — who want ready access to their funds in case a sudden need arises — and the requirements of productive investment, which requires sustained commitment of resources.

Banks can largely resolve this tension, by offering deposits that can be withdrawn on demand, yet investing most of the funds thus raised in long-term, illiquid projects. What makes this possible is the fact that normally only some depositors want to withdraw funds in any given period, so it’s normally possible to meet those demands without actually having liquid assets backing every deposit. And this solution makes the economy more productive, providing more liquidity even as it allows more productive investment.

Now I’m not going to dispute the idea that, at least superficially, fractional banking improves the tradeoff between returns and liquidity. But we must look at what kind of system that entails. The fractional system system is a classic example of fragility.

Debt is by nature fragile — fragile to deflation (which increases the value of debts, but makes them harder to repay so increases defaults) and fragile to inflation (decreases the value of debt). This means that when the system is stressed or shocked the stressor increases the stress on the system, multiplying small problems up into much larger ones. 

The greatest danger of a debt-based system, though, is the default cascade — one insolvent institution defaulting on its obligations, and leading to write-downs at other institutions, which can ultimately lead to systemic collapse via contagion. Post-crisis, the ongoing spectre of deleveraging (contracting the money supply) can keep growth, and prices depressed, even with huge washes of new central bank liquidity. As we saw first in Japan, and now in the West quantitative easing has not been a powerful enough tool to reinvigorate the economy after a burst debt bubble and financial zombification. Clearly liquidity backstops are still not enough to counteract the underlying business cycle.

Amusingly, this entire paradigm was foreseen by Thomas Jefferson:

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.

Fractional banking — and the inflationary-contractionary business cycle described over two centuries ago by Jefferson — is for now at least here to stay. In the boom years it is beloved of consumers, who can remortgage their house and consume their equity on consumer goods. In the bust years it is beloved of the monied who can purchase productive assets at far below fair-value.

Additionally, transitioning from a highly indebted globalised debt-based banking system to a full-reserve one, is basically impossible without debt forgiveness (not happening unless things get significantly worse). Like with austerity the money supply hugely contracts, and so in the short term GDP often collapses and unemployment soars.

Krugman concludes:

The fractional reserve thing exhibits a characteristic common to a lot of what I see in the Paulist camp: they have an oddly antiquated notion of what money and finance are about, one that misses the “virtualness” of the modern world. They still think of money as being pieces of green paper, rather than what it mostly is now, zeroes and ones in some server somewhere. They still think of banks as being those big marble buildings, in a world in which most banking is a lot more abstract than that.

This is, after all, the 21st century. Things have moved on a bit.

But without all of that abstraction — if money could not be fractionally multiplied — the system might be significantly more stable, because the money supply would not contract due to liquidity runs . Perhaps there would not be such great profits for speculators, there would be fewer free lunches, and less arbitrage. Economic health is based on human beings wanting and needing things, and using their labour and capital to obtain them — very material and earthy concerns. Abstraction does not in itself make a system better — and if it increases systemic fragility to shocks and panics, it can make it significantly worse. On the other hand, banning fractional reserve banking (and its corollaries like shadow banking) might be impossible or even exacerbate the business cycle, as a ban might just drive it into the totally unregulated black market. And historically, a lack of a liquidity backstop has never stopped bankers from practicing fractional lending, either.

So in the end, perhaps I am railing against something I cannot stop or control.