Is China’s economy headed for a crash?

In his assessment of the global economy’s performance 2013, legendary financier George Soros warned of dangers in the Chinese economy:

The major uncertainty facing the world today is not the euro but the future direction of China. The growth model responsible for its rapid rise has run out of steam.

That model depended on financial repression of the household sector, in order to drive the growth of exports and investments. As a result, the household sector has now shrunk to 35 percent of GDP, and its forced savings are no longer sufficient to finance the current growth model. This has led to an exponential rise in the use of various forms of debt financing.

There are some eerie resemblances with the financial conditions that prevailed in the U.S. in the years preceding the crash of 2008. [Project Syndicate]

That, as William Pesek notes, is a rather ominous conclusion. So is China due a crash?

Read More At TheWeek.com

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Why are Democrats souring on big government?


According to a new Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans say that big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than big business or big labor, a record high in the half century that Gallup has been asking the question. The previous high for big government was 65 percent in 1999 and 2000:

And this isn’t just Fox News-watching Republicans who think that Obama is a Communist Muslim born in Kenya who is plotting to seize all privately-owned guns and declare martial law.

Read More At TheWeek.com

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.

Lao Tzu on Liberty

Regular reader Alister Cyril Blanc reminds me of Roderick Long’s Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianisman interesting essay that attempts to find the roots of the modern schools of libertarianism (Rothbard, Boaz, Menger) in Taoism and Confucianism.

Long concludes (as I did on Friday) that Confucianism — while certainly not being entirely the same as modern libertarianism — was built up around the (peculiarly unmodern) concept of spontaneous order, and developed the concept that interventionism can be problematic.

Mencius (also known as Mengzi, and Confucius’ student) wrote:

There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realising what he had done. “I am worn out today,” said he to his family. “I have been helping the rice plants to grow.” His son rushed out to take a look and there the plants were, all shrivelled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their rice plants grow.

Statue of Lao Tzu (Fujian Province)

While Confucianism has some useful concepts, so too does Taoism. Lao Tzu also developed this theme:

The more prohibitions there are, the more ritual avoidances, the poorer the people will be. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be. So long as I do nothing the people will of themselves be transformed. So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight. So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves become prosperous.

Long’s essay tries to compare Taoism and Confucianism in terms of their concepts of liberty and which is closer to modern libertarianism; I have nothing to say on that matter. I am a magpie; as I have explained before I pick and choose whatever philosophy I fancy from wherever I find it. But if we have to make a real contrast, I would bunch Taoism and Confucianism together, and compare them to the various shades of collectivist imperialism, most recently manifested in China as Maoism.

Joshua Snyder elaborates:

Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu all lived and taught in pre-imperial China. In 221 B.C., Ch’in Shih-huang united the various Chinese states into an empire and set about to burn the Confucian classics and bury their scholars alive. The Legalism of Han Fei Tzu, which centered on the totalitarian power of the ruler, replaced the humanistic teachings of Confucianism and Taoism.

The modern Chinese regime, of course, is a strange muddle of imperialism, Maoism, and Confucianism, and I think all of these instincts are in constant conflict (sometimes within one individual) which is why the Chinese regime is such a self-contradictory creature.

On the other hand (and rather bizarrely) here in the West, imperialism is far and away the dominant establishment instinct. That’s why both sides (Romney & Obama) of the 2012 American Presidential election are running on a platform of extending and expanding authoritarian centralist legislation like the Patriot Act, and the indefinite detention provision of the 2011 NDAA.

Confucius or Lao Tzu would reject such things; the more prohibitions there are, the more ritual avoidances, the poorer the people will be. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be.

Who’s the Communist Now?

I’d like to draw readers’ attention to a statistic I flagged up a few weeks ago that I don’t think I emphasised sufficiently. I was writing about America’s current tax burden, its deficit, and the stark choice that Americans — and also the rest of the people of the world — face:

America spends 24% 39% of its GDP as government spending. Other nations spend far more than America, but they also tax more. 52% of French GDP, 37% of Japanese GDP, 47% of British GDP, 18% of Thai GDP, 32% of Swiss GDP, 78% of Cuban GDP, 27% of Indian GDP and 17% of Singaporean GDP is government spending.

Most interesting by far is “communist” China. Only 20% of Chinese GDP is government spending. 

Nihao, Capitalists!

That’s right: “communist” China is now less statist — at least in economic terms — than “free” America.

Meanwhile at Davos, the West’s “economic leaders” pillory capitalism as worsening inequality.

From the BBC:

Growing inequality should now be the priority for leaders after the economic crisis, senior economic figures at the World Economic Forum have said.

They insisted that more needed to be done to tackle excessive pay, poverty and unemployment.

The discussion, hosted by BBC World in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, was held as figures showed almost half of young Spanish people are out of work.

Economist Nouriel Roubini warned inequality threatened social stability.

“We are in a very fragile world,” said the economist, dubbed Doctor Doom because of his predictions leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

“The issue of distorted pay is not being addressed, banks that were deemed too big to fail now becoming even bigger,” he said.

I think there is a very strange psychological trend occurring here, and it’s actually one I recognise in my younger self. I was born in 1987, and grew up in the shadow of the 1990s, long after Deng Xiaoping, long after the “End of History”, long after the end of the “Red Menace” that was the Soviet Union. Long after the West really felt any need to differentiate itself as “capitalist” against a background of growing statism. Instead, the growing statism was in the West, even in spite of the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher — two leaders who both managed to spew a great deal of pro-freedom rhetoric, while at once greatly expanding the scope and shade of government.

This psychological trend can be summed up as the idea that the first recourse for social and economic problems is more government action. Too much inequality? Regulate against it. Too little innovation? Legislate for it. Too little demand? Stimulate it. Too much bad government? Elect a better one, who will do more of the things we “love”, and less of those we “hate”.

The idea, in the simplest terms, is that changes to society should come from the great overhanging monolith, and not from the little individuals on the ground. No, we are just fish swimming in an ocean of dialectical chaos. We are just flecks of paint on the great canvas of humanity. No, let us not agitate or gravitate. Instead, we must “co-ordinate” and “unite” under the aegis of government; the blind painter.

The climax of this bizarre psychological trend was the election of Barack H. Obama. After all the misdeeds of Bush and Cheney, he would be the one to restore government to its “proper” role: “helping the people”, “creating a better America”, “investing in tomorrow”, etc, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah.

This is a licence for more central planning and more government largesse. There are two problems here:

  1. Regulatory Capture: As David Rothkopf has argued: “Geography, pedigree, networking and luck unite a superclass of 6000 individuals that possess unparalleled power over world affairs.” Obama’s top contributors are the same old people. Obama appointed more ex-Wall Street figures to his administration than anyone before him. Ultimately, the people chosen as central planners have a track record of enacting policies that enrich themselves more than everybody else. The people lining up at Davos calling for a new system, i.e. more government, are the same elite who have ruined the old one. As Jonathan Weill writes: “It’s becoming hard not to suspect that the annual gathering in Davos has become a conclave for global elites to promote crony capitalism and state-backed enterprise, ensuring that national coffers remain available to be tapped for private gain.”
  2. Unintended, and Unexpected Consequences: Central planners are often pretty bad at the job. Bernanke and Yellen failed to predict the end of the housing bubble (that their predecessor Alan Greenspan helped create) with terrible consequences. Tim Geithner lashed that there was “no chance of a downgrade” right before S&P downgraded US Treasuries. Angela Merkel demands austerity from a frail and ailing Greek economy suffering from a severe contraction that is only worsened by austerity. The Iraq and Afghani wars created more terrorists than they killed, and added a multi-trillion dollar shackle of debt to the American government. America’s deindustrialisation (in the name of cheaper Chinese goods) has created huge unemployment in America, as well as making the American economy ever more dependent on the fragile flow of trade for components and energy. History is dominated by black swans — and the history of  central planning is dominated by unintended consequences. We just don’t understand reality well enough to centrally plan it.

Of course there is a bigger concern here, and one that I have written about before: central planning kills the market mechanism. It kills market evolution and creative destruction, and gives life to absurdities — like the current global financial sector — that could never live under pure market conditions:

Capitalism means both successes and failures. It is a fundamentally experimental system, with a continuous feedback mechanism — the market, and ultimately profit and loss. Ideas that work are rewarded with financial success, and ideas that don’t are punished with failure. With capitalism, systems, ideas and firms that fail to produce what the market wants fail. They go bankrupt. Their assets, and their debt is liquidated.

When that mechanism is suspended by a government or central bank that thinks it knows best — and that a system that is too interconnected to fail is worth saving at any cost — the result is almost always stagnation. This is for a number of reasons — most obviously that bailouts sustain crippling debt levels, and are paid for through contractionary austerity, which is what Salmon was getting at. But it is larger than just that.

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

These bailouts have tried to turn nature on its head — bailed out bankers and institutions have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure.

The darkest side to this zombification is that it takes resources from the productive, the young, the creative, and the needy and channels them to the zombies. Vast sums spent on rescue packages to keep the zombie system alive might have been available to increase the intellectual capabilities of the youth, or to support basic research and development, or to build better physical infrastructure, or to create new and innovative companies and products.

Zombification kills competition, too: when companies fail, it leaves a gap in the market that has to be filled, either by an expanding competitor, or by a new business. With failures now being kept on life-support, gaps in the market are fewer.

Japan has experienced twenty hellish years of zombification, all because they suspended capitalism in favour of systemic stability and creditors getting their pound of flesh. America did virtually the same thing, and the result has been three years of stagnation.

That, is more or less why I believe government should stay out of central planning altogether, and instead should stick to the role intended for it by U.S. Constitution — protecting life, and liberty, administering the due process of law, and undertaking great projects like the Apollo missions beyond the reach of private enterprise. Will the central planning addicts at Davos get the message? I doubt it. After all, their entire worldview is predicated on the notion that they “know better”.

The irony is that — at least in terms of economic affairs — the Chinese “communists” seem to have gotten it.  After the awful experience of huge famines, they finally accepted that they did not “know better”. Perhaps it would take a cataclysm of similar magnitude for the West for us to realise that we do not “know better” than nature either…

UPDATE: It seems like I was wrong about US government spending. It’s actually 39% of GDP, not 24% as I first reported. That’s higher than the 34% of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Dangers of the Era

Modern civilisation has its problems but right now it works. Electrical grids, water systems, mass agriculture, global shipping, the internet, road networks, governments and financial markets are all still functional, and life for the majority is significantly easier and more colourful than for most of history. In the presence of civilisation, most of our basic needs (food, water, shelter, culture) are fulfillable, even if civilisation is highly fragile.

Nonetheless, many people are angry. Angry with the system, angry with authority, angry with society. We see it in #OccupyWallStreet. We saw it in the spontaneous thievery and riots in England in August. We saw it in the ongoing Arab Spring. We see it in Greece‘s protests against IMF-imposed austerity. We saw it in the Tea Party’s shades of “mad as hell and I just can’t take it anymore“.

People are mostly angry about some combination of poverty, angry about inequality, angry about rising joblessness, lost civil liberties, the loss of Western manufacturing, economic weakness, bailouts, or simply perceived unfairness. This isn’t a partisan issue; it exists as much in so-called left wing (like anti-austerity protests) and right-wing (Tea Party) camps.

The essential problem (that affects everyone who is not part of the elite) is that while civilisation functionals reasonably well for a vast majority, it functions significantly better for a tiny minority.

If nurses, teachers, soldiers, electricians, tradesmen, scientists (etc) are getting $50,000 a year for their labour, and traders on Wall Street who were bailed out after their businesses failed are getting $5 million bonuses, eventually the majority will start to seethe with questions like “why are they more valuable to society than we are?“, “if they failed to see the last recession coming, why are they still getting rewarded?”, “if unemployment is so high the economic system cannot be working, can it?, and so forth.

Corporations — and by extension, governments — have much reason to be fearful.

From the Washington Post:

Recent protests—Occupy Wall Street, of course, but also the Tea Party movement as it first began—rise out of a profound rage over unfairness in this country. The scale of this unfairness and inequity makes it hard to know where to direct that rage, to know what to do. Occupy Wall Street has the right target; but where their rage will go, nobody today knows. I am certain, though, that any alert board should be instructing their managers to do three things: admit the problem exists, take positive steps to make the corporation function fairly, and consider what other steps would address the concerns of the protests.

Simple? Not quite. But necessary? You bet.

If the present Occupy Wall Street protests do not create an unignorable threat, they certainly raise the prospect of one in the near future. Rage at unfairness is not easily quenched and once started can be hard to curtail. We’ve seen this time and again throughout history. Shareholders may think of themselves as victims of CEO power, as innocent shareholders , but we need only look to the Russian and French Revolutions to see that everyone having anything to do with fallen power, or in this case “guilty corporations”, may be attacked and injured—even if, like shareholders, their only crime is doing nothing.

But the real danger of all of this is not to corporations, or governments, or Wall Street, or the power elite. The danger is to society itself. Corporate and financial hygiene is at an all-time low, and the global financial infrastructure is an interconnected hyper-leveraged house-of-cards ready to come crashing down. The higher joblessness and wage inequality go, the  sooner the smouldering embers of fury we see today will be transformed into a burning conflagration of rage in wider society. If people with electricity, water, food and Chinese consumer goods are getting furious today, while civilisational is still functioning reasonably well, imagine what might happen if another financial crash caused by a Euro-default raised unemployment another 5%? If gasoline costs rose another 50% in response to an oil shock? If a new conflict or war significantly raised the cost of imported goods?

Establishments need to quell the furies of the population before they reach tipping points by letting bad banks and businesses fail, by reforming the tax code so that everyone pays a fair share, by creating jobs, and by finding ways to reduce citizens’ and institutions’ debt burden. Unfortunately, I believe that the global financial and political systems are so entrenched that at this stage deconstruction (rip it up and start again) is impossible because vested interests make any such changes highly unlikely.

The real danger is that in desperate times people will follow any charlatan who can offer food and security. In the 20th Century, Germans, Italians, Russians, the Spanish, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Libyans and others all discovered the dangers of overthrowing corrupt entrenched establishments, and replacing them with new regimes with no respect for individual liberties, religious freedoms, the freedom of speech, the freedom of association. I want the revolutionaries of the 21st Century to understand that the problem is not capitalism, nor liberal democracy. The problem is that a tiny minority are rigging the system to enrich themselves.