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.

Fiat Money Kills Productivity?

I have long suspected that a money supply based on nothing other than faith in government could be a productivity killer.

Last November I wrote:

During 1947-73 (for all but two of those years America had a gold standard where the unit of exchange was tied to gold at a fixed rate) average family income increased at a greater rate than that of the top 1%. From 1979-2007 (years without a gold standard) the top 1% did much, much better than the average family.

As we have seen with the quantitative easing program, the newly-printed money is directed to the rich. The Keynesian response to that might be that income growth inequality can be solved (or at least remedied) by making sure that helicopter drops of new money are done over the entire economy rather than directed solely to Wall Street megabanks.

But I think there is a deeper problem here. My hypothesis is that leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.

And now I have empirical evidence that my hypothesis may possibly have been true — total factor productivity.

In 2009 the Economist explained TFP as follows:

Productivity growth is perhaps the single most important gauge of an economy’s health. Nothing matters more for long-term living standards than improvements in the efficiency with which an economy combines capital and labour. Unfortunately, productivity growth is itself often inefficiently measured. Most analysts focus on labour productivity, which is usually calculated by dividing total output by the number of workers, or the number of hours worked.

A better gauge of an economy’s use of resources is “total factor productivity” (TFP), which tries to assess the efficiency with which both capital and labour are used.

Total factor productivity is calculated as the percentage increase in output that is not accounted for by changes in the volume of inputs of capital and labour. So if the capital stock and the workforce both rise by 2% and output rises by 3%, TFP goes up by 1%.

Here’s US total factor productivity:

As soon as the USA left the gold exchange standard,  total factor productivity began to dramatically stagnate. 

Random coincidence? I don’t think so — a fundamental change in the nature of the money supply coincided almost exactly with a fundamental change to the shape of the nation’s economy. Is the simultaneous outgrowth in income inequality a coincidence too?

Doubters may respond that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and though we do not know the exact causation, there are a couple of strong possibilities that may have strangled productivity:

  1. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for policymakers: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.
  2. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for businesses: revenue growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency.
And it’s not just total factor productivity that has been lower than in the years when America was on the gold exchange standard — as a Bank of England report recently found, GDP growth has averaged lower in the pure fiat money era (2.8% vs 1.8%), and financial crises have been more frequent in the non-gold-standard years.

The authors of the report noted:

Overall the gold standard appeared to perform reasonably well against its financial stability and allocative efficiency objectives.

Still think it’s a barbarous relic?

Debt is Not Wealth

Here’s the status quo:

These figures are staggering; the advanced nations typically have between three and ten times as much total debt as they have economic activity. In the United Kingdom — the worst example — if one year’s economic activity was devoted entirely to paying down debt (impossible — people need to eat and drink and pay rent, and of course the United Kingdom continues to add debt) it would take ten years for the debt to be wiped clean.

But the real question is why? Why are both debtors and creditors willing to build a status quo of massive unprecedented debt?

From the side of the creditors, I think the answer is the misconception that debt is wealth. Debt can be used as collateral, or can be securitised and traded on exchanges (which itself can become a form of shadow intermediation, allowing for a form banking outside the accepted regulatory norms). To keep the value of debt high, and thus keep the debt illusion rolling along (treasury yields keep falling) central banks have been willing to swap out bad debt for good money. But debt is not wealth; it is just a promise, and in today’s world carries huge counter-party risk. Until you convert your debt-based promissory assets into real-world tangible assets they are not wealth.

From the side of the debtors, I think the answer is that debt is easy. Why work for your consumption when instead you can take out a home equity loan or get a credit card? Why buy the one car that you can afford when instead you can buy two with debt?

But there is another side in this world: the side of the central planners. Since the time of Keynes and Fisher there has been an economic revolution:

Deflation has effectively been abolished by central banking.  And so we get to where we are today: the huge and historically unprecedented outgrowth of debt. Deleveraging necessitates economic contraction, which produces the old Keynesian-Fisherian bugbear of debt-deflation, which the central planners abhor. So they print. Where once deflation often made debts unrepayable, and resulted in mass defaults, liquidation and structural transformation, today — thanks to money printing — debtors get their easy lunch of cheap debt, and creditors get their pound of flesh, albeit devalued by the inflation of the monetary base. It has been a superficially good compromise for both creditors and debtors. Everyone has got some of what they want. But is it sustainable?

The endless post-Keynesian outgrowth of debt suggests not. In fact, what is ultimately suggested is that the abolition of small-scale deflationary liquidations has just primed the system for a much, much larger liquidation later on. Bad companies, business models and practices that might otherwise not have survived under previous economic systems today live thanks to bailouts and money-printing. This moral hazard has grown legs and evolved into a kind of systemic hazard. Unhealthy levels of leverage and interconnection that once might have necessitated failure (e.g. Martingale trading strategies) flourish today under this new regime and its role as counter-party-of-last-resort. With every rogue-trader, every derivatives or shadow banking blowup, every Corzine, every Adoboli, every Iksil, comes more confirmation that the entire financial system is being zombified as foolish and dangerous practices are saved and sanctified by bailouts.

With every zombie blowup comes the necessity of more money-printing, and with more money-printing to save broken industries seems to come more moral hazard and zombification. Is that sustainable?

Already, central bankers are having to be clever with their money printing, colluding with financiers and sovereign governments to hide newly-printed money in excess reserves and FX reserves, and colluding with government statisticians to hide inflation beneath a forest of statistical manipulation. It is no surprise that by the BLS’ previous inflation-measuring methodology inflation is running at a much higher rate than the new:

Worse, in the modern financial world, we see an unprecedented level of interconnection. The impending Euro-implosion will have ramifications to everyone with exposure to it, and everyone with exposure to those with exposure to it. Not only will the inflation-averse Europeans have to print up a huge quantity of new money to bail out their financial system (the European financial system is roughly three times the size of the American one bailed out in 2008), but should they fail to do so central banks around the globe will have to print huge quantities of money to bail out systemically-important financial institutions with exposure to falling masonry. This is shaping up to be a true test of their prowess in hiding monetary inflation, and a true test of the “wisdom” behind endless-monetary-growth fiat economics.

Central bankers have shirked the historical growth cycle consisting both of periods of growth and expansion, as well as periods of contraction and liquidation. They have certainly had a good run. Those warning of impending hyperinflation following 2008 were proven wrong; deflationary forces offset the inflationary impact of bailouts and monetary expansion, even as food prices hit records, and revolutions spread throughout emerging markets. And Japan — the prototypical unliquidated zombie economy — has been stuck in a depressive rut for most of the last twenty years. These interventions, it seems, have pernicious negative side-effects.

Those twin delusions central bankers have sought to cater to — for creditors, that debt is wealth and should never be liquidated, and for debtors that debt is an easy or free lunch — have been smashed by the juggernaut of history many times before. While we cannot know exactly when, or exactly how — and in spite of the best efforts of central bankers — I think they will soon be smashed again.

Enter the Swan

Charles Hugh Smith (along with many, many, many others) thinks there may be a great decoupling as the world sinks deeper into the mire, and that the dollar could be set to benefit:

This “safe haven” status can be discerned in the strengthening U.S. dollar. Despite a central bank (The Federal Reserve) with an avowed goal of weakening the nation’s currency (the U.S. dollar), the USD has been in an long-term uptrend for a year–a trend I have noted many times here, starting in April 2011.

That means a bet in the U.S. bond or stock market is a double bet, as these markets are denominated in U.S. dollars. Even if they go nowhere, the capital invested in them will gain purchasing power as the dollar strengthens.

All this suggests a “decoupling” of the U.S. bond and stock markets from the rest of the globe’s markets. Put yourself in the shoes of someone responsible for safekeeping $100 billion and keeping much of it liquid in treacherous times, and ask yourself: where can you park this money where it won’t blow up the market just from its size? What are the safest, most liquid markets out there?

The answer will very likely point the future direction of global markets.

Smith is going along with one of the most conventional pieces of conventional wisdom: that in risky and troubled times investors will seek out the dollar as a haven. That’s what happened in 2008. That’s what is happening now as rates on treasuries sink to all-time-lows. And that’s what has happened throughout the era of petrodollar hegemony.

But the problem with conventions is that they are there to be broken, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is there to be killed, roasted and served on a silver platter.

The era of petrodollar hegemony is slowly dying, and the assumptions and conventions of that era are dying with it. For now, the shadow of that old world is still flailing on like Wile E. Coyote, hovering in midair.

As I wrote last week:

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

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.

Enter the Swan:

We know the U.S. is a big and liquid (though not really very transparent) market. We know that the rest of the world — led by Europe’s myriad issues, and China’s bursting housing bubble — is teetering on the edge of a precipice, and without a miracle will fall (perhaps sooner, rather than later).

But we also know that America is inextricably interconnected to this mess. If Europe (or China or both) disintegrates, triggering (another) global default cascade, America will be stung by its European banking exposures, its exposures to global energy markets and global trade flows. Simply, there cannot be financial decoupling, not in this hyper-connected, hyper-leveraged world.

And would funds surge into US Treasuries even in such an instance? Maybe initially — fund managers have been conditioned by years of convention to do so. But how long  can fund managers accept negative real rates of return? Or — much more importantly — how long will the Fed accept such a surge? The answer is not very long at all. Bernanke’s economic strategy has been focussed  on turning treasuries into a losing investment, on the face of it to “encourage risk-taking” (or — much more significantly — keep the Treasury’s borrowing costs cheap).

All of this suggests a global crash or proto-crash will be followed by a huge global money printing operation, probably spearheaded by the Fed. Don’t let the Europeans fool anyone, either — Germany will not let the Euro crumble for fear of money printing. When push comes to shove they will print and fiscally consolidate to save their pet project (though perhaps demanding gold as collateral, and perhaps kicking out some delinquents). China will spew trillions of stimulus money into more and deeper malinvestment (why have ten ghost cities when you can have fifty? Good news for aggregate demand!).

So Paul Krugman will likely get something much closer to what he claims to want. Problem solved?

Nope. You can’t solve deep-rooted structural problems — malinvestment, social change, deindustrialisation, global trade imbalances, systemic fragility, financialisation, imperial decline, cultural stupefaction (etc, etc, etc) — by throwing money at problems. All throwing more money can do is buy a little more time (and undermine the currency). The problem with that is that a superficial recovery fools policy-makers, investors and citizens into believing that problems are fixed when they are not. Eventually — perhaps slowly, or perhaps quickly — unless the non-monetary problems are truly dealt with (very unlikely), they will boil over again.

As the devaluation heats up things will likely become a huge global game of beggar thy neighbour. A global devaluation will likely increase the growing tensions between the creditor and debtor nations to breaking point. Our current system of huge trade imbalances guarantees that someone (the West) is getting a free lunch , and that someone else (the Rest) is getting screwed. Such a system is fundamentally fragile, and fundamentally unstable. Currency wars will likely give way to economic wars, which may well give way to subterfuge and proxy wars as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to cast off their chains. Good news, then, for weapons contractors and the security state.

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.

Krugman’s Inflation Target

The Keynesian blogosphere is up in arms at Ben Bernanke’s response to Krugman’s view that he should pursue a higher inflation target as a debt erasure mechanism.

According to Chairman Bernanke:

We, the Federal Reserve, have spent 30 years building up credibility for low and stable inflation, which has proved extremely valuable in that we’ve been able to take strong accommodative actions in the last four, five years to support the economy without leading to an unanchoring of inflation expectations or a destabilization of inflation. To risk that asset for what I think would be quite tentative and perhaps doubtful gains on the real side would be, I think, an unwise thing to do.

Krugman responded:

This is not at all the tone of Bernanke’s Japan analysis; remember, Japan had nowhere near as high unemployment as we do, and his analysis back then was not simply focused on ending deflation.

Disappointing stuff.

The basic Keynesian logic is as follows:

The economy is performing far below its potential, due to an ongoing slump in aggregate demand caused by a contraction of confidence. Simply, there is plenty of money, but far too many people are risk averse and thus are not spending (and thus creating economic activity) but instead just holding onto their money. The Fed should ease some more, so as to create inflation that turns holding cash into a risk, and so encourage investment and consumption. What’s more, residual debt overhang is a burden on the economy, and additional inflation would decrease the relative value of  debts, giving some relief to debtors.

Matthew O’Brien presented this chart to make the case that output is far below its potential:

I am deeply sceptical that GDP is a sufficient measure of output, and I am even more sceptical that the algorithmic jiggerypokery involved in calculating what the Federal Reserve calls “Potential Nominal GDP” has anything whatever to do with the economy’s real potential output. But I will accept that — based on the heightened unemployment, as well as industrial output being roughly where it was ten years ago — that potential output is far below where it could be, and that the total debt overhang at above 300% of GDP is excessive.

The presupposition I really have a problem with, though, is the notion that this is a problem with hoarding:

Simply, the United States is a consumption-driven economy. And that isn’t so much of a fact as it is a problem. More and more money is going toward consumption, and less and less is going toward investment in companies, in ideas and in businesses. Exemplifying this, less and less money — even in spite of the Fed’s “pro-risk” policies (QE, QE2, ZIRP, etc) is going into domestic equities:

The fundamental problem at the heart of this is that the Fed is trying to encourage risk taking by making it difficult to allow small-scale market participants from amassing the capital necessary to take risk. That’s why we’re seeing domestic equity outflows. And so the only people with the apparatus to invest and create jobs are large institutions, banks and corporations, which they are patently not doing.

Would more easing convince them to do that? Probably not. If you’re a multinational corporation with access to foreign markets where input costs are significantly cheaper, why would you invest in the expensive, over-regulated American market other than to offload the products you’ve manufactured abroad?

As Zero Hedge noted:

In the period 2009-2011, America’s largest multinational companies: those who benefit the most from the public sector increasing its debt/GDP to the most since WWII, or just over 100% and rapidly rising, and thus those who should return the favor by hiring American workers, have instead hired three times as many foreigners as they have hired US workers.

So will (even deeper) negative real rates cause money to start flowing? Probably — but probably mostly abroad — so probably without the benefits of domestic investment and job creation.

Then there is the notion that inflation will effect debt erasure. This chart tends to suggest that at least for government debt it may not make much difference:

There’s no real correlation between government debt erasure and high inflation.

Paul Donovan of UBS explains:

The fundamental obstacle to governments eroding their debt through inflation is the duration of the government debt portfolio. If all outstanding debt had ten years before it matured, then governments could inflate their way out of the debt burden. Inflation would ravage bond holders, and governments (with no need to roll over existing debt for a decade) could create inflation with impunity, secure in the knowledge that existing bond holders could do nothing to punish them. In the real world, of course, governments roll over their debt on a very frequent basis.

Consumer debt may also not experience significant erasure.

From Naked Capitalism:

Inflation only reduces debt overhang in a significant way for households who are fortunate enough to see their nominal wages rise along with the general rise in prices. In today’s economy, workers are frequently not so fortunate.

The deeper reality though, is that even if my concerns are unfounded and Krugman is correct, and that a higher inflation target would achieve precisely what Krugman desires, I don’t think it would solve the broader problems in the economy.

As I wrote in November:

The problem is that most of the problems inherent in America and the West are non-monetary. For a start, America is dependent on oil, much of which is imported — oil necessary for agriculture, industry, transport, etc, and America is therefore highly vulnerable to oil shocks and oil price fluctuations. Second, America destroys huge chunks of its productive capital policing the world, and engaging in war and “liberal interventionism”. Third, America ships even more capital overseas, into the dollar hoards of Arab oil-mongers, and Chinese manufacturers who supply America with a heck of a lot. Fourth, as Krugman and DeLong would readily admit, American infrastructure, education, and basic research has been weakened by decades of under-investment (in my view, the capital lost to military adventurism, etc, has had a lot to do with this).

In light of these real world problems, at best all that monetary policy can do is kick the can, in the hope of giving society and governments more time to address the underlying challenges of the 21st Century. When a central bank pumps, metrics (e.g. GDP and unemployment) can recover, but with the huge underlying challenges like the ones we face, a transitory money-printing-driven spike will in no way be enough to address the structural and systemic problems, which most likely will soon rear their ugly heads again, triggering yet more monetary and financial woe.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see Bernanke go the whole hog and adopt a fully-blown Krugmanite monetary policy, just to see Krugman’s ideas get blown out of the water by the cold, dark hand of falsification.

Of course, there was an opportunity to achieve debt erasure in 2008, when the world faced a default cascade and a credit collapse. Had economists and planners let the system liquidate, a huge portion of bad debt and bad companies and systems would have been erased, and — after a period of pain — we might well be well into a new phase of organic self-sustaining growth. But we live in a different world; where zombie systems, companies and their assets are preserved by government bailouts and interference, and very serious people like Paul Krugman earnestly push dubious solutions to problems that their very interventionist worldview created.

A Tale of Two Bens

Paul Krugman has an interesting post up on Ben Bernanke’s contrasting economic policy positions. Simply, the younger Bernanke was much more Krugmanite than the older Bernanke:

[The younger Bernanke] endorsed, at least as possibilities:

– Targeting long-term interest rates
– Currency depreciation
– Money financed deficit spending
– A Krugman-style inflation target

After 2003, however, his menu seemed to have been reduced to:

– Guidance on future short-term rates (the rates the Fed sets)
– Purchases of long-term bonds and other nonconventional assets
– “Oversupplying reserves”, that is, just pushing up the monetary base

Krugman concludes — quite rightly — that Bernanke has been “assimilated by the Fedborg.” Krugman should probably know that Ben’s main goal has nothing whatever to do with inflation, or “aggregate demand” or currency depreciation. Nothing. These are all handmaidens to one thingthe rate that the Treasury is paying on its debt.

America is in an impossibly tough fiscal position:

Even at the government’s impossibly cheap projections, a lot of money is going to be pushed out from the Treasury to creditors.

And so the Fed’s main implicit goal is to keep Treasury rates as low as possible without excessive inflation  — the more inflation, the more creditors will ditch Treasury debt, thus forcing the Fed to monetise more. This is a foreign policy imperative: the bottom line is that America has gotten herself deeply in hock to foreign creditors. The Fed’s task is to keep the creditors buying debt, and to minimise rates so as little capital gets out of America as possible. Ben Bernanke has become precisely what many American accuse China: a currency manipulator.

There are a few secondary goals: reflating housing is one (more home equity means more consumption), and reflating equities is another. But all of these are subordinated to keeping rates cheap and thus delaying America’s inevitable fiscal (and thus foreign policy) meltdown.

Of course, under present circumstances, this is an impossible task. And without another round of QE, rates are rising.

From Bloomberg:

U.S. government securities lost 1 percent from the start of the year to March 29, Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes show.

And that — in one sentence — is why Bernanke will be printing again soon.

Breaking the Camel’s Back

Bill Bonner sounds scarily like me:

We are watching the destruction of an empire. All empires must go away sometime. They are natural things. And nature puts a time bomb in everything she creates.

The U.S. empire is doomed. Just like all the others that went before it. It is doomed by nature herself — condemned by the gods to blow up and die.

None of this should be surprising. We’ve seen this movie before. Hundreds of empires have come and gone. We know how this movie ends. More or less.

What we know for sure is that the U.S. is going broke. There is hardly any other plausible outcome. We’ve gone over the numbers so often we don’t need to repeat them.

Yes, it is true that the feds could still save themselves if they had the will. They could cut taxes to a flat 10% and spend only what they raised in tax revenue. That would do the trick from an economic point of view.

But it’s too late for that politically. Empires have lives of their own. They go forward…expanding…spending…stretching…until, boom, they go too far. Empires do not back up. Some merely go bankrupt. Others are defeated in war. All end disastrously.

Only one presidential candidate favors rescuing the nation’s finances and pulling the empire back from disaster. Ron Paul. He is considered such an unelectable kook that the newspapers barely mention him. And the papers are right. He is unelectable. Because he is opposed by the zombies.

Perhaps my last post got a little fatalistic, just as Bonner does here.

Certainly, the last thing I want is for America to fail, for any reason. As I explained, I believe America’s constitution to be perhaps the most liberty-defending in history.

But if imperial overstretch is the general problem,  things could get a lot hairier.

From the New York Times:

Atomic inspectors in Vienna confirmed Monday that Iran has begun enriching uranium at a new plant carved out of a mountain, an act of defiance that comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran over oil revenues and global sanctions.

More than five years ago, the United Nations Security Council began calling on Iran to stop purifying uranium, which can fuel nuclear reactors or atom bombs. Instead, Tehran accelerated its efforts, saying its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature.

Can America afford another war?

Yes — say the military-Keynesians. Just what we need — stimulus! That will do wonders for aggregate demand!

But I say no. Rates are artificially low due to quantitative easing, which has constricted the supply of Treasuries, and due to the Fed’s zero-interest rate policy that punishes saving and investment, and encourages leverage and credit creation. Rates could very easily rise for a number of reasons, which would mean the debt would become much more expensive to service. Even arch-Keynesian Paul Krugman foresaw the potential for such a scenario.

More importantly, the last thing America needs is to lose even more productivity, even more resources and even more manpower to another pointless debt-accruing war, particularly one which will drive the Eurasian powers into deeper anti-Americanism.

America needs her money, her people and her resources to develop her domestic economy and create energy independence. To create wealth, to innovate, to compete.

We will see who is right.

Italian Gold Heading to China?

James Rickards and Max Keiser suggest one of the logical conclusions of the Italian-debt blowup is that Italian gold will be auctioned off, perhaps to China:

With Italian external debt standing at $2.2 trillion, and Italy’s 2,400 tonne gold holdings worth only $137 billion, gold would have to rise pretty significantly for that option to come into play.

Of course, these figures ram home the idea that gold is significantly undervalued relative to current credit/debt levels. America’s external debt stands at $14.3 trillion, yet its gold reserves are worth just less than $500 billion.

Officially, gold is not money. Officially, levels of debt should have no tie to gold reserves (i.e., the ability to pay in the 6,000-year old store of value).

But with the current malfunction in the global economic system, which soon may have to deal with the consequences of Euro breakdown, or an oil shock, or a new middle eastern war, it is perfectly plausible (or even likely) that the newer fiat monetary systems — all of which are subject to counter-party risk — will crumple, and bring the old currency — gold — back into play.

While a chance of systemic collapse remains, nobody will be keen to see their gold reserves sold off. Nations with less gold than their rivals — particularly China who have recently shown particular interest in converting their FX hoard into gold — will be keen to see the system live on for as long as possible (to cash out into physical assets and gold).

And that is the fundamental contention — the Eurozone wants to keep its gold, but fear the catastrophic impact of Euro-breakdown — and the Chinese want to keep the system going while slowly accumulating gold.

I can see that there is quite a lot of scope for a middle ground. The real question is how much would a Sino-European bailout-for-gold deal cause gold to spike…