Mitt Romney’s campaign is founded on a huge contradiction:

Out of one side of his mouth he claims he wants to balance the budget, and out of the other side of his mouth he claims he wants to vastly increase military spending:

Romney set himself apart on Friday, arguing that a weaker military and a smaller global footprint will compromise America’s leadership in the world.

“The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors, and to defend our allies and ourselves,” he said.

Romney said he wants to increase the military budget, mentioning specific projects from naval shipbuilding to a missile defense system. It’s a traditional Republican view of defense that was music to this crowd’s ears.

Doesn’t he realise that military spending is already by far the largest component of non-discretionary spending?:

America is already the world’s greatest military spender:

In spite of this, America has struggled to defeat a bunch of Islamist lunatics and goatherders in Afghanistan — the same people that dragged down the Soviet Union. They too committed huge resources and capital to fighting absurd wars of imperial conquest (or should I say “proletarian liberation”) abroad, and subsequently their empire collapsed.

Americans make up less than 5% of the global population, but account for more than 50% of global military spending. America is already in massive debt, and the more America commits herself to policing the world, the bigger that debt seems to get. This situation is totally unsustainable. Cutting back on the imperialism will give America more manpower, brainpower, capital and resources to use at home to rebuild her domestic economy. The only Presidential candidate who talks about that fact — one which is in my opinion surely the most pressing of our time?

Ron Paul.

QE Infinity

A lot of hot air has shot about the internet about nominal GDP targeting, the brainchild of Scott Sumner.

Some (including the usual suspect) have said that it’s Bernanke’s next big bazooka in the (ahem) “war on economic instability“.

What the growing recognition for nominal GDP targeting reflects is a wider awakening to something I have been talking about for a long time: Irving Fisher’s theory of debt deflation. When monetary circulation drops, prices tend to drop and nominal debts tend to become much harder to repay. Therefore, the nominal value of those debts rises: workers and businesses have to produce more to pay down debts. Inevitably, this leads to more defaults. This can lead to what I (and a few others) have termed a “default cascade” — one set of large defaults leads to deflation, leading more defaults, and eventually resulting in systemic failure.

Nominal GDP targeting gives the Federal Reserve the scope to buy assets until they hit a nominal GDP target, ensuring that no such debt deflation will occur. It is — in my opinion — the most powerful monetary tool yet-imagined for reinflating burst bubbles.

As Scott Sumner puts it:

Now why is Nominal GDP so important? That’s the total dollar value of income in the economy. And if you think about it, most debts are contracted in nominal terms. So in a sense, the economy’s dollar income is a good metric for measuring people’s ability to repay these previously contracted nominal debts.

QE was — in terms of reinflating bubbles — a blunt weapon. It shot off an arbitrary amount of newly-printed/digitally-created money, with the explicit target of lowering net interest rates (and the implicit bonus of combating debt deflation). Nominal GDP targeting flips this on its head.

The problem is that this focus on monetary means will not solve the larger systemic economic problems that America and the Western world face.

As I wrote yesterday:

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, under normal circumstances that is great. But with underlying challenges like the ones we face, a transitory money-printing-driven spike is often not enough to address the structural problems, and these problems soon cause more monetary and financial woe.

What I can say about nominal GDP targeting is that it is probably the best monetary tool for buying more time. But that is completely and totally useless if America fails to address the real problems in the mean time, and assumes that the energy, military and social problems (e.g. zombification) that are the real cause of long-term economic woe will just disappear.

A larger problem is that this “solution” will probably do more (by duplicating their dollar holdings) to annoy America’s creditors, including China and Russia, who have significant scope to cause America real economic problems through a trade war.

Default & the Argentinosaurus

One thing is clear:

A huge mountain of interlocking, interconnected debt is a house of cards, and a monetary or financial system based upon such a thing is prone to collapse by default-cascade: one weak link in the chain breaks down the entire system.

But the next collapse of the debt-pyramid is a long-term trend that may be a long way — and a whole host of bailouts — away yet. A related but different problem is that of government spending. Here’s American government debt-to-GDP since the end of WW2:

After reducing the national debt to below 40% in the 70s and 80s America’s credit binges since that era have quickly piled on and on to the point that without a major war like World War 2, the national debt is above 100% of GDP, and therefore in a similar region to that period.

Simply, America’s government must find a way not only of balancing the budget, but of producing enough revenue to pay down the debt. This has inspired the current crop of Republican nominees to produce a slew of deficit-reduction plans, including Herman Cain’s hole-ridden 9-9-9 plan  which shifts a significant burden of taxation from the wealthy and onto the middle classes. Worse still, taxes on spending hurt the economy by discouraging spending. Want to expand your business with the purchase of new capital goods? 9% tax. Want to increase revenues through advertising? 9% tax. Want to spend your earnings on goods? 9% tax. That’s a hardly a policy that will encourage economic activity in an economy that is (for better or worse) led by consumption.

Whichever way the tax burden falls, the sad reality is that any plan that focuses on taxing-more-than-disbursing is just sucking productive capital out of the economy, constraining growth. The other “remedy” inflating the currency (to inflate away the debt), punishes savers, whose investment is necessary for productive growth.

Dean Baker shows a historical case of such an event. Argentina, crippled by its peg to the dollar, defaulted on its debt since 2001:

All the crushing weight of taking productive capital out of the economy crushed growth. Then Argentina defaulted on its debts, and rebounded, astonishingly. Of course, most of blogosphere is looking at Greece in this debate. I am not, because I recognise the Argentinosaurus in the room: America’s foreign-held debt load (payment for all those Nixonian free lunches) is undermining the dollar’s status as global reserve currency, a pattern of development that will ultimately force exporters — on whom America relies — out of exporting to America for worthless sacks of paper and digital. International trade has always been on a quid pro quo basis — and since 1971 that has worked fine for America — dollars have been a necessary prerequisite to acquire oil, other commodities and supplies and pay dollar-denominated debts.

So I think the time has come to explicitly advocate a radical solution to save the dollar — but just as importantly to save the middle classes, and productive capital from the punitive taxation (and welfare cuts) required by austerity.

America needs to balance its budget by gradually (and with negotiation) defaulting on its debts. The first prong of this is totally defaulting on the debt held by the Federal Reserve — this is simply just a circuitous way of cycling money from government to a private agency and back again to the government, while the private agency (the Fed) pays member banks 6% annual no-risk dividends. The second prong is to begin negotiations with international creditors to revalue American debt proportionate to what America can afford to pay in the long run.

Far from infuriating creditors, I think that the evidence shows that this move would benefit everyone. A strong American economy is important to Eurasian producers and exporters. An American-economy dragged down by debt-forced-austerity means a smaller market to sell to, and to gain investment from. The only significant counter-demand for such an arrangement might be a balanced-budget amendment, so that America could no longer borrow more than it can raise in revenues.

Of course, there are other avenues to explore: slashing military spending (and giving the money back to the taxpayer, or to the jobless, or to infrastructure programs) is one such avenue: as I have explained at length before, American military spending is subsidising a flat-market, and making non-American goods artificially competitive in America.

But the real issue today is that liberals mostly want to talk about higher taxes, and conservatives mostly want to talk about austerity. They’re missing the Argentinosaurus in the room: the transfer of wealth from the American public — and the productive American economy — to foreign (and domestic) creditors, and the downward pressure that this is exerting on American output.

Debts — even AAA-rates debt (or AAAAAAAAA as an Oracle once put it) — all carry risk: the risk that the debtor is getting into too much debt and won’t be able to pay back his obligations in a timely or honest fashion. Creditors are making a mistake to be ending money to a fiscal nightmare whose only economic refuge is money printing.

So will America continue to tread the bone-ridden road of austerity, high taxation and crushing economic contraction, leading to excessive money-printing, and ending in the death of the dollar and an inflationary firestorm? Or will it choose the sustainable route of negotiated default, low taxes, a return to productive, organic growth, and the opportunity to decrease reliance on foreign energy and goods?

What’s that sound? No, not the crashing Argentinosaurus.

The Housing Bubble Priced in Gold

In the United States, the post-sub prime housing crash has meant that consumer spending has stagnated. People are simply not remortgaging their homes to buy boats or other such consumer goods anymore, because there is no longer the expectation that price rises will pay for the boat. This is because prices are slumping due to excess supply built during the peak years. For people who don’t own property in the United States, this price crash has allowed them to get a foot on the property ladder, which is broadly a good thing. Keynesians might argue that the slump in consumer spending is broadly a bad thing, but it’s not: it was never sustainable in the first place. Boosting GDP through unsustainable spending is a short recipe for bubbles.

In the United Kingdom, the story is different. Property prices haven’t really crashed:

Continue reading

Teabagging for the Military Industrial Complex

From Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips, via the Economist:

If we decided to build a couple of new carriers, thousands of workers would be hired for the shipyards. Thousands of employees would be hired for the steel mills that would provide the steel for the hull and various sub contractors would hire thousands. Do you know what that means?It means they would receive paychecks and go out and spend that money. That would help a recovery. That is a shovel ready project!Increasing spending for the military does a couple of things. It not only not only stimulates the economy, it protects our nation. That is a better investment than say spending money on teaching Chinese prostitutes how to drink responsibly.

I hold very strong views regarding the claim that military spending helps the economy. As I explained previously:

The most obvious example of the unproductive use of money is war. Time, labour, materials, ideas and spending go into warfare, and what comes out? Destruction — bombs are destroyed when they hit the ground, and they destroy the area around which they hit. They destroy infrastructure, they kill people, and they create hatred and resentment that very often triggers more and greater warfare.

Most bizarrely, the Tea Party has since its inception (supposedly) been committed to reducing government expenditures, to pay down debt. Military expenditures are still huge. And is America safer than ever? Is the additional military spending helping us pay down debt?

No.  America’s indebtedness allows China to boss America around. The level of taxation and debt necessary for high military spending is preventing America from investing in the poor, in youth, in alternative energy, and in infrastructure that would create wealth, opportunity and security for the nation, instead of short-termist gains for corporations, bureaucrats and the military industrial complex.

Phillips’ bizarre statement adds fuel to the fire of the view that the Tea Party is (largely) a manipulated group of poor and lower-middle class voters who are in fact manoeuvring for the interests of a tiny corporatist and industrialist elite. The “all government spending is bad” rhetoric has quickly been turned around to “spend less on welfare, spend more on bombing brown people to death”, the rallying cry of big government neo-Conservatives like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. That administration increased the national debt by a higher proportion than any Presidency in history, creating deeper debt woes, and handing huge power and wealth to investors like the Communist Party of China. Those early anti-tax and anti-debt protests were long ago astroturfed by corporatists who want more and more government handouts to big business and to the military industrial complex.

Should you hate the Tea Party? No. The Tea Party protesting on the street is not your enemy: the poor and lower-middle class are “taxed enough already”, often paying a higher nominal income tax rate than hedge fund billionaires. Like many in America, they and their children are increasingly unemployed. Their house prices have fallen. Their businesses have stumbled. They are having difficulty getting loans to invest in new projects and businesses. So the Tea Party are right to get mad. They are right to get angry. But their targets — immigrants, welfare recipients, climate change scientists, foreigners and liberals — are way off the mark. The real enemy of freedom in America is corporatism, and billionaires who live off government handouts and military spending, who prevent tax hikes on the super-rich, and who prevent spending on jobs and infrastructure for the poor. The Tea Party movement has been deliberately misdirected, and now we see what its leaders are gunning for: more military spending, more government handouts to big business, more jobs for the boys. This is what has to end for America to get back on its feet. So once again, I give you Eisenhower’s 1961 speech: