Whitewashing the Economic Establishment

Brad DeLong makes an odd claim:

So the big lesson is simple: trust those who work in the tradition of Walter Bagehot, Hyman Minsky, and Charles Kindleberger. That means trusting economists like Paul Krugman, Paul Romer, Gary Gorton, Carmen Reinhart, Ken Rogoff, Raghuram Rajan, Larry Summers, Barry Eichengreen, Olivier Blanchard, and their peers. Just as they got the recent past right, so they are the ones most likely to get the distribution of possible futures right.

Larry Summers? If we’re going to base our economic policy on trusting in Larry Summers, should we not reappoint Greenspan as Fed Chairman? Or — better yet — appoint Charles Ponzi as head of the SEC? Or a fox to guard the henhouse? Or a tax cheat as Treasury Secretary? Or a war criminal as a peace ambassador? (Yes — reality is more surreal than anything I could imagine).

The bigger point though, as Steve Keen and Randall Wray have alluded to, is that DeLong’s list is the left-wing of the neoclassical school of economics — all the same people who (to a greater or lesser extent) believed that we were in a Great Moderation, and that thanks to the wonders of modernity we had escaped the old world of depressions and mass unemployment. People to whom this depression — judging by their pre-2008 output — was something of a surprise.

Now the left-wing neoclassicists may have done less badly than the right-wing neoclassicists Fama, Cochrane and Greenspan, but that’s not saying much. Steve Keen pointed out:

People like Wynne Godley, Ann Pettifors, Randall Wray, Nouriel Roubini, Dean Baker, Peter Schiff and I had spent years warning that a huge crisis was coming, and had a variety of debt-based explanations as to why it was inevitable. By then, Godley, Wray and I and many other Post Keynesian economists had spent decades imbibing and developing the work of Hyman Minsky.

To my knowledge, of Delong’s motley crew, only Raghuram Rajan was in print with any warnings of an imminent crisis before it began.

DeLong is, in my view, trying to whitewash his contemporaries who did not see the crisis coming, and inaccurately trying to associate them with Hyman Minsky whose theory of debt deflation anticipated many dimensions of the crisis. Adding insult to injury, DeLong seems unwilling to credit those like Schiff and Keen (not to mention Ron Paul) who saw the housing bubble and the excessive debt mountain for what it was — a disaster waiting to happen.

The most disturbing thing about his thesis is that all of the left-neoclassicists he is trying to whitewash have not really been very right about the last four years at all, as DeLong freely admits:

But we – or at least I – have got significant components of the last four years wrong. Three things surprised me (and still do). The first is the failure of central banks to adopt a rule like nominal GDP targeting or its equivalent. Second, I expected wage inflation in the North Atlantic to fall even farther than it has – towards, even if not to, zero. Finally, the yield curve did not steepen sharply for the United States: federal funds rates at zero I expected, but 30-year US Treasury bonds at a nominal rate of 2.7% I did not.

Yet we are supposed to take seriously the widely proposed solution? Throw money at the problem, and assume that just by raising aggregate demand all the other problems will just go away?

As I wrote back in August 2011:

These troubles are non-monetary: military overspending, political and financial corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, systemic fragility, and so forth.

These problems won’t just go away — throwing money around may boost figures in the short term, but the underlying problems will remain.

I believe that the only real way out is to unleash the free market and the spirit of entrepreneurialism. And the only way to do that is to end corporate welfare, end the bailouts (let failed institutions fail), end American imperialism, and slash barriers to entry. Certainly, cleaning up the profligate financial sector would help too (perhaps mandatory gladiatorial sentences for financial crimes would help? No more paying £200 million for manipulating a $350 trillion market — fight a lion in the arena instead!), as would incentives to create the infrastructure people need, and move toward energy independence, green energy and reindustrialisation.

Then again, I suppose there is a silver lining to this cloud. The wronger the establishment are in the long run, the more people will look for new economic horizons.

Paul vs Paul: Round #2

Bloomberg viewers estimate that Ron Paul was the winner of the clash of the Pauls (Ron Paul fans, of course, are very studious at phoning in their support him for). But that is very much beside the point. This wasn’t really a debate. Other than the fascinating moment where Krugman denied defending the economic policies of Diocletian, very little new was said, and the two combatants mainly talked past each other.

The first debate happened early last decade.

To wit:

And so, round two. Krugman wants more inflation; Paul is scared of the prospect. From Paul’s FT editorial yesterday:

Control of the world’s economy has been placed in the hands of a banking cartel, which holds great danger for all of us. True prosperity requires sound money, increased productivity, and increased savings and investment. The world is awash in US dollars, and a currency crisis involving the world’s reserve currency would be an unprecedented catastrophe. No amount of monetary expansion can solve our current financial problems, but it can make those problems much worse.

Or, as Professor Krugman sees it:

Would a rise in inflation to 3 percent or even 4 percent be a terrible thing? On the contrary, it would almost surely help the economy.

How so? For one thing, large parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years; this debt burden is arguably the main thing holding private spending back and perpetuating the slump. Modest inflation would, however, reduce that overhang — by eroding the real value of that debt — and help promote the private-sector recovery we need. Meanwhile, other parts of the private sector (like much of corporate America) are sitting on large hoards of cash; the prospect of moderate inflation would make letting the cash just sit there less attractive, acting as a spur to investment — again, helping to promote overall recover.

Ron Paul believes that inflationary interventions into the dollar economy will have unpredictable and dangerous ramifications. Paul Krugman believes that a little more inflation will spur economic activity and decrease residual debt overhang. Krugman gives no credence to the prospect of inflation spiralling out of hand, or of such policies triggering other deleterious side-effects, like a currency crisis.

The prospect of a currency crisis is a topic I have covered in depth lately: as more Eurasian nations ditch the dollar as reserve currency, more dollars (there are $5 trillion floating around Asia, in comparison to a domestic monetary base of just $1.8 trillion — the dollar is an absurdly internationalised currency) will be making their way back into the domestic American economy. Will that have an impact?

I don’t really know how much of this is to do with the Fed’s reflationary policies, and how much is to do with the United States’ endangered role as global hegemon. I tend to think that the dollar hegemony has always been backed by American military force, and with the American military overstretched, the dollar’s role comes into question. If America can’t play the global policeman for global trade, why would the dollar be the currency on global trade?

However it must be noted that America’s creditors do believe that their assets are threatened by the Fed’s inflationism.

As the Telegraph noted last year:

There has been a hostile reaction by China, Brazil and Germany, among others, to the Federal Reserve’s decision to resume quantitative easing.

Or as a Xinhua editorial rather bluntly put it:

China, the largest creditor of the world’s sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China’s dollar assets.

Of course, China may be totally bluffing, or getting it wrong on the danger of inflation to its assets.

If the reflationism is angering the exporter nations perhaps it is a cause for concern. After all, if America’s consumption-based economy is dependent on China’s continued exportation, and Krugman is advocating inflating away their debt-denominated financial assets, then to what extent do Krugman’s suggestions imperil the trans-Pacific consumer-producer relationship?

And this is a crucial matter — there is nothing, I think, more crucial than the free availability of goods and resources through the trade infrastructure. Getting into a fight with China is risky.

As commenter Thomas P. Seager noted yesterday:

[The situation today] is directly analogous to the first Oil Shock in 1973. In the decades prior, the US had been a major oil producer. However, efficiency gains and discoveries overseas resulting in an incrementally increasing dependence of foreign petroleum. Price signals failed to materialize that would caution policy makers and industrialists of the risks.

Then, the disruption of oil supplies from the Middle East caused tremendous economic dislocations.

Manufacturing is undergoing the same process. The supply chain disruption from the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami was merely a warning shot. Imagine if S Korean manufacturing were taken off-line for any length of time (a plausible scenario). The disruption to US industry would be catastrophic.

In the name of increased efficiency, we have introduced brittleness.

Time will tell whether Krugman’s desire for more inflation is wise or not.

Anything the Government Gives You, the Government Can Take Away

From the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernanke vs Greenspan?

Submitted by Andrew Fruth of AcceptanceTake

Bernanke and Greenspan appear to have differing opinions on whether the Fed will monetize the debt.

Bernanke, on behalf of the Federal Reserve, said in 2009 at a House Financial Services Committee that “we’re not going to monetize the debt.

Greenspan, meanwhile, on Meet the Press in 2011 that “there is zero probability of default” because the U.S. can always print more money.

But they can’t both be true…

There is only 0% probability of formal default if the Fed monetizes the debt. If they refuse, and creditors refuse to buy bonds when current bonds rollover, then the U.S. would default. But Ben said the Fed will never monetize the debt back on June 3, 2009. That’s curious, because in November 2010 in what has been termed “QE2” the Fed announced it would buy $600 billion in long-term Treasuries and buy an additional $250-$300 of Treasuries in which the $250-$300 billion was from previous investments.

Is that monetization? I would say yes, but it’s sort of tricky to define. For example, when the Fed conducts its open market operations it buys Treasuries to influence interest rates which has been going on for a long time — way before the current U.S. debt crisis.

So then what determines whether the Fed has conducted this egregious form of Treasury buying we call “monetization of the debt?”

The only two factors that can possibly differentiate monetization from open market operations is 1) the size of the purchase and 2) the intent behind the purchase.

This is how the size of Treasury purchases have changed since 2009:

Since new data has come out, the whole year of 2011 monetary authority purchases is $642 billion – not quite as high as in the graph, but still very high.

Clearly you can see the difference in the size of the purchases even though determining what size is considered monetization is rather arbitrary.

Then there’s the intent behind the purchase. That’s what I think Bernanke is talking about when he says he will not monetize the debt. In Bernanke’s mind the intent (at least the public lip service intent) is to avoid deflation and to boost the economy – not to bail the United States out of its debt crisis by printing money. Bernanke still contends that he has an exit policy and that he will wind down the monetary base when the time is appropriate.

So In Bernanke’s mind, he may not consider buying Treasuries — even at QE2 levels — “monetizing the debt.”

The most likely stealth monetization tactics Bernanke can use — while still keeping a straight face — while saying he will not monetize the debt, will be an extreme difference between the Fed Funds Rate and the theoretical rate it would be without money printing, and loosening loan requirements/adopting policies that will get the banks to multiply out their massive amounts of excess reserves.

If, for example, the natural Fed Funds rate — the rate without Fed intervention — is 19% and the Fed is keeping the rate at 0%, then the amount of Treasuries the Fed would have to buy to keep that rate down would be huge — yet Bernanke could say he’s just conducting normal open market operations.

On the other hand, if the banks create money out of nothing via the fractional reserve lending system and a certain percentage of that new money goes into Treasuries, Bernanke can just say there is strong private demand for Treasuries even if his policies were the reason behind excessive credit growth that allowed for the increased purchase of Treasuries.

Maybe Bernanke means he will not monetize a particular part of the debt that was being referred to in the video. Again, though, he could simply hide it under an open market operations 0% policy or encourage the banking system to expand the money supply.

Whatever the case, if you ever hear Bernanke say “the Federal Reserve will not monetize the debt” again, feel free to ignore him. When he says that, it doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t buy a large quantity of Treasuries with new money created out of nothing.

Remember, Greenspan says there’s “zero probability of default” because the U.S. can always print more money. Does Greenspan know something here? There’s only zero probability if the Fed commits to monetizing the debt as needed. If Greenspan knows something there will be monetization of the debt, even if Bernanke wants to call it something else.

The Edge of Bankruptcy

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!”

— Ron Paul

I have in the past very briefly made the case for why it is not time to attack Iran:

The truth is that Iran (and more explicitly a strong and united Eurasia) is only a threat to America if America chooses to continue the absurd and destructive path of a world-dominating petrodollar superpower, dependent on foreign oil and resources, and with a foreign policy designed to (essentially) extort these things from the rest of the world.

Today, I want to go a little further: While — unlike some readers — I believe that Islamic terrorism is a real (though minor) threat, I believe that America’s neoconservative foreign policy is the greatest threat to American interests.

Neoconservatism holds that American and Western civilisation has a unique moral role in policing the world. That means military commitment, and very often war. That, in turn, means spending:

Spending has meant huge deb acquisition:

There are many historical antecedents of empires convinced of their own special role in history, and determined to impose it on the rest of the world by force. Look at Rome — driven into the ground by the cost of imperialism, and its “bread and circuses” welfare state.

A greater example still is Britain:

This graph is a tale of imperial overstretch, a tale of debt acquired by a colonial power playing world policeman, and trying to maintain the status quo.

Imperial Britain’s debt load hit its peak at the very point when its empire crumbled into the sand. This is not a co-incidence, and the good news for America is that once Britain ended its global role, growth soon returned, and Britain’s debt-to-GDP ratio fell back to a sustainable level.

Of course, America’s debt position might be more sustainable if she was still the world’s greatest industrial powerhouse. But she has instead exported much of her productivity to her hostile creditor, China:

The deindustrialisation of the West has allowed newly industrialised nations, especially China, to build up huge monetary wealth. This is a map showing the net of each nation’s reserves, minus external debt:

And neoconservatives continue to believe that America — dependent on foreign goods and resources, hugely indebted to hostile nations, and war fatigued — is somehow in a position to expand her empire, and to attack more countries?

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.

Europe to Geithner: “Go Away”

And what might put Europe and the global financial system to the sword? Recrimination. It’s not my fault it’s everyone else’s fault. Now former ECB policy-maker and Euro-hawk Jurgen Stark has weighed in to tell Euro-hopping U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner (in less direct language) to shut up and go home.

From Zero Hedge:

Finger-pointing in the direction of Europe shouldn’t prevent others from putting their budgets in order and doing their homework before handing out advice to Europeans.

Of course, Stark has a point. Europe is a complete mess, European policy makers are stumbling and slumbering forward to the gates of Hades. But America? The American economy is a jaundiced sham; where Europe has maintained a sliver of its former industrial might (i.e. supply chains, heavy & light industry, consumer manufacturing) in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, America prefers to ship a significant majority of its consumption (and even a lot of its infrastructure) from China (and subsidise the shipping costs through massive military deployment).

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9/11 — Ten Years On

The attacks of 9/11 were a horrendous deed.

What makes me angrier than 9/11? Making the mistake of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s exactly what the Salafis and Wahhabis want — an easy way of selling their poisonous narrative of eternal and irreconcilable conflict between Islam and the West. And it costs billions upon trillions of dollars.

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America Priced in Gold

Let’s imagine that the gold standard was not abolished in 1971, and was instead maintained — or, alternatively, assume that only gold is money and that other things are merely paper intermediaries. What would be the shape of economic data under that paradigm? Here’s retail gasoline:

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The Problem With Military Keynesianism

Did World War 2 really “get us out of the Depression?” According to Paul Krugman it sure did:

Think about World War 2, right, that was actually negative social product spending, and it brought us out.

Really? Spending vast swathes of capital, labour, life, sweat, tears, infrastructure, time and effort to fight a war “brought us out.” Well, that’s news to me. World War 2 was one huge festering conflagration, diverting productive resources to global destruction. Now that was the fault of Hitler, not Chamberlain, or Churchill, or Roosevelt, or indeed Krugman. But the point stands — the opportunity cost of World War 2 was all of the productivity, all of the infrastructure, all of the life, all of the goods and services, everything that could have been created in lieu of fighting the war. Sure, the years following World War 2 were boom years — but that’s precisely because societies mobilised to compensate for the years lost to destruction, infernos, genocide and bomb building. In reality, the 1950s were a lost decade — lost in making up for the destructive excesses of the 1940s.

The Parable of the Broken Window

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