Currency Competition

The greatest trouble with monopolies is what they take away — competition. Competition is a beautiful mechanism; in exercising their purchasing power and demand preferences, individuals run the economy — it is their spending that allocates, labour, capital, resources and brainpower. It’s their spending that transmits the information that determines what gets made, what doesn’t, which businesses succeed and which don’t. Individuals exercise a far greater political and economic power in a free economy when they spend, and when they work than when they vote. So without competition, the power of choice suffers, and businesses, markets and societies can become economically stagnant and rampantly corrupt; look at North Korea and the myriad other examples of once-prosperous societies impoverished within the context of a lack of competition.

In a free market, monopolies are potentially less problematic because without competition a monopolist can become complacent and inefficient, allowing competitors a foothold to grab market share; consider the near-monopoly of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer in the 1990s, which began to melt away via the rise of Apple, Google, Firefox and the poorly-received Windows Vista in the 2000s. While a free market is not a foolproof guarantee of a competitive market — and sometimes regulation is necessary to prevent the formation of cartels — it is the closest thing to such a thing.

Monopolies can become much more problematic when a monopoly develops and the holders of that monopoly utilise the power of the state to protect their dominance. Whether their business is food, or clothes, or computers, or money, a state-protected monopoly limits competition and distorts the process of allocating of resources, capital and labour.

If we are for competition in goods and services, why should we disclude competition in the money industry? Would choice in the money industry not benefit the consumer in the manner that choice in other industries does? Why should the form and nature of the medium of exchange be monopolised? Shouldn’t the people — as individuals — be able to make up their own mind about the kind of money that they want to use to engage in transactions?

Earlier, this year Ben Bernake and Ron Paul had an exchange on this subject:

Bernanke contends that it is possible to transact in a competing currency like Yen, or pesos or bitcoin. This is technically correct. But, as Ron Paul points out, there are still a number of laws which are arguably preventing a level playing field:

The first step [to real currency competition] consists of eliminating legal tender laws. Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution forbids the States from making anything but gold and silver a legal tender in payment of debts. States are not required to enact legal tender laws, but should they choose to, the only acceptable legal tender is gold and silver, the two precious metals that individuals throughout history and across cultures have used as currency. There is nothing in the Constitution that grants Congress the power to enact legal tender laws. Congress has the power to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, but not to declare a legal tender. Yet, there is a section of US Code, 31 USC 5103, that purports to establish US coins and currency, including Federal Reserve notes, as legal tender.

The second step to legalizing currency competition is to eliminate laws that prohibit the operation of private mints. One private enterprise which attempted to popularize the use of precious metal coins was Liberty Services, the creators of the Liberty Dollar. The government felt threatened by the Liberty Dollar, as Liberty Services had all their precious metal coins seized by the FBI and Secret Service in November of 2007.

The final step to reestablishing competition in currency is to eliminate capital gains and sales taxes on gold and silver coins. Under current federal law, coins are considered collectibles, and are liable for capital gains taxes. Coins held for less than one year are taxed at the short-term capital gains rate, which is the normal income tax rate, while coins held for more than a year are taxed at the collectibles rate of 28 percent.

This is not a radical change. In this age of cashless payment people can simply load their alternative currency onto a debit card and spend it — similar to the gold-denominated debit card currently available to non-Americans from Peter Schiff’s EuroPacific Bank. In this age of Google and ubiquitous computing, exchange rates can be calculated instantaneously.

If people and businesses choose to stick to government-backed fiat money and refuse other currencies, that is their prerogative. It is possible that other media of exchange would not become popular; but at least there would be a more level playing field. Under the status quo, there is no level playing field.

It is often said in interventionist circles that Bernanke is too tame a central banker, and that right now the people need a greater money supply. Well, set the society free to determine their own money supply based on the demand for money; let the people decide.

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A Critique of the Methodology of Mises & Rothbard

I find myself in the middle of a huge blowup between Max Keiser and Tom Woods over Mises, Menger and Austrian economics and feel that this is an opportune moment to express some doubts I have regarding contemporary Austrian methodology.

I am to some extent an Austrian, on three counts.

First, I subscribe to the notion that value is subjective; that goods’ and services’ values differ according to different individuals because they serve various uses to various users, and that value is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Second, I subscribe to the notion that free markets succeed because of the sensitive price feedback mechanism that allocates resources according to the real underlying shape of supply and demand and conversely the successful long-term allocation of labour, capital and resources by a central planner is impossible (or extremely unlikely), because of the lack of a market feedback mechanism.

Third, I subscribe to the notion that human thought is neither linear nor rational, and the sphere of human behaviour is complicated and multi-dimensional, and that attempts to model it using linear, mechanistic methods will in the long run tend to fail.

It is not, then, the overall drift of Misesean-Rothbardian economics that I find problematic — indeed, I often find myself drawing similar conclusions by different means — but rather the methodology.

I reached my views — some of which new evidence will eventually wash away — through a lot of theorising mixed with much careful observation and consideration of case studies, historical examples and all sorts of real world data. I love data; and one of the things that attracted me toward thinking and writing about economics is the beautiful superabundant growth of new data opened up to the world by computers and the internet. No, it is not universal or complete, and therefore building a perfect predictive model is not possible, but that is not the point. If I want to know how the corn price in the USA moved during the first half of the twentieth century, the data is accessible. If I want to know the rate of GDP growth in Ghana in 2009, the data is accessible. If I want to know the crime rate in France, the data is accessible.

Miseseans choose to reach their conclusions not from data, but instead from praxeology; pure deduction and logic.

This is quite unlike the early Austrians like Menger who mainly used a mixture of deductionism and data.

According to Rothbard:

Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals. This concept of action contrasts to purely reflexive, or knee-jerk, behavior, which is not directed toward goals. The praxeological method spins out by verbal deduction the logical implications of that primordial fact. In short, praxeological economics is the structure of logical implications of the fact that individuals act.

And Mises:

Our statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts.

This is completely wrongheaded. All human thought and action is derived from experience; Mises’ ideas were filtered from his life, filtered from his experience. That is an empirical fact for Mises lived, Mises breathed, Mises experienced, Mises thought. Nothing Mises or his fellow praxeologists have written can be independent of that — it was all ultimately derived from human experience. And considering the Austrian focus on subjectivity it is bizarre that Mises and his followers’ economic paradigm is wrapped around the elimination of experience and subjectivity from economic thought.

If, as I often do, I produce a deductive hypothesis — for instance, that the end of Bretton Woods might produce soaring income inequality — it is essential that I refer to data to show whether or not my hypothesis is accurate. If I make a deductive prediction about the future, it is essential that I refer to data to determine whether or not my prediction has been correct.

Exposing a hypothesis to the light of evidence augments its strong parts and washes away its weaker ones. When the evidence changes, I change my opinion irrespective of what my deductions led me to believe or what axioms those deductions were based upon. Why reach the conclusion that central planning can induce civilisational failure through pure logic when the historical examples of Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia and Diocletian’s Rome illustrate this in gory detail?

This is elementary stuff. Deduction is important — indeed, it is a critical part of forming a hypothesis — but deductions are confirmed and denied not by logic, but by the shape of the evidence. In rejecting modelling — which has produced fallacious work like DSGE and RBCTbut also some relatively successful models like those of Minsky and Keen — praxeologists have made the mistake of rejecting empiricism entirely. This has confined their methods to a grainier simulation; that of their own verbal logic.

It is not necessary to define a framework through mathematical models in order to practice empirical economics. Keynes was cited by Rothbard in support of the notion that economics should not be fixated on mathematical models:

It is a great fault of symbolic pseudo-mathematical methods of formalizing a system of economic analysis, that they expressly assume strict independence between the factors involved and lose
all their cogency and authority if this hypothesis is disallowed: whereas, in ordinary discourse, where we are not blindly manipulating but know all the time what we are doing and what the words mean, we can keep “at the back of our heads” the necessary reserves and qualifications and the adjustments which we have to make later on, in a way in which we cannot keep complicated partial differentials “at the back” of several pages of algebra which assume that they all vanish. Too large a proportion of recent “mathematical” economics are mere concoctions, as
imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

And I agree. But nowhere did any of the figures cited by Rothbard; not Keynes, nor Wild, nor Frola, nor Menger endorse a wholly deductionist framework. All of these theorists wanted to work with reality, not play with logic. Create a theory; test; refine; test; refine; etc.

Praxeologists claim that praxeology does not make predictions about the future, and that any predictions made by praxeologists are not praxeological predictions, but instead are being made in a praxeologist’s capacity as an economic historian. But this is a moot point; all predictions about the future are deductive. Unless predictions are being made using an alien framework (e.g. a neoclassical or Keynesian model) what else is the praxeologist using but the verbal and deductive methodology of praxeology?

It has been the predictive success of contemporary Austrian economists — at least in identifying general trends often ignored by the mainstream — that has drawn young minds toward Misesean-Rothbardian economics.

Of those economists who predicted the 2008 crisis, a significant number were Austrians:

Yet Miseseans including Peter Schiff damaged their hard-earned credibility with a series of failed predictions of imminent interest rate spikes and hyperinflation of the dollar by 2010.

That is not to say that interest rate spikes and high inflation cannot emerge further down the line. But these predictive failures were symptomatic of deduction-oriented reasoning; Miseseans who forewarned of imminent hyperinflation over-focused on their deduction that a tripling of the monetary base would produce huge inflation, while ignoring the empirical reality of Japan, where a huge post-housing-bubble expansion of the monetary base produced no such huge inflation. Reality is often far, far, far more complex than either mathematical models or verbal logic anticipates.

Like all sciences, economics should be driven by data. For if we are not driven by data than we are just daydreaming.

As Menger — the Father of Austrianism, who favoured a mixture of deductive and empirical methods — noted:

The merits of a theory always depends on the extent to which it succeeds in determining the true factors (those that correspond to real life) constituting the economic phenomena and the laws according to which the complex phenomena of political economy result from the simple elements.

Praxeology is leading Austrian economics down a dead end.

Austrianism would do well to return to its root — Menger, not Mises.

Peter Schiff Gets China

Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

Sun Tzu

From Slate:

Slate: Your debate opponent Minxin Pei wrote in Foreign Policy last summer, “Although Asia today may have one of the world’s most dynamic economies, it does not seem to play an equally inspiring role as a thought leader.” Do you agree that China falls short on innovation?

Schiff: No. There’s a lot of creativity coming out of Asia, a lot of patents. The big problem for countries like China and India is that they still subsidize the U.S. They buy our Treasury bonds and lend us all this money so we can keep consuming. That’s a big subsidy and a heavy burden.

Slate: Doesn’t China need to lend us money so we’ll buy Chinese exports?

Schiff: No. They can use their money to develop their own economy, produce better and more abundant products for their own citizens. It’s a farce to think that the only thing China can do with its output and savings is lend it to the U.S. government, especially when we can’t pay it back.

Now I have not always seen eye to eye with Peter Schiff; I am still waiting for the hyperinflation that Schiff told us would hit sometime in 2010 (clue: hyperinflation is not coming without something like an oil shock, a war, a breakdown in the global trade infrastructure). But it’s nice to know that I am not just a lone voice in the wilderness.

It is sad and perplexing how many “serious thinkers” have not understood the fundamental fragility of the present arrangement.

As I wrote over the weekend (and as I have continually thrusted home over the past 6 months):

The truth is that there is no such thing as a service economy. Our economy today (other than in places like, say, North Korea) is truly global. All of those service workers — and every cent of “services” GDP — is supported by real-world productivity, much of which takes place outside the West — the productivity of the transport system, the productivity of manufacturers, the productivity of agriculture.

The continued prosperity of the West is dependent on the continued flow of goods and services into the West.

Schiff concludes the interview by describing what he believes will take place once Eurasia thrusts off America’s demands for a free lunch:

We’d have to immediately cut government spending dramatically. Diminish our consumption. We wouldn’t be going to the malls and buying stuff. The whole U.S. economy would have to restructure along the lines of Americans being frugal, saving their money, and working harder. A lot of government workers would have to lose their jobs. Those who didn’t would suffer big cuts in their pay. People who worked in the service sector — in banking, health care, or education — would also struggle if China stopped subsidizing us.

The first choice America will face is whether she will choose to continue to try to run her foreign military empire, or instead to maintain domestic infrastructure. The greater danger is that furious Western politicians might just go and start World War 3, in the name of trying to maintain American geostrategic primacy.

The Old Paul Krugman

I’d like readers to take a look at something Professor Krugman wrote in the New York Times in 2003:

During the 1990s I spent much of my time focusing on economic crises around the world — in particular, on currency crises like those that struck Southeast Asia in 1997 and Argentina in 2001. The timing of such crises is hard to predict. But there are warning signs, like big trade and budget deficits and rising debt burdens.

And there’s one thing I can’t help noticing: a third world country with America’s recent numbers — its huge budget and trade deficits, its growing reliance on short-term borrowing from the rest of the world — would definitely be on the watch list.

I’m not the only one thinking that. Lehman Brothers has a mathematical model known as Damocles that it calls “an early warning system to identify the likelihood of countries entering into financial crises.” Developing nations are looking pretty safe these days. But applying the same model to some advanced countries “would set Damocles’ alarm bells ringing.” Lehman’s press release adds, “Most conspicuous of these threats is the United States.”

O.K., let’s run through some reassuring counterarguments.

First, economists are very good at devising models that would have predicted past crises, but each new crisis tends to happen where and when they didn’t expect it. So even though our budget deficit is bigger relative to the economy than Argentina’s in 2000, and our trade deficit is bigger relative to the economy than Indonesia’s in 1996, our experience needn’t be the same.

Second, nasty crises in third world countries have a lot to do with the fact that their debt is in foreign currency, usually dollars. As a result, when the peso or the rupiah plunges, debts explode while assets don’t, and balance sheets collapse. By contrast, thanks to the special international role of the dollar, America’s burgeoning foreign debt is in our own currency.

Finally, financial markets are generally willing to give advanced countries the benefit of the doubt. Even when an advanced country seems to be deep in a financial hole, lenders usually assume that it will somehow find the resources and political will to climb back out.

So is America safe, despite its scary numbers?

Third world countries typically suffer from institutional weaknesses. They have poor corporate governance: you can’t trust business accounting, and insiders often enrich themselves at stockholders’ expense. Meanwhile, cronyism is rampant, with close personal and financial links between powerful politicians and the very companies that benefit from public largesse.

The crisis won’t come immediately. For a few years, America will still be able to borrow freely, simply because lenders assume that things will somehow work out.

But at a certain point we’ll have a Wile E. Coyote moment. For those not familiar with the Road Runner cartoons, Mr. Coyote had a habit of running off cliffs and taking several steps on thin air before noticing that there was nothing underneath his feet. Only then would he plunge.

What will that plunge look like? It will certainly involve a sharp fall in the dollar and a sharp rise in interest rates. In the worst-case scenario, the government’s access to borrowing will be cut off, creating a cash crisis that throws the nation into chaos.

I know: it all sounds unbelievable. But would you have believed, three years ago, that the U.S. budget would plunge so quickly from a record surplus to a record deficit? And would you have believed that, confronted with that plunge, our leaders would offer excuses rather than solutions?

So. The global economy has certainly changed since 2003. And the crisis we face today is entirely different to the kind of crisis described here. But in the longer run, maybe there is still a significant chance of the kind of crisis the old Paul Krugman worried about.

Inflating Away the Debt?

Some commentators believe that the best way for Greece — and by extension, everyone with a debt problem — to deal with debt is introducing some mild-to-moderate inflationary pressure (or least, the expectation of such a thing).

The problem is, the evidence (thanks to regular reader Andrei Canciu) suggests this isn’t in the least bit effective:

The real solution for the terminally indebted is not to get into debt in the first place. Once you are there, the pressure of creditors means that the chosen path will generally be a succession of unsuccessful Keynesian can-kicks (or, in Europe, crushing austerity) up to a slow, painful default.

As Keynes put it:

The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.