Posts tagged Mises

Tax Consumers, Taxpayers, and the Cox Box

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Tax Consumers, Taxpayers, and the Cox Box

 

6664Years ago I joked that every economist’s highest goal was to have a graph or concept named for him or her. Among the existing ones are the Keynesian Cross Graph, the Edgeworth Box, the Phillip’s Curve, the Laffer Curve, Rothbard’s Law, Buridan’s Ass, Mises’s Butler, Hume’s Specie-Flow Mechanism, Rostow’s Stages of Growth, the Ricardo Effect, Menger’s Law, the Beveridge Curve, and Hayek’s Triangles.

I came up with a way of visually depicting libertarian class analysis in the 1980s but never shared it beyond a friend or two. But now I immodestly present what I have called the Cox Box.

Libertarian class analysis is based on two classes in regard to government: the taxpayers and the tax consumers. It is important to note that libertarian class analysis predates the better known Marxist class analysis of workers and the owners of the means of production (capitalists). Marx published his class analysis in 1848, whereas the libertarian class analysis of J. B. Say and Charles Dunoyer was developed in 1810 and by James Mill in the 1820s and 1830s.

Here is how John Calhoun stated libertarian class analysis in his Disquisition on Government in 1848:

The necessary result … is to divide the community into two great classes: one consisting of those who, in reality, pay the taxes and, of course, bear exclusively the burden of supporting the government; and the other, of those who are recipients of their proceeds through disbursements, who are, in fact, supported by the government; or in fewer words, to divide into tax-payers and tax-consumers. … The effect … is to enrich; and strengthen the one, and impoverish and weaken the other.

So, how to depict the correct libertarian class analysis? Here, I depict it as a box with income levels along the one axis and a division of taxpayers and tax consumers along the other axis wherein half of all income levels are net taxpayers and half are net tax consumers. Figure 1 represents a hypothetical economy in which net tax consumption does not vary by income level:

coxbox

Figure 1: A neutral Cox Box.

We know, however, that tax consumption can very significantly at various income levels. What are some of the specific examples of the ways one is a tax consumer in the modern US? Among the higher incomes these transfers include farm subsidies, mortgage guarantees, bank bailouts, overseas marketing subsidies, and the recent Quantitative Easing to pump up the stock market (to name only a few of the many). At the lower income levels, these transfers include the SNAP program, rent subsidies, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid (again, to name only a few of the many).

Conservatives believe the appropriate depiction is reflected in Figure 2, which features an economy in which higher income earners pay the bulk of all taxes (not just income taxes) while receiving little in return, and the welfare-enabled lower income earners pay very little of all taxes (not just income taxes) while receiving much in unearned payments:

cox_conservative

Figure 2: The conservative view.

Conservatives, however, tend to overlook the money that so many higher-income earners receive from their crony capitalist connections within government. So, firms such as General Motors do earn their revenues from willing customers but also have enjoyed taxpayer-financed bailouts and protection from their potential competitors through various regulations.

Left liberals believe that the appropriate depiction is best explained in Figure 3, as they largely believe that higher income earners don’t pay their “fair share” of all taxes (not just income taxes) while receiving vast benefits in return. Meanwhile, the welfare recipients pay substantial taxes (not just income taxes), while receiving a pittance in return compared to their better-connected higher-income earners. Higher-income earners such as General Motors stockholders and executives are subsidized with resources not bestowed on lower-income earners:

cox_liberal

Figure 3: The left-liberal view.

Libertarians in contrast favor Figure 4 with higher-income earners using their political connections to arrange money flows to themselves. At the same time, ideological pressures result in a political buying off of the desperate lower income groups who have been shut out of opportunities to better their circumstances via licensing costs, minimum wages, regulations and more.

cox_libertarian

Figure 4: The libertarian view of tax consumers.

Libertarians in particular see a troubling drift over time to the left of the diagram as net taxpayers are increasingly outnumbered by net tax consumers. As Mises pointed out in Bureaucracy, this will eventually lead to the destruction of the economic system.

Cox Box analysis will reveal a different mix of taxpayers and consumers at different income and wealth levels in different societies, times, and places. In the modern United States, however, we find an economy in which those at the income extremes appear to most easily take advantage of taxpayer-funded benefits while those at the middle income levels are increasingly called upon to finance the expenditures. Moreover, libertarians see the country as being transformed from a society of free individuals voluntarily interacting with one another into a heavily-politicized society wherein the government is involved — by various means — in virtually every facet of life.

 


About the Author

Jim Cox
Jim Cox is an associate professor of economics and political science at Georgis Perimeter College and the author of The Concise Guide to Economics, Minimum Wage, Maximum Damage, and most recently, The Haiku Economist.

 

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We Win the NY Times Prize

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We Win the NY Times Prize

 

6648The New York Times, whistling past the financial graveyard, paused over the weekend to smear the Mises Institute, Ron Paul, our other scholars, hardcore libertarianism, and me. Why? Because our ideas and our youth movement are gaining real traction. It is in effect a compliment. They have never faced opposition like ours before, and Ron Paul’s tremendous resonance with young people has only made things worse from the Times’s point of view.

The Times wants opponents who play the game, who accept the presuppositions of the regime, and who are willing to confine themselves to the narrow range of debate to which the Times would prefer to confine the American people.

The purpose of articles like the one over the weekend, it should be unnecessary to point out, is not to shed light. It is to demonize and destroy a school of thought that the regime considers threatening.

The article, for instance, notes that Ron spoke on the topic “Do We Live in a Police State?” earlier this month at a Mises Institute event, and that another speaker (me) spoke on “American Fascism.” The lecture titles are evidently supposed to be self-refuting, although you can listen to Ron’s remarks and read mine and decide for yourself. It’s little wonder that the Times would want to ridicule the idea that American society could resemble a police state, given that paper’s cover-ups of the regime’s surveillance of American citizens.

The rest of the article is an attempt to distort the philosophy of libertarianism and to demonize Ron and other prominent exponents of that philosophy.

The whole exercise reminds me of the time, not long ago, in which a state-endorsed hate group took a swipe at Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), known in his day as Mr. Libertarian. The writer summarized Murray’s career in a single sentence about — of all things — lesbians during the Progressive Era.

Now consider: Rothbard’s 1,000-page treatise Man, Economy, and State was an extraordinary contribution to the field of economics; his two-volume history of economic thought has been praised by scholars across the board; his study of the Panic of 1819, published by Columbia University Press, received rave reviews in the scholarly journals and is still considered definitive; his Ethics of Liberty is a philosophical defense of self-ownership and the nonaggression principle, and so on.

“And so on” hardly does Rothbard justice: we haven’t mentioned his textbook on money and banking, his classic What Has Government Done to Our Money?, his four-volume history of colonial America, the scholarly journals he edited, the voluminous correspondence he kept up with the major thinkers of his day, and — well, and so on.

And a critic tried to reduce this man — this man! — to one unfavorable sentence.

It used to be easy to do this: how, apart from driving to the library, was someone to discover Rothbard for himself? But today, discovering Rothbard is just a click away. And once you discover him — his scholarship, his knowledge, the encouragement he gave to students, and his refusal to compromise his principles even when doing so would have meant career advancement — you understand why the state wants to minimize or demonize him. No wonder the most popular piece of libertarian apparel is our Rothbard “Enemy of the State” T-shirt.

Economics professors have even been known to urge their students not to read Rothbard. But what do you think the brighter students do when they’re told not to read someone? And once you read Rothbard, you never look at the world the same way again.

The Times article, which continues in the tradition of portraying Murray preposterously, tries the same tactic with libertarian historian Tom Woods. According to the Times, Tom’s book Who Killed the Constitution?, co-authored with Kevin Gutzman, “denounced the Supreme Court decision desegregating schools, Brown v. Board of Education, as ‘a dizzying display of judicial imperialism.’”

With even Publishers Weekly endorsing Who Killed the Constitution, there’s obviously something fishy here — would the staid and scrupulously establishment PW endorse a segregationist book?

In fact, Woods and Gutzman argue that the same result could have been achieved with the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment — and that that is precisely how, in practice, the schools wound up being desegregated anyway. As historian Michael Klarman shows in his book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, the Court may have uttered a lot of pretty words, but desegregation occurred only after the Fifteenth Amendment was enforced. And had this constitutional approach been followed in the first place, the authors contend, American society would have been spared the precedent established in Brown whereby the justices decide on their preferred outcome in advance, and then tendentiously search for legal justifications for that outcome, no matter how implausible.

A handful of libertarians whose views are more congenial to the Times take opportunities like these to wag their fingers at the Mises Institute. Why, if we’d only play nice, and scrupulously observe every PC platitude as they do, reasonable people like The New York Times reporters would leave us alone. We just need to show The New York Times that a libertarian approach will do a better job of reaching our shared goals, etc.

Anyone deluded enough to believe such a thing understands nothing about the nature of the state and its media apologists.

Whose interests do you suppose the Times is more dedicated to advancing: those of the libertarian movement, or those of the state? The question answers itself. And so we might turn the accusation around: if you’re such a threat to the state, why does its media ignore or actually flatter you, perhaps even holding you up as a model for other libertarians to live by? If the Times wants you to represent the libertarian movement, do you think this is because it suddenly has the interests of libertarianism at heart?

Behind the state media’s attacks are always the issues of war and peace. Conservatives have deluded themselves into thinking that the so-called “liberal media” opposes the regime’s wars and wants to “abandon our troops.” To the contrary, you won’t find bigger and more consistent cheerleaders for the US government’s aggression than the official media. When they encounter a root-and-branch opponent of the warfare state, whether it’s Ron Paul or the Mises Institute, they pounce.

And when we oppose war, we don’t oppose it on the grounds that a particular conflict isn’t in “America’s interests.” That is regimespeak. We oppose the wars because they are based on lies, morally outrageous, and carried out through expropriation of the American public. You think the Times might not want a message like that gaining resonance?

The Mises Institute, moreover, does not issue policy reports to persuade the state that its interests will be more effectively met through libertarian solutions. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been flushed down the toilet in this way, and if you want to know how much it’s accomplished, take a look around you.

The Mises Institute’s scholarship, on the other hand, is aimed at understanding and overthrowing the entire paradigm of domination and exploitation that the state represents. No, we don’t play nice. We tell the unvarnished truth. It is this, and not anything else, that explains why the state’s media considers us an implacable foe.

Anyone is free to examine what we do: our annual scholarly conference, our student and topical conferences, the free books we’ve made available to the world, the vast library of audio and video files on both technical economics and popular topics, our Dailies, our regular Mises View commentary, and much more.

If you’re looking for efficiency experts for the state, who seek to devise better and more effective ways for state goals to be accomplished and the people to be expropriated, the Mises Institute will disappoint. If it’s “tax reform” you’re interested in — which is always a shell game in which the outward form of taxation may change a bit, but the amount of taxes collected stays the same or even rises – we’re not your cup of tea.

On the other hand, we have much to recommend us. We don’t back down and apologize when we’re smeared by the state’s media. We relish it as an indication that we’re doing our job. We tell the truth about the state: its wars, its expropriations, its militarized police, its propaganda. We don’t peddle the elementary-school propaganda that the state is a public-service institution seeking the public good. We believe that the great products of civilization — indeed civilization itself — are the result of spontaneous human cooperation. The parasitic class that holds the levers of power in the state apparatus may try to condition the public to believe that central planning and threats of violence — the hallmarks of the state — deserve credit for human progress, but our scholarship proves the opposite.

Ron Paul has been our Distinguished Counselor since we opened our doors in 1982, and he recently joined our board. The Times and the state hate us for the same reasons they hate Ron: we’re truth-tellers, we oppose Keynesianism and the Federal Reserve lock, stock, and barrel; and we support the cause of peace against the state’s wars. This is all too much for the state’s house organ, which has rarely heard war propaganda too preposterous to print, or a Keynesian apologetic too much of a stretch to repeat.

We are attacked because we are doing our job. The Times’s smear is a medal on our chest.

 


About the Author

Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr.

LewRockwell

 

Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. is chairman and CEO of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Fascism versus Capitalism. Send him mail. See Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr.’s article archives.

 

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Mussolini’s Idea of the State and Its American Defenders

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Mussolini’s Idea of the State and Its American Defenders

 

6645All social theory can be reduced to two categories: those that conceive of society as the result of peace, and those for which the indispensable ingredient is violence. This is the fundamental distinction between liberalism and fascism, a point I discuss further in a book I released earlier this year called Fascism vs. Capitalism.

There is some confusion surrounding terms here. When Ludwig von Mises published his book Liberalism in English translation, he changed the title to The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth. He did so because by the latter half of the twentieth century, the word “liberal” no longer carried the meaning it once had. It had come to mean centralization, the welfare state, and a substantial government presence in economic and social life.

The liberalism I have in mind, of course, is not the modern liberalism of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the classical liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and Frédéric Bastiat. Classical liberalism, by contrast, believed in free markets, free trade, toleration, and civil liberties.

It represented a movement toward a theory of society in which human cooperation emerged spontaneously and without coercion, by means of the natural processes of the market economy. It recognized that society seemed to manage itself without the involvement of extraneous forces like kings, aristocracies, or parliaments, and that the intervention of those forces was more likely aimed at the enrichment of a favored group or of the state itself than of at the well-being of society at large.

The price system, a spontaneous product of the free-market economy, helped entrepreneurs arrange the factors of production in such a way as to produce those outputs most highly valued by society, and to produce them in a way that was least costly in terms of opportunities foregone. Individuals specialized in those areas in which they had the greatest skill or knowledge, and the resulting division of labor meant a vastly greater output of consumer goods for everyone to enjoy. None of this required the intervention of the state.

For the classical liberal, the state was almost an afterthought. Some would have it provide a few basic services, while others conceived of it as nothing more than a night watchman. Beginning with Gustave de Molinari, the classical-liberal tradition even groped toward the possibility that the state was a dangerous, parasitical, and ultimately unnecessary monopoly.

And, of course, it was against a backdrop of peace that the classical liberal described the progress of mankind.

Fascists looked at society and the state quite differently. The prosaic bourgeois virtues of commerce, of producing, trading, and earning profit, are viewed with contempt next to the code of the warrior, which is what the fascist truly respects. Greatness comes not through the ordinary pursuits of the market or the obedience to the duties of one’s state in life, but through struggle.

It is Benito Mussolini’s famous remark — “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state” — that truly sums up the essence of fascism. The good of the Nation, as defined by the fascist leader, surpasses all other concerns and allegiances. The fascist speaks of the Nation with a religious reverence. An Italian fascist youth movement in the 1920s composed the following creed:

I believe in Rome the Eternal, the mother of my country, and in Italy her eldest Daughter, who was born in her virginal bosom by the grace of God; who suffered through the barbarian invasions, was crucified and buried; who descended to the grave and was raised from the dead in the nineteenth century; who ascended into Heaven in her glory in 1918 and 1922; who is seated on the right hand of her mother Rome; and who for this reason shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the genius of Mussolini, in our Holy Father Fascism, in the communion of its martyrs, in the conversion of Italians, and in the resurrection of the Empire.

This devotion to the Nation is concentrated in allegiance to the charismatic leader. The untrammeled exercise of the leader’s will is a central ingredient in the realization of the Nation’s destiny. Moreover, the leader’s will must trump the array of activities that comprise the free market. The various companies, professions, unions, and government must work together with a conscious plan to ensure the best outcome for the Nation. This is why it is so preposterous to hear opponents of the market economy describe libertarians as “fascists.” No one could be more anti-fascist than a libertarian.

Political centralization was also central to fascism, for if the Nation is the embodiment of the people, and if it is through the Nation that every individual realizes his destiny, we cannot tolerate resistance by lesser jurisdictions within the Nation.

To say that there are fascist trends and features in the United States of today is not to say that this country is just like interwar Italy or Germany. There are some features of fascism as traditionally understood that can be found only faintly in American society today, and others than can be found not at all.

But it would be foolish to pretend that America is the very opposite of the fascist dystopias. Whether it’s the emphasis on centralization, the glorification of the police and the military, the yearning for a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, the elevation of “public service” above the services we freely provide one another on the market, the creepy and incessant references to “my president” or “our president,” or the depiction of the state as a quasi-divine instrument, the commonalities are neither trivial nor few.

Americans no doubt recoil from or laugh at that passage from the Italian fascists I shared with you a few moments ago. But few Americans are in a position to render such a judgment. Most have absorbed the idea that their government, far from a merely utilitarian contrivance established to provide them with some basic services, as many early Americans doubtless conceived of it, is a redemptive force in the world.

John Winthrop appropriated a biblical image of the church when he spoke of his settlement of Puritans as resembling a “city on a hill.” By the time Ronald Reagan made that phrase a rhetorical commonplace in American politics, it had been fully secularized. Not the church but the American state would transform mankind as God’s instrument.

Americans, even (or perhaps especially) American Christians, are for that reason not scandalized at politicians’ appropriation of religious language to describe their government. It bothers them not at all to learn that the iconic Abraham Lincoln said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” American government ideals, or that when George W. Bush said “the light shined in darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” by “light” he meant American government ideals.

In US history, presidents who avoided war, or who viewed the presidential office modestly and without messianic overtones, are neglected or even denounced by our official historians. You can guess at the views and activities of the presidents favored by the opinion molders. “Beware any politician who is ‘beloved,’” historian Ralph Raico once warned.

The cult of personality surrounding the US president has only grown over the past century, culminating in the creepy videos of schoolchildren pledging allegiance to Barack Obama and the YouTube videos of Hollywood actors promising their eternal loyalty. But some of those who ridiculed these ridiculous displays had themselves been part of the cult of George W. Bush. During the Bush years, Christian neocons made a video about the president set to the tune of Johnny Cash’s classic “When the Man Comes Around.” That song had been written about Jesus Christ. Here are some of the words they set to a video about George W. Bush:

There’s a man goin’ ‘round takin’ names. An’ he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won’t be treated all the same. There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crown. When the man comes around.

That man, remember, was George W. Bush.

Americans are taught that they owe their freedoms to their government’s military. Whether it’s a country music concert, a sporting event, or even a restaurant chain, Americans are subjected to a ceaseless stream of reminders of what they allegedly owe to this particular class of government employees. (Let’s not forget the popular bumper sticker: “Only two defining forces have ever died for you: Jesus the Christ and the American soldier.”) How exactly their freedoms were threatened in any of the military conflicts in question is one of those impertinent questions one does not ask in polite society.

The propaganda has worked, to some extent at least. When Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which their government was spying on and lying to them, many listeners of right-wing radio demanded not that these activities cease, but that the leaker himself be silenced. The man who had embarrassed their rulers should be tried for treason and executed. I have heard this phenomenon described as a case of society-wide Stockholm Syndrome, and I don’t think that’s far from the mark.

If some of the superstitions of fascism have made their way into American life, it could be because both fascism and whatever it is that America has become share a superstition in common — namely, the state itself. The state has been cloaked in all manner of flattering but obfuscating rhetoric. The state looks after the general welfare, provides economic stability, protects us from the bad guys, prevents inequality, and binds us together in a common cause greater than ourselves.

It’s time we viewed the state for what it really is: a mechanism by which rulers enrich themselves at the expense of the ruled. Everything else is a smokescreen.

 


About the Author

Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr.

LewRockwell

 

Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. is chairman and CEO of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Fascism versus Capitalism. Send him mail. See Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr.’s article archives

 

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Welfare, Minimum Wages, and Unemployment

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Welfare, Minimum Wages, and Unemployment

 

Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamOf the various flavors of government interventionism in our lives, the minimum wage is perhaps the most welcomed. It appeals not only to our innate sense of “fairness” but also to our self-interest. Its allure may erroneously lead us to the conclusion that because “it is popular,” ergo “it is right.”

The more astute proponents of the minimum wage, however, immediately point to the obvious; namely, that an extreme minimum wage ($1,000 per hour) would be unequivocally detrimental. However, the proponents quickly turn to dismissing this fear by asserting that, empirically, no such job loss occurs when the minimum wage is slowly raised. This is akin to arguing that although fire can boil water, a small fire won’t heat it up. The support for this assertion is the oft-cited 1994 study by Card and Krueger[1] showing a positive correlation between an increased minimum wage and employment in New Jersey. Many others have thoroughly debunked this study and it is significant that the original authors eventually retracted their claims.[2]

Youth and Entry-Level Unemployment

The problem with such “studies” that purport to demonstrate only positive and no negative effects from a rising minimum wage is that it is quite easy to count individuals whose pay went up. What is more challenging, if not impossible, is to count the people that would have been hired but were not. Likewise, offsetting reductions in non-monetary compensation will not show up in a monetarily-focused analysis.

However, empirical economic data is not entirely useless. Such data is more suited to qualitative rather than quantitative predictions (who is affected rather than how much they are affected). For example, basic economics predicts that a minimum wage will necessarily increase unemployment among those with the least experience. Indeed, if we look at the empirical evidence we see exactly that. Looking at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics we find that the unemployment rate (June 2013) among 16-19 year olds is 24 percent and among 20-24 year olds it is 14 percent.[3] These values far exceed the unemployment rate (6 percent) of those workers with sufficient experience and skills to make them largely immune to minimum wage pay scales, namely 25-54 year olds. People whose productive value is less than the minimum wage are de facto unemployable. They are denied the opportunity to gain experience and skills, and their exclusion from the job market is a net loss to society.

The minimum wage is just another weapon in the arsenal of the misguided progressive trying to “help” the poor. Their mistake in wielding this weapon is in presuming all workers are similarly situated; i.e., that the vast majority of hourly employees earn minimum wage and that they are uniformly composed of heads of households. In fact the opposite is true. Only 2.1 percent of hourly employees earn minimum wage and of that number over half (55 percent) are 16-24 years old.[4]

How Welfare Brings Down the Asking Wage

So, we know that a sizable number of minimum-wage earners are not in need of a wage that can support a household. But what of the minimum-wage earners who are? We are told repeatedly that minimum wage is not a living wage, so why are not more minimum wage earners simply starving to death? In reality workers earn two wages: one from their employer and one from the state. For example, someone making the current full-time minimum wage earns $15,000 per year, but they are also eligible for additional government benefits that bring their total remuneration to approximately $35,000 per year if they are childless, or up to $52,000 year if they have children.[5] In fact, earning more does not necessarily help one wean himself off this state sponsored support. As wages rise assistance can often decline so precipitously that even earning $1 more can mean a loss of thousands of dollars in aid. This creates a disincentive for the worker to improve and earn more; the perverse incentive here is that we are rewarding the very thing we are trying to eliminate (low wages). These wage subsidies serve only to pervert the normal incentives present in an exchange between employer and employee. Both the employer and the employee are aware of the subsidies, so each is willing to offer less and accept less rather than demand more and offer more.

At first blush one might conclude the employer is making out like a bandit. But there is no free lunch — the subsidies have to come from somewhere. Taxes fund these subsidies. So the employer is not necessarily paying less if its taxes fund the very subsidies its employees are receiving. In fact many employers pay more on net. All employers pay taxes, but only some receive the benefit of subsidized wages. This is a net redistribution from one class of company to another. In essence we are forcing high wage companies to pay low wage companies to keep their wages low.

The Minimum Wage Reduces Worker Productivity

So considering that it is established that minimum wage laws and other forms of wage subsidization are detrimental to the stated goal of improving conditions for those regarded as poor, we must address the question perennially proffered by those who believe one’s salvation can only come via the state: “If not the minimum wage, what then can increase wages?” To answer this question we must understand there are only two possible routes to improving our wages/standard of living. The first method is the unethical route of using force (government) to extract what we want.

The second method, however, is what every rational person would be left with were there no state influence corrupting the incentives that drive their decision-making: improve or augment one’s skills so that they align with those skills currently in greater demand.

Self-improvement through education and/or work experience is the answer to the question: how do I earn more? Government sponsored interference in the market that results in fewer people gaining experience can only serve to frustrate one’s ability to engage in self-improvement. Elimination of the minimum wage is a necessary, although insufficient, first step to improving the economic value of the inexperienced or unskilled.

 


Notes

[1] David Card and Alan B. Krueger, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,”American Economic Review 84, no. 4 (1994): 792. A later book expanded on these results, see David Card and Alan B. Krueger, Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[2] David Neumark and William Wascher, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: Comment,” American Economic Review 90, no. 5 (2000): 1390. Researchers from the Employment Policies Institute also reported finding data errors in the Card and Krueger sample. In one Wendy’s in New Jersey, for example, there were no full-time workers and 30 part-time workers in February 1992. By November 1992, the restaurant had added 35 full-time workers with no change in part-timers. See David R. Henderson, “The Squabble over the Minimum Wage,” Fortune, July 8, 1996, pp. 28ff. Walter Block, “The Minimum Wage Once Again,” Labor Economics from a Free Market Perspective (2008): 147-154. David Card and Alan B. Krueger, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: Reply,” American Economic Review 90, no. 5 (2000): 1419.

[3] http://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea10.htm

[4] http://www.bls.gov/cps/minwage2012tbls.htm#1

[5] http://www.aei-ideas.org/2012/07/julias-mother-why-a-single-mom-is-better-off-on-welfare-than-taking-a-69000-a-year-job/

 


About the Author

Greg Morin

See Greg Morin’s article archives.

 

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The Economics Of Troubleshooting

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The Economics Of Troubleshooting

 

6633When fixing things, I often find myself thinking about economics. All work involves economic considerations, but there are unique aspects of repairing machines that deeply touch the core principles of economics which are inescapable for the troubleshooter.

We employ machines to fulfill our worldly wants, which are without end. Satisfying our infinite desires with our limited means has been called the “fundamental economic problem.” Thomas C. Taylor writes:

Yet despite the comparative abundance of products and services emanating from the process of social cooperation, the economic problem remains: Wants continue to exceed the means or resources for their attainment.

If we look at the contents of any landfill we quickly realize troubleshooting is a stellar example of this “fundamental problem.” Broken machines vastly outnumber the resources to fix them! Given the disparity between the quantity of breakdowns and the means to mend them, the end result is: what gets fixed is subject to a harsh but necessary triage based on people’s most pressing needs. Only the most important systems will be worthy of being fixed.

When a machine breaks down, the entirety of the economic calculation that gave rise to its purchase will be thrown into stark relief. Questions arise. What need was it fulfilling? Is the need still present? If so, what resources will be diverted to fix the machine? Will you choose a cheap, quick fix or go with a more expensive, longer-lasting solution? Or, should the machine be replaced instead?

These issues are always present for the business owner, but they are easy to ignore when a machine is happily humming away. Once a system is installed, people tend to forget about the motives behind its acquisition — that is until a malfunction occurs. Troubleshooting is deeply linked with economics because choosing a course of action demands an answer to the above questions. You can see that, if the original want is to continue being satisfied, an economic decision will need to be made in conjunction with the technical matters of fault finding and correction. In fact, the two influence each other. What is discovered by the troubleshooter informs the economics (i.e., “this is what is wrong and this is how much it’ll cost to fix”) and the economics dictate what is possible for the troubleshooter (i.e., “you have these resources with which to discover the problem and make a repair”).

Scarce Resources

A wide array of means are available to the troubleshooter: tools, colleagues, consultants, spare parts, manuals, etc. Each of these may be optional, but, as Murray Rothbard has explained, time is needed for all repairs:

A man’s time is always scarce. He is not immortal; his time on earth is limited. Each day of his life has only 24 hours in which he can attain his ends. Furthermore, all actions must take place through time. Therefore time is a means that man must use to arrive at his ends. It is a means that is omnipresent in all human action.

The smart troubleshooter understands the spectrum of possible fixes and what resources each requires. The resolution of opposing forces, the desire for the best possible fix and the limited means to pay for it, is achieved through compromise. This dance is most prevalent in outsourced repair work, like an auto repair shop. The person bringing in his or her malfunctioning machine wants to get it working again by spending the fewest possible resources. Professional troubleshooters have their own incentives: to make a living and to pursue only those repairs that will result in long-term customer satisfaction (and therefore repeat business). This tension is healthy and ensures that both sides are better off from whatever transaction is finally negotiated. Sometimes these opposing forces will not be able to find mutual satisfaction, and therefore a whole spectrum of repairs will never happen.

As a teenager, I ran over a concrete-filled tire rim with my beloved first car. (No one believed me that the rim was knocked loose by the wind and rolled right in front of my car, but that’s what happened.) The collision left a giant hole in my exhaust system. The diagnosis was trivial: the source of the deafening noise that announced my arrival from miles away was obvious. In response, my goals were modest: to shut up that insanely loud car, on a budget of $50, long enough to sell it to another reckless teenager. The repair almost didn’t happen at all: I took the car to every repair shop in the area, explained my modest means, and heard many a derogatory chuckle in reply. I finally found a student mechanic who agreed to make the noise go away for the meager sum I could offer. If I had only $20 instead of $50, or if the damage had been greater, my car would have ended up in the junkyard and been just another example of resources falling short of what’s required to make a repair.

Opportunity Costs

While troubleshooting, “opportunity costs” are on my mind. In the preface to his book Cost and Choice, James Buchanan illustrates the concept in a hilarious way:

You face a choice. You must now decide whether to read this Preface, to read something else, to think silent thoughts, or perhaps to write a bit for yourself. The value that you place on the most attractive of these several alternatives is the cost that you must pay if you choose to read this Preface now. This value is and must remain wholly speculative; it represents what you now think the other opportunity might offer. Once you have chosen to read this Preface, any chance of realizing the alternative and, hence, measuring its value, has vanished forever.

If you had unlimited time to muck around with a broken machine, then the choices you’d make about how to repair it would mean little. Should I use this strategy or that strategy? Who would care? You’d eventually figure it out, but there’d be no emotional weight to either a brilliant solution or a meandering slog. However, our time to make repairs is limited, as with our other resources. You can’t be turning a wrench, reading a manual, calling technical support, and shopping for a replacement all at once. You must make a choice about what direction a repair is going to take and forgo the rest.

The principles of economics have much to teach the troubleshooter. Scarce fix-it resources constrain and focus decisions about what gets repaired, and how. Being forced to choose amongst the many possibilities for repair or replacement, each with varying costs and risks, means economic matters must be considered hand in hand with technical ones. Finally, always keep in mind the concept of opportunity costs while you troubleshoot: periodically asking “what else could I being doing with my time and money?” will help to ensure that you are always on the most rewarding path.

This article is adapted from an essay at The Art of Troubleshooting.

 


About the Author

Jason Maxham

Jason Maxham is an entrepreneur who writes about fixing things at The Art Of Troubleshooting. You can read more about his background and find his contact details here. See Jason Maxham’s article archives.

 

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Obamacare’s Many Negative Side-Effects Should Surprise No One

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Obamacare’s Many Negative Side-Effects Should Surprise No One

 

6623Even left liberals are coming to realize that Obamacare is fatally flawed. Perhaps this is because fewer people will be insured at the end of the year, under Obamacare, than at the beginning of the year as insurers are forced to drop coverage. Stories of such cancellations to cancer-stricken children certainly don’t help matters. For a program whose expressed purpose is to bring insurance to more people, this irony seems even too much for the interventionists to stomach.

Obamacare’s negative effects, however, are simply a microcosm of government policy in general. Virtually all well-intended (assuming they are in fact well-intended) government policies bring negative unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intend to serve. The prevalence of this paradox, called iatrogenics (originally used in the medical context to refer to doctors’ actions that hurt patients), should give pause to those who favor government intervention to solve societal problems.

Take rent control policies, for example, intended to make housing more accessible to those with lower incomes. In reality these policies shrink the amount of available housing because potential landlords have less incentive to rent out, and developers have less incentive to build new, units. As a result, less housing is available for those with lower incomes. Just look at the apartment shortage in New York or San Francisco, the two cities with the most stringent rent-control policies, for proof.

This process of iatrogenics also exists in financial regulation. Polemicist Nassim Taleb has illustrated how increased financial regulation intended to prevent another financial crisis has actually made one more likely. Regulations entrust the fate of the financial system to a handful of big banks because they are the only ones who can afford to comply with them. This consolidation of power among the big banks makes the financial system riskier because if one of these few banks fails the damage will be much greater to the economy than from the failure of one small bank among many. “These attempts to eliminate the business cycle,” says Taleb, “lead to the mother of all fragilities.”

In terms of protecting society’s most economically disadvantaged, sociologist Charles Murray chronicles, most recently in his bestseller Coming Apart, how the federal government’s war on poverty paradoxically hurts the poor. He explains that though welfare benefits are well intentioned, what they in effect do is pay people to stay poor, hurting the very people they intend to help. These misaligned incentives are a leading reason why $15 trillion in welfare spending over the past 50 years has perversely resulted in a 50-year-high poverty rate of 15.1 percent.

Those currently advocating for a raise of the minimum wage should first examine its iatrogenic history of bringing about negative unintended consequences to the very low wage people it intends to help. Minimum wage increases actually hurt low wage earners because business owners lay off staff and cut back on hours to try to recoup their losses from such mandated wage increases. This leaves those with a tenuous grasp on the labor market in an even more precarious position. “Unfortunately, the real minimum wage is always zero, regardless of the laws,” says economist Thomas Sowell, “and that is the wage that many workers receive in the wake of the creation or escalation of a government-mandated minimum wage, because they either lose their jobs or fail to find jobs.”

Of course it’s not only left liberal policies that generate negative unintended consequences that hurt the very people they’re intended to help, but also conservative ones like the war on drugs and the war on terror.

The war on drugs intends to help drug-blighted communities by enacting and enforcing strict penalties on drug use. What it in effect does is hurt these communities by making criminals out of a significant portion of its inhabitants. Drug users now make up nearly 25 percent of federal and state prison inmates, many of whom go in for simple possessions and come out hardened criminals wreaking untold damage on their communities. Even those who do not run afoul with the law again face a lifetime of job and social struggles with a criminal record attached to their name.

The same iatrogenic story exists in the war on terror, which intends to keep us safe by waging a multipronged offensive against potential terrorists and the geographies they may inhabit. Unfortunately, as former CIA intelligence officer Michael Scheuer has illustrated, some of these prongs, such as aggressive drone warfare and support for apostate regimes, actually fan the flames of US hatred making us less safe. “It’s American policy that enrages al-Qaeda,” says Scheuer, “not American culture and society.”

Government intervention, no matter what its form or intention, causes iatrogenics — unintended negative consequences that hurt the very people they’re intended to help. Nowhere is this better exemplified than with Obamacare, a policy intended to bring insurance to all that has in effect taken it away from many. Perhaps the growing coalition of people recognizing this paradox will take this revelation and apply it to other policy arenas as well. For the affected classes, we can only hope.

 


About the Author

Jordan Bruneau

Jordan Bruneau is a research analyst in Washington D.C. focusing on economic freedom and well-being issues. 

 

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After the Taper: The Fed’s Non-Plan Is Unchanged

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After the Taper: The Fed’s Non-Plan Is Unchanged

 

6621As an economist, it is getting more difficult to understand the logic underlying current monetary policy in the U.S. There are two main channels by which economists think monetary policy can influence growth and employment. The first is to lower interest rates to spur investment and consumption spending. The second is to induce inflation so real wages drop, spurring output and employment.

Since 2008, the central bank has reduced interest rates to almost zero with little to show for it. You can bring a horse to water in a trough, pond, or lake, but you cannot make him drink. Most of the added liquidity has found its way into excess reserves. Banks are not lending because they have few creditworthy customers who want to borrow. The household sector is still deleveraging and has less appetite for more debt, and the business sector is careful about making future investments in a financial and economic environment on unstable footing. Businesses are keenly aware of the malinvestments never cleaned up after the last bubble and of the price distortions of current monetary policy. Why would businesses stick their necks out if they suspect a painful adjustment is around the corner?

Since the first channel has failed, only the second channel remains. Economists are generally in agreement, however, that there is no long-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. The Keynesians and monetarists believe that there may be a short-run trade-off. If people have adaptive expectations, (based on the recent past) then monetary policy that creates inflation will reduce unemployment by lowering a worker’s real wages. Of course, once a worker realizes he has been fooled, he will demand an increase in nominal wages to bring his real wages back up to previous levels. The gain in employment is only temporary. If, instead, people base their expectations rationally and are not fooled, the neo-classical position, there is no short- or long-run trade-offs between inflation and unemployment.

In a capitalist economy, relative prices play a crucial role in sending information to producers about what society wants. When one price goes up and another goes down, these are signals that tell producers to make more of the first good and less of the second. It is a complex system of signals with price changes reflecting the urgency of the needs within the reality of the law of scarcity. The most important aspect of a price system is the information it conveys to guide production.

Inflation causes an “information extraction” problem. When all prices are going up by different degrees, it is very difficult for an entrepreneur to distinguish between a relative and an absolute price change. Is a rising price a reflection of greater demand or inflationary pressure? That is, does it reflect a society’s changing needs or simply reflects a changed measuring stick (i.e., the value of money)? The same information extraction problem holds true with the prices of resources and labor. We have different labor markets with a wage gradient established along the production process. The printing of money interferes with this wage gradient and the information it conveys about the right proportion of capital and consumption goods to produce. Overall employment may initially improve but the gain is not worth the cost from the adjustment that must occur once the printing stops.

Looking at historical evidence, inflation leads to higher, not lower, unemployment. This should not be surprising. Inflation is like a wrench thrown into the workings of a capitalist system.

If economists agree that there is no long-term trade-off between inflation and unemployment, and the current Fed strategy to lower interest rates has failed miserably to boost growth, then we must ask, why is the Fed, even after this week’s taper, in effect printing $75 billion a month? It’s likely the goal is to induce inflation for a short-term gain in employment. Things are no better if the Fed’s strategy is to raise asset prices to induce an imaginary wealth effect. Yet multiple bubbles may pop before any wealth effect takes place. The Fed should not be playing the economy as a stake in a poker game.

Through multiple bubbles, Alan Greenspan’s monetary policy was responsible for massive human suffering worldwide. Yet Greenspan is living high on the hog with a comfy government pension, spending his spare time penning op-ed articles and dispensing his expert advice on the lecture circuit. He informs us that he was only human and that no one saw the bubble coming. This is less than ingenuous. If you play with fire, and you burn down the forest, it is criminal to say “I did not realize that playing with matches was dangerous.” The sad situation is that we recently replaced him with even bigger arsonists!

One can be certain that interest rates will shoot up once inflation picks up. Since most of the U.S. debt is short term, it is going to be very difficult to inflate prices to reduce the real value of the debt. How will the U.S. government react if it has to refinance at interest rates of 12 percent or more, like in 1981? Yellen is no Volker; will she be able to tame the inflation beast as Volcker did? The independent German central bank was powerless to stop the German government from using the printing presses during 1921-23.

Napoleon and Hitler, both responsible for millions of deaths, rode to power on a wave of discontent that followed periods of excessive monetary printing. Why are we taking such risks?

 


About the Author

Frank Hollenbeck

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. 

 

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How the Paper Money Experiment Will End

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How the Paper Money Experiment Will End

 

6609A paper currency system contains the seeds of its own destruction. The temptation for the monopolist money producer to increase the money supply is almost irresistible. In such a system with a constantly increasing money supply and, as a consequence, constantly increasing prices, it does not make much sense to save in cash to purchase assets later. A better strategy, given this senario, is to go into debt to purchase assets and pay back the debts later with a devalued currency. Moreover, it makes sense to purchase assets that can later be pledged as collateral to obtain further bank loans. A paper money system leads to excessive debt.

This is especially true of players that can expect that they will be bailed out with newly produced money such as big businesses, banks, and the government.

We are now in a situation that looks like a dead end for the paper money system. After the last cycle, governments have bailed out malinvestments in the private sector and boosted their public welfare spending. Deficits and debts skyrocketed. Central banks printed money to buy public debts (or accept them as collateral in loans to the banking system) in unprecedented amounts. Interest rates were cut close to zero. Deficits remain large. No substantial real growth is in sight. At the same time banking systems and other financial players sit on large piles of public debt. A public default would immediately trigger the bankruptcy of the banking sector. Raising interest rates to more realistic levels or selling the assets purchased by the central bank would put into jeopardy the solvency of the banking sector, highly indebted companies, and the government. It looks like even the slowing down of money printing (now called “QE tapering”) could trigger a bankruptcy spiral. A drastic reduction of government spending and deficits does not seem very likely either, given the incentives for politicians in democracies.

So will money printing be a constant with interest rates close to zero until people lose their confidence in the paper currencies? Can the paper money system be maintained or will we necessarily get a hyperinflation sooner or later?

There are at least seven possibilities:

1. Inflate. Governments and central banks can simply proceed on the path of inflation and print all the money necessary to bail out the banking system, governments, and other over-indebted agents. This will further increase moral hazard. This option ultimately leads into hyperinflation, thereby eradicating debts. Debtors profit, savers lose. The paper wealth that people have saved over their life time will not be able to assure such a high standard of living as envisioned.

2. Default on Entitlements. Governments can improve their financial positions by simply not fulfilling their promises. Governments may, for instance, drastically cut public pensions, social security and unemployment benefits to eliminate deficits and pay down accumulated debts. Many entitlements, that people have planned upon, will prove to be worthless.

3. Repudiate Debt. Governments can also default outright on their debts. This leads to losses for banks and insurance companies that have invested the savings of their clients in government bonds. The people see the value of their mutual funds, investment funds, and insurance plummet thereby revealing the already-occurred losses. The default of the government could lead to the collapse of the banking system. The bankruptcy spiral of overindebted agents would be an economic Armageddon. Therefore, politicians until now have done everything to prevent this option from happening.

4. Financial Repression. Another way to get out of the debt trap is financial repression. Financial repression is a way of channeling more funds to the government thereby facilitating public debt liquidation. Financial repression may consist of legislation making investment alternatives less attractive or more directly in regulation inducing investors to buy government bonds. Together with real growth and spending cuts, financial repression may work to actually reduce government debt loads.

5. Pay Off Debt. The problem of overindebtedness can also be solved through fiscal measures. The idea is to eliminate debts of governments and recapitalize banks through taxation. By reducing overindebtedness, the need for the central bank to keep interest low and to continue printing money is alleviated. The currency could be put on a sounder base again. To achieve this purpose, the government expropriates wealth on a massive scale to pay back government debts. The government simply increases existing tax rates or may employ one-time confiscatory expropriations of wealth. It uses these receipts to pay down its debts and recapitalize banks. Indeed the IMF has recently proposed a one-time 10-percent wealth tax in Europe in order to reduce the high levels of public debts. Large scale cuts in spending could also be employed to pay off debts. After WWII, the US managed to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio from 130 percent in 1946 to 80 percent in 1952. However, it seems unlikely that such a debt reduction through spending cuts could work again. This time the US does not stand at the end of a successful war. Government spending was cut in half from $118 billion in 1945 to $58 billion in 1947, mostly through cuts in military spending. Similar spending cuts today do not seem likely without leading to massive political resistance and bankruptcies of overindebted agents depending on government spending.

6. Currency Reform. There is the option of a full-fledged currency reform including a (partial) default on government debt. This option is also very attractive if one wants to eliminate overindebtedness without engaging in a strong price inflation. It is like pressing the reset button and continuing with a paper money regime. Such a reform worked in Germany after the WWII (after the last war financial repression was not an option) when the old paper money, the Reichsmark, was substituted by a new paper money, the Deutsche Mark. In this case, savers who hold large amounts of the old currency are heavily expropriated, but debt loads for many people will decline.

7. Bail-in. There could be a bail-in amounting to a half-way currency reform. In a bail-in, such as occurred in Cyprus, bank creditors (savers) are converted into bank shareholders. Bank debts decrease and equity increases. The money supply is reduced. A bail-in recapitalizes the banking system, and eliminates bad debts at the same time. Equity may increase so much, that a partial default on government bonds would not threaten the stability of the banking system. Savers will suffer losses. For instance, people that invested in life insurances that in turn bought bank liabilities or government bonds will assume losses. As a result the overindebtedness of banks and governments is reduced.

Any of the seven options, or combinations of two or more options, may lie ahead. In any case they will reveal the losses incurred in and end the wealth illusion. Basically, taxpayers, savers, or currency users are exploited to reduce debts and put the currency on a more stable basis. A one-time wealth tax, a currency reform or a bail-in are not very popular policy options as they make losses brutally apparent at once. The first option of inflation is much more popular with governments as it hides the costs of the bail out of overindebted agents. However, there is the danger that the inflation at some point gets out of control. And the monopolist money producer does not want to spoil his privilege by a monetary meltdown. Before it gets to the point of a runaway inflation, governments will increasingly ponder the other options as these alternatives could enable a reset of the system.

 


About the Author

Philipp Bagus

PhilippBagusPhilipp Bagus is an associate professor at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. He is an associate scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was awarded the 2011 O.P. Alford III Prize in Libertarian Scholarship. He is the author of The Tragedy of the Euro and coauthor of Deep Freeze: Iceland’s Economic CollapseThe Tragedy of the Euro has so far been translated and published in GermanFrenchSlovakPolishItalianRomanianFinnishSpanishPortugueseBritish EnglishDutchBrazilian PortugueseBulgarian, and Chinese. See his website. Send him mail. Follow him on Twitter @PhilippBagus 

 

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20 years ago NAFTA passed, This is what one of the greatest free market economists ever had to say about it at the time.

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20 years ago NAFTA passed, This is what one of the greatest free market economists ever had to say about it at the time.

 

Rothbard3

 

This essay by Murray Rothbard holds particular relevance as the Trans Pacific Partnership continues to be negotiated in secret.

 

(From Mises.org)
 
Yet Nafta is more than just a big business trade deal. It is part of a very long campaign to integrate and cartelize government in order to entrench the interventionist mixed economy. In Europe, the campaign culminated in the Maastricht Treaty, the attempt to impose a single currency and central bank on Europe and force its relatively free economies to rachet up their regulatory and welfare states.
 
In the United States, this has taken the form of transferring legislative and judicial authority away from the states and localities to the executive branch of the federal government. Nafta negotiations have pushed the envelope by centralizing government power continent-wide, thus further diminishing the ability of taxpayers to hinder the actions of their rulers.

Click here for the article.

 

Today’s Wealth Destruction Is Hidden by Government Debt

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Today’s Wealth Destruction Is Hidden by Government Debt

 

6593Still unnoticed by a large part of the population is that we have been living through a period of relative impoverishment. Money has been squandered in welfare spending, bailing out banks or even — as in Europe — of fellow governments. But many people still do not feel the pain.

However, malinvestments have destroyed an immense amount of real wealth. Government spending for welfare programs and military ventures has caused increasing public debts and deficits in the Western world. These debts will never be paid back in real terms.

The welfare-warfare state is the biggest malinvestment today. It does not satisfy the preferences of freely interacting individuals and would be liquidated immediately if it were not continuously propped up by taxpayer money collected under the threat of violence.

Another source of malinvestment has been the business cycle triggered by the credit expansion of the semi-public fractional reserve banking system. After the financial crisis of 2008, malinvestments were only partially liquidated. The investors that had financed the malinvestments such as overextended car producers and mortgage lenders were bailed out by governments; be it directly through capital infusions or indirectly through subsidies and public works. The bursting of the housing bubble caused losses for the banking system, but the banking system did not assume these losses in full because it was bailed out by governments worldwide. Consequently, bad debts were shifted from the private to the public sector, but they did not disappear. In time, new bad debts were created through an increase in public welfare spending such as unemployment benefits and a myriad of “stimulus” programs. Government debt exploded.

In other words, the losses resulting from the malinvestments of the past cycle have been shifted to an important degree onto the balance sheets of governments and their central banks. Neither the original investors, nor bank shareholders, nor bank creditors, nor holders of public debt have assumed these losses. Shifting bad debts around cannot recreate the lost wealth, however, and the debt remains.

To illustrate, let us consider Robinson Crusoe and the younger Friday on their island. Robinson works hard for decades and saves for retirement. He invests in bonds issued by Friday. Friday invests in a project. He starts constructing a fishing boat that will produce enough fish to feed both of them when Robinson retires and stops working.

At retirement Robinson wants to start consuming his capital. He wants to sell his bonds and buy goods (the fish) that Friday produces. But the plan will not work if the capital has been squandered in malinvestments. Friday may be unable to pay back the bonds in real terms, because he simply has consumed Robinson’s savings without working or because the investment project financed with Robinson’s savings has failed.

For instance, imagine that the boat is constructed badly and sinks; or that Friday never builds the boat because he prefers partying. The wealth that Robinson thought to own is simply not there. Of course, for some time Robinson may maintain the illusion that he is wealthy. In fact, he still owns the bonds.

Let us imagine that there is a government with its central bank on the island. To “fix” the situation, the island’s government buys and nationalizes Friday’s failed company (and the sunken boat). Or the government could bail Friday out by transferring money to him through the issuance of new government debt that is bought by the central bank. Friday may then pay back Robinson with newly printed money. Alternatively the central banks may also just print paper money to buy the bonds directly from Robinson. The bad assets (represented by the bonds) are shifted onto the balance sheet of the central bank or the government.

As a consequence, Robinson Crusoe may have the illusion that he is still rich because he owns government bonds, paper money, or the bonds issued by a nationalized or subsidized company. In a similar way, people feel rich today because they own savings accounts, government bonds, mutual funds, or a life insurance policy (with the banks, the funds, and the life insurance companies being heavily invested in government bonds). However, the wealth destruction (the sinking of the boat) cannot be undone. At the end of the day, Robinson cannot eat the bonds, paper, or other entitlements he owns. There is simply no real wealth backing them. No one is actually catching fish, so there will simply not be enough fishes to feed both Robinson and Friday.

Something similar is true today. Many people believe they own real wealth that does not exist. Their capital has been squandered by government malinvestments directly and indirectly. Governments have spent resources in welfare programs and have issued promises for public pension schemes; they have bailed out companies by creating artificial markets, through subsidies or capital injections. Government debt has exploded.

Many people believe the paper wealth they own in the form of government bonds, investment funds, insurance policies, bank deposits, and entitlements will provide them with nice sunset years. However, at retirement they will only be able to consume what is produced by the real economy. But the economy’s real production capacity has been severely distorted and reduced by government intervention. The paper wealth is backed to a great extent by hot air. The ongoing transfer of bad debts onto the balance sheets of governments and central banks cannot undo the destruction of wealth. Savers and pensioners will at some point find out that the real value of their wealth is much less than they expected. In which way, exactly, the illusion will be destroyed remains to be seen.


PhilippBagusPhilipp Bagus is an associate professor at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. He is an associate scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was awarded the 2011 O.P. Alford III Prize in Libertarian Scholarship. He is the author of The Tragedy of the Euro and coauthor of Deep Freeze: Iceland’s Economic CollapseThe Tragedy of the Euro has so far been translated and published in GermanFrenchSlovakPolishItalianRomanianFinnishSpanishPortugueseBritish EnglishDutchBrazilian PortugueseBulgarian, and Chinese. See his website.

Image credit: https://www.mises.org

 

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