This is What Privilege Looks Like

This is What Privilege Looks Like

05/30/2018Jeff Deist

Imagine a form of almost magic money, one that everyone around the world needs and thus wants more of. Imagine that money being held in large quantities by central banks and commercial banks all around the world, and also lent out as the default denomination for most debt instruments. Imagine that money being used almost exclusively by governments, businesses, and individuals across the globe when buying oil and settling international transactions. Imagine that money being issued at the whim of one government's central bank and Treasury, yet used and accepted in exchange for real goods and services worldwide. Imagine that same government being able to wildly overspend, borrow money, and pay it back at exceedingly low interest rates--again using money it alone produces. And finally imagine a political arrangement that perpetuates it all, created against the backdrop of an emergent postwar order led by a dominant new military and nuclear superpower? 

We might call that entire arrangement "privilege," which is exactly what every American paid in US dollars (and holding assets denominated in US dollars) enjoys even today.

Henry Hazlitt, then a top financial columnist for The New York Times, had no illusions about what the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 would mean. He knew it created an ersatz gold standard, gave the US undue influence in world affairs, and would lead to destructive inflation and the end of anything resembling sound money in the global  economy. Worst of all, he saw how Bretton Woods connected all the major governments and central banks around the world in an unholy monetary union, one where judicious and prudent control of nominally sovereign currencies would handicap those currencies against the US dollar.

The_Wisdom_of_Henry_Hazlitt_upload_(2009_print)_cover.jpg

America, Hazlitt understood, could now export inflation. 

Under Bretton Woods, the whole world needed dollars like it once needed gold. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, former president of France and onetime finance minister to Charles de Gaulle, called the post-Bretton Woods arrangement America's "exorbitant privilege." This privilege, he understood, would grant America economic power and prestige beyond what she actually deserved. For a few pennies the US Treasury could produce a $100 bill, but the rest of the world would have to exchange real goods and services for it.

What he could not have imagined, perhaps, is the military, geopolitical, and cultural power that would accrue to the US over the next half century. Under the unholy trinity of the Federal Reserve Bank, US Treasury, and US Congress, the American state rose to become the biggest and most powerful government in the history of humanity. No amount of fiscal profligacy is allowed to dampen the market for US Treasury debt, even as the spendthrift Congress ought to be treated like any banana republic and charged junk bond rates for high-risk investors.

What does it mean for the US dollar to be the world's reserve currency? It means a privileged position for America in the world, and an unearned level of economic and material well-being. It puts other central banks in the uncomfortable position of holding vast US dollar reserves, and thus suffering if the dollar crashes-- even as their respective governments and people understand how damaging US dollar privilege is to them both economically and geopolitically.  It means having the full force of the US military and nuclear arsenal acting as a backstop to that privilege. And it means a form of de facto monetary interventionism around the world.


 

 

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Donald Trump's Democratic Wall

02/15/2019Tho Bishop

After a month of “will he, won’t he” drama fitting for reality television, Donald Trump has announced his plans to declare a national emergency in order to get the funding he desires for his border wall. While the wall itself invites debate on subjects such as practical immigration policy, eminent domain, and government contractors – the use of a national emergency has brought a renewed look at executive power.

For weeks Trump has been warned by Republican leadership about the dangers of the precedent being set by such a decision. Nancy Pelosi has already suggested that a Democratic politician could use a “national emergency” to enact gun policy.

While such concerns are justified, it’s amusing to see such objections being raised by conventional beltway-types as the long-standing trend within Washington has been the gradual expansion of the executive branch. What is the practical difference, for example, between a president going around Congress for a border wall and a president going around Congress for military action? Or President Obama’s own immigration-related executive order that granted protection to “Dreamers” after Congress refused to bend to his will?

One does not have to support Trump’s wall to identify hypocrisy. Once again, we see that Trump is at his worst when he simply continues long-standing political trends.

While the gradual expansion of the executive leviathan is concerning, it is also predictable given the 20th century deification of American political democracy.

After all, if we are to buy in to the idea that political action is validated through participation, then it makes sense for the single political office voted on by the entire country to gradually expand its power – particularly given the obstructions to majority rules the Constitution purposefully placed on the legislative branch. The preference for general majority rule at the expense of state-based representation is also what motivates the modern lefts interest in effectively abolishing the senate and Electoral College – both of which act as checks on the imperialism of democratic excess.

While the 20th century set the stage for the modern state, it was Andrew Jackson who was the first American president to understand how the promotion of democracy could directly feed an imperial presidency. While Jackson could be praised for his views on central banking and federal debt, his presidency offered some of the most flagrant examples of hostility towards both states rights and limits to executive power.

In his first address to Congress, he outlined his vision of a truly democratic executive. He called for the abolishment of the Electoral College, and criticized the role of a large legislature in frustrating popular rule. In his view, “the first principle of our system…[is] that the majority is to govern.” As the best representative of what he saw as the will of the people, he placed his own interpretation of the Constitution as equal to all other branches of government – best illustrated by his rejection of John Marshall’s decision regarding the property rights of Native Americans leading to the Trail of Tears.

While Trump has gone the furthest in openly inviting comparisons to “Old Hickory,” Jackson’s view of the democratic presidency has long prevailed. In the words of John Yoo, “Jackson remains one of the greatest Presidents because he reconstructed the office into the direct representative of the American people.”

Unsurprisingly, it was Yoo who provided the legal defense for many of the excesses of the George W. Bush presidency.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

A Family Connection

02/14/2019David Gordon

Mr. Mark Lautman has given me permission to share the following letter:

When I started reading Rothbard’s book, I gave the three-line summary to my wife. “It’s a book written by Murray Rothbard in the 1950s about libertarian economics. It’s published by the Mises Institute. Rothbard was a disciple of an Austrian economist Mises.”

“Mises?” she asked. “Ludwig von Mises?”

“Yes. Do you know about him?”

“Do you know who Ludwig von Mises was? He was my grandfather’s cousin!”

Sure enough, Paul Lourie, my wife’s grandfather, mentions Ludwig von Mises in his memoirs!

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Central Banks Buy Gold, Baltic Dry Index Sinks

02/13/2019Doug French

David Rosenberg tweeted a graph of the plunging Baltic Dry Index with the comment, “Is there a more deflationary chart than the Baltic Dry Index of global freight rates?”

rosen.PNG

Perhaps, or there is the New York Times business headline, “ Some Central Banks Have Gold Fever, and It Might Be Sensible .”

However, central banks are notoriously bad in timing gold purchases.

Swaha Pattanaik slams gold enthusiasts while praising central bankers.

Gold bugs aren’t always rational. That’s not the case for central banks, whose purchases of the yellow metal last year were the highest since the United States broke the link between gold and the dollar in 1971.


Pattanaik gives us the numbers.

Central banks bought 651.5 tonnes of gold in 2018, the second highest annual total on record and up 74 percent from the year earlier, according to the World Gold Council. As in the past three years, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey were significant buyers, but were last year joined by the likes of Hungary, India and Poland.

Gordon Brown’s infamous sale of UK gold cost the Bank of England nearly £5 billion.

Christopher Hope wrote for The Telegraph in January 2009,

The sale of more than half of the country's gold reserves between 1999 and 2002 has proved to be deeply controversial. Critics say that signalling such a large sale of bullion to gold traders helped to drive the precious metal to a 20-year low. In 17 auctions, Mr Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer sanctioned the sale of 395 tonnes of gold.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Markets are About Freedom, not Competition

02/12/2019Ryan McMaken

I really enjoyed Antony Sammeroff's article last month about how the distinguishing characteristic of markets is free and voluntary exchange. Although many people like to speak of "competition" as the defining characteristic of markets, they're wrong. There is competition for resources in every political and economic system. In markets, however, that competition for resources is more free and less violent than in other systems.

Sammeroff explains more in a recent interview with Tom Woods:

 

Ep. 1339 The Wrong Way to Argue for the Free Market

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Mark Thornton on Why Socialism Is Deadly and Dangerous

02/12/2019Mises Institute

Mark Thornton explains why socialism can never work, the history of the death and misery its caused and we discuss a better way to help everyone live a more free, peaceful and prosperous life. We need look no further than Venezuela.

The Chronically Human Podcast Ep 11 - Dr. Mark Thornton

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Powell Claims No "Elevated" Risk for US Recession, NY Fed Models Disagree

02/12/2019Tho Bishop

Today Jerome Powell got out of the beltway and enjoyed some southern hospitality at Mississippi Valley State University, speaking at the Hope Enterprise Corporation Rural Policy Forum.

Most of the Fed Chairman’s talk was dedicated to talking about how the Fed could the financial needs of rural areas, a questionable claim considering the direct role central banks have played in increasing wealth inequality. He did, however, provide some additional thoughts on the strength of the US economy as a whole.

In particular, when asked about future risk, he said he did not “feel that the probability of recession is at all elevated.”

What’s interesting is that this claim does not follow the models published by the NY Federal Reserve which shows the current risk of recession at the highest they’ve been since 2008.

NY Fed Recession Probability 2.12.jpg
(H/T @TexarkanaFed via Twitter)

Of course, given the poor track record of Federal Reserve models, perhaps more useful is that this rosy view of the US economy seems to contradict the recent policy trends from the Powell Fed.

This includes changes to recent FOMC statements and projections about the rate of future rate increases, as well as indicating a willingness to stall the slow normalization of the Fed’s balance sheet that is currently in process. As he said in late January:

We’re listening carefully with – sensitivity to the message that the markets are sending and we’ll be taking those downside risks into account as we make policy going forward...If we came to view that the balance sheet normalization or any other aspect of the normalization was part of the problem, we wouldn’t hesitate to make a change.

Though the statement was made in carefully managed “Fed Speak”, the message it communicated couldn’t have been more clear – particularly since Powell has long been an inner Fed voice concerned about the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.  The market understood that Trump finally got the Dovish Federal Reserve that he has spent the last year campaigning for. The day of the announcement was the first in Powell's tenure that the market reacted positively to one of his rate-setting announcements. 

Unfortunately for Powell, none of the arguments for “normalizing” monetary policy has changed since Powell first outlined his desires for a slow and gradual wind down. The economic data that the Fed claims to make its decisions off of continue to look strong and the dangers of facing a crisis with the monetary interventionists tools they desire have not gone away. So what has changed? Maybe, just maybe, it’s the perceived risk of a future recession that the Fed’s models, other signals, and a growing legion of economists are projecting.

Of course, in the Chairman’s defense, it would be a mistake to see the Fed’s top role as one of truth teller. The Fed’s job is necessarily a political one, to project an air of confidence and try to maintain confidence in the system. Unfortunately, hot air only goes so far, as Bernanke learned in 2007. 

Luckily for Powell, it pays to play the role of Baghdad Bob for the US economy, as Bernanke’s $1 million book deal and speaking fees illustrate.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Rothbard and Salerno Quoted on Modern Monetary Theory

Brian Maher of the Daily Reckoning quotes Murray Rothbard and me in his incisive critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which has lately been embraced by proponents of the "Green New Deal."

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Study Shows Government Social Programs Create Dependence, Idleness

When I write about Social Security, I normally focus on the program’s huge fiscal imbalance ($44 trillion and climbing).

But it’s not just a fiscal crisis. Social Security is also an increasingly bad deal for workers. Especially minorities with lower average lifespans. When compared to what they would get from a private retirement system, people are paying in too much and getting out too little.

There’s also another major problem with the program.

Academic experts have quantified how older workers are lured out of the labor force when they get money from the government. And since economic output is a function of the quality and quantity of labor and capital, this means we’re sacrificing wealth and reducing prosperity.

Here are some excerpts from a study by Professors Daniel Fetter and Lee Lockwood.

Many of the most important government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, transfer resources to older people… Standard economic theory predicts that such programs reduce late-life labor supply and that the implicit taxation reduces the ex-post value of the programs to recipients. Understanding the size and nature of such effects on labor supply and welfare is an increasingly important issue, as demographic trends have increased both the potential labor supply of the elderly and its aggregate importance, while simultaneously increasing the need for reforms to government old-age support programs. …We address these questions by investigating Old Age Assistance (OAA), a means-tested program introduced in the 1930s alongside Social Security that later became the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Here are charts illustrating how people are retiring earlier in part because of government payments.

Feb-11-19-Fetter-Figure-1.jpg

And here are some calculations from the study.

Our estimates indicate that OAA significantly reduced labor force participation among older individuals. The basic patterns that we explore in the data are evident in Figure 2, which plots male labor force participation by age, separately for states with above- and belowmedian OAA payments per person 65 and older. Up to age 65, the age pattern of labor force participation was extremely similar in states with larger and smaller OAA programs. At age 65, however, there was a sharp divergence in labor force participation between states with larger OAA programs relative to those with smaller programs, and this divergence continued at older ages. Our regression results, which isolate variation in OAA program size due to state policy differences, imply that OAA can explain more than half of the large 1930–40 drop in labor force participation of men aged 65–74. …Our results suggest that Social Security had the potential to drive at least half—and likely more—of the mid-century decline in late-life labor supply for men. …Taken as a whole, our results suggest that government old-age support programs can have large effects on labor supply, through both their transfer and taxation components.

This chart captures how old-age payments in various states were associated with varying degrees of labor force participation.

Feb-11-19-Fetter-Figure-2.jpg

By the way, I’m not sharing this information because it’s bad for people to retire at some point.

I’m merely establishing that there’s academic support for the common-sense observation that people are more likely to leave the labor force when there’s an alternative source of income (though it’s worth noting that there should be a sensible and sustainable system for providing that retirement income).

Moreover, people are likely to stop working when government systems give them money before age 65.

Three academics, Andres Erosa, Luisa Fuster, and Gueorgui Kambourov, have a study quantifying this problem in European nations.

There are substantial differences in labor supply and in the design of tax and transfer programs across countries. The cross-country differences in labor supply increase dramatically late in the life cycle…while differences in employment rates among eight European countries are in the order of 15 percentage points for the 50-54 age group, they increase to 35 percentage points for the 55-59 age group and to more than 50 percentage points for the 60-64 age group. In this paper we quantitatively assess the role of social security, disability insurance, and taxation for understanding differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (age 50+) across European countries and the United States. … The social security, disability insurance, and taxation systems in the United States and European countries in the study are modelled in great detail.

Here’s a sampling of their results.

The main findings are that the model accounts fairly well for how labor supply decreases late in the life cycle for most countries. The model matches remarkably well the large decline in the aggregate labor supply after age 50 in Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. The results support the view that government policies can go a long way towards accounting for the low labor supply late in the life cycle for these European countries relative to the United States, with social security rules accounting for the bulk of these effects… relative to the United States, the hours worked by men aged 60-64 is…49% in the Netherlands, 66% in Spain, 44% in Italy, and 29% in France. …government policies can go a long way towards accounting for labor supply differences across countries. Social security rules account for the bulk of cross country differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (with its contribution varying from 50% to 100%), but other policies also matter. In accounting for the low labor supply relative to the US at ages 60 to 64, taxes matter importantly in the Netherlands (6%), Italy (6%), and France (5%); disability insurance policies are important for the Netherlands (7%) and Spain (10%).

And here’s one of their charts comparing hours worked at various ages in Switzerland, Spain, France, and the United States.

Feb-11-19-Erosa-Fuster-Kambourov.jpg
The good news is that we don’t push people out of the labor force as much as the French and the Spanish.

The bad news is that we’re not as good as Switzerland (probably in part because the Swiss have a retirement system based on private saving, so they have the ideal combination of good work incentives and comfortable retirement).

But it shouldn’t matter whether other countries have good systems or bad systems. What does matter is that America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer children and our system of entitlements is a mess.

We should be reforming these programs, both for fiscal reasons and economic reasons.

P.S. It’s not just Social Security. Other programs also lure people out of the job market and into government dependency, with Obamacare being an especially harmful example.

Originally published at International Liberty
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

AOC's Green New Deal Is Absolutely Absurd, but That's the Washington Status Quo

02/08/2019Tho Bishop

This week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a preliminary summary of her grand vision for a Green New Deal. Prior to its unveiling, the youngest rising star of the Democratic Party had already managed to get the support of leading members of Congress, including all of the party’s current leading Presidential candidates. Unfortunately for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the document was met with widespread ridicule for advocating policies such as building high-speed rail to Hawaii, eliminating combustible engines, and guaranteed government jobs – even for those “unwilling to work.”

Like FDR’s New Deal, the proposal would be a total disaster for the US economy. Also, like its spiritual predecessor, it’s a great illustration of what F.A. Hayek warned of his classical work the Road to Serfdom: a grand utopian plan for a military-like mobilization of the entire US economy, the inevitable result of which is economic ruin and loss of liberty.

The most refreshing part of the Green New Deal’s proposals though is how honest and transparent the document is – a rarity for Washington. The proposal makes its own comparisons to military plans, stating its objective is “to mobilize every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War 2” and remarking at the government’s past success of outperforming expectations when it comes to the manufacturing of war machines. It doesn’t try to downplay the revolutionary vision outlined in the brief, nor even try to act as if this is some sort of policy that will pay for itself, instead it explicitly advocates for it to be financed through the monetary magic of the Federal Reserve.

It is in her honesty in which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s true weakness as a politician lies.

After all, the very same class of political pundits and politicians – on both the left and right – that have decided it is safe to laugh at the freshman Congresswoman’s proposal are almost all guilty of promoting and supporting plans that are similarly absurd.

For example, AOC’s embrace of the idea that “we’ll just pay for it!” – a crudely articulated version of Modern Monetary Theory which has gained its own following in recent years  –  is certainly deserving of ridicule. Is it, however, all that more outrageous than the idea of negative interest rate or the massive expansion of central bank balance sheets that “serious” central bankers have embraced around the world?

Similarly, the sheer hubris of thinking that Washington central planners – in just 10 years – can re-arrange the entire US economy in a way to eliminate all carbon emissions is something so insane that it shouldn’t be seriously discussed in civilized society.  Yet is it really all that more delusional than the idea that the US military could transform the entire Middle East into a bastion of neoliberalism, a view passionately defended by a number of “serious” pundits and policymakers who continue to get paid for their opinion?

Yes, anyone with a basic grasp of economics can recognize the amazing fallacies that exist within the idea of guaranteeing everyone, everywhere a job, food, healthcare, and housing – totally regardless of merit. Yet the current operations of the US government actively dismiss the well-understood consequences of prohibition, government subsidies, unfunded social programs, and arbitrary insurance mandates.

So yes, Rep.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is guilty of promoting stupid policy she doesn’t fully understand, the consequences of which will have very negative consequences for Americans of all types. She is deserving of public ridicule and in a better world would be soundly voted out for her severe ignorance.

She should not, however, be treated as a beltway outlier.

 Her complete ignorance of economics simply means she fits in perfectly with the rest of Washington and most legislators around the world. 

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Why It's Important to "Preach to the Converted"

02/08/2019Ryan McMaken

An an editor of publications with a distinct ideological bent, I sometimes hear that it's important to strive to avoid "preaching to the choir" or "preaching to the converted."

It's difficult to generalize what is meant when this phrase is used. Some users of the phrase think it's a waste of time for any group to discuss important topics among the members. Why discuss laissez-faire economics (or any topic) with other people who already agree?

Some have even argued that the very existence of publications devoted to a specific limited ideological point of view are dangerous because they encourage more in-group discussion at the expense of outside engagement.

More generally, though, the use of the phrase "preaching to the converted" is used to devalue the practice of encouraging frequent discussion of ideas and scholarship within in a certain group. The phrase instead suggests it is better to focus most — if not all — communications outward for the purposes of converting outsiders.

There's a lot of gray area here, and moderates on the issue likely hold a wide variety of opinions as to just how much discussion ought to be with outsiders. Some may think its fine to develop ideas internally, and to engage in only occasional outward "missionary" efforts. Depending on the nature of the organization, some may even think it's fine to focus nearly all energies on in-group teaching and scholarship so that in-group members can then go to other organizations which specialize in outward communications, but do little in terms of internal debate and idea development.

In practice, most ideological groups do both internal idea development and education, and outward communication.

Both activities are important, and many people understand this.

Some observers, nevertheless have a tendency to excessively emphasize the importance of not "preaching to the converted" and this is often due to three incorrect assumptions:

  1. It is believed that people in the converted already have a sufficient understanding of the topic at hand.
  2. It is assumed that the converted will never leave the group in question.
  3. It is believed that the converted won't interact with people outside their group in other contexts.

To illustrate these points, it may be helpful to speak of them in the context for which the term was originally invented: religious evangelization.

This isn't to suggest that laissez-faire views of political economy are anything like a religion. They're not. These views do not constitute a "way of life" or any sort of all-encompassing theory of the cosmos or the human person.

Nevertheless, a religious group can serve as an instructive analogy for a closer look at spreading a certain ideological viewpoint.

The "Choir" Is Often Full of Poorly Educated and Casual Believers

Let's begin by looking at "the converted" or the congregation in any religious group.

Anyone who has experience within any sizable group of Christians — for example — knows that there is a wide variety of knowledge levels and engagement levels within the group.

Some of them are well-read, enthusiastic, orthodox, and attend every single group event. Others are less sure of the group's core beliefs. Some only attend services occasionally. Some self-identify as Christians, but have barely read any of the group's most important documents.

And yet, all of these people call themselves "Christians." Clearly, it would be a mistake to then conclude that no one in this group requires additional discussion, instruction, or reading. In fact, most would benefit from being shown new ways of looking at things, or new readings with which they had not been familiar before. The clergy and teaching staff would also benefit from being asked difficult questions and being asked to elaborate on ideas already discussed. Useful information doesn't just flow one way. Without this, the "converted" cannot be expected to communicate their ideas to others, or even to themselves. Moreover, because old people die and new people are born, new people may be coming into the group as other people are dying off.

Some of the Converted May Be Headed Out the Door

This brings us to the second problem of assuming too much about the converted. It is often assumed that those who are converted will stay that way. This, of course, is a bad assumption in both ideological movement and in religious groups. People fall away from religious groups frequently. The same is true of any number of ideological groups, whether they be based on laissez-faire economics,  on Marxism, or on veganism.

Thus, one of the most important functions of "preaching to the converted" is to address the questions of those who perceive inconsistencies in the ideas, or to better explain hard-to-understand aspects of a certain group of ideas. One of the most important things to avoid is the idea that every question already has pat answers that are self-evidently true to everyone. This is rarely the case, of course, so even among the converted, additional discussion and investigation is usually warranted.

The Converted Are Part of Other Groups

And finally, it is important to remember that "the converted" — unless they're part of a despotic cult — interact with numerous other groups of people in daily life, whether through family, professional work, or community groups. If these people are to be expected to spread certain ideas effectively, they must have a competent grasp of them. And there must be some place or publication or organization that can help them obtain this grasp of things.

In other words, if the converted are to share their ideas with others, their primary concern should be understanding these ideas well in the first place.

Leonard Read regularly made this point, noting:

it is only in self-improvement that one can have any influence whatsoever on the improvement of others. This point may never come clear unless we know why so few of us feel any need for self-improvement while so many of us possess an overpowering itch to improve others. Why do we spend so much more time looking down than up?

This was perhaps Read's version of "doctor, heal thyself." It's a good thing to want to go out and improve the world. But it's important to also have the means of improving one's self first. Being a member of "the choir" or "the converted" is often a helpful first step.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here
Shield icon power-market-v2