God is a Capitalist

Monday, May 14, 2018

Death of retail is premature

Does anyone remember Montgomery Wards? What about TG&Y? Wikipedia has a longer list of dead brands here. That Sears, K-Mart and many other brands wither in retail hospice is frightening to many:
The amount of retail space going dark in 2018 is on pace to break a record, as companies with massive floorplans are either trimming back their store counts or liquidating entirely... Since 2008, commercial real estate services firm CoStar Group has been tracking the amount of retail square footage slated to close annually. Already in April, more than 90 million square feet of space is expected to be vacated, including Bon-Ton's stores, in 2018. That's easily on track to surpass a record 105 million square feet of space shuttered last year, said Suzanne Mulvee, a senior real estate strategist at CoStar. All it will take is another handful of closures.” 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The real Gilded Age - The US economy's best performance ever

Libertarians looking for the cause of the younger generation’s infatuation with socialism need look no further than the PBS series American Experience and the episode aired in February, “The Gilded Age.” A press release described the age this way:
By the end of the 19th century, the richest 4,000 families in the country — less than one percent of all Americans — possessed nearly as much wealth as the other 11.6 million families combined. The simultaneous growth of a lavish new elite and a struggling working class sparked passionate and violent debate over questions still being asked today: How is wealth best distributed, and by what process? Should the government concern itself with economic growth or economic justice? Are we two nations — one for the rich and one for the poor — or one nation where everyone has a chance to succeed? A compelling portrait of an era of glittering wealth contrasted with extreme poverty...”
Jobs were abundant, but employers often expected everyone —including children — to work 12-hour days, six days a week.
Throughout the Gilded Age the economy grew at a furious pace, but financial markets were wracked by instability. On May 4, 1893, Wall Street investors saw much of the nation’s wealth disappear. As many as a million workers lost their jobs. People starved to death.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Macroenomics fails again

The economist Axel Leijonhufvud quipped in his essay “Life among the Econ” that,
The Math-Econ [tribe] make exquisite models finely carved from bones of Walras. Specimens made by their best masters are judged unequalled in both workmanship and raw material by a unanimous Econographic opinion. If some of these are “useful” – and even Econ testimony is divided on this point – it is clear that this is purely coincidental in the motivation for their manufacture.
Read the whole essay because it's very funny. It’s an inside joke; the father of math models in economics was Leon Walras. I thought of the essay when reading Martin Wolf’s recent article in the Financial Times, “Economics failed us before the global crisis.”Wolf’s is only the latest in a long line of laments over the “usefulness” of macroeconomics after the Great Recession. He wrote,
The tests of this discipline are whether its adepts understand what might go wrong in the economy and how to put it right. When the financial crisis that hit in 2007 caught the profession almost completely unawares, it failed the first of these tests. It did better on the second. Nevertheless, it needs rebuilding.”
How does Wolf know that macroeconomists did better at the second, putting the economy right? Because we didn’t have another Great Depression:
A comparison between what happened in the 1930s and this post-crash period shows we have indeed learnt some important things. Compared with the Great Depression, the immediate declines in output and rises in unemployment were far smaller. Moreover, prices have also been far more stable this time. These are true successes.”
In other words, because we didn’t have a depression like the Great D that proves the money printing and deficit spending worked to save us. Wolf reminds me of another joke: a police officer approached a man furiously blowing a trumpet in the park and asked him why he was doing that. The man said he was keeping elephants away. The policeman said there never have been elephants in the park, to which the trumpeter responded, “It’s working!”

Wolf’s problem is he doesn’t know economic history, but then few economists do. The US has suffered through about 70 recessions/depressions since 1790. Before 1929, the US economy recovered from depressions with no help whatsoever from a central bank or the federal government. All of them were milder than the Great one. The Great D became the worst ever because the government decided to rescue us. The Smoot-Hawley tariff destroyed international trade so much that it took another 70 years to recover. Other efforts by FDR to “save” us caused equally bad outcomes and made the depression in the US last longer than in any other country.

Some think the Great Recession was almost as bad in terms of GDP decline, but combining the recessions of 1981 and 1982 (six months apart) produces one equally as bad. In response, the Fed kept interest rates high and Reagan did nothing to bail us out, yet the economy recovered very fast.

During the Great Recession, Congress passed no Smoot-Hawley tariff so there was no reason to think the latest recession would turn into a Great Depression. Wolf and most mainstream economists predicted that the Great Recession would turn into an “elephant in the park” so when no elephants appeared they declared victory. It’s an old political ploy to predict the worst and when it doesn’t happen take the credit. Politics is all about taking credit for the work of others and most macroeconomists act like politicians.

Wolf blames macroeconomist’s assumptions of the efficient markets hypothesis and rational expectations for their failures, but those were never problems. The roadblock has always been the desire for precise math model, like those “carved from the bones of Walras.” Making their models work required the assumption of equilibrium, which assumes away the very things we want explained, such as recessions. Wolf is correct that “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” But he doesn’t seem to know that the quote comes from FA Hayek’s Nobel speech, not from Minsky. Hayek was trying to convince economists to get some therapy for their obsession with their equilibrium models.

Wolf stepped dangerously close to the truth about the causes of crises with this: “Moreover, crises are endogenous: that is to say, they come from within the economy. They are a result of the interaction between tendencies towards excessive optimism and the fragility of any system of highly leveraged financial intermediaries.” But then he flinches and runs away. Had he been made of sterner stuff, he would have asked, where does the excessive optimism and high leverage come from if not from central bank monetary policies flooding the world with cheap money? And if high leverage is the problem, how is it also part of the cure? Is bourbon the solution to alcoholism?

And his remedy shows some promise: “Obvious solutions include eliminating the incentives towards leverage in our tax systems, encouraging greater use by the economy of equity finance and debt that can be readily converted into equity, raising the reserve and capital requirements of banks and moving swiftly towards the issuance of digital central bank cash.” But what about the chief dealer of the drug he calls leverage, the Federal Reserve? Even without the policies he mentions, excessive leverage could never happen if the Fed allowed the market to determine interest rates and didn’t keep them near zero for over a decade. And those same policies can never prevent the Fed from flooding the country with cheap money and increasing leverage.

Wolf and mainstream economists see the impact of money printing as asymmetric: it produces only good outcomes in the short run and nothing worse than inflation in the long. He thinks that because he has an emaciated theory of money. If he learned a robust theory of money as the Austrian school teaches he would see the devastating effects of money printing in the near term. Keynes was addressing economists like Wolf when he said, “In the long run we’re all dead.” Most fail to quote the next sentence: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again.” In other words, mainstream economists fixate on the long run effect of inflation to the exclusion of the near term storms.

Wolf sets before economists two tasks: “The first is how to make the body economic more resistant to the consequences of manias and panics. The second is how to restore it to health as quickly as possible. On both counts, we need to think more and do more.”

By identifying the problem with leverage, Wolf is very close to the Austrian business-cycle theory (ABCT), which blames central bank policies for creating high leverage through 1) below market interest rates and 2) expanding the money supply by buying US treasuries from banks. Loose monetary policy encourages people to go into debt and causes unsustainable expansions that end in manias. The inevitable crash causes panics. Why can’t he connect the dots?

He can’t because of his socialist tendencies. Wolf, like all mainstream economists, wants to blame capitalism for crises. He can’t indict the real culprit, the quasi-governmental central bank, because that would let capitalism off the hook and put the burden on his idol, the state.

We are probably now in another recession, which typically last 18 months. What will mainstream econ say about it in two years?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Socialist Eat Their Young

It’s well known that “millennials” prefer socialism to capitalism. That doesn’t worry me, though. Someone said that if you aren’t a socialist when you’re young you don’t have a heart; if you’re not a capitalist when you age you have no head.

Most young people think they can transfer the morality of the family to the nation and it takes a while for them to understand the fallacy, if they ever do. A lot of PhD economists haven’t caught on.

The public school system has taught them “milk cow” economics for twelve years that says socialism is about sharing and caring while capitalism is nothing but greed. Who would want to identify with capitalism after a dozen years of such brainwashing?

But the main reason millennials oppose capitalism is that they can see how the student debt problem, lack of jobs, slow wage growth, etc. assault them, while the media, economists and conservative politicians chant daily that this is a capitalist system. Why wouldn’t they hate capitalism?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Climate change is socialist groupthink

Public relations research tells us there are two types of people in the world: one relies on an authority figure to tell him what to do and the other decides for himself by gathering evidence and using reason. If you’re someone who can think for himself, you have probably wondered why climate science is such a mess. Why do they torture the temperature data to get it to look like a hockey stick in graphs? Why do they ignore or slander critics instead of answering their concerns when they offer good evidence?

A short period existed when climate science was real science and not socialist ideology. Back in the 1980s when the science was in its infancy, scientists openly debated the evidence. A startling experiment in that decade proved CO2 to be an excellent fertilizer for trees and plants.

Christopher Booker thinks the reason climate scientists act like ideologues is because of “groupthink,” referring to the book with that title by Yale psychologist Irving Janis:
Janis’s first rule is that a group of people come to share a particular way of looking at the world which may seem hugely important to them but which turns out not to have been based on looking properly at all the evidence. It is therefore just a shared, untested belief.”
Rule two is that, because they have shut their minds to any evidence which might contradict their belief, they like to insist that it is supported by a “consensus.” The one thing those caught up in groupthink cannot tolerate is that anyone should question it. 
This leads on to the third rule, which is that they cannot properly debate the matter with those who disagree with their belief. Anyone holding a contrary view must simply be ignored, ridiculed, and dismissed as not worth listening to.
Booker describes the behavior of most climate scientists well, but doesn't answer how they fell into the groupthink trap? The answer lies with the collapse of socialism in the late 1980s. Socialism’s main selling point from its fabrication by Saint-Simon in the early decades of the 19th century had always been economic. Socialism would make everyone equally rich as it ended the waste inherent in the anarchy of markets.

The world suffered through 120 years of experimentation with socialism launched by the welfare state of Germany in 1870 through the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union, the annexation of Eastern Europe, and the victory of Mao in China. China abandoned pure socialism after Mao’s death. Then the Berlin Wall fell; Poland rebelled and the USSR disintegrated, all because socialism had impoverished those nations to the point that they couldn’t feed their own people. Socialism lost the economic debate that had burned through the 20th century.

Reasonable people divorced socialism, but most socialists had never been reasonable. They are aflame with envy. Robert Heilbroner wept ink for twelve pages over the death of his utopia in “The Triumph of Capitalism,” which appeared in the January 23, 1989 issue of The New Yorker magazine. He began with, “Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over; capitalism has won.” He concluded with this:
And finally, what of socialism?...I do not think that the triumph of capitalism means its assured long and happy life or that the defeat of socialism means its ignominious exit from history. The collapse of central planning shows that at this moment socialism has no plausible economic framework, but the word has always meant more than a system of economic organization. At its core, it has stood for a commitment to social goals that have seemed incompatible with, or at least unattainable under, capitalism – above all, the moral, not just the material elevation of humankind...the vision has retained its inspirational potential, just as that of Christianity has survived countless autos-de-fe and vicious persecutions.”
Helbroner soon regained his composure, dried his tears and nailed his 95 theses to the door of capitalism in his September 10, 1990 The New Yorker article, “After Communism.” Near the end he wrote,
For all these reasons, I am not very sanguine about the prospect that socialism will continue as an important form of economic organization now that Communism is finished...But the collapse of the planned economies has forced us to rethink the meaning of socialism. As a semireligious vision of a transformed humanity, it has been dealt devastating blows in the twentieth century...
There is, however, another way of looking at, or for, socialism. It is to conceive of it not in terms of the specific improvements we would like to embody but as the society that must emerge if humanity is to cope with the one transcendent challenge that faces it within a thinkable timespan. This is the ecological burden that economic growth is placing on the environment. The challenge has drawn its first blood in the epidemic rise in skin cancer that is a consequence of the depletion of the ozone layer. It threatens to open far deeper and more serious wounds as the atmosphere gradually forms its invisible panes of carbon dioxide and other gases...The ecological crisis toward which we are moving at a quickening pace has occasioned much scientific comment but surprisingly little economic attention. Yet if there is any single problem that will have to be faced by any socioeconomic order over the coming decades it is the problem of making our economic peace with the demands of the environment.
Whatever its other consequences, the closing window of environmental tolerance will impose an utterly new condition of caution and constraint on a civilization...It is perhaps, possible that some of the institutions of capitalism – markets, dual realms of power, even private ownership of some kinds of production – may be adapted to that new state of ecological vigilance, but, they must be monitored, regulated, and contained to such a degree that it would be difficult to call the final social order capitalism.

Heilbroner gave socialists their new marching orders: take over the environmental movement and use it to forge their socialist utopia. And they did. Climate change scientists embraced their new role as the vanguard of socialism and acted just as FA Hayek had predicted they would in Road to Serfdom fifty years earlier.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Free markets celebrate individualism

Individualism is the root of all evil if you believe many theologians and sociologists today. For example, Philip bond wrote in First Things,
Liberalism finds its quintessential form in a market state that enforces individualism. The market state must abolish anything that stands in the way of unconstrained freedom; it must eliminate solidarity or shared associations with other people, places, or things. This gives liberalism a curious Maoist cast, as it seeks to dispel our settled notions, be they sexual, biological, or even of who counts as human. 
The current Pope has been a leading critic of individualism, according to a Catholic writer:
The Pontiff acknowledged that our Western culture ”has exalted the individual to the point of making him an island, almost as if one could be happy on one’s own.” Stemming from it are ideological visions and political powers that “have squeezed the person, have standardized him, thus making room for economic powers that wish to exploit globalization, instead of fostering greater sharing among men, simply to impose a global market of which they themselves dictate the rules and draw the profits...the concept of person, born and matured in Christianity, helps in fact to pursue a fully human development.” Moreover, the word “person” always means relation, not individualism; it affirms inclusion, not exclusion, a unique and inviolable dignity and not exploitation, freedom and not constriction.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Free market capitalism requires respect for commerce

Last installment in the series defining free market capitalism, we reversed engineered Karl Marx’s definition of capitalism and found that it referred to the economic system that produced the hockey stick effect in per capita GDP beginning in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, picking up England and Anglo nations then the rest of Western Europe. The first principle of that system was protection of private property. That was a necessary, but by itself insufficient cause of the hockey stick. The remaining necessary traits are 1) respect for commerce, 2) mass production and3) individualism.

Deirdre McCloskey has expressed well the importance of respect for commerce in his trilogy about bourgeois virtues. If a country protects property but has contempt for commerce, the people won’t go into business but will do what most people in the world have always done: get into government or the military where the “respectable” means to wealth attainment reside. This was one of the main reasons most of Europe remained as poor in 1700 AD as it was in 2000 BC.

People in government extracted wealth from the masses through heavy taxation and enriched themselves. Generals grew rich through looting in war. Until the advent of capitalism, looting in war, kidnapping for ransom, and taking bribes as a government official were the respectable means to wealth. Commerce held as much appeal as prostitution.

In spite of the fact that much of Europe was predominantly Christian after say the year 500, the Church taught people to hold commerce in contempt. And they did. Businessmen were told that the sins inherent in their profession were so great that it would be impossible for them to go to heaven. So businessmen who grew wealthy in trade would give half of their wealth to the Church in hopes of buying their way into heaven, and spend the other half buying land and titles to nobility so they could rob their fellow citizens.

But the Church fathers didn’t get their views of commerce from the Bible or the Judaism from which Christianity sprang. Many of the Church fathers were recruited from among the nobility because of their education, political influence and wealth, according to Peter Brown in Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Many were new to the faith and filled in the holes in their Biblical knowledge with the writings of pagan philosophers from Plato to Cicero, all of whom held commerce in low regard.

Pagan philosophy dominated the theology of wealth from the second through the 15th century. In fact, pagan intellectuals have always dominated Church teaching on social issues with few exceptions. E. R. Norman drives home that point in Church and Society in England 1770 – 1970. The only exceptions took place when the leading intellectuals were also Christians, such as the Salamancan theologians, the founders of the Dutch Republic and the “clerical” economists in the UK and US during the 19th century. In the late 19th century most intellectuals were atheists and socialists, so Protestant and Catholic theologians became socialists as well.

The theologians of the University of Salamanca had the courage to break with the pagans and distill their economics from the Bible and natural law. McCloskey described the radical change in European values from the pagan contempt for commerce to the bourgeois virtues but fails to offer a convincing reason for the change. But the teaching of the Salamancan scholars explains it well. Their theology gave people permission to be pro-business and godly at the same time.

All of the poor countries today have failed to make the change in values that would give them respect for business as a means to wealth. The great economist Thomas Sowell details the trials and tribulations of “middleman minorities” in his Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Jews in Europe are the prototypical middleman minorities. Christians persecuted them relentlessly because Christians restricted them to business as their only means of support, barring them from government or the military. As business people, they became wealthy and inflamed the envy of Christians.

Christians in Muslim nations, Chinese in Southeast Asia, Lebanese in West Africa and Koreans in Los Angeles recently have all been middleman minorities engaged in commerce that made them wealthier than their neighbors. That wealth and their hated professions ignited envy, which boiled over into frequent riots and murder.

The issue of mass production is simpler. Many historians locate the origins of capitalism in the commercial cities of Northern Italy, such as Venice. Those cities did enjoy a healthy respect for commerce, but the lacked mass production. All production except for ship building in Venice, which was state owned, was craft production in guilds. Craft production has always existed and so cannot explain an explosion in wealth like the hockey stick because it never produced large increases in productivity. Such wealth creation can only take place when business people invest their wealth in new and better machines to aid workers and boost productivity. Ludwig von Mises wrote in Planned Chaos, “There is no means by which the height of wage rates can be raised for all those eager to earn wages other than through the increase of the per capita quota of capital invested.”

Craft production was always small production for the wealthy. Capitalism is mass production for the masses and that requires investment in capital goods. Hence the appropriate name, capitalism. That began to happen first in the Dutch Republic.

Capitalism requires 1) protection of property and free markets, 2) respect for commerce, 3) mass, capital-intensive production and 4) individualism. I saved individualism for last because it is the most difficult and will discuss it next week.

Originally published at Townhall Finance