Improving the world costs money. When you have it, your efforts either bear fruit. Or they don’t. But when you don’t have it, when you have to change the world on credit, then what?
John Maynard Keynes revolutionized the economics profession in the early 20th century. It was he more than anyone who changed it from a being a refuge for observers and willowy philosophers into a hard-charging phalanx for men of action. But Keynes’ big insight, like all the useful insights of economics, was based on a story with a moral.
In the Book of Genesis, Pharaoh had a dream. In it, he was standing by the river. Out came 7 fat cattle. Then, 7 lean cattle came up out of the river and ate the fat cattle. A similar dream involved ears of corn, with the good ones devoured by the thin ears.
Pharaoh was troubled. His dream interpreters were stumped. So, they sent for the Hebrew man who was said to be good at this sort of thing — Joseph. Pharaoh described what had happened in his dreams. Without missing a beat, Joseph told him what they meant. The 7 fat cattle and 7 fat ears of corn represented years of plenty with bountiful harvests. The 7 lean cattle and thin ears of corn represented years of famine. Joseph wasn’t asked his opinion, but he gave his advice anyway: Pharaoh should put into place an activist, counter-cyclical economic policy. He should tax 20% of the output during the fat years and then he would be ready with some grain to sell when the famine came. Genesis reports what happened next:
…the seven years of plenty ended and famine struck, and when Egypt was famished, Joseph opened the storehouses, and sold food to the Egyptians. People from all countries came to Egypt to buy grain, because the famine struck all the earth.
You’d think private investors would do the work more efficiently, for profit, buying grain at low prices when crops were busting out of their storerooms and selling them at high prices when crops failed. But there is no need to argue with the Biblical account. Besides, it sounds all too likely.
Keynes put forward the simple idea that modern governments should act like Pharaoh. They should run counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies. In the fat years, they should store up surpluses. In the lean years, they should open the doors of the granaries so that people might eat. This seems sensible enough, until you realize that modern governments do not run surpluses. Only deficits. The US hasn’t run a real surplus (not including Social Security payments) since 1969. That’s 43 years without closing the granary doors. Not surprisingly, you can look in there. You won’t find anything. Except I.O.Us. Instead of actually storing up grain in the fat years, the feds ate every bit of it. And more. Now, come the years of famine, they have no grain to give out.
That might be the end of the story. But it’s not. Economists insist that the feds can follow a pharaonic policy even with their bins empty. How? By borrowing money…and in the extreme…printing it. You are probably getting ahead of me here, dear reader. You are wondering whether that would have worked in Ancient Egypt. Could Pharaoh have saved the expense of stocking up grain, and simply borrowed it when he needed it?
Well, there’s only so much grain available. Borrowing from those who still have some doesn’t help. At best, it just moves it around. At worst, it takes the ‘seed’ grain needed for the next year’s planting. Without it, the next year’s harvest will be smaller, leaving even more people hungry.
(Nor could Pharaoh solve the hunger issue by handing out sawdust and pretending that it was whole wheat bread. It had to be digestible. This is the problem with printing press money too. Like Pharaoh’s sawdust-based bread…paper money is a wood product. It’s a kind of money that literally does grow on trees; it is worthless. Sawdust has no nutritive content in it; paper money has no real resources behind it.)
But economists have developed elaborate theories and mathematical proofs that allow them to believe what everyone knows is not so. The government may be deeply in debt already, but it can go further into debt during the lean years, say the ‘neo-Keynesian’ economists, in order to offset the contraction in the private sector. And central banks can make it easier for consumers to borrow, too. The fiscal and the monetary stimuli provide much needed ‘demand’ for an economy in a downturn.
It almost sounds plausible. And the trick worked well enough, from the close of WWII until 2007. Each downturn in the economy was met with more and easier credit, leading people to borrow more and more money. The point of declining marginal utility of debt had been reached many years before. In the late ’40s and ’50s, it only took an addition of about $1.40 in extra credit to produce an extra dollar in GDP. By the mid-’90s, it took $3 of credit for every dollar of additional output. Ten years later, the amount of additional credit to produce a dollar’s worth of extra output reached over $5, and then it went off the charts. By 2007, the downside had come. Output was beginning to fall off so that additional inputs of credit — no matter how great — actually produced zero additional output.
The downside of the credit cycle is so obvious it hardly seems worth describing it. It works pretty much as you would expect. I wouldn’t bother discussing it, except that modern economists have persuaded many of the world’s smartest people — and themselves — that it isn’t so.
Debt has become a major burden in the economies of the US, Europe and Japan. It blocks them from saving, spending, investing and creating new wealth. Why? Because the resources that might have been put to work building the future have already been claimed by the past. Debt was contracted. Now, it must be paid. It is as if Pharaoh had already borrowed the needed grain…as if the grain needed to plant for next year had already been eaten. Once consumed, it cannot be borrowed. It is gone.
When you owe money on your credit card, it is often for things that no longer even exist. Hamburgers eaten a month ago. Clothes that went out of style last summer. Ski vacations in last winter’s snow. With this burden of the past on your shoulders, you find it harder to move into the future. Your footsteps drag; your life shrinks. You are forced to use your time tomorrow to make up the time you borrowed yesterday.
If you owe an amount equal to your annual revenue, for example, at an interest rate of 5%, you will have to devote more than one working day in 20 just to pay the interest on the debt. I say “more than” because you have to pay the interest with post-tax money. At a tax rate of 25% (just to keep the math easy) you have to work about one day every two weeks to stay even.
Readers may consider the magnitude of the current problem by realizing that, according to the US Federal Reserve, total debt in the US is now about 353% of GDP. At 5% interest, forgetting taxes, the debtor must work nearly 1 day per week just to pay for past consumption.
“Too much” comes readily to the lips when we describe someone who has consumed too many hamburgers or taken too many vacations, on credit. He may even be able to borrow more…and eat more hamburgers. But it is rarely a good idea. At a certain point, the borrowing does more harm than good. That’s when he’s reached the downside.
The marginal utility of debt is fairly high when you are using it to build a business or a bridge. But it declines sharply as soon as you begin to use it for everyday spending. An investment brings forth a revenue stream — a result that justifies and pays for the investment. With a little luck, the investor recovers enough money to pay back the loan — with interest — and ends up with a little bit extra. That little bit extra is real ‘growth’ — new wealth that didn’t exist before.
But there is no revenue stream coming from Social Security payments…fighter jets…the latest fashions…or other consumer items. The money is spent. Used up. Consumed. It is no more. Though all of these things may be enjoyed…perhaps even for a long time…no stream of revenue bubbles up from this spring. The ground around it remains dry and barren.
Keep up this borrowing and spending at some point you will be unable to continue. The weight of the past will be too heavy. Your legs will buckle and your back will break.
“Too much” has a meaning that the engineers can’t duck or dodge. The machine can’t be adjusted or recalibrated to make it go away. “Too much” must be admitted and suffered. The suffering that comes to a market is known as a ‘correction.’ Sharp, dramatic corrections are called ‘crashes.’ In an economy, it is called a ‘slump’ or a ‘recession.’ Severe cases are called ‘depressions.’
They can be denied. They can be delayed. But they can’t be disappeared. “Too much” has consequences; the downside must have its day.
Bill Bonnerfor The Daily Reckoning
Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America's most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind The Daily Reckoning. Dice Have No Memory: Big Bets & Bad Economics from Paris to the Pampas, the newest book from Bill Bonner, is the definitive compendium of Bill's daily reckonings from more than a decade: 1999-2010.
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Some minor technical corrections! U.S. money literally does not grow on trees! Our paper money is made from high-quality linen (cotton) that is tree-free. It still may become worthless, but the paper is good stuff! My take (hardly original) of the Pharoah Vision story is this: there are natural cycles (plenty and famine) and a wise ruler, even a dictator, will prepare for these. You are correct in criticising the USA of today. Not only have we eaten the “seed corn,” we have replaced all the corn with IOUs, and even sold much of our future production forward on the futures market (“debt”).
“Luce, this is Blimpie Ben, he just got down
here a few minutes ago.”
“Hi there. And may I say that I will gladly repay you
with three quarters of hambuger on Tuesday
for a hamburger today.”
“Release the hounds.”
For 80 years the federal government has increased the monetary base and the debt by 16% each year on average. This printing and borrowing is nothing new. Lincoln is the guy who blew the government debt out of the galaxy. Look it up! People wanted to leave the Union and Lincoln printed the money to force them to stay. Andrew Jackson had paid off the federal debt and ended the national bank. Face it, Americans want big government and big debt. They complain about the big banks but they want inflation and worthless money. They want the government to take money at gunpoint from their more successful neighbors and put it in the public till. The mystery is why the producers keep producing and paying. They could coast. They could open businesses in other countries. They could move to other countries. Millions came to America to succeed and improve themselves. They wanted a better life for themselves and their children. Americans may have to leave to succeed! If voters do not elect free market constitutional politicians they will get Greece without the scenery and the food.
Great post as usual Bill, you make this stuff look easy, too bad all the Harvard educated eco omists aren’t so bright.
The bottom line is, this all is going to end badly. Anyone with a lick of common sense can see that.
A great parable for our modern times!
From phelps: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over”…Don Meredith, MNF. “It’s been a hellava party Woodrow”…Gus to his pal Woodrow as he lay dying, Lonesome Dove. The game is close to an end and all that remains is the final tally. Either a clean-up begins, or U.S. will just die. We can be just like Woodrow and carry-on, building something out the mess that remains despite all the sadness that surrounds U.S. What say you?
Gold is money, debt free money ! Now that it trades in real-time (floats) , the rising value gives incentive to “de-hoard” it. Gresham’s Law is less applicable with each passing month. Add this reality to the new found ability to digitize the gold weight and use fully backed digital currency ( again, by weight) and you have the perfect combination of debt-free store of value married to instant global liquidity. Gold currency’s past liquidity challenges were not about bullion. They were about the FIXED peg placed on the trade value. The FIXED peg had to be abolished to set gold free as a user friendly, highly liquid and honest form of money.
In the final analysis, when you reverse engineer real-time gold-as-money, it’s easy to see the FED’s footprints all over it, especially Bretton Woods. The USD’s ultimate role is NOT that of a currency, ironically. It’s a currency within the debt-currency paradigm, yes … but within the new real-time gold-as-money paradigm , it has a very useful role as a real-time measure. The big picture is larger than going from debt based currency to asset based currency, as many think. It’s actually a process that goes from FIXED gold-as-money to real-time gold-as-money with the pure fiat paradigm stuck in-between as part of the transition and “necessary evil” on our road back to providence.
I wonder, if government actually wants to pay out the debts or bring it to reasonable level? Unfortunately they always proved themselves wrong by borrowing money regularly and increasing the debts.
Liberal politicians view Keynesian economics as politically advantageous to spend money for constituents, essentially a free lunch for them. However, someone down the line has to pay for it, and that is accomplished by devaluing the currency with inflation. It may take some time, but it is coming. Since inflation boosts asset prices and delays any raise in the cost of labor, inflation caused by overspending and devaluation of the currency is a distinct disadvantage for the working class and the poor. Asset owners don’t mind so much as they are hedged. As a result of the housing crisis, the poor and much of the working class have no assets.
Any attempt to limit the deficit, like a debt ceiling, is treated as a
politically criminal offense, and has not been seriously mentioned by
either candidate for president because they both know it is a black hole
Continuing deficit spending will inherently screw the lower half of American citizens, and the financial gulf between the top and bottom segments of our society will continue to grow. No liberal economist wants to admit this.
Sometime in December we will reach the debt ceiling again and we will see who has the guts to vote against continued deficit financing of our massive overspending. Those with courage will be outnumbered by those with limited vision who don’t understand the magnitude of the economic disaster awaiting us.
All other topics discussed in the political theater will be irrelevant when the economy collapses due to the cost of paying interest on the national debt. Higher interest will bury us if we continue to have trillion dollar deficits. Buy gold.
Soon 30 year US bonds will yield less 1 percent for private holders – and for a number years – as bad non-sovereign debt undergoes default. Part of the US 52 trillion owed, considered as an asset by the counter-party lenders, will vanish. Sovereign US debt, on the other hand, will always always repaid. Those non-profit generating, fuel guzzling jets – back the US currency.
Past the end of the Macroeconomic System’s saturation area – where bad debt has accumulated to the system’s natural breaking point, assets have been overproduced and over consumed and over valued and the consumer is replete with default-able debt – at that time – debt on the books of the sovereign can be used counter cyclically as direct currency in trade to sustain citizen services, maintain stability, and at a later time, undergo debt jubilee.
“This is the problem with printing press money too. Like Pharaoh’s
sawdust-based bread…paper money is a wood product. It’s a kind of money
that literally does grow on trees; it is worthless. Sawdust has no
nutritive content in it; paper money has no real resources behind it.)”
Get with the 21st Century, Bill! “Printing press money?” Today, it’s all digital. A few keystrokes on a computer keyboard, and your bank account could increase by $1 billion (given all bank records are online and all are tied to the FED/IRS). Just have to know the password to the Fed’s magic money machine. Makes Helicopter Ben (HB) seem like a piker.
Given that, why doesn’t Lord O order HB to zap $100,000 into everybody’s bank account today? That would give the economy about an $35 trillion boost at absolutely no cost to the government. Talk about buying votes!
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“Liberal politicians view Keynesian economics as politically advantageous………” And this is another one of the lies you are being taught by the John Birch Society and the Eagle Forum and that whole bunch on the extreme right who have run the U.S. and its public school system for the past 60 years.
Who gave you the Korean War? Who was IKE? Who gave you the Cold War? Who gave you the Viet Nam War? Who was Ronald Reagan? Who was Richard Nixon? Who was Barry Goldwater? Who was George Bush? Who told you Joseph Stalin who won the Sword of Honour from King George VI in 1945 for saving the lives of millions of people in Eastern Europe from the Nazis and Mao Tse Tung who liberated China and East Asia from the Japanese Militarists in 1945 were both themselves mass murderers like Hitler? Who invented this lie? How many TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS, not to mention millions of lives were wasted on your ridiculous Republican Party causes of protecting freedom for the rich? And how many trillions of dollars were wasted on wars invented to continue the lie told by the Republican Party and the conservatives about Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin?
And now as the dust settles and the bills come in for these RIDICULOUS WARS that NO-ONE WANTED except for you Republicans on the most extreme lunatic rightwing fringe of politics, you have the nerve to point your finger at liberals or liberal politicians and blame them for the messes caused by these misuses of deficit spending and Keynesian economic principals.
As we liberals begin to take back America and finally throw the Republicans out— something that should have been done six decades ago—we now have TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF DEFICITS ON DEFENCE SPENDING and other garbage to begin to worry about financing and paying-back now to the world’s money markets.
**** A point of interest for those of you who believe that there was free speech in America under the Republicans…… I got up in an Assembly of students at Gilroy High School in Gilroy, California in 2005 and made some of these comments when a speaker (invited by the school district) commented about why it was necessary, “to fight for freedom” whenever the government calls……… After even challenging the speaker about what the duty of a citizen was and about what had just happened in America during the Viet Nam War, I was fired the next day as a substitute teacher.
If you were teaching history, you should have been fired. Truman, a Democrat, put us into the Korean conflict, not Ike. Kennedy and Johnson put us into Vietnam, not Nixon. The John Birch group must be 80 years old by now , irrelevant. I don’t follow the Eagle Forum. I won’t defend George W., but you ignored the economic comments I made, and Obama and the liberal economists are driving off the cliff into a pit.
If you think Mao and Stalin were the good guys, your brain is puke.
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