Grand Theft Society
Surely, nothing makes folks happier – temporarily – than for them to find themselves awash in newly printed bills. This will lead to internal joy, consumer spending, and thus recovery… So believes the silly political class. Lew Rockwell expounds…
A core problem with government is that its managers believe that all reality will conform to their wishes if they issue the right orders, pass the right laws, and put the right people in charge. Reality resists this simple-minded approach; witness the debacle of the war on terror. Sadly, the same group that has managed that war is now managing another one: the war on recession.
The tendency of these managers is to fabricate a view of cause and effect that conforms to what they would like to do. In the war on terror, we were told that the 9-11 attacks came about because shadowy bad guys from afar resent our freedom. If you believe that, the answer is more militarism and killing as a preventative measure. If, however, you realize that these attacks grew out of a desire for vengeance against American military policies, the implied policy solution looks radically different.
So it is with the economy and the proper policy response to recession. If you believe that there is no good reason for an economic downturn other than a wave of animal spirits and flagging public confidence, your response is to inject optimism via the printing press. Surely, nothing makes folks happier – temporarily – than for them to find themselves awash in newly printed bills. This will lead to internal joy, consumer spending, and thus recovery.
So believes the silly political class.
Consider a different view of cause and effect. If the recession is a correction to an overly pumped economic boom, matters change. The recession, then, is not an aberration crying out for correction; it is itself the correction for the unsustainable economic bubble that preceded it. It should be welcomed in the same way we welcome a sober day after a drunken evening, or the detoxification of an addict after a period of addiction.
But here again, government begins with a view of cause and effect that conforms to its institutional wishes. The recession is the problem, and the only problem, and it can be corrected through the usual means: issuing orders, passing laws, and giving more power to the right people.
It gets worse. A recession contains at least one feature that turns out to be a saving grace for consumers who are hit with economic instability. In the midst of layoffs, tighter lending standards, and a riskier entrepreneurial environment, at least there are some sectors that have declining prices. At least in some areas, the purchasing power of money is rising. This makes life a bit easier. In times when there is very little good news, this is something to hang on to.
But instead of seeing falling prices as the silver lining in the recessionary cloud, government (and the media as an echo) sees them as the cause of all other problems. So, wouldn’t you know, government sets out to stamp out falling prices on the theory that if this succeeds, the entire economy will rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
This was the view during the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover’s and then FDR’s economic team was convinced that falling prices represented not a saving grace but a mortal economic sin. They spent more than ten years trying to make all prices rise. This, they believed, would cause recovery. They tried inflating the money supply. They tried wage and price floors, with vigilante enforcement, and even all-around industrial price planning. Finally, FDR tried the ultimate sand-in-your-face tactic: he went to war, and sent all those unemployed folks to foreign lands to kill and be killed, or to make-work jobs in the military-industrial complex, the CCC on steroids.
What did we learn from that debacle? Let’s make it official: we have learned nothing from our experience during the Great Depression. Even now, people are under the impression that falling prices cause recessions. Here is proof from the lead to this New York Times story: “With sinking home values continuing to drag down the economy…”
Sorry, but it just isn’t true. Falling house prices are not good news for homeowners who believed that they had purchased an asset that would forever go up in price. But they are wonderful news for people who are shopping for homes. They can buy more for less, and avoid frightening levels of mortgage debt in the process. In macroeconomic terms, the housing bust is also a welcome event since it was precisely this sector that was wildly ballooned during the boom. Unsound investments (or consumption goods masquerading as investments) must be leveled out before economic recovery can begin.
But it is really true that an economy can survive and thrive with falling prices. Falling computer prices didn’t drag down the economy in the ’90s. Nor did falling clothing prices. And consider the Gilded Era, the most prosperous until that point in all of human history. The consumer price index fell from 47 in 1864 to 25 in 1900 – nearly by half. That’s another way of saying that money became twice as valuable. And where was the calamity? Savings and pay packets zoomed in value. This period is called the Second Industrial Revolution because of the astounding increases in productivity, population, and technology. Falling prices and sustainable economic expansion are positively related in all of economic history.
If government and the Fed succeed in propping up home prices or preventing them from falling as much as they might otherwise, what will be the result? Homes will continue to be overexpensive and, on the margin, unwarranted purchases. This will not bring about economic recovery. This will force American consumers to spend more at precisely the time when they should be saving and getting out of debt.
There are lessons here. One is never to permit the government to discern the relationship between cause and effect. Government invariably rules out the possibility that the structure of the public sector itself is to blame for the problem, whether that problem is terrorism or recession.
Another lesson is that we need to shut down the machinery that allows government to enact its plans. If there continues to be a slice of the population that gets its kicks from issuing orders and trying to make the world conform to them, these people ought to be given a video-game console to play with. The game can be called Grand Theft Society. The stakes are too high to permit them to play their games using real wealth and real lives.
for The Daily Reckoning
July 3, 2008
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Speaking of Liberty.
“Let’s turn on some music…” said Brian, one sultry night in 1966.
We were far from legal drinking age, but there were plenty of saloonkeepers who didn’t seem to care. One ran a bar named “Mickey’s”…a rickety dive built on stilts. Beneath it, the salt water splashed against abandoned automobile tires and washed up beer cans into the reeds and bushes on the shore. We were 18 years old, just graduating from high school, and vaguely wondering what to do next. And if we didn’t think of something fast, the U.S. Army would come looking for us.
After trolling the airwaves for a minute, we found what we were looking for:
“When a man loves a woman…can’t keep his mind on nuthin’ else…”
“You can’t beat Percy Sledge,” said our friend.
“No, you can’t beat Percy,” we replied.
“…he’d turn his back on his best friend, if he put her down,” Percy continued in the background.
“What are you going to do?” Brian asked.
“I’m going to college. I got a scholarship, remember? What else can you do? Otherwise, you’ll get drafted…besides, I thought you were going too.”
“Nah…my mother is on my case about it all the time. But I don’t want to go. I don’t see the point. I like it here. I went to look at UVA, but I don’t like preppies. And I didn’t like the smell of the place. I like the smell of this place. It’s where I like being. I’m just going to keep planting tobacco and hanging out at Mickey’s.”
“Don’t you want to make some money…get ahead in life?”
Percy over the radi “…he’d give up all his comforts, sleep out in the rain…if she says that’s the way it oughta be…”
“What are you talking about? I already make more money raising tobacco than these jumped up college graduates make in their office jobs. And I’m outdoors doing what I like doing. I can stop and drink a beer whenever I want. Nobody tells me what to do. And besides, I don’t want to leave Dottie…”
“Yeah, but they’re going to draft you…”
“Well, I’m not worried about it. My brother is already over there, in Vietnam. He says it’s not so bad…at least where he is.”
We never saw our friend again. He was killed in a bar fight at Mickey’s a few months later. Another friend hit him in the head with a pool stick. He fell to the floor; got up; started drinking again and then collapsed. The tobacco economy disappeared soon after, too. And long gone are the days when a farmer in Southern Maryland didn’t have people telling him what to do. Now, every one of them must have a dozen inspectors and regulators looking over his shoulder.
That world of the ’60s is no more. But last night…a part of it came back, almost better than ever – Percy himself. (About which…more below…)
Meanwhile, investors turned a whiter shade of pale yesterday, as the Dow dropped another 166 points…oil rose $3 to a new high of $144…the commodities index, the CRB, hit a new record high of 614.
It was not a very rewarding day for investors…and it comes hard on the heels of what has been one of the worst six months on record. As measured by the MSCI world index, investors have not taken such a beating in 26 years.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has a “crash alert” warning out. And the European Central bank threatens to raise rates. Jean-Claude Trichet says there’s a risk of “exploding prices” as the rate of producer price inflation in Europe reaches a record high.
Already, the U.S. key lending rate is only half the ECB rate. Already, the dollar seems to holding on by its fingernails. If the ECB raises rates again, the dollar could be kicked off its narrow ledge.
We have been trying to figure out the queer dynamics of current central banking policy. So far, all we’ve been able to figure out is that it is more perverse and more complicated than we thought.
In a nutshell, it is obvious now to everyone that the world economy is going in two directions at once. Consumer prices are going up – as if there were a boom going on. Asset prices, lending, IPOs, and consumer confidence are all going down – as if there were a bust.
Yesterday brought news that “consumer delinquencies are rising.” Overdue home equity lines recently increased at their fastest pace since 1987, says the American Bankers Association.
Car sales are at a 10-year low. And SUV owners are getting “burned twice,” says a news item. Not only do they pay far more for gasoline than they expected to…now, when they go to trade in their tanks for a more modest form of transportation, they get less for it than they had hoped. Who wants an SUV today?
But think you’ve got it bad? Think again. Inflation in the Ukraine is running at 30% per year. In Latvia, it’s 18%. Egypt is suffering 16% inflation. And, oh yes…there’s Zimbabwe. The average worker’s salary in Zimbabwe is 15 billion Zimbabwe dollars per month. The poor fellows are billionaires, every one of them. But it takes 19 billion Zimbabwe dollars just to buy a pack of 10 cookies – if you find it. A pound of margarine is 25 billion.
Consumers are getting shellacked all over the world. So are investors. Europe’s stock markets are down nearly twice as much as Wall Street. And many foreign markets are down twice as much. China and Vietnam, for example, are both down more than 50% from their peaks.
And poor Japan! The world’s second largest economy can’t seem to get a break. The Nikkei Dow is having its “longest losing streak in 43 years,” says today’s financial news.
Readers will not let us forget that we’ve been a little sweet on Japanese stocks. Not because we think they will necessarily go up; we just feel sorry for them. Where else can you find a market where stocks have been going mostly downhill for the last 18 years? Where else can you find a place where consumers prefer to leave their wallets closed and save their money…expecting prices to go down, not up?
In fact, this bout of global inflation may actually be good for Japan, says Christopher Wood. Finally, prices are rising. Core inflation is at its highest level in 10 years. Who knows? Maybe the Japanese will begin spending again…and maybe even borrowing?
MoneyWeek Magazine also points out that Japanese banks are actually solvent. “Unlike their western peers, [Japanese banks] have the money available to lend.”
We’ll stick with our fondness for Japanese stocks…at least for now.
*** Adding to our nostalgic mood this morning is an item on Richard Russell’s website, showing how much prices have risen since 1967. Crude oil, for example, is 45 times more expensive. Gold is 25 times more costly. Houses have gone up 12-fold. Stocks are up (as measured by the S&P) 15 times.
But here’s the crushing news: according to his figures both consumer prices, generally, and incomes are up exactly the same amount – 7 times.
In other words, the typical American makes not a dime more today – adjusted to the official consumer price index – than he did when we graduated from high school. That’s 40 years without a single step in the right direction.
*** What’s a poor central banker to do? He expects the economic slump to reduce prices. Maybe he should stimulate the economy to offset it? But prices are rising, not falling. Maybe he should raise rates to head off inflation? But won’t that make the slump worse?
A growing mob of kibitzers tells central bankers that it is time to raise rates in order to bring worldwide inflation under control. But what central banker wants to raise rates significantly when unemployment is rising and growth is slowing? None.
We’re still waiting for someone to call our “Hotline.” You remember, dear reader, we’re ready to offer advice to central bankers…any time, day or night. No charge. But so far, the phone has been silent; we presume it is Ben Bernanke who hasn’t called.
When the call comes in, though, we’re ready: “Raise rates,” we will tell him.
“How will that help things,” he will ask. “Isn’t the country in danger of sinking into a Japan-like recession?”
“No, don’t worry about that…the situation is different. The Japanese had savings. They had a positive trade balance. They didn’t have subprime mortgages and didn’t owe the rest of the world trillions of dollars. They didn’t have 10 million people on the edge of bankruptcy. And they didn’t have a $600 million military budget or a war in Iraq to pay for. The situation in America is much worse than it was in Japan. Japan could afford a slump…America cannot.”
“Then why do you tell me to raise rates?”
“Real rates are going up anyway…that’s what happens when you get to the credit contraction phase. So you might as well put them up. Besides, we just want to see what will happen.”
*** But enough free advice.
The legendary Percy Sledge was in town last night. We took the three boys to see him at the Olympia Theatre.
“Who is this guy?” Edward wanted to know, as we got off the metro.
“He is one of the greatest performers ever…one of the greatest singers ever. He is one of those rare talents that seem almost divine…too good to be purely human – like Shakespeare or Chopin.”
“Dad, aren’t you exaggerating a little?” asked one of the older boys. “Isn’t he just another one of those guys you listened to on the radio when you were growing up? And you like him so much because he reminds you of when you were young.”
“Sure…you’re probably more receptive to music when you’re young…and it stays with you because it reminds you of things that happened in your life that were important to you. You don’t want to forget them. You can’t forget them. But there was a lot of new music in the ’60s. Some of it was great. Most of it was awful. But Percy Sledge was always in a class of his own.”
The crowd in the Olympia Theater on the boulevard des Capucines was a mixture of young and old, black and white, rich and poor. But all were fans. They rose to their feet and howled when Percy Sledge came onto the stage.
Percy was dressed in a tuxedo, a round man…with a cherubic grin so wide you thought his face might crack apart. “It is a real pleasure to be back here in France,” he told the crowd. “It is a real pleasure. This was one of the first places I ever sang ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’.”
The crowd interrupted him with wild cheering.
“So I thank the people of France for being so good to me over the years. You know, I’ve been singing for 40 years. And people have been so good to me wherever I go. I thank you all. And I also want to thank the good Lord (Percy pointed up to Heaven) for giving me so much luck and so many blessings in my life.”
With the introduction out of the way…Percy and his band got to work, beginning with “Cover Me” through “Take Time” to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Every song, every note was sensational. His voice is still so clear and strong. There’s something innocent about it…something pure. You can imagine him singing in a church choir and turning up his face, beaming. And you can imagine that something beams back at him…and lights him up with some special talent, some special grace…something that separates him from all the many forgotten blues and gospel singers you never heard of.
Percy dances on the stage…he swivels his hips. He shakes his shoulders. He bends over and cries in the microphone…and gets down on his knees when the moment calls for it.
Finally, Percy wiped the sweat off his face.
“Well, you know…time takes its toll. I have to stop now and then to catch my breath.”
And then he wound up his most famous song: ‘When a man loves a woman’.
The crowd yelled. People lit cigarette lighters and matches and held them up. A woman in front of us started sobbing.
That music is still as good as ever…
The Daily Reckoning