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The Lesson of Warren Harding Revisited

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Though I have written extensively about the Recession of 1920, it is worth revisiting it per Glenn Beck’s show last night.  Beck rightly pointed out that the policies of decreased taxes and decreased government spending implemented by both Harding and Coolidge paved the way for the dramatic economic growth of the roaring 20s. What Beck didn’t mention was that prior to this period of unprecedented economic expansion, President Warren Harding had inherited one of the worst recessions in American history.   This Recession of 1920-21 is another one of the dirty secrets glossed over in the Progressive history books.

By late 1919, America was facing inflation in prices as measured by CPI of 20%.  Between 1920 and 1921, unemployment doubled from 5.2 to 11.7%.  During this same period, from their peak in June of 1920, prices declined by 15.8% on a year-over-year basis, a 50% greater deflation in prices than during ANY 12-month period during the Great Depression.  So what was Harding’s proposal to deal with this mess? To understand how to get out of recession, Harding looked towards how we got into it in the first place.

For America was coming out of World War I.  Government was controlling huge swaths of the economy, as it had mobilized land, labor and capital towards war production and away from normal commerce as dictated by consumer demand.  In addition to the mass of resources that needed to be reallocated according to market forces, the economy had been further distorted due to the policies of the Federal Reserve which had inflated the money supply by 71% from 1913-1919 (while the physical volume of business had only increased by 9.6%), and whose policies had led to an increase in prices of a staggering 234% between 1914 and 1920.  Prices needed to readjust according to the reallocation of resources.  In addition, not surprisingly, due to the costs of war, the federal budget had grown to $18.5bn.

One will note the parallels to our economic situation today.  Just as war led resources to be allocated away from where an unfettered economy would have directed them, so too did the artificial boom fueled by the Federal Reserve and various government policies lead resources to be misallocated towards assets such as houses and stocks during our most recent boom and bust cycle.  While unsustainable businesses and concomitant rises in prices developed in the private sector, the government too drastically increased.

Harding understood the root cause of recession.  As he noted in his inaugural address:

The economic mechanism is intricate and its parts interdependent, and has suffered the shocks and jars incident to abnormal demands, credit inflations, and price upheavals. The normal balances have been impaired, the channels of distribution have been clogged, the relations of labor and management have been strained. We must seek the readjustment with care and courage…All the penalties will not be light, nor evenly distributed. There is no way of making them so. There is no instant step from disorder to order. We must face a condition of grim reality, charge off our losses and start afresh. It is the oldest lesson of civilization.

And so what was his big Keynesian stimulus plan to bring the economy back from the abyss?  He argued during his Republican nomination speech:

Gross expansion of currency and credit have depreciated the dollar just as expansion and inflation have discredited the coins of the world. We inflated in haste, we must deflate in deliberation. We debased the dollar in reckless finance, we must restore in honesty. Deflation on the one hand and restoration of the 100-cent dollar on the other ought to have begun on the day after the armistice, but plans were lacking or courage failed. The unpreparedness for peace was little less costly than unpreparedness for war. We can promise no one remedy which will cure an ill of such wide proportions, but we do pledge that earnest and consistent attack which the party platform covenants. We will attempt intelligent and courageous deflation, and strike at government borrowing which enlarges the evil, and we will attack high cost of government with every energy and facility which attend Republican capacity. We promise that relief which will attend the halting of waste and extravagance, and the renewal of the practice of public economy, not alone because it will relieve tax burdens, but because it will be an example to stimulate thrift and economy in private life.

And so, shockingly Harding practiced what he preached.  Regarding deflation, the Federal Reserve jacked up interest rates from 4.75% in January 1920 to 7% in June 1920, and held this rate through the aforementioned major drop in prices through May of 1921.  Harding slashed the federal budget from $18.5bn in 1919 to $6.4bn in 1920 all the way down to $5.1bn in 1921.  Meanwhile, the government actually ran surpluses during these years, allowing them to pay down the debt by $300mm from 1920-21.  The Chief Economist of Chase National Bank of the era, Benjamin Anderson summed Harding’s philosophy and his attack on the recession as follows:

The idea that a balanced budget with vast pump-priming government expenditure is a necessary means of getting out of a depression received no consideration at all. It was not regarded as the function of the government to provide money to make business activity. It was rather the business of the US Treasury to look after the solvency of the government, and the most important relief that the government felt that it could afford to business was to reduce as much as possible the amount of government expenditure, which had risen to great heights during the war; to reduce taxes—but not much; and to reduce public debt.

Nor did the government increase public employment with a view to taking up idle labor. There was a reduction in the army and navy in the course of these years, and there was a steady decline in the number of civilian employees of the federal government. This policy on the part of the government generated, of course, a great confidence in the credit of the government, and the strength of the gold dollar was taken for granted. The credit of the government and confidence in the currency are basic foundations for general business confidence. The relief to business through reduced taxes was extremely helpful.

According to Anderson, how did the recession end?

…we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression and in August 1921 we started up again. The rally in business production and employment that started in August 1921 was soundly based on a drastic cleaning up of credit weakness, a drastic reduction in the costs of production, and on the free play of private enterprise. It was not based on governmental policy designed to make business good.  (See Benjamin Anderson’s Economics and the Public Welfare or his gratisThe Return to Normal“)

Now we can debate fiscal and economic policy all day, but across the spectrum, it should be clear to all that a government that intervened and created the conditions for economic crisis will not be able to solve it.  If government’s can create prosperity when the private sector is imperiled, then why would Americans be against government central planning when all is rosy?  Do the rules of economics not apply during downturns?

If we can agree that recessions are the result of resources being improperly allocated, then we can also agree that the only way to return to economic health is to allow for their reallocation according to the market.  This involves allowing nonproductive business ventures to go belly-up, prices to naturally fall where they have unjustifiably risen and reduction in the size of government allowing resources to be released to entrepreneurs to reverse the ills of the artificial boom and spur growth.  All measures that impede the natural cleansing of an economy will only ensure pain and suffering like that witnessed over the last few decades in Japan.  Harding had things right and it would do our lawmakers good to follow his lesson: central planning and government control creates problems; innovative Americans are the only ones who can solve them.

10 Points Americans Must Understand About the Economy

January 15, 2010 5 comments

1. The interest rate is a price – the price of credit like the price of any good.  In a free market the price would be set like the price of any good at the intersection of the supply of funds (our savings), and demand for funds (businesses’ and individuals’ investing wants).  Instead, we have an interest rate that is arbitrarily picked by a handful of economists from the Federal Reserve Banks.  To repeat, one committee centrally plans the cost of credit, of which interest rates on all debt are directly or indirectly based.

2. The Federal Reserve has the monopoly power to print or inflate the money supply, thus artificially lowering the cost of money (the aforementioned interest rate).  This means that they can (and always do) devalue the money in your pocket as every dollar printed decreases the value of all dollars to come before them.  Inflating the money supply may not lead to an increase in prices if an equal or greater amount of goods is produced, but the purchasing power of the dollar will still be reduced because without printing money, your dollars would have been able to buy more goods.  Alternatively, if more dollars are printed than goods are produced, prices will increase though not necessarily uniformly across all goods.  Inflation may not manifest itself in explicitly higher prices but merely impede prices from falling for certain goods as they would were the money supply to remain constant.

3. When you deposit money in a regular checking account, the bank doesn’t hold onto this money.  Banks only keep a small percentage of the money you deposit on hand in their reserves, lending the majority of the money you (or the Fed for that matter) deposit to others who lend it to still others and so on, in the process substantially increasing the money supply.  This is known as fractional reserve banking.  If everyone in America or even a decent percentage of Americans tried to take their money out of the bank on a given day, millions would be unable to access their cash.  Effectively, even with FDIC Insurance, all of the banks are insolvent as they do not hold anywhere near 100% of the money you deposit in their vaults, nor does the FDIC have the funds to cover all deposits.  The hypothetical that the Fed could potentially print up money for the FDIC to distribute is beyond the scope of this post.

4. The government’s debt is merely an insidious tax like inflation.  Government debt can only be paid down by taxing the people.  This tax can occur through direct confiscation by government, or indirectly when holders of our government’s debt demand a higher rate of interest, which in turn signals to markets that our economy is not generating sufficient revenues to pay down the debt, which leads to a perception of economic weakness and thus an increased cost of borrowing for everyone in the economy.  If the government prints money to pay down debt (which in and of itself should cause our debt holders to flood the markets with our debt and thus raise interest rates on everyone), this will represent a tax on the people as well.

5. Deflation, or a decrease in the money supply is the only antidote to inflation.  If the money supply is decreased, each dollar in your pocket becomes worth more.  The concomitant fall in prices will correct the artificial initial rise in prices from government printing of money.  In the process, since decreasing the money supply increases the cost of money, unsustainable enterprises with heavy debt loads will be put out of business, cleansing the economy by freeing up unproductive resources.  Where debtors benefit from an increase in the money supply because they can pay down their borrowings with cheaper dollars, creditors will benefit from a decrease in the money supply because they are paid back with more valuable dollars, which is one of the reasons why government prefers to inflate as it can lessen its own debt load and that of many of its constituents.

6. Deflation in prices while a symptom of deflation of the money supply is also the natural result of increases in productivity, as goods produced more cheaply in greater quantities (in the absence of money printing) will lead to falling prices which benefits consumers.  The so-called “paradox of thrift” that the MSM uses to vilify deflation in prices is wrongheaded, as people will spend on all sorts of products knowing that over time they will fall in price, as we have witnessed with numerous electronics over the years.  Even during a depression, when asset prices fall to certain levels there will always be buyers.  And if people are paying off their debt and/or saving in a time of falling prices in lieu of spending, this will be good for the economy because increasing the pool of real savings lowers the interest rate and allows businesses and individuals to borrow funds for investment at lower cost, legitimately stimulating the economy.

7. Despite the wishes of President Obama, all taxes are passed on to consumers as companies raise their prices to compensate for the increased cost of doing business.

8. Government cannot create wealth.  All it can do is take money from some people and redistribute it to others.  Every dollar the government uses must be taken from the private economy. Printing money to pay for things as we noted merely devalues your dollars, effectively taxing you.  Government financing through debt represents a claim on your wealth, a tax which as noted may be paid directly or indirectly.  Thus, while federal, state and local taxes may appear on a historical basis relatively low, the tax rate is deceptively masked by excluding government bilking through inflation and debt.  Government is a wealth killer, not a wealth creator.

9. The real estate problem in our economy centers on the fact that people owe more money on their mortgages than they are able to pay down.  The only fix to this problem is for people to either generate more income to service their mortgages, or default.  Any intervention to keep people in homes they can’t afford will merely perpetuate market imbalances, propping up the value of real estate and preventing qualified buyers from purchasing homes at fair prices.  There will be no true recovery in the mortgage-backed securities  market until the forces of supply and demand sort out this mess.

10. Our economic crisis at the most basic level occurred because too much money and credit were pumped into the economy, given that again the interest rate was set artificially low not by supply and demand in the market but by government fiat.  The recession signals that we must fix the distortions and malinvestments resulting from the centrally planned interest rate. The healthy path to recovery is to allow prices to fall (aided by debt repayment), liquidate failed enterprises (encouraging reallocation of land, labor and capital to more productive and profitable lines of business) and encourage saving to increase the pool of loanable funds for economic expansion. Any actions to the contrary (i.e. more or less all government policies being implemented or bandied about) will merely prolong the pain.

Note that this is by no means a comprehensive study of the above subjects, but rather a cursory look at essentials that the American public must grasp before we can ever expect to return to prosperity.

The Recession of 1920 – Causes, Responses and Insights

January 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In my study of political economy, one of the most overlooked yet fascinating historical episodes I have come across is the Recession of 1920-21. A handful of free-market economists have tackled this crisis, and I decided to throw in my lot with them and pursue the subject further myself.

Below is the abstract for my critique of the acutely sharp downturn (so you know what you’re getting into) and the embedded paper in Scribd format. Scribd however is a bit screwy in its formatting of the paper, failing to capture various diagrams for example, so I strongly suggest instead reading the Word doc downloadable HERE.

Enjoy!

Abstract: Many attribute our current recession to the evils of unbridled capitalism. In response, our leaders have embarked on the typical Keynesian recession prescriptions in order to stimulate the economy and lead the nation out of the economic doldrums. Unbeknownst to most Americans however, prior to the Great Depression, policymakers used different tools to help guide the country out of recessions. Herein we examine the causes, responses and insights gleaned from the Recession of 1920-21, the last downturn in which leaders relied on the age-old policy of laissez-faire, combined with massive reduction in government and encouragement of deflation.

Stossel Does Atlas Shrugged, Asks "Who is Wesley Mouch?"

January 7, 2010 4 comments

In tomorrow’s episode of John Stossel’s new show on Fox Business, he will address the question, “Who is Wesley Mouch?” in speaking to the parallels between Atlas Shrugged and contemporary America.  As one might expect, in my view it seems as if almost all businessmen (given their predilection towards using government to destroy markets to their own advantage) in one way or another embody the qualities of Wesley Mouch.

One exception who will be on Stossel’s program is John Allison, an executive at BB&T Bank, who staunchly opposed TARP, has repeatedly refused to use the law to plunder the property of others and as one might guess is an ardent Austrian-school libertarian.  In a scene reminiscent of the smoke-filled rooms of Atlas Shrugged, Allison divulged at an NYU lecture this past fall that the Feds threatened to go in and audit any bank that wouldn’t take government funds, forcing healthy banks to comply so as to cover for the fact that the government was only propping up a select few sick ones (at the expense of the solvent I might add).

In response to Stossel’s call in the aforehyperlinked column for suggestions for a follow-up show on “crony capitalism,” I posted:

John,

If you want to talk about crony capitalism, it may pay to have Burton Fulsom who wrote “The Myth of the Robber Barons” on the program.  I think the key is to delineate between political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs, something which he does astutely in that book.

Political entrepreneurs seek to use government decrees to profit, largely by cartelization, monopoly advantages and other barriers to entry, while market entrepreneurs generally seek to win profits in the market by merit – by producing the best product at the cheapest price.

More generally, the Mouch problem lies in the fact that while initially businessmen extol the virtues of little regulation, low barriers to entry and minimal governmental interference generally, once they become successful, out of self-interest they support any and all legislation that will cement their position in the market.  They support all of those things anathema to the free market that they had used to their advantage in the first place. 

This is akin to the economic plight of America as a whole.  While up until the early 20th century (though some libertarians will argue that it was really only up until the time of Lincoln), America functioned under a largely laissez-faire economy, with the wealth and progress generated by this economy, we forgot about the virtues that led to our success and rewarded those tending towards failure.  We created a welfare state from the riches of a relatively free state, throwing under the bus the very principles that elevated to us to our position as a great nation.

Credit Cards and the Collapsing Country

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

The policy of credit card companies charging an annual fee for those cardholders with solid credit is a good proxy for the state of the nation, and also a microcosm of both the progressive (read socialist) movement in this country and the unintended consequences of an economic policy destined to fail — or succeed if you measure success by increased impoverishment.

Those two solvent, reputable, dare I say creditworthy institutions Bank of America and Citi are reportedly

starting to charge fees to reliable customers in response to a slew of new credit card industry regulations that will limit when banks can hike interest rates. Cardholders who get a new annual fee notice in the mail will be in a no-win situation.

“They can either pay that fee or they can close the account, and if they have had the account for a while and they close it, they are potentially going to hurt their credit card score,” said Woolsey (Director of Consumer Research at CreditCards.com).

This response to government intervention provides great insight into the problems with regulations the government claims will help the consumer. By preventing banks from increasing their rates in response to a lack of creditworthy borrowers in the markets, those who have proved creditworthy customers over time will be forced to subsidize those less reliable to make up the difference, proving yet again that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We could examine the further consequences for the macroeconomy of these creditworthy people being incentivized to become less creditworthy or if nothing else losing purchasing power as a result of this policy, but the above synopsis should do.

This policy reflects what happens every time the government tries to set prices – in this case the price of credit. Some people are aided, while others lose as a consequence. Further, as with the way in which government seems to favor the debtor over the creditor today, here the less responsible is favored over the more responsible. Adding insult to injury, the more responsible cardholder must subsidize the less responsible one. In essence, this is the basis of the welfare state. Those who generate more wealth must have a significant percentage of it expropriated to help out those who do not create as much wealth. We can argue over whether wealth generators are more responsible than the indigent, but I think you understand my point.

As I have mentioned before though, this liberal system in the end devours itself. First, it is economically unsustainable. At some point, those continually forced to subsidize the reckless and feckless will either go broke or go Galt. As a consequence, so too will the whole system (go broke that is). Second, from a moral perspective, the values engendered in rewarding people for being unproductive and penalizing those who create will pervert society, leading to its malaise.

As I have harped on continually here, the problem with the development of a capitalist system is that if not constantly fought for on both economic and perhaps more importantly moral grounds, it ends up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Wealth begets wealth until it begets redistribution of wealth. Redistribution of wealth destroys the mechanisms that create it in the first place and weakens the moral fiber of a society. Much like organisms in nature that grow beautiful and strong only to decay in old age, capitalism seems to grow great only to end in grief.


Tax the rich
Feed the poor
Til’ there are no, rich no more

Community Organizers Owe Their Livelihood to Capitalism

August 28, 2009 Leave a comment


The community organizers’ struggle is one of class warfare. As Saul Alinsky wrote, “A People’s Organization is the banding together of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life…A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness.”

Interestingly enough, the very system that defeats the conditions that Saul laments is capitalism. It has improved the lot of many, leading to higher living standards and a more moral economy than any to come before it. Yet it is this very philosophy that these groups decry – one which is also ironically their lifeblood.

As a WSJ editorial notes, ACORN is “a union-backed, multimillion-dollar outfit that uses intimidation and other tactics to push for higher minimum wage mandates and to trash Wal-Mart and other non-union companies…its organizers are best understood as shock troops for the AFL-CIO and even the Democratic Party.” Indeed, much of the steering committee for HCAN (Health Care for America NOW), a good proxy for the socialist movement is tied in one way or another to labor, labor which would not exist without capitalism.

Without capitalism (the antithesis of the socialism they relish), the jobs that it creates, the living standards it furnishes and the varying degrees of wealth that it naturally leads to, these comrades would have nothing to fight against.

Without capitalists to build businesses, there would be no jobs save for those provided by the state, and no labor unions. Living conditions would be miserable. The poorest would only dream of televisions, cars, cell phones and computers, not to mention cheap generic drugs, food, clothing and running water. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” would not have been conceived of because these so-called “rights” (if they had developed at all) would have been reserved solely for kings and queens, not middle class Americans.

The community organizers use the fruits of capitalism to fund themselves. Many of these groups are taxpayer-subsidized. Donors also consist of private charities and fat cats like George Soros. All government funds come out of the pocket of the taxpayer, who earns his income from his work, work attributable to the market. Others such as private foundations and “Soros-ites” use their own funds, again resulting from labor in the (nominally) free market to bankroll these radicals.

The socialist groups use instruments created by capitalism to propagandize. They use the computer to disseminate information (I grant that R&D for the internet was partially attributable to government, but practically all of the applications were created by the private sector), signs, t-shirts and other merchandise all produced by private enterprises to advertise and lastly books put to market by private publishers and sellers to spread their message.

Read “I, Pencil” and tell me that the tools the organizers use are attributable to anything other than the spontaneous order of capitalism.

The aforementioned groups all fight to kill capitalism, but without capitalism they would not have their natural enemy. Without capitalism they would not have a conception of what “decent” living standards were. Without capitalism they would not have jobs besides those provided by the state (which admittedly they might prefer), let alone their precious unions. Without capitalism they would not have the means to mass propagandize. Without capitalism these parasitic groups would perish. But instead they feast on the fruits of capitalism, drinking the sweet nectar of the productive members of society.

10 American Principles to Ponder

March 3, 2009 3 comments


1. The duty of the government is to protect the rights of the people, not the other way around.

2. The people have the right but not the obligation to dispense of their property as they see fit.

3. Borrowing from the 10th Amendment of the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

4. America was built on profit and loss, not profligacy and largess.

5. True laissez-faire capitalism is the surest way to prosperity; the middle path will always lead to socialism.

6. Entrepreneurs and competent business managers make our economy grow, not politicians.

7. For a man or a nation, the responsible fiscal path is to produce more than one consumes, and to spend less than one earns.

8. Every public dollar spent is a private dollar stolen. If a politician tells you that spending is “investment,” ask yourself if you would undertake that same investment with your own money.

9. Equality of condition is not the same as equality of opportunity; our laws are meant to preserve the latter.

10. The safety of American citizens is the single most important priority of the American government.