Saturday, February 07, 2009

New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd Wants Soviet-Style Show Trials with Capitalist Defendants in Shackles

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written a column (January 28, 2009) full of withering hatred and contempt for many of today’s most prominent businessmen, first and foremost the heads of the Wall Street Banks. She singles out Citigroup and Merrill Lynch in particular, denouncing the first for going ahead with taking delivery of a $50 million luxury jet at the very time the firm was losing billions, and the last CEO of the second, John Thain, for spending $1 million to redecorate his office, also in the midst of his firm’s suffering major losses.

Her column leaves the reader with a view of these people and, by implication, of practically the whole economic class to which they belong, i.e., virtually all businessmen and capitalists, as having a mentality that combines the worst features of Marie Antoinette and Nero. The former, of course, was Queen of France until 1793, when she was beheaded. She is famous for allegedly having said in response to being informed of the peasantry’s lack of bread, “Let them eat cake.” And Nero was the Roman emperor who is known for having fiddled while Rome burned, and who died in 68 AD, committing suicide when he learned that the Roman Senate had ordered that he be flogged to death.

Having led her readers to such an assessment of these people, she concludes her column with the declaration, “Bring on the shackles. Let the show trials begin.” If they do begin, Dowd will be there, perhaps with knitting needles, in the role of a modern-day Madame Defarge, the Dickens character who knitted while watching aristocrats being guillotined during the French Revolution.

The day after Dowd’s column appeared, a news story in The Times reported that, “Despite crippling losses, multibillion-dollar bailouts and the passing of some of the most prominent names in the business, employees at financial companies in New York, the now-diminished world capital of capital, collected an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for the year. That was the sixth-largest haul on record, according to a report released Wednesday by the New York State comptroller.”

The day after that, President Obama called the bonuses “shameful.”

The Fate of Capitalism

It is very easy to interpret the kind of facts that have been described, as an indictment of the capitalist system, which is exactly how they are being interpreted. Millions of people have lost their jobs; millions more fear that they will lose theirs. These millions cannot avoid the further fear that they and their families will be utterly impoverished. And they are being led to blame their losses on capitalism, in large part by being led to blame it on the persons of individual businessmen or capitalists whom they perceive as hateful.

What is present and being inflamed is the psychology of an angry mob. Its sympathies are with innocent victims who have suffered a great wrong. It’s sure it knows who is responsible and how. The next step will be for someone to yell, “Get a rope!”

Already, businessmen and capitalists are starting to cower in fear. Corporations are racing to get rid of their private jets. Next it will be their private dining rooms and limousines. Private profit and personal luxury at any level are in danger before the onslaught of a collectivist mentality that holds that if many are suffering, all must suffer, and, further, that those who do not suffer are responsible for the suffering of those who do. Anyone whose head is above the crowd will risk being a target.

This is the time for everyone to recall whatever instances in his life that he remembers when angry mobs turned out to be wrong. Perhaps it’s only a scene from a movie or book, in which someone is able to present a few facts that the mob doesn’t know and that begin to place things in a different, calmer light. Let me be that someone now and begin with one very important and fundamental relevant fact.

Today’s Economic System Is A “Mixed Economy,” Not Laissez-Faire Capitalism

And that is that even if all of the facts as presented were absolutely true, it would not imply any reason whatever to condemn capitalism. Capitalism is a system in which absurd, self-destructive behavior severely punishes whoever is guilty of it. Such people suffer losses, go bankrupt, and lose their ability to have significant further economic influence. Their example then serves as a lesson to others to avoid such behavior.

However, we are very far from having capitalism today, certainly not capitalism in its logically consistent form of laissez-faire capitalism. What we have today is a “mixed economy,” that is, a severely hampered, distorted form of capitalism. In such a system, such behavior can continue, thanks to government subsidies, grants of monopoly privilege and suppression of competition, and now by means of government “bailouts.”

A mixed economy is an economy which remains capitalistic in its basic structure, but in which the government extensively intervenes with the initiation of physical force to compel actions that are against the interest of individuals and/or to prohibit actions that are in the interest of individuals. For example, today it compels people to pay an income tax, which is against their interest but which they pay in order to stay out of jail. It also prohibits them from engaging in various business mergers or paying wages below a certain amount, things which it would be to their interest to do but now do not, because they wish to avoid being fined or imprisoned. (In my recent article
“The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Financial Crisis,” I present an extensive description of the extent of government intervention.)

A mixed economy lacks the fundamental moral-political principles that are needed to determine what is proper or improper for a government to do. Its only principle, if one can call it that, is that the government can do anything that enough people believe will accomplish what they think is “good,” according to an undefined standard. Our mixed economy rests on the effective discarding of the United States Constitution, which placed severe limits on government power and thus stood as a bulwark in defense of an economic system that was almost one of laissez-faire. The Constitutional protections were discarded by a process of pretending that the Constitution could somehow “grow” or “evolve,” which actually meant nothing other than choosing to ignore it.

In a mixed economy, every significant-sized business must fear what the government can do to it. It needs protection, in the form of political connections. It secures these through appointing former government officials to its board of directors, paying such officials lavish consulting fees, and giving lavish campaign contributions to candidates for public office. In these ways it buys the protection it needs.

But soon businesses learn that their protectors can also be used to gain lucrative government contracts, government subsidies, and monopolistic privileges ranging from tariffs and licensing laws to antitrust suits against competitors. Thus, it is not long before the upper echelons of large firms become populated not only with men who cower before the government but also with those who seek to manipulate the government to their advantage, which is where we are today.

Certainly not all big businessmen are this way, and probably only a few of those that are, are so through and through. For the most part, they still have real jobs to do in running their companies, and to the extent they simply do those jobs, they are productive. But probably most big businessmen are morally compromised if only because they must live in fear of the government and are helpless to do anything about it.

Responsibility for the Financial Crisis

There is a sense in which an important sub-group of businessmen does have genuine responsibility for the present economic crisis and for all previous crises of financial contraction and deflation. This is the sub-group of commercial bankers.

Ironically, the way in which they have been responsible is by means of doing something that almost everyone very much wants them to do, above all, the government, and even when the crisis comes, still wants them to do or to get back to doing as soon as possible. This something is the practice of credit expansion. Credit expansion is the lending out of new and additional money that is created out of thin air, with the encouragement and support of the government. Governments value and encourage credit expansion both in the mistaken belief that it is a source of prosperity and in the knowledge that it is a ready source of money to finance government spending.

Credit expansion is what creates a delusion of prosperity while it lasts and economic depression when it ends. It is all that needs to be stopped to end the boom-bust cycle. (In this brief article, I must ask the reader who wants to understand the process, and how to stop it, to be content merely with references to further reading, namely, Chapters XX and XXXI of Ludwig von Mises’s
Human Action and Chapters 12 and 19 of my own Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. Concerning the role of credit expansion in our present crisis in particular, please see my articles “The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Financial Crisis,” “Our Financial House of Cards and How to Start Replacing It With Solid Gold,” and “The Housing Bubble and the Credit Crunch.”)

I want now to deal with the subjects of bonuses and corporate jets.

Bonuses

Granting bonuses to employees and buying jet planes are perfectly legitimate for private business firms. In today’s context, this means firms that have not received government bailout money.

Giving bonuses and buying jet planes are purely business decisions. It’s only a question of whether the bonuses motivate the employees who receive them to bring in profits to the firm that are greater than the bonuses paid, or not. If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to pay the bonuses.

To the chief executive of a privately owned, non-taxpayer supported Wall Street firm, the payment of bonuses even in a year of calamitous losses may appear as still making economic sense, at least if the firm expects to stay in business. This is because the bonuses are not paid to people who have incurred the firm’s losses. Those losses are in the assets the firm owns. They are not in its day-to-day trading operations, which may continue to be profitable.

The situation is analogous to that of a retail chain which has had massive losses because of such things as fire or hurricane damage to its warehouses, but whose stores are still making money. The Wall Street firm is still executing customers’ orders in buying and selling securities, it is still trading in currencies and in the futures markets, and still arranging mergers and acquisitions, and divestitures and breakups. All of these aspects of its business may well still be profitable.

The brokers and traders, the mortgage and acquisition specialists et al., and their various assistants and supporting staffs, have contributed very substantially to these operating profits. The same is true of many of the economic and financial researchers and analysts that the firm employs in connection with its still profitable operations. Money is set aside out of the year-end totals to pay bonuses to the members of such groups, based on their respective individual profitability. The bonuses are accumulated employee compensation, similar in nature to the commissions paid to retail sales clerks. If the firm expects to be in business in the following year, and wants to retain the services of these employees, who, despite the firm’s massive losses in its accumulated assets, have performed well, it probably needs to pay them their bonuses.

John Thain, the then president of Merrill Lynch tried to explain this fact to an interviewer, when he said, “If you don’t pay your best people, you will destroy your franchise” and they’ll go elsewhere, he said.

Ms. Dowd apparently does not know the difference between an operating profit and a balance-sheet loss. She apparently does not know the difference between the due of a successful salesman in a retail-store and the due of someone whose actions have served to burn down the store’s warehouse. But she does know how to be furious. She responded to this explanation by exclaiming:

Hello? They destroyed the franchise. Let’s call their bluff. Let’s see what a great job market it is for the geniuses of capitalism who lost $15 billion in three months and helped usher in socialism.
Despite her ignorance and her collectivism-inspired refusal to draw distinctions between individuals and their respective individual performances and responsibilities, Ms. Dowd does have something of a point. Namely, if because of the bankruptcy and closing of many Wall Street firms, there should be a glut of brokers and traders et al., then the remaining Wall Street firms would be in a position to reduce their compensation. But that would be something they would typically announce before the fact, not after the fact of an agreed-upon compensation having been earned.


***

My discussion of bonuses was in the context of the operations of a privately owned business firm, not one that has to be financially supported by the government and is operated with funds provided by taxpayers. In awarding bonuses after Merrill Lynch’s receipt of government bailout money, which started in September of 2008, Mr. Thain did not realize that he was no longer in charge of a private firm. He did not realize what difference this made to the fundamental character of his firm. Neither did very many other people at the time. But more on this later.

Corporate Jets

I turn now to the subject of corporate jets.

If a corporation can afford to buy a jet and having it will enable extremely high-paid executives to avoid wasting time waiting at airports and be able to be more efficient in working in the time spent in flight, then over time its purchase may actually save more money than it costs. If so, then it will be a good business decision to buy the plane.

It may even be a good business decision to buy it, if the executives who fly in it simply prefer it because it’s more comfortable and enjoyable. In such a case, even if the plane saves nothing in costs or not enough to justify its purchase, it can still make good economic sense for the firm to buy the plane. This will be the case if it is in a position to reduce the compensation paid to the executives in question by as much or more than the amount that it must expend for their personal benefit.

Thus, for example, if the plane falls short of covering its cost through increased productivity on the part of the executives by, say, $1 million per year, the firm will have the benefit of more satisfied executives at absolutely no net cost to itself, if it gets the executives to accept $1million less per year in monetary compensation. In that way, it is the executives who effectively bear the cost of the plane that is otherwise uncovered. And the firm will have whatever indirect monetary gains that may result from better satisfied executives.

Indeed, to the extent that the executives are willing to forgo an amount of compensation that is greater than what is required to cover any otherwise uncovered cost of the plane, the firm has a clear saving in monetary terms. Thus, if the executives can be paid $2 million less per year, while the otherwise uncovered part of the cost of the plane is still $1 million, the firm has a monetary saving of $1 million per year by buying the plane. (Today’s tax laws work in this direction. The replacement of $1 million in monetary compensation with $1 million in indirect compensation, serves to reduce the executives’ after-tax monetary compensation by perhaps as little as $500 thousand, while saving the corporation the full $1 million.)

Situations such as this actually occur all the time, throughout business. Again and again, firms provide fringe benefits that are of value to their employees but which do not cover their cost through increased productivity. They are motivated to provide them by being able to save more in what they would otherwise have to pay the employees in take-home wages than the cost of the fringe benefits.

For example, imagine the situation of employees having to choose between two employers. One of them provides air conditioning. The other does not. In the heat of summer, it is a comparative pleasure to work for the one, and extremely uncomfortable to work for the other. If the employees can earn $1,000 per week by working for the employer who provides air conditioning, and they value that air conditioning sufficiently, then in order to be induced to work for the second employer, they might require a wage of $1,100 per week. If that second employer can provide air conditioning at a cost to himself of, say, $10 per worker per week, then he will save $90 per worker per week if he provides it. Because in that case, he can obtain his workers for a take-home wage of $1,000 plus an air-conditioning cost of $10, instead of for a take-home wage of $1,100 plus no cost on account of air conditioning. Obviously, such conditions compel the employer to provide air conditioning. It is his recognition of such conditions that led the first employer to provide air conditioning to begin with, i.e., simply because employees value having it far more than the reduction in their take-home wages that is needed to pay for it.


This discussion has application to the $1 million office remodeling that so offended Ms. Dowd. Please keep in mind that the remodeling was commissioned in late 2007, when the executive in question started his position. At that time, Merrill Lynch had not yet received any government money and was thus still a fully privately owned company. The executive in question, John Thain, was a man in charge of the use of hundreds of billions of dollars of capital. And, therefore, if he was indeed the right man for the job, which is certainly what was hoped, was easily entitled to compensation at least as far into double-digit millions as that paid to Hollywood movie stars and leading athletes.


With this many millions in compensation, the value to him of $1 million more or less, may not have been terribly great. (Hollywood stars have weddings that cost more.) It may well have been far below the value he attached to spending his hours of working time in an office that was made to personally please him in every possible respect, and which he may have expected to occupy for many years. In such a case, instead of his firm paying him however many millions it otherwise would have paid him, it could pay him a million dollars less, or even more than a million dollars less. In that case, it was he who bore the cost of the office, out of compensation to which, in the judgment of the parties concerned, he was entitled.

Alternatively, it’s entirely reasonable that providing such an office and the optimum working environment that it provided, could be expected to improve his efficiency with respect to deciding the pattern of investment of his firm’s hundreds of billions of dollars of assets. It would not have taken a great deal of such improvement with respect to the use of sums so vast to be able to earn an additional billion or more of profit for his firm. Understanding this, the firm may well have given him his office in the belief that doing so would add vastly more to its profits than the cost of the remodeling.

When Ms. Dowd discussed this million-dollar office remodeling, her reaction was one of incredulity, outrage, and utter contempt. Here’s what she said (referring to an interviewer of the executive):


Bartiromo pressed: What was wrong with the office of his predecessor, Stanley O’Neal?

‘Well — his office was very different — than — the — the general décor of — Merrill’s offices,’ Thain replied. ‘It really would have been — very difficult — for — me to use it in the form that it was in.’
Dowd then asked in a triumph akin to that of crushing a cockroach:

Did it have a desk and a phone?
I can’t help wondering, if when Dowd may need a surgical operation someday, she will be satisfied if her surgeon has a table and a knife.

Bailouts

Government bailouts put everything in a different light. They give everyone in the country the right to second guess every decision of the firms that have received the bailouts, on the grounds that the money used by those firms is theirs, the taxpayers.

Understandably, the taxpayers become furious about things like bonuses, corporate jets, and expensive office remodelings. They see themselves simply as being made to pay for these things. This is because, unlike the shareholders of a private company, the taxpayers will never have any possible financial benefit even if the expenditures might actually be perfectly reasonable and well made if they took place in the context of a privately owned company. And unlike the shareholders of a private company, they were never given a choice about whether or not they wanted their funds to be turned over to this or that company. Their funds were simply seized in order that others might have the means with which to pay bonuses and financially profit from and/or personally enjoy such things as corporate jets and expensive offices.

Bailouts represent a collision between two incompatible modes of operation—between what Mises calls “profit management” and “bureaucratic management.” That is, they represent a collision between operation according to the principle of striving to make profits and avoid losses, which characterizes private business, and operation according to the dictates of rules and regulations, which characterizes government.

The companies bailed out expected to go on operating as private businesses, but with government money. That’s how the bailouts were advertised. But that is impossible.

Once government money enters the picture, the firms are effectively nationalized, even though the outward guise and appearance of private ownership may remain. This is because their operations are no longer based on profit-and-loss considerations but on satisfying the government and whatever sectors of public opinion are loud enough at the moment to influence the government’s decisions.

What precise actions the government will take are unclear at the moment and appear contradictory. For example, the front-page lead article of The New York Times of February 5, 2009 carries the headline “Executive Pay Limits Seek to Alter Corporate Culture,” followed by the subhead, “Obama Announces a $500,000 Cash Cap at Companies Getting Future Aid.”

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the article shows that $500,000 is a limit only on annual salary. Payment of stock options will still be possible, but they will not be able to be exercised until all of the company’s debt to the government is repaid. Even the limit on annual salary appears to be not very firm. In most cases, it can apparently be waived by means of a “nonbinding shareholder vote.”

The article declares,


Even the new rules allow companies some leeway. While giving shareholders a say in bonuses above the cap and restricting when stock incentives can be cashed in, the rules do not place limits on the size of such awards, which have become the biggest part of many compensation packages. In addition, the toughest new rules apply only to large companies seeking government assistance to survive…. And companies that seek aid but do not need exceptional government assistance can waive the $500,000 pay cap, as long as they submit their executive pay policies to a nonbinding shareholder vote.
Very significantly, the article notes that

The rules would not prohibit a lower-level executive, like a stock trader or investment banker, from continuing to receive tens of millions of dollars in pay. (My italics.)
If this last is true, then one must wonder exactly what the brouhaha about bonuses was all about in the first place. Because, with this last provision, they appear to be back in, almost in full force.

The current version of the proposed pay caps is clearly contradictory and bound to disappoint Wall Street’s critics. It reads like a compromise forged of a competition between whose lobbyists could get to which politicos with the largest bribes or greatest threats first. At this point, there is no telling what the final proposal will look like. The Times’s article notes that “Officials also emphasized that several of the proposals would not be made final until after public comments had been considered.”

What would be required to satisfy the rhetoric of Wall Street’s critics would be the total abolition of bonuses and a maximum limit on total executive compensation in the nationalized firms to $500,000 for any one individual. That, of course, would mean the destruction of the nationalized firms as viable institutions.

With such a level of compensation, further discussion of such things as corporate jets and expensive office remodelings would disappear, at least as far as the nationalized firms were concerned. This is because the low pay ceilings on executive salaries, and thus the kind of low quality executives likely to be attracted, would eliminate the context in which an economic calculation could justify the purchase of a jet or an expensive office remodeling.

Executives whose salaries are limited to $500,000 are not going to be able to afford to accept the kind of reduction in take-home wages that would be necessary to cover any significant part of the cost of providing a jet or an expensive office remodeling. Nor is any enhanced productivity of such executives likely to be great enough to justify the cost. The head of a government controlled firm may inherit a luxurious office but all that he can afford or that can be afforded on his behalf is not very much more than a desk and a phone—and volumes of rules and regulations that he can consult and scrupulously follow, in order to be able to prove that whatever losses may strike his firm were not his fault.

But the destruction of bailouts is not limited to the crippling of the firms that are bailed out. It also taints the operations of the firms that are operating without bailouts. As already pointed out, they too have given up their jets and are keeping their heads down, despite the fact that economic rationality implies that they should keep their jets. They have been cowed by a raging hostility toward capitalism and wealth.

Symbolism

I quote the words of a prominent New York Times reporter, who sees the facts of the situation, even describes some that I omitted, and yet approves of what has happened. He writes:


When you get right down to it, the purchase of a new plane or an office renovation is pretty meaningless for companies as large as Citigroup or Bank of America [Merrill Lynch is now part of Bank of America]. It’s not unheard of for executives to spend $1 million or more on remodeling when they get the corner office. It’s pocket change. And companies can usually make a halfway decent business case to justify a new airplane. (It goes longer distances than older planes, can take more executives to meetings, allows the top brass to be more efficient and productive, etc., etc.) The question of whether bailout money was used to pay for these perks — as alleged by The New York Post, which broke the Citi airplane story — is, at best, ambiguous. Indeed, breaking the airplane contract and sending the jet back to the manufacturer will probably
cost the bank more than keeping the plane. None of that matters. You could make the same argument about the auto executives who flew on corporate jets when they came to Washington to ask Congress for help: surely, it was a better use of their time to fly rather than drive from Detroit, as they did the second time around, after being spanked for taking the jets. That didn’t matter either. What matters is the symbolism. At a time when the country is in such trouble — and executives are asking for bailouts — anything that smacks of plutocracy is going to arouse justifiable populist anger. (Joe Nocera, “It’s Not the Bonus Money. It’s the Principle,” New York Times, January 31, 2009, p. B1. My italics.)
So here we have it. What the outrage is really all about is the hatred of great wealth and its possessors. The goal is to attack them in the name of an alleged duty of the individual to sacrifice his wealth, pleasure, and enjoyment, and ultimately his life, for the benefit of others less fortunate. Seen in this light, the furor raised about corporate jets, office remodelings, and the like is understandable. It is the kind of symbolism appropriate to a campaign on behalf of self-sacrifice and against the pursuit of happiness.

In sharpest contrast and opposition to the philosophy of self-sacrifice and to the role of government as the enforcer of sacrifice, stand these famous lines:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men….
These words are from the Declaration of Independence, which is the founding document of the United States. Their meaning is that the United States was established for the purpose of securing the right of the individual to pursue his own happiness, which includes material prosperity. In the United States, the individual and his rights are supreme. Government exists only in a subordinate role, that of a servant dedicated to protecting and securing the individual and his rights from the aggression of common criminals at home and of despots abroad.

What symbolism would be appropriate to this conception of the relationship between the citizens and their government? How would it differ from the present such symbolism?

The present symbolism depicting the relationship between the government and the citizen is that the head of the government, the President of the United States, has at his disposal, with no objection from anyone, Air Force One, which is a Boeing 747 jet plane that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and, when configured for commercial operation, carries more than 450 passengers. At the same time, howls of anger and fury go up when one of the largest private corporations in the country dares to order a 12-seat jet plane for $50 million.

The acceptance of this relationship symbolizes the total reversal of the relationship between government and citizen that the founding of our country was intended to establish and maintain. The symbolism appropriate to that relationship would be that while private citizens are free to fly in 747s, or Lunar Landers for that matter, depending only on how successful is their individual pursuit of happiness, the President of the country, who is merely the chief night watchman of the nation, and is its servant, is consigned to a 12-seater jet.

Of course, this is not to begrudge the President of the United States the use of a 747 in today’s world, in which he may require such a plane merely in order to have necessary means of communication at his disposal. But it is to remind all those seeking to deify the government and raise it above the citizens, that they are encouraging a servant to forget his place and to become the master of those whom it is his duty to serve.

Copyright © 2009, by George Reisman. George Reisman, Ph.D. is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. His web site is www.capitalism.net and his blog is www.georgereisman.com/blog/. A pdf replica of his book can be downloaded to the reader’s hard drive simply by clicking on the book’s title, above, and then saving the file when it appears on the screen. The book provides further, in-depth treatment of the substantive material discussed in this article and of practically all related aspects of economics.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

FALLING PRICES ARE NOT DEFLATION BUT THE ANTIDOTE TO DEFLATION

This is the first in a series of articles that seeks to provide the intelligent layman with sufficient knowledge of sound economic theory to enable him to understand what must be done to overcome the present financial crisis and return to the path of economic progress and prosperity.

A disastrous economic confusion, one that is shared almost universally, both by laymen and by professional economists alike, is the belief that falling prices constitute deflation and thus must be feared and, if possible, prevented.

The front-page, lead article of The New York Times of last November 1 provides a typical example of this confusion. It declares:


As dozens of countries slip deeper into financial distress, a new threat may be gathering force within the American economy—the prospect that goods will pile up waiting for buyers and prices will fall, suffocating fresh investment and worsening joblessness for months or even years.

The word for this is deflation, or declining prices, a term that gives economists chills.

Deflation accompanied the Depression of the 1930s. Persistently falling prices also were at the heart of Japan’s so-called lost decade after the catastrophic collapse of its real estate bubble at the end of the 1980s—a period in which some experts now find parallels to the American predicament.
Contrary to The Times and so many others, deflation is not falling prices but a decrease in the quantity of money and/or volume of spending in the economic system. To say the same thing in different words, deflation is a general fall in demand. Falling prices are a consequence of deflation, not the phenomenon itself.

Totally apart from deflation, falling prices are also a consequence of increases in the production and supply of goods, which are an essential feature of economic progress and a rising standard of living. In such circumstances, falling prices are not accompanied by any plunge in business sales revenues or profits, by any increase in the difficulty of repaying debt, or by any surge in bankruptcies. All of these phenomena are the result purely and simply of deflation, not falling prices.

Indeed, under a full-bodied, 100-percent-reserve gold standard, falling prices, caused by increased production, are likely to be accompanied by a modest elevation of the rate of profit and a somewhat greater ease of repaying debt, both owing to the increase in the production and supply of gold and thus in the spending of gold. Under such a gold standard, prices fall to the extent that the increase in the production and supply of ordinary goods and services outstrips the increase in the production and supply of gold and the consequent increase in spending in terms of gold.

While this must certainly come as a surprise to The Times, and to everyone else who does not understand the nature of deflation, falling prices are in fact so far removed from being deflation that they are the antidote to deflation. They are what enables an economic system that has experienced deflation to recover from it and thereafter to enjoy the fruits of economic progress.

This conclusion can be demonstrated Socratically, by means of a simple question that could be used on an economics exam for sixth graders.

Thus, imagine that prior to the present financial downturn, Bill used to go shopping once a week in his local supermarket. When he went there, he could afford to spend $10 for bottled water. At the prevailing price of $1 per bottle, he was able to buy 10 bottles. Now, in the midst of the downturn, when Bill visits the supermarket, he can afford to spend only $5 for bottled water.

Here’s the question: At what price per bottle of water would Bill be able to buy for $5 the 10 bottles of water he used to buy for $10? Answer: 50¢.

As this question and its answer make clear, a fall in prices enables reduced funds available for expenditure to buy as much as previously larger funds could buy.

This point applies even when lower prices do not result in greater purchases of the particular item whose price has fallen. Thus, suppose that the price of a gallon of milk is $8 and now falls to $4. Yet Bill and his family do not need more than one gallon in any given week, and so won’t buy any larger quantity of milk at its now lower price. The fall in its price still helps economic recovery. It does so by freeing up $4 of Bill’s funds to make possible the purchase of other things, that he wants but otherwise couldn’t afford because of the lack of available funds.

Another, similar example is that of a fall in the price of gasoline or heating oil, which helps to increase the ability of people to spend in buying products throughout the economic system.

As indicated, in sharpest contrast to falling prices, deflation is a process of financial contraction. In our present crisis, it is a contraction of credit and of the spending that depends on credit. A fall in prices and, of course, in wage rates too, is the essential means of adapting to this deflation and overcoming it.

Nevertheless, the prevailing bizarre confusion of falling prices with deflation, stands in the way of economic recovery. In regarding falling prices, which are the effect of deflation and at the same time the remedy for deflation, as somehow themselves being deflation, people are led to confuse the solution for the problem with the problem that needs to be solved.

On the basis of this confusion, they advocate government intervention to prevent prices from falling. The prices they want to prevent from falling are, variously, house prices, farm and other commodity prices, and, above all, wage rates. To the extent that such efforts are successful, and prices are prevented from falling, the effect is to prevent economic recovery. It prevents economic recovery by preventing the reduced level of spending that deflation represents, from buying the larger quantity of goods and services that it would be able to buy at lower prices and wage rates.

Just as falling prices are so far from being deflation that they are the remedy for deflation, so too preventing prices from falling is so far from preventing deflation that it actually worsens the deflation. This is because it leads people to postpone buying even in instances in which they have the ability to buy. They put off buying in the expectation of being able to buy on better terms later on, when prices and wage rates have fallen to the extent necessary to permit economic recovery.

By the same token, when prices and wage rates finally do fall sufficiently to permit economic recovery, an increase in spending in the economic system will almost certainly occur. This is because the funds that people had been withholding from spending, awaiting the fall in prices and wages rates, will now, in the face of the necessary fall, be spent. Thus the necessary fall in prices and wage rates achieves economic recovery by means of creating greater buying power for a reduced amount of spending. It also brings about a partial restoration of spending and thereby definitively ends the deflation.

Just how far it is necessary for prices and wage rates to fall in order to achieve economic recovery depends on the change that has taken place in what Mises calls “the money relation.” This is the relationship between the supply of money and the demand for money for holding.

During the boom, inflation and credit expansion increase the supply of money and at the same time reduce the demand for money for holding. Then, in the subsequent bust phase of the business cycle, the demand for money for holding rises and the supply of money can actually fall. Both of these factors make for a decline in total spending in the economic system and thus the need for a correspondingly lower level of wage rates and prices to achieve economic recovery.

How far these processes might go in our present circumstances and what might be done, consistent with the principle of economic freedom, to mitigate them, is too large a subject to explain in this one article.[1] However, I must state here that a decrease in the quantity of money can be altogether prevented and that this would dramatically limit the extent of the decline in overall spending in the economic system.

Whatever the reduced levels of spending that the changed money relation will support, the freedom of wage rates and prices to fall can achieve not only economic recovery but more than economic recovery. It can achieve the employment of everyone able and willing to work, i.e., full employment. And it could do so with no decline in the real wages of the average worker in the economic system, indeed, with a significant rise in his real wages. Unfortunately, this too is a subject too large to discuss further in the present article.[2]

Bailouts

Before closing, I must say a few words about the present efforts of the government to overcome the crisis by means of “bailouts” and their associated financing by budget deficits. Ultimately, these efforts are an attempt to overcome the effects of a rise in the demand for money for holding by means of a sufficiently large increase in the supply of money. In its campaign, the government appears to care for nothing but overcoming the crisis of the moment, without regard to the fuel it is providing for the next crisis.

The government today has unlimited powers of money creation. And so it is highly likely, given its evident willingness to use those powers, and the overwhelming public support that exists for using them, that the increase in the supply of money it brings about will ultimately outweigh the present increase in the public’s demand for money for holding. When and to the extent that that happens, and business sales revenues and profits begin to rise and employment and wage rates begin to rise, the public’s demand for money for holding will once again begin to fall.

At that point the massive increase in the quantity of money the government is currently bringing about will fuel sharply rising prices and give birth to a new crisis. This time, a crisis of inflation. Then, the government will either have to be content with a US economy that resembles the economic system of a Latin American country or it will have to rein in its inflation. If it chooses the latter quickly, we’ll be back to the situation that prevailed in the early 1980s and have to undergo a fresh economic contraction, though probably one of much greater size than then, because of the unfinished business left over from the present crisis.

If the government delays too long in reining in its inflation, then when it finally does decide to do so, it may be confronted not only with prices rising as rapidly as they did in Latin America decades ago, but also with the massive unemployment rates that accompanied the efforts to rein in such major inflation. At that time, prices rising at a rate of 20, 30, or 50 percent or more were accompanied by comparably high unemployment rates. (To understand how such a thing can happen, imagine total spending and prices both rising at the rate of, say, 50 percent per year. Now the government, in an effort rein in inflation, succeeds in reducing the increase in spending to 15 percent. If the rise in wage rates and prices has any kind of significant inertia, such as continuing at 40 percent, the effect will be a drop in production and employment to a level equal to 1.15/1.4, which represents a drop of about 18 percent. In the nearer-term future, unemployment will be promoted by any additional powers the government may give to labor unions, who will use them to raise wage rates even in the midst of mass unemployment, as they did from 1932 on in the Great Depression.)

Of course, given the prevailing readiness massively to expand the powers of government in order to deal with short-term crises, it is also possible that the government will enact wage and price controls in its efforts to fight the consequences of its inflation. If and when the controls are subsequently removed, there will again be a crisis of rising prices that, if not accompanied by still more inflation, will be followed by a major financial contraction. If the price controls are not removed, the economic system will be paralyzed and ultimately destroyed.

The upshot is that there is no good way out of the present crisis other than by meeting it through the free-market’s means of a fall in wage rates and prices, mitigated to the maximum extent possible in ways consistent with the principle of economic freedom. What is required is a way out that once and for all ends the boom-bust cycle of inflation and credit expansion followed by deflation and contraction. The free market, a freer market than we have had up to now, is the only such solution.

Economic freedom and economic recovery both require that prices and wage rates be free to fall and that all legal obstacles in the way of their falling be immediately removed. In order for that to happen, as many people as possible must understand that falling prices are not deflation but the antidote to deflation.


***


Postscript: Two points need to be briefly addressed that I could not deal with in the body of my article. One concerns the effect of the prospect of falling prices on the postponement of expenditures. This postponement applies only to the case in which the fall in prices is in response to a fall in demand, not an increase in production and supply. In this case, if prices do not fall, demand falls further, as I showed.

However, the prospect of falling prices resulting from increased production and supply does not imply a postponement of purchases. This is because in this case the prospective fall in prices is not the result of any decrease either in spending or in any other major monetary aggregate. On the contrary, here the prospective fall in prices means an increase in the prospective buying power of all accumulated savings as well as of the income that will be earned in the future. In this way, the process of economic progress portends being financially better off in the future than in the present. The effect of this in turn is to enable people to afford to consume more in the present. This counterbalances the benefit to be derived by waiting to take advantage of lower prices in the future. In other words, falling prices due to increased production and supply are essentially neutral in their overall effect on the relationship between spending for present consumption versus saving for future consumption.

The second point that needs to be addressed concerns housing prices. It is often asserted that falling house prices are responsible for bank failures and that the continuation of falling prices for housing must result in more such failures and therefore must be stopped.

Falling home prices are not in fact responsible for bank failures, any more than falling prices of aging automobiles are responsible for bank failures. The fact that homeowners may owe more on their homes than their homes are worth has no more fundamental connection with defaults on mortgage loans than the fact that many or most automobiles purchased with installment loans are worth less than the outstanding loan balances owed on them. Indeed, the mere act of driving a new car off the dealer’s lot is often sufficient to put its resale value below the value of the outstanding loan balance on the car.

What leads to defaults, whether on home loans or on automobile loans, is the inability or unwillingness of borrowers to honor their financial obligations, not the market value of the homes or cars.

Only decades of inflation and credit expansion could make it possible for people to think of the houses they occupy as an investment. In reality, a house is a consumers’ good, just like an automobile or a refrigerator. The only difference is that it depreciates more slowly than they do. Only a long string of years in which inflation took place more rapidly than houses depreciated enabled their prices to rise every year and people to come to regard them as a source of financial gain. If not for inflation and the rise in prices that it produces, it would be very clear that housing is a wasting asset, a slowly wasting asset to be sure, but a wasting asset nonetheless.

If not for inflation, the price of new houses would not rise. They would probably even fall from year to year. In addition, the price of a house that was 5, 10, or 20 years old would be significantly less than the price of a new house. Thus even constant prices of new houses, let alone falling prices of new houses, implies that the price of a house declines as it ages. That is the normal situation. That is the situation in the absence of inflation.

The accelerated credit expansion of recent years and the rapid rise in house prices that it caused made it appear for a while that it was profitable to buy houses for no other reason than quickly to resell them. It also made it appear that people could live off the rise in equity in their homes, by borrowing against it. The frenzy of the housing bubble was such that at its peak the price of the median house could be afforded only by people earning the top 15 percent of incomes.

There is no reason to attempt to maintain artificially high house prices and to rescue the borrowers and lenders who were responsible for them. Furthermore, the attempt to do so must perpetuate the suspicion that the lenders are still basically unsound and cannot be counted on to be able to meet their own financial obligations. Such bad loans must be owned up to and cleared off the books of the banks and the other financial institutions that made them, before confidence can be restored in the financial system.

The fall in housing prices that is taking place needs to go further. The median home price is still considerably higher than the median income level. Calls for stabilizing house prices are a demand for government intervention on behalf of reckless borrowers and lenders, paid for by taxpayers.

The lower home prices that will result from the freedom of the housing market from government interference will reduce the size of the mortgages that are necessary to buy homes. If a house sells for half a million dollars instead of a million dollars or for one-hundred thousand dollars instead of two-hundred thousand dollars, then the amount of mortgage financing required to buy it is correspondingly reduced and the housing market comes into alignment with the reduced overall supply of credit that is available.

[1] For a discussion of the subject, see the author’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, pp. 959-962.

[2] I have discussed it at length in Capitalism; see pp. 580-587.


*Copyright © 2009, by George Reisman. George Reisman, Ph.D. is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. His web site is www.capitalism.net and his blog is www.georgereisman.com/blog/. A pdf replica of his book can be downloaded to the reader’s hard drive simply by clicking on the book’s title Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics and then saving the file when it appears on the screen. The book provides an in-depth, comprehensive treatment of the material discussed in this and subsequent articles in this series and of practically all related aspects of economics.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Credit Expansion, Economic Inequality, and Stagnant Wages

Capital in the form of credit is normally and, certainly, properly, extended out of previously accumulated savings. In sharpest contrast, credit expansion is the creation of new and additional money out of thin air, which money is then lent to business firms and individuals as though it were a supply of new and additional saved up capital funds. Its existence serves to reduce interest rates and to enable loans to be made and debts to be incurred which otherwise would not have been made or incurred. Always and everywhere, to the extent that private banks participate in the process of credit expansion, they do so with the sanction and generally with the active encouragement of the government.

Economists, above all Ludwig von Mises, have shown how credit expansion is responsible for the boom-bust business cycle and how its existence depends on deliberate government policy. Nevertheless, public opinion believes that the business cycle is an inherent feature of capitalism and that the role of government is not that of causing the phenomenon but of combating it. Indeed, as Mises observed, “Nothing harmed the cause of liberalism [capitalism] more than the almost regular return of feverish booms and of the dramatic breakdown of bull markets followed by lingering slumps. Public opinion has become convinced that such happenings are inevitable in the unhampered market economy.”

The truth is that credit expansion is responsible not only for the boom-bust cycle but also for another major negative phenomenon for which public opinion mistakenly blames capitalism. Namely, sharply increased economic inequality, in which the wealthier strata of the population appear to increase their wealth dramatically relative to the rest of the population and for no good reason.

It is not accidental that the two leading periods of credit expansion in history—the 1920s and the period since the mid 1990s—have been characterized by a major increase in economic inequality. Both in the 1920s and in the more recent period, a major cause of the increased economic inequality is that the new and additional funds created in credit expansion show up very soon in the financial markets, where they drive up the prices of securities, above all, common stocks. The owners of common stock are preponderantly wealthy individuals, who now find themselves the beneficiaries of substantial capital gains. These gains are the greater the larger and more prolonged the credit expansion is and the higher it drives the prices of shares. In the process of new and additional money pouring into the financial markets, investment bankers and stock speculators are in a position to reap especially great gains.

Since it’s so important, the main point just made needs to be repeated: credit expansion creates an artificial economic inequality by showing up in the stock market and driving up stock prices. Since the stocks are owned mainly by wealthy people, they are the main beneficiaries of the process. The more substantial and the more prolonged the credit expansion is, the larger are the gains enjoyed by wealthy people more than anyone else.

The new and additional funds injected into the economic system also soon show up in an additional demand for capital goods, such as business inventories and plant and equipment, and in an additional demand for consumers’ durable goods, such as houses and automobiles. The purchase of these latter goods, like the capital goods purchased by business firms, depends largely on credit and is encouraged by lower interest rates. It is also fed by the capital gains being reaped by wealthy individuals, which results in an especially pronounced increase in the demand for luxury housing and for luxury goods in general.

The additional demand for capital goods and consumers’ durable goods serves to increase business sales revenues and thus business profits across a wide spectrum of the economic system. Credit expansion increases profits in the economic system because the expenditure of the new and additional money in buying capital goods and labor increases the sales revenues of business firms immediately, while it increases the costs they must deduct from those sales revenues only with a time lag. This is also true to an extent of inflation that enters the economic system by means of its creators simply spending the new and additional money rather than lending it out—“simple inflation,” as Mises calls it. What is present in both kinds of inflation—credit expansion and simple inflation—is the fact that sales revenues rise as soon as new and additional money is spent, but the costs deducted from the sales revenues of any given year largely reflect outlays of money made in previous years. In those previous years the quantity of money and volume of spending of virtually all types was smaller, including the spending that shows up in the present year as costs in business income statements.

Credit expansion boosts profits more than does simple inflation because the reduction in interest rates it brings about serves to increase the time lag between the making of expenditures for capital goods and labor and their subsequent appearance as costs in business income statements. The low interest rates encourage the purchase of such things as durable machinery and the undertaking of construction projects. The kind of increase that this must bring about in economy-wide profits can be seen in the following examples.

Thus in one case, imagine that a business firm uses newly created money that has come into its hands to increase its newspaper advertising, say. Its additional expenditure will be equivalent additional sales revenue to the newspaper. It will also most likely be an equivalent immediate additional cost to it—a cost that it must deduct from its sales revenues in its very next income statement. Thus, in the same accounting period that the newspaper records additional sales revenues equal to the firm’s additional expenditure, the firm itself must record an equal additional cost of production to deduct from its own sales revenues. Obviously, in this case there is no increase in the economy-wide aggregate amount of profit. This is because economy-wide, aggregate sales revenues and economy-wide aggregate costs have both increased to the same extent.

But now imagine that the firm spends the same amount of money in buying durable machinery that will be depreciated over a ten-year period. Once again, a seller, this time the seller of the machinery, will immediately have additional sales revenues equal to our firm’s additional expenditure. But in this case, our firm will certainly not have an equally large additional cost of production to report in its next income statement. If its expenditure for the machinery was $1 million, say, then while the seller has $1 million of additional sales revenues in his next annual income statement, our firm will probably have merely $100 thousand of additional costs to report in its next annual income statement. This is because the purchase price of the machine is not charged off all at once, but only gradually, over its depreciable life. The implication of this example is that in the current year there will be an addition of $900,000 to economy-wide, aggregate profits. If our firm’s $1 million were part of an investment in the construction of a building with a forty-year depreciable life, the implied addition to economy-wide, aggregate profits would be even greater.

Such boosts to profits go hand in glove with the rise in common-stock prices and greatly reinforce them. Of course, once credit expansion comes to an end, the stimulus it gave to profits and to the stock market both disappear and at that point profits plunge and capital gains turn into capital losses. And at that point, the enemies of capitalism turn to attacking capitalism for causing depressions.

Now as the new and additional money created in credit expansion works its way through the economic system, one would expect the demand for labor and thus wage rates also to rise. This certainly does tend to happen and in the 1920s wages increased substantially in terms both of money and real buying power. They simply did not increase to nearly the same extent as the incomes of the wealthier strata of the population, nor, of course, to the extent that business profits increased.

In addition to the special stimulus given to profits, a second reason for the failure of wages to keep pace with the rise in profits, is that the encouragement given by credit expansion to the purchase of durable capital goods, particularly plant and equipment, tends to take place at the expense of funds that otherwise would be devoted to the purchase of labor services. As a result, the rise in wages is retarded at the same time that profits sharply advance. For this reason too it does not keep pace with the rise in profits.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, the rise in real wages in the 1920s was not the result of credit expansion but of rising production. Credit expansion actually operated to retard the rise in production insofar as it caused the wasteful investment of capital, i.e., what Mises calls malinvestment.

The rise in production is what prevented the prices of goods and services from rising as rapidly as credit expansion raised wage rates in terms of money. The rise in production, in turn, was based on a high degree of availability of capital funds provided by actual savings, as opposed to credit expansion, together with rapid scientific and technological progress. It was this that increased real wages, i.e., the goods and services that wage earners could actually buy with their wages.

In contrast to the experience of the 1920s, in the two great recent credit expansions, i.e., the dot.com bubble of 1995-2001 and its successor the presently collapsing housing bubble that began not long thereafter, there has been very little, if any, rise in real wages. Most commentators appear to attribute this to nothing more than the unrestrained greed of businessmen and capitalists. They apparently go on the theory that if there is anything in the economic system that breathes or moves other than at the command of the government, or other than with the active supervision and control of the government, it is proof that we live in an era of “laissez-faire.” For example, in The New York Times of December 30, 2007, in an article titled “The Free Market: A False Idol After All?,” Times columnist Peter Goodman writes:

For more than a quarter-century, the dominant idea guiding economic policy in the United States and much of the globe has been that the market is unfailingly wise. So wise that the proper role for government is to steer clear and not mess with the gusher of wealth that will flow, trickling down to the [sic] every level of society, if only the market is left to do its magic.

That notion has carried the day as industries have been unshackled from regulation, and as taxes have been rolled back, along with the oversight powers of government.
This alleged laissez-faire environment, such writers pretend, has enabled businessmen and capitalists shamelessly to enrich themselves at the expense of increasingly impoverished wage earners, to whom nothing any longer even “trickles down.” Increased free trade and “globalization,” of course, are attacked as part of the process and as greatly contributing to the stagnation or outright decline in real wages.

In sharpest contrast to such blather, in the real world there are innumerable rules and regulations enacted by the Federal Government to control virtually every aspect of economic activity. They are contained in the more than 70,000 pages of The Federal Register. The overwhelming mass of government interference described therein, and in its counterparts at the state and local level, is a glaring refutation of claims about the existence of any kind of laissez faire in the present-day world. The very description of such interference, in tens of thousands of pages of official text, is a refutation of such size and literal weight as to render any claims about laissez faire or insufficient government controls or regulations utterly nonsensical.

This truly massive body of material also suggests that the actual explanation of the stagnation in real wages is precisely an ever growing burden of government intervention in the economic system. The intervention is in the form of policies that undermine genuine saving and in numerous other ways undermine capital accumulation and the rise in the productivity of labor. Personal and corporate income taxes, the inheritance tax, the capital gains tax, and government budget deficits—all entail the taking away of funds that if left in the hands of their owners would have been heavily spent, indeed, overwhelmingly spent, in the purchase of capital goods and labor services. Instead, those funds are diverted into financing the consumption of the government and those to whom the government gives money.

Inflation and credit expansion greatly exacerbate this diversion of funds, because their effect is artificially to increase the incomes subject to these taxes and to thus to deprive business firms of the funds required to replace assets at prices made higher by the same process that increases their taxable incomes. The progressive aspect of income and inheritance taxes also worsens their effects, because incomes tend to be saved and invested the more heavily the larger they are; at the same time, substantial inheritances are more likely to be retained in the form of accumulated savings and capital than are modest inheritances.

Because of the reduced demand for labor that results from the taxation of funds that would otherwise have been used in employing labor and in buying capital goods, wages are substantially less than they otherwise would have been. At the same time, the buying power of those reduced wages is also sharply reduced in comparison with what it would otherwise have been.

It is worth pointing out that totally apart from the effect of social security in undermining the incentive to save, the sheer rise in tax rates since 1965 to pay for the system has taken away fully eight additional percentage points of the income of every wage earner whose earnings are equal to or less than the amount subject to such taxation. In 1965 the combined social security tax on wage earners and their employers was 7.25 percent, which applied to a maximum annual income of $4800. Today, the combined rate is 15.3 percent, which includes 2.9 percent for Medicare. The 15.3 percent rate currently, i.e., in 2008, applies to all wages and salaries up to a maximum of $102,000 per year. The effect of these major increases both in social security tax rates and in the amount of income
subject to them has been to reduce the take-home wages of many workers by considerably more than 8 percent.

The social security contribution of employers is a loss to wage earners, because it is a cost of employment no different than the payment of take-home wages. Financially, it is a matter of indifference to employers whether they pay this sum to the government or to their employees. The cost to them is the same. It is money that the employees could and would have had, if the government had not taken it from the employers.

The same is true of all other costs borne by employers on behalf of their workers, whether it is health insurance, day care, family leave, or whatever. The costs in question are all costs of employment, which, in the absence of such government interference, the wage earners could and would have had in their own pockets. Compelling employers to pay the costs of such things is at the expense of the workers’ take-home wages. The more such costs are imposed, the lower are take-home wages in comparison with what they otherwise would have been. The increase in such costs over time has correspondingly held down any rise in take-home wages.

Government intervention, as I’ve said, not only holds down the demand for labor and thus wages, particularly take-home wages, but it also reduces the buying power of wages. This is because the supply of capital goods is less, thanks to the diversion of funds from their purchase. The absence of these capital goods prevents the productivity of labor from being increased as much as it otherwise would have been. This in turn holds down the production both of consumers’ goods and of further capital goods. The consequence of a lesser supply of consumers’ goods is prices of consumers’ goods that are higher than they otherwise would have been and thus a buying power of wages that is correspondingly lower than it otherwise would have been.

The consequent absence of further capital goods compounds the negative effect on production, in a process that can be repeated over and over again, with each passing year. What this means is that because fewer capital goods in the form of factories and machines are available this year, the ability to produce capital goods in the form of factories and machines for the following year is reduced, because capital goods in the form of factories and machines are the means of producing further capital goods in the form of factories and machines no less than they are of producing consumers’ goods.

The buying power of wages is also reduced by all of the other laws and regulations that hold down the production and supply of goods in general and thus keep up prices. And again, there is a compounding effect. Environmental legislation deserves an especially prominent place in any list of such laws and regulations. Already, because of the restrictions it has imposed on the production of oil, coal, natural gas, and atomic power, it has served to raise the price of energy to unprecedented levels and to deprive many wage earners of the ability to buy gasoline for their cars or trucks and heating oil for their homes. To the extent that wage earners are able to pay energy prices reflecting a $100- per-barrel price of oil, their ability to buy other goods is correspondingly reduced. If the environmental movement’s agenda of radical reductions (up to 90 percent) in carbon dioxide emissions is imposed, meeting it will require absolutely crippling cutbacks in the production and use of oil, coal, and natural gas which must result in corresponding reductions in production, increases in prices, and absolute devastation for real wages.

The negative effect on production here is again a cumulative one, inasmuch as lack of energy supplies hampers the ability to find and exploit further supplies of energy. The more abundant and cheaper energy is, the greater is man’s ability to move masses of earth and to process them, thereby developing further energy supplies. Thus, government intervention that reduces energy supplies reduces the ability to find and exploit further energy supplies.

Other examples of laws and regulations holding down production are minimum-wage, prounion, and licensing legislation. These cause higher costs, higher prices, the diversion of labor from more productive pursuits to less productive pursuits, and, finally, unemployment. Subsidies of all kinds, tariffs, and consumer-product safety legislation also serve to hold down the production and supply of things and to keep up or add to their costs and prices. Again, to whatever extent production in general is curtailed, so too is the production of capital goods, with a consequent cumulative negative effect on subsequent production.

It should be clear that the resumption of an era of high and progressively rising real wages requires a radical reduction of government intervention into the economic system and the reestablishment of economic freedom.

What we have seen is that credit expansion is responsible not only for the boom-bust business cycle, as Mises showed, but also that it is a major source of artificial economic inequality and sharply increases profits relative to wages. These are processes that come to an end and are actually thrown into reverse as soon as credit expansion stops and the recession/depression that is its ultimate consequence begins. In wasting capital through malinvestment, it undermines the rise in production and accompanying rise in real wages. Despite credit expansion, real wages could still rise through most of American history, because of the substantial economic freedom enjoyed in the United States and did so even in the midst of credit expansion, as in the 1920s. In the last two episodes of major credit expansion, however, and over the last several decades as a whole, real wages have largely stagnated. This stagnation is the result of massive government intervention into the economic system that undermines capital accumulation and both the demand for labor and the productivity of labor. It is not the result of economic inequality, the profit motive, or any other aspect of the capitalist system.

I have explained all of the essential matters discussed in this article in full detail, with all of their presuppositions and implications, in my book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics.


Copyright © 2007, by George Reisman. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. His web site is www.capitalism.net.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

The Housing Bubble and the Credit Crunch

The turmoil in the credit markets now emanating from the collapse of the housing bubble can be understood in the light of the theory of the business cycle developed by Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek. These authors showed that credit expansion distorts the pattern of spending and capital investment in the economic system. This in turn leads to the large scale loss of capital and thereby sets the stage for a subsequent credit contraction, which is precisely what is beginning to happen now. (For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the expression, credit expansion is the creation of new and additional money by the banking system and its lending out at artificially low interest rates and/or to borrowers of low credit worthiness.)

The genesis of the present problem goes back to the bursting of the stock-market bubble in the early years of this decade. In an effort to avoid its deflationary consequences, the bursting of the stock market bubble was followed by successive Federal Reserve cuts in interest rates, all the way down to little more than 1 percent by the end of 2003.

These cuts in interest rates were accomplished by means of repeated injections of new and additional bank reserves. The essential interest rate in question was the so-called Federal Funds rate. This is the interest rate that the banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System charge or pay in the lending and borrowing of the monetary reserves that they are obliged to hold against their outstanding checking deposits.

The continuing inflow of new and additional reserves allowed the banking system to create new and additional checking deposits for the benefit of borrowers. The new and additional deposits were created to a multiple of ten or more times the new and additional reserves and made possible the granting of new and additional loans on a correspondingly large scale. The sharp decline in interest rates that took place encouraged the making of mortgage loans in particular. The reason for this was the steep decline in monthly mortgage payments that results from a substantial decline in interest rates. The new and additional checking deposits were money that was created out of thin air and which was lent against mortgages to borrowers of poorer and poorer credit.

So long as the new and additional money kept pouring into the housing market at an accelerating rate, home prices rose and most people seemed to prosper.

But starting in 2004, and continuing all through 2005 and the first half of 2006, in fear of the inflationary consequences of its policy, the Federal Reserve began gradually to raise interest rates. It did so in order to be able to reduce its creation of new and additional reserves for the banking system.

Once this policy succeeded to the point that the expansion of deposit credit entering the housing market finally stopped accelerating, the basis for a continuing rise in home prices was removed. For it meant a leveling off in the demand for housing. To the extent that the credit expansion actually fell, the demand for houses had to drop. This was because a major component of the demand for houses had come to be precisely the funds provided by credit expansion. A decline in that component constituted an equivalent decline in the overall demand for houses. The decline in the demand for houses, of course, was in turn followed by a decline in the price of houses Housing prices also had to fall simply because of the unloading of homes purchased in anticipation of continually rising prices, once it became clear that that anticipation was mistaken.

This drop in the demand for and price of houses has now revealed a mass of mortgage debt that is unpayable. It has also revealed a corresponding mass of malinvested, wasted, capital: the capital used to make the unpayable mortgage loans.

The loss of this vast amount of capital serves to undermine the rest of the economic system.

The banks and other lenders who have made these loans are now unable to continue their lending operations on the previous scale, and in some cases, on any scale whatever. To the extent that they are not repaid by their borrowers, they lack funds with which to make or renew loans themselves. To continue in operation, not only can they no longer lend to the same extent as before, but in many cases they themselves need to borrow, in order to meet financial commitments made previously and now coming due.

Thus, what is present is both a reduction in the supply of loanable funds and an increase in the demand for loanable funds, a situation that is aptly described by the expression “credit crunch.”

The phenomenon of the credit crunch is reinforced by the fact that credit expansion, just like any other increase in the quantity of money, serves to raise wage rates and the prices of raw materials. It thereby reduces the buying power of any given amount of capital funds. This too leads to the outcome of a credit crunch as soon as the spigot of new and additional credit expansion is turned off. This is because firms now need more funds than anticipated to complete their projects and thus must borrow more and/or lend less in order to secure those funds. (This, incidentally, is the present situation in the construction of power plants and other infrastructure, where costs have risen dramatically in the last few years, with the result that correspondingly larger sums of capital are now required to carry out the same projects.) In addition, the decline in the stock and bond markets that results after the prop of credit expansion is withdrawn signifies a reduction in the assets available to fund business activities and thus serves to intensify the credit crunch.

The situation today is essentially similar to all previous episodes of the boom-bust business cycle launched by credit expansion. The only difference is that in this case, the credit expansion fed an expanded demand for housing and, at the same time, most of the additional capital funds created by the credit expansion were invested in housing. Now that the demand for housing has fallen, as the result of the slowdown of the credit expansion, much of the additional capital funds invested in housing has turned out to be malinvestments. In most previous instances, credit expansion fed an additional demand for capital goods, notably plant and equipment, and most of the additional capital funds created by credit expansion were invested in the production of capital goods. When the credit expansion slowed, the demand for capital goods fell and much of the additional capital funds invested in their production turned out to be malinvestments.

In all instances of credit expansion what is present is the introduction into the economic system of a mass of capital funds that so long as it is present has the appearance of real wealth and capital and provides the basis for sharply increased buying and selling and a corresponding rise in asset prices. Unfortunately, once the credit expansion that creates these capital funds slows, the basis of the profitability of the funds previously created by the credit expansion is withdrawn. This is because those funds are invested in lines dependent for their profitability on a demand that only the continuation of the credit expansion can provide.

In the aftermath of credit expansion, today no less than in the past, the economic system is primed for a veritable implosion of credit, money, and spending. The mass of capital funds put into the economic system by credit expansion quickly begins evaporating (the hedge funds of Bear Stearns are an excellent recent example), with the potential to wipe out further vast amounts of capital funds.

As the consequence of a credit crunch, there are firms with liabilities coming due that are simply unable to meet them. They cannot renew the loans they have taken out nor replace them. These firms become insolvent and go bankrupt. Attempts to avoid the plight of such firms can easily precipitate a process of financial contraction and deflation.

This is because the specter of being unable to repay debt brings about a rise in the demand for money for holding. Firms need to raise cash in order to have the funds available to repay debts coming due. They can no longer count on easily and profitably obtaining these funds through borrowing, as they could under credit expansion, or, indeed, obtaining them at all through borrowing. Nor can they readily and profitably obtain funds by liquidating the securities or other assets that they hold. Thus, in addition to whatever funds they may still be able to raise in such ways, they must attempt to accumulate funds by reducing their expenditures out of their receipts. This reduction in expenditures, however, serves to reduce sales revenues and profits in the economic system and thus further reduces the ability to repay debt.

To the extent that anywhere along the line, the process of bankruptcies results in bank failures, the quantity of money in the economic system is actually reduced, for the checking deposits of failed banks lose the character of money and assume that of junk bonds, which no one will accept in payment for goods or services.

Declines in the quantity of money, and in the spending that depends on the part of the money supply that has been lost, results in more bankruptcies and bank failures, and still more declines in the quantity of money, as well as in further increases in the demand for money for holding. Such was the record of The Great Depression of 1929-1933.

Given the unlimited powers of money creation that the Federal Reserve has today, it is doubtful that any significant actual deflation of the money supply will take place. The same is true of financial contraction caused by an increase in the demand for money for holding. In confirmation of this,
The New York Times reports, in an online article dated August 11, 2007, that “The Federal Reserve, trying to calm turmoil on Wall Street, announced today that it will pump as much money as needed into the financial system to help overcome the ill effects of a spreading credit crunch.… The Fed pushed $38 billion in temporary reserves into the system this morning, on top of a similar move [$24 billion] the day before.” In addition, the print edition of The Times, dated a day earlier, reported in its lead front-page story that “the European Central Bank in Frankfurt lent more than $130 billion overnight at a rate of 4 percent to tamp down a surge in the rates banks charge each other for very short-term loans.”

Thus the likely outcome will be a future surge in spending and in prices of all kinds based on an expansion of the money supply of sufficient magnitude to overcome even the very powerful impetus to contraction and deflation that has come about as the result of the bursting of the housing bubble.

Another outcome will almost certainly be the enactment of still more laws and regulations concerning financial activity. Oblivious to the essential role of credit expansion and of the government’s role in the existence of credit expansion, the politicians and the media are already attempting to blame the present debacle on whatever aspects of economic and financial activity still remain free of the government’s control.

It probably is the case that at this point the only thing that can prevent the emergence of a full-blown major depression is the creation of yet still more money. But that new and additional money does not necessarily have to be in the form of paper and checkbook money. An alternative would be to declare gold and silver coin and bullion legal tender for the payment of debts denominated in paper dollars. There is no limit to the amount of debt-paying power in terms of paper dollars that gold and silver can have. It depends only on the number of dollars per ounce.

To be sure, this is an extremely radical suggestion, but something along these lines will someday be necessary if the world is ever to get off the paper-money merry-go-round of the unending ups and downs of boom and bust, accompanied since 1933 by the continuing loss of the buying power of money.


Copyright © 2007, by George Reisman. George Reisman is the author of
Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. His web site is www.capitalism.net.


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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Environmentalism in the Light of Menger and Mises

I

Environmentalism is the product of the collapse of socialism in a world that is ignorant of the contributions of von Mises—a world that does not know what he has said that would logically explain the collapse of socialism and, even more importantly, the success of capitalism.

Because of ignorance of the contributions of von Mises, the great majority of the intellectuals, and of the general public too, which has been subjected to the educational system fashioned and run by them, continues to believe such things as that the profit motive is the cause of starvation wages, exhausting hours, sweatshops, and child labor; and of monopolies, inflation, depressions, wars, imperialism, and racism. At the same time, they believe that saving is hoarding and a cause of unemployment and depressions, as is, allegedly, economic progress in the form of improvements in efficiency. And by the same logic, they regard war and destruction as necessary to prevent unemployment under capitalism. In addition, they believe that money is the root of all evil and that competition, is “the law of the jungle” and “the survival of the fittest.” Economic inequality, they believe, proves that successful businessmen and capitalists play the same social role in capitalism as did slave owners and feudal aristocrats in earlier times and is thus the logical and just basis for “class warfare.”

Real, positive knowledge of the profit motive and the price system, of saving and capital accumulation, of money, economic competition, and economic inequality, and of the harmony of interests among men that results from the joint operation of these leading features of capitalism—all of this knowledge is almost entirely lacking on the part of the great majority of today’s intellectuals. To obtain such knowledge, it would be necessary for them to read and study von Mises, who is far and away the most important source of such knowledge. But they have not done this.

Ignorance of the ideas of von Mises—the willful evasion of his ideas—has enabled the last three generations of intellectuals to go on with the delusion that capitalism is an “anarchy of production,” a system of rampant evil, utter madness, and continuous strife and conflict, while socialism is a system of rational planning and order, of morality and justice, and the ultimate universal harmony of all mankind. For perhaps a century and a half, the intellectuals have seen socialism as the system of reason and science and as the ultimate goal of all social progress. On the basis of all that they believe, and think that they know, the great majority of intellectuals even now cannot help but believe that socialism should succeed and capitalism fail.

Ignorant of the contributions of von Mises, the intellectuals were totally unprepared for the world-wide collapse of socialism that became increasingly evident in the last decades of the twentieth century and that culminated in the overthrow of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Carrying their ignorance to the depths of depravity, they have apparently chosen to interpret the undeniable failure of socialism not as evidence of their own ignorance but as the failure of reason and science. Socialism, they believe, is the system of social organization implied by reason and science. Its failure, they conclude, can only be the failure of reason and science. Such is the state of ignorance that results from ignorance of the contributions of von Mises.

This much at least must be said here about the actual relationship between socialism and reason. Reason is an attribute of the individual, not the collective. As von Mises repeatedly said, “Only the individual thinks. Only the individual acts.” So far from being any kind of system demanded or even remotely supported by reason, socialism constitutes the forcible suppression of the reason of everyone except that of the Supreme Dictator. He alone is to think and plan, while all others are merely to obey and carry out his orders. A system in which one man, or a few men, presume to establish a monopoly on the use of reason must, of course, fail. Its failure can certainly not be called a failure of reason. It can no more be called a failure of reason than it could be called a failure of human legs if one man or a handful of men were somehow to deprive the rest of the human race of the power to use its legs and then, of course, found its own legs inadequate to support the weight of the human race. So far is the failure of socialism from being a failure of reason that it would be much more appropriate to describe it as a failure of lunacy: the lunacy of believing that the thinking and planning of one man or a handful of men could be substituted for the thinking and planning of tens and hundreds of millions of men cooperating under capitalism and its division of labor and price system. (Of course, because they never bothered to read von Mises, the intellectuals do not even know that ordinary people do in fact engage in economic planning, planning that is integrated and harmonized by the price system. From the abysmally ignorant perspective of the intellectuals, ordinary people are chickens without heads. Thinking and planning are allegedly actions that only government officials can perform.)

Because of ignorance of the contributions of von Mises, one cannot expect very many people to know that Nazism was actually a major form of socialism and thus that the fifteen million or more murders for which it was responsible should be laid at the door of socialism. Nazism and all of its murders aside, Marxian “scientific” socialism was responsible for more than eighty million murders in the twentieth century: thirty million in the former Soviet Union, fifty million in Communist China, and untold millions more in the satellite countries.
The great majority of the intellectual establishment never took these latter mass murders very seriously and certainly did not regard them as being caused by the nature of socialism. (They did take seriously the murders committed by the Nazis, which, in their ignorance, they blamed on capitalism.) Even when, late in the twentieth century, well after the great majority of the murders had been committed and were known to the world, President Reagan characterized the Soviet Union as “the evil empire,” the intellectual establishment was capable of no other response than to criticize him for being impolite, undiplomatic, and boorish.

Now the reality is that the great majority of intellectuals of the last several generations have blood on their hands. Morally speaking at least, in urging the establishment of socialism and/or in denying or ignoring its resulting bloody consequences, they have been accessories to mass murder, either before the fact or after the fact.

And, indeed, the intellectuals have some form of awareness of their guilt. For not only do they blame reason and science for the failure of socialism but they now also regard reason and science, and its offshoot technology, as profoundly dangerous phenomena, as though they, and not socialism and the intellectuals who made socialism possible, had been responsible for the mass murders. Indeed, the same intellectual quarter that a generation or more ago urged “social engineering” has taken the failure of social engineering so far as to now oppose engineering of virtually any kind. The same intellectual quarter that a generation or more ago urged the totalitarian control of all aspects of human life for the purpose of bringing order to what would otherwise allegedly be chaos, now urges a policy of laissez-faire—out of respect for natural harmonies. Of course, it is not a policy of laissez-faire toward human beings, who are to be as tightly controlled as ever. Nor, of course, is it a policy that recognizes any form of economic harmonies among human beings. No, it is a policy of laissez-faire toward nature in the raw; the alleged harmonies that are to be respected are those of so-called eco-systems.

But while the intellectuals have turned against reason, science, and technology, they continue to support socialism and, of course, to oppose capitalism. They now do so in the form of environmentalism. It should be realized that environmentalism’s goal of global limits on carbon dioxide and other chemical emissions, as called for in the Kyoto treaty, easily lends itself to the establishment of world-wide central planning with respect to a wide variety of essential means of production. Indeed, an explicit bridge between socialism and environmentalism is supplied by one of the most prominent theorists of the environmental movement, Barry Commoner, who was also the Green Party’s first candidate for President of the United States.

The bridge is in the form of an attempted ecological validation of one of the very first notions of Karl Marx to be discredited—namely, Marx’s prediction of the progressive impoverishment of the wage earners under capitalism. Commoner attempts to salvage this notion by arguing that what has prevented Marx’s prediction from coming true, until now, is only that capitalism has temporarily been able to exploit the environment. But this process, he claims, must now come to an end, and, as a result, the allegedly inherent conflict between the capitalists and the workers will emerge in full force. (For anyone interested, I quote Commoner at length in Capitalism.)

Concerning the essential similarity between environmentalism and socialism, I wrote:

The only difference I can see between the green movement of the environmentalists and the old red movement of the Communists and socialists is the superficial one of the specific reasons for which they want to violate individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Reds claimed that the individual could not be left free because the result would be such things as “exploitation,” “monopoly,” and depressions. The Greens claim that the individual cannot be left free because the result will be such things as destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain, and global warming. Both claim that centralized government control over economic activity is essential. The Reds wanted it for the alleged sake of achieving human prosperity. The Greens want it for the alleged sake of avoiding environmental damage . . . [And in the end,] [b]oth the Reds and the Greens want someone to suffer and die; the one, the capitalists and the rich, for the alleged sake of the wage earners and the poor; the other, a major portion of all mankind, for the alleged sake of the lower animals and inanimate nature. (p. 102)
If the world’s intellectuals had been open to the possibility that they had been wrong about the nature of capitalism and socialism—profoundly, devastatingly wrong—and taken the trouble to read and understand the works of von Mises in order to learn how and why they had been wrong, socialism would have died once and for all with the Soviet Union, and the whole world would now be moving toward laissez-faire capitalism and unprecedented economic progress and prosperity. Instead, the intellectuals have chosen to foist the doctrine of environmentalism on the world, as a last-ditch effort to destroy capitalism and save socialism.

II

All that I have said up to now should be understood as in the nature of an introduction. I consider the substance of my talk to be the refutation of the two essential claims of the environmentalists and then a critique of their essential policy prescription. The two essential claims of the environmentalists, which I take for granted are already well known to everyone, are (1) that continued economic progress is impossible, because of the impending exhaustion of natural resources (it is from this notion that the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” comes), and (2) that continued economic progress, indeed, much of the economic progress that we have had up to now, is destructive of the environment and is therefore dangerous. The essential policy prescription of the environmentalists is the prohibition of self-interested individual action insofar as the byproduct of such action when performed on a mass basis is alleged damage to the environment. The leading concrete example of this policy prescription is the attempt now underway to force individuals to give up such things as their automobiles and air conditioners on the grounds that the byproduct of hundreds of millions or billions of people operating such devices is to cause global warming. And this same example, of course, is presently the leading example of the alleged dangers of economic progress.

The basis of my critique of the essential claims of the environmentalists is Carl Menger’s theory of goods. The basis of my critique of their essential policy prescription is the spirit of individualism that runs throughout the writings of Ludwig von Mises.

In his Principles of Economics, Menger develops two aspects of his theory of goods that are highly relevant to the critique of the environmentalists’ two essential claims. The first aspect is his recognition that what makes what would otherwise be mere things into goods is not the intrinsic properties of the things but a man-made relationship between the physical properties of the things and the satisfaction of human needs or wants. Menger describes four prerequisites, all of which must be simultaneously present, in order for a thing to become a good, or, as he often puts it, have “goods-character.”

He writes:

If a thing is to become a good, or in other words, if it is to acquire goods-character, all four of the following prerequisites must be simultaneously present:

1. A human need.

2. Such properties as render the thing capable of being brought into a causal connection with the satisfaction of this
need.

3. Human knowledge of this causal connection.

4. Command of the thing sufficient to direct it to the satisfaction of the need. (p. 52)
The last two of these prerequisites, it must be stressed, are man made. Human knowledge of the causal connection between external material things and the satisfaction of human needs must be discovered by man. And command over external material things sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs must be established by man. For the most part, it is established by means of a process of capital accumulation and a rising productivity of labor.

All this has immediate bearing on the subject of natural resources. It implies that the resources provided by nature, such as iron, aluminum, coal, petroleum and so on, are by no means automatically goods. Their goods-character must be created by man, by discovering knowledge of their respective properties that enable them to satisfy human needs and then by establishing command over them sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs.

For example, iron, which has been present in the earth since the formation of the planet and throughout the entire presence of man on earth, did not become a good until well after the Stone Age had ended. Petroleum, which has been present in the ground for millions of years, did not become a good until the middle of the nineteenth century, when uses for it were discovered. Aluminum, radium, and uranium also became goods only within the last century or century and a half.

An example concerning goods-character being created only after the establishment of command sufficient to direct the resource provided by nature to the satisfaction of a human need would be the case of petroleum deposits lying deeper than existing drilling equipment could go. As drilling equipment improved, command was established over deposits lying at greater and greater depths. Those deposits, to the extent that they were known, then became goods, which they had not been before. Similarly, for some years after the creation of the goods-character of petroleum, those petroleum deposits containing a significant sulfur content were unuseable for the production of petroleum products and were therefore not goods. Their goods-character was created only when Rockefeller and Standard Oil developed the process of cracking petroleum molecules, which then made sulfurous deposits useable.

The second aspect of Menger’s theory of goods that is highly relevant to the critique of the environmentalists’ essential claims is his principle that the starting point both of goods-character and of the value of goods is within us—within human beings—and radiates outward from us to external things, establishing the goods-character and value first of things that directly satisfy our needs, such as food and clothing, which category of goods Menger describes as “goods of the first order,” and, second, the means of producing goods of the first order, such as the flour to bake bread and the cloth to make clothing, which category of goods Menger describes as “goods of the second order.” Goods-character and the value of goods then proceed from goods of the second order to goods of the third order, such as wheat, which is used to make the flour, and cotton yarn, which is used to make the cloth to make the clothing. From there they proceed to goods of the fourth order, such as the equipment and land used to produce the wheat, and the raw cotton from which the cotton yarn is made. Thus, goods-character and the value of goods, in Menger’s view, radiate outward from human beings and their needs to external things more and more remote from the direct satisfaction of human needs.

In Menger’s own words: “The goods-character of goods of higher order is derived from that of the corresponding goods of lower order” (p. 63). And: “. . . the value of goods of higher order is always and without exception determined by the prospective value of the goods of lower order in whose production they serve” (p. 150). And as to the value of goods of the first order: “The value an economizing individual attributes to a good is equal to the importance of the particular satisfaction that depends on his command of the good” (p. 146). “The determining factor . . . is . . . the magnitude of importance of those satisfactions with respect to which we are conscious of being dependent on command of the good” (p. 147).

In Menger’s view, it is clear that the process of production represents a progression from goods of higher order to goods of lower order, that is, from goods more remote from the satisfaction of human needs and the source of the value of all goods, to goods less remote from the satisfaction of human needs and the source of the value of all goods. The process of production unmistakably appears as one of continuous enhancement of utility, as it moves closer and closer to its ultimate end and purpose: the satisfaction of human needs.

To apply Menger’s views to the critique of the essential claims of environmentalism, it is first necessary to stress the fact that in his account of things, nature’s contribution to natural resources is implicitly much less than is generally supposed. According to the prevailing view, what nature has provided is the natural resources that man exploits, that is, for example, all of the iron mines and coal mines, all of the oil fields and natural-gas wells, and so on. At the same time, according to the prevailing view, man’s only connection to these allegedly all-nature-given natural resources is merely that he uses them up, with no means of replacing them. It is generally thought, for example, that while man produces such things as automobiles and refrigerators, his sole connection to the natural resources used in their production, such as iron ore, is merely to use them up, with no possibility of replacing them.

As I say, in Menger’s view, nature’s contribution to natural resources is much less than what is usually assumed. What nature has provided, according to Menger, is the material stuff and the physical properties of the deposits in these mines and wells, but it has not provided the goods-character of any of them. Indeed, there was a time when none of them were goods.

The goods-character of natural resources, according to Menger, is created by man, when he discovers the properties they possess that render them capable of satisfying human needs and when he gains command over them sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs.

All that needs to be added to Menger’s view of the man-made creation of the goods-character of natural resources is a precise, explicit recognition of the extent of the things Menger refers to that nature has provided and which are not yet goods, but which, under the appropriate circumstances, might become goods, or, at least, from the domain of which things might be drawn to a greater extent to receive goods-character by virtue of man’s contribution to the process. In other words, what precisely has nature provided with respect to which man might discover causal connections to the satisfaction of his needs and over greater portions of which he might gain command sufficient to direct such things to the satisfaction of his needs?

My answer to this question is that what nature has provided is matter and energy—matter in the form of all the chemical elements both known and as yet unknown, and energy, in all of its various forms. I call this contribution of nature “the natural resources provided by nature.” Natural resources in the much narrower sense of “goods,” as Menger uses the term, are drawn from this virtually infinite domain provided by nature. Natural resources that are goods in Menger’s sense are natural resources provided by nature that man has made useable and accessible by virtue of discovering properties they possess that enable them to satisfy human needs and by virtue of gaining command over them sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs.

What is essential here is to grasp the distinction between the two senses of the expression “natural resources.” First, there are natural resources as provided by nature. Such natural resources, as I say, are matter, in all of its elemental forms, and energy, in all of its forms. And then, second, drawn from this domain, are natural resources to which man has given goods-character.

We are already familiar with the fact that an outstanding characteristic of natural resources in the first sense, that is, of natural resources as provided by nature, is that none of them are intrinsically goods—that their achievement of goods-character awaits action by man. A further, equally important characteristic of natural resources as provided by nature, and which now needs to be stressed as strongly as possible, is the enormity of their quantity. Indeed, for all practical purposes, they are infinite. Strictly speaking, they are one and the same with all the matter and energy in the universe. That is the full extent of the natural resources supplied by nature.

Thus, in one sense, the sense of useable, accessible natural resources—that is, of goods as Menger defines the term—the contribution of nature is zero. Practically nothing comes to us from nature that is ready-made as a useable, accessible natural resource—as a good in Menger’s sense. In another sense, however, the natural resources that come from nature—the matter, in the form of all the chemical elements, known and as yet unknown, and energy in all of its forms—are virtually infinite in their extent. In this sense, nature’s contribution is boundless.

Even if we limit our horizon exclusively to the planet earth, which certainly need not be our ultimate limit, the magnitude of natural resources supplied by nature is mind-bogglingly huge. It is nothing less than the entire mass of the earth and all of the energy that goes with it, from thunder storms in the atmosphere, a single one of which discharges more energy than all of mankind produces in an entire year, to the tremendous heat found at the earth’s core in millions of cubic miles of molten iron and nickel. Yes, the natural resources provided by nature in the earth alone extend from the upper limits of the earth’s atmosphere, four-thousand miles straight down, to its center. This enormity consists of solidly packed chemical elements. There is not one cubic centimeter of the earth, either on its surface or anywhere below its surface, that is not some chemical element or other, or some combination of chemical elements. This is nature’s contribution to the natural resources contained in this planet. It indicates the incredibly enormous extent of what is out there awaiting transformation by man into natural resources possessing goods-character.

And this brings me to what I consider to be the revolutionary view of natural resources that is implied in Menger’s theory of goods. Namely, not only does man create the goods- character of natural resources—by obtaining knowledge of their useful properties and then creating their useability and accessibility by virtue of establishing the necessary command over them—but he also has the ability to go on indefinitely increasing the supply of natural resources possessing goods-character. He enlarges the supply of useable, accessible natural resources—that is, natural resources possessing goods-character—as he expands his knowledge of and physical power over nature.

The prevailing view, that dominates the thinking of the environmentalists and the conservationists, that there is a scarce, precious stock of natural resources that man’s productive activity serves merely to deplete is wrong. Seen in its full context, man’s productive activity serves to enlarge the supply of useable, accessible natural resources by converting a larger, though still tiny, fraction of nature into natural resources possessing goods-character. The essential question concerning natural resources is what fraction of the virtual infinity that is nature does man possess sufficient knowledge concerning and sufficient physical command over to be able to direct it to the satisfaction of his needs. This fraction will always be very small indeed and will always be capable of vastly greater further enlargement.

As I stated a moment ago, the supply of useable, accessible natural resources expands as man expands his knowledge of and physical power over the world and universe. Up to now, although considerably expanded in comparison with what it was in previous centuries, man’s physical power over the world has been essentially confined to the roughly thirty percent of the earth’s surface that is not covered by sea water, and there it has been further confined to depths that are still measured in feet, not miles. Man is literally still just scratching the surface of the earth, and the far lesser part of its surface at that. And nowhere is he dealing with nature nearly as effectively or efficiently as he someday might.

In addition to the examples previously given with respect to iron, petroleum, aluminum, radium, and uranium, consider the implications for the supply of useable, accessible natural resources of man becoming able to mine at greater depths with less effort, to move greater masses of earth with less effort, to break down compounds previously beyond his power, or to do so with less effort, to gain access to regions of the earth previously inaccessible or to improve his access to regions already accessible. All of these increase the supply of useable, accessible natural resources. They do so, of course, by virtue of creating what Menger describes as command over things sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs. All of them bestow the character of goods on what had before been mere things.

As I wrote in Capitalism:

Today, as the result of such advances, the supply of economically useable natural resources is enormously greater than it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or even just one or two generations ago. Today, man can more easily mine at a depth of a thousand feet than he could in the past at a depth of ten feet, thanks to such advances as mechanical-powered drilling equipment, high explosives, steel structural supports for mine shafts, and modern pumps and engines. Today, a single worker operating a bulldozer or steam shovel can move far more earth than hundreds of workers in the past using hand shovels. Advances in reduction methods have made it possible to obtain pure ores from compounds previously either altogether impossible to work with or at least too costly to work with. Improvements in shipping, railroad building, and highway construction have made possible low-cost access to high-grade mineral eposits in regions previously inaccessible or too costly to exploit.
And, I added:

There is no limit to the further advances that are possible. Reductions in the cost of extracting petroleum from shale and tar sands have the potential for expanding the supply of economically useable petroleum by a vast multiple of what it is today. Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, may turn out to be an economical source of fuel in the future. Atomic and hydrogen explosives, lasers, satellite detection systems, and, indeed, even space travel itself, open up limitless new possibilities for increasing the supply of economically useable mineral supplies. Advances in mining technology that would make it possible to mine economically at a depth of, say, ten thousand feet, instead of the present much more limited depths, or to mine beneath the oceans, would so increase the portion of the earth’s mass accessible to man that all previous supplies of accessible minerals would appear insignificant in comparison. (p. 64)
The key point here is that, following Menger’s insights into the nature of goods, the supply of economically useable, accessible natural resources is expandable. It is enlarged as part of the same process by which man increases the production and supply of all other goods, namely, scientific and technological progress and saving and capital accumulation.

The fundamental situation is this. Nature presents the earth as an immense solidly packed ball of chemical elements. It has also provided comparably incredible amounts of energy in connection with this mass of chemical elements. If, over and against this massive contribution from nature stands motivated human intelligence—the kind of motivated human intelligence that a free, capitalist society so greatly encourages, with its prospect of earning a substantial personal fortune as the result of almost every significant advance, there can be little doubt as to the outcome: Man will succeed in progressively enlarging the fraction of nature’s contribution that constitutes goods; that is, he will succeed in progressively enlarging the supply of useable, accessible natural resources.

The likelihood of his success is greatly reinforced by two closely related facts: the progressive nature of human knowledge and the progressive nature of capital accumulation in a capitalist society, which, of course, is also a rational as well as a free society. In such a society, the stock of scientific and technological knowledge grows from generation to generation, as each new generation begins with all of the accumulated knowledge acquired by previous generations and then makes its own, fresh contribution to knowledge. This fresh contribution enlarges the stock of knowledge transmitted to the next generation, which in turn then makes its own fresh contribution to knowledge, and so on, with no fixed limit to the accumulation of knowledge short of the attainment of omniscience.

Similarly, in such a society the stock of capital goods grows from generation to generation. The larger stock of capital goods accumulated in any generation on the foundation of a sufficiently low degree of time preference and thus correspondingly high degree of saving and provision for the future, together with a continuing high productivity of capital goods based on the foundation of advancing scientific and technological knowledge, serves to produce not only a larger and better supply of consumers’ goods but also a comparably enlarged and better supply of capital goods. That larger and better supply of capital goods, continuing on the same foundation of low time preference and advancing scientific and technological knowledge, then serves to further enlarge and improve the supply not only of consumers’ goods but also of capital goods. The result is continuing capital accumulation, on the basis of which, from generation to generation, man is able to confront nature in possession of growing powers of physical command over it.

On the basis of both progressively growing knowledge of nature and progressively growing physical power over nature, man progressively enlarges the fraction of nature that constitutes goods, i.e., the supply of useable, accessible natural resources.

III

I turn now to the second aspect of Menger’s theory of goods that relates to the critique of the essential tenets of environmentalism, namely, his view of the process of production as one of continuous enhancement of utility as it moves from goods of higher order to goods of lower order.

All that it is necessary to add to Menger’s view is recognition once again of the fact that the earth is an immense ball of solidly packed chemical elements. Now these chemical elements constitute man’s external material surroundings, i.e., his environment. They are the external material conditions of human life.

When these facts are kept in mind, it becomes clear that the process of production, and the whole of economic activity, so far from constituting a danger to man’s environment, as the environmentalists claim, have the inherent tendency to improve his environment, indeed, that that is their essential purpose.

This becomes obvious as soon as one realizes that not only does the entire world physically consist of nothing but chemical elements, but also that these elements are never destroyed. They simply reappear in different combinations, in different proportions, in different places. As I wrote in Capitalism:

Apart from what has been lost in a few rockets, the quantity of every chemical element in the world today is the same as it was before the Industrial Revolution. The only difference is that, because of the Industrial Revolution, instead of lying dormant, out of man’s control, the chemical elements have been moved about, as never before, in such a way as to improve human life and well-being. For instance, some part of the world’s iron and copper has been moved from the interior of the earth, where it was useless, to now constitute buildings, bridges, automobiles, and a million and one other things of benefit to human life. Some part of the world’s carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen has been separated from certain compounds and recombined in others, in the process releasing energy to heat and light homes, power industrial machinery, automobiles, airplanes, ships, and railroad trains, and in countless other ways serve human life. It follows that insofar as man’s environment consists of the chemical elements iron, copper, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, and his productive activity makes them useful to himself in these ways, his environment is correspondingly improved.

Consider further examples. To live, man needs to be able to move his person and his goods from place to place. If an untamed forest stands in his way, such movement is difficult or impossible. It represents an improvement in his ennvironment, therefore, when man moves the chemical elements that constitute some of the trees of the forest somewhere else and lays down the chemical elements brought from somewhere else to constitute a road. It is an improvement in his environment when man builds bridges, digs canals, opens mines, clears land, constructs factories and houses, or does anything else that represents an improvement in the external, material conditions of his life. All of these things represent an improvement in man’s material surroundings—his environment. All of them represent the rearrangement of nature’s elements in a way that makes them stand in a more useful relationship to human life and well-being.

Thus, all of economic activity has as its sole purpose the improvement of the environment—it aims exclusively at the improvement of the external, material conditions of human life. Production and economic activity are precisely the means by which man adapts his environment to himself and thereby improves it. (p. 90)
If anyone should ask how the environmentalists could miss the fact that precisely production and economic activity constitute the means whereby man improves his environment, the answer is that the environmentalists do not share Menger’s (or Western Civilization’s) starting point of value, namely, the value of human life and well-being. In their view, the starting point of value is the alleged “intrinsic value” of nature—that is, the alleged value of nature in and of itself, totally apart from any connection to human life and well-being. Such alleged intrinsic value is destroyed every time man changes anything whatever in the preexisting state of nature.

When the environmentalists speak of “harm to the environment” in connection with such things as clearing jungles, blasting rock formations, or the loss of this or that plant or animal species of no known or foreseeable value to man, what they actually mean in the last analysis is the loss of the alleged intrinsic values constituted by such things, and not any actual loss whatever to man. On the contrary, they are eager to sacrifice human life and well-being for the preservation of such alleged intrinsic values. To them, the “environment” is not the surroundings of man, deriving its value from its relationship to man, but nature in and of itself, deriving its value from itself—i.e., allegedly possessing “intrinsic” value.

Of course, the environmentalists also frequently pose as supporters of human life and well-being, and at such times they direct their fire at various comparatively minor negative byproducts of production and economic activity, such as local degradation of the quality of air or water, while totally neglecting the enormous positives, which, of course, are of overwhelmingly greater significance.

What guarantees that the positive benefits of production and economic activity incalculably outweigh any negatives associated with their byproducts is the principle of respect for individual rights. Although by no means always observed, this principle requires that one’s production and economic activity not only benefit oneself but also that insofar as any other people are involved in the process, the use of their labor and property must be obtained only by their voluntary consent. And, of course, to secure their voluntary consent, their cooperation must be made worth their while.

Thus, for example, if I wish to construct a building, not only will I benefit from it, but also all those who work for me in its construction and all those who supply me with materials and equipment for constructing it. So too will the building’s purchaser or tenants—if I construct it for the purpose of sale or rent. In addition, no third party’s property or person may be harmed by my action. For example, I risk serious legal penalty if I construct my building in a way that undermines a neighboring building’s foundation or which makes my building unsafe for passersby.

The major complaints the environmentalists currently make concern the fact that I heat and air-condition my building—to be sure, not I as one isolated individual, but as one of many tens or hundreds of millions of individuals using fossil fuels or CFCs. In so doing, mankind is allegedly guilty of the crime of increasing the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, thereby causing “global warming,” or increasing the level of ozone-destroying molecules in the upper atmosphere, thereby causing higher rates of skin cancer. And because mankind is allegedly guilty in these ways, the environmentalists assume that I as one individual man must be restricted, if not prohibited altogether, in my use of fossil fuels and CFCs, even though I, as one individual, am utterly incapable of causing any of the harmful effects alleged; and the same, of course, is true, mutatis mutandis, for each and every other individual.

IV

Here I want to turn to the enormous spirit of individualism that is found in von Mises. Only individuals think and only individuals act, says von Mises. It follows, of course, that it is only for his own actions that an individual should be held responsible. The son should not be punished for the sins of the father; one member of a race or nation or economic class should not be held responsible for the deeds of any other members of that race, nation, or economic class.

And so too should it be in the case of any alleged environmental damage. If an individual, or an individual business enterprise, is incapable by himself of causing global warming or ozone depletion, or whatever, on a scale sufficient to cause harm to any other specific individual or individuals, then there is absolutely no proper basis on the individualistic philosophy of von Mises for prohibiting his action. As I say in Capitalism, “To prohibit the action of an individual in such a case is to hold him responsible for something for which he is simply not in fact responsible. It is exactly the same in principle as punishing him for something he did not do" (p. 91).

The individual should not be punished for consequences that can occur only as the result of the actions of the broader category or group of which he is a member, but do not occur as the result of his own actions. Thus, even if it is true that the combined effect of the actions of several billion people really is to cause global warming or ozone depletion (neither of these claims has actually been proven—the claims of global warming have all the certainty of a weather forecast, extended out to the next 100 years!), but even if, as I say, the claims were true, it still would not follow that any proper basis existed for prohibiting any specific individual or individuals from acting in ways that only when aggregated across billions of individuals resulted in global warming or ozone depletion or whatever.

If global warming or ozone depletion or whatever, really are consequences of the actions of the human race considered collectively, but not of the actions of any given individual, including any given individual private business firm, then the proper way to regard them is as the equivalent of acts of nature. Not being caused by the actions of individual human beings, they are equivalent to actions not morally caused by human beings at all, that is to say, to acts of nature.

Once we see matters in this light, it becomes clear what the appropriate response is to such environmental change, whether global warming and ozone depletion, or global cooling and ozone enrichment, or anything else nature may bring. It is the same as the appropriate response of man to nature in general. Namely, individual human beings must be free to deal with nature to their own maximum individual advantage, subject only to the limitation of not initiating the use of physical force against the person or property of other individual human beings. By following this principle, man will deal with the any negative forces of nature resulting as byproducts of his own activity taken in the aggregate in precisely the same successful way that he regularly deals with the primary forces of nature.

Allow me to elaborate on this. Here we are. We enjoy an incredibly marvelous industrial civilization, whose nature is indicated by the fact that because of it vast numbers of human beings can travel at breathtaking speeds for hundreds of miles at a stretch in their own personal automobiles, listening to symphony orchestras as they go—indeed, can fly over whole continents in a matter of hours in jet planes, while watching movies and drinking martinis; can walk into darkened rooms and flood them with light by the flick of a switch; can open a refrigerator door and enjoy delicious, healthful food brought from all over the world; can do all this and so much more. This is what we have. This, and much, much more, is what people everywhere could have if they were intelligent enough to establish economic freedom and capitalism.

But all this counts for virtually nothing as far as the environmentalists are concerned. They are ready to throw it all away because, they allege, it causes global warming and ozone depletion, i.e., bad weather. And the best way, they say, for us to avoid such bad weather, and thus to control nature more to our advantage, is to abandon modern, industrial civilization and capitalism.

The appropriate answer to the environmentalists is that we will not sacrifice a hair of industrial civilization, and that if global warming and ozone depletion really are among its consequences, we will accept them and deal with them—by such reasonable means as employing more and better air conditioners and sun block, not by giving up our air conditioners, refrigerators, and automobiles.

More fundamentally, the answer to the environmentalists is that the appropriate response to environmental change, whether global warming or a new ice age, is the economic freedom of a capitalist society. Sooner or later, such environmental change will occur—if not in this new century or even in this new millennium—then certainly at some time in the more remote future. At that time, it will require vast changes in human economic activity. Some areas presently used for certain purposes will become unuseable for those purposes. Conceivably, they might even become uninhabitable. Other areas presently uninhabitable or barely habitable, will become much more desirable. Major changes in the comparative advantages of vast areas will take place, to which people must be free to respond.

As I wrote in Capitalism,

Even if global warming turned out to be a fact, the free citizens of an industrial civilization would have no great difficulty in coping with it—that is, of course, if their ability to use energy and to produce is not crippled by the environmental movement and by government controls otherwise inspired. The seeming difficulties of coping with global warming, or any other large-scale change, arise only when the problem is viewed from the perspective of government central planners.

It would be too great a problem for government bureaucrats to handle . . . . But it would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundreds of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve. It would be solved by means of each individual being free to decide how best to cope with the particular aspects of global warming that affected him.

Individuals would decide, on the basis of profit-and-loss calculations, what changes they needed to make in their businesses and in their personal lives, in order best to adjust to the situation. They would decide where it was now relatively more desirable to own land, locate farms and businesses, and live and work, and where it was relatively less desirable, and what new comparative advantages each location had for the production of which goods. Factories, stores, and houses all need replacement sooner or later. In the face of a change in the relative desirability of different locations, the pattern of replacement would be different. Perhaps some replacements would have to be made sooner than otherwise. To be sure, some land values would fall and others would rise. Whatever happened individuals would respond in a way that minimized their losses and maximized their possible gains. The essential thing they would require is the freedom to serve their self-interests by buying land and moving their businesses to the areas rendered relatively more attractive, and the freedom to seek employment and buy or rent housing in those areas.

Given this freedom, the totality of the problem would be overcome. This is because, under capitalism, the actions of the individuals, and the thinking and planning behind those actions, are coordinated and harmonized by the price system . . . . As a result, the problem would be solved in exactly the same way that tens and hundreds of millions of free individuals have solved much greater problems, such as redesigning the economic system to deal with the replacement of the horse by the automobile, the settlement of the American West, and the release of the far greater part of the labor of the economic system from agriculture to industry. (pp. 88-89)
A rational response to the possibility of large-scale environmental change is to establish the economic freedom of individuals to deal with it, if and when it comes. Capitalism and the free market are the essential means of doing this, not paralyzing government controls and “environmentalism.” And both in the establishment of economic freedom and in every other major aspect of the response to environmentalism, the philosophy of Ludwig von Mises and Carl Menger must lead the way.


George Reisman is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics, and is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. His website is www.capitalism.net.

Copyright © 2001 by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute this article electronically and in print, other than as part of a book. (Email notification is requested). All other rights reserved.

This article, which draws on the author’s Capitalism, is an abridged version of his Mises Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s Austrian Scholars’ Conference in 2001. A more abridged version appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, vol. 5, no. 2. The present version was published as a Daily Article on
www.mises.org, April 20, 2001, under the title “Environmentalism Refuted.”

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