We are told to trust central bankers day in and day out with our organically-grown economic system of immense complication and myriad motivation.
The problem is that the establishment noise that passes for economic analysis is not only just gibberish and fairytale – it is immoral through and through, because it authorizes secret theft from everyone for powered interests. You need not be a genius to understand it. Hell, even I can talk about it. Take a stroll through a search for “Keynesianism” on Sola. Or skip that and head to Monty Pelerin’s blog.
But why do people believe it? John Maudlin had some idea in his latest newsletter, noting a few quotes of pure gold to start it off:
“The belief that wealth subsists not in ideas, attitudes, moral codes, and mental disciplines but in identifiable and static things that can be seized and redistributed is the materialist superstition. It stultified the works of Marx and other prophets of violence and envy. It frustrates every socialist revolutionary who imagines that by seizing the so-called means of production he can capture the crucial capital of an economy. It is the undoing of nearly every conglomerateur who believes he can safely enter new industries by buying rather than by learning them. It confounds every bureaucrat who imagines he can buy the fruits of research and development.
“The cost of capturing technology is mastery of the knowledge embodied in the underlying science. The means of entrepreneurs’ production are not land, labor, or capital but minds and hearts….
“Whatever the inequality of incomes, it is dwarfed by the inequality of contributions to human advancement. As the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote, ‘Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances that permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of society, the people slip back into abject poverty. This is known as bad luck.’
“President Obama unconsciously confirmed Heinlein’s sardonic view of human nature in a campaign speech in Iowa: ‘We had reversed the recession, avoided depression, got the economy moving again, but over the last six months we’ve had a run of bad luck.’ All progress comes from the creative minority. Even government-financed research and development, outside the results-oriented military, is mostly wasted. Only the contributions of mind, will, and morality are enduring. The most important question for the future of America is how we treat our entrepreneurs. If our government continues to smear, harass, overtax, and oppressively regulate them, we will be dismayed by how swiftly the engines of American prosperity deteriorate. We will be amazed at how quickly American wealth flees to other countries….
“Those most acutely threatened by the abuse of American entrepreneurs are the poor. If the rich are stultified by socialism and crony capitalism, the lower economic classes will suffer the most as the horizons of opportunity close. High tax rates and oppressive regulations do not keep anyone from being rich. They prevent poor people from becoming rich. High tax rates do not redistribute incomes or wealth; they redistribute taxpayers – out of productive investment into overseas tax havens and out of offices and factories into beach resorts and municipal bonds. But if the 1 percent and the 0.1 percent are respected and allowed to risk their wealth – and new rebels are allowed to rise up and challenge them – America will continue to be the land where the last regularly become the first by serving others.”
– George Gilder, Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
– John Maynard Keynes
“Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview – nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”
– Stephen Jay Gould
I think Lord Keynes himself would appreciate the irony that he has become the defunct economist under whose influence the academic and bureaucratic classes now toil, slaves to what has become as much a religious belief system as it is an economic theory. Men and women who display an appropriate amount of skepticism on all manner of other topics indiscriminately funnel a wide assortment of facts and data through the filter of Keynesianism without ever questioning its basic assumptions. And then some of them go on to prescribe government policies that have profound effects upon the citizens of their nations.
And when those policies create the conditions that engender the income inequality they so righteously oppose, they prescribe more of the same bad medicine. Like 18th-century physicians applying leeches to their patients, they take comfort in the fact that all right-minded and economic scientists and philosophers concur with their recommended treatments.
. . .
Let’s start with a classic definition of Keynesianism from Wikipedia, so that we can all be comfortable that I’m not coloring the definition with my own bias (and, yes, I admit I have a bias).
Keynesian economics (or Keynesianism) is the view that in the short run, especially during recessions, economic output is strongly influenced by aggregate demand (total spending in the economy). In the Keynesian view, aggregate demand does not necessarily equal the productive capacity of the economy; instead, it is influenced by a host of factors and sometimes behaves erratically, affecting production, employment, and inflation.
The theories forming the basis of Keynesian economics were first presented by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936, during the Great Depression. Keynes contrasted his approach to the aggregate supply-focused “classical” economics that preceded his book. The interpretations of Keynes that followed are contentious, and several schools of economic thought claim his legacy.
Keynesian economists often argue that private sector decisions sometimes lead to inefficient macroeconomic outcomes which require active policy responses by the public sector, in particular, monetary policy actions by the central bank and fiscal policy actions by the government, in order to stabilize output over the business cycle. Keynesian economics advocates a mixed economy – predominantly private sector, but with a role for government intervention during recessions.
. . .
Central banks around the world and much of academia have been totally captured by Keynesian thinking. In the current avant-garde world of neo-Keynesianism, consumer demand –consumption – is everything. Federal Reserve monetary policy is clearly driven by the desire to stimulate demand through lower interest rates and easy money. And Keynesian economists (of all stripes) want fiscal policy (essentially, the budgets of governments) to increase consumer demand. If the consumer can’t do it, the reasoning goes, then the government should step in and fill the breach. This of course requires deficit spending and the borrowing of money (including from your local central bank).
Essentially, when a central bank lowers interest rates, it is trying to make it easier for banks to lend money to businesses and for consumers to borrow money to spend. Economists like to see the government commit to fiscal stimulus at the same time, as well. They point to the numerous recessions that have ended after fiscal stimulus and lower rates were applied. They see the ending of recessions as proof that Keynesian doctrine works.
There are several problems with this line of thinking. First, using leverage (borrowed money) to stimulate spending today must by definition lower consumption in the future. Debt is future consumption denied or future consumption brought forward. Keynesian economists would argue that if you bring just enough future consumption into the present to stimulate positive growth, then that present “good” is worth the future drag on consumption, as long as there is still positive growth. Leverage just evens out the ups and downs. There is a certain logic to this, of course, which is why it is such a widespread belief.
Keynes argued, however, that money borrowed to alleviate recession should be repaid when growth resumes. My reading of Keynes does not suggest that he believed in the continual fiscal stimulus encouraged by his disciples and by the cohort that are called neo-Keynesians.
Secondly, as has been well documented by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, there comes a point at which too much leverage on both private and government debt becomes destructive. There is no exact number or way of knowing when that point will be reached. It arrives when lenders, typically in the private sector, decide that the borrowers (whether private or government) might have some difficulty in paying back the debt and therefore begin to ask for more interest to compensate them for their risks. An overleveraged economy can’t afford the increase in interest rates, and economic contraction ensues. Sometimes the contraction is severe, and sometimes it can be absorbed. When it is accompanied by the popping of an economic bubble, it is particularly disastrous and can take a decade or longer to work itself out, as the developed world is finding out now.
Every major “economic miracle” since the end of World War II has been a result of leverage. Often this leverage has been accompanied by stimulative fiscal and monetary policies. Every single “miracle” has ended in tears, with the exception of the current recent runaway expansion in China, which is now being called into question. (And this is why so many eyes in the investment world are laser-focused on China. Forget about a hard landing or a recession, a simple slowdown in China has profound effects on the rest of the world.)
I would argue (along, I think, with the “Austrian” economist Hayek and other economic schools) that recessions are not brought on by insufficient consumption but rather by insufficient income. Fiscal and monetary policy should aim to grow incomes over the entire range of the economy, and that is accomplished by increasing production and making it easier for entrepreneurs and businesspeople to provide goods and services. When businesses increase production, they hire more workers and incomes go up.
Without income there are no tax revenues to redistribute. Without income and production, nothing of any economic significance happens. Keynes was correct when he observed that recessions are periods of reduced consumption, but that is a result and not a cause.
Entrepreneurs must be willing to create a product or offer a service in the hope that there will be sufficient demand for their work. There are no guarantees, and they risk economic peril with their ventures, whether we’re talking about the local bakery or hairdressing shop or Elon Musk trying to compete with the world’s largest automakers. If they are hampered in their efforts by government or central bank policies, then the economy stagnates.
Keynesianism is favored by politicians and academics because it offers a theory by which government actions can become the decisive factor in the economy. It offers a framework whereby governments and central banks can meddle in the economy and feel justified. It allows 12 people sitting in a board room in Washington DC to feel that they are in charge of setting the price of money (interest rates) in a free marketplace and that they know more than the entrepreneurs and businesspeople do who are actually in the market risking their own capital every day.
This is essentially the Platonic philosopher king conceit: the hubristic notion that there is a small group of wise elites that is capable of directing the economic actions of a country, no matter how educated or successful the populace has been on its own. And never mind that the world has multiple clear examples of how central controls eventually slow growth and make things worse over time. It is only when free people are allowed to set their own prices as both buyers and sellers of goods and services and, yes, even interest rates and the price of money, that valid market-clearing prices can be determined. Trying to control those prices results in one group being favored over another.
In today’s world, the favored group is almost always bankers and the wealthy class. Savers and entrepreneurs are left to eat the crumbs that fall from the plates of the well-connected crony capitalists and to live off the income from repressed interest rates. The irony of using “cheap money” to try to drive consumer demand is that retirees and savers get less money to spend, and that clearly drives down their consumption. Why is the consumption produced by ballooning debt better than the consumption produced by hard work and savings? This is trickle-down monetary policy, which ironically favors the very large banks and institutions. If you ask Keynesian central bankers if they want to be seen as helping the rich and connected, they will stand back and forcefully tell you “NO!” But that is what happens when you start down the road of financial repression. Someone benefits. So far it has not been Main Street.
And, as we will see . . , Keynesianism has given rise to a philosophical framework that justifies the seizure of money from one group of people to give to another group of people. This is a particularly pernicious doctrine, as George Gilder noted in our opening quote:
Those most acutely threatened by the abuse of American entrepreneurs are the poor. If the rich are stultified by socialism and crony capitalism, the lower economic classes will suffer the most as the horizons of opportunity close. High tax rates and oppressive regulations do not keep anyone from being rich. They prevent poor people from becoming rich. High tax rates do not redistribute incomes or wealth; they redistribute taxpayers – out of productive investment into overseas tax havens and out of offices and factories into beach resorts and municipal bonds.
. . .
At the heart of the Keynesian conceit we see the conclusion that consumption is better than savings. Yes, I know, I’ve written many a time about Keynes’s Paradox of Thrift: “It is a good thing for individuals to save, but if everybody saves then there is less consumption.” That seems true on the surface and makes for one of those great sound bites that Keynesians are so good at delivering, but it has an inherent flaw. It assumes that savings don’t become investments that increase productivity, which in turn leads to the production of more goods and services, which ultimately creates income, which then creates more demand.
Without savings, nothing happens. Nothing. There has to be capital of some kind from somewhere in order for economic activity to happen. In the last three years productivity has simply fallen off the charts, down by almost 60% from the average of the previous 60 years. This is a continuation of a trend that began with a decrease in savings. Productivity growth is ultimately a product of savings, and it is productivity growth that will generate an increase in income for the country as a whole. While the topic deserves an entire letter of its own, it may be enough to state here that there are consequences to the fact that savings are close to an all-time low.
A static economy does not produce an increase in either overall income or wealth. It is only an economy that is growing as a result of a healthy level of savings and investment that can produce the results that Keynesian economists want: increased incomes for everyone. (And yes, I acknowledge, as I have in previous letters, that income distribution has been increasingly uneven in recent decades; but I contend that this is the fault of government policy, not the market.)
Your typical Keynesian economist is not willing to wait a reasonable period of time for savings to become investment. Such people, and the politicians they serve, want results today. And the only way to get results today is to get people to spend today, while the process of saving and investing takes time. Neo-Keynesian economists are ultimately teenage children who want the pleasure of spending and consuming today rather than thinking about the future. And I won’t even go into the burden we are placing on future generations by borrowing money to goose our current economy and expecting them to pay that money back so that we can have our party today. We are building toward a future intergenerational war that is going to be very intense once our children learn how we have misspent their future. But that’s yet another letter.blockquote>