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GDP Economics: Fat or Muscle? – Article by David J. Hebert

GDP Economics: Fat or Muscle? – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
November 1, 2014
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Recently, Italy “discovered” it was no longer in a recession. Why? The nation started counting GDP figures differently.

Adding illegal revenue from hookers, narcotics and black market cigarettes and alcohol to the eurozone’s third-biggest economy boosted gross domestic product figures.

GDP rose slightly from a 0.1 percent decline for the first quarter to a flat reading, the national institute of statistics said.

Italian officials are, of course, celebrating. In politics, perceptions are more important than reality. But such celebration is troubling for several reasons, which have less to do with headlines or black markets and more to do with fat.

One of F. A. Hayek’s lasting insights was that aggregate variables mask an economy’s underlying structure. For example, a country’s GDP can be calculated by summing the total amount of consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports in a given year. The higher this number, the better an economy is supposed to be doing. But adding these figures together and looking only at their sum can be wildly misleading.

One way to illustrate why is through the following example: I am currently six foot one and weigh 217 pounds. As it turns out, Adrian Peterson, a running back for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, is the same height and weight. Looking at only these two variables, Peterson and I are identical. Obviously, this isn’t true.

Likewise, cross-country GDP comparisons are difficult to make. If two nations grow at the same rate, for example, but one nation “invests” in useless boondoggles while the other grows sustainable businesses, we wouldn’t want to claim that both countries have equally healthy economies.

But what about comparisons of a country’s year-to-year GDP? Is this valuable information? Well, yes and no.

If we know that more stuff is being produced this year than last year, we can infer that more activity is happening. However, this doesn’t mean that government should subsidize production in order to increase activity. In that case, all they’re accomplishing is increasing the number of things that are being done at the expense of other things that could have been done.

What economists should be looking for are increases in economically productive activity from year to year. For example, digging a hole and then filling it back in does increase the measure of activity, but it’s not adding any value to society. Digging a hole in your backyard and filling it with water is also activity, but it’s productive because you now have a swimming pool, which you value enough to employ people to create.

It’s no mystery that Italy is seeing a higher GDP as a result of its change in measurement and that as a result it’s avoided a recession on paper. That is, it’s counting more activities as “productive” than it was previously. It is wrong to conclude, though, that more production is actually happening in Italy. These activities were happening before; they just weren’t being counted in any official statistics.

There are many problems with using GDP as a measure for an economy’s health. Changing what counts toward GDP only introduces yet another confounding factor. When I step on the scale, I can get some basic idea of how healthy I am. But when I take my shoes off and step on the scale again, I didn’t magically become healthier. I just changed what’s counting toward my weight. It would be wrong for me to conclude that I can skip the gym today as a result of this recorded weight loss. Similarly, citizens of Italy should not be celebrating their increased GDP. They still face the same problems as before and must still address them.

David Hebert is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ferris State University. His interests include public finance and property rights.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

Inflation’s Not the Only Way Easy Money Destroys Wealth – Article by Frank Shostak

Inflation’s Not the Only Way Easy Money Destroys Wealth – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Shostak
October 14, 2014
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The US Federal Reserve can keep stimulating the US economy because inflation is posing little threat, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Kocherlakota said. “I am expecting an inflation rate to run below two percent for the next four years, through 2018,” he said. “That means there is more room for monetary policy to be helpful in terms of … boosting demand without running up against generating too much inflation.”

The yearly rate of growth of the official consumer price index (CPI) stood at 1.7 percent in August against two percent in July. According to our estimate, the yearly rate of growth of the CPI could close at 1.4 percent by December. By December next year we forecast the yearly rate of growth of 0.6 percent.

Does Demand Create More Supply?

It seems that the Minneapolis Fed President holds that by boosting the demand for goods and services — by means of additional monetary pumping — it is possible to strengthen economic growth. He believes that by means of strengthening the demand for goods and services the production of goods and services will follow suit. But why should that be so?

If by means of monetary pumping one could strengthen the economic growth then it would imply that — by means of monetary pumping — it is possible to create real wealth and generate an everlasting economic prosperity.

This would also mean that world wide poverty should have been erased a long time ago. After all, most countries today have central banks that possess the skills to create money in large amounts. Yet world poverty remains intact.

Despite massive monetary pumping since 2008, and the policy interest rate of around zero, Fed policymakers seem to be unhappy with the so-called economic recovery. Note that the Fed’s balance sheet, which stood at $0.86 trillion in January 2007 jumped to $4.4 trillion by September this year.

Production Comes Before Demand

We suggest that there is no such thing as an independent category called demand. Before an individual can exercise demand for goods and services, he/she must produce some other useful goods and services. Once these goods and services are produced, individuals can exercise their demand for the goods they desire. This is achieved by exchanging things that were produced for money, which in turn can be exchanged for goods that are desired. Note that money serves here as the medium of exchange — it produces absolutely nothing. It permits the exchange of something for something. Any policy that results in monetary pumping leads to an exchange of nothing for something. This amounts to a weakening of the pool of real wealth — and hence to reduced prospects for the expansion of this pool.

What is required to boost the economic growth — the production of real wealth — is to remove all the factors that undermine the wealth generation process. One of the major negative factors that undermine the real wealth generation is loose monetary policy of the central bank, which boosts demand without the prior production of wealth. (Once the loopholes for the money creation out of “thin air” are closed off the diversion of wealth from wealth generators towards non-productive bubble activities is arrested. This leaves more real funding in the hands of wealth generators — permitting them to strengthen the process of wealth generation (i.e., permitting them to grow the economy).

Artificially Boosted Demand Destroys Wealth

Now, the artificial boosting of the demand by means of monetary pumping leads to the depletion of the pool of real wealth. It amounts to adding more individuals that take from the pool of real wealth without adding anything in return — an economic impoverishment.

The longer the reckless loose policy of the Fed stays in force the harder it gets for wealth generators to generate real wealth and prevent the pool of real wealth from shrinking.

Finally, the fact that the yearly rate of growth of the CPI is declining doesn’t mean that the Fed’s monetary pumping is going to be harmless. Regardless of price inflation monetary pumping results in an exchange of nothing for something and thus, impoverishment.

Frank Shostak is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and a frequent contributor to Mises.org. His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. See Frank Shostak’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Ludd vs. Schumpeter: Fear of Robot Labor is Fear of the Free Market – Article by Wendy McElroy

Ludd vs. Schumpeter: Fear of Robot Labor is Fear of the Free Market – Article by Wendy McElroy

The New Renaissance Hat
Wendy McElroy
September 18, 2014
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Report Suggests Nearly Half of U.S. Jobs Are Vulnerable to Computerization,” screams a headline. The cry of “robots are coming to take our jobs!” is ringing across North America. But the concern reveals nothing so much as a fear—and misunderstanding—of the free market.

In the short term, robotics will cause some job dislocation; in the long term, labor patterns will simply shift. The use of robotics to increase productivity while decreasing costs works basically the same way as past technological advances, like the production line, have worked. Those advances improved the quality of life of billions of people and created new forms of employment that were unimaginable at the time.

Given that reality, the cry that should be heard is, “Beware of monopolies controlling technology through restrictive patents or other government-granted privilege.”

The robots are coming!

Actually, they are here already. Technological advance is an inherent aspect of a free market in which innovators seeks to produce more value at a lower cost. Entrepreneurs want a market edge. Computerization, industrial control systems, and robotics have become an integral part of that quest. Many manual jobs, such as factory-line assembly, have been phased out and replaced by others, such jobs related to technology, the Internet, and games. For a number of reasons, however, robots are poised to become villains of unemployment. Two reasons come to mind:

1. Robots are now highly developed and less expensive. Such traits make them an increasingly popular option. The Banque de Luxembourg News offered a snapshot:

The currently-estimated average unit cost of around $50,000 should certainly decrease further with the arrival of “low-cost” robots on the market. This is particularly the case for “Baxter,” the humanoid robot with evolving artificial intelligence from the US company Rethink Robotics, or “Universal 5” from the Danish company Universal Robots, priced at just $22,000 and $34,000 respectively.

Better, faster, and cheaper are the bases of increased productivity.

2. Robots will be interacting more directly with the general public. The fast-food industry is a good example. People may be accustomed to ATMs, but a robotic kiosk that asks, “Do you want fries with that?” will occasion widespread public comment, albeit temporarily.

Comment from displaced fast-food restaurant workers may not be so transient. NBC News recently described a strike by workers in an estimated 150 cities. The workers’ main demand was a $15 minimum wage, but they also called for better working conditions. The protesters, ironically, are speeding up their own unemployment by making themselves expensive and difficult to manage.

Labor costs

Compared to humans, robots are cheaper to employ—partly for natural reasons and partly because of government intervention.

Among the natural costs are training, safety needs, overtime, and personnel problems such as hiring, firing and on-the-job theft. Now, according to Singularity Hub, robots can also be more productive in certain roles. They  “can make a burger in 10 seconds (360/hr). Fast yes, but also superior quality. Because the restaurant is free to spend its savings on better ingredients, it can make gourmet burgers at fast food prices.”

Government-imposed costs include minimum-wage laws and mandated benefits, as well as discrimination, liability, and other employment lawsuits. The employment advisory Workforce explained, “Defending a case through discovery and a ruling on a motion for summary judgment can cost an employer between $75,000 and $125,000. If an employer loses summary judgment—which, much more often than not, is the case—the employer can expect to spend a total of $175,000 to $250,000 to take a case to a jury verdict at trial.”

At some point, human labor will make sense only to restaurants that wish to preserve the “personal touch” or to fill a niche.

The underlying message of robotechnophobia

The tech site Motherboard aptly commented, “The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.”

Ironically, Motherboard points to one critic of capitalism who defended technological advances in production: none other than Karl Marx. He called machines “fixed capital.” The defense occurs in a segment called “The Fragment on Machines”  in the unfinished but published manuscript Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy).

Marx believed the “variable capital” (workers) dislocated by machines would be freed from the exploitation of their “surplus labor,” the difference between their wages and the selling price of a product, which the capitalist pockets as profit. Machines would benefit “emancipated labour” because capitalists would “employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery.” The relationship change would revolutionize society and hasten the end of capitalism itself.

Never mind that the idea of “surplus labor” is intellectually bankrupt, technology ended up strengthening capitalism. But Marx was right about one thing: Many workers have been emancipated from soul-deadening, repetitive labor. Many who feared technology did so because they viewed society as static. The free market is the opposite. It is a dynamic, quick-response ecosystem of value. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf argues, “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.”

Forbes pointed out that U.S. unemployment rates have changed little over the past 120 years (1890 to 2014) despite massive advances in workplace technology:

There have been three major spikes in unemployment, all caused by financiers, not by engineers: the railroad and bank failures of the Panic of 1893, the bank failures of the Great Depression, and finally the Great Recession of our era, also stemming from bank failures. And each time, once the bankers and policymakers got their houses in order, businesses, engineers, and entrepreneurs restored growth and employment.

The drive to make society static is powerful obstacle to that restored employment. How does society become static? A key word in the answer is “monopoly.” But we should not equivocate on two forms of monopoly.

A monopoly established by aggressive innovation and excellence will dominate only as long as it produces better or less expensive goods than others can. Monopolies created by crony capitalism are entrenched expressions of privilege that serve elite interests. Crony capitalism is the economic arrangement by which business success depends upon having a close relationship with government, including legal privileges.

Restrictive patents are a basic building block of crony capitalism because they grant a business the “right” to exclude competition. Many libertarians deny the legitimacy of any patents. The nineteenth century classical liberal Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk rejected patents on classically Austrian grounds. He called them “legally compulsive relationships of patronage which are based on a vendor’s exclusive right of sale”: in short, a government-granted privilege that violated every man’s right to compete freely. Modern critics of patents include the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard and intellectual property attorney Stephan Kinsella.

Pharmaceuticals and technology are particularly patent-hungry. The extent of the hunger can be gauged by how much money companies spend to protect their intellectual property rights. In 2011, Apple and Google reportedly spent more on patent lawsuits and purchases than on research and development. A New York Times article addressed the costs imposed on tech companies by “patent trolls”—people who do not produce or supply services based on patents they own but use them only to collect licensing fees and legal settlements. “Litigation costs in the United States related to patent assertion entities [trolls],” the article claimed, “totaled nearly $30 billion in 2011, more than four times the costs in 2005.” These costs and associated ones, like patent infringement insurance, harm a society’s productivity by creating stasis and  preventing competition.

Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic Policy Research, described the difference between robots produced on the marketplace and robots produced by monopoly. Private producers “won’t directly get rich” because “robots will presumably be relatively cheap to make. After all, we can have robots make them. If the owners of robots get really rich it will be because the government has given them patent monopolies so that they can collect lots of money from anyone who wants to buy or build a robot.”  The monopoly “tax” will be passed on to impoverish both consumers and employees.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we should return again to the wisdom of Joseph Schumpeter, who reminds us that technological progress, while it can change the patterns of production, tends to free up resources for new uses, making life better over the long term. In other words, the displacement of workers by robots is just creative destruction in action. Just as the car starter replaced the buggy whip, the robot might replace the burger-flipper. Perhaps the burger-flipper will migrate to a new profession, such as caring for an elderly person or cleaning homes for busy professionals. But there are always new ways to create value.

An increased use of robots will cause labor dislocation, which will be painful for many workers in the near term. But if market forces are allowed to function, the dislocation will be temporary. And if history is a guide, the replacement jobs will require skills that better express what it means to be human: communication, problem-solving, creation, and caregiving.

Wendy McElroy (wendy@wendymcelroy.com) is an author, editor of ifeminists.com, and Research Fellow at The Independent Institute (independent.org).

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 16, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator on November 16, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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Many of the economic and personal fallacies of our time arise from the mistaken belief that wealth and money are identical. In fact, while money is in many cases an important gateway to wealth, it does not even approach describing what wealth truly is.

In our time, money may be equated to wealth even less justifiably than it could have been in times past – when most money was identified with precious metals, such as gold and silver, which had uses other than as media of exchange. Currently, money in virtually all countries consists of pieces of paper which are decreed to be money by government fiat. Legal tender laws force individuals to accept these special pieces of paper as payment for products, services, or debts. The supply of these pieces of paper is controlled by the government’s printing press – typically located at either the central bank or the treasury department.

Why do people seek and hold this money? They do so because they expect to be able to purchase with it actual goods and services – either now or in the future. This means that the money is not seen as valuable in itself; it is seen as valuable because of the other things it can obtain. However, the supply of these other things is not dependent on the number of pieces of paper in circulation. Rather, it is dependent on real factors that affect individuals’ and businesses’ abilities to produce actual goods and services. Thus, having more pieces of paper does not automatically make one wealthier. If the government simply chooses to print more of them, while no external factors affect the production of goods and services, then there will simply be more pieces of paper for the same amount of real goods and services. We would therefore get inflation: prices in terms of the pieces of paper will increase in proportion to the volume of new pieces of paper introduced. Of course, inflation has disastrous impacts on individuals’ existing savings, incentives for frugality, and transaction costs. It also constitutes an unjustified redistribution of wealth from the producers who earn it to the politically connected elites who get priority access to the new pieces of paper. Creating more “money” can often destroy actual wealth and productivity.

But there is another respect in which money is not equivalent to wealth. Consider the fact that, even without inflation, the same amount of money will not purchase the same goods and services in every area. Indeed, a tiny, cramped apartment in the center of a major city may often cost more money than a spacious house in a small town. An individual earning the same amount of money in each area would be able to have a much higher standard of living in the small town. It is quite possible that the individual’s opportunities to earn more money in a big city will be greater, but the prices of goods will not increase in a one-to-one ratio with that individual’s relative salary increase. Rather, the prices are most likely to be higher in a ratio that is greater or smaller than the individual’s ratio of salaries – thereby making life in the city either less or more attractive to the individual. How much money one makes is not an indicator of the rate at which one accumulates wealth; a better indicator is what one can buy for one’s money.

These thoughts should give pause to both advocates of the government’s power of the printing press and to indiscriminate salary chasers. Both may be devoting their time and energy to the pursuit of numerical illusions rather than substantive benefits. A much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of wealth is needed in order to truly thrive and lead a good life.

To achieve an understanding of wealth, we need to ask ourselves why we seek money in the first place. Ultimately, every unit of money – even one saved or invested for many years – goes to fund some human consumption. Money can pay for either goods – material objects – or services – human behaviors performed for the benefit of the payer. It is actual goods and services that constitute wealth, not the money. Moreover, the money price of these goods and services is irrelevant from the standpoint of the wealth of the person who owns them. If I have a table, I am no less wealthy if I cannot sell the table at all – nor am I any wealthier just because I have the potential to sell it for five million dollars. I still have the same table, and its physical qualities are unchanged. If I actually do sell it, I might become wealthier, but only insofar as my five million dollars would enable me to purchase more tables, better tables, or other goods and services I value. The important principle to recognize is that one either has potential wealth in the form of money or actual wealth in the form of the goods and services one has purchased. One does not have both at the same time in the same object. Fiat money is wealth only insofar as it can reasonably be expected to procure actual goods and services. Goods and services constitute wealth in themselves while they last. Capital goods that can produce other goods can also be described as potential wealth – but it is also true that they are not money while one owns them as goods.

A further distinction should be made. Not all material objects are goods, and not all human behaviors are services. Some material objects – such as clouds of poison gas in one’s living room – are active bads. Likewise, some human behaviors – such as people raping or murdering one another – are active disservices. The only way to comprehensively define wealth is with regard to a standard by which goods and services can be identified. The most fundamental standard from both a moral and a practical standpoint is the principle that the life of every innocent individual is the greatest and most basic good – where an innocent individual is one who has not violated this principle through actions such as murder or the attempt at murder. Thus, any object that promotes any individual’s life is a good; any behavior that promotes any individual’s life is a service. The more life-promoting objects one has – and the more life-promoting behaviors one either is able to elicit from others or is able to initiate oneself – the wealthier one is.

Everything else is a matter of means and context. How one gets wealth – whether it be through money, barter, gifts, or one’s own work and transformation of raw materials – has no bearing on the nature of that wealth; all of us who are not self-destructive pursue a wide variety of means that fundamentally aim at the goal of improving our lives. Ethically, the means ought to be non-coercive; we must not intrude on other people’s prerogatives to control their lives just like they must not intrude on ours. Wealth is still wealth, even if acquired through dishonest or evil means – but immoral means of wealth acquisition will destroy other wealth on net, through damage to property and human beings and their incentives to produce.

Moreover, it is possible for the same object to be beneficial in some circumstances and harmful in others. For instance, a piece of rope used to tie a knot may be extremely useful, while the same piece of rope strung across the floor of a room might be a tripping hazard. However, the same item or behavior in the exact same context should produce the same results; actual situations are never precisely repeatable, but we can at least estimate an object’s usefulness or lack thereof by analyzing situations where it has been applied in similar ways.

This view has practical implications beyond the scope of one’s views on economics or politics. Most items in our lives should be viewed not in terms of how we might be able to resell them to others, but rather in terms of what use they are to us personally. There is nothing wrong with resale as such, but it is not a behavior that can be imposed on all objects – and, indeed, economic bubbles are created when the expectation of resale for continually rising prices is applied by enough people to too many commodities. Those of us who acquire an item for our own use – which includes our purchases of art, furniture, automobiles, and yes, even houses – are not in the same position as businessmen who produce or acquire items for the specific purpose of reselling them at a profit. Businessmen see their inventories as potential money generators – an indirect route to greater wealth; consumers ought to see their property as useful in itself and any resale as incidental or fortuitous – a kind of loss mitigation once one is no longer able or willing to make good use of the property. We have adjusted quite well to the idea that the resale value of an automobile or a computer is virtually always much lower than its purchase price. In the role of consumers, we should adopt the same default expectation for houses – and for everything else. But the silly notion that one is entitled to resell any property at a higher price than one purchased it must be discarded, as it results in the foolish pursuit of higher-priced items in the vain hope of their further appreciation in price – without any expert knowledge of how markets in these items actually work. This turns many a layman into a speculator, while enticing him to take out loans with his fanciful expectations as collateral – as happened all too often during the housing bubble. Moreover, it engenders the disastrous attitude that price decreases – which make goods such as houses more affordable for people – are in some manner harmful. But one cannot destroy wealth by making goods easier to earn through honest work – nor can one create wealth by piggybacking off of others’ expectations of price increases.

Leave the house-flipping to the experts, and buy a house that you would want to live in, just as you buy clothes you want to wear and computers you want to use. That house would constitute real wealth for you, irrespective of its market price, and it will be there irrespective of financial market or currency value fluctuations – if you actually own the house or have a fixed-rate mortgage. To maximize your wealth, you should act in such a manner as to improve your access to actual goods and services that you value. Pieces of paper and expectations can only get you so far. And remember that your own ability to do useful work – including work that does not bring immediate monetary returns – is one of your most reliable gateways to wealth.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXVIII.

Europe and Deflation Paranoia – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Europe and Deflation Paranoia – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
April 30, 2014
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There is a current incessant flow of articles warning us of the certain economic calamity if deflation is allowed to show its nose for even the briefest period of time. This ogre of deflation, we are told, must be defeated with the printing presses at all costs. Of course, the real objective of this fear mongering is to enable continued national-government theft through debasement. Every dollar printed is a government tax on cash balances.

There are two main sources of deflation. The first comes from a general increase in the amount of goods and services available. In this type of deflation, a reduction in costs, in a competitive environment, leads to lower prices. The high technology sector has thrived in this type of deflation for decades as technical progress (e.g., the effect of Moore’s Law) has powered innovations and computing power at ever-decreasing costs. The same was true for most industries during much of the nineteenth century, as the living standard increased considerably. Every man benefited from the increase in real wages resulting from lower prices.

The second source of deflation is from a reduction in the money supply that comes from an increase in the desire of the public or banking sectors to hold cash (i.e., hoarding).[1] An uncomplicated example will make this point clearer. Suppose we have 10 pencils and $10. Only at an equilibrium price of $1 will there be no excess output or excess money.

Suppose the production cost of a pencil is 80 cents. The rate of return is 25 percent. Now suppose people hoard $5 and stuff money in their mattress instead of saving it. The price of a pencil will be cut in half, falling from $1 to 50 cents, since we now have a money supply of $5 chasing 10 pencils. If input prices also fall to 40 cents per pencil then there is no problem since the rate of return is still 25 percent. In this example, a drop in output prices forced an adjustment in input prices.

The Keynesian fear is that input prices will not adjust fast enough to a drop in output prices so that the economy will fall into a deflation-depression spiral. The Keynesian-monetarist solution is to have the government print $5 to avoid this deflation.

Yet, this money creation is distortive and will cause a misallocation of resources since the new money will not be spent in the same areas or proportions as the money that is now being “hoarded” (as defined by Keynesians). Furthermore, even if the government could find the right areas or proportions, it would still lead to misallocations, since the hoarding reflects a desire to realign relative prices closer to what society really wants to be produced. The printing of money may actually increase the desire to hold cash, as we see today. Holding cash may be the preferred choice over consumption or investment (savings) when relative and absolute prices have been distorted by the printing press.

Of course, no one is really asking the critical questions. Why does holding more cash change the money supply, and why did the public and banks decide to increase their cash holdings in the first place?[2] Without fractional reserve banking, neither the public nor the banks could significantly change the money supply by holding more cash, nor could banks extend credit faster than slow-moving savings. The boom and ensuing malinvestments would be a thing of the past and, thus, so would the desire to hold more cash during the bust phase of the business cycle. If central banks are really concerned about this type of deflation, they should be addressing the cause — fractional reserve banking — and not the result. Telling a drunk that he can avoid the hangover by drinking even more whiskey is simply making the situation worse.[3] The real solution is to have him stop drinking.

According to the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi,

The second drawback of low inflation … is that it makes the adjustment of imbalances much more difficult. It is one thing to have to adjust relative prices with an inflation rate which is around 2%, another thing is to adjust relative prices with an inflation rate which is around 0.5%. That means that the change in certain prices, in order to readjust, will have to become negative. And you know that prices and wages have a certain nominal rigidity which makes these adjustments more complex.

Draghi is confusing the first source of deflation with the second. The recent low inflation in the Euro zone can be attributed primarily to a strengthening of the Euro, and a drop in food and energy prices.

Economists at the Bundesbank must be quietly seething. They are obviously not blind to the ECB’s excuses to indirectly monetize the southern bloc’s debt. Draghi’s “whatever it takes” comment gave southern bloc countries extra time. Yet, little has been done to reign in the size of bloated public sectors. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise and higher taxes in southern bloc countries have caused an even greater contraction of the private sector. Many banks in southern Europe are technically bankrupt. Non-performing loans in Italy have gone from about 5.8 percent in 2007 to over 15 percent today. And, the situation is getting worse.

Greece recently placed a five-year bond at under 5 percent which was eight times oversubscribed. This highlights the degree to which the financial sector in Europe is now dependent on the “Draghi put.” As elsewhere in the world, interest rates in Europe are totally distorted and no longer serve the critical function of allocating resources according to society’s time preference of consumption, or even reflect any real risk of default.

The ECB will likely impose negative rates shortly but will discover, as the Fed and others did before it, that you can bring a horse to water but cannot make him drink. QE will then be on the table, but unlike the Fed, the ECB is limited in the choice of assets it can purchase since direct purchase of Euro government bonds violates the German constitution. One day, Germany and the southern bloc countries, including France, will clash on what is the appropriate role of monetary policy.

Germany would be wise to plan, today, for a possible Euro exit.

Notes

[1] Keynesians view holding cash, and even holding savings in banks as “hoarding,” but properly understood, only the equivalent of stuffing money in a mattress is hoarding.

[2] Fractional-reserve lending is inflationary, thus contributing to inflationary booms. In turn, banks hold more cash when they fear a confidence crisis, which is also a result of the boom.

[3] Since inflationary fractional-reserve lending is a source of the problem, additional lending of the same sort is not the solution.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Productivity Enhancement – Video Series by G. Stolyarov II

Productivity Enhancement – Video Series by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
June 2, 2013
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In this series on productivity enhancement, taken from Mr. Stolyarov’s e-book The Best Self-Help is Free, Mr. Stolyarov discusses the fundamental nature of productivity and approaches by which any person can become more productive.

This series is based on Chapters 7-14 of The Best Self-Help is Free.

Part 1 – What is Productivity?

The most reliable way to achieve incremental progress in your life is by addressing and continually improving your own productivity. Productivity constitutes the difference between a world in which life is nasty, brutish, and short and one in which it is pleasant, civilized, and ever-increasing in length.

Part 2 – Reason and the Decisional Component of Productivity

In order to properly decide what ought to be produced, man can ultimately consult only one guide: his rational faculty.

Part 3 – Perfectionism — The Number One Enemy of Productivity

Perfectionism engenders a pervasive sense of futility in its practitioner and mentally inhibits him from pursuing further productive work.

Part 4 – Quantification and Productivity Targets

Quantification enables an individual to set productivity targets for himself and to escape underachievement on one hand and perfectionism on the other.

Part 5 – Habit and the Elimination of the Quality-Quantity Tradeoff

A common fallacy presumes that there is a necessary tradeoff between the quantity of work produced and the quality of that work. By this notion, one can either produce a lot of mediocre units of output or a scant few exceptional ones. While this might be true in some cases, it overlooks several important factors.

Part 6 – The Importance of Frameworks for Productivity

Time-saving, productivity-enhancing frameworks can be applied on a personal level to enable one to overcome the human mind’s limited ability to hold and process multiple pieces of information simultaneously.

Part 7 – The Benefits of Repetition to Productivity

One of the most reliable ways to reduce the amount of mental effort per unit of productive output is to create many extremely similar units of output in succession. Mr. Stolyarov discusses the advantages of structuring one’s work so as to perform many similar tasks in close succession.

Part 8 – Making Accomplishments Work for You

Producing alone is not enough. If you just let your output lie around accumulating dust or taking up computer memory, it will not boost your overall well-being. Your accomplishments can help procure health, reputation, knowledge, safety, and happiness for you — if you think about how to put them to use.

On Brakes and Mistakes – Article by Sanford Ikeda

On Brakes and Mistakes – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
March 30, 2013
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Here’s an observation from a recent column in The Economist magazine on “The Transience of Power”:

“In 1980 a corporation in the top fifth of its industry had only a 10% chance of falling out of that tier in five years. Eighteen years later that chance had risen to 25%.”

Competition makes it hard to stay at the top even as it offers a way off the bottom. Data on income mobility also support the idea. And despite occasional downturns (some quite large, as we well know), per-capita gross domestic product in the United States keeps rising steadily over time. These two phenomena, economic growth and competitive shaking out, are of course connected.

Different Ways of Thinking About Economic Growth

Economists in the mainstream (neoclassical) tradition are trained to think of growth mainly as raising the rate of producing existing products. For example, a higher rate of saving allows firms to employ more and more capital and labor, generating ever-higher rates of output. It reminds me of the Steve Martin movie, The Jerk, in which a man who is born in a run-down shack eventually strikes it rich and builds himself a much bigger house that is just a scaled-up version of the old shack.

But economist Paul Romer, for one, has said,

“If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. Human history teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking.”

So growth through innovation, technical advance, and making new products is more important than just using more inputs to do more of the same thing. The late Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter came even closer to the truth when he famously described competitive innovation as a “gale of creative destruction”—building up and tearing down—with creation staying just ahead of destruction.

But standard economic theory has had trouble incorporating the kind of economic growth driven by game-changing innovators such as Apple, Facebook, and McDonalds. Mathematically modeling ignorance and error, ambition and resourcefulness, and creativity and commitment has so far been too challenging for the mainstream.

What’s the Source of Economic Growth?

Achieving economic growth through innovation means someone is taking chances, sometimes big chances, to break new ground. As Schumpeter put it, what it takes is finding “the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization.” Although talented people are behind this process, we sometimes put too much stress on bold “captains of industry” such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ray Kroc. The personalities of the players are important—but so are the rules of the game.

Imagine if cars had no brakes. How slowly and cautiously we would have to drive!  Clearly, brakes on cars enable us to drive faster and safer. How? Well, brakes give us the freedom to make a lot of mistakes—entering a turn too fast or taking our eyes off the road for too long—without causing disaster. We can take more chances with brakes than without them. (Of course, good brakes can also seduce us into driving recklessly, but that’s a story for another day.) Similarly, economic development of the Schumpeterian variety presupposes lots of experimentation, and that in turn means making plenty of mistakes.

Markets Mean Mistakes

Now imagine a world in which people looked down on innovators. That’s hard to do in our time, but as Deirdre McClosky argues in her 2010 book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economists Can’t Explain the Modern World,  it wasn’t that long ago when most people disdained innovators who challenged established ways of thinking and doing. The result was cultural and economic stagnation. Making an innovator a figure of dignity worthy of respect, which she says began to take hold about 400 years ago, has sparked unprecedented economic development and prosperity.

But a smart, creative, ambitious, and committed person is likely to make mistakes. And so a culture that lauds spectacular success also needs to at least tolerate spectacular failure. You can’t have trial without error or profit without loss.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that people in an innovative society should champion failure. I’m saying they must expect potential innovators to make a lot of mistakes and so have not only the right institutions in place (private property, contract, and so on) but also the right psychological mindset—which is something static societies can’t do.

Change, Uncertainty, and Tolerance

If you think you already know everything, anyone who thinks differently must be wrong. So why tolerate them?

One of the great differences between the modern world and the various dark ages mankind has gone through is how rapidly today our lives change. There’s immeasurably more uncertainty in the era of creative destruction than in times dominated by the “tried and true.”  But the more we realize how much uncertainty there is about what we think we know, the more we ought to be willing to admit that we may be wrong and the other guy may, at least sometimes, be right. And so if we see someone succeed or fail, we think, “That could have been me!” In a sense, an advancing society welcomes mistakes as much as it embraces triumphs, just as a fast car needs brakes as much as it needs an engine.

That’s not just fancy talk. The evidence—prosperity—is all around us.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author

Is Greater Productivity a Danger? – Article by David Gordon

Is Greater Productivity a Danger? – Article by David Gordon

The New Renaissance Hat
David Gordon
July 4, 2012
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It is bad enough that opponents of the free market wrongly blame capitalism for environmental pollution, depressions, and wars. Whatever the failings of their causal theories, at least they are focused on undoubtedly bad things. We have really gone beyond the pale, though, when the market is blamed for something good.

Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, does just that in his article. “Let’s Be Less Productive,” which appeared in the New York Times, May 26, 2012.

Jackson suggests that greater productivity may have reached its “natural limits.” By productivity, he means “the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy.” He acknowledges that as work has become more efficient, substantial benefits have resulted: “our ability to generate more output with fewer people has lifted our lives out of drudgery and delivered us a cornucopia of material wealth.”

Despite these benefits, danger lies ahead:

Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go around. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.

If financial crisis, high prices of resources like oil, or damage to the environment make continued growth unattainable, we risk unemployment. “Increasing productivity threatens full employment.”

What then is to be done? Jackson has an ingenious remedy. We should concentrate on jobs in low-productivity areas. “Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.” A cynic might wonder whether it is altogether a coincidence that Jackson is himself employed in one of these professions.

Jackson has in mind other reforms besides greater emphasis on the “caring professions.” (One wonders, by the way, whether by this name Jackson intends to suggest that those engaged in high productivity occupations do not care about human beings. To say the least, that would be a rather bold suggestion.) We should also devote more resources to crafted goods that require substantial time to make and to the “cultural sector” as well.

Jackson’s program raises a question: how can these changes be achieved? He stands ready with an answer. Of course, a transition to a low-productivity economy won’t happen by wishful thinking. “It demands careful attention to incentive structures — lower taxes on labor and higher taxes on resource consumption and pollution, for example.”

Jackson is certainly right that if labor becomes more efficient, workers must find other uses for the time they now have available. But why is this a problem? Human beings have unlimited wants, and there are always new uses for human labor.

As Murray Rothbard notes,

Labor needs to be “saved” because it is the pre-eminently scarce good and because man’s wants for exchangeable goods are far from satisfied.… The more labor is “saved,” the better, for then labor is using more and better capital goods to satisfy more of its wants in a shorter amount of time.…

A technological improvement in an industry will tend to increase employment in that industry if the demand for that product is elastic downward, so that the greater supply of goods induces greater consumer spending. On the other hand, an innovation in an industry with inelastic demand downward will cause consumers to spend less on the more abundant products, contracting employment in that industry. In short, the process of technological innovation shifts work from the inelastic-demand to the elastic-demand industries. [1]

Financial crises may interrupt growth, but given the unlimited character of human wants, they cannot permanently supplant it. Jackson has offered us a cure, but he has failed to show that a disease exists that requires his remedy.

[1] Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, Scholar’s Edition, pp. 587–88, emphasis omitted.

David Gordon covers new books in economics, politics, philosophy, and law for The Mises Review, the quarterly review of literature in the social sciences, published since 1995 by the Mises Institute. He is author of The Essential Rothbard, available in the Mises Store. Send him mail. See David Gordon’s article archives.

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Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.