Tag Archives: Ryan W. McMaken

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Alan Greenspan Admits Ron Paul Was Right About Gold – Article by Ryan McMaken

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Categories: Economics, History, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Ryan McMaken
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In the next issue of The Austrian, David Gordon reviews Sebatian Mallaby’s new book, The Man Who Knew, about the career of Alan Greenspan. Mallaby points out that prior to his career at the Fed, Greenspan exhibited a keen understanding of the gold standard and how free markets work. In spite of this contradiction, Mallaby takes a rather benign view toward Greenspan.

However, in his review, Gordon asks the obvious question: If Greenspan knew all this so well, isn’t it all the more worthy of condemnation that Greenspan then abandoned these ideas so readily to advance his career?

Perhaps not surprisingly, now that his career at the Fed has ended, Old Greenspan — the one who defends free markets — has now returned.

This reversion to his former self has been going on for several years, and Greenspan reiterates this fact yet again in a recent interview with Gold Investor magazine. Greenspan is now a fount of sound historical information about the historical gold standard:

I view gold as the primary global currency. It is the only currency, along with silver, that does not require a counterparty signature. Gold, however, has always been far more valuable per ounce than silver. No one refuses gold as payment to discharge an obligation. Credit instruments and fiat currency depend on the credit worthiness of a counterparty. Gold, along with silver, is one of the only currencies that has an intrinsic value. It has always been that way. No one questions its value, and it has always been a valuable commodity, first coined in Asia Minor in 600 BC.

The gold standard was operating at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period of extraordinary global prosperity, characterised by firming productivity growth and very little inflation.

But today, there is a widespread view that the 19th century gold standard didn’t work. I think that’s like wearing the wrong size shoes and saying the shoes are uncomfortable! It wasn’t the gold standard that failed; it was politics. World War I disabled the fixed exchange rate parities and no country wanted to be exposed to the humiliation of having a lesser exchange rate against the US dollar than itenjoyed in 1913.

Britain, for example, chose to return to the gold standard in 1925 at the same exchange rate it had in 1913 relative to the US dollar (US$4.86 per pound sterling). That was a monumental error by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It induced a severe deflation for Britain in the late 1920s, and the Bank of England had to default in 1931. It wasn’t the gold standard that wasn’t functioning; it was these pre-war parities that didn’t work. All wanted to return to pre-war exchange rate parities, which, given the different degree of war and economic destruction from country to country, rendered this desire, in general, wholly unrealistic.

Today, going back on to the gold standard would be perceived as an act of desperation. But if the gold standard were in place today we would not have reached the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Greenspan then says nice things about Paul Volcker’s high-interest-rate policy:

Paul Volcker was brought in as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he raised the Federal Fund rate to 20% to stem the erosion [of the dollar’s value during the inflationary 1970s]. It was a very destabilising period and by far the most effective monetary policy in the history of the Federal Reserve. I hope that we don’t have to repeat that exercise to stabilise the system. But it remains an open question.

Ultimately, though, Greenspan claims that central-bank policy can be employed to largely imitate a gold standard:

When I was Chair of the Federal Reserve I used to testify before US Congressman Ron Paul, who was a very strong advocate of gold. We had some interesting discussions. I told him that US monetary policy tried to follow signals that a gold standard would have created. That is sound monetary policy even with a fiat currency. In that regard, I told him that even if we had gone back to the gold standard, policy would not have changed all that much.

This is a rather strange claim, however. It is impossible to know what signals a gold standard “would have” created in the absence of the current system of fiat currencies. It is, of course, impossible to recreate the global economy under a gold standard in an economy and guess how the system might be imitated in real life. This final explanation appears to be more the sort of thing that Greenspan tells himself so he can reconcile his behavior at the fed with what he knows about gold and markets.

Nor does this really address Ron Paul’s concerns, expressed for years, toward Greenspan and his successors. Even if monetary policymakers were attempting to somehow replicate a gold-standard environment, Paul’s criticism was always that the outcome of the current monetary regime can be shown to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. Among these problems are enormous debt loads and stagnating real incomes due to inflation. Moreover, thanks to Cantillon effects, monetarily-induced inflation has the worst impact on lower-income households.

Even Greenspan admits this is the case with debt: “We would never have reached this position of extreme indebtedness were we on the gold standard, because the gold standard is a way of ensuring that fiscal policy never gets out of line.”

Certainly, debt loads have taken off since Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, breaking the last link with gold:

Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre. 

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.

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How Embargoes Destroy Freedom – Article by Ryan W. McMaken

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Categories: Economics, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Ryan W. McMaken
February 12, 2015
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In the wake of the Obama administration’s partial normalization of relations with Cuba, proponents of the embargo condemned the move, with National Review publishing an unsigned editorial claiming that allowing Americans to trade freely with the island nation amounts to giving comfort to murderous dictators. NR’s editors concluded with:

The Cuban government is not legitimate, and never has been. It is a one-party dictatorship with a gulag, an archipelago of prisons into which democrats and dissidents are thrown. We hope that the new American policy — Obama’s policy — does not benefit the Cuban dictatorship and harm Cuban democrats. We fear that yesterday was a good day for the Castros and a bad day for the Cuban people, and for American foreign policy.

This is all very interesting from an international relations perspective, and there is no doubt that the Cuban regime is a brutal regime. On the other hand, why does the brutality of the Cuban regime make it alright for the US regime to jail and persecute private American citizens who attempt to trade with people in Cuba?

That is, after all, the position of those who favor the embargo. Embargoes are not something where a magic fairy waves her wand and Cuba suddenly becomes invisible to Americans.

No, supporting an embargo means supporting the government when it fines, prosecutes, and jails peaceful citizens who attempt to engage in truly free trade. Support for an embargo also requires support for a customs bureaucracy that spies on merchants and consumers, and the whole panoply of enforcement programs necessary to punish those who run afoul of the government’s arbitrary pronouncements on what kind of trade is acceptable, and what kind is verboten. Naturally, this is all paid for by the taxpayers.

How the American Federal Government Punishes Trade

To get a taste of the reality of embargoes, one need only consult the Treasury Department’s summary of the Cuban embargo as administered by the “Office of Foreign Assets Control.”

For those who think the embargo has something to do with freedom, they might wish to consult the section on punishments for trading with people in Cuba:

Criminal penalties for violating the Regulations range up to 10 years in prison, $1,000,000 in corporate fines, and $250,000 in individual fines. Civil penalties up to $65,000 per violation may also be imposed. The Regulations require those dealing with Cuba (including traveling to Cuba) to maintain records for five years and, upon request from OFAC, to furnish information regarding such dealings.

Nothing says “freedom” like $250,000 fines and mandatory presentation of five years of private records upon demand from the federal government.

Private companies, of course, regard such potentially draconian sanctions as no joke, and companies must spend time and resources training employees and business associates to be sure that they do not find themselves in violation of federal law. This manual from Snap-on Tools is one example of how private companies must stay up to date on details such as this:

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) maintains strict embargoes banning, and lesser sanctions limiting U.S companies and their foreign subsidiaries from entering into commercial transactions with specified foreign countries, persons and business entities. Congress recently quintupled the maximum civil fines per violation of many of these sanctions from $11,000 to $50,000 (each unlawful shipment constitutes a violation), and doubled maximum potential criminal penalties assessed willful violations from 10 years to 20 years in prison. Moreover, enforcement is being given a much higher priority…

It’s easy to see why those who favor greater government intervention in the economy would have no problem with such a program, but it’s alleged defenders of free markets like the editors at National Review who appear to be most insistent that the US government keep all its agents armed and ready, and a prison cell open for anyone who violates their federal programs of choice.

Embargoes as Mercantilist Prohibition

At their heart, embargoes are nothing but a specific type of prohibition. Sometimes, the government imposes prohibitions on transactions involving certain goods, such as cannabis. Other times, the prohibition extends to all transactions with people in a certain place. The fundamentals are the same, however, in that they prohibit peaceful exchange, with heavy penalties for violators.

Moreover, embargoes are a throwback to the mercantilism of the days of yore when economic policy was viewed as a tool of international affairs, and should be designed, at least in part, to benefit the regime of the home country.

Historically, the mercantilist regimes of old tightly controlled trade opportunities which were debated as part of armistice agreements, such as the Peace of Utrech (1713) when the British were able to force the Spanish to allow exactly one ship of merchandise annually into Spanish colonies. At home, during the same era, the British state forbade its own citizens with valuable engineering knowledge from leaving the country, lest they emigrate to a foreign land and share their knowledge with foreigners. The economic needs of the state superceded those of the individual.

This is the type of economic policy that precipitated the American Revolution, when Americans in the colonies were allowed to trade with only specified nation-states and territories in such a way that was seen as advantageous to the British Crown. The freedom fighters in that conflict engaged in rampant smuggling throughout eastern North America to avoid taxes and to trade with the French and the Spanish who were hardly paragons of democratic liberalism.

Unfortunately, the Americans did not learn their lesson in the revolution, and got to work erecting their own trade restrictions by the late eighteenth century. The greatest crime of the era, however, was Thomas Jefferson’s embargo against the British which crippled the shipping and shipbuilding industries in the United States. Naturally, it was pointed out at the time that the Constitution did not permit any such action on the part of the federal government. No such quaint considerations restrain the American state or its pro-embargo allies today.

Cuba is not the only country subject to embargoes handed out by the American state, and North Korea, Iran, and Syria are in similar positions. The question is often asked as to whether or not these sanctions work. I would certainly claim that they do not work in accomplishing their stated purposes, but whether or not they work is really beside the point. Those who advocate for such embargoes need to back up a step and first prove that it is moral and legitimate for nation-states to dictate to the people who pay the bills (i.e., the taxpayers) with whom they are allowed to trade. A society that actually respects private property rights, of course, will accept no such proposition and will respect the right of private citizens to dispose of their property as they see fit. On the other hand, those who believe that it’s the prerogative of governments to micromanage private property and throw violators in prison are encouraged to move somewhere that the government can take a robust and active role in such things. Cuba, for instance.

Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre. 
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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.

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Ron Paul, Richard Cobden, and the Risks of Opposing War – Article by Ryan McMaken

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Categories: History, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Ryan W. McMaken
May 1, 2014
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Since at least as early as the eighteen century, classical liberalism, and its modern variant libertarianism, have opposed warfare except in cases of obvious self-defense. We see this anti-war position clearly among the anti-federalists of eighteenth-century America (who opposed all standing armies) and more famously within George Washington’s Farewell Address. Thomas Jefferson frequently inveighed against war, although in moves typical for Jefferson, he acted against his own professed ideology on a number of occasions.

On the other side of the Atlantic, liberalism finally made significant gains in Britain with the rise of the Anti-Corn Law League in the late 1830s. The head of the league, a radical liberal named Richard Cobden, rose to prominence throughout the 1840s and is notable today for his active defense of laissez-faire capitalism as a member of the House of Commons, and also for his staunch anti-interventionism in foreign affairs.

For a time, his political star rose quickly, but by the time the Crimean War ended, Cobden, had been cast aside by both a ruling class and a public enthusiastic for both empire and war.

Prior to the war Cobden traveled Europe as an honored guest at international peace conferences while advocating for free markets, civil liberties, and libertarianism everywhere he traveled. But in the end, as has been so often the case, his political career was ended by his opposition to war, and his refusal to buy into nationalistic propaganda.

Like the Crimean crisis of today, the Crimean crises of the early 1850s were caused by little more than the efforts of various so-called great powers to tip the global balance of power in their favor. Foremost among those grasping for global power was the British Empire.

But even as early as the 1830s, the British were seized by a series of national hysterias whipped up by a variety of anti-Russian pundits who were obsessed with increasing British military spending and strength in the name of “defense” from the Russians.

As is so often the case in securing the case for war, the pro-militarist argument among the Brits rested on perpetuating and augmenting the public’s nationalistic feelings that the Russians were uncommonly aggressive and sinister. Cobden, obviously far better informed on the matter than the typical Brit, published a pamphlet on Russia in 1836 actually considering the facts of Russian foreign policy, which he often compared favorably to the hyper-aggressive foreign policy employed by the British Empire.

Cobden began by comparing Russian expansion to British expansion, noting that “during the last hundred years, England has, for every square league of territory annexed to Russia, by force, violence, or fraud, appropriated to herself three.” And that among the self-professed opponents of conquest, the British failed to recognize that “If the English writer calls down indignation upon the conquerors of the Ukraine, Finland, and the Crimea, may not Russian historians conjure up equally painful reminiscences upon the subjects of Gibraltar, the Cape, and Hindostan?”

In an interesting parallel to the modern Crimean crisis, much of the opposition to the Russian among British militarists was based on the assertion that the Russians had annexed portions of Poland in aggressive moves that were deemed by the British as completely unwarranted. Cobden, however, understanding the history of the region to be much more murky than the neat little scenarios painted by militarists, recognized that neither side was angelic and blameless and that many of the “annexed” territories were in fact populated by Russians that had earlier been conquered and annexed by the Poles.

The Russians, while themselves no doubt hostile toward neighbors, were surrounded by hostile neighbors themselves, with the origins of conflicts going back decades or even centuries. The puerile and simplistic arguments of the British militarists, who advocated for what would become a global, despotic, and racist British Empire, added little of value to any actual public knowledge of the realities in Eastern Europe.

For his efforts in gaining a true understanding of global conflicts, and for seeking a policy of negotiation and anti-nationalism, Cobden was declared to be un-patriotic and a friend to the great enemy Russia during the Crimean war. Cobden, who had perhaps done more to consistently advance the cause of liberty than anyone else in Europe of his day, was declared to be a friend of despots.

The similarities to today’s situation are of course striking. The Crimea, an area of highly ambiguous ethnic and national allegiance is declared by the West to be a perpetual territory of anti-Russian forces much like the Eastern Polish provinces of old, in spite of the presence of a population highly sympathetic to Russian rule.

Moreover, the successor to the British Empire, the United States, with its global system of client states and puppet dictatorships and occupied territories declares itself fit to rule on a Russian “invasion” that, quite unlike the American invasion of Iraq, resulted in exactly one reported casualty.

As was the case with Cobden in the nineteenth century, however, merely pointing out these facts today earns one the label of “anti-American” or “pro-Russian” as in the obvious case of Ron Paul.

Like Cobden, Paul spent decades denouncing oppressive regimes domestically and internationally, only to now be declared “pro-Putin,” “pacifist,” “unpatriotic,” and “anti-American” by a host of ideologues utterly uninterested in familiarizing themselves with Paul’s actual record, including his denunciations, while in Congress, of Communist regimes and his warnings about Putin’s desire to expand Russian influence in Afghanistan.

Of course, Russia has not been the only target. For those who can remember the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003, this should all feel like déjà vu since many at that time, including some libertarians, claimed that opponents of invasion were “pro-Saddam Hussein” for pointing out that Iraq clearly had no weapons of mass destruction, and that his secular regime was probably preferable to the murderous Islamist oligarchy that has replaced it.

Paul remains in good company with the likes of Cobden, H.L. Mencken, William Graham Sumner, and virtually the entire membership of the American Anti-Imperialist League, including Edward Atkinson who encouraged American soldiers in the Philippines to mutiny. These were radical principled opponents of militarism who opposed government violence at great risk to themselves and their reputations. Some modern American libertarians, on the other hand, well out of reach of the Russian state, would rather spend their time stating what everyone already knows: Russia is not a libertarian paradise.

Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market. Send him mail. See Ryan McMaken’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.