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The Bait-and-Switch Behind Economic Populism – Article by Nicolás Cachanosky

The Bait-and-Switch Behind Economic Populism – Article by Nicolás Cachanosky

The New Renaissance Hat
Nicolás Cachanosky
May 26, 2015

Argentina will hold elections this year, and a number of provinces will be electing governors. Buenos Aires, the capital city, is holding elections for mayor, and Mauricio Macri, who is stepping down as mayor, is a favorite to become the next president. Toward the end of the year, a presidential election will be held and Cristina Kirchner, after two consecutive mandates, will have to step down because she cannot be re-elected.

Like Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, Argentina can be described as a country that fell victim to extreme populism during the Nestor and Cristina Kirchner administrations, which began in 2003. Twelve years later, this populist political project is about to end.

The economic policy of populism is characterized by massive intervention, high consumption (and low investment), and government deficits. This is unsustainable and we can identify several stages as it moves toward its inevitable economic failure. The last decade of extreme populism in Argentina can be described as following just such a pattern.

After observing the populist experience in several Latin American countries, Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastián Edwards identified four universal stages inherent in populism in their article “Macroeconomic Populism” (1990). Even though populism can present a wide array of policies, certain characteristics seem to be present in most of the cases.

Populism usually fosters social mobilization, political propaganda, and the use of symbols and marketing practices designed to appeal to voter’s sentiments. Populism is especially aimed at those with low income, even if the ruling party cannot explain the source of its leaders’ high income. Populist rulers find it easy to use scapegoats and conspiracy theories to explain why the country is going through a hard time, while at the same time present themselves as the saviors of the nation. It is not surprising that for some, populism is associated with the left and socialist movements, and by others with the right and fascist policies.

The four stages of populism identified by Dornbusch and Edwards are:

Stage I

The populist diagnosis of what is wrong with an economy is confirmed during the first years of the new government. Macroeconomic policy shows good results like growing GDP, a reduction in unemployment, increase in real wages, etc. Because of output gaps, imports paid with central bank reserves, and regulations (maximum prices coupled with subsidies to the firms), inflation is mostly under control.

Stage II

Bottleneck effects start to appear because the populist policies have emphasized consumption over investment, the use of reserves to pay for imports, and the consumption of capital stock. Changes in sensitive relative prices start to become necessary, and this often leads to a devaluation of the exchange rate, price changes in utilities (usually through regulation), and the imposition of capital controls. Government tries, but fails, to control government spending and budget deficits.

The underground economy starts to increase as the fiscal deficit worsens because the cost of the promised subsidies need to keep up with a now-rising inflation. Fiscal reforms are necessary, but avoided by the populist government because they go against the government’s own rhetoric and core base of support.

Stage III

Shortage problems become significant, inflation accelerates, and because the nominal exchange rate did not keep pace with inflation, there is an outflow of capital (reserves). High inflation pushes the economy to a de-monetization. The local currency is used only for domestic transactions, but people save in US dollars.

The fall in economic activity negatively affects tax receipts increasing the deficit even more. The government needs to cut subsidies and increases the rate of the exchange rate, depreciation. Real income starts to fall and signs of political and social instability start to appear. At this point the failure of the populist project becomes apparent.

Stage IV

A new government is swept into office and is forced to engage in “orthodox” adjustments, possibly under the supervision of the IMF or an international organization that provides the funds required to go through policy reforms. Because capital has been consumed and destroyed, real wages fall to levels even lower than those that existed at the beginning of the populist government’s election. The “orthodox” government is then responsible for picking up the pieces and covering the costs of failed policies left from the previous populist regime. The populists are gone, but the ravages of their policies continue to manifest themselves. In Argentina the expression “economic bomb” is used to describe the economic imbalances that government leaves for the next one.

Economic Populism is Alive and Well

Even though Dornbusch and Edwards wrote their article in 1990, the similarities to the situation in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina is notable. In recent years, to keep populist ideas going in the minds of voters, Venezuela created the Ministry of Happiness, and Argentina created a new Secretary of National Thought.

These four stages are actually cyclical. The populist movement uses the fourth stage to criticize the orthodox party, and argues that during the populists’ tenure, things were better. The public opinion discontent with stage IV allows the populist movement to win new elections, receive an economy in a crisis or recession and the cycle starts over again from stage I. It is not surprising that populist governments usually appear following the hard times caused by economic crisis. A more bold populist government could avoid stage IV by finding a way to remain in office, calling off elections, or creating fake election results (as was the case in Venezuela). At such a point, the populist government succeeds in turning the country into a fully authoritarian nation.

Nicolás Cachanosky, a native of Argentina, is assistant professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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

Mainstream Economists Prove Krugman Wrong About Hayek and Mises – Article by John P. Cochran

Mainstream Economists Prove Krugman Wrong About Hayek and Mises – Article by John P. Cochran

The New Renaissance Hat
John P. Cochran
September 13, 2013

Paul Krugman has recently been critical of Friedman (and Phelps), the Phillips curve, and the Natural Unemployment Rate (NUR) theory in the process of arguing that due to the recent Great Recession, the accompanying financial crisis, and Bush-Obama-Fed Great Stagnation, Friedman has vanished from the policy front. Krugman makes this claim despite the fact there is an on-going vigorous debate on rules versus discretion with at least some attention to Friedman’s plucking model. While maligning Friedman’s contributions, Krugman manages a slap at Austrians and claims a renewed practical relevance for Keynes:

What I think is really interesting is the way Friedman has virtually vanished from policy discourse. Keynes is very much back, even if that fact drives some economists crazy; Hayek is back in some sense, even if one has the suspicion that many self-proclaimed Austrians bring little to the table but the notion that fiat money is the root of all evil — a deeply anti-Friedmanian position. But Friedman is pretty much absent.

The Friedman-Phelps hypothesis was the heart of the policy effectiveness debate of the 1970s and early 80s. The empirical evidence developed during the debate over the policy implications of the NUR model, at least temporally, discredited active Keynesian discretionary policy as an effective tool to reduce unemployment in the long run. One result of the debate: monetary policy appeared to improve, especially compared to the Fed’s dismal record in the late 1920s and 1930s and the mid 1960s to the late 1970s. Central banks, à la Friedman, focused on rules-based policy and inflation targeting resulting in what many, following John B. Taylor, call the Great Moderation of the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

Krugman does recognize the “stagflation (of the 1970s) led to a major rethinking of macroeconomics, all across the board; even staunch Keynesians conceded that Friedman/Phelps had been right (indeed, they may have conceded too much [emphasis added]), and the vertical long-run Phillips curve became part of every textbook.”

My early work on Hayek and Keynes (see here and here) argued that this development was important, but misleading. The then current business cycle research and its newer variants could benefit from re-examining the issues at the heart of the Hayek-Keynes debate.

Money, banking, finance, and capital structure were, and still are, for the most part ignored in much of the new (post-Friedman-Phelps) macroeconomics including the new–Keynesian approaches. In this regard, Hayek (and Mises) had then, and has now, more to offer than Keynes.

Recent papers by respected mainstream economists are beginning to recognize that attention to Hayek and Mises can be useful. Guillermo Calvo of Columbia University, in a recent paper [PDF], has even gone so far as to argue, “the Austrian school of the trade cycle was on the right track” and that the Austrian School offered valuable insights and noting that:

There is a growing empirical literature purporting to show that financial crises are preceded by credit booms including Mendoza and Terrones (2008), Schularik and Taylor (2012), Agosin and Huaita (2012), and Borio (2012).

Calvo adds “[t]his was a central theme in the Austrian School of Economics.”

Claudio Borio highlights what Austrians have long argued is a key flaw in inflation-targeting or stable-money policy regimes such as many central banks either adopted or emulated during the 1980-2008 period. This flaw contributed to back-to-back boom-busts of the late 1990s and 2000s:

A monetary policy regime narrowly focused on controlling near-term inflation removes the need to tighten policy when financial booms take hold against the backdrop of low and stable inflation. And major positive supply-side developments, such as those associated with the globalisation of the real side of the economy, provide plenty of fuel for financial booms.

Borio thus recognizes that a time to mitigate a bust is (contra-Keynes) during the boom:

In the case of monetary policy, it is necessary to adopt strategies that allow central banks to tighten so as to lean against the build-up of financial imbalances even if near-term inflation remains subdued.

William R. White, another economist who has worked at the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) and has been influenced by Hayek, has come to similar conclusions as does Calvo, who argues “Hayek’s theory is very subtle and shows that even a central bank that follows a stable monetary policy may not be able to prevent business cycles and, occasionally, major boom-bust episodes.”

In the current environment, many, including Krugman, have argued for a higher inflation target or a higher nominal GDP target to jump start the current sluggish recovery.

Austrian business cycle theory on the other hand, as recognized by Borio and Calvo, provides analysis on why such a policy may be ineffective and if temporarily effective in the short run, harmful if not destructive, in the long run. (See here and here for more.)

An easy money and credit policy impedes necessary re-structuring of the economy and new credit creation begins a new round of misdirection of production leading to an “unfinished recession.” Calvo expounds:

Whatever one thinks of the power of the Hayek/Mises mix as a positive theory of the business cycle, an insight from the theory is that once credit over-expansion hits the real sector, rolling back credit is unlikely to be able to put “Humpty-Dumpty together again.”

It is too bad it took back-to-back harmful boom-bust cycles for the profession at large to begin to again examine Austrian insights, but it does illustrate how foolish Krugman is when he argues Austrians have nothing to bring to the table.

John P. Cochran is emeritus dean of the Business School and emeritus professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coauthor with Fred R. Glahe of The Hayek-Keynes Debate: Lessons for Current Business Cycle Research. He is also a senior scholar for the Mises Institute and serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Send him mail. See John P. Cochran’s article archives.

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This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Review of Gary Wolfram’s “A Capitalist Manifesto” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Review of Gary Wolfram’s “A Capitalist Manifesto” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 5, 2013

While Dr. Gary Wolfram’s A Capitalist Manifesto is more an introduction to economics and economic history than a manifesto, it communicates economic concepts in a clear and entertaining manner and does so from a market-friendly point of view. Wolfram’s strengths as an educator stand out in this book, which could serve as an excellent text for teaching basic microeconomics and political economy to all audiences. Wolfram is a professor of economics at Hillsdale College, whose course in public-choice economics I attended. The book’s narration greatly resembles my experience of Wolfram’s classroom teaching, which focuses on the essence of an idea and its real-world relevance and applications, often utilizing entertaining concrete examples.

The book begins with several chapters on introductory microeconomics – marginal analysis, supply, demand, market equilibrium, opportunity cost, and the effects of policies that artificially prevent markets from clearing. The middle of the book focuses on economic history and political economy – commenting on the development of Western markets from the autarkic, manorial system of the feudal Middle Ages, through the rise of commerce during the Early Modern period, the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of corporations, and the rise in the 20th century of economic regimentation by national governments. One of the strengths of this book is its treatment of the benefits of free trade, from its role in progress throughout history to the theoretical groundwork of Ricardian comparative advantage. Enlightening discussions of constitutionalism and the classical idea of negative liberty are also provided. Wolfram introduces the insights of Ludwig von Mises regarding the infeasibility of central planning in solving the problem of economic calculation, as well as Friedrich Hayek’s famous “knowledge problem” – the dispersion of information among all the individuals in an economy and the impossibility of a central planner assembling all the information needed to make appropriate decisions. Wolfram further articulates the key insights of Frederic Bastiat: the seen versus the unseen in economic policy, the perils of coercive redistribution of wealth, the immorality of using the law to commit acts which would have been unacceptable if done by private individuals acting alone, and the perverse incentives created by a system where the government is able to dispense special privileges to a select few.

The latter third of the book focuses on such areas as money, inflation, and macroeconomics – including an exposition of the Keynesian model and its assumptions. Wolfram is able to explain Keynesian economics in a more coherent and understandable manner than most Keynesians; he thoroughly understands the theories he critiques, and he presents them with fairness and objectivity. I do, however, wish that the book had delved more thoroughly into a critique of Keynesianism. The discussion therein of the Keynesian model’s questionable assumptions is a good start, and perhaps a gateway to more comprehensive critiques, such as those of Murray Rothbard and Robert Murphy. A layperson reading A Capitalist Manifesto would be able to come out with a fundamental understanding of Keynes’s central idea and its assumptions – but he would not, solely as a result of this book, necessarily be able to refute the arguments of Keynes’s contemporary followers, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Wolfram mentions critiques of Keynesianism by Milton Friedman and the monetarist school, the concept of rational expectations precipitating a move away from Keynesianism in the late 1970s, and the “supply-side” interpretations of the Keynesian model from the 1980s. However, those viewpoints are not discussed in the same level of detail as the basic Keynesian model.

More generally, my only significant critique of A Capitalist Manifesto is that it is too brief in certain respects. It offers promising introductions to a variety of economic ideas, but leaves some significant questions arising from those areas unanswered. Wolfram introduces the history and function of the corporation but does not discuss the principal-agent problem in large, publicly traded firms with highly dispersed ownership. To anticipate and answer (and perhaps partially acknowledge the validity of) criticisms of the contemporary corporate form of organization, commentary on how this problem might be overcome is essential. Wolfram explains the components and computation of Gross Domestic Product and the Consumer Price Index but devotes only a small discussion to critiques of these measures – critiques that are particularly relevant in an electronic age, when an increasing proportion of valuable content – from art to music to writing to games – is delivered online at no monetary cost to the final consumer. How can economic output and inflation be measured and meaningfully interpreted in an economy characterized partially by traditional money-for-goods/services transactions and partially by the “free” content model that is funded through external sources (e.g., donations or the creators’ independent income and wealth)? Moreover, does Wolfram’s statement that the absence of profit (sufficient to cover the opportunity cost) would result in the eventual decline of an enterprise need to be qualified to account for new models of delivering content? For instance, if an individual or firm uses one income stream to support a different activity that is not itself revenue- or profit-generating, there is a possibility for this arrangement to be sustainable in the long term if it is also justified by perceived non-monetary value.

Wolfram’s discussion of inflation is correct and forms a strong link between inflation and the quantity of money (government-issued fiat money these days) – but I would have wished to see a more thorough focus on Ludwig von Mises’s insight that new money does not enter the economy to equally raise everybody’s incomes simultaneously; rather, the distortion due to inflation comes precisely from the fact that some (the politically favored) receive the new money and can benefit from using it while prices have not yet fully adjusted. (This can be logically inferred from Wolfram’s discussion of some of the “tools” of the Federal Reserve, which directly affect the incomes of politically connected banks – but I wish the connection to Mises’s insight had been made more explicit.) Wolfram does mention that inflation can be a convenient tool for national governments to reduce their debt burdens, and he also discusses the inflationary role of fractional-reserve banking and “tools” available to central banks such as the Federal Reserve. However, Wolfram’s proposed solutions to the problems of inflation remain unclear from the text. Does he support Milton Friedman’s proposal for a fixed rate of growth in the fiat-money supply, or does he advocate a return to a classical gold standard – or perhaps to a system of market-originated competing currencies, as proposed by Hayek? It would also have been interesting to read Wolfram’s thoughts on the prospects and viability of peer-to-peer and digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, and whether these could mitigate some of the deleterious effects of central-bank-generated inflation.

Wolfram does discuss in some detail the sometimes non-meritocratic outcomes of markets – stating, for instance, that “boxers may make millions of dollars while poets make very little.” Indeed, it is possible to produce far more extreme comparisons of this sort – e.g., a popular “star” with no talent or sense earning millions of dollars for recording-studio-hackneyed “music” while genuinely talented classical musicians and composers might earn relatively little, or even have their own work remain a personal hobby pursued for enjoyment alone. To some critics of markets, this may well be the reason to oppose them and seek some manner of non-market compensation for people of merit. For a defender of the unhampered market economy, a crucial endeavor should be to demonstrate that truly free markets (unlike the heavily politicized markets of our time) can tend toward meritocracy in the long run, or at least offer people of merit a much greater range of possibilities for success than exists under any other system. Another possible avenue of exploration might be the manner in which a highly regimented political system (especially in the areas of education) might result in a “dumbed-down” culture which neglects and sometimes outright opposes intellectual and esthetic sophistication and the ethic of personal productivity which is indispensable to a culture that prizes merit. Furthermore, defenders of markets should continually seek out ways to make the existing society more meritocratic, even in the face of systemic distortions of outcomes. Technology and competition – both of which Wolfram correctly praises – should be utilized by liberty-friendly entrepreneurs to provide more opportunities for talented individuals to demonstrate their value and be rewarded thereby.

Wolfram’s engaging style and many valid and enlightening insights led me to desire more along the same lines from him. Perhaps A Capitalist Manifesto will inspire other readers to ask similar questions and seek more market-friendly answers. Wolfram provides a glossary of common economic terms and famous historical figures, as well as some helpful references to economic classics within the endnotes of each chapter.  A Capitalist Manifesto will have its most powerful impact if readers see it as the beginning of their intellectual journey and utilize the gateways it offers to other writings in economics and political economy.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book for the purposes of creating a review.