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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tim Worstall on The Great Depression

Tim Worstall shares some thoughts on current circumstances and The Great Depression here:
Betting upon a second Great Depression, or are you like me and thinking that yes, we've got some tough times coming, but the only people that can create disaster are the politicians? Sadly, that last isn't quite as comforting as it could be for it was the politicians and bank regulation itself that created the first depression: as long as we don't make the same mistakes again (or newer and even more inventive ones) the disaster, although perhaps not a recession, can be avoided.

Yes, irrational exuberance in the 20s, then the Great Crash, then recession. So far, so very like our own times. But what took it from a crash to a depression, that's the part we want to know, so that we can avoid doing that.

I don't think tariffs were the real problem. No, I think the blame should be on three things. The first is that the Fed refused to cut interest rates. The second was a large tax rise so as to cut the budget deficit (alarming as it may seem, Keynes was right in part, deficit spending does mitigate recessions, it's the cutting of the spending in the good times that governments have so much problem with). The third was the then extant system of bank regulation.

U.S. banking then was based on the single branch model: banks did not have widely diversified portfolios of risks, either geographically or by industry sector. Rather, all of their exposure was concentrated in the immediate hinterlands of their one deposit taking branch. This led to a certain fragility: it's worth noting that in Canada no banks went bust, while 8,000 did in the US. Canadian banks were allowed to operate countrywide, thus providing them with that diversification. It's that mass bankruptcy of banks which turned the shrinking of the credit markets into a rout.

Which brings us back to today: we see people arguing for some of the same things, but let's try not to make those same mistakes again, shall we? The first and most obvious is that we should ignore those siren calls for tax hikes, whether they're from deficit hawks or from those insistent that “the rich” should pay more. No, in an economy with contracting credit deficit spending is a rather good idea. Bernanke and his boys are most certainly not leaving interest rates too high, so that's one thing we don't need to worry about. Which leaves us, domestically, with just one thing—bank regulation.

Yes, we do have successive financial crises, that's in the nature of a market system that people will try new things and some of them will be stupid (making a loss is the market's way of telling you that you are indeed doing something stupid), but they're not all caused by the same things. Limits upon the mortgage markets and syndication are simply unneccessary: no one is going to make that mistake again, as they're not going to overinvest in telecoms companies with “interesting” accounting techniques, nor internet stocks, nor emerging nations, to give just a flavor of what has caused previous problems. Lessons learned at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars tend to stay learned.

The second revolves around that very diversification which we would rather like banks to get themselves involved in. Christian Noyer, the governor of the French Central Bank (in reality, he's the provincial manager of the French branch of the European Central Bank) makes the point that the sub-prime crisis isn't going to topple European banks precisely because “their model of universal banking allows them to mitigate the consequences of a crisis in one segment of their activity.“ UBS may have been hit with vastly larger losses than Bear Sterns, but it didn't go bust because it has other business lines and resources to draw upon.

More good points in the article... I think trade might have been more important than he thinks because of the corresponding capital flows and investment stemming therefrom. Also, as for lessons learned, new mistakes will be made unlike the old ones but limits on leverage are appropriate for review to guard against systemic risk.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Intellectual Shift

Many of the posts on this blog are written with the idea of countering arguments in support of the great tide of statism that rolled across the globe in the past century. Personally, I wish to avoid traveling along The Road to Serfdom.

As described in The Industrial Counterrevolution :
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of mechanized mass production, a powerful new idea began to take hold and remake the world in its image. That idea, reduced to its bare essence, was that the economic revolution of industrialization both enabled and required a revolution in social organization: the eclipse, partial or total, of markets and competition by centralized, top-down control. The intellectual and political movements spawned by this idea emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century and utterly dominated the first three-quarters of the 20th.

In analytical terms, the common intellectual thread that runs through all of these movements -- namely, the rejection or demotion of market competition in favor of top-down control -- represents a direct assault on the principles of social order that gave rise to industrialization and are truest to its full promise.

According to Deepak Lal in Reviving the Invisible Hand (p.65):
There had been some extension of government intervention in the late nineteenth century with the passage of antitrust legislation following populist attacks against the “robber barons.” But it was Roosevelt’s New Deal which led to “an ideological shift – from widespread skepticism about the ability of the central government to improve the functioning of the economy to widespread faith in the competence of government.”

Rockoff argues that the Depression in itself could not have been responsible for this shift, as there were earlier crises in the 1830s and 1890s, with severely depressed incomes and high unemployment which did not lead to a dirigiste response. He argues that a change in the dominant ideology among intellectuals and opinion-makers was responsible. As George Stigler was first to point out, this change in opinion was not based upon any hard empirical evidence. The European move to dirigisme, their construction of the welfare state, and the supposed success of Stalinist planning in transforming an underdeveloped Russia, were the dominant factors in the change of opinion. This process was aided by the development of Keynesian economics and welfare economics, which, as Myint noted, with its: “emphasis on market failures, externalities, and the divergences between social and private costs, has for many decades been a powerful intellectual force behind interventionist policies.”

Not till the stagflation of the 1970s did opinion shift toward the more skeptical view of government of the nineteenth century. This had been presaged by the growing recognition that, because of problems related to information and incentives, planning and Keynesianism were not the touted panaceas, while the “new” political economy showed how most welfare programs would be capture by the “middle classes.”
Many intellectuals are still denouncing the more recent movement towards greater economic freedom in the world. I wish to counter their peddling of defective ideas.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Role of Profit

Here are a few different takes:

At least when a society has the appropriate institutions and government policies, the overwhelming majority of the firms that make huge profits are doing a huge service to the population. In a society with the right institutions and public policies, the prevailing prices will approximate the true values and costs of marginal quantities of the goods and productive inputs. A great excess of revenues over costs means that the enterprise is almost certainly putting more value into the society than it is taking out.
Mancur Olson (scroll down at link)

What intellectuals steeped in constructivist presuppositions find most objectionable in the market order, in trade, in money and the institutions of finance, is that producers, traders, and financiers are not concerned with concrete needs of known people but with abstract calculation of costs and profit. But they forget, or have not learned, the arguments that we have just rehearsed. Concern for profit is just what makes possible the more effective use of resources. It makes the most productive use of the variety of potential support that can be enlisted from other business undertakings. The high-minded socialist slogan, 'Production for use, not for profit', which we find in one form or another from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell, from Albert Einstein to Archbishop Camara of Brazil (and often, since Aristotle, with the addition that these profits are made `at the expense of others'), betrays ignorance of how productive capacity is multiplied by different individuals obtaining access to different knowledge whose total exceeds what any single one of them could muster. The entrepreneur must in his activities probe beyond known uses and ends if he is to provide means for producing yet other means which in turn serve still others, and so on – that is, if he is to serve a multiplicity of ultimate ends. Prices and profit are all that most producers need to be able to serve more effectively the needs of men they do not know. They are a tool for searching – just as, for the soldier or hunter, the seaman or air pilot, the telescope extends the range of vision. The market process gives most people the material and information resources that they need in order to obtain what they want. Hence few things are more irresponsible than the derision of concern with costs by intellectuals who, commonly, do not know how to go about finding out how particular results are to be achieved at the least sacrifice of other ends. These intellectuals are blinded by indignation about that essential chance of very large gains that seem disproportionate to the effort required in a particular case, but that alone makes this kind of experimentation practicable.

It is hence hard to believe that anyone accurately informed about the market can honestly condemn the search for profit. The disdain of profit is due to ignorance, and to an attitude that we may if we wish admire in the ascetic who has chosen to be content with a small share of the riches of this world, but which, when actualised in the form of restrictions on profits of others, is selfish to the extent that it imposes asceticism, and indeed deprivations of all sorts, on others.
Hayek on profit (from The Fatal Conceit)...

I had been contemplating writing a short post about the role of profit for some time. Fortunately, Professor Steven Horwitz did such a nice job.

One of the more common complaints of critics of the market is that “the profit motive” works at cross-purposes with people and firms doing “the right thing.” The overarching problem with blaming a “motive” is that it ignores the distinction between intentions and results. That is, it ignores the possibility of unintended consequences, both beneficial and harmful.

What we care about is whether the goods get delivered, not the motives of those who provide them. Smith led economists to think about why it is that, or under what circumstances, self-interest leads to beneficial unintended consequences. It is perhaps human nature to assume that intentions equal results, or that self-interest means an absence of social benefit, as was often the case in the small, simple societies in which humanity evolved. However, in the more complex, anonymous world of what Hayek called “the Great Society,” the simple equation of intentions and results does not hold.

As Smith recognized, what determines whether the profit motive leads to good results are the institutions through which human action is mediated. Institutions, laws, and policies affect which activities are profitable and which are not. A good economic system is one in which those institutions, laws, and policies are such that the self-interested behavior of producers leads to socially beneficial outcomes. In mixed economies like that of the United States, the institutional framework often rewards profit-seeking behavior that does not produce social benefit or, conversely, prevents profit-seeking behavior that could produce such benefits. For example, if agricultural policy pays farmers not to grow, then the profit motive will lead to lower food supplies.

Labeling the profit motive as the source of the problem enables the critics to ignore the really difficult questions about how institutions, policies, and laws affect the profit-seeking incentives of producers and how that profit-seeking behavior translates into outcomes. Placing the blame on the profit motive without qualification simply overlooks the Smithian question of whether better institutions would enable the profit motive to generate better results and whether current policies or regulations are the source of the problem because they guide the profit motive in ways that produce the very problems the critics identify.

Placing blame for social problems on the profit motive is also easy if critics offer no alternative. What should be the basis for determining how resources are allocated if not in terms of profit-seeking behavior under the right set of institutions? How should people be motivated if not by profit? Often this question is just ignored, as critics are merely interested in casting blame. When it is not ignored, the answers can vary, but they mostly invoke a significant role for government. The implicit assumption, of course, is that the government personnel will not be motivated by profits or self-interest in the same way as the private-sector producers are.

How realistic this assumption is remains highly questionable. Why should we assume that government officials are any less self-interested than private individuals, especially when the door between the two sectors is constantly revolving? And if government officials do act in their self-interest and are motivated by the political analogs of profits (for example, votes, power, budgets), will they produce results that are any better than the private sector’s?

To blame the profit motive without asking whether an alternative will better solve the problems supposedly caused by the profit motive is to bias the case against the private sector.

Even this argument, however, does not go far enough. We are still, after all, focused on intentions and motivation. What critics of the profit motive almost never ask is how, in the absence of prices, profits, and other market institutions, producers will be able to know what to produce and how to produce it. The profit motive is a crucial part of a broader system that enables producers and consumers to share knowledge in ways that other systems do not.

For many critics of the profit motive, the problem is solved because public-spirited politicians and bureaucrats have replaced profit-seeking firms. Well, not so fast. By what method exactly will the officials know how to allocate resources?

In markets with good institutions, profit-seeking producers can get answers to these questions by observing prices and their own profits and losses in order to determine which uses of resources are more or less valuable to consumers. Rather than having one solution imposed on all producers, based on the best guesses of political officials, an industry populated by profit seekers can try out alternative solutions and learn which ones work most effectively. Competition for profit is a process of learning and discovery.

Thus the real problem with focusing on the profit motive is that it assumes that the primary role of profits is to motivate (or in contemporary language “incentivize”) producers. If one takes that view, it might seem relatively easy to find other ways to motivate them or to design a new system where production is taken over by the state. However, if the more important role of profits is to communicate knowledge about the efficiency of resource use and enable producers to learn what they are doing well or poorly, the argument becomes much more complicated. Now the critics must explain what in the absence of profits will tell producers what they should and should not do. Eliminating profit-seeking from an industry doesn’t just require that a new incentive be found but that a new way of learning be developed as well. Profit is not just a motive; it is also integral to the irreplaceable social learning process of the market.

Regardless of which explanation resonates best with you, it is vital to grasp the role of profit in order to better understand the functioning of a free market system.

Update: Liberty Lover weighs in:
...government managers have different incentives then private sector managers. They manage for the approval of politicians and other government employees rather than for profit and customers. For another thing, they have distorted information about what to produce, how much, which people should do what, and which resources should be allocated. Price controls hide these signals. Prices indicate the relative scarcity, demand, and supply of things.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Public Choice Theory and Taxation

I noticed this column in the WSJ the other day:

"People say all the time: 'We can't pick winners and losers.' Well then fine. Take every single dollar of subsidy out of the federal tax code. Get rid of it all. . . . Let's have a real level playing field where nobody gets a penny in subsidy."
– Hillary Clinton, quoted in USA Today, April 5, 2008

Now, there's a capital idea – and just in time for April 15. The simplest, fairest and most economically efficient tax code would end all special interest tax advantages and flatten tax rates. Except Mrs. Clinton was ridiculing this idea. She went on to say that if subsidies vanish from the tax code, we'd "hear the squeals of protest from Wall Street to Houston to Silicon Valley."

Her philosophy certainly fits with that of the current Congress, which is becoming a tax loophole production factory for the powerful.
This giveaway came only a few weeks after the National Association of Home Builders threatened to suspend their PAC contributions to Congress "until further notice" – meaning until they saw more return on their political investments. Congratulations. That gambit paid off big time. Other winners include the large Wall Street banks that have lost money in the subprime mortgage meltdown, including Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, which also qualify for rebates to offset current losses.

With this loophole factory open for business on Capitol Hill again, business lobbies are spending more money than ever to curry Congressional favor.

At least this exercise is making clear what Democrats really mean by tax "fairness." It means raising tax rates so they can then sell tax breaks to the highest corporate bidder. We have certainly come a long way from 1986, when a Democratic Congress joined with Ronald Reagan to strip the tax code of most tax deductions and lower tax rates to a high of 28%. That reform spirit is dead on Capitol Hill.
When people in great numbers profess to want tax simplification or the elimination of subsidies of various kinds and yet politicians ignore this it is often fruitful to examine the matter from a public choice theory perspective. Who better to turn to in such matters than James Buchanan.

I am reminded of this, reviewed here:

The editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Joseph Stiglitz, asked me to write a piece assessing the 1986 act from a public-choice perspective. I wrote an article that was pub­lished in 1987 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Bu­chanan 1987). I am very glad I am on record with that piece because all of my predictions turned out to be precisely on target. Because I predicted from a public-choice perspective that Congress had exhausted the rents that it could get from selling loopholes. Therefore if it could sweep them all clear and cut the rates, it would then have the chance to raise more revenue by immediately starting raising rates again with a wider base, which is what Congress did. Second and more important, once Congress had wiped out all those rents, it could then start reselling the rents. And of course that is exactly what happened. The act was hardly cool off the presses when Congress started putting in new loopholes, new changes. It did that in the 1990 schemes, and it did that again in the 1992 schemes, and, of course, Clinton is doing that with abandon now. When they talk about targeted taxes and targeted programs, which is nothing more than selling loopholes for these rents. I am unhappy, as Richard Mus­grave surely is, with what has happened since the 1986 act, but that is predictable, necessarily predictable, given the way we make tax policy. And I think if you come at this from a public-choice constitutionalist perspective, you do in fact get a totally different view on the whole fiscal state or fiscal structure.

The members of the sausage factory known as Congress are very adept at acquiring campaign contribution or other things they are desirous of in return for various tax breaks, subsidies or protection from onerous regulation (wait that last one is a good thing) . This is one reason why changes with very broad support are often difficult to realize.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I thought that this post at the blog of John Rutledge was worthwhile.
Plasticity is a property of a system that allows it to improve its efficiency by adapting to changes in its environment by altering its structure. Columbia's Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize for showing that repeated environmental stimuli (electric shocks, etc.) lead to physical growth of neurons that dramatically alter the number of synapses, or contact points, between neighboring neurons.

This dynamic co-evolution of an organism and its environment--called epigenesis--is very important. In particular, Bruce Wexler's Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change details research showing that children's brains exhibit a high degree of plasticity up until about 1 years old but a dramatic loss of plasticity after that.

Essentially, children re-wire their brains to fit comfortably in the environment they see (which is why we all want to go back to our childhoods). If the environment does not change much, they will function efficiently. But if the environment changes to a dramatically different one after they lose plasticity, they experience cognitive dissonance, a permanently fearful and anxious state. Adults in this condition are not easy to get along with. They also violently resist seeing their children morph to fit the new environment. The result is conflict.

The rapid change brought on by improvements in communications technology and globalization has placed many people in this state. Fundamentalism, terrorism, genocide, protectionism, immigration, and outsourcing battles all reflect its cost. But attempts to stop change are futile. The answer is finding ways to reduce its cost by reducing the frictions that transform rapid change to turbulence.

There are two primary points I wish to emphasize in relation to this material. First, progress would be greatly aided by finding effective approaches that help people cope with the disorienting aspects of rapid change. Of course they may wish to resist all change. Second, the extended order of human cooperation is like a highly plastic brain. Multitudes of new connections can be made, old connections can persist or fade rapidly as in creative destuction, but unlike a brain, the stucture of such a network is infinitely exspansible and gives rise to emergent new powers.

Friday, April 11, 2008


... or is that panibrate?

My company won two very important contracts in the last five days that more or less double the company's revenue for the coming year and lay the foundation for large future growth. We had been working on getting these contracts for several years.

So celebration is in order!

But I'm having a little trouble celebrating because I'm also very close to full scale panic. Where on earth am I going to be able to hire all the high quality people I need starting tomorrow? Unemployment ticked up and some people say we're in a recession, but I can tell you the number of available highly skilled roboticists in the San Diego area is very, very small.

In addition to the recruiting nightmare, I have oodles of system engineering to do for these new projects while keeping the current projects going as well.

This almost certainly signals a significant blogging break. Hopefully my co-blogger will pick of the slack...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Industrial Counterrevolution

In an earlier post I referenced a very fine book mentioned here authored by Brink Lindsey. Drawing upon a more limited portion of the material therein he wrote an article available here. Excerpts follow:

How nationalism, protectionism, and collectivism spawned a century of dictatorship and war.

Globalization, by any other name, was in full swing a century ago. Indeed, it was remarkably advanced, even by contemporary standards.

In 1913, merchandise trade as a percentage of gross output was about 12 percent for the industrialized countries. They did not match that level of export performance again until the 1970s. The volume of international capital flows relative to total output reached heights in the early 20th century that have not been approached since.

The first world economy was made possible by the staggering technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution. Most obviously, new forms of transportation toppled the age-old tyranny of distance. For inland transport, the significance of the railroad is difficult to overestimate.

The railroads knitted countries into truly integrated national markets and facilitated the penetration of foreign goods from port cities into the interior.

Meanwhile, another technology was uniting those national markets into a global whole. Although the steamship was first developed early in the 19th century, further innovations in subsequent decades -- the screw propeller, steel hulls, the compound engine -- transformed what had been primarily a river vessel into cheap and reliable ocean transport. The effect on freight costs was nothing short of spectacular: An index of freight rates along Atlantic export routes fell by 70 percent in real terms between 1840 and 1910.

The Industrial Revolution's burst of technological creativity thus demolished the natural barriers to trade posed by geography. At the same time, it created entirely new possibilities for beneficial international exchange.

So arose the initial grand bargain on which the first global division of labor was based: The core specialized in manufacturing, while the periphery specialized in primary products. For Great Britain, the first industrial power, manufactured goods constituted roughly three-quarters of its exports. The sprawling United States, on the other hand, straddled both core and periphery.

While far-flung foreign trade is as old as human history, this was something new. No longer was such commerce a marginal matter, limited to a few high-value luxuries. Now, for the first time, specialization of production on a worldwide scale was a central element of economic life in all the countries that participated.

But it was not to last. The global economic order that arose and flourished in the waning years of the 19th century was swept away by the great catastrophes of the 20th: world wars, the Great Depression, and totalitarian dictatorships. Only in the past couple of decades has a truly global division of labor been able to reemerge.

According to contemporary critics of global trade, the sad fate of that earlier epoch reveals the inherent dangers of unregulated markets. Then as now, they argue, economic forces had slipped all proper constraints; then as now, the ideology of laissez-faire ran roughshod over social needs.

These arguments are an almost perfect inversion of the truth. The tragedies of the 20th century stemmed, not from an over-reliance on markets, but from a pervasive loss of faith in them. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of mechanized mass production, a powerful new idea began to take hold and remake the world in its image. That idea, reduced to its bare essence, was that the economic revolution of industrialization both enabled and required a revolution in social organization: the eclipse, partial or total, of markets and competition by centralized, top-down control. The intellectual and political movements spawned by this idea emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century and utterly dominated the first three-quarters of the 20th. This 100-year historical episode, though composed of diverse and widely varying elements, possesses enough coherence to merit a name, and the one I suggest is the Industrial Counterrevolution.

In analytical terms, the common intellectual thread that runs through all of these movements -- namely, the rejection or demotion of market competition in favor of top-down control -- represents a direct assault on the principles of social order that gave rise to industrialization and are truest to its full promise.

It is impossible to understand the collapse of the first world economy, or the rise of the present one, except in relation to the Counterrevolution's centralizing impulses. For the story of globalization and the story of the Industrial Counterrevolution are mirror images of one another: In the early decades of the 20th century, the rise of collectivism spelled the demise of the global economy; in the past couple of decades, the loss of faith in the collectivist dream has allowed globalization to resume its course.

It is clear enough that the final breakdown of international economic integration during the calamitous 1930s was an extended consequence of the Great War. What is less well known is how the collectivist delusion helped to lead the world toward that awful conflict -- and thus toward all the horrors that followed in its wake.

At the midpoint of the 19th century, a very different future appeared to be on the horizon. The liberal creed of cosmopolitanism, free trade, and peace promised to define the shape of things to come.

The liberal champions of free trade did not view their cause solely or even primarily as a commercial matter. In their view, free trade carried profound implications for the whole field of international relations.

The free traders' sunny cosmopolitanism all too quickly gave way to a very different vision of the international scene. As the Industrial Counterrevolution began to gather momentum, the prospect of a world at peace started to recede. A new prospect, dark and menacing, came in its stead to the fore -- one of rival nations, rival races, pitted in fundamental and irresolvable conflict, engaged in a grim and merciless struggle for supremacy or submission. This radical and ruinous shift of perspective did not merely coincide with the spreading enthusiasm for centralization and top-down control; rather, the two developments were interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

The momentum of the Industrial Counterrevolution pushed inexorably toward expanding the power of the national state.

Many other emerging centralizing movements embraced an expanded national state from the outset. Edward Bellamy, American author of the utopian fantasy Looking Backward and a major influence on subsequent Progressive and New Deal intellectuals, called his philosophy "nationalism" to distinguish it from Marxist-style socialism. In Great Britain, the Fabians advocated incremental reform and a political strategy of "permeation," or working through established political parties. And in Germany, the conservative, Bismarckian "state socialists" were unabashed in their devotion to the national state. Characteristic in this regard was the economist Gustav Schmoller, who proclaimed the state to be "the most sublime ethical institution in history."

Furthermore, the growing enthusiasm for national economic planning was fundamentally at odds with the new international division of labor. After all, if centralized decision making is more efficient than markets, why allow international markets to persist?

A new collectivist case for protectionism thus began to emerge. If a nation's economic life is to come under central control, that control must extend to the nation's connections with the outside world.

It is true that many partisans of centralization, especially on the Left, resisted the protectionist logic of their position. Free trade appealed to their internationalist sympathies; also, a low-tariff policy was generally associated with cheap bread and thus was widely considered favorable to the working class. (How times have changed!) The momentum of centralization, though, generally prevailed over tradition and class interests. In the end, the fortunes of collectivism and protectionism rose together. In the middle of the 19th century, enlightened opinion was almost uniformly in favor of free trade; by the end of the century, protectionism had once again become intellectually respectable.

Protectionist measures did slow the pace of globalization (and blocked it for certain regions and sectors), but did not stop it. Despite increasing obstacles, the internationalization of economic life flourished in the decades before World War I.

Nevertheless, the drift toward protectionism did contribute to a new international atmosphere of conflict and tension. In Bellamy's utopia, national planners could somehow control their imports and exports without so much as a cross word from abroad. But in reality, restrictions on trade inevitably set nations against each other.

The implications of trade barriers for international relations are thus enormous. In a world of free trade, citizens of one country can exploit the benefits of a broader division of labor through peaceful commerce. But in a world where severe trade restrictions are endemic, such benefits can be attained only through warfare -- through defeat of the foreign sovereignty that blocks access to the desired products or markets. Free trade makes war economically irrational; protectionism, carried far enough, makes it pay.

The drive toward centralization had thus transformed the legacy of the industrial revolution from that of world peace to one of a world at war. It is indeed fitting to call this transformation an Industrial Counterrevolution in international affairs.

The result was that collectivism and militarism became mutually reinforcing. Aggressive nationalism was needed to secure and safeguard the full blessings of collectivism; at the same time, collectivization was needed to render the nation fit for military conflict. From this basic feedback loop issued the great tragedies of dictatorship and total war.

It is customary to view World War I as a tragic accident. But at a deeper level, the war was no accident. It was a product of the ideas of the Industrial Counterrevolution: ideas of centralization that merged into statism, ideas of statism that merged into aggressive nationalism, ideas of nationalism that merged into plans for military conquest.

The Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism were direct outgrowths of the Great War. Less obviously, so was the Great Depression. Postwar efforts to reconstitute the old international economic system, in particular the gold standard, were enacted under the badly distorted and volatile conditions of the time, leading ultimately to disastrously deflationary monetary policy in the United States and Europe. In the 1930s, the combination of economic catastrophe and predatory totalitarianism -- both aftershocks of the Great War -- spelled the end of the first global economy and precipitated a second global war. So ended the descent into fire and chaos that began with the guns of August.

When critics of global trade claim that the phenomenon's first, failed episode should be seen as a warning against reckless faith in markets, they are standing history on its head. In truth, the first global economy was destroyed by the antithesis of economic liberalism -- namely, the misbegotten dream of central planning and social engineering that inspired the Industrial Counterrevolution in all its variants. The collectivist delusion was flatly incompatible with an international division of labor: When the former was ascendant, the latter could not survive. For collectivism invariably attached itself to the ready means of the nation-state, and once so ensconced, it helped to stoke aggressive, beggar-thy-neighbor nationalism. In a world of centralized and increasingly regimented states whose interests could not help but clash, conflict was inevitable. And when war came, its terrible fury hatched new monsters: ruinous economic disruption and barbaric totalitarianism. The gossamer bonds of trust and mutuality that sustain a global marketplace had no chance against such an onslaught.

Only in the past couple of decades has the counterrevolutionary momentum exhausted itself in disillusionment and failure. And as overweening state control has receded -- with the opening of China, the fall of the Soviet empire, and many Third World countries' abandonment of state-dominated models of development -- market connections have been reestablished. The death of the dream of centralized control has marked the rebirth of globalization.

But the collectivist past continues to cast long shadows. The move toward more liberal policies has occurred amidst the ruins of the old order, and so has had to contend with grossly deformed conditions. The transition, as a consequence, has been wrenching and often brutally painful. And that transition is far from complete. The world economy is littered still with the wreckage of discredited systems, constraining the present and obscuring the future. Life has left the old regime, but the dead hand of its accumulated institutions, mindsets, and vested interests continues to weigh heavily upon the world. Against that dead hand -- which includes, among other things, the ideologically distorted misunderstanding of globalization's past -- the cause of freedom must contend for many decades to come.

While one can offer alternate narratives, I think this perspective has substantial validity. In some sense this period could be thought of as an exploration of alternative arrangement in political economy. In a starker light, it could be viewed as political failure on a global scale.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Fed - just get over it!

Jerry Bowyer makes some relevant points:
During the panic of 1907, J. P. Morgan stepped in and created a consortium of investors, and by so doing ended the panic and saved the banking system. Yet instead of showing gratitude to a great financier who put his own capital at risk in a time of panic, the chattering classes of the day reacted with bitterness. “Isn’t this too much power for one man to have?” they asked. “Shouldn’t the people themselves have an institution that can step in to be the lender of last resort?” “Wouldn’t a public entity more fully serve the public interest?”

And so the Fed was born. Yes, conspiracy mongers, some Wall Street players participated in its creation, but that was more in the cause of minimizing the damage. The Fed was much more the brainchild of academic scribblers and progressive dreamers than of the debits-and-credits crowd. The bankers had to be sold on the idea. Yes, they would have to submit to more regulation. But as compensation they would get a true lender of last resort in a time of need.

That’s why I don’t get socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. (That’s no right-wing epithet; he really is a socialist.) And that’s why I don’t get complaints about a “bailout for big banks” coming from the left. The liberals wanted a Fed and they got one. And as the chart above illustrates, it’s doing exactly what they created it to do: step in temporarily in times of turmoil.

Reasonable men can differ as to the utility of a central bank. Hamilton was for it; Jefferson against it. I tend to agree with Hamilton, but who am I to judge between such giants? The Jeffersonians among us, such as Ron Paul, have a point to make. A central bank is a very powerful institution, and power is dangerous. The Hamiltonians among us have a point, too. Panics also are dangerous, and we need institutions to minimize them.
There are pros and cons to having a central bank. We have one, so let them do their job.

See also video of Don Luskin on liquidity, bank runs and "the moral hazard state" and another video of the recent reduction of systemic risk from fed action. I think that market conditions have improved, but until credit spreads actually show further improvement, it is wise to be a little cautious.


This piece appeared in the WSJ the other day. It touches on some points sometimes overlooked in discussions of that era:
Around our offices, we're still recovering from the fact that Hoover was the last Presidential candidate we've endorsed. We've been trashing Hoovernomics ever since. The issue this year, however, is who is really pursuing the Hoover model.

To hear Mr. Schumer and his fellow-traveling columnists tell it, Hoover's great policy blunder was to do nothing, all the while insisting that everything was fine. But the problem with Hoover's economic policy isn't that it was passive but that it was actively destructive.

In 1930, he signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, setting off a wave of protectionist retaliation that undid the globalization of the preceding decades and did far more harm to the world economy than the stock-market crash ever did. Two years later, amid a bad recession, he undid the Calvin Coolidge-Andrew Mellon tax cuts, raising the top marginal income-tax rate to 63% from 25%. The recession became a Depression.

Note that although Smoot-Hawley was signed in 1930, contemporaneous accounts show that ideas about the likelihood of passage shifted dramatically towards the affirmative in October of 1929, just before the stock market crash. Make of it what you will. Also, dramatically raising marginal tax rates with a contracting economy, in a desperate attempt to balance the budget, is not exactly a pro-growth policy. When I first learned of that step, many years ago, I nearly fell out of my chair.