Book Review: The Euro

The Euro is a book about the shortcomings of the eurozone currency project by American economist Joseph Stiglitz. The book makes a case against many of the policies pursued by European leaders thus far and recommends several alternatives, including further integration, a flexible euro, and the exit of one or more members. The book is divided into twelve chapters which explore different aspects of the problem and possible solutions.

A short preface details Stiglitz’s view of the economic problems of Europe as being largely attributable to the creation of a single currency zone without the creation of other institutions that are found in other such places elsewhere in the world. He compares the euro to the gold standard, repeating the flawed mainstream view that deflation is bad. His Keynesian approach to economics and thoroughly statist worldview is apparent from the beginning. That being said, Stiglitz appears to want to solve problems and correctly identifies some people and institutions as being uninterested in doing so.

The opening section begins with a chapter that expands upon the preface and outlines the rest of the book. There is little here that is not covered in greater detail later, so let us move on. In Chapter 2, Stiglitz argues that the poor results of the euro should have been expected because economic integration of this sort cannot come before political integration. Here, he contends that military might no longer shapes outcomes as it once did, but this is dubious because nothing short of a nuclear exchange that no one wants could have stopped the United States from conquering and colonizing Iraq if that had been the intention and American leadership had used its full power. So too for Russia in Ukraine and Crimea. His responses to other arguments for a single currency make more sense. He states the fallacious mainstream position on public goods, claiming without logic or evidence that it is impossible for markets to provide basic research and common utilities. This amounts to a confusion of collective action with state action. Even so, Stiglitz does recognize that localization is better than central planning from afar, though his disdain for German policies makes him inconsistent on this point. He then turns to economic integration, discussing the importance of German history with hyperinflation and its prominent role in modern Europe for understanding the European Central Bank. Next, Stiglitz writes about effect that a shared currency has on economic integration, which is mixed. Like many Keynesians, he accuses the market of failure when this is actually impossible; such events are actually failures of government, resources, or individual people. He also regards economics as scientific, even though the scientific method cannot be applied to subjects in which counterfactuals are so important but also unobservable. As usual, the word ‘neoliberal’ says more about the person using it than anything else. He concludes by arguing that there is a democratic deficit in Europe, even though he argues elsewhere in the book against incentive structures which are necessarily part of any democracy.

Europe’s lackluster economic performance since the 2008 crisis is the subject of the third chapter. Stiglitz begins by claiming that Keynesianism is a success because it has lengthened business cycles and shortened downturns, but it has also made the downturns that do occur so much worse that markets were better off before such interventionism. Much of the chapter consists of empirical data for Europe since 2007. When discussing unemployment, he seems not to recognize that unemployment benefits subsidize a negative behavior and will thus produce more of that behavior. Stiglitz relies upon the Gini coefficient when discussing inequality, which is a faulty metric because it measures pre-tax income rather than after-tax consumption. This causes it to exaggerate the amount of income inequality. His detailing of the long-term adverse effects of recession in terms of destroyed human capital is largely correct, but he again recommends interventionism that tends to worsen such problems. He also takes the position that the state should protect those at the economic bottom, though almost every economist would avoid social Darwinism on this front. Stiglitz then commits a fixed pie fallacy by arguing that trade surpluses necessarily cause trade deficits elsewhere, when the reality is quite different. He concludes by correctly noting that the counterfactuals help critics of the euro, and that there is no better explanation for many of Europe’s troubles than sharing a common currency across uncommon societies and economies.

The second section argues that the euro suffers from a flawed initial design. In Chapter 4, the requirements for a single currency region to be successful are considered. Here, Stiglitz uplifts full employment and market stability as goals while denouncing those who favor economic freedom as a “lunatic fringe.” This leads him to contemplate a false dilemma between national control of money and supranational control. He blames market fundamentalism (which he calls neoliberalism) for the crisis of 2008, despite the fact that markets were altered by central bankers in such a way as to cause the crash, which he all but says elsewhere. In explaining the differences between the United States and the eurozone, Stiglitz highlights the freer movement of Americans, the identity of Americans at the national level rather than the state level (at least in modern times), and the federal nature of monetary and fiscal stimulus. He is correct to say that there must either be “more Europe” or “less Europe,” but sides with the former. He describes the Keynesian theory of business cycles, but makes no mention of the Austrian theory. Stiglitz then repeats the tired fallacy that austerity caused the Great Depression and the current malaise, rather than central bank shenanigans and tariff policies. His blame for the gold standard is similarly misguided. He somewhat fixes an error from the previous chapter by clarifying that trade imbalances are not a problem if currency exchange rates can change to compensate for them. He straw-mans the laissez-faire position on unemployment by saying that it views unemployment due to market adjustments as good rather than as simply necessary. Stiglitz then gets a few points correct: low wages undermine worker morale and productivity, falling wages may not amount to falling prices if firms are worried about their solvency, and monetary stimulus has a breaking point at which interest rates cannot be lowered further. But he again blames the private sector for being excessive when it is only reacting to perverse incentives created by governments and central banks. There is little to fault in Stiglitz’s explanation of why currency areas are prone to crisis except for the preceding error, but it never occurs to him to simply not have such an area. The chapter ends by repeating many of the fallacious arguments from the previous chapter concerning trade surpluses and deficits.

The fifth chapter considers the economic divergence of the eurozone countries. Stiglitz argues in favor of institutional frameworks to prevent the need for bailouts, as well as funds to make depositors whole and provide bailouts. This ignores the moral hazard created by such a regime that causes bankers to take excessive risks, as well as the powerful incentives that an absence of protection would have on depositors to act responsibly and hold bankers accountable. His view of regulation is starry-eyed, missing the entire concept of regulatory capture. This is especially striking, given his focus on institutional capture in the following chapter. Stiglitz rightly complains of capitalized gains and socialized losses among bankers. In his consideration of other sources of divergence, he again fails to consider the possibility of turning over infrastructure to private development, instead proposing expansion of the European Investment Bank, which is certain to become another statist boondoggle. His view of knowledge markets is flawed in the same manner as his view of economies; it fails to account for the distortions that statism necessarily causes which lead to various types of failure. He concludes the chapter by showing how policies in the eurozone have caused greater instability, but cannot seem to avoid blaming the private sector for responding to the incentives imposed upon it.

In Chapter 6, Stiglitz examines the European Central Bank. He begins by saying that open markets and free competition can efficiently allocate resources only in the presence of adequate government regulation. This is a contradiction because an absence of government regulation defines an open market with free competition. His arguments concerning the inflation-only mandate of the ECB and the problems it causes would be much stronger if the Austrian business cycle theory were anywhere to be found in the book. His description of events in Chile under Pinochet does not agree with the long-term result of economic prosperity relative to the rest of South America and neglects how much worse conditions would have been under Salvador Allende. His claim that markets are supposed to be efficient and stable are a straw man; instability in the form of creative destruction and inefficiency by some metrics rather than others are inherent in a market economy. Stiglitz correctly writes that monetary policy is always a political question, pitting creditors against debtors for control of the central bank. But he leaves unclear how democracy is supposed to hold central bankers accountable. He also must not know any libertarians, or he would know that some people have proposed taking away spending power from governments to ensure that they do not misbehave. The chapter ends with a history of fashionable central bank policies over time and what was wrong with them from a Keynesian perspective.

The next two chapters delve into the Greek situation in particular, as Greece has suffered a more severe economic crisis than any other eurozone country. The seventh chapter explores the effect that the Troika’s policies had on countries in crisis. Stiglitz accuses some European leaders of acting in bad faith by purposefully attempting to punish governments with different political views from their own, which may be accurate. He continues his misguided attack on austerity, though it has more merit against what Europeans have actually done than against real austerity. He correctly explains the problem with primary surpluses, but then commits the broken window fallacy by embracing Keynesian multipliers. Stiglitz accurately diagnoses the problems of increasing taxes, but seeks to aid governments in collecting them rather than encourage economic freedom and stronger property rights. He describes his ideal system of property taxation in the same tone that a proud and unrepentant thief might use to boast of his crimes. Although he is correct to say that particular moves toward privatization and economic freedom may produce adverse results in particular contexts, this is a justification not for state intervention, but for undoing even more statism so as to remove the problematic context. Stiglitz notes that the hegemony of American military power has put Europe into a Pax Romana problem in which it cannot fend for itself against a real threat, but advises that this problem be worsened in the name of fiscal restraint. He compares reductions in pensions to wage theft when the two are clearly different. It is the responsibility of workers to figure out that they are being offered terms which may be impossible for the employer to meet in the future and practice caveat emptor. As for bank bailouts and debt restructuring, Stiglitz describes the situation well except for his faulty view of austerity.

Chapter 8 delves into structural reforms in Greece that made matters worse. Again, Stiglitz’s views of austerity and democracy corrupt an otherwise sound analysis of trivial and counterproductive actions taken by the Troika. He claims without proof that industrial policies are required to advance countries that are lagging behind in technological development, neglecting that markets are not doing this because they are either disallowed from doing so or are assuming that the state will do this for them. He criticizes intergenerational transmission of advantage and seeks to use the state against it, when it should be championed as both eugenic and important for maintaining a natural aristocracy. Stiglitz argues for a price on carbon emissions and claims that the private sector will not address climate change, when again the state has kept this from happening. He finishes by discussing counterfactuals, which is interesting given his empiricist thinking on economics.

The final four chapters deal with various proposals going forward. In the ninth chapter, Stiglitz offers his advice for fixing the eurozone. As before, he embraces what Henry Hazlitt called “the fetish of full employment” as the goal of his policy proposals. Much of the content of the chapter rehashes proposals from previous chapters. He seeks to create common deposit insurance and common resolution while abolishing place-based debt within the EU. This will create moral hazards and work against people who wish to escape debt slavery inflicted upon them by their ancestors. He calls for wages to be raised in countries with surpluses, which will lead to unemployment in those countries as workers whose labor is not worth higher wages are laid off. He fundamentally misunderstands precious metals, failing to understand their role as a store of value and medium of exchange, even if no longer officially used in such capacities. Stiglitz seeks to make the financial sector and other corporations serve society, but fails to recognize that the organs of a statist social order inherently and irrevocably serve themselves at the expense of the society. The shortsightedness of markets of which he complains is actually caused by the institutions that he seeks to use to solve the problem. One of the few sound recommendations made in this chapter is the creation of a super-Chapter 11 bankruptcy procedure to quickly restructure debt. He goes on to propose that EU taxes be based on citizenship, and that some of the proceeds be used for foreign aid or resettlement of migrants, further impoverishing and culturally endangering Europeans.

Chapter 10 examines the possibility of what Stiglitz calls “an amicable divorce,” in which countries exit the eurozone. He considers the example of Grexit, or Greece returning to its own currency that he calls the Greek-euro but would probably be called the drachma, as it was before the euro. He proposes that Greece create a new electronic currency to ease concerns over producing coins and banknotes, stop tax avoidance, bring everyone into the financial system, and facilitate the ability of central banks to create credit. Stiglitz fails to consider that people are likely to reject such a system in favor of cryptocurrencies, which have all of the benefits of such a system without most of the drawbacks, and that such a system could offer states tyrannical control over their citizens. His view of credit indicates magical thinking, although this is quite common in modern financial circles. He again blames the private sector for problems caused by politicians and central bankers, while ignoring peer-to-peer lending as a substitute for modern credit systems. Stiglitz describes a potential system of credit auctions which could be abused with much the same ease as the current system. He admits and supports what should be abhorrent to any decent person: that fiat currencies are ultimately given value by extortion in the form of taxation. Stiglitz correctly says that a new Greek currency would enable them to devalue it to correct trade imbalances, but his proposed system of trade tokens for the same purpose would be redundant. He equates deflation with a deficiency of aggregate demand, neglecting the possibilities of an abundance of supply or improvements in efficiency and/or quality. His description of currency change as a debt restructuring is insightful. To end the chapter, Stiglitz considers the alternative of Germany leaving the eurozone, though it is unlikely that they would give up their current position of power so willingly. This segues into the topic of the next chapter, which is a flexible euro consisting of several subdivisions.

Stiglitz uses Finland as a counterexample against those who claim that profligacy in southern Europe is to blame, rather than the structure of the eurozone. Most of his argument here is correct, except for his view of austerity. His proposal in this chapter is to have several eurozones with fluctuating exchange rates, which could be brought closer together over time as political integration occurs, eventually resulting in economic integration. The details are borrowed from the previous two chapters. Though more likely to succeed than the proposals in those chapters, it is also the least likely to be adopted. Stiglitz correctly recognizes that having a single currency area is an interference in the market in and of itself, monopolizing exchange and interest rates in the area, but cannot seem to fathom that his flexible euro proposal also does this on a smaller scale. He claims that it can be better not to simply rely on prices for the allocation of resources, but does not explain how to solve the local knowledge problem or the economic calculation problem in a superior manner. He also says that history shows free banking to be a disaster, when the truth is quite the opposite.

The final chapter sees Stiglitz review many themes from previous chapters, but he also covers topics which are barely mentioned elsewhere. He denounces anti-immigrant groups in Europe, which are only trying to resist demographic replacement by a ruling class that they did not ask to replace them. So much for the “democratic accountability” that Stiglitz extols in the same breath. He blames right-wing economic ideology for rising inequality in the United States beginning with the Reagan administration, but incomes really began to diverge ten years earlier, when Nixon ended the gold standard. Stiglitz expresses a desire to preserve the Enlightenment values of Europe, but cannot comprehend how letting in migrants with distinctly anti-Enlightenment values will jeopardize that mission. On the issue of trade policy, he understands that free trade is not always best for all parties involved, as it can destroy important societal arrangements that prevent conflict. But then Stiglitz incredulously asks how one could have expected that Europe’s leaders would create such economic dysfunction, with massive unemployment and lack of economic security. The answer is that a proper amount of cynicism would require such an expectation.

Overall, the best thing that can be said for the book is that it is not an effort made in bad faith. Stiglitz correctly identifies many of the problems with the current state of affairs in Europe and seems to want to help, but his proposed solutions are thoroughly misguided. Despite his palpable disdain for Milton Friedman and other Chicago School monetarists, he suffers from one of the worst of their faults: a desire to solve the immediate problems set before him combined with a lack of broader perspective. This leads him to propose a banking system which could be used to terrible effect against political dissidents, tax collection schemes that would indicate criminal intent in any non-statist context, and forced political integration by means of stealth and subterfuge. He also seems to believe that everything would be fine if only state power were used by the right people to implement the right policies. It never occurs to him that the power itself might be the problem. The Euro is an interesting case study in leftist economic thought, but those looking for real solutions to Europe’s economic woes should keep looking.

Rating: 2.5/5

On Consumerism, Corporatism, Time Preference, and Modernity

Consumerism

Capitalism is often blamed for consumerism. It is almost a certainty that whenever leftists run out of other arguments, they will make an argument related to consumerism. Consumerism is almost universally despised by people who have higher ideals, so it is easy to point out consumerism and then act as if it is an argument against capitalism. One reason for this is that socialism, the other major economic system in the modern world, eventually leaves people with nothing to consume, so capitalism is an easier target. But socialists make multiple critical errors in blaming capitalism for consumerism. While it is certainly true that capitalists benefit from a consumer culture, and that the capitalist system will not be toppled when people are attracted to consumer culture, this does not mean that capitalism as a system of free enterprise and private property is by necessity a cause of consumerism or oriented around consumerism. Furthermore, the capitalist class itself will be subject to consumerism and themselves be as hurt by it as anyone else.

When we look at why people engage in consumerism, we can see several major trends that cause consumerism. The first is having a corporate structure when it comes to enterprise. This means that for there to be consumerism there must be people who advance consumerism. There would be no consumerism if there were no beneficiaries of consumerism, and honest businesses do not need consumerism. Corporations are not honest businesses, as they hide behind a legal fiction created by the state. Without corporate structures, which are entirely constructed by the state, there is no party who would advance consumerism. Second, there must be people who are willing to engage in consumerism. Whereas people who have their lives figured out and have purpose beyond themselves do not turn to consumerism, these must be people who have nothing better to do than to consume. Such people see their lives as a series of capital transactions in which they seek immediate gratification. Consumerism cannot develop within healthy societies where people have cares beyond their own immediate interests. Third, consumerism requires that these people have money, as they cannot consume without first gaining access to a sufficient amount of capital. Thus, consumerism requires an abundance of consumer goods and services. Fourth, there must be a high social time preference within the society because people need to seek immediate gratification to value consumerism instead of being personally disgusted by engaging in consumerism. Finally, it is not only necessary that people have personal abundance, but that the capital structures that produce consumer goods are well-maintained. These capital structures will be maintained when people consume, but high time preferences will necessarily cause a form of stagnation, as there is insufficient investment to facilitate growth.

Corporatism

It is undeniable that the modern economy is largely driven by giant corporate structures, and it is similarly undeniable that these corporate structures are based on making as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. Making profit is not inherently bad, but it is necessary to account for time preferences. The strategy used by megacorporations once they have attained their status is not to build up a honest reputation and a good name as valuable providers of quality services, but rather to profit in the moment and then leverage this profit for future gain. This is why many corporations operate in debt; they hope that they can be propelled by their profit and obtain investors by providing the potential for returns. This has much to do with the nature of corporations. Corporations are entities partially separate from the people and property legally represented by them. They shield people from personal responsibility, which creates a wide range of perverse incentives. If businesses were fully accountable, then there could not be such a large amount of corruption within them or such a high time preference by them. Without the ability to sustain debt through lack of responsibility, businesses would have to lower their time preferences.

Not only does the state indirectly advance predatory business practices in allowing corporate structures to take shape, the state also directly allies with corporations. Whereas attempting to create a corporation without involving the state will have no effect, incorporation is a government program and a corporation is a public-private partnership. Furthermore, politicians are funded by corporations, and corporations get special benefits from the state as a return on their investment in political connections. The result is that the state has been overtaken by corporate power, and the two work symbiotically in order to enhance their parasitism upon the rest of society. The largest corporations need their licenses, privileges, regulations, and other such competition-stifling measures to maintain their position, while the state needs to have control over the economy to maintain its position. Corporations are the only entities that can truly ensure that the economy is not outside the state. The entire modern political system is based on a mutual reassurance between corporations and the state, and separating the two at this point will cause an economic collapse.

At the highest level of business, the image of the humble CEO or board manager who does what needs to be done is a misconception; the people who run megacorporations are not the most virtuous people. Big business is not oppressed, and is not some heroic figure from an Ayn Rand novel who is fighting against the state for the freedom to compete in the free market. Rather, through regulatory capture, big business uses state power to oppress small businesses and individuals who seek to compete with them. For these reasons, the corporation is a fundamentally anti-capitalist institution.

Time Preference

There are the situations in which the state directly incentivizes high time preferences. People who are struggling financially are far easier to control than those who are financially secure. By contrast, when people save money and accumulate wealth, they are less influenced by the state. The state can make use of this to artificially create and expand a consumer culture by inflating away savings. This is done by printing fiat currency that loses its value over time, then watching people impoverish themselves by using that currency. People may have an abundance of consumer goods, but they are constantly struggling financially and feel as if they are much poorer than they are. These reckless spending habits that are bound to impoverish the spenders are extremely beneficial to the state and the politically connected corporate elites. Furthermore, the state can tax people more on their purchases if they spend beyond their means. It will also create more possibilities for taxing artificially successful businesses when they inevitably expand due to the calculation with inflationary currency being favorable towards them. However, this is unsustainable and always results in an economic contraction. Unfortunately, the state can also exploit this by picking winners and losers, bailing out favored megacorporations, creating new social welfare programs, and expanding the grip of central banking over the economy.

Having high time preferences also leads to an economy based on debt, in which people spend more than they have, and both governmental and private institutions support this spending. Banks earn most of their income from this overspending and from people who are unable to pay them back in full. Due to this over-reliance on debt, the population as a whole is saddled with debt that can feel impossible to ever pay off, which can cause them to lose their motivation in life. The population will be easier to control by both the state and the banks that run this debt-based economy, as the agencies who provide the debt for the economy are the agencies who make the reliance on debt possible. Easy debt also leads to price inflation, as there is more market demand without a corresponding increase in market supply.

People get addicted to debt when they need to spend more than they have. However, this results in a problem when a person’s available collateral shrinks in comparison to their debt. They will eventually hit a wall where they can take no more debt unless and until they pay off their old debt. This is a debt trap in which people must repeatedly take on new debt to pay off old debt, all while interest accumulates and clearing their debt is impossible. This keeps people from being able to prosper, and the number of people trapped under such a burden is increasing. This, in turn, causes much greater class divides, as lower-class individuals who do not keep a store of capital that they can use for various ventures will be unable to make profitable investments. They will always be subject to one boss or another and will never experience true independence.

None of this is the fault of a capitalistic economy, but rather the high time preferences exhibited by the consumerists. On the contrary, capitalism is the most benevolent aspect of this situation, as it punishes the destructive habits of consumerism. These people are stuck in poverty not because of capitalism, but because of their own consumption habits amplified by state interference. Their lack of advancement is not an unfair punishment, but rather a sign that they should change their ways. This requires a particular mindset of growth and improvement that is most often stunted by public education and the degenerate culture which most people inhabit. This mindset requires that people actually trust the market signals they receive instead of seeing capitalism as a repressive entity. Escaping poverty requires a willingness to do what must be done instead of waiting for someone else to provide a handout. People who blame capitalism for holding them down while engaging in mindless consumerism are as children who eat too much candy, become ill, and also complain that they have too little candy.

Modernity

The modern society allows people to live a life without meaning. It removes church as a higher spiritual goal, community as a higher social goal, family as a higher personal goal, and even denies the importance of individual goals that a normal person might have. Through the lens of modernity, it is better to remain free and untethered rather than have a family. Looking out for one’s own interests at an individual or group level is derided as selfishness that ignores the greater good of society or hateful racism. By society, modernists do not refer to the disaffected small villages or the impoverished sections in urban communities that are in the greatest need of strong and healthy communities. Instead, they almost exclusively refer to a central state and imply that people are only worthwhile when they work for the state or when they work for nothing of value. They only see the state as a representative of society, with the only acceptable substitute to focusing on the state being pure hedonistic nihilism. Ironically enough, this mindset is most often heard coming from people who oppose capitalism on the basis of it being anti-social.

People are thus left without a greater meaning to work towards. They are left not providing for themselves, their family, or something else they hold dear. People are left as freely floating agents who are reduced to nothing other than consumers, and material pleasures are the only things that allow these people to tolerate the otherwise meaningless lives that they lead. They are not some great paragons of modernity, but rather embody the lowest state of rot and decay.

Conclusion

Consumerism is caused by progressivism, corporatism, and impatience. Capitalism is nowhere near the root cause of consumerism. Free enterprise and private property do not create such a propensity to consume over doing more meaningful things. The reason why consumerism is such a prevalent phenomenon is not because there is too much capitalism, but because people lack self-restraint or purpose and are encouraged by the state to live in such a manner.

Eliminate The Debt Ceiling

The United States debt ceiling is a limit placed on the amount of money that the federal government can borrow. This is done by placing a cap on the amount of national debt that can be issued by the US Treasury. About 99.5 percent of the debt is covered by this ceiling, but $238 million in United States Notes and $74 billion owed by the Federal Financing Bank as of September 2016 are not covered.

Because the ceiling applies to the total national debt rather than to annual deficits, and expenditures are authorized by separate legislation, the debt ceiling does not directly limit government spending. As the Government Accountability Office explains, “The debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred.”

When this occurs and the ceiling is not increased by legislation, the Treasury must resort to “extraordinary measures” such as suspending investments into federal employee retirement funds or exchanging Treasury securities for non-Treasury securities. Should such measures be exhausted before Congress agrees to raise or suspend the ceiling, a default on at least some of the national debt would occur. Most mainstream economists believe that this could cause an economic depression as well as a financial crisis.

Whether the nature of this ceiling should be altered and whether such a limit should exist at all are subjects of debate among economists and political commentators. This article will overview the history of the debt ceiling, make the case that it should be eliminated on both practical and moral grounds, and deal with common objections to elimination.

History

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress sole authority to borrow money on national credit. Between 1788 and 1917, Congress would pass legislation to authorize each bond issue by the US Treasury, with the particular amount specified in each legislative act. This would authorize specific loans in some cases, while in other cases the Treasury would be given discretion over which type of debt instrument to issue for specific purposes. Except for a short time in late 1835 and early 1836, the federal government has continuously had a national debt. Although there were parliamentary procedural rules concerning debt limits, there was no debt ceiling in the current form until 1917.

In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment and the Federal Reserve Act both became law, which greatly expanded the taxing and spending capabilities of the federal government. As originally defined, the Federal Reserve was not allowed to purchase debt instruments from the US Treasury because members of Congress understood the fiscal danger that could arise from granting such permission. The desire for financial flexibility regarding American involvement in World War I led Congress to pass the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. This Act allowed the Treasury to issue bonds and take on other debt without specific Congressional approval, and allowed the Fed to purchase Treasury instruments. The debt ceiling was created as part of the deal to pass these changes, and took the form of limits on the aggregate amount of debt that could be accumulated through each category of debt, such as bills and bonds.

In 1939 and 1941, Congress passed the Public Debt Acts, which establish an aggregate limit on nearly all federal debt. Since then, the mechanism for raising the debt ceiling has been to amend these acts. The 1939 Act consolidated the separate limits from the 1917 Act into one limit, while the 1941 Act raised the debt ceiling to $65 billion, eliminated the tax exemption of interest and profit on government debt, and consolidated almost all government borrowing under the US Treasury. The Act was amended to raise the limit in each of the next four years, then the limit was reduced from $300 billion to $275 billion in 1946. Increases resumed in 1954, and there have been 72 increases and four decreases since then, with no decrease since 1963. As such, the debt ceiling has usually been a mere formality. After the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 created more opportunities for Congress to hold debates and hearings on the federal budget, the debt ceiling became less useful as a budgetary tool.[1] From 1979 to 1995, the Gephardt rule was in effect, which was a parliamentary rule that deemed the debt ceiling raised whenever a budget was passed, effectively nullifying the debt ceiling during that time. This rule was removed during the resolution of the 1995-96 government shutdown.

Treasury first implemented extraordinary measures on December 16, 2009 to avoid a government shutdown. Due to the lack of normal annual budgets during the Obama administration, Congressional Republicans used the debt ceiling as leverage for deficit reduction in 2011. This nearly caused a sovereign default, with Standard and Poor’s downgrading the United States credit rating and the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 2,000 points in late July and August. The Government Accountability Office estimated that this incident raised borrowing costs for the government by $1.3 billion in 2011, and the Bipartisan Policy Center extrapolated this estimate to $18.9 billion from 2011 to 2020. The debt ceiling was reached again at the end of 2012, which led to the Treasury adopting extraordinary measures again, as well as far more absurd measures being proposed.

On February 4, 2013, President Obama signed the No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013, which suspended the debt ceiling for the first time. This lasted until May 19. During that time, Treasury was authorized to borrow to the extent that “is required to meet existing commitments.” On May 19, the debt ceiling was raised to $16.699 trillion to accommodate borrowing performed during the suspension and extraordinary measures were resumed. In order to avoid a default when extraordinary measures were exhausted on October 17, the debt ceiling was suspended a second time until February 7, 2014. On February 12, the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act suspended the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, at which Treasury used extraordinary measures yet again. The debt ceiling was suspended again on October 30, 2015 until March 2017, and the suspension has been extended until the time of this writing.

Before And After

To begin making the case against the debt ceiling, let us consider the effect that having a debt ceiling has had on the national debt, which will show the effectiveness of the debt ceiling at reducing government spending over the long-term. Records begin in 1790, with the debt at the beginning of that year at $71 million. The debt grew to $127 million in 1816 from the War of 1812, then was steadily paid off until reaching zero in 1835. It would never be paid off again, growing gradually starting in 1836, then up to $68 million in 1851 as a result of the Mexican War. The next low was at $29 million in 1857. The Civil War caused an unprecedented debt, going from $91 million in 1861 to $2.77 billion in 1866, an increase of 2,962 percent. The next low was $1.55 billion in 1894, just before the Spanish-American War and other expansionist endeavors. The gradual growth during the early 20th century was accelerated by World War I, going from $3.06 billion in 1915 to $27.39 billion in 1919, an increase of 796 percent. Recall that the debt ceiling was instituted in 1917, with a national debt of $5.72 billion. The debt would be gradually paid off during the 1920s, reaching the next low of $16.8 billion in 1931. The debt grew again during the 1930s to fund government programs aimed at curtailing the Great Depression, reaching $48.96 billion in 1941. World War II ballooned the debt to $269.42 billion in 1946, an increase of 450 percent from 1941. The debt would never go below $250 billion again, gradually increasing past $300 billion in 1963. The Vietnam War accelerated the debt to $620.43 billion by 1976. In 1982, the national debt exceeded $1 trillion and has grown every year since 1958. On September 8, 2017, the debt passed the $20 trillion mark. Note that these figures do not include unfunded liabilities, which in recent times have become much larger than the official figure.

From 1790 to 1917, the debt increased by 7,946 percent, or 7.34 percent per year. From 1917 to 2017, the debt increased by 3,398 percent, or 8.5 percent per year. By this measure, the debt ceiling appears to be somewhat counterproductive for restraining spending, as the national debt has increased an additional 1.16 percent per year since its inception. However, one must be wary of cum hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. National debts are influenced by a great multitude of variables, and attributing this change to a single cause would be fallacious. The larger role played by the United States on the world stage, with the attendant expenditures on military presence and foreign aid, contribute a great deal to the debt, as do social welfare programs, which were nearly nonexistent before 1917.

Now And Later

To make a stronger case, we must consider the current effects of having a debt ceiling versus the likely effects of eliminating it. In the process, we will make use of the neoreactionary concept of formalism. This is the idea that in human affairs, official reality should match actual reality, the underlying power dynamics should be brought into the open, and accounting practices should be honest.

The recent history is that the debt ceiling is always raised to avoid running into it. Starting in 2013, the practice has become to suspend the ceiling entirely. It goes without saying that a ceiling which is always raised and can be made to disappear is not really a ceiling at all. The effect of this is for the state to continually take on more debt rather than pay its bills properly. This is politically convenient, as it allows politicians to bribe voters with the fruits of the labor of their unborn descendants while avoiding the backlash that inevitably results from austerity measures. To call this a Ponzi scheme is an insult to Ponzi schemes, as all of the beneficiaries and victims in those scams are willing investors. A private sector Ponzi scheme involves no inter-generational debt slavery or other forced participation.

Although even the most ardent deficit hawks are loathe to be blamed for a sovereign default, the threat that a default will occur in this manner spooks investors needlessly. As mentioned earlier, the Dow Jones dropped 2,000 points in response to the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. If investors are convinced that a default may happen in spite of the apparent unwillingness of politicians to cause a default, then the markets will be sent into turmoil for no good reason.

Eliminating the debt ceiling would be a change that moves official reality closer to actual reality on several counts. First, the opponents of fiscal restraint know that those who would use the debt ceiling as a tool to reduce government spending will always cave before a default, even if they do cause the occasional partial shutdown of government functions. For this reason, their bluff is always called and they lose the hand by playing the debt ceiling card. Removing this card from the deck not only takes away an ineffective option, but forces reformers to seek out other methods which may be effective.

Second, eliminating the debt ceiling would signal that the federal government has no interest in paying off its creditors. It should be obvious enough that an entity which increases its debt burden every year for 60 years does not have fiscal responsibility as an objective, but the Treasury seems to have no shortage of lenders, especially because the Federal Reserve serves as a lender of last resort. Note that because the federal government monopolizes law, declares itself immune from suit, and has the firepower to repel those who would seek to collect by force, it is not accountable for the national debt in an absolute sense. Accountability thus becomes an indirect, external affair which would be aided by the consequences of signaling the aforementioned truth to the world.

The admission of no intention of paying off the debt, which is essentially an admission that a default will eventually occur, would make interest rates rise. This would be necessary in order to compensate investors for the fact that they may lose their principal, or at least take a haircut on it at some future date. Aside from the obvious benefit to savers, who would see financial progress for the first time in over a decade, the increased spending on interest on the national debt would force a combination of tax increases and spending cuts in other areas. This would make current supporters of government programs pay more for them up front through taxation and inflation, constrain the pathologically undisciplined federal government, and reveal the true priorities of the power elite when decisions about whom to tax more and which expenditures to cut are taken. As such, it both brings the underlying power dynamics into the open and makes accounting practices more honest.

Objections

At this point, let us consider some likely objections. First, there is the possibility that having no debt ceiling would cause the debt to grow even faster. The above examination of the history of the national debt suggests that this objection is ill-founded, as the annual percentage increase has been higher with a debt ceiling in place. But even if it is true that eliminating the debt ceiling would accelerate the growth of the national debt, this is not necessarily bad. The faster the debt accelerates, the sooner the events described in the previous section will occur, meaning that the current unsustainable dynamics will be replaced earlier than they otherwise would.

A second objection is that this course of action may cause an economic collapse. This is entirely possible, but again, not necessarily bad. The end of the United States dollar would result in either a monetary reform and/or the replacement of government fiat currencies with something more sound, such as a gold-backed currency or a cryptocurrency. Because the US dollar is the world reserve currency, the US government can abuse its economic system more than other governments can. Losing this status would be another step toward forcing the government to behave more responsibly, as it would curtail the amount of debt that can be issued by reducing foreign demand.

The resulting collapse of the bond market leads to the third objection that this would cause a great amount of hardship. However, one must remember that the investors in government bonds have bought instruments which are funded by extortion and debt slavery. From a moral standpoint, those who lose on such investments deserve to lose. That being said, this course of action does not actually cause the collapse; rather, it makes the inevitable collapse occur more quickly.

Conclusion

The debt ceiling was created with the intention of limiting the ability of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to behave irresponsibly as they were allowed to provide more liquidity to fund World War I. But over the past century, quite the opposite has happened. The national debt has grown significantly faster than it did previously, and is now on a path toward default which is not reversible given current political realities. Eliminating the debt ceiling may seem like a counterproductive maneuver, but it would do much to formalize the true nature of the American fiscal situation. The only real debt ceiling is that established by lenders and creditors. When they deem a borrower to pose too much of a default risk, they stop lending and call in their debts, thus forcing the debtor to behave responsibly. The sooner this happens to the United States government, the better.

References:

  1. Kowalcky, Linda W.; LeLoup, Lance T. (1993). Congress and the Politics of Statutory Debt Limitation. Public Administration Review. 53 (1): p. 14.

Why Price Gouging Is Good

When a natural disaster strikes, it is almost guaranteed that there will be yet another uproar about price gouging. Media pundits will take to the airwaves to virtue signal against people who would dare to exploit disaster victims. Government officials will use the crisis to score political points by portraying themselves as defenders of the common people against greedy capitalists. But how accurately does this reflect reality? Let us explore the nature of price gouging to see the economics of such a situation and explain the behavior of journalists and state agents.

Economic Forces

In order to intelligently approach the concept of price gouging, one must first define it. Price gouging is a sudden, sharp increase in prices that occurs in response to a disaster or other civil emergency. Though this defines the act well, it does not explain the mechanisms behind it. When a disaster approaches, there are certain goods that people wish to acquire in greater quantities than normal, such as clean drinking water, non-perishable foods, wooden boards for protecting windows, and so on. If supply is held constant, then this sudden increase in demand for such goods will produce a sudden increase in their prices.

If left unhindered by the state, this upward pressure on prices will produce important benefits. First, it serves as a signal to producers and distributors of those goods that more supply is needed. The producers and distributors thus learn where their goods are most urgently in demand, allowing them to engage in mutually beneficial transactions with disaster victims. This is how free markets are supposed to function in order to meet the needs of customers.

Second, price gouging encourages proactive preparations. A potential business model for a firm is to invest in equipment that allows it to operate when a disaster would otherwise force it to close, and use the proceeds from price gouging to amortize the cost of the equipment. This helps consumers by allowing them to purchase goods at higher prices rather than be left without essential items during a crisis.

Third, price gouging provides an important benefit by conserving the fixed amount of resources which are present before more deliveries can be made to the disaster area. The higher cost of scarce goods disincentivizes people from buying up supplies that other people need, thus helping to keep the items in stock. This keeps scarce resources from being wasted on marginal uses, directing them toward their most valued uses and the people who most need them instead.

Markets And Malice

Unfortunately, not every instance of price gouging is so benevolent. Business owners who seek to exploit vulnerable people in order to make money do exist. But engaging in such behavior in a free market produces a short-term gain followed by a long-term loss. In a pure capitalist environment, reputation is everything for a business. Whatever profits may come from gouging disaster victims in the present will be more than outweighed by the sales that one will lose in the future because of the damage that this does to one’s brand. After all, most people would view such behavior as adding insult to injury and vote against it with their wallets. Though it is impossible to accurately count sales that do not happen, to dismiss this effect as nonexistent is to commit the broken window fallacy.

Enter The State

Most people are economically illiterate, so they tend to focus on the malevolent type of price gouging and be unaware of the benevolent type. In a democratic state, this has predictable results. Politicians and other government agents will frown upon price gouging and seek to punish anyone who they believe to be engaging in it. But it can be difficult to distinguish the natural effects of demand spikes and limited supplies upon price from the efforts of greedy exploiters of disaster victims, especially for government officials who are too far removed from the disaster area to be intimately familiar with the economic dynamics there. Thus, all price gouging is suppressed by the state, and while this may protect a few people from exploitation, it causes more harm than good by disrupting the market signals which would have informed producers and distributors that their goods need to be sent to the disaster area. The end result is that scarce goods are depleted and not replaced, leading people to once more blame the market for failing them when the actual cause of their shortage was a government failure.

Suppression of price gouging has several deleterious effects. First, by placing price controls on goods, the state deprives entrepreneurs of the profit motive to bring additional supply to the disaster area. Without state inteference, people who live outside of the disaster area and are willing to travel there in order to bring supplies could charge enough for their goods to recover their travel costs and be compensated for the inconvenience of spending time in a disaster area, all while making enough profit to make such a venture more attractive than other economic opportunities. Price gouging laws remove such action, leaving only state agencies and altruistic private groups to provide aid. Note that like all government regulations, price gouging laws are subject to regulatory capture by the largest businesses.

Second, removing the incentive for proactive preparations makes untenable the business model for operating during a disaster described above. Third, removing the conservation effect of price gouging forces business owners to sell goods below their market-clearing price. This incentivizes hoarders to buy more than they need and scalpers to buy goods for resale. The existence of scalpers also makes desired goods more difficult to find, as resellers will be more difficult to locate than established stores. Thus, laws against price gouging do not eliminate the practice, but rather shift it from primary markets to secondary markets and cause a different set of people to profit. Taken together, these effects result in artificial scarcity that makes conditions in a disaster area even worse.

A Pair of Razors

Given the clear case in favor of price gouging, one may wonder why so many people in positions of political power rail against it. Reece’s razor suggests that we look for the most cynical explanation when attempting to determine a motive for state policy. No other possibility prioritizes the self-interest of politicians and their minions over the lives and properties of citizens quite like the idea that government officials want to suppress the natural response of markets in order to make government disaster relief agencies look effective and necessary, thus justifying their existence and expansion, so Reece’s razor selects it.

However, it is not in the rational self-interest of elected officials to increase the suffering of disaster victims who are capable of removing them from office in the next election. A better explanation is offered by Hanlon’s razor, which says that one should not attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. In this view, government officials are not trying to increase the harm done during a disaster; they simply know no better because they are just as economically illiterate as the electorate, if not more so. This razor is a better fit for the available logic and evidence.

Conclusion

It is clear that price gouging has an important economic role in ensuring that goods both go to those who need them most and remain available in times of emergency. Market prices are important signals that tell producers and distributors where their goods are most urgently needed. When the state interferes with this process by imposing price controls, it turns off the signal and incentives for market actors to send aid, encourages hoarding and scalping, and discourages conservation and farsightedness. These effects mean that laws against price gouging harm the very people that they are ostensibly supposed to help. Therefore, price gouging should not be punished by the state or demonized by the press.

On the Supply Objection to the Gold Standard

Since the gold standard was abandoned in 1971, many people have sought to return to such a standard in order to combat inflation and rein in central banks. Keynesians and others who support fiat currency and central banking present several criticisms of this approach. One of these criticisms is particularly nonsensical, but occurs with increasing frequency: that there is not enough gold in the world to back the quantity of currency in existence, and thus returning to gold would set off a deflationary spiral while destroying several industries that depend on gold. Let us address this question from a scientific standpoint, return to economic matters, and address the claimed effects.

Physical Limits

Let us begin by finding the absolute limit of what gold can do for a monetary system. As the United States dollar is the world reserve currency at the time of this writing, it makes sense to use it as the currency to peg to gold. The smallest unit of gold is the atom, and the smallest unit of dollars is the penny. The most extreme possible case would be to set one penny equal to one atom of gold. What would this look like in practice? Any basic text on chemistry can lead us to the answer. The only stable isotope of gold is Au-197, and its molar mass is 196.967. This means that in about 197 grams of gold, or 6⅓ troy ounce coins of the type minted by many governments and private mints, there will be Avogadro’s constant of atoms, which is 6.022140857×10^23. Setting one penny equal to one atom of gold, this is $6.022×10^21 or $6.022 sextillion easily fitting in one’s hand.

This amount of money is so large that people cannot truly understand it due to the lack of a frame of reference for it. Few people will handle anything beyond millions of dollars at any point in their lives. Large businesses may deal with billions of dollars. The most powerful governments have budgets in the trillions of dollars. According to a History Channel documentary, the dollar value of the entire planet is in the quadrillions of dollars, checking in at $6,873,951,620,979,800, and subtracting Earth’s gold content leaves $6,862,465,304,321,880. As the limit of one penny per atom allows one to hold the current market value of a million Earths in one’s hand, it is clear that science imposes no physical limit to make a gold standard infeasible.

Another useful exercise is to try setting the value of all available gold equal to the value of the rest of the planet. The total available gold content at present amounts to 186,700 metric tons. Defining this amount of gold to be worth the above figure of $6,862,465,304,321,880 gives a gold price of $36,756.64 per gram or $1,143,259.40 per troy ounce. This is very expensive by current standards, but current standards do not come close to economizing the entire planet. The actual price would therefore be far lower than this, but this exercise is useful for setting an upper bound.

Current Prices

Perhaps critics of restoring sound money mean to say that the gold standard could not be reintroduced at current gold prices. In this, they are correct; at the time of this writing, gold trades at $1,284 per troy ounce. Multiplied by the 186,700 metric tons of gold available, this gives $7.707 trillion of gold-backed currency, which is not enough for the United States economy, let alone the entire world. The solution, then, is to devalue fiat currencies to fit the available gold supply. According to the CIA World Factbook, the gross world product in 2015 was $75.73 trillion. Covering this with the available gold gives a gold price of $12,616.75 per troy ounce, which is an order of magnitude above current prices, but not outlandish.

Possible Effects

Gold has gained several practical applications in recent times, particularly in medicine and technology. Critics claim that returning gold to monetary use would devastate these industries, along with the jewelry industry. In each case, critics are overreacting. Research toward creating substitutes which work nearly as well in electronics is promising. Gold salts in medicine have numerous side effects, monitoring requirements, limited efficacy, and very slow onset of action. Finally, there is no particular reason why we should care about an industry that produces impractical novelties to the extent of protecting it through fiat currency. It would be better to free up jewelers to do something more productive and helpful to others.

The other major criticism is that returning to a gold standard will cause a harmful episode of deflation. Paul Krugman writes,

“[W]hen people expect falling prices, they become less willing to spend, and in particular less willing to borrow. After all, when prices are falling, just sitting on cash becomes an investment with a positive real yield – Japanese bank deposits are a really good deal compared with those in America — and anyone considering borrowing, even for a productive investment, has to take account of the fact that the loan will have to repaid in dollars that are worth more than the dollars you borrowed.”

But those who are less willing to spend or borrow are necessarily more willing to save, which will allow them to spend more later or fund new businesses and investments. There is also the matter that one cannot hold out forever; one must eventually purchase goods and services. That the technology industry thrives despite producing the most deflationary goods shows that there is nothing harmful about this. It turns out that the value of using a current computer over the next year is worth more than holding out for a more powerful computer next year. It is also true that holding out for more food next month does not work if one cannot survive until then without food now. One may object that this would concentrate wealth in the hands of those who can hold out, but this is a feature rather than a bug because it redistributes resources to those who have been good stewards of resources.

Those who have already borrowed face a larger debt burden in a deflationary environment, and though creditors experience an equal gain, creditors are unlikely to increase their spending to offset the reduced spending of debtors. But again, this is a feature rather than a bug because it incentivizes saving over borrowing while pushing some debtors into default, thus punishing unwise lenders with loss of principal and unwise borrowers with bad credit ratings.

With falling prices, profits and wages usually have to fall as well. But profits are a function of prices and costs, which are also prices. This leaves profits largely unaffected on a percentage basis. Wages are prices as well, and the need to cut nominal wages in a deflationary environment could both incentivize firms to release their worst employees and provide pushback against minimum wage laws.

Finally, there is the belief that the sort of deflation that may be caused by returning to gold would cause a recession. But the above rebuttals deprive this problem of any mechanism by which it might occur. In fact, the empirical evidence suggests that deflation is linked to economic expansion, as occurred in the United States during the 19th century. The only period in which a correlation between deflation and depression does appear is the Great Depression (1929-34), and this may be linked to the central bank policies of the 1920s, which fraudulently inflated the money supply beyond the set gold exchange rates of the time.

Conclusion

While a free market in money would be the most desirable condition from a libertarian perspective, returning to a gold standard is a superior option to that of allowing fiat currency and central banking to continue as they are. The concerns about a lack of gold supply for returning to a gold standard are without merit, and the fears of deflation and devastation to industry are unfounded.

Book Review: The Invention of Russia

The Invention of Russia is a book about the history of the Soviet Union and the formation of modern Russia by Russian journalist Arkady Ostrovsky. The book focuses on the time period of the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin. Special attention is paid to the role played by the media in shaping narratives and steering the population from the Soviet era to the present.

The prologue deals with the author’s experience during and immediately after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015. He briefly overviews events over the past few decades that factored into Nemtsov’s murder, and the author’s experiences through those years are also discussed.

The book proper is divided into two parts, each with five chapters. The division between the parts is roughly set at the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis. The first chapter begins with the end of the Soviet Union, then backtracks to give the reader a sense of Soviet history up to Gorbachev’s rise to power, with emphasis on the events that foreshadowed it, such as de-Stalinization and the crushing of the Prague Spring. The second chapter covers the time from Gorbachev’s appointment to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nature of perestroika and glasnost are discussed, as well as how the Chernobyl incident affected both. Later in the chapter, Ostrovsky details the split between the liberal reformers and the Stalinist hardliners, as well as the beginnings of the privatization of state assets which formed the class of Russian oligarchs. The third chapter explores the final two years of the Soviet Union, including the economic difficulties, the rise of Yeltsin, the worries of the KGB and other elements of the Soviet power structure, the January Events in Lithuania, and the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. The fourth chapter looks at the role played by the media in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and how the generational shift from the shestidesiatniki to their children affected the changes. The Kommersant newspaper is highlighted as an example of the new Russian media, as well as one of several examples of less than honest business practices in the early 1990s, which occurred due to the moral vacuum left by communism. The fifth chapter covers the time from the end of the Soviet Union up to the 1993 crisis, with particular attention to the role of television, radio, and print media in shaping the narrative and saving Russia from another Communist takeover.

The sixth chapter continues the discussion of the 1993 crisis, then moves on to the creation of NTV, Russia’s first Western-style television station. Of course, NTV had to compete with Channel One and other state media, which caused tensions with the state when NTV covered the first Chechnya war from the Chechen point of view. The chapter concludes with the 1996 election, in which the media played an essential role in bringing Yeltsin up from single-digit polling to a victory over Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist challenger. The seventh chapter continues with the events after the election, including a battle between oligarchs that turned into a political crisis, continued troubles with Chechnya, the search for a vision for Russia moving forward, and finally, the 1998 Russian financial crisis.The eighth chapter shows how this milieu combined with NATO airstrikes in Serbia and an overly propagandistic media was able to elevate an obscure KGB agent named Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia. The decision of most of NTV’s leadership to side against this was the beginning of the end for the station. The ninth chapter covers the time from the beginning of Putin’s rule to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, including the ouster of several high-profile opponents of the regime, the bringing of NTV into the control of Gazprom and its gradual turn toward the regime, further trouble with Chechen terrorists, the Russo-Georgian War, and the activities of various media personalities. The tenth chapter looks at Putin’s rule in light of Russian popular culture, the rise of the bureaucrat-entrepreneur, the protests of 2011-13, the military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the use of propaganda to manufacture support for foreign aggression.

The book is excellent at face value, providing a perspective that can only come from a native person who lived through many of the events described in the book. But it is even more valuable to libertarians and reactionaries for the obvious parallels between Russian history and the current state of affairs in the West, as well as for the warnings concerning the improper dismantling of government monopolies, as happened during the transition from the Soviet Union to modern Russia.

To conclude, the unique explanations of historical events and the focus on the role of the media in steering the ship of state make this book an invaluable addition to the collection of any activist, analyst, historian, strategist, or student.

Rating: 5/5

Cut Puerto Rico Loose

On May 2, the Puerto Rican government missed an interest payment on bonds it has issued to an extent of $422 million. Worries of default on the territory’s general obligation bonds are continually rising, as it appears that a $2 billion payment due on July 1 will also go unpaid.

Of course, the usual suspects are calling for intervention to “save” the island from its financial woes. Some Democrats are openly clinging to Keynesian ideas of bailouts for troubled financial instruments, despite the abject failure of such measures to repair the mainland U.S. economy since 2008. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan has made the statement that “[o]ur primary responsibility is to protect the American taxpayer and to help bring order to the chaos that will befall Puerto Rico if the status quo continues going in the direction it’s going,” which is contradictory because attempting to rescue Puerto Rico will require victimizing not only the American taxpayer, but everyone who holds U.S. dollars.

That such a bailout would be funded by money gained by the state through extortion and currency debasement is terrible enough, but rescuing Puerto Ricans from the just consequences of their actions also creates a moral hazard. If Puerto Rico, then why not Detroit? Chicago? California, even? If $72 billion in debt plus $44 billion in unfunded liabilities for a outlying territory, then why not more for the U.S. mainland? Rewarding and subsidizing bad behavior only encourages more of it, not only from some irresponsible actors, but from all of them.

It must also be noted that in the current political climate, Republicans will be demonized by Democrats and the lapdog media regardless of what happens, and the Republican rank-and-file will be given the shaft. If there is no bailout, then Democrats will accuse Republicans of being too stingy to help people in need, especially ethnic minorities. If there is a bailout and trouble continues, which it will under such circumstances, then Democrats will blame Republicans for not using enough stimulus and/or for allocating the funds poorly. If one will face accusations regardless of one’s actions, then one might as well get one’s money’s worth and do the right thing. And what is the right thing?

Do not only abstain from bailouts; cut Puerto Rico loose.

Let us face facts; Puerto Rico has never really been a part of America, not in terms of economics, culture, language, or identity. In fact, it was not a part of America at all until 1898, when the United States gained control of it from Spain (along with Guam and the Philippines) under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. For four centuries prior since being claimed by Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rico had been a Spanish colony. The people there used the Spanish language, but developed their own sense of culture and national identity. (This commonly occurs upon islands, as the ocean makes for a clear barrier between in-group and out-group.) That they may call themselves U.S. citizens is only a matter of law.

The economic well-being of Puerto Rico is not on par with the rest of the United States. If it were an independent nation, it would rank between 60th and 62nd in GDP, with a similar economic output to Angola, Morocco, and Slovakia, none of which are exactly paragons of economic development. If it were a U.S. state, it would rank 37th out of 51. The difference is far more pronounced when considering other measurements. In terms of public debt to GDP, Puerto Rico has a debt of 66 percent of GDP, while no U.S. state exceeds 25 percent. The per capita public debt of Puerto Rico is $19,486.60, which exceeds that of every U.S. state but is lower than that of the District of Columbia. The per capita income in Puerto Rico is $11,241, placing it just above half of the worst U.S. state (Mississippi, $21,036) and far below the best (D.C., $45,877; Connecticut, $39,373).

While cutting Puerto Rico loose is a matter of rational self-interest for mainland Americans, it is also a way to end their victimization at the hands of central bankers and the investors who react to their pernicious policies. While a free market would have much higher interest rates and no currency debasement, central banks like the Federal Reserve have kept interest rates artificially low and have greatly expanded the monetary supply. Savers who are used to getting a reasonable rate of return in a savings account thus have to seek riskier alternatives. Those who have enough capital to access hedge funds, high-risk sovereign debt becomes an attractive option. Those who are poorer either sit on fiat currency as it loses value or venture into precious metals and cryptocurrencies, which can pose even more risk and volatility. While Puerto Rico would likely form a central bank and issue its own fiat currency if it were cut loose, this would keep the Federal Reserve from imposing an economic system which encourages booms that favor foreign investors at the cost of busts that burden Puerto Ricans. A problem of this sort has already been seen in Greece, and the mistakes made by the European Central Bank should not be repeated.

Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong About Social Security And Public Goods

On Apr. 10, economist Paul Krugman wrote an opinion piece called “Where Government Excels” in which he praises some Democrats who are calling for the expansion of Social Security and defends a role of government in the provision of so-called “public goods.” In this rebuttal, I will attempt to show that these ideas are unsound.

Krugman claims that “We …know that some things more or less must be done by government. Every economics textbook talks about ‘public goods’ like national defense and air traffic control that can’t be made available to anyone without being made available to everyone, and which profit-seeking firms, therefore, have no incentive to provide.” First, let us ask how it might be known that some things must be done by government. There is no logical proof that government must provide certain services, as this would require one to show that every possible effort of private enterprise to provide said services must fail. This requires one to not only examine every historical effort, but to predict every conceivable future effort. This is an inexhaustible proof by exhaustion, and therefore cannot be proven.

The specific examples that Krugman gives are national defense, air traffic control, healthcare, and retirement security. To a person who believes in some degree of central planning and has an empirical rather than rational understanding of economics, this may make sense. But let us examine the true nature of these services.

National defense is largely a myth, as nations do not exist apart from the individual people that comprise them. The valid concept is that of individual defense. The purpose of government police and military forces is not the objective protection of the civilian population, but the protection of the rulers from the civilian population, the protection of the statist system should the civilian population overthrow the rulers, and the presentation of a deterrent to rulers of other nations elsewhere in the world who might seek to take over the tax base for themselves. Moreover, individual defense is made impossible by the presence of a government because governments force their subjects to rely upon their armed forces for defense, use said armed forces to destroy any competitors who may wish to offer defense services, and force their subjects to pay taxes to fund said armed forces. All of these activities are incompatible with protecting the citizenry, as true protection from violence must include protection from violence done by the state as well, so objective defense requires anarchy.

As for the provision of military defense in a stateless society, the private sector actually has every incentive to provide it. This is a service which all people want for themselves, and which everyone except for criminals wants for everyone else in the society as well. We know that the demand for this service is very high because people are willing to endure all of the oppressions of statism just to obtain the counterfeit version of it described above. It therefore stands to reason that many people will be willing to meet this demand and be paid for doing so, with competition driving down prices far below what defense budgets of governments currently cost.

Finally, Krugman raises the “free rider” objection, that military defense cannot be provided to anyone if it is not provided to everyone. If true, then the argument must apply to governments as well, which would mean that governments can “free ride” on the military defense provisions of other governments, which fails to explain why all governments field militaries and seek a strong national defense. Secondly, a private defense agency could simply tell any aggressors who would seek to invade an area who is not under their protection. (Although without any gun control laws to stop such people from acquiring military-grade weaponry and lower costs for defensive weapons due to the free market in defense technologies, an aggressive militant group would have a much tougher time attacking the average person than they would now.) Also note that because the “free rider problem” has no solution, it is not really a problem, but a possibly negative fact of life that must be tolerated. It is not certainly negative because money spent on one thing cannot then be spent on another, meaning that eliminating free ridership by making everyone who benefits from a service pay for it will eliminate some other economic activities that were occurring. To ignore this is to commit the broken window fallacy.

The case against air traffic control as a public good is much simpler because the idea that profit-seeking firms have no incentive to ensure the safety of their customers (as well as those on the ground who may be hit by falling aircraft) is sheer lunacy. If the goal of a company is to maximize profits, then civil lawsuits and criminal investigations for wrongful deaths and injuries that occur as a result of a lack of safety precautions that reasonable people would expect to be in place will certainly be detrimental to that goal. The losses would be exacerbated by customers fleeing from less safe airlines to more safe airlines.

Next, Krugman claims that government is better than the market at providing health insurance and that while conservatives agitate for privatization, this will make healthcare less efficient and more expensive. What conservatives agitate for is not true privatization, as this would mean an end to government involvement. Instead, they seek a sort of fascism where healthcare industry leaders and government officials work together to set policies that protect each other at the expense of smaller competing companies and the average person. This fake privatization would move us in the wrong direction, as it would magnify the worst of both worlds by capitalizing risks and socializing losses as well as combining the efficiency of the market with the evil of the state. But real privatization is quite different. Striking down barriers to entry, such as the restriction on buying health insurance across state lines as well as individual and corporate licensing requirements, would give consumers more choices and thereby force companies to either provide better insurance policies or be outcompeted.

Last, Krugman makes a case for Social Security. He argues that it is necessary because people are not rational actors and therefore cannot be trusted to save and invest based on a realistic assessment of what they will need in retirement and an intelligent understanding of risk and return. But what comprises the state? Is it run by a super-intelligent race of aliens who can centrally plan everyone’s lives? Of course not. Those who wield state power are people as well, subject to the same shortcomings as everyone else. He then says that people are losing billions of dollars because investment advisors are looking out for themselves first and their customers second, but if this is a surprise to anyone who uses their services, then they are paying the price for failing to observe caveat emptor.

Some will say, and Krugman does, that people should not be at fault for saving too little and making poor investment decisions. But the essence of liberty is the freedom to take one’s own risks, reap one’s own rewards, and suffer one’s own consequences without external molestation. While Krugman is correct to say that the economy “should not be an obstacle course only a few can navigate” and “is supposed to work for real people leading real lives,” the obstacle courses that few can navigate are arranged with state power on behalf of those who can buy political favor, and this prevents the economy from working for the average person.

Social Security is not the shining example of a working system that Krugman says it is. Since its inception, it has been worse than a Ponzi scheme, as Ponzi schemes at least spare the unborn and only take money from those who willingly enter them. Since the Reagan administration, the trust fund for Social Security has routinely been looted by politicians to fund their pet projects without raising the budget deficit as much as it would otherwise be raised. This sleight of hand would not be possible if people were allowed to completely manage their own retirement funds. While Krugman claims that expanding Social Security is necessary because of the replacement of private pensions with 401(k) plans, the reality is that pension plans for life are both economically unsustainable and logically indefensible, as they amount to paying people for not producing something of value just because they once did produce something of value.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a right to a retirement. Until relatively recently, a period of relative relaxation and unproductivity between an arbitrary age and death was unheard of unless a person had earned the means to engage in such. Those who did not earn such means either had to continue working or be cared for by other family members. With government interference, the responsibility of a particular children paying for particular parents as well as full responsibility for one’s own financial affairs were erased, thereby creating moral hazards that have led to malinvestments. Krugman asks why we should not make Social Security bigger. The short answer is that malinvestments ultimately cause recessions, and the entitlement bubble is a potential killer of the economy as we know it. The impact of the collapse of this unsustainable system will be large enough without efforts to make it even larger.

The Federal Reserve Turns 100: A Timeline Of Economic Mismanagement

On Dec. 23, 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, which created a central banking system in the United States, of which all nationally chartered banks were forced to become members. (State banks had a choice, but nonmember banks had to keep deposit accounts with member banks, and so were under control of the Federal Reserve as well.) The Federal Reserve Note, the current legal tender, was also created at this time. It has now been a full century since this institution was created, so let us reflect upon its various (mis)deeds. This a timeline of some of the major events involving the Federal Reserve over the past century:

1913: The Federal Reserve is created.

1914: Benjamin Strong becomes the first Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which was the most powerful position in the Federal Reserve until the Banking Acts of 1933 and 1935. Charles S. Hamlin becomes the first Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1916: Prices have increased over 10 percent since 1913. William P. G. Harding becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1918: World War I drives prices higher. Prices have increased over 50 percent since 1913.

c. 1919: The money supply has doubled since 1913. This is an inflation rate of 100 percent in a six-year period by the correct definition of inflation.

1920: Prices have doubled since 1913. This is an inflation rate of 100 percent in a seven-year period by the commonly used (but incorrect) definition of inflation. This, along with the realignment to a peacetime economy following World War I, helps to cause the Depression of 1920-21.

1921: Following the Depression of 1920-21, the Fed continues inflationary policies to pay off war debts and help the Bank of England maintain a phony gold standard. This consequences of this were partly to blame for the Great Depression.

1922: Prices fall, but have still increased 70 percent since 1913. Prices remain near this level for the rest of the decade. Daniel Crissinger becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1927: Roy A. Young becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1928: Benjamin Strong dies in office. George L. Harrison becomes President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

c. 1929: The money supply has tripled since 1913.

1930: Eugene Meyer becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1930-33: Prices fall again, and continue falling until reaching a low of 31 percent above 1913 levels in 1933. Prices remain near this level for the rest of the decade.

1933: Eugene R. Black becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve. President Franklin Roosevelt orders that gold owned by American citizens be confiscated and replaced with Federal Reserve Notes.

1933-35: The Banking Acts create the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, insuring individual deposits and thereby creating a moral hazard for banks, which no longer needed to be as careful with their assets.

1934: Marriner S. Eccles becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1938: The Federal Reserve panics at the potential for inflation, and doubles the minimum reserve requirements. This sends the economy into a tailspin of credit liquidation.

c. 1941: The money supply has quadrupled since 1913.

1941-45: World War II drives prices higher, from 41.4 percent above 1913 levels in 1941 to 81.8 percent above 1913 levels in 1945.

c. 1943: The money supply has quintupled since 1913.

1947: Prices are again more than double those of 1913.

1948: Thomas B. McCabe becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1951: William McChesney Martin becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

c. 1952: The money supply has increased ten-fold since 1913.

1960: The money supply has increased twenty-fold since 1913.

1961: Prices have tripled since 1913.

1966: The money supply has increased thirty-fold since 1913.

1970: Arthur F. Burns becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The money supply has increased forty-fold since 1913.

1971: Prices have quadrupled since 1913. President Nixon ends the Bretton Woods system, closing the gold window. From this point onward, the Federal Reserve is able to create currency at a much greater pace, leading to much faster inflation and price increases.

1972: The money supply has increased fifty-fold since 1913.

1975: Prices have quintupled since 1913.

1978: G. William Miller becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1979: Paul Volcker becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1980: The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act gives the Federal Reserve more control over non-member banks. The money supply has increased one hundred-fold since 1913.

1983: Prices have increased ten-fold since 1913.

1987: Alan Greenspan becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1990: The money supply has increased two hundred-fold since 1913.

1995: Prices have increased fifteen-fold since 1913.

2000: The money supply has increased three hundred-fold since 1913.

2004: The Federal Reserve lowers its interest rate target, leading to malinvestments in housing that create a bubble. The money supply has increased four hundred-fold since 1913.

2006: Ben Bernanke becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Prices have increased twenty-fold since 1913. The housing bubble peaks.

2008: The money supply has increased five hundred-fold since 1913. The housing bubble bursts. The Federal Reserve begins quantitative easing in an attempt to mitigate the financial crisis of 2007-08.

2009-2011: Bloomberg L.P. sues the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System for disclosure of information about banks and other financial institutions that had borrowed from the Federal Reserve discount window during the United States housing bubble and ensuing financial crisis. The Fed was forced to release the information, which showed that the Fed had made as much as $1.2 trillion available to banks and other companies in the form of emergency loans between 2007 and 2010.

2013: Over the past century, the US dollar has lost 95.6 percent of its purchasing power. On average, an item that cost $100 in 1913 costs $2,354.23 at present. Also, while there were approximately $16 billion in circulation in 1913, this has expanded to $10.9718 trillion, an increase of over 68,000 percent.