Posts tagged with: economics

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”

He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.

Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.

Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.

Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).

Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.

Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.

Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.

Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.

Amid the hustle and bustle of preparing for tonight’s Acton Institute annual dinner, I’m trying to carve out some time to make final preparations for my participation in the 9th Annual Christian Scholars’ Symposium hosted by the Christian Legal Society. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be debating with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on the question, “Justice, Poverty, Politics & the State: Is There a Christian Perspective?”

One of the pressing issues related to the size and scope of government is the complex nature of today’s tax system, particularly at the federal level. Regardless of what you think of Herman Cain’s “9-9-9″ tax plan, Arthur Laffer’s opening observations in a WSJ op-ed yesterday summarize well where we find ourselves:

It used to be that the sole purpose of the tax code was to raise the necessary funds to run government. But in today’s world the tax mandate has many more facets. These include income redistribution, encouraging favored industries, and discouraging unfavorable behavior.

To make matters worse there are millions and millions of taxpayers who are highly motivated to reduce their tax liabilities. And, as those taxpayers finagle and connive to find ways around the tax code, government responds by propagating new rules, new interpretations of the code, and new taxes in a never-ending chase. In the process, we create ever-more arcane tax codes that do a poor job of achieving any of their mandates.

Gideon was kind enough to ask me to contribute to CPJ’s Capital Commentary a few months back on the question of getting back to first principles with respect to the tax code. And in that piece, “Back Door Social Engineering,” I made the following case, taking my own point of departure with another quote from Laffer:

A return to a first-principles discussion of taxation in America requires a return to the fundamental purposes of taxation. Notwithstanding the current size of the federal tax code, the fundamental purpose of government taxation is not to encourage or discourage particular behaviors. The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities. It is true, as economist Arthur Laffer has made famous, that “when you tax something you get less of it, and when you reward something you get more of it.” But this reality, which takes into account how people respond to incentives, is secondary to the basic function of taxation.

It is immoral for a government to chronically run up deficits and lack the willpower to actually raise the funds it needs to do what it sets before itself. Michael Munger put it well: “Deficits are future taxes.” Quite apart from the question of what the government ought to be doing is the issue of paying for what it actually does, and our government has failed miserably on that latter point.

In a report on the Republican roundtable debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez writes about the ongoing breakdown of the family and its role in economic life. She talks to Acton’s Samuel Gregg about the clashing views that often exist in the conservative world on economic questions.

“There are obvious tensions between those free marketers who have problems with objective morality and those social conservatives who have a bad habit of blaming the market economy for many of society’s problems,” says Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute. “But it seems to me that free societies characterized by a robust market economy, strong civil associations, and a limited state need (a) market institutions underpinned by a commitment to liberty and property rights and (b) social institutions that are characterized by unapologetically nonliberal conceptions of family and associational life. . . . Large, expansionist states tend to undermine not just the market but also civil society and strong families.”

Read “Love on the Campaign Trail” on National Review Online.

Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.

In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.

But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:

For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.

The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.

The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?

Acton has been heavily involved in developing a new initiative called PovertyCure, an international network that promotes entrepreneurial solutions to poverty rooted in the dignity of the human person.

We are excited to announce the launch of PovertyCure this week. Acton has joined together with over 100 organizations to encourage people to rethink charity and development.

In the last three years I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over a hundred people from all over the world—religious and political leaders, small business owners, development experts, people working with orphans and the sick, and entrepreneurs creating jobs and prosperity in their communities. It’s been inspiring and eye-opening. You can watch clips from some of those interviews at the Voices page of the PovertyCure website.

Watch the 3 Minute Promo (below) and a clip from Fr. Sirico on Charity and Enterprise. You can “Like” PovertyCure on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

And please encourage your church, business or non-profit to join the PovertyCure network.

My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:

Class Warriors for Big Government

By Ray Nothstine

Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.

One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.

Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:

Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.

Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.

While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.

This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.

History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.

Congress insults our intelligence when it tells us that Chinese currency games are to blame for our trade deficit with that country and unemployment in our own. Legislators might as well propose a fleet of men-o’-war to navigate the globe and collect all its gold: economics is not a zero-sum game.

An exchange on yesterday’s Laura Ingraham Show frames the debate nicely. The host asked Ted Cruz, the conservative Texan running for U.S. Senate, what he thought about the Chinese trade question. Said Cruz, “I think we need to be vigorous in dealing with China, but I think it’s a mistake to try to start a trade war with them.”

“The trade war is on, and we’re losing it,” Ingraham responded. “[China is] subverting the principles of free trade.”

We blockaded the ports of the Barbary pirates when they subverted the principles of free trade — is Ingraham looking for a similar response now? No, she wants weenier measures: just some punitive sanctions here and there to whip China back into shape (because those always work).

Conservatives who are looking through the Mercantilist spyglass have got to put it down, because it distorts economics in the same way Marxism does. Economic growth and expansion of the labor market don’t come by the redistribution of wealth; they come by allowing man to exercise his creative talents, to innovate, to produce.

Protectionists also tend to ignore the inverse relationship between the trade deficit and the inflow of capital to a country. We are a nation of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs require investment. All business requires investment. If it’s Chinese investment, then Chinese investors see long term value in the U.S. economy. Sorry I’m not sorry about that.

Our leaders do the country a disservice by proclaiming that unemployment is caused by a trade deficit, and that a build-up of retaliatory tariffs is the way to fix the trade deficit. And they do other countries a disservice also, because U.S. protectionism hurts our trade partners (or potential trade partners). Holding back U.S. economic progress by artificially retaining manufacturing jobs, for example, means that workers in China or Vietnam are denied employment opportunities. It’s mindless selfishness.

The green tech firm Solyndra secured at $535 million federal loan guarantee in 2009 and was touted as an example of a promising green future. A month ago, the company went bankrupt. Here are the top five lessons we should learn from Solyndra’s collapse.

5. Both sides of the aisle are involved. Republican support of federal “investment” is routine — in fact, the DOE program that made Solyndra’s loan was approved by President Bush. It is true that Solyndra’s original application to the Bush era loan program was denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but then stimulus bill was passed, with Republican support in the Senate.

4. Stimulus tends to be wasted, and gigantic stimulus is wasted gigantically. The DOE guaranteed loan program’s budget was almost doubled by the stimulus bill, and it became more a money-shoveling operation than a subsidized bank. As Steven F. Hayward wrote in The Weekly Standard, “More than one DOE staffer told me at the time that they didn’t know how they were going to be able to spend all the stimulus money being thrown at the department.”

(Personally, I thought the stimulus bill was great — stimulus money disbursed by the NIH funded my part time job in a lab through college and a lot of the fancy equipment I got to use, but it’s unclear how that use of public money accomplished the Congress’s goal.)

3. Government money turns businesses into consumers, not producers. The Washington Post reported that Solyndra began spending money wildly once it received the DOE loan. “After we got the loan guarantee, they were just spending money left and right,” said a former engineer at the company. And as the Energy Department found itself disbursing money rather than “investing” it, businesses that wanted that money adjusted their efforts accordingly. Investing decisions are made based on a company’s product: can it sell enough to profit its investors? Free money is passed out with considerably less forethought.

Businesses that are serious about getting their share of government cheese (especially businesses like Solyndra for whom the government loan is four or five times the amount of a private investment) turn their focus away from producing something in a financially sustainable way, and become as dependent on government as the clients of the Roman Senate.

2. This story is applicable to the rest of green jobs. Solar trade groups have been defending federal support of the industry, saying for example “You can’t judge an industry by the bankruptcy of one company.” But though Solyndra had its personal demons — its chief competitive advantage evaporated, for instance, when the price of polysilicone fell 85 percent — there’s nothing to distinguish the main faults of this loan deal from any other the DOE might make. These types of disbursals, whichever bureau they come from and whomever they go to, encourage consumption instead of production.

1. Entrepreneurs drive economic growth. Government subsidies pervert the natural incentives of a free market, which is why they’re a bad way to create jobs. They also pervert the nature of work, and in that way violate the Christian vocation. As I explained in an Acton Commentary, the government commodifies workers when it buys jobs, because it strips them of the dignity of productive work and treats them like so many votes to be bought.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has a piece over at The American Spectator that may surprise big government liberals. (We know you read this blog.) In “Free Market Sweden, Social Democratic America,” he lays out the history of Sweden’s social democracy — its nature and its effects on the country’s economy — and then draws lessons for the United States. The Scandinavian country isn’t quite the pinko nanny state Americans like to look down upon, and we’ve missed their reforms of the last two decades.

Gregg explains that Sweden’s dramatic mid-century expansions of government were portrayed as rooted in the traditional values of the homeland, so Social Democrat governments escaped the soft-Marxism tag, and were able to do pretty much as they pleased. Social programs were also characterized as coverage of universal rights, to be imposed by general taxation. Then came

the decision of governments in the 1970s to hasten Sweden’s long march towards the Social Democratic nirvana. This included expanding welfare programs, nationalizing many industries, expanding and deepening regulation, and — of course — increasing taxation to punitive levels to pay for it all.

Over the next twenty years, the Swedish dream turned decidedly nightmarish. The Swedish parliamentarian Johnny Munkhammar points out that “In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages inSweden increased by only one percentage point.” So much for helping “the workers.”

Economic reality was painful, but Sweden responded, and began to unravel some of its “progress,” reducing the public sector and even allowing private retirement savings. Unemployment was still high though — about 20 percent — in large part because the country’s tax structure encouraged joblessness.

But with a non-Social Democrat coalition government’s election in 2006, Sweden’s reform agenda resumed. On the revenue side, property taxes were scaled back. Income-tax credits allowing larger numbers of middle and lower-income people to keep more of their incomes were introduced.

To be fair, the path to tax reform was paved here by the Social Democrats. In 2005, they simply abolished — yes, that’s right, abolished — inheritance taxes.

But liberalization wasn’t limited to taxation. Sweden’s new government accelerated privatizations of once-state owned businesses. It also permitted private providers to enter the healthcare market, thereby introducing competition into what had been one of the world’s most socialized medical systems. Industries such as taxis and trains were deregulated. State education and electricity monopolies were ended by the introduction of private competition. Even Swedish agricultural prices are now determined by the market. Finally, unemployment benefits were reformed so that the longer most people stayed on benefits, the less they received.

By 2010, Sweden’s public debt had fallen dramatically and its rate of economic growth was 5.5 percent. Compare that with America’s 2.7 percent growth in 2010, and just try to restrain your jealous impulses.

Gregg cautions that Sweden’s economy is still hampered the Social Democrats’ legacy. High minimum wages keep a full quarter of the country’s youth unemployed, and a carbon tithe to the religion of environmentalism retards growth, but

It’s surely paradoxical — and tragic — that a small Nordic country which remains a byword for its (at times obsessive) commitment to egalitarianism has proved far more willing than America to give economic liberty a chance.

Full article here.

Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:

Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.

Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.

If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.

Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.

The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.

Read the full text here.