You’ll recall that Murphy was a guest of Acton a few weeks ago and delivered an address as part of the 2014 Acton Lecture Series. You can check out the video of his talk at that link, and listen to the Radio Free Acton podcast via the audio player below.
The topic of economic inequality continues to be at the forefront of our current political discussions, thanks in no small part by a president who calls it “the defining challenge of our time.”
But although such concerns are more typically lobbed about rather carelessly and thoughtlessly — cause folks to fret over the “power” of small business owners and entrepreneurs in a mythological zero-sum market ecosystem — there are indeed scenarios in which the rise of such inequality ought to give us pause.
In his book Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works, John Teevan challenges those former assumptions, noting the dangers of observing inequality at the surface (“the rich get richer!”) and the destruction of knee-jerk redistributionist policies. Yet he also duly recognizes that what lies beneath that surface can sometimes be rather nasty indeed.
We may not live in the landed aristocratic context of the French Revolution, but distortions to market forces are increasingly promoted, leading to lots of tiny barriers over the long run. When passed and implemented, these are bound to trap the downtrodden and further insulate the rich and powerful. Where the “rich get richer” in this type of setting, problems surely abound. (more…)
From an economic perspective (from Pulitzer Prize economist Liaquat Ahamed) the European nations paid for WWI not with taxes, but with massive debts financed largely by America. The warring nations could not pay their way out of debt so many resorted to the easier route: inflation. But that inflation destroyed the savings of the middle class and that did not make European nations more stable.
Germany finally defaulted on its war debts after the 1929 crash. The international financial system also collapsed. Of course, German people listened to Hitler’s ideas about blame and solutions, while France, half destroyed by the war, looked at Germany (where few battles were fought) and wanted the Germans to pay for that destruction. The Depression made each nation more economically isolated which added to the misery as trade shrank. Europe was ripe for WWII.
WWI could be taken as a lesson on the perils of excessive debt. Governments have discovered three nasty advantages:
- They can borrow beyond emergencies (war) to pay for anything.
- Government pensions (more debt) are excellent ways to buy votes with the vague idea that ‘future growth’ or ‘future generations’ will easily cover the massive pension obligations.
- Governments have more recently seen that they can lower interest rates and ‘print money’ without being held accountable as they will be bailed out by other countries through central banks which will do, as Mario Draghi famously said, “whatever it takes.” These financial gimmicks look like serious plans because the men wear suits and because their ideas work, at least until the office holders retire.
However, as with WWI debt and the Crash of 1929, a severe crisis will come and prove that these leaders (while possibly not as incompetent or corrupt as the political leaders of Detroit) were wrong.
Speaking of Thomas Piketty, here’s a very helpful and revealing interview with Matthew Yglesias, “Thomas Piketty doesn’t hate capitalism: He just wants to fix it.” (HT: PEG)
A few highlights with some comment:
On the need for a historical perspective in economics:
Thomas Piketty: … It’s not only economists’ fault. Historians and sociologists are too often are leaving the study of economic issues to economists. Sometimes nobody does it.
In yesterday’s edition of The Transom, which I highly recommend, Ben Domenech included a discussion that places the debates over raising the minimum wage within the broader context of the effects of inflation more generally.
Here’s a section:
There shouldn’t be any debate about the reality of the problem that the costs of basic staples, health care, and higher education are chewing up ever-increasing portions of the median family budget which is, in inflation-adjusted terms, smaller than it’s been since 1995. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the past five years, the average prices for all goods are 7.7% higher; the average price of bread is 10.4% higher; and the average price of meat/poultry/fish/eggs is 16.2% higher. In the past decade, the average worker has paid 89 percent more toward their health care benefits, while their wages grew 31 percent. The rising costs of the government-fueled higher education bubble makes American parents concerned they can no longer afford to send their kids to college. On top of it all, Americans no longer feel confident about their ability to find a new job which can pay them enough to make up for the costs of these goods and services.
The problem is not that the cost of unskilled labor is too low. The problem is the costs of what workers can buy with the fruits of that labor are too high. And the reason for that is largely due to government and systems which socialize risk and insulate producers from reality, not the realities of a competitive marketplace. http://vlt.tc/16×9 Those who favor a free market response to these inequality-related concerns ought to view the minimum wage push as an opportunity to put forward an agenda that speaks to these real concerns with a gas & groceries agenda. This is not going to be solved by more government requirements which raise the cost of labor and will absolutely lead to more low-skilled unemployment: it is with an agenda that would smash the insulated systems which have led to these higher costs.
Ben goes on to outline in some detail what an agenda might look like, which includes “ending the government’s management Soviet-style programs of dairy and raisins.” Horror of horrors, the Daily Beast and dairy producers would have us believe that the result would be $8/gallon milk. I can’t be the only one who wonders what the market price of commodities from milk to oil and sugar might be without various protectionist measures and subsidy schemes.
Ben ends the section with a key question: “Some Republicans have taken up more populist anti-corporatist and anti-cronyist arguments in recent months, because they can read the same polls we do. But will they stand up to cronyism, or are they just interested in demagoguery on the issue until they hold the reins of power again?”
The ranks of the jobless swelled by 60,000 to a record 19.45 million, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. Though the unemployment rate remained steady at 12.2 percent, the previous month was revised up from 12 percent.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jon Hilsenrath and Kristina Peterson report, “The Federal Reserve is heading toward launching a new round of stimulus to buck up the weak economy, but stopped short of doing so right away.” The predicted means of stimulating the economy is another round of the unconventional policy of quantitative easing (QE), i.e. when a central bank purchases financial assets from the private sector with newly created money in effort to spark economic growth. Thus, the quantity of US dollars would be increased, debasing their value and causing inflation.
The authors note that this strategy has received significant criticism:
Critics say there is little more the Fed can do to help, having already pushed short-term interest rates to near zero. They contend its unconventional actions could do more damage by sparking inflation, and that in the meantime the Fed is punishing savers who are getting little return on their bond investments. (more…)
“Even the conventional everyday morality,” writes Vladimir Solovyov,
demands that a man should hand down to his children not only the goods he has acquired, but also the capacity to work for the further maintenance of their lives. The supreme and unconditional morality also requires that the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next,—in the first place, all the positive acquisitions of the past, all the savings of history; and, secondly, the capacity and the readiness to use this capital for the common good, for a nearer approach to the supreme goal. This is the essential purpose of true education….
According to Solovyov, there is a basic, commonsense morality by which most parents feel an obligation to leave an inheritance to their children and give them the opportunity and know-how to use it. He goes on to argue that this principle ought to be expanded generationally: “the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next,” passing on what it has received and instilling in the next generation the ability and desire to use the heritage of human history for the common good. This, he believes, is the “essential purpose of true education.” As commencement ceremonies are celebrated throughout the country this month, how well, I wonder, do we match up to this standard in the United States today? (more…)
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.
According to the authors,
In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.
The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,
Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.
Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)
In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.
What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability. Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.
For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.
From Marketwatch today, “Morgan Stanley warns on sovereign defaults”:
“Outright sovereign default in large advanced economies remains an extremely unlikely outcome,” they said. But bondholders could suffer losses from forms of “financial oppression,” such as repaying debt with devalued currency, the analysts warned.
Then there is the increased possibility that governments will resort to other, less-conventional means of deficit-reduction. As Adam Smith observed long ago in The Wealth of Nations, “when national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.” Smith went on to explain that “the liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”
By “pretended payment,” Smith meant governments would seek to escape their debts by inflating the currency. In this way, governments could legally deny creditors what they are due in real terms, while simultaneously avoiding formal bankruptcy.
Of course, whenever a government resorts to inflation to diminish its debts, it has, for all intents and purposes, effectively acknowledged its insolvency. But such actions, as Smith noted, also constitute gross injustices against numerous innocents. Those who have been frugal and industrious suddenly find the value of their savings and capital arbitrarily reduced because of others’ financial irresponsibility. This also reduces the incentives for people to save and invest. For why should anyone bother to do so if they cannot be reasonably sure that the worth of their savings will not be suddenly diluted by government fiat?