Saturday, January 20, 2018

Can an Economy Advance Without Savings?

According to Frank Decker, Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney Law School, it certainly can. Not only that, but eschewing savings in favor of "monetisation of assets" will yield better results! I refer to his article in Economic Affairs--Volume 37, Number 3, October 2017--, a publication of the Institute of Economic Affairs, London.

Mr. Decker purports to answer the question "Central Bank or Monetary Authority? Three Views on Money and Monetary Reform." The three views examined are commodity money, state money, and money as a derivative of property. All three views are explained very well, and a beginner to the study of the role of money will learn a lot in a short period of time.

Commodity money is the name Decker aptly gives to money backed by gold or some other widely accepted medium of indirect exchange. Commodity money's proponents see two major advantages--that it ends inflation and the business cycle. He quotes Mises and Rothbard to good effect.

State money, or money as a state liability, is fiat money that all the world knows today. Its two most famous proponents are Keynes and Friedman. State money's main advantages, as seen by Decker, are that the state can engage in countercyclical spending and the state can fund itself by printing all the money that it needs for current expenditures.

Decker's third type of money--money as a derivative of property--sounds no different than fractional reserve banking, except that the fraction of reserves required to be held by the lending banks is so low that it is not a factor of lending restraint. Decker gives the example of a business that uses its assets as loan collateral. According to Decker, the money that the bank creates is NOT created out of thin air, because it is backed by private property; i.e., the loan collateral. According to this theory, money can be created ad infinitum, because each round of loans creates new property with which to engage in another round of  property-backed money creation. If this isn't money "out of thin air", I don't know what is!

Decker desires to find the best monetary regime to promote economic development. Of the three money systems, he settles upon a property based system with a central bank as benign overseer. His choice of this system, such as it is, shows his lack of knowledge of economic theory. In fact, he is a thorough empiricist, with all the limitations that are emblematic of trying to gather billions of facts with which to determine cause and effect. Austrian economists know that economics is a deductive science in which reliable conclusions can be drawn by using proper logic based upon irrefutable maxims.

Decker's two reasons for passing over commodity money are rather astounding. He believes that commodity money would "impose limitations on civil liberties and property rights", because "Countless episodes of monetary history show that economic actors will always find ways to monetise their assets.". He is certain that banks will continue to engage in creating money substitutes out of thin air--i.e., paper money and/or book deposits--even though it is against normal commercial law or, under a free banking system, that money creation would be limited by normal banking presentment practices. But most damaging, according to Decker, is that commodity money would restrict a nation's development. Astonishingly he states that "Commodity money would also retard economic development, as the monetisation of assets allows investment without the prior accumulation of savings,..."! In other words, why save when capital can be created ex nihilo at the stroke of a computer key? Counterfeiters must be wondering why they are persecuted when their actions are actually beneficial!

Decker equates capital with book entry capital accounts. It is as if an Iowa farmer believed that he could acquire seed corn by making an entry on his books. He would not have to save some corn from last year's crop; he could consume it all and perhaps plant pieces of paper. Of course, this capital that Decker believes appears magically actually comes from real people giving up real assets. Frederic Bastiat's That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen and Richard Cantillon's insight that money enters the economy at specific places, unduly rewarding specific individuals (the Cantillon Effect), could not be more appropriate.

In order for Decker to be correct he must see new factories, houses, etc. arising and believe that nothing was sacrificed to build them. But clearly that is not how the world works. The sacrifice is there, even if NOT seen. Inflating the money supply robs current holders of assets, those who sacrificed and saved, for the benefit of the earlier receivers of the new money. It is a transfer of wealth, not an increase in wealth.

Decker sounds like a gambling addict who counts only his winnings and not his losses. The winners are the earliest receivers of the new money, who can buy at existing prices. Later receivers see increasingly higher prices and/or lower returns on investment.

Today's interest rate suppressions that favor borrowers come at the considerable expense of savers, many of whom are retired. Their standard of living deteriorates, but, since Decker cannot find statistics to record this fact, he believes that it is not happening. He fails to go that next and necessary step to consider that which is both seen and unseen, per Bastiat's timeless insight.

No individual or group of supposedly wise men should ever be given the power to create money out of thin air or to manipulate the interest rate. Only commodity money, which is controlled by no one, can protect private property and perform the market's time coordination function, AKA the interest rate. Spending requires prior savings, and savings cannot be spent twice.

The old saving that "there is no such thing as a free lunch" needs an addendum--Somebody always pays.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Bastiat and the Hubble Space Telescope

A few days ago my wife and I watched a fascinating program on PBS. The long running Nova series featured the history and accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope. The program was titled Invisible Universe Revealed. This episode was composed of three parts.

The first third of the program explained how the astronomers secured funding for the space telescope and successfully built and launched it. Senator William Proxmire, Democrat from Wisconsin, had the space telescope in his sights. From 1975 to 1988 the senator awarded his monthly Golden Fleece Award for egregiously wasteful spending. According to Nova, funding for Hubble was secured when Nancy Roman, Chief Astronomer-to-be, pointed out, apparently to the satisfaction of Congress, that for the cost of a night at the movies, every American would enjoy fifteen years of astronomical revelations. Hubble was launched by the Space Shuttle on April 24, 1990 and deployed a day later. That's when the real problems began.

The second part of the program was devoted to the thrilling repair conducted by astronauts on the orbiting telescope. Construction faults in the giant reflecting mirror made the telescope unusable. Incredibly these faults were not discovered until the telescope was in earth orbit. Nevertheless, the telescope was fixed, and this is the best part of the program. From diagnosing the problem, agreeing upon a feasible fix, to astronauts practicing the repair in a giant water tank (20 months of training!), and finally conducting the repair in space, the viewer is astonished at the knowledge, dedication, and skill of everyone associated with this NASA program.

The third part of the program attempts to sell the results of the Hubble program to the viewers. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the program. The astronomers do their best to get the viewer excited about the things that they themselves feel are important, explaining difficult concepts in lay terms and showing beautiful pictures taken by Hubble. But for this viewer, it just didn't work. And here is where my economist side started thinking about Frederic Bastiat's timeless essay That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen.

The astronomers seem truly excited that now they can answer two questions that (they claim) have perplexed mankind from time immemorial; i.e., how old is the universe and how many stars are there.
The answer is 13.7 billion years. The number of stars is a so large that it's beyond human comprehension:  2 with twenty zeroes behind it, which is called 200 quintillion! There are 200 billion galaxies in the universe and each galaxy has 100 billion stars. (I must confess that these questions have not caused me to lose even one minute of sleep...ever.) Furthermore, the telescope has revealed many facets of the universe that are of great interest to astronomers. Did you know that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate; that there are black holes at the center of all galaxies, and that there is a previously unknown force, called black energy, which makes up seventy percent of all the "stuff" in the universe? Me neither, but I must confess that, even after learning of my ignorance of these matters, I'm still not clear how my life has been made better. And this is where Bastiat comes in.

Even though the program honestly gives some air time to the skepticism the astronomers faced in order to secure funding, it makes no attempt to show that all that money and all that new knowledge has translated into even a smidgen of the improvement of mankind and how the project meets even the most expansive description of the proper role of government. Bastiat would point out that all that funding came at a cost, even if a relatively small per citizen cost, of real improvement in mankind's satisfaction. Each citizen did NOT have some higher satisfaction met, otherwise government funding would not have been necessary. Furthermore, the small-per-citizen cost argument used by Nancy Roman to justify the spending really doesn't stand up to serious analysis. If every American gave me just one cent each year, I could live very well and no one would be able to say honestly that his satisfaction was impaired even in the smallest way much less foregoing a night at the movies. You can see that almost any specious program can be justified by this type argument.

I dare say that a survey of most Americans would find that few know anything about the Hubble Space Telescope and its accomplishments to improve mankind's knowledge of the universe. In fact I question that the Hubble Space Telescope has done one positive thing for the improvement of mankind beyond the satisfaction felt by the very few in the astronomy field. Pure knowledge may be important in some way to those who seek it, but why force others to forego even the smallest satisfaction in order to provide it to an elite few?

So, should and would the Hubble have been built? This question cannot be answered unless individuals are allowed to fund it voluntarily and not have government coercively extract the funds from them through taxes. Perhaps some very wealthy individuals could have been convinced to fund the project. Maybe some sharp Madison Avenue marketers would have developed a program to raise the funds from a vast, interested citizenry. Furthermore, there is such a thing as pursuing an end before its time has come. Perhaps a Hubble-type telescope could have been placed in orbit a few years later at a greatly reduced cost, a cost that could have been borne by private donors. Who knows. But we do know that the Hubble Space Telescope has reduced the quality of our lives in a small way that can never be recovered. Personally, as much as I was impressed by the Hubble's accomplishments, I would have preferred a night at the movies.