Alex Tabarrok has a very flattering post at Marginal Revolution about my 2011 article, “Ben Bernanke versus Milton Friedman: The Federal Reserve’s Emergence as the U.S. Economy’s Central Planner.” It seems that the President of the Richmond Fed has independently just made a similar argument.
The Keynesian is ever mistaking economic activity for economic growth, credit expansion for wealth creation, profligacy for progress. Growth, wealth, progress. He uses his own definitions of each to reinforce his definitions of the others. And they are all fallacious.
When the Austrian tells the Keynesian that the printing and spending of mere pieces of paper cannot lead to more wealth in society, the Keynesian retorts that it is undeniable that credit expansion and stimulus lead to more economic activity. In this he is technically correct. Printing more dollars and handing them out to those who would consume and invest them, does indeed lead to “activity,” even more perhaps than there otherwise would have been.
But our Keynesian assumes, or assumes that his audience will assume, that mere economic activity is growth, is wealth, is progress. Presumably this includes even that activity which our Austrian rightly considers overinvestment (more properly, malinvestment), overconsumption, and/or the proverbial breaking of windows, each of these a common side-effect of the Keynesian witchdoctor’s remedies (often intended to cure ailments caused by earlier interventions, some Keynesian, some not).
If the Keynesian’s definition of economic activity doesn’t (oh, but it does!) include these things then the burden of proof is on him to show that his prescriptions lead to more real growth than would their absence on an unhampered market. And that his incantations lead, on the whole, to economic health rather than disease. A free market is largely unencumbered by the ailments mentioned above so in order to do this it would need to be shown that the sicknesses that do affect it are somehow worse than those caused by intervention.
And to be sure, pure economic freedom isn’t perfect. It has its own share of maladies. But these are all coughs and sneezes by comparison. Cures, if they are needed at all, come from the market itself. The economic meddlers and potion peddlers only serve to make things worse.
We must admit that not even on the most unfettered of markets does all economic activity lead to growth. For human actors err, and the market punishes their errors. How much more is all this the case under a centrally-planned expansionary-monetary/stimulatory-fiscal regime? And how much more severe will be the punishment?
Last year I wandered down the street to an open house for sale. Even though I announced myself as a looky-loo, the agent welcomed me. We sat around talking and eating cookies for an hour; no prospects showed up.
It was a nice day today and I decided to walk to another open house thinking I’d again look around and chat with the agent. Hardly – the place was mobbed! It looks great in this picture but the reality is it’s stuck way up on a hill with a steep driveway and no garage. It’s 80 years old and although it’s been fixed up cosmetically it’s nothing to write home about; not in my book anyway. Nevertheless, I’m betting they’ll have multiple offers before this first day on the market is over.
This is the San Francisco Peninsula which is by no means representative of the whole country but I hear that Las Vegas has turned around too, as have tony places in New York. Why? Although I can’t prove it, I believe a good part the gusher of money that the Fed has been printing is now making its way into housing. The stock market has stalled, the bond market is in retreat, gold has plummeted, and that pretty much leaves housing.
So although the basic premise of monetary stimulus is plausible, it just doesn’t work. The new money seems to go careening around the economy in search of the Next Big Thing. Bubbles form and collapse, malinvestments are revealed and the cycle starts anew. What’s different this time is that it’s been such a short time since the collapse of the previous housing bubble to what looks like the start of another.
If these wasteful cycles of boom and bust are to end, the Fed must cease its stimulus programs. But it can’t. When the Fed dropped just a hint last week that it might start “tapering” off its bond-buying (money-printing) program, the bond market panicked. Why should we care about the bond market? For one thing, the average maturity of the federal debt is just a couple of years. Maturing debt must be rolled over into new debt, and if the new debt carries higher interest rate, the total annual interest payment could quickly swell from a “mere” $345 billion for the current fiscal year toward a trillion dollars per year, swamping any efforts to contain spending, like the $80 billion sequester that just took effect. We could end up needing a bailout from China.
The Fed will very likely continue or even accelerate its bond buying, depending on who occupies Bernanke’s seat come January. We should expect continuing cycles of bubbles and busts and the real possibility of some very nasty fiscal consequences.
Some of you have probably already seen Roger Lowenstein’s overly laudatory, but still useful and interesting, article on Ben Bernanke in the March 2012 Atlantic. As a good antidote, you should check out George Selgin’s thorough and informed critique of Bernanke’s first of four lectures on the Federal Reserve. Bernake seemingly unreflectively repeats many gross myths about the history of banking. Although these myths are widely believed by mainstream economists who who are abysmally ignorant of history, Bernanke has specialized in monetary history and should really know better.
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel