I wrote an article a few years ago about hyperinflation in ancient Rome (and blogged about it here), arguing that the social trust in issuing bodies has been a foundation for monetary value long before modern institutions.
I got a random notification that someone had actually read and cited my work in a recent article “The US Money Explosion of 2020, Monetarism and Inflation: Plagued by History?” I really liked the author’s concept: inflation during pandemic periods is staved off for years because of saving rates, but then the post-crisis period is actually when the most inflation occurs.
This passed my ‘gut check’: during a crisis, who blows their entire budget? It also passed my historical-precedent check, and not only because he researched the Spanish flu and medieval precedent; in the Roman hyperinflation, the inflation lagged decades behind the expanded monetary volume, and in fact came right as the civil wars that nearly brought the Empire to its knees came to an end.
So, in short, inflation-hawks, you are probably right to fear the dramatic expansion of the money supply; however, you won’t feel vindicated for potentially years to come. In an age where people look for causes today to become results tomorrow (EVERY DAY, the WSJ tells me “stocks moved up/down because MAJOR EVENT TODAY”), we need to lengthen our time horizons of analysis and recognize that, just maybe, the ramifications of today’s policies will not really be felt for years. Or, put in a more dire light, by the time we realize who is right, it will be too late to reassert social trust in monetary value, and the dollar will follow the denarius into histories of hyperinflations.
I wrote the following update for my Principles of Macroeconomics students and thought it might just count as an update for Wats On My Mind.
In the first two minutes of class, I asked you how you would know how the economy is doing. Let’s focus on our three big areas: GDP, unemployment, and inflation.
Initial estimates are that GDP decreased by 4.8% in the first quarter (Jan-Mar). Let me comment on that a bit:
- That number is almost certainly inaccurate. It will be revised 3 months from now, 6 months from now, and be finalized 9 months from now. That is totally normal – as more and more data rolls in, our estimates get better. My bet is that the number is worse than that because closed firms won’t be reporting anything yet.
- The number for the second quarter will certainly be worse than that. We were only closed for 2-3 weeks in March, so the fact that we’re done that much in such a short window is a bad sign. We have already been closed longer in this quarter and the careful, measured opening we’re doing right now – which I think is wise to prevent a new spike of cases – won’t make for an instantaneous rebound.
- This is as bad as we saw during the Great Recession, but faster. Again, my hope and expectation is that our recovery will also be faster.
- GDP dropped in the EU by 14%. So it could be a lot worse!
The Bureau of Labor Statistics also released new numbers. So far 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. That is roughly 18-19% of the workforce. This is officially, as expected, the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The good news is that the number of new applicants has been going down each week, from 6.8 million at the end of March to “only” 3.8 million last week. (Recall: That’s still 4x larger than the previous high set in the 1980s.) The other bit of good news is that 90% of unemployed workers expect to return to their old job, while that number is usually only 40%. That gives me more encouragement that we could quickly bounce back.
Inflation is DOWN. If this were primarily a supply shock, we would be seeing overall higher prices. That means the drop in aggregate demand is bigger than the supply shock. To a Keynesian or a Monetarist, that also means that all the fiscal and monetary stimulus we have done so far is not enough and more needs to be done. To a Classical economist, the thing that needs to be fixed is still supply – demand itself is not terribly important. A Hayekian, of course, thinks all this stimulus is making things worse – it messes with the price signals markets rely on.
To get a rough estimate of where inflation is going, I have been recommending comparing TIPS bonds to nominal bonds because the difference between the interest rate on those bonds (the TIPS spread) is the market’s best guess of inflation. As you can see here the TIPS spread fell from 1.8% in 2019 to 0.5% at the end of March. During April, it has recovered slightly to 1-1.2%. A very rough guesstimate based on that suggests we would need a stimulus 3x as large as we have done right now to return inflation expectations to normal. !!!
The very idea of having Congress spend an extra $5 trillion on top of what is already being done is more than my little fiscally-conservative heart can comprehend just now. Politically, though, I expect Congress will find it in their hearts/re-election campaigns to have another round of stimulus. The Federal Reserve has even called on Congress to spend more, so have no fears of monetary offset hampering anything. Here is a monetarist arguing the Fed needs to do a great deal more to ensure spending expectations don’t fall. One of the points, though, is that we should not expect hyperinflation is around the corner.
On that first day, most students suggested looking at the stock market. From Feb 21-Mar 23 the Dow lost 10,000 points – 1/3 of its value. Since then it has recovered more than half. Notice that the drop came BEFORE quarantine and that the stock market has been recovering even as unemployment has climbed to record heights. This is another reason I don’t recommend imagining that the stock market gives a clear and unbiased view of what’s going on in “the economy”! The situation right now is clearly much worse than it was a month ago, so trying to figure out current conditions would not make sense. If I wanted to give it the best spin possible, I’d say the stock market is predicting better times ahead despite how bad things currently are.
A few other data points:
- 59% of Americans say they can social distance as long as needed, which is up from a few weeks ago. (Gallup)
- Western European countries started reopening earlier than we have and they are starting to see an increase in cases and deaths again. Now, so far that’s only a 3-day trend and it could just be a blip, but it’s not encouraging.
- Most people are actually behaving like decent, responsible people during the crisis – and they usually do.
Be Our Guest is a new, experimental series at NOL. Basically, NOL is invite-only but you can, and should, submit your thoughts to us. The latest piece is by Michalis Trepas, a Greek national working in the financial sector. An excerpt:
The judicial system was reluctant to intervene, out of respect of the separation of powers (according the Weimar Constitution, currency matters were reserved for the parliament). So, at first, the courts upheld the nominalistic principle and refused to accept a revalorisation of debts. But then, something began to change in the courts’ reasoning. The currency’s slide prior to 1921 could be attributed to the conditions of the “war economy”, whose burden was to be shared by everyone in the country. The unrestrained fall thereafter, the courts said, was a monetary phenomenon, punishing “blindly and unpredictably” only the creditor class.
If you cannot guess by now what Michalis is writing about, read on! If you have figured out what the subject of his piece is about, read on, as it only gets more interesting.
There are cultural and geopolitical considerations to think about here, too, in regards to Greece and Germany and financial markets and constitutionalism.
1. Yesterday (Monday) Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan took office under the system of executive presidency, which gives him arbitrary personalised powers, based on the claim that a system of such extreme powers for one person is the most democratic system if that person is elected. The changes came about as the result of a referendum last year, which gave a narrow victory for the constitutional changes. It seems to me, and many others, that rigging allowed victory in the election. For the first time in Turkey, all ballot papers unstamped by an electoral officer were counted, allowing unlimited fraud. There are other issues about intimidation and irregularities, but this is not the moment to go into further detail, but I will just point out that radical changes to the constitution were ‘legitimised’ by pseudo-democratic fraud.
2. The constitutional changes enable the President to: legislate by decree, appoint most Constitutional court judges, appoint the army chiefs, appoint police chiefs, appoint all higher level members of the bureaucracy, appoint government ministers and vice-presidents without reference to the National Assembly. There is no Prime Minister. The President, Vice-Presidents, and Ministers are not obliged to answer questions in the National Assembly. In principle the National Assembly can reverse decrees as laws, but to allow the President to legislate in such an unaccountable way in the first place undermines all understanding of what a national assembly is for and what the limits on the head of government or head of state (now the same person) should be in a state which is constitutional and democratic.
3. Ministerial appointments have most notably included the elevation of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to the Ministry of Treasury and Finance. Albayrak is a major businessman whose rise in business and then politics have taken place since Erdoğan became the most powerful man in Turkey in 2002.
4. Other appointments have given business people ministerial posts for areas of the economy in which they have a dominant market position. Erdoğan’s own family doctor who owns a medical business is health minister. The education minister owns a private college.
5. The appointments of business people and a son-in-law show carelessness about propriety in the separation of the administration of public affairs from private and family interests, to put it in the mildest way possible. It also suggests that Erdoğan thinks he is too big for the party which brought him to power, AKP. It has been clear for some time that the most powerful people in the AKP are this son-in-law and one of the sons. That is, the AKP exists as a vehicle of one family, and its businesses associates. In this case, it is hardly a properly functioning democratic party.
6. The appointments were preceded by a presidential decree on the appointment of the governor and vice-governors of the central bank, which reduces its autonomy and makes it more vulnerable to Presidential pressure. Erdoğan has clearly been struggling to live with central bank decisions to raise interest rates in response to inflation and the falling value of the Turkish Lira. Anyway, the currency lost 20% of its value and inflation is at nearly 16% though the central bank’s target is 5%.
7. Market confidence in Turkey, even of a very minimal kind, was resting on one man, Mehmet Şimşek, who has western training in economics and is the last remnant of the days when the AKP appeared to many to be a centre-right reformist party, and did manage to behave in part like such a party. Şimşek appears to have been increasingly unhappy with his situation, putting a rational face on polices he knows are going in the wrong direction, occasionally winning battles to raise interest rates. One of Erdoğan’s main obsessions is that interest creates inflation. He has found it necessary to curtail that belief on occasions. Şimşek apparently wanted to resign from government recently, but no one ‘betrays’ Erdoğan in that way. Şimşek was bullied into staying and has now been sacked. His replacement is Erdoğan’s son-in- law. The markets have been spooked and the lira fell very sharply yesterday evening.
8. The Erdoğanists do have a solution to lack of international market confidence in Turkey. It is to create a Turkish ratings authority which will rate Turkish government credit as the government wishes! This absurd proposal, which will only reduce the credibility of the lira and government debt, shows the depths to which economic policy run on political paranoia has sunk in Turkey. Political paranoia because low credit ratings are due to foreign conspiracies!
9. Going back to last month’s election, about 2% of ballots cast have been declared invalid by the Supreme Electoral Council. HDP (Kurdish rights and leftist party) has pointed out that most ‘invalid’ ballots are from polling stations where it did not have observers. The HDP is defined as ‘terrorist’ by the followers of Erdoğan and its presidential candidate is in prison on ‘terrorism’ charges. This is all based not on credible evidence of co-operation with the PKK, which does have common roots with HDP, but on absurdly broad definitions of terrorism which take in people who do not oppose the PKK enough or which offer any criticism of state policy towards the PKK.
10. Based on point 9, it looks very much like 2% of votes cast were spoiled to take votes from the HDP. It hardly seems likely that would be the limit of fraud. As mentioned in point 1, all ballots were counted which did not have the basic security guarantee of a stamp from an electoral official on the ballot itself or the envelope containing the ballot. It is inherently difficult to arrive at accurate figures in this matter, but it looks very much like at least 4% of the ballot was fixed (that would merely double the most obvious form of rigging, which I do not think is an extravagant assumption, after all most rigging will take place in very hidden ways). If I am correct then the pro-Erdoğan electoral list for the National Assembly did not get a majority of votes and Erdoğan did not get a majority of votes in the presidential election.
11. The government-state machine extends claims that the HDP is terrorist to the main opposition party, CHP, on the grounds that the CHP has offered some criticisms of the detention of the HDP presidential candidate, and that some CHP supporters voted HDP to help it overcome fraud and reach the 10% of votes necessary to enter the National Assembly. CHP provincial leaders have been banned from attending the funerals of soldiers killed by the PKK, soldiers who in some cases will be CHP supporters, showing the kind of spite, vengefulness, and abuse of state power driving the AKP.
12. The Istanbul municipal government has announced that public transport will be ‘only’ half price during next month’s Kurban Bayram (Sacrifice Festival; religious festival and public holiday) instead of free as has been normal for a long time. This shows the strains that public finances are under in Turkey. The AKP are specialists in providing ‘free’ benefits to electors, along with favours for individuals and families, building up a base in local government in this way before they came to power nationally. The Istanbul news is a small thing in itself, but is suggestive of a decline in the capacity of the AKP to use public money to buy votes.
13. Given increasing personal indebtedness, rising inflation, the falling value of the currency, the decline of foreign investment and the credibility of government debt instruments, we could see some very difficult economic times in Turkey. It is clear that this process was important in holding the recent election 18 months early. The loyalty of the AKP and Erdoğanist base is intense, but was formed at a time of economic growth and expanding public services. We see going to see what happens to loyalty in less happy circumstances.
It is often said that Canada and the United States are very much alike, except for the fact that Canada has tons of French people (myself included) and free (TANSTAFL) healthcare. It is also often said that when the US economy catches a cold, Canada gets pneumonia.
From an economic historian’s perspective, this is a hard claim to swallow without making tons of nuances. Yes, economic conditions in Canada are heavily affected by those in the US. But, the evidence for that generally concerns the twentieth century. There is very little before that. The first pieces of evidence we have for Canada start only in the 1870s. In fact, that evidence is also subject to many caveats (my work with Michael Hinton suggests that the GDP deflator for Canada from 1870 to 1900 causes a considerable underestimation of Canadian economic growth during the period and that Canada).
Thus, we do not know if that was always true. To some extent, I am tempted to believe that this is true, but that it is has grown “truer” over time. Canada used to be geared towards Britain and Europe for a long time, but, progressively, it became more connected with the United States. Now, the Maddison project data shows that Canada in terms of GDP per capita converged towards that of the United States from the 1870s to the present day. Morris Altman produced revised estimates of Canadian GDP growth (here) that show a moderately steeper convergence between 1870 and 1929. Given the amount of capital movements between both countries, this is not really surprising (in fact, excluding Quebec from Canada brings the two countries closer together). But again, we don’t go back further than 1870.
So, to see if this is the case, I decided to take my paper (online since yesterday) on creating a price index for Canada since 1688. Measuring Worth offers an American Price Index that starts in 1774. If the two economies began to become more interlinked, then a price index that goes back to the founding of the United States should do the trick. The result is below.
I organized the data by time period and it seems that the rates are generally correlated (which you would expect since global monetary conditions do suggest some long-terms similarities in terms of price trends – I have many reservations about the book I am citing here, but it gets the empirical point across). However, the dispersion seems to collapse over time. As we move from the colonial era to the modern era, inflation rates get more tightly grouped together. Free trade, lower transport costs, central bank policy, capital mobility and labor mobility would have factored in to mean that things become more tightly knit.
It does seem like Canada and the US became more interdependent over time.
I have more to come on this!
I have just finished my working paper creating a price index for Canada that covers the period from 1688 to 1850 in order to link with the existing datasets that cover up to 2015. Here is the result (and the paper is currently consideration for publication). The paper is here and it shows how much prices have changed in Canada since the late 17th century.
Here’s an article I wrote for my college newspaper ( = designed for a different audience). I’m mostly interested in the direction college “worthwhileness” is going alongside more opportunities for starting small businesses, entrepreneurship, etc.
Getting a degree is a stamp that says you participated in the established educational conduct. Wisdom, implementation and experience can all be achieved elsewhere. The worst misuse of this stamp is when administrations arbitrarily select it as their sole judgment of criterion, namely, other teaching facilities.
I’m interested in opinions and disagreements anyone might posit – particularly from any professors or postgraduate writers.
On one sunny August 16, at a time of high price inflation, government operatives announced the seizure of millions of eggs and 200,000 pounds of sugar. Raids on the larders of other suspected profiteers continued for weeks thereafter … The government was prepared to return these items to their owners once the chastened profiteers agreed to sell them at a “reasonable” price and under the watchful eye of a government officer.
The official in charge of the raids explained thusly: “I am one of those who believe that a large part of the high cost of living is due to the fact that a number of unconscionable men in the ranks of the dealers have taken advantage … If we can make a few conspicuous examples of gougers and give the widest sort of publicity to the fact that such gougers have been and will be punished, in the future there will be little inclination to profiteer in this country.”
Earlier, the President of the Republic had laid the blame for a lesser bout of price inflation squarely at the feet of gouging businessmen: “The high cost of living is arranged by private understanding” is how he put it.
By now you may have guessed that I am talking about present-day Venezuela, its Presidente, and his henchmen. You would have guessed wrong. The year was 1919, Woodrow Wilson was president, and his henchman, quoted above, was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The high cost of living was a result of Mr. Wilson’s war, which was financed partly by money printing, as well as the absorption of vast quantities of real goods and services by the government for use in fighting the war. The obvious effect of more money chasing a reduced supply of goods and services was price inflation, and that same phenomenon happened in all the warring countries, most notably France.
This episode provides one of many reasons, too numerous to elaborate here, why Woodrow Wilson is properly called a proto-fascist and why he is a serious contender for the dubious honor of worst-ever U.S. president. For more, see Jim Powell’s, “Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II.”
The first three paragraphs above are paraphrased from p. 24 of James Grant’s new book, “The Forgotten Depression.” Though I have not finished the book, I couldn’t resist sharing this tidbit. The gist of Grant’s thesis can be seen in its subtitle, “1921: the Crash that Cured Itself.” Highly recommended, so far.
After World War I, Germany had to pay reparations to the United Kingdom and France. Having sold off its gold, the German government had no specie with which to back its currency, the mark. Therefore Germany issued fiat money, not backed by anything. It was called the Papiermark, the paper mark.
With its economy in ruins, the German government printed more and more currency with which to pay its bills, and the German expansion of money became the world’s most famous example of hyperinflation.
The inflation induced alternative currencies in Germany. In 1922, the Roggenrentebank was established, issuing notes backed by rye grain. In 1923 several local governments issued small-denomination loan notes denominated in commodities such as rye, coal, and gold. The commodity front served as a price index relative to marks for the notes.
The inflation came to a halt with the replacement of the Papiermark with a new currency, the Rentenmark on October 15, 1923*. One Rentenmark could be exchanged for a trillion Papiermarks.
The Rentenmark was fronted by bonds indexed to amounts of gold. Since the US dollar was backed by gold then, the Rentenmark was thus also pegged to the US dollar at 4.2 RM to $1. To “back” a currency means to exchange it for a commodity at a fixed rate. It was not enough to merely index the units of the Rentenmark to gold. To become stabilized, the new currency needed to be fronted by a commodity that was actually used. That commodity was real estate.
The Deutschen Rentenbank, the central bank of Germany, established reserves that included industrial bonds as well as mortagages on Germany’s real estate. A currency is fronted when the issuer has collateral that it can deliver in exchange for indexed units of the money. Real estate rentals payable in Rentenmarks were fronts for the new German currency. “Rente,” derived from French, means income in German, such as a pension.
After having stabilized the money, the Rentenmark was replaced by the legal-tender Reichsmark in 1924 one-to-one, although Rentenmark notes continued to serve as money until 1948.
Previous attempts to front a currency with land value failed, because such frontage is insufficient. In France during the early 1700s, John Law’s bank issued money on the collateral of land in Louisiana, but that hypothetical land value did not constrain the over issue of the banks’ notes. Then during the French Revolution, the government issued “assignats” on the collateral of confiscated church land, but that too did not prevent the inflation of the money.
Land rent cannot “back” a currency, since there are no uniform units of land that can be exchanged for units of money. But land rent can be a “front” for money when taxes are payable in that currency, which helps give that money its value. But that alone does not prevent an excessive expansion of the money. To stabilize the currency, it also needs to be backed by or indexed to some commodity. And gold has been a common and suitable backing for paper and bank-account currency.
The German experience also shows that the gold backing does not require large amounts of gold. It is sufficient for stabilization that there is some credible limit to the expansion of the money. The Germans were lucky in 1923 in having monetary chiefs such as Hans Luther of the Finance Ministry, and Hjalmar Schacht, Commissioner for National Currency, who maintained the gold index by limiting the expansion of the new currency.
But as the experience of France, shows, it is risky to depend on the integrity of monetary chiefs. Permanent monetary stability requires a structure of money and banking that is self-correcting. That structure is best provided by free-market banking, in which the real money (outside money) is some commodity beyond the control of the banks, and the banks issue “inside money” or money substitutes backed by the real money. Competition and convertibility prevent inflation.
Any kind of tax can serve to help endow money with value, but a land-value tax offers the greatest frontage for currency, because in effect, LVT acts as a mortgage on land value, and the government can take over land when the tax is not paid. Unlike with taxes on income, nobody goes to prison for not paying a real estate tax, because the rent serves as a reliable collateral. Land rent can serve as collateral not just for real estate loans, but also for taxation, and for currencies. All countries can have “renten money” when they covert from market-hampering taxes on production to market-enhancing taxes on the economic surplus that is land rent.
* This was corrected from an earlier typo listing the year as 2013 instead of 1923.
I explained how the general standard of living in America, denoted by real income, grew a great deal between 1975 and a recent date, specifically, 2007. This, in spite of a widespread rumor to the contrary. The first installment touched only a little on the following problem: It’s possible for overall growth to be accompanied by some immobility and even by some regress. Here is a made-up example:
Between the first and the second semester, grades in my class have, on the average, moved up from C to B. Yet, little Mary Steady’s grade did not change at all. It remained stuck at C. And Johnny Bad’s grade slipped from C to D.
Flummoxed by the sturdiness, the blinding obviousness of the evidence regarding general progress in the standard of living, liberal advocates like to take refuge in more or less mysterious statements about how general progress does not cover everybody. Or not everybody equally, which is a completely different statement. They are right either way and it’s trivial that they are right. Let’s look at this issue of unequally distributed economic progress in a skeptical but fair manner.
It’s awfully hard to prevent the poor, women and minorities from benefiting
I begin by repeating myself. As I noted in Part One, it’s too easy to take the issue of distribution of income growth too seriously. Some forms of improvements in living standard simply cannot practically be withheld from a any subgroup, couldn’t be if you tried. Here is another example: Since 1950, mortality from myocardial infarctus fell from 30-40% to 5-8%. (from a book review by A. Verghese in Wall Street Journal 10/26 and 10/27 2013). When you begin looking at these sort of things, unexpected facts immediately jump at you.
The US population of 260 millions to over 300 million during the period of interest 1975-2007 can be divided in an infinity of segment, like this: Mr 1 plus Mr 2; Mr 2 plus Mrs 3; Mr 2 and Mrs 3 plus Mr 332; Mr 226 plus Mrs 1,000,0001; and so forth.
Similarly, the period of interest 1975 to 2007 can be divided in an infinity of subperiods, like this: Year 1 plus year 2; year 1 plus year 3; years 1, 2, 3 plus year 27; and so forth. You get the idea.
So, to the question: Is there a subset of the US population which did not share in the general progress in the American standard of living during some subperiod between 1975 and 2007?
The prudent response is “No.” It’s even difficult to imagine a version of reality where you would be right to affirm:
“There is no subset of the US population that was left behind by general economic progress at any time during the period 1975- 2007.”
Let me say the same thing in a different way: Given time and good access to info, what’s the chance that I will not find some Americans whose lot failed to improve during the period 1975 to 2007? The answer is zero or close to it.
This is one fishing expedition you can join and never come back empty-handed, if you have a little time.
Thus, liberal dyspeptics, people who hate improvement, are always on solid ground when they affirm, “Yes, but some people are not better off than they were in 1975 (or in _____ -Fill in the blank.)” The possibilities for cherry-picking are endless (literally).
Everyone therefore has to decide for himself what exception to the general fact of improvement is meaningful, which trivial. This simple task is made more difficult by the liberals’ tendency to play games with numbers and sometimes even to confuse themselves in this matter. I will develop both issues below.
To illustrate the idea that you have to decide for yourself, here is a fictitious but realistic example of a category of Americans who were absolutely poorer in 2007 that they were in 1975. You have to decide whether this is something worth worrying about. You might wonder why liberals never, but never lament my subjects’ fate.
Consider any number of stock exchange crises since 1975. There were people who, that year, possessed inherited wealth of $200 million each, generating a modest income of $600,000 annually. Among those people there were a number of stubborn, risk-seeking and plain bad investors who lost half of their wealth during the period of observation. By 2007, they were only receiving an annual income of $300,000. (Forget the fact that this income was in inflation shrunk dollars.) Any way you look at it, this is a category of the population that became poorer in spite of the general (average) rise in in American incomes. Right?
Or, I could refer to the thousands of women who were making a living in 1975 by typing. (My doctoral dissertation was handwritten, believe it or not. Finding money to pay to get it typed was the hardest part of the whole doctoral project.) One of the many improvements brought about by computers is that they induced ordinary people to learn to do their own typing. Nevertheless, there was one older lady who insisted all along on making her living typing and she even brought her daughter into the trade. Both ladies starved to death in 2005. OK, I made them up and no one starved to death but you get my point: The imaginary typists fell behind, did not share in the general (average) improvement and their story is trivial.
So, I repeat, given some time resources, I could always come up with a category of the US population whose economic progress was below average. I could even find some segment of the population that is poorer, in an absolute sense, than it was at the beginning of the period of observation. Note that those are two different finds. Within both categories, I could even locate segments that would make the liberal heart twitch. It would be a little tougher to find people who both were poorer than before the period observation and that would be deserving of liberal sympathy. It would be a little tough but I am confident it could be done.
So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:
A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.
B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)
Naively blatant misrepresentations
A hostile liberal commenter on this blog once said the following:
“Extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, doubled from 1996 to 1.5 million households in 2011, including 2.8 million children.”
That was a rebuttal of my assertion that there had been general (average) income growth.
Two problems: first, I doubt there are any American “households” of more than one person that lives on less than $2 /day. If there were then, they must all be dead now, from starvation. I think someone stretched the truth a little by choosing a misleading word. Of maybe here is an explanation. The commenter’s alleged fact will provide it, I hope.
Second, and more importantly, as far as real income is concerned, government benefits (“welfare”) matter a great deal. Including food stamps, they can easily triple the pitiful amount of $2 a day mentioned. That would mean that a person (not a multiple person- household ) would live on $1080 a month. I doubt free medical care, available through Medicaid, is included in the $2/day. I wonder what else is included in “government benefits.”
The author of the statement above is trying to mislead us in a crude way. I would be eager to discuss the drawbacks of income received as benefits in- instead of income earned. As a conservative, I also prefer the second to the first. Yet, income is income whatever its source, including government benefits.
The $2/day mention is intended for our guts, not for our brains. Again, this is crude deception.
Pay attention to what the other guy asserts sincerely about economic growth.
Often, it implies pretty much the reverse of what he intends. In an October 2013 discussion on this blog about alleged increasing poverty in the US, I asked the following rhetorical question:
“Or have Americans’ standard of living only improved as the gap [between other countries and the US] closed?“
I meant to smite the other guy because the American standard of living has only increased, in general, as we have seen (in Part One of this essay posted). A habitual liberal commenter on my blog had flung this in my face:
“….Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households…” (posted 10/23/13)
(He means in the US. And that’s from a source I am not sure the commenter identified but I believe it exists.)
Now, suppose the statement is totally true. (It’s not; it ignores several things described in Part One.) The statement says that something like roughly 60 million Americans are richer than they, or their high income equivalents were in 1975. It also says that other households may have had almost stationary incomes (“practically”). The statement does not say in any way that anyone has a lower income in 1975. At best, the statement taken literally, should cause me to restate my position as follows:
“American standards of living have remained stationary or they have improved….”
You may not like the description of income gains in my translation of the liberal real statement above. It’s your choice. But the statement fails to invalidate my overall assertion: Americans’ standard of living improved between 1975 and 2007.
What the liberal commenter did is typical. Liberals always do it. They change the subject from economic improvement to something else they don’t name. I, for one, think they should be outed and forced to speak clearly about what they want to talk about.
Big fallacies in plain sight
Pay attention to seemingly straightforward, common liberal, statist assertions. They often conceal big fallacies, sometimes several fallacies at once.
Here is such an assertion that is double-wrong.
“In the past fifteen years the 20% of the population who receive the lowest income have seen their share of national income decrease by ten percentage points.” (Posted as a comment on my blog on 10/21/13)
Again, two – not merely one – strongly misleading things about this assertion. (The liberal commenter who sent it will assure us that he had no intention to mislead; that it’s the readers’ fault because, if…. Freaking reader!)
A The lowest 20% of the population of today are not the same as those of fifteen years ago, nor should you assume that they are their children. They may be but there is a great deal of vertical mobility in this country, up and down. (Just look at me!) The statement does not logically imply that any single, one recognizable group of social category became poorer in the interval. The statement in no way says that there are people in America who are poor and that those same people became poorer either relatively or in an absolute sense. Here is a example to think about: The month that I was finishing my doctoral program, I was easily among the 20% poorest in America. Hell, I probably qualified for the 5% poorest! Two months later, I had decisively left both groups behind; I probably immediately qualified for the top half of income earners. Yet, my progress would not have falsified the above statement. It’s misleading if you don’t think about it slowly, the way I just did.
I once tried to make the left-liberal vice-president of a Jesuit university understand this simple logical matter and I failed. He had a doctorate from a good university in other than theology. Bad mental habits are sticky.
B Percentages are routinely abused
There is yet another mislead in the single sentence above. Bear with me and ignore the first fallacy described above. The statement is intended to imply that the poorer became poorer. In reality, it implies nothing of the sort. Suppose that there are only two people: JD and my neighbor. I earn $40, neighbor earns $60. In total, we earn $100. Thus my share of our joint income is 40%, neighbor’s is 60%. Then neighbor goes into business for himself and his income shoots up to $140. Meanwhile, I get a raise and my income is now $60.
In the new situation, my share of our joint income has gone down to 30% (60/60+140), from 40%. (Is this correct? Yes, or No; decide now.) Yet, I have enjoyed a fifty percent raise in income. That’s a raise most unions would kill for. I am not poorer, I am much richer than I was before. Yet the statement we started with stands; it’s true. And it’s misleading unless you pay attention to percentages. Many people don’t. I think that perhaps few people do.
My liberal critic was perhaps under the impression that his statement could convince readers that some Americans had become poorer in spite of a general (average rise) in real American income. I just showed you that his statement logically implies no such thing at all. If he want to demonstrate that Americans, some Americans, have become poorer, he has to try something else. The question unavoidably arises: Why didn’t he do it?
Was he using his inadequate statement to change the subject without letting you know? If you find yourself fixating on the fact that my neighbor has become even richer than I did because he more than doubled his income, the critic succeeded in changing the subject. It means you are not concerned with income growth anymore but with something else, a separate issue. That other issue is income distribution. Keep in mind when you think of this new issue that, in my illustration of percentages above, I did become considerably richer.
Liberals love the topic of unequal progress for the following reason:
They fail to show that, contrary to their best wish, Americans have become poorer. They fail almost completely to show that some people have become absolutely poorer. They are left with their last-best. It’s not very risky because, as I have already stated, it’s almost always true: Some people have become not as richer as some other people who became richer!
Policy implications of mis-direction about income growth
The topic matter because, in the hands of modern liberals any level of income inequality can be used to call for government interventions in the economy that decrease individual liberty.
Here are a very few practical, policy consequences:
A Income re-distribution nearly always involves government action that is, force. (That’s what government does: It forces one to do what one wouldn’t do out of own inclination.) That’s true for democratic constitutional governments as well as it is for pure tyrannies. In most countries, to enact a program to distribute the fruits of economic growth more equally it to organize intimidation and, in the end, violence against a part of the population. (For a few exceptions, see my old but still current journal article: “The Distributive State in the World System.“ Google it.) This is a mild description pertaining to a world familiar to Americans. In the 1920s, in Russia, many people (“kulaks”) were murdered because they had two cows instead of one.
Conservatives tend to take seriously even moderate-seeming violations of individual liberty, including slow-moving ones.
B Conservatives generally believe that redistribution of income undermines future economic growth. With this belief, you have to decide between more equality or more income for all, or nearly all (see above) tomorrow?
It’s possible to favor one thing at the cost of bearing the travails the other brings. It’s possible to favor the first over the second. This choice is actually at the heart of the liberal/conservative split. It deserves to be discussed in its own right; “Do your prefer more prosperity or more equality?” The topic should not be swept under the rug or be made to masquerade as something else.
If you are going to die for a hill, make sure it’s the right hill.
PS: There is no “income gap.”
It’s vital to the liberal narrative that pretty much everything has to go generally downhill (except global warming, of course, which is always going up even when it’s not, like right now). Life has to deteriorate, they think. That things are getting worse is an article of faith among liberals; it’s even a tenet of their faith. (If things are swimming along fine, what excuse is there for government intrusion?) You might even say that most liberals hate most good news. Prominent among the liberals’ permanent myths is the belief that Americans have become poorer except for a tiny minority of the very rich __________% (Fill in the blank.) In its most common version the idea is that Americans’ real standard of living has done nothing but decline since sometimes in the seventies. This, whatever the numbers say.
I, for one, know it’s not true. I was there, after all, from the beginning, even from before the beginning! I remember well how bad the good old days were in many respects. I am distressed that some people with apparently conservative or libertarian ideas have now also espoused this false belief. In this essay in two parts, I try to help readers find their way in the midst of often misleading or downright false statements that seem to support this erroneous belief. As usual, I do not address myself to specialists but rather to the intelligent but ignorant. Specialists are welcome to comment if they agree to do it in English or in some other official language.
1 I don’t contend that I understand what happened to American real incomes during the current crisis, say, between 2009 and 2013. I will say nothing about this recent period. (If I told you what I suspect happened, you might be astounded, though.) I refer in this essay only to the period 1975-2007.
2 I believe poverty and prosperity have to be measured in terms of real income, income as experienced by real human beings: It’s not how many dollar bills you have in your wallet, it’s what your paycheck actually buys that matters. This brings up several tough technical problems we will get into presently or in the next episode. If you think of poverty in different terms, I am not sure I have anything useful to say to you.
The superficial facts
General federal statistics, all OECD figures, all World Bank numbers show that on the average Americans have become considerably richer since 1975. Nevertheless, these statistics, contrary to a now common belief – significantly understate the economic progress of Americans. We, in general, have become vastly richer than were were then.
I will deal later explicitly with the issue of possible differences between what the average shows and the economic progress of sub-categories of the US population. In the meantime, I must point out that some common forms of enrichment cannot be confined to a particular group. Cleaner drinking water, for example, is usually cleaner for everyone. It would be impractical to reserve wells of dirty, polluted water for the poor or for racial minorities. (However, if you search a little you might actually find liberal allegations of such segregation or, at least, the intimations of such. National Public Radio is a good bet.)
Here is what I don’t intended to do, don’t do: I do not accuse government statistics of lying. I help others read them and complement them where they need to be complemented. There is not government conspiracy designed to mislead us about the living standards of Americans, I think.
Major (unintended) sources of bias.
There are three major sources of bias in expressing standard of living that understate, underestimate, understate economic betterment. I explain them below.
Ballooning health expenditures
Since the seventies, most employed Americans have taken most of their pay raises in the form of health benefits. This results from a historically accidental peculiarity of the American wage and benefit system going back to WWII. (It may be getting removed by the implementation of Obamacare as I write in 2013). The large increase in health expenditures provided by employers do not appear in wage statistics. Yet, they constitute consumption in a way similar to straight wages. In fact, wherever people are given a choice between more steak and more health care, they seem to chose more steak and more health care. Health care possesses an interesting characteristic all of its own: While there is a limit to how much steak an individual can ingest, there is no limit at all to how much health care -broadly defined – the same individual can absorb. It’s close to infinite. Why, I am considering right now some surgery to correct a nose I have not really liked for more than sixty years!
Whether it is a wise societal choice to spend apparently limitless resources on health care, much of it for the old and economically unproductive is an interesting issue in its own right. However, it’s not my issue here. Health services have been produced in vast quantities since 1975. They were eagerly consumed by Americans. Health expenditures constitute a part of the standard of living. If you don’t believe this, just ask yourself if the withdrawal of all health care would not be a lowering of the standard of living.
Better quality of common goods
Common objects on which comparisons of living standard across time are based have improved tremendously in quality. This is difficult, sometimes impossible to measure. Indices of comparison across time (1975 to 2007) don’t do a good job of it.
Nominal wages, the numbers printed on your paychecks, have to be corrected for inflation. We all know that a dollar does not buy as much as it did in 1975. (Around that time, my salary of $20,000/year was quite comfortable.) Federal international and private organizations in charge of these things do their very best to correct raw numbers in meaningful ways. However, they meet with several limitations because things of 1975 are often radically different from what bears the same name in 2007.
(Note: The agencies in charge do their best and mostly intelligently. Again, I am not faulting their efforts. Also, I think there is little intellectual fraud involved in this work because their results are among the most and best scrutinized in the history of the world.)
Here is an example: I suspect that the average television set of 1975 was like mine was then: It was small, offered only black and white images, often had scratchy sound, and gave access to little more than three national networks. Watching television then was like eating in a mediocre restaurant that offered only three dishes ( and there was maybe a hot dog stand outside).
When economists correct for inflation, they have little choice but to compare that television set with a modern ultra-flat etc… Hence, when they report that the cost of a television set has increased in face dollars by, say, 100%, they are not able to take into account that the actual service (the enjoyment) attached to a contemporary set with precise colors, faithful sound that is a gateway to 300 sources is ten times, or one hundred times, greater than what I derived from my 1975 B&W set.
This example can pretty much be turned into a general rule: Everything is better, works better, tastes better, gives more service than its equivalent back then. When you find a seeming exception, you soon discover that it’s not real. Two examples of exceptions that don’t resist examination:
A Cars are more expensive now than then by several measures. This means that it takes more days of mean (average) American wages to buy the cheapest car in American than it did then. But the cheapest car on American roads today are vastly better in every way than their supposed equivalent back then. They break down less often; they are safer (weight for weight); they require much less maintenance. (Older people will remember the days when every car required an oil change every 5,000 miles and when prudent car owners changed oil every 3,500 miles.)
In addition, much of the rise in real car prices is due to mandated safety and environmental buffers now built into them that did note exist in 1975. (It’s startling to see in not-so-old movies parents getting into the family car with their children and driving off with no one buckling safety belts because there aren’t any.) No matter how one feels about the current health and environmental restrictions pushing upward car prices, they are undeniably form of consumption. It’s useless to cry,” I don’t want it” when you imposed it on yourself through the political process you deem legitimate in every way.
B Many older people, and I am often tempted to join them, believe that any number of produce just tasted better back then, produce such as tomatoes and strawberries, for example. This is pure delusion. Here is how I know: Several times, I have steeled my resolve, put cash in my pocket and directed my steps to the local farmers’ market. There, against all my instincts, I purchase a pound of organic tomatoes or a tiny basket of grossly priced strawberries. Now organic produce is not better for you (See “organic food” on this blog.) but it’s often fresher, and often handpicked. Each time, I recovered in my mouth the taste of produce of my youth. Each time, I did the calculations only to rediscover anew that the outrageous cost of the farmer’s market produce was actually less, as a percentage of any income, or in inflation-corrected dollars, than the equivalents did when I was young.
We have become used to paying little for mediocre produce, the better produce of yesteryear are still available. They are not even especially expensive. They appear expensive because we are spoiled by general low food prices.
An then, of course, there is the coffee. It was so vile then, coast-to-coast, in 1975 that if anyone but a drunks’ bar served it today he would probably be indicted. And then, there is bread that would have qualified as light construction material. The list is endless: In the good old days, most things were mediocre to very bad and they were, in fact expensive. Current measures are seldom able to take improvement in quality into account. For this reason, they understate average economic progress in America between 1975 and 2007.
I repeat that this average economic progress is also mostly widespread, available to all parts of the population. There are, in fact, few corner bakeries operating especially in the ghetto and specializing in nutritionally unsound, bad-tasting bread for African-Americans.
There may be an exception to the general rule that things have become cheaper in thirty years with constant quality I am not able to deal with here. It may be a major exception: Housing in all its forms may be more expensive in real terms now than it was in 1975. Much housing is the same now as it was then, so prices matters a great deal. Thus, better quality would not explain superior cost. I am eager to see sources on this issue and to publish them here.
New goods, new services
When comparing the prices of things and services then and now, economists are not able, of course, to take into account objects and services that simply did not exist then. This inescapable fact also understates the real progress in living standards. I repeat: Some good things are not counted at all in comparisons of the standard of living then and now because they did not exist at all then. This fact in itself constitutes an overstatement of the standard of living of then. The Internet and its many manifestations, its many subordinate services, such as Google, are a case in point.
I hasten to add that this judgment does not depend on how much you, personally value the Internet and its multiple offerings. To demonstrate that it’s a form of consumption, it’s enough to observe that few of those who can have access to the Internet actually turn it down. I, for example, like most residents of developed societies probably know more than one thousand people. Of the people I know, only three refuse to gain Internet access (and they periodically cheat by catching a ride on a relative’s network tool!)
I can hear some older readers grumble ( as one did recently on this blog) that newfangled technical innovations, such as the Internet and hugely better television, actually made life worse. I smile sarcastically inside for the following reason: Very few Americans seem to be following the primitivist dream implicit in such judgment and make for the wilderness. This, although it would be easy because there is probably more and more undeveloped, empty space in America as the population become more concentrated in a few mega cities. This is too has improved since 1975: There is more and wilder wilderness.
Large health expenditures, better products, more products have increased the general standard of living of Americans considerably beyond what wage and income statistics show. This statement is implicitly based on averages. The demonstration above does not exclude the logical possibility that some sectors of American society were worse off in 2007 than they, or their equivalents were in 1975. This issue is dear to liberal sensitivity. I deal with it in Part 2, soon forthcoming.