Be Our Guest: "The U.S. Economy: A Fading Illusion?"

This essay, by longtime NOL reader and CPA Jack Curtis, is the first essay of 2020’s “Be Our Guest” feature. Here is a snippet:

This widespread financial vulnerability seems a natural result of government policies that minimize interest rates and support monetary inflation as the Federal Reserve and other central banks have continued to do in recent decades. There is little incentive to save money when it offers no significant return and its value is inflated away. Governments that cling to such policies are imposing dependence upon their citizens, forcing them in essence to live hand to mouth, deprived of the ability to provide for their own futures.

Jack paints a pretty gloom picture of the U.S. economy. Does this square with what economists have been telling us about the state of the world? Please, read the whole essay, and if you have been thinking about writing for the public in 2020, give us a holler. We’d be happy to put your thoughts up for the whole world to read.

Trump’s Inauguration: Ageing Pains


Vincent has discussed the relative age of US presidents. There is something to be said about the age of electorates.

I was living in the United Kingdom when we voted for Brexit (I was a soft remainer). I was living in the United States when Trump won the election. So I can’t help but feel that Trump’s inauguration is part of a generalised nationalist turn that, ironically, transcends national borders. Why is this nationalist turn happening? And why has it wrong-footed pollsters and political scientists more than once now?

We are repeatedly, and correctly, warned not to over-interpret individual events as somehow determined by given factors. Both the Brexit vote and the presidential election were close, with Trump taking the electoral college without the popular vote. One domino that didn’t fall last year was the Austrian presidency that, after a close call, went to a Green rather than a Nationalist. So whatever explanation we are looking for has to be a tendency that’s slightly shifted the odds in favour of nationalist politicians without the experts being able to anticipate it in advance.

Some suggest that this resurgent economic nationalism is an inevitable outcome of the overreach of trade liberalisation that has undermined national self-determination and humiliated local cultures. Others argue that the real cause is growing income and wealth inequality. I think a potentially more straightforward factor is demography. The electorate is simply older than it used to be.

There are a few reasons why this explanation may work better than the more popular ones. The ageing electorate is almost unprecedented in history. This could make it harder for political scientists to predict its impact on elections. Surveys might be able to tell us how older people vote as individuals without being able to work out how older people surrounded, in addition, by lots of older peers will behave.

Countries like Italy and Japan were somewhat ahead of us on this demographic transition. And perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Italy repeatedly elected a mini-Trump, Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister, while continuing to support the elderly at the expense of opportunities for the young. Meanwhile, Japan has always been more ethno-nationalist than other developed economies and in some ways has grown more politically reactionary in recent decades.

This explanation chimes with the fact that Trump voters were not typically economically disadvantaged. They were older and less educated but typically economically secure. Age was also a big factor explaining support for Brexit. At the same time, an ageing population presents real economic challenges that translate into politically salient problems. Demography is probably responsible for a great deal of the sustained drop in real interest rates, precisely the sort of thing that worries ageing savers with slowly growing pension pots.

Trump wants to boost infrastructure, construction and manufacturing. But these sectors do best with young and growing populations, where families want new and bigger houses and offices, roads to connect them and cars to drive to and from them. What happens when everyone already has a great deal of material goods and a country hasn’t got as many young adults to demand new stuff? Inevitably, an economy’s trend growth declines and may even contract, leaving investors with fewer places to get a good return.

What could this mean about the future? On the one hand, this could be quite a pessimistic explanation. There is very little that can be done in the short or medium term about the demographics of an electorate. So we might just be in for a more reactionary period. The vote is not about strength of belief, just the sheer numbers nudged in that direction, and that is what age can do.

On the other, this could be an optimistic hypothesis. The situation we find ourselves in is a side-effect of two generally attractive outcomes: people living much longer, and lower fertility thanks to women becoming more educated. The balance between the young and the elderly might eventually improve once the demographic bulge of the baby boomers has passed into history (this depends critically on whether institutions permit new family formation). In addition, tomorrow’s elderly are not the same as today’s elderly. They will probably be more educated, less nationalist and possibly less subject to cognitive decline than the current generation. They are less likely to be impressed by a bad sales pitch.

The Great Blessings of Cash

Paper money offers the benefits of anonymity, immediate payment, no identity theft, and no transaction charges. Government also benefits by printing notes with much greater value than the cost of the paper. However, some economists argue that cash has social costs that outweigh these blessings, and advocate the reduction and eventual elimination of paper cash. Several countries are planning to discontinue their largest currency notes. The European Central Bank is phasing out its 500-euro note; it will stop issuing new ones in 2018. The Scandinavian countries are reducing their paper cash.

Kenneth Rogoff, professor at Harvard University, has written a book, The Curse of Cash, in which he argues that the elimination of large-denominations of paper money would be good for society. Cash is a curse, he says, because criminals use the large bills, and because it limits the ability of central banks to have negative interest rates.

The use of cash by the underground economy is a symptom of bad policy, and the elimination of cash treats the effects rather than the causes. The reason economic activity goes underground is that governments have prohibited economic transactions.

Although some U.S. states have decriminalized medical marijuana, the substance remains illegal in federal law, which prevents the sellers from using the normal banking system. Therefore they use paper money. The prohibition of drugs generally drives the industry towards the use of large denominations, especially “Benjamins,” the US $100 bill depicting Benjamin Franklin. The elimination of Benjamins would make it less convenient to sell illegal drugs. The higher cost would raise the price of illegal drugs, but since the quantity demanded by addicts is not very responsive to a change in price, the drug dealers would find ways to do their transactions.

The legalization of drugs would eliminate the cause of the high demand for paper cash. Just as with alcohol, producers would then use the normal banking system.

The underground economy uses cash also for activities that are legal if taxes are paid on the income and sales. Again, the elimination of cash would make tax evasion less convenient, but not eliminate the incentives to evade having substantial amounts of gains taxed away. Rogoff thinks that if the government prohibits the legal use of Benjamins, the remaining notes would lose value, as they would no longer be legally convertible into small denominations and not be legally payable for goods. But large notes could circulate as a medium of exchange within the underground economy as an alternative currency. Moreover, there are underground currency traders in all countries that impose artificial currency exchange rates.

The problem originates in evadable taxation. The remedy that eliminates the cause is to make taxation unevadable. The main resource that cannot hide is land. The taxation of land value, based on its best possible use regardless of current use, cannot be evaded. The elimination of all other taxes would bring production, trade, and consumption above ground and eliminate the current high demand for paper cash.

Another “curse of cash” argued by Rogoff is that paper money prevents central banks from lowering the transaction rate of “interest” much below zero. Suppose a bank has a negative 5 percent charge on deposits, so that the depositor has to pay $5 per year per $100 deposited. Many people would withdraw the money and hold it in paper cash. Companies would offer to securely store your cash in insured vaults. If all notes above $10 were made illegal, the storage and insurance costs would rise substantially, and the banking system would be better able to have the negative rates.

The alleged benefit of negative rates is that, because the banks also pay negative rates on their deposits with central banks, financial institutions would scramble to loan out the money to investors who would pay a positive rate, or become partners in ventures.

It is bad enough now that savers, especially retired folks, are getting close to a zero return on their retirement savings. Negative returns on, say, large certificates of deposit would further ruin those who depend on income from savings. Again, the artificial device of pushing the nominal rate of interest below zero is an attempt to treat the symptoms rather than cure the causes.

Some blame a glut of global savings for the low rates of interest. But technology is marching forward, to artificial intelligence, robots, medical advances, better batteries, and many other frontiers. There is no shortage of possible investment projects. But governments world-wide stifle investment with taxes and restrictions. The USA, for example, has choked investment since 2008 with tighter banking restrictions and higher costs such as medical mandates.

What is needed is the ultimate supply-side policy, cutting marginal tax rates on labor and investment yields to zero, with a prosperity tax shift, replacing all other taxes with a single tax on land value. The land-value tax would also push land to its most productive use, stimulating productive investment and employment.

As to money, attempts to skew markets almost always fail, so it would be best to eliminate central banks and their manipulations of nominal interest rates. Let markets set the money supply and restore the positive natural rate of interest based on the human-nature tendency to prefer to have goods sooner rather than later.

Controlled market manipulations are failing, and so statist advocates propose even more artificial controls such as eliminating paper money and pushing interest rates below zero. But the further we get from economic freedom, the worse the outcome. Interest rates and money evolved in markets; let them return to their natural base.

Note: this article is also in under the title The Blessings of Cash.

From the Comments: Money, Currency, and Bitcoins

Dr Gibson chimes in on Chhay Lin‘s most recent post about bitcoins (I hope there will be more):

“Unspent dollars means reduced sales, and as sales decline, profits drop, layoffs increase, and the total social income decreases, making less money available for consumption. Hoarding induces more hoarding as the economy sinks into a downward spiral.” (Smith, 2009)

That’s a lot of nonsense in just two sentences. (Note this is Smith’s paraphrase of the anti-hoarding argument, which he ably disputes.)

First, there is no distinction between “spent” and “unspent” dollars. Money jumps instantly from one pocket to another whenever it is used in a transaction. All money is “idle” between jumps. This could refer to the demand to hold money which is the inverse of the velocity of money. We hold money for convenience, safety, and occasionally as a hedge against deflation.

Second, decreased velocity means price deflation, other things being equal, and if a fall in velocity happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it can be a temporary boon to buyers and a detriment to sellers. But the idea of a deflationary spiral feeding on itself is silly, if only because we all have to eat. Low prices are the cure for low prices, as bargain-hunters move in and prices stabilize.

Then there’s this “social income” phrase. Real social income is not enhanced by faster spending. It is enhanced by greater productivity which depends on private saving, which in turn depends largely on property-friendly institutions. We cannot spend our way to prosperity.

I’ll also comment on Kaminska’s claim that bitcoins “do not benefit the economy” because they do not bear interest. Along with currency and (in their time) gold and silver coins, bitcoins are what economists call “outside money” meaning they are an asset that is no one’s liability. Checking account balances are a form of “inside money” because they are at once an asset of the account holder and a liability of the bank. When outside money is deposited in a fractional-reserve bank where it becomes inside money, some is kept in reserve and some is loaned out. This apparently what is meant by “benefit to the economy” but in fact it’s a benefit to the bank which can earn profits on the new loans and to the borrower, if all goes well. It’s a detriment to the rest of us because there is an increase in the money supply which causes price inflation.

There is nothing anti-social about holding outside money. Some of us see marginal benefits in holding outside money (security, convenience) that exceed the cost in foregone interest. So what?

My own two cents on this (get it?) is merely that Dr Gibson needs to spend more time at NOL fixing the mistakes of financial journalists and keeping his fellow economists honest. (Notereaders and Notewriters, holla at me and Warren in the ‘comments’ threads if you agree!)

Free Banking Beats Central Banking

In “More Bits on Whether We Need a Fed,” a November 21 MarginalRevolution blogpost, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen questions “why free banking would offer an advantage over post WWII central banking (combined with FDIC and paper money).”  He adds, “That’s long been the weak spot of the anti-Fed case.”

Free banking is better than central banking because only in a free market can the optimal prices and quantities of goods be determined.  Those goods include the money supply, and prices include the rate of interest.

There is no scientific way to know in advance the right price of goods.  With ever-changing population, technology, and preferences, markets are turbulent, and there is no way to accurately predict fluctuating human desires and costs.

The quantity of money in the economy is no different from other goods.  The optimal amount can only be discovered by the dynamics of supply and demand in a market.  The impact of money on prices depends not just on the amount of money, but also on its velocity, that is, how fast the money turns over. The Fed cannot control the velocity since it cannot control the demand for money, that is, the amount people want to hold. Also, even if the Fed could determine the best amount of money for today, the impact on the economy takes several months to take effect, and so the central bankers would need to be able to accurately predict the state of the economy months into the future. Continue reading

Gold, Interest, and Land

Three seemingly unrelated variables are in fact deeply connected. Gold has been the most widely used money, and in a pure free market, gold would most likely come back as the real money. Free-market banking would mostly use money substitutes such as bank notes and bank deposits, but these could be exchanged for gold at a fixed rate. Free banking would combine price stability with money flexibility.

Interest is ultimately based on time preference, the tendency of most people to prefer present-day goods to future goods, due to our limited lifespan and the uncertainty of the future. In a free market, the rate of pure interest would be based on the interplay of savings and borrowing. Interest is not just income and payment, but has a vital job in the market economy. The job of the interest is to equilibrate or make equal the amounts of savings and borrowing. This also equalizes net savings (subtracting borrowing for consumption) and investment. Investment comes from savings, and the job of the interest rate is to make sure that net savings is invested. Continue reading

Look Who’s Practicing Trickle-Down Economics

Thomas Sowell is one of the clearest contemporary thinkers on economic and political issues, both as a theoretician and a commentator on current events. His recent piece on “Tax Cuts for the Rich and Trickle-Down Theory” is an excellent example. In it, he shows how tax rate cuts for the highest earners can actually increase the tax revenue collected from that group. He also recalls challenging his readers to name a single economist who advocated a “trickle-down” theory of economics. No one did so.

Trickle-down is the idea that when the highest income-earners keep more of their income, some of their spending will eventually reach lower-income workers. Their purchases of luxury items will bolster employment in the production of those items. Leftists are fond of setting up this theory and then attacking it on the grounds that the benefits to the wealthiest overshadow the benefits that trickle down to those at the bottom. Government spending cuts hurt low-income people the most. Therefore, they say, tax cuts for the highest earners are a disguised scheme to siphon yet more wealth from the bottom to the top.

The “trickle down” phrase has been around at least since the 1930’s and was restated recently by the current White House occupant when he attacked what he called “The economic philosophy which says we should give more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.”

Does the theory make sense? First off, it ignores the morality of the situation. As T. J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, puts it, “I’m proud of my wealth. I earned it.” He explains how increased income taxes will not reduce his personal consumption but will instead reduce his investments in Silicon Valley startups and his charitable activities. Just what is the benefit, he asks, in taking money away from these uses and giving it instead to programs like Cash for Clunkers or Solyndra?

Secondly, trickle-down theory ignores the fact that high-income people like T. J. tend to invest a greater portion of their marginal income. Capital accumulation is the key to higher worker productivity and thus higher wages and higher standards of living.

There is actually one institution that does practice trickle-down economics. That would be the Federal Reserve System. The Fed recently announced its QE3 program under which it will purchase $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities each month for an indefinite period of time. One aim of this program is to push down long-term interest rates and thereby encourage businesses to borrow. But those rates are already historically low. Can we really expect further cuts to have any significant stimulative effect given the current high level of regime uncertainty?

The other purpose mentioned by Chairman Bernanke is to keep the stock and bond markets propped up. The idea is to pump up the “wealth effect.” This is the idea that when people who see increases in the market value of their holdings of investment or real estate, they will be more inclined to spend, even with unchanged income. Their spending will then trickle down into the economy. As an investor I ought to say thanks but as a citizen I would say to the leftists, look to the Fed to find a real example of exploitative trickle-down economics.