Down All Your Markets

The US stock market had its worst ever initial trading weeks in 2016. Speculators are alarmed by the fall in the stocks of China. The economy of China has been growing more slowly, if at all. Also, most of the economies of the world are in growth recessions, a reduction in the rate of growth. The US dollar is high relative to other currencies, which reduces exports.

The government of China has yet to learn that interventions into financial markets often backfire. The Chinese chiefs have halted stock transactions when the market average falls to seven percent. They also have not allowed sales by investors who own more than five percent of a company. One problem with financial “circuit breakers” – a halt of trading – is that when stocks start to fall, speculators will panic and sell more quickly before trading halts. Restrictions on selling stocks create uncertainty when buying them. A speculator will fear being unable to sell shares later.

There is enough inherent uncertainty in markets without government adding to it. Uncertainty makes it important to let the market set the prices. Markets are a discovery process in which prices and quantities evolve through the bids of buyers and offers of sellers. When government interferes, we cannot know the price. Since the leaders of China have decided to have a market economy in goods, input factors, and financial assets, they should allow the market to do its job of setting the prices.

When I visited China three times, I saw a forest of cranes in all the cities I went to. Construction has driven the economy of China, along with exports. But, similar to real estate booms elsewhere, this construction was propelled by governmental policy. Throughout the world, cheap credit and fiscal subsidies to real estate have fueled unsustainable speculation.

Now China has much excess building capacity, and the halt in construction reduces related goods such as furniture and raw materials. The slow-down in China and sluggish growth elsewhere has resulted in a collapse of commodity prices.

The chiefs of China seek to move the country’s economy towards more domestic consumption. But they interfere with domestic spending by imposing a value-added tax of 17 percent on most goods other than real estate. The government of China probably chose to impose a VAT because the World Trade Organization allows the VAT to be subtracted from the price of exports, unlike an income tax. But Chinese consumers suffer a higher cost of living.

The Chinese leaders could have instead enacted LVT, land-value taxation, which would not add to the cost of goods. A tax on land value reduces the purchase price but not the land rent, so also not the price of goods. A tax on most of the rent or land value would stop the land speculation that has made a few people rich at the expense of the public.

The government of China still maintains tight control over the banking system. All the markets – real estate, financial, goods – would be more efficient if interest rates too were set by the market supply and demand for loanable funds. Of course the central banks of Europe, Japan, and the USA also are not letting their markets set the money supply and interest rates. But common practice does not imply optimal policy.

I don’t think the big drop in stock market averages imply impending economic doom. For 200 years, the US economy has had a real estate cycle of an average duration of 18 years. The current cycle began with the depression of 2008. The recovery has been slow, but the expansion has continued as employment and output have grown. Real estate construction has contributed to the expansion, and land values have recovered. The economy seldom has a recession while interest rates and commodity prices are low.

The economy of China has some severe long-run problems, but its economy is still developing and catching up. The government seems ready to let the currency trade more freely, and the coming acceptance of the currency (the yuan or renminbi) into the “special drawing rights” of the International Monetary Fund will boost the economy.

In the short run, the US stock market could fall some more, as markets often overreach, but over the next few years, financial markets will be consistent with the economic reality of restored world-wide economic growth, if there are no major destructive attacks. What we should be worried about is the unsustainability of debt and the next real estate speculative boom. The next economic disaster is about a decade into the future, and nobody is yet alarmed about that.

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The Dangerous Inequality Meme

The inequality of wealth and income has become a meme loaded with danger. A “meme” is an idea that gets propagated like genes in biology. Economic inequality has long been a topic of interest, but during the past few years, and especially during the 2015-2016 American elections, the inequality meme has erupted into a major political issue among those who identify as progressive, liberal, and socialist.

The facts about inequality in the USA are clear. Since 1970, income inequality has increased. As national income has grown, most of the gains have gone to the rich. Average incomes have even dropped since the recession of 2007-2009.

During the 1800s, the first economist to analyze equality and inequality was Henry George. Karl Marx had touched on economic inequality by saying that the surplus from production was due to labor but was captured by the capitalist, the owner of the firm and its tools. Thus, the proletariat, the workers, stay poor and the capitalists get rich, creating inequality. But Marx and his followers focused on the conflict between labor and capital rather than the inequality.

Henry George pointed out that the surplus from production is not in wages, nor in business profits, but in land rent, which is a pure surplus, since land has no cost of production. George showed how land rent captures the gains from economic progress, creating the inequality in wealth and income between workers and the landowners. Competitive firms make normal profits, which has no surplus. Of course monopolies can capture surplus also, but the profits from entrepreneurship are a bonus to society, rather than a social problem, as entrepreneurs drive innovation and economic progress.

Unfortunately, when the classical economics of the 1800s turned into the neoclassical doctrines of the 1900s, both by design (in opposition to the Georgist remedy of taxing land value) and for mathematical convenience, land was dropped as an input factor, and mainstream economics became the two-factor production function Q=f(K,L). It is illogical that land rent gets included in the distribution of income in the return on K, but excluded on the production side, as the models are based only on the two inputs, labor L and capital goods K. This contradiction is not questioned by graduate students in economics, who are too busy learning the calculus of “math econ” to bother asking if the whole system makes sense.

Therefore the inequality meme is now blended with the labor-capital meme, ignoring the real source of economic inequality, unequal land tenure. Politicians exploit the all-too-real economic inequality with a superficial, simplistic, and dangerous remedy: tax the rich and transfer the funds to the poor. Of course governments are doing that already, and that has not reduced inequality, but the welfare-statists insist that government should do more of it.

Conservative opponents of greater redistribution point out, correctly, that higher taxes and takings from the rich will stifle entrepreneurship and savings, reducing the economic growth. But other than eliminating some of the tax deductions and generating more growth by reducing the top tax rates, the conservatives have no effective remedy. Their call to flatten the tax rates play into the political agenda of the redistributionists who call for higher, not lower, tax rates on the rich.

The danger in the inequality meme is the confiscation of the wealth not just of the rich but also of the middle class. A family that spent all its income and now has no wealth would be given welfare aid, while the family with the same income but frugally saved its income for retirement or to provide for their children would have their wealth taken away, not just by ordinary and predictable taxation, but by a sudden taking, as happened in Cyprus in 2013. Government chiefs facing a debt crisis can kill two birds with one stone: confiscate savings and use some of it to pay off debt and the rest to transfer to the poor. Such confiscation has been suggested by the International Monetary Fund, which lends funds to countries bogged down in debt. In its publication Fiscal Monitor Report, the IMF stated (pdf):

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).” There we have the proposition that such confiscation of wealth can be “fair” (49).

This IMF capital-levy proposition was presented in Forbes with the title, “The International Monetary Fund Lays The Groundwork For Global Wealth Confiscation.” The Wikipedia article on “capital levy” shows that this meme is getting some traction, such as by Germany’s Bundesbank. The concept of a capital levy, confiscation of savings and investment, comes from the meme of economic inequality that looks only at the superficial existence of unequal wealth and not to the source.

It has been well pointed out by British journalist and economist Fred Harrison in his Youtube video “Ricardo’s Law: the Great Tax Clawback Scam” that while the rich pay much in taxes, many of them get the tax back, as a clawback, from government’s public goods, which generate higher rent and land value.

The effective and equitable remedy for economic inequality is not redistribution but the proper initial distribution of income. Wages and capital yields should be kept by the workers and investors, while land rent should be equally distributed either as cash or in public services. Public revenue from land rent would equalize income while promoting growth and raising wages. We need to bring land back into economic discourse, but that requires penetrating the appeal of superficial thinking. That’s what Henry George tried to do, and the Georgist meme had reached up to the heads of state in China, Great Britain, and Russia (after the first revolution with Kerensky), but World War I blasted the impending tax reforms to bits.

The candidates who now rant against inequality, the corporations, and the billionaires, even if they don’t win the election, will influence policy and generate calls for more redistribution and, perhaps in the next financial crisis, a capital levy. While alarmists often exploit impending doom for their own gains, sometimes they are right.

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This article is also in progress.org under the title “Tyrants Exploit Income Inequality”

[Ed. note: I added tags, categories, and links, and patched up some grammar – BC]

Blaming Finance, Ignoring Real Causes

The fall 2014 Cato Journal has an article, ‘The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom Has It All Wrong,” [pdf] by Richard Kovacevich, Chairman Emeritus of Wells Fargo. The author is correct in saying that the conventional wisdom is wrong in blaming the slow recovery on the “uniqueness of a financially led economic recession.” The US economy recovered from the severe 1980 recession within two years, while now the economy is creeping like a turtle.

The economic cause of recovery and growth is simple. Economic investment – the production of capital goods – drives the business cycle. Recessions are caused by a sharp fall in investment. Then, as the prices of raw materials fall, and as land rent drops, a depression reduces these costs of production, therefore increasing profits, so investment recovers. Government can boost the recovery by further reducing the costs of production, by decreasing the taxes and regulations it imposed previously. This is the “supply side” policy of increasing investment and production by reducing the costs of regulations and taxes.

But this time around, the federal government did the opposite. Costly regulations have magnified, with an anti-supply-side effect. Every year, there are thousands more regulations that hamper enterprise, and finally, regulations plus taxes have achieved the tipping point of making it too costly for enterprise to invest and hire labor.

After the Crash of 2008, the federal government had two basic policy options: it could help the economy recover with market-enhancing supply-side policies, or else the government could enact the welfare-state agenda of greatly increased governmental medical services. The government chose the latter option, which imposed even greater costs on enterprise and labor.

When the recession hit the economy in 2008, one of the responses was TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. As the article states, one of the problems with TARP was that it did not focus on the troubled banks, but imposed the policy on all banks. The banks that were not troubled had to obtain the funds and then pay interest on them. TARP imposed the impression that all banks were in trouble, which destroyed confidence, and then Congress responded to the turmoil by imposing 25,000 pages of Dodd-Frank regulations.

None of the financial regulations, going back to the Great Depression, confront the causes of the boom and bust. The fundamental cause is massive subsidies to land values. The Cato article focused on the financial industry, but the more fundamental issue is government policy regarding real estate. The problems of the financial industry originate in their financing of real estate.

The history of the Americas has been that of grabbing land and enslaving labor. In the American colonies, the British government promoted European settlement to control land and to profit from trade. After the defeat of the French in 1763, the United Kingdom changed policy to avoid conflict with the people of Quebec and with the Indians, by restricting western speculation and migration. That annoyed the landed interests enough to declare independence, and to establish a constitution that would better extend and protect land speculation. Huge grants of land were given to railroads, veterans, colleges, and speculators.

After the public domain was disposed of, the government continued the subsidy of the large landed interests with implicit policies that are invisible to the public and to most economists. The provision of public works, welfare to the poor and elderly, and artificially cheap credit, all generate greater land rent and land value. This amounts to a vast redistribution of wealth from workers, tenants, and enterprise owners, to landowners, especially the concentrated owners of commercial and farm land.

With a fixed supply of land, much of the gains from an economic expansion is captured by higher land rent and land value, which then attracts speculation that carries real estate prices to unsustainable heights. When land values crash, they bring down with them the financial system that provided the loans. None of the financial regulations touch this basic cause, and land-value seeking is so deeply ingrained in American culture that people favor it even at the price of high taxes, high unemployment, and the destruction of liberty.

Ask a typical American, “Would you favor a tax reform that eliminates taxes on your wages, on interest from your financial assets, and on buildings, replaced by a tax only on land values?” The answer is, “No! I would rather suffer unemployment, insecurity, crime, poverty, and loss of liberty, than have my precious land taxed!”

“OK, then, would you favor the complete replacement of government’s public goods with private, contractual, provision that eliminates the subsidy to land values?” “No! We need government to provide these things!”

Then you ask, “So why do you want the word ‘liberty’ put on our coins?” The answer is, “I want liberty so long as it is not put into practice!”

And that is why government deals with the superficial financial appearances, and not the implicit reality that causes the booms and busts.

The California Solar Energy Property-Tax Exemption

California exempts solar energy equipment from its property tax. The exemption will last until 2025. The California Wind Energy Association has complained that this exemption puts solar energy at an artificial advantage relative to other renewables such as windmills. Biomass, the use of biological materials such as wood and leftover crops, is also at a relative disadvantage.

Rather than eliminate the solar tax exemption, the other energy industries should seek to eliminate the property tax on all energy capital goods. With this exemption, the government of California is recognizing that property taxes on capital goods – buildings, machines, equipment, inventory – impose costs that reduce production and innovation. Since this tax is toxic, the property tax should be removed from all improvements.

The best revenue neutral tax shift would be to increase the property-tax revenue from land value by the same amount as the reduction in the taxation of capital goods.

The other energy industry chiefs call the solar property-tax exemption a subsidy. We need to distinguish between absolute and relative subsidies. An absolute subsidy occurs when government provides grants to firms, or limits competition. A relative subsidy occurs when one firm or industry receives a greater subsidy than its competitors. All absolute subsidies are also relative subsidies, because they exist relative to the rest of the economy. But if the subsidy is not in funds or protection, but from lower rates on industry-destructive taxes, this is a relative but not an absolute subsidy.

Suppose that there are patients in a hospital suffering from continuous poisoning. The doctor stops poisoning one patient, and he recovers. But the other patients are still being poisoned. The other patients complain that it is not fair for one patient to be singled out for favored treatment. But the just remedy is not to resume poisoning the recovered patient, but to stop poisoning the others. The taxation of capital goods is economic poison, which the state recognizes would poison the solar energy industry they seek to promote. But why poison the other industries? The property tax should exempt all capital goods, all improvements.

A broader issue is the subsidies to energy. All forms of energy, except human muscles, are subsidized by the state and federal governments. Energy from oil and coal are implicitly subsidized by exempting them from the social costs of their environmental destruction. There is no economic need for any subsidies. But to obtain the true costs of energy, governments should also eliminate taxes not only on their capital goods but also on their incomes and sales. We cannot know whether renewable energy can stand on its own until we eliminate all the government interventions, including taxes, subsidies, and excessive regulations.

Since a radical restructuring of public finances is politically impossible today, a politically feasible reform would be to exempt all capital goods investments from the property tax. If this needs to be revenue-neutral, California could replace its cap-and-trade policy with levies on emissions. The relative subsidy to solar power is unfair to the other energy industries, but the real unfairness is the property tax on their investments.
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This article first appeared at http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/the-california-solar-energy-property-tax-exemption/

Inequality Unexplained

There is a new economics documentary film that stars Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and now a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The film, Inequality for All,  directed by Jacob Kornbluth, won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award and has been shown nation-wide.

Unfortunately, Robert Reich has not explained why the US has had an increasing inequality of income. Neither in the film nor in his writings and interviews does he examine the cause. Without the elimination of the cause, there can be no remedy. As usual in documentaries of social problems, most of the film just describes and tells stories about the inequality.

Inequality for All is typical of welfare-state presentations in jumping to governmental responses that only treat the symptoms and effects. Reich advocates a higher minimum wage without any analysis what determines wages in a market economy.

Most basically, in a free market, ordinary workers are paid what economists call the “marginal product,” or what an extra worker contributes to output. If a worker adds $10 each hour to total output, then that is what he is paid, and that is what he is worth to the company. If the company pays him any less, say $8, that provides an opportunity for a similar company to offer $9 and get the $10 worth of output, so competition will drive the wage up to the worker’s contribution, his marginal product.

A minimum wage forces the firm to pay more than the worker’s marginal product. The firm will not hire a worker who costs more than he is worth. The reason that workers are not all dismissed is the law of diminishing returns. In a farm or factory, if there are only a few workers, each worker’s marginal product is high, because there is a lot of land and machines, and few workers. As workers are added, each extra worker contributes less extra output. Workers are hired up to the quantity for which the wage equals the marginal product.

The minimum wage acts like a tax on labor that forces the firm to reduce the number of workers employed to that level where the higher marginal product equals the required wage. In some cases, the firm will also respond by reducing benefits such as medical insurance such as by hiring part-time instead of full-time labor.

Many firms in competitive industries respond to the higher minimum wage as they would to a higher tax. They pass on some of the costs to the customers. The higher price reduces sales, production, employment, and income.

The minimum wage is lethal to the economy as it acts as an extra tax on employment on top of payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, workers insurance taxes, and the income tax on the profits of the firm. All these taxes reduce employment and reduce the take-home pay of the worker.

Henry George stated in his 1883 book Social Problems that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty is caused not by any lack of natural resources but by human institutions that deprive workers of the ability to buy what they produce. The institution with the power to impose this intervention is government. The totality of restrictions, mandates, taxes, and subsidies reduces enterprise and takes away much of the product of labor. Then impoverished workers need the welfare state to provide the necessities of life.

The ideology of welfare statists makes them only think of governmental aid and reject the idea that governmental intervention is the source of the problem. They sneer at “free market fundamentalism.” They don’t understand the fact that taxes on labor redistribute wealth from workers to landowners as government taxes wages to pay for public goods that generate higher rent and land value. They don’t understand that the worker-tenant pays twice for the public goods of government, once by having half his wage taxed away, and a second time in the higher housing rental he pays because greater governmental services increase locational rents.

The effective remedy for poverty is to remove all punitive taxes and land-value subsidies. We can remove subsidies to the landed interests by having them pay back the rent generated by useful public goods such as roads, schools, and security. Without taxes on labor and enterprise, the cost of labor is lower to employers, while the worker’s take-home pay is higher. The replacement of wage taxes with land value taxes would reduce economic inequality while also increasing the productivity of the economy.

Of course the elimination of poverty also has to include better education, and that can be accomplished with vouchers, payments not to schools but to parents. A voucher is a ticket that a parent could use to send his children to the best schools. It provides an incentive for educators to produce better schools. It is not a panacea, because the home and neighborhood environment are also important, but it would shift the incentives towards better schooling.

It is not only unfortunate but astonishing that a leading professor of public policy who cares about the poor would not make the prosperity tax shift, replacing wage taxes with land value taxes, the core of his policy proposal. I suspect his response would be that while this is a good idea, it is politically unfeasible, while raising the minimum wage has political support. But the reason it is politically unfeasible today is precisely that leading reformers such as Robert Reich refuse to bring the effective remedy to public attention in the ultimately futile effort to advocate policies with the least current political resistance.

Much of the gains from economic growth and welfare get captured by higher rent and land value. Raising the minimum wage is futile because if all workers get a substantially higher minimum wage, their landlords will be able to raise their housing rentals by the amount of their greater ability to pay, and the landed interests will end up with the gains. Why do you think that housing costs have been escalating while wages stagnate?

See the Cat: The Heart of Economics in One Story

A man was walking down a shopping street and came to a store window where there was a big drawing full of lines and squiggles. A sign by the drawing asked, “Can you see the picture?”

All the man could see was a chaos of lines going every which way. He stared at it and tried to make out some kind of design, but it was all a jumble. Then he saw that some of the lines formed ears, and whiskers, and a tail. Suddenly he realized that there was a cat in the picture. Once he saw the cat, it was unmistakable. When he looked away and then looked back at the drawing, the cat was quite evident now.

The man then realized that the economy is like the cat. It seems to be a jumble of workers, consumers, enterprises, taxes, regulations, imports and exports, profits and losses – a chaos of all kinds of activities. Here are fine houses and shops full of goods, but yonder is poverty and slums. It doesn’t make any sense unless we understand the basic principles of economics. Once we have this understanding, the economy becomes clear – we see the cat instead of a jumble. We then know the cause of poverty and its remedy. But since most folks don’t see the cat, social policy just treats the symptoms without applying the remedies that would eliminate the problem.

What is this economics cat? It starts with the three factors or resource inputs of production: land, labor, and capital goods. Land includes all natural resources and opportunities. Labor is all human exertion in the production of wealth. Capital goods are tools (such as machines and buildings) used to produce wealth. The owners of land get rent, workers get wages, and the owners of capital goods get a capital return.

Picture an unpopulated island where we’re going to produce one good, corn, and there are eleven grades of land. Continue reading

Free Banking Explained

Free Banking is free-market banking. In pure free banking, the money supply and interest rates are handled by private enterprise, there is no restriction on peaceful and honest banking services, and there is no tax on interest, dividends, wages, goods, and entrepreneurial profits. Free banking provides a stable and flexible supply of money, and allows the natural rate of interest to do its job of allocating funds among consumption and investment, thereby preventing inflation, recessions, and financial panics.

To understand free banking, we first need to understand the relationship between capital goods and interest rates. Capital goods, having been produced but not yet consumed, have a time structure. Think of it as a stack of pancakes. The bottom pancake is circulating capital goods, which turnover in a few days, such as perishable inventory in a store. The higher levels take ever longer to turn over. The highest pancake level consists of capital goods with a period of production of many years, the most important type being real estate construction.

Lower interest rates make the pancake stack taller, while higher interest rates make it flatter. Think of trees that take 20 years to mature. Suppose the trees are growing in value at a rate of three percent per year. If bonds pay a real interest rate of four percent, and the interest rate is not expected to change, then the trees will not be planted, since savers will put their funds into bonds instead. But if bonds pay a rate of two percent, then the trees get planted. So the lower interest rate induces an investment in long-lived trees and steepen the capital-goods pancake stack. Continue reading