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Archive for the ‘Inflation’ Category

According to polling data, President Biden is not getting good grades for economic policy.

Part of that is because of inflation, though I’ve repeatedly pointed out that the blame belongs with the Federal Reserve rather than Biden. And the big mistake from the Fed took place before Biden even took office.

Unfortunately, the President is not trying to make things better. His appointments to the Fed suggest he doesn’t understand the need for good monetary policy.

And all of his major legislative initiatives (the so-called stimulus, the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, the pork-filled infrastructure legislation, and the cronyist handouts to the semiconductor industry) have increased the size and scope of government.

For what it’s worth, I think Biden’s big challenge – both politically and economically – is that Americans are losing ground. Simply stated, prices are increasing faster than incomes.

But that isn’t stopping the Administration from trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Alan Rappeport of the New York Times reported a few days ago that the Biden’s Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, is claiming that Bdenomics is a big success.

…the Biden administration is pivoting to recast its stewardship of the U.S. economy as a singular achievement. …The case was reinforced on Thursday by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen… Ms. Yellen said the legislation that Mr. Biden signed this year to promote infrastructure investment, expand the domestic semiconductor industry and support the transition to electric vehicles represented what she called “modern supply-side economics.” …After months of being on the defensive in the face of criticism from Republicans who say Democrats fueled inflation by overstimulating the economy, the Biden administration is fully embracing the fruits of initiatives such as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021.

The editors at the Wall Street Journal are not impressed.

Janet Yellen…tenure as Treasury Secretary hasn’t enhanced her reputation. …the White House is rolling her out in election season to portray the U.S. economy as a Valhalla of growth, fairness and optimism. …If you’re in a green business the White House likes, you’re in clover. If not, you’ll endure the costs of more regulation and taxes. In the Biden era, big government and big business are in political business together. …Ms. Yellen’s whoppers, …including a claim that “the causes of inflation are largely global.” …U.S. inflation has been substantially home-grown. …The Federal Reserve kept the money spigots open for too long, in part to finance the borrowing needed for all of the spending. …Ms. Yellen is also at pains to stress how much fairer the economy is since Mr. Biden took office… She fails to mention that the U.S. economy contracted by about 1% of GDP in the first six months of this year, even as real wages were falling. Real average hourly earnings declined 3% over the 12 months through July, and average weekly earnings by 3.6%. They’ve fallen 4.2% since Mr. Biden took office.

Meanwhile, the latest inflation data has not strengthened Biden’s case.

Jim Tankersley of the New York Times wrote about the issue yesterday.

Hotter-than-expected inflation in August was unwelcome news for President Biden, who has sought to defuse Republican attacks over rising prices in the run-up to November’s midterm elections. …Mr. Biden has claimed progress in the fight against inflation, including with the signing last month of an energy, health care and tax bill that Democrats called the Inflation Reduction Act. …But polls continue to show inflation is hurting Mr. Biden and his party… Mr. Biden threw a belated celebration at the White House on Tuesday to mark his signing of the Inflation Reduction Act. …But the country’s economic reality remains more muddled, as the inflation report underscored. Food prices are continuing to spike, straining lower-income families in particular. …Most importantly — and perhaps most damaging for Mr. Biden and Democrats — Americans’ wages have struggled to keep pace with fast-rising prices, an uncomfortable truth for a president who promised to make real wage gains a centerpiece of his economic program.

Let’s close with this chart, which shows what has happened to inflation-adjusted weekly earnings since Biden took office.

Yes, there was one recent month with good data, but that doesn’t seem like a big cause for celebration.

P.S. Paul Krugman’s defense of Bidenomics is just as weak as Janet Yellen’s (and his criticisms of good presidents are equally weak).

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A big argument for free enterprise over statism is that the former delivers growth while the latter leads to stagnation.

And that’s very apparent when you review decades of data.

The case for capitalism is especially powerful if you care about what’s best for the disadvantaged. As the chart from Economic Freedom of the World illustrates, poor people enjoy much higher levels of income in nations that have higher levels of economic liberty.

So why, then, do our friends on the left support bigger government?

There are several possible answers, but today let’s focus on their understandable desire to do things that seem compassionate. Particularly things that seem to offer immediate help.

I think that’s a big reason why some well-meaning leftists support a big welfare state even though there is plenty of evidence that poor people get trapped in dependency. They are so focused on doing something that ostensibly alleviates today’s problems that they do not appreciate the risk of harmful long-run consequences.

This problem is so pervasive that we need to create a new Theorem of Government.

If you want an example of this Theorem, we can look at a story in today’s New York Times.

Reporters Jeanna Smialek and  document how low-income people are being hurt by inflation and will probably be hurt by what will be needed to curtail inflation.

…data and anecdotes suggest that lower-income households, despite the resilient job market, are struggling more profoundly with inflation. That divergence poses a challenge for the Federal Reserve, which is hoping that higher interest rates will slow consumer spending and ease pressure on prices across the economy. Already, there are signsthat poorer families are cutting back. …The Fed might need to raise interest rates even more to bring inflation under control, and that could cause a sharper slowdown. In that case, poorer families will almost certainly bear the brunt again, because low-wage workers are often the first to lose hours and jobs. …America’s poor have spent part of the savings they amassed during coronavirus lockdowns, and their wages are increasingly struggling to keep up with — or falling behind — price increases.

The story is filled with anecdotes about poor people suffering from inflation.

And, as the above excerpts captures, it has plenty of fretting about how the less fortunate will suffer as the Federal Reserve tries to fix the mess.

But what you won’t find in the story is any acknowledgement that poor people would not be dealing with this hardship if the Federal Reserve had not made the mistake of creating too much liquidity in the first place.

Yet this is the big lesson all of us should learn.

The Federal Reserve wanted to offer short-run help to the economy, motivated in part by a desire to help poor people by propping up the economy during the pandemic.

Yet any short-run help has been swamped by subsequent negative consequences.

And this is not unique. The big lesson from the so-called War on Poverty is that poverty rates suddenly stopped declining. In other words, government tried to help, but wound up doing harm.

P.S. Here are the other 13 Theorems of Government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.
  • The “Eighth Theorem” explains the motives of those who focus on inequality.
  • The “Ninth Theorem” explains how politics often trumps principles.
  • The “Tenth Theorem” explains how politicians manufacture/exploit crises.
  • The “Eleventh Theorem” explains why big business is often anti-free market.
  • The “Twelfth Theorem” explains you can’t have European-sized government without pillaging the middle class.
  • The “Thirteenth Theorem” explains that people are unwilling to pay for bloated government.

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I don’t like shoveling more money at a corrupt IRS, hurting jobs with higher taxes on “book income,” price controls on prescription drugs, or green-energy pork.

But, as explained in this video clip, the insult added to injury is that the resuscitated “Build Back Better” is being sold as the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

If a private company said that candy bars help you lose weight or that it is okay to stick your hand under a running lawnmower, it would be dragged into court for false and/or dangerous advertising.

But when politicians make utterly dishonest claims about legislation, we have to grit our teeth and endure their lies.

The bottom line is that rising prices inevitably are a consequence of bad monetary policy.

That’s true in the United States, and that’s true elsewhere in the world.

So why, then, did Biden, Schumer, and Manchin decide to affix such an inaccurate label to their tax-and-spend package?

The answer presumably is political. Inflation is a problem for the incumbent party, so why not pretend the budget plan will somehow reduce inflation. Heck, if they could get away with it, they would probably call it the “Inflation Reduction and Cancer Elimination Act.”

But, to be fair, perhaps some of them actually believe a big-government plan will have an impact on inflation. For instance, the misguided but honest folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released an endorsement letter from 55 supposed experts based on the assumption that higher taxes will lead to lower prices.

Here are some excerpts.

With inflation at a 40-year high…, we are writing to encourage you to pass legislation to reduce budget deficits in a manner that would help counter inflation… As President Biden has explained, “bringing down the deficit is one way to ease inflationary pressures.” …Given the current state of the economy, we believe passing deficit reduction would send an important message to the American people that their leaders are serious about tackling inflation.

There are two big problems with the letter.

First, it is based on Keynesian economics, which assumes higher prices are caused by excessive “aggregate demand” and that deficit reduction (whether from tax increases or spending restraint) can help by slowing the economy.

Yet this is the theory that also told us that it was impossible to have rising prices and rising unemployment, like we saw in the 1970s. And Keynesians also said we couldn’t have falling unemployment and falling inflation, like we enjoyed in the 1980s.

Second, even if one believes in the fairy tale of Keynesian economics, all of the alleged deficit reduction occurs in future years.

And even that is nonsense since every sentient adult knows that the massive expansion of the IRS’s budget is not going to generate a windfall of new tax revenue. And every honest person also knows that lawmakers plan on extending the new Obamacare handouts in the bill.

These tweets summarize why even Keynesians should realize the legislation is fraudulent.

P.S. It is very disappointing (but perhaps not entirely surprising) that former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed the CRFB letter. And it also is disappointing that a couple of people from the American Enterprise Institute added their names as well. They all deserve the Charlie Brown Award.

P.P.S. As I noted in the video, deficit spending can lead to inflation if a central bank buys government bonds in order to help finance additional government spending (the crazy Modern Monetary Theory agenda). Perhaps I am being too charitable, but I don’t think that’s the reason for the Federal Reserve’s big mistake (though I fear it may be happening with the European Central Bank).

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There has been plenty of bad economic news for Joe Biden, most notably rising levels of inflation.

He also is being criticized for his tax-and-spend fiscal agenda. And mocked for his assertions about red ink.

But I think his main problem is this chart, courtesy of the Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson, which shows that prices are rising faster than earnings for the average American

The bottom line is that people don’t like inflation, but they probably would not be nearly as upset if their income was rising at least as quickly as prices.

But that’s not happening. And this means the average family is enduring a pay cut, when measured in actual purchasing power.

I shared a version of these numbers back in March as part of a six-part series on Biden’s economic mistakes (the other five columns can be found here, here, here, here, and here).

That data also shows that inflation is rising faster than earnings. And that’s true even if fringe benefits are included.

What’s ironic about this data is that Joe Biden doesn’t deserve blame for the outbreak of inflation. Today’s rising prices are a consequence of mistakes by the Federal Reserve that took place before Biden was in the White House.

Though Biden’s subsequent appointments to the Fed suggest he either does not understand the problem of inflation or doesn’t care. So it’s not as if he deserves much sympathy.

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Milton Friedman wisely observed that inflation is always the result of bad monetary policy by central banks. And I echoed that point last month in remarks to the European Resource Bank meeting in Stockholm.

This topic deserves more attention, particularly given the depressing inflation numbers just released this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some of our friends on the left want to downplay these bad numbers. In large part, they are motivated by a desire to shield President Biden from political damage. And I sympathize with them since Biden was not in the White House when the Federal Reserve decided to dump lots of liquidity into the U.S. economy.

Here’s a chart showing the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet over the past decade. It’s easy to see the Fed’s panicked response to the pandemic in early 2020.

But I don’t sympathize with folks who claim that inflation is just something random.

Some of them want to blame Putin. Or the pandemic. Or “corporate greed.” Or maybe even space aliens.

I also wonder about this tweet from Ian Bremmer. He points out that inflation is showing up everywhere, regardless of which political party (or coalition) is running a government.

But I can’t tell what he means by his final line (“wild guess it’s not the govt”).

Is he saying that we should focus on the actions of central banks, not the partisan composition of a nation’s government? If so, I agree.

Or is he saying that we should not blame any part of government? If so, I completely disagree.

Central banks may have varying levels of day-to-day independence, but they are government entities. They were created by politicians and run by people appointed by politicians.

And inflation is happening in many nations because various central banks all made similar mistakes.

For instance, Bremmer mentions Germany and Italy. Those are euro countries and you can see that the European Central Bank made the same mistake as the Fed. It panicked at the start of the pandemic and then never fixed its mistake.

Bremmer also mentioned the United Kingdom. Well, here’s the balance sheet data from the Bank of England.

Once again, you can see a big spike in the amount of liquidity created when the BoE expanded its balance sheet.

And, just as was the case with the Fed and the ECB, the BoE did not fix its mistake once it became apparent than the pandemic was not going to cause a global economic collapse.

P.S. I suggested in the video that the ECB is partly motivated by a desire to prop up decrepit welfare states in nations such as Italy and Greece. This is a point I’ve been warning about for many, many years.

P.P.S. While Biden is not to blame for the outbreak of inflation, it’s also true that he is not part of the solution and has not used his appointment power to push the Fed in a more sensible direction.

P.P.P.S. If you have the time and interest, here’s a 40-minute video explaining the Federal Reserve’s track record of bad monetary policy.

P.P.P.P.S. If you’re constrained for time, I recommend this five-minute video on alternatives to the Federal Reserve and this six-minute video on how people can protect themselves from bad monetary policy.

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At the risk of understatement, big government has a dismal track record of imposing higher costs on the private sector, both directly and indirectly.

Which is why this cartoon definitely belongs in my mock-government collection (along with this one and this one).

Simply stated, free markets produce efficiency and lower costs while government produces inefficiency and higher costs.

So it was particularly galling that President Biden is engaging in demagoguery against oil companies. Peter Baker and Clifford Krauss of the New York Times report on a letter that he sent to some of their CEOs.

President Biden chastised some of the largest oil companies for profiteering off surging energy prices and “worsening that pain” for consumers… With the average price of gas in the United States topping $5 a gallon for the first time, Mr. Biden pointed the finger at energy firms in a letter to seven top executives… “At a time of war, refinery profit margins well above normal being passed directly onto American families are not acceptable,” Mr. Biden said in the letter.

The trade association for the oil industry got the chance to respond and noted that the federal government is hindering energy development.

Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, countered that the administration shared the blame for higher energy prices and called for approval of new drilling leases and approval of “critical energy infrastructure” like pipelines.

I’m sure the Biden Administration has not been helpful, but I want to make a bigger point.

If the President wants to know who “profiteers” from the energy industry, he should look in the mirror.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a chart of federal gas taxes over time.

But Uncle Sam is not the biggest profiteer.

Almost every state government grabs even more every time we fill up. Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation.

Let’s close by acknowledging that the official position of both the Democratic Party and the International Monetary Fund is that higher energy prices are a good thing.

P.S. From the archives, here’s some gallows humor about energy prices.

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Some of my Republican friends get irked when I point out that President Biden should not be blamed for surging prices.

As I explained in March, we should instead blame the Federal Reserve for inflation.

Moreover, the Fed’s big mistake started in early 2020 when the central bank dramatically expanded its balance sheet (see chart). And that error took place well before Joe Biden entered the White House.

Unfortunately, instead of pointing a finger of blame at the Fed, some of our friends on the left have decided to assert that inflation is caused by greedy companies.

A recent New York Times column by German Lopez addressed this claim.

The good news is that Mr. Lopez’s column pours cold water on the “greedflation” theory.

The bad news is that the column completely overlooks the role of the Federal Reserve.

As prices have increased faster than at any other point in four decades, lawmakers have scrambled for explanations. In recent months, some Democrats have landed on a new culprit: price gouging. …”greedflation.” For Democrats, it is a convenient explanation as inflation turns voters against President Biden. …And it lets them recast inflation as the fault of monopolistic corporations — which progressives have long railed against. …there are other, more widely accepted explanations… Covid disrupted supply chains globally. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused another wave of disruptions, particularly in food and energy. The stimulus bills left people with a lot of extra cash, and many Americans spent it. That prompted too much demand for too little supply, so prices increased.

Just in case you suspect I’m not being fair, the words “federal reserve” or “central bank” do not appear in the article. Anywhere.

Needless to say, writing a column about rising price levels without mentioning the Fed is like writing the history of World War II and not mentioning Germany.

Why did the reporter make this mistake? If I had to guess, he probably noticed there was a debate inside the Democratic Party between the “crazy left” and the “rational left.” So he wrote about that conflict without noting (or perhaps even realizing) that there are other points of view.

Such as the late, great Milton Friedman.

P.S. For those who want more background, the crazy left are economic illiterates such as Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (and some guy named Lindsay Owens, who was cited in the article).

The rational left are people like Larry Summers, Bill Clinton, and Arthur Okun (and Jason Furman, who also was cited in the article).

I disagree with folks who are part of rational left, but at least they are tethered to reality.

P.P.S. Biden did not cause inflation, but (unlike a former president) he does not seem to understand how to solve the problem.

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Even though I recently praised him for his support of transportation deregulation, Jimmy Carter is widely considered to be a failed, one-term president.

Most people think his reelection prospects were doomed because of high inflation.

I suspect, however, that he was most hurt by falling levels of real income. And when I write “real income,” I’m referring to income after adjusting for inflation.

If you peruse the historical data from Table A-2 in the Census Bureau’s most recent report on income and poverty, you’ll notice that median household income (in 2020 dollars) dropped by nearly $2,000 between 1978 and 1980.

In other words, Carter may have survived double-digit inflation if incomes rose even faster than prices.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, we got rising prices and falling real income. This “stagflation” is probably the reason Ronald Reagan was elected, and the rest is history.

Moreover, history may be repeating itself.

Here’s a recent story from the Washington Post. I’ve excerpted the key passages, but all you really need to do is read the headline.

…the World Bank warned… Not since the 1970s — when twin oil shocks sapped growth and lifted prices, giving rise to the malady known as “stagflation” — has the global economy faced such a challenge. …“The risk from stagflation is considerable…,” said David Malpass, president of the multilateral development institution in Washington… Investors also could take a beating from a repeat of ‘70s-style stagflation. The S&P 500 stock index, already down more than 13 percent this year, could lose an additional 20 percent or more, according to a recent client note from Bank of America.

The World Bank mostly focused on the risks for the global economy.

But we are already suffering from stagflation in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Simply stated, 2021 was a terrible year for household incomes and the first half of 2022 has been even worse.

And I strongly suspect this is why Joe Biden has terrible poll numbers.

Ironically, The big uptick in inflation isn’t even Joe Biden’s fault. The Federal Reserve deserves the blame, mostly for what it did in 2020 before Biden became president.

That being said, Biden reappointed Jerome Powell, the Chairman of the Fed’s Board of Governors. By rewarding Powell’s failure, Biden is now in no position to deflect blame.

P.S. Rising prices and falling income under Jimmy Carter gave us Ronald Reagan, so bad policy indirectly led to a good outcome. As of now, it’s unclear if there’s a new version of Reagan to rescue us from today’s version of stagflation.

P.P.S. For readers who are not old enough to have experienced America’s national rejuvenation under Reagan, you can click here, here, and here to see “the Gipper” in action.

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Here are some of America’s main economic problems.

And that’s just a partial list. I’m not asserting that markets produce perfect results. Indeed, markets are a never-ending process of creative destruction.

But what I am stating is that intervention by politicians and bureaucrats almost always leads to bad outcomes.

So you can imagine my angst and disappointment at this recent polling data from Echelon Insights. A plurality thinks the government should “do more.”

I’m tempted to speculate whether 47 percent of Americans are morons.

But let’s take the high road and simply dig into the numbers. Whenever I see polling data, I always check whether the question is properly worded.

Is there any bias? Does the question make sense?

Sadly, I think the above question is relatively straightforward. If the poll has asked a stand-alone question about whether the government should do more, that might have been ambiguous.

After all, the government theoretically could “do more” by reforming entitlements, shutting down useless federal departments, and replacing the corrupt internal revenue code with a flat tax.

But when the poll also gives people the option of answering that the government is doing “too many things,” then it is quite clear that “do more” means bigger government.

In other words, 47 percent of people are…well, let’s just say confused.

Hopefully last year’s Gallup poll is more accurate.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing one other result from the Echelon Insight poll.

Here’s an example of a poll question generating good results (people want more energy production and a smaller burden of government spending), but for illogical reasons.

The problem with this question is that rising prices are caused by bad monetary policy and the only cure is to change monetary policy.

Yet respondents were not given that option.

They may not have given the right answer if the question was worded better, but they never got the chance (I also made this point when looking at different polling data two months ago).

P.P.S. I obviously like this polling data on a spending cap.

P.P.P.S. And I was shocked by this poll about the world’s most pro-capitalist nation.

P.P.P.P.S. For sentimental reasons, I very much approve of this poll.

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Back in 2015, I explained to Neil Cavuto that easy money creates the conditions for a boom-bust cycle.

It’s now 2022 and my argument is even more relevant.

That’s because the Federal Reserve panicked at the start of the pandemic and dumped a massive amount of money into the economy (technically, the Fed increased its balance sheet by purchasing trillions of dollars of government bonds).

As the late, great Milton Friedman taught us, this easy-money, low-interest-rate approach produced the rising prices that are now plaguing the nation.

But that’s only part of the bad news.

The other bad news is that easy-money policy sets the stage for future hard times. In other words, the Fed causes a boom-bust cycle.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute explains how and why the Federal Reserve has put the country in a bad situation.

Better late than never. Today, the Federal Reserve finally took decisive monetary policy action to regain control over inflation that has been largely of its own making. …The Fed’s abrupt policy U-turn is good news in that it reduces the likelihood that we will return to the inflation of the 1970s. However, this does not mean that we will avoid paying a heavy price for the Fed’s past policy mistakes in lost output and employment. …One might well ask what the Fed was thinking last year when it kept interest rates at their zero lower bound and when it let the money supply balloon at its fastest pace in over fifty years at a time especially when the economy was recovering strongly… One might also ask what the Fed thought when it continued to buy $120 billion a month in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities throughout most of last year when the equity and the housing markets were on fire?

The relevant question, he explains, is whether we have a hard landing…or a harder landing.

If the Fed sticks to its program of meaningful interest rate hikes and balance sheet reduction over the remainder of this year, there would seem to be an excellent chance that we do not return to the inflation of the 1970s. However, there is reason to doubt that the Fed will succeed in pushing the inflation genie to the bottle without precipitating a nasty economic recession. One reason for doubting that the Fed will succeed in engineering a soft economic landing is that there is no precedent for the Fed has done so when it has allowed itself to fall as far behind the inflation curve as it has done today. …there is a real risk that higher interest rates might be the trigger that bursts today’s asset and credit market bubbles. Should that indeed happen, we could be in for a tough landing. Milton Friedman was fond of saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This is a lesson that the Fed might soon relearn as last year’s economic party gives way to a painful economic slump.

Let’s hope we have a proverbial “soft landing,” but I’m not holding my breath.

Especially with Biden pursuing other bad policies (FWIW, I don’t blame him for today’s price spikes).

P.S. As explained in this video from the Fraser Institute, Friedrich Hayek understood a long time ago that feel-good government intervention leads to a feel-bad economic hangover.

P.P.S. Here’s my video on the Federal Reserve, which also explains that there might be a good alternative.

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No sensible person wants to copy the big-spending policies of failed welfare states such as Greece.

Unfortunately, many politicians lack common sense (or, more accurately, they are motivated by short-run political ambition rather than what’s in the long-run best interest of their nations).

So if they decide that they politically benefit by spending lots of other people’s money, they have to figure out how to finance that spending.

One option is to use the central bank. In other words, finance big government with the figurative printing press.

This is what’s know as Modern Monetary Theory.

From a theoretical perspective, it’s crazy. And if Sri Lanka is any indication, it’s also crazy based on real-world evidence.

In an article for The Print, based in India, Mihir Sharma looks at that government’s foolish monetary policy.

Cranks are considered cranks for a reason. That is the lesson from Sri Lanka… How did this tiny Indian Ocean nation end up in such straits? …the Rajapaksas turned Sri Lanka’s policymaking over to cranks… The central bank governor at the time, Weligamage Don Lakshman, informed the public during the pandemic that nobody need worry about debt sustainability…since “domestic currency debt…in a country with sovereign powers of money printing, as the modern monetary theorists would argue, is not a huge problem.” Sri Lanka is the first country in the world to reference MMT officially as a justification for money printing. Lakshman began to run the printing presses day and night; his successor at the central bank, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who also denied the link between printing money and inflation or currency depreciation, continued the policy. …Reality did not take long to set in. By the end of 2021, inflation hit record highs. And, naturally, the clever plan to “increase the proportion of domestic debt” turned out to be impossible… Proponents of MMT will likely say that this was not real MMT, or that Sri Lanka is not a sovereign country as long as it has any foreign debt, or something equally self-serving.

Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University also discussed Sri Lanka’s crazy monetary policy in an article for National Review. And he also offered a way to reverse the MMT mistake.

This slow-motion train wreck first began in November 2019 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a decisive victory in the country’s presidential elections. …In total control, President Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda, the prime minister, went on a spending spree that was financed in part by Sri Lanka’s central bank. The results have been economic devastation. The rupee has lost 44 percent of its value since President Rajapaksa took the reins, and inflation, according to my measure, is running at a stunning 74.5 percent per year. …What can be done to end Sri Lanka’s economic crisis? It should adopt a currency board, like the one it had from 1884 to 1950… Most important, the board could not loan money to the fiscal authorities, imposing a hard budget on Ceylon’s fiscal system. The net effect was economic stability — and while stability might not be everything, everything is nothing without stability.

For readers who are not familiar with currency boards, it basically means creating a hard link with another nation’s currency – presumably another nation with a decent history of monetary restraint.

It’s what Hong Kong has with the United States (even though U.S. monetary policy over time has been less than perfect).

A currency board is not quite the same as “dollarization,” which is actually adopting another nation’s currency, but it’s a way of making sure local politicians have one less way of ruining an economy.

Let’s conclude with a story from the U.K.-based Financial Times, written by Tommy Stubbington and Benjamin Parkin. They provide some grim details about Sri Lanka’s plight.

Sri Lanka owes $15bn in bonds, mostly dollar-denominated, of a total $45bn long-term debt, according to the World Bank. It needs to pay about $7bn this year in interest and debt repayments but its foreign reserves have dwindled to less than $3bn. …Sri Lanka has never defaulted and its successive governments have been known for a market-friendly approach. …Sri Lanka has previously entered 16 programmes with the IMF.

By the way, I can’t help but comment about a couple of points in the article.

The reporters claim that Sri Lanka has been “known for a market-friendly approach.”

To be blunt, this is nonsense. I’ve been dealing with international economic policy for decades and no supporter of free markets and limited government has ever claimed the country was anywhere close to being a role model for good policy.

And if you peruse the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Sri Lanka has very low scores, far below Greece and only slightly ahead of Russia.

And you can click here to see that it has always received dismal scores.

But maybe it’s “market-friendly” by the standards of left-leaning journalists.

I also can’t resist noting that Sri Lanka has already received 16 bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, according to the article.

This is further evidence that it’s not a market-oriented nation.

And it’s also evidence that IMF intervention does not make things better. In many cases, it’s akin to sending an arsonist to put out a fire.

P.S. The Mihir Sharma article also discusses the Sri Lankan government’s crazy approach to agriculture.

Last April, the government followed through on a campaign promise to transition Sri Lanka to organic farming by banning the import and use of synthetic fertilizers. More than two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s people are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture; economists and agronomists warned that a transition to organic farming on that scale would destroy productivity and cause incomes to crash. …Unsurprisingly, the cranks were wrong. The production of rice — the basic component of Sri Lankans’ diet — and of tea — the country’s main export — sank precipitously.

Needless to say, it’s not a good idea for politicians to deliberately hurt a nation’s agriculture sector.

Just like it’s not a good idea for politicians in places like the United States to deliberately subsidize the sector. The right approach is to be like New Zealand and have no policy.

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Looking back on the 2008 financial crisis, it seems clear that much of that mess was caused by bad government policy, especially easy money from the Federal Reserve and housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Many of my left-leaning friends, by contrast, assert that “Wall Street greed” was the real culprit.

I have no problem with the notion that greed plays a role in financial markets, but people on Wall Street presumably were equally greedy in the 1980s and 1990s. So why didn’t we also have financial crises during those decades?

Isn’t it more plausible to think that one-off factors may have caused markets to go awry?

I took that trip down Memory Lane because of a rather insipid tweet from my occasional sparring partner, Robert Reich. He wants his followers to think that inflation is caused by “corporate greed.”

For what it’s worth, I agree that corporations are greedy. I’m sure that they are happy when they can charge more for their products.

But that’s hardly an explanation for today’s inflation.

After all, corporations presumably were greedy back in 2015. And in 2005. And in 1995. So why didn’t we also have high inflation those years as well?

If Reich understood economics, he could have pointed out that today’s inflation was caused by the Federal Reserve and also absolved Biden by explaining that the Fed’s big mistake occurred when Trump was in the White House.

I don’t expect Reich to believe me, so perhaps he’ll listen to Larry Summers, who also served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

But I won’t hold my breath.

As Don Boudreaux has explained, Reich is not a big fan of economic rigor and accuracy.

P.S. Reich also blamed antitrust policy, but we have had supposedly “weak antitrust enforcement” since the 1980s. So why did inflation wait until 2021 to appear?

P.P.S. In addition to being wrong about the cause of the 2008 crisis, my left-leaning friends also were wrong about the proper response to the crisis.

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I’m more than happy to condemn Joe Biden for his bad policy proposals, such as higher tax rates, fake stimulus, red tape, and a bigger welfare state.

But as I discuss in this segment from a recent interview, he bears very little blame for today’s high inflation rate.

If you want to know who is responsible for 8.5 percent inflation, the highest in four decades, this chart tells you everything you need to know.

Simply stated, the Federal Reserve has created a lot more money by expanding its balance sheet (which happens, for example, when the central bank purchases government bonds using “open market operations”).

Notice, by the way, that the Fed dramatically expanded its balance sheet beginning in March 2020. That was almost one year before Biden was inaugurated.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Biden does not have the power of time travel. He can’t be at fault for a monetary policy mistake that happened when Trump was president.

That being said, I don’t want anyone to think that Biden believes in good monetary policy.

  • Biden has never made any sort of statement favoring monetary restraint by the Fed.
  • Neither the president not his senior advisors have urged the Fed to reverse its mistake.
  • Biden renominated Jerome Powell to be Chairman of the Fed’s Board of Governors.
  • None of Biden’s other nominees to the Federal Reserve have a track record of opposing easy money.

The bottom line is that the Fed almost surely would have made the same mistake in 2020 if Biden was in the White House.

But he wasn’t, so he gets a partial free pass.

P.S. Speaking of time travel, Paul Krugman blamed Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on how people can protect themselves in an inflationary economy.

P.P.P.S. Only one president in my lifetime deserves praise for his approach to monetary policy.

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Keynesian economics is based on the misguided notion that consumption drives the economy.

In reality, high levels of consumption should be viewed an indicator of a strong economy.

The real drivers of economic strength are private investment and private production.

After all, we can’t consume unless we first produce.*

Not everyone agrees with these common-sense observations. The Biden Administration, for instance, claimed the economy would benefit if Congress approved a costly $1.9 trillion “stimulus” plan last year.

Yet we wound up with 4 million fewer jobs than the White House projected. We even wound up with fewer jobs than the Administration estimated if there was no so-called stimulus.

So what did we get for all that money?

Some say we got inflation. In a column for the Hill, Professor Carl Schramm from Syracuse is unimpressed by Biden’s plan. And he’s even less impressed by the left-leaning economists who claimed it is a good idea to increase the burden of government.

Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz rounded up another 16 of the 36 living American Nobel Prize economists to declare, in an open letter, that…there was no threat of inflation. …The Nobelists’ letter showed that those signing had bought Team Biden’s novel argument that its enormous expansion of social welfare programs really was just a different form of infrastructure investment, just like roads and bridges. …The laureates seemed to have overlooked that previous COVID benefits had often exceeded what tens of millions of workers regularly earned and that recipients displaced by COVID were never required to look for other work. While the high priests of economic “science” were cheering on higher federal spending, larger deficits and increased taxes, employers were and are continuing to deal with inflation face-to-face. …The Nobelists assured that we would see a robust recovery because of President Biden’s “active government interventions.” Their presumed authority was used to give credence to the president’s continuously twisting storyline on inflation — that it was “transitory,” good for the economy, a “high-class problem,” Putin’s fault for invading Ukraine, and the greed of oil and food companies… Today’s fashionable goals seem to have displaced the no-nonsense pragmatism that has long characterized economics as a discipline. …Don’t expect a mea culpa from Stiglitz or his coauthors any time soon. …They can be wrong, really wrong, and never pay a price.

The New York Post editorialized about Biden’s economic missteps and reached similar conclusions.

President Joe Biden loves to blame our sky-high inflation on corporate greed and Vladimir Putin. But a new study from the San Francisco Fed shows it was Biden himself who put America on this grim trajectory. …other advanced economies…haven’t seen anything like the soaring prices now punishing workers across America. Which means that the spike is due to something US-specific, rather than global prevailing conditions. That policy, was, of course, Biden’s signature economic “achievement.” …The damage it did has been massive. …inflation…to 7%… Put in concrete terms, a recent Bloomberg calculation translates this to an added $433 per month in household expenses for 2022. And historic producer price inflation, a shocking 10%, guarantees even more pain ahead.

For what it’s worth, I don’t fully agree with Professor Schramm or the New York Post.

They are basically asserting that Biden’s wasteful spending is responsible for today’s grim inflation numbers.

I definitely don’t like Biden’s spending agenda, but I agree with Milton Friedman that it is more accurate to say that inflation is a monetary phenomenon.

In other words, the Federal Reserve deserves to be blamed.

The bottom line is that Keynesian monetary policy produces inflation and rising prices while Keynesian fiscal policy produces more wasteful spending and higher levels of debt.

I’ll close with a couple of caveats.

  • First, Friedman also points out that there’s “a long and variable lag” in monetary policy. So it is not easy to predict how quickly (or how severely) Keynesian monetary policy will produce rising prices.
  • Second, Keynesian deficit spending can lead to Keynesian monetary policy if a central bank feels pressure to help finance deficit spending by buying government bonds (think Argentina).

*Under specific circumstances, Keynesian policy can cause a short-term boost in consumption. For instance, a government can borrow lots of money from overseas lenders and use that money to finance more consumption of things made in places such as China. The net result of that policy, however, is that American indebtedness increases without any increase in national income.

P.S. You can read the letter from the pro-Keynesian economists by clicking here. And you can read a letter signed by sensible economists (including me) by clicking here.

P.P.S. Keynesianism is a myth with a history of failure in the real world.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

Call me crazy, but I sense a pattern. Maybe, just maybe, Keynesian economics is wrong.

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The good thing about being a policy-driven libertarian is that I don’t feel any need to engage in political spin.

I can praise Democrats who do good things and praise Republicans who do good things. And also criticize members of either party (sadly, that’s a more common task).

It also means I don’t believe in blaming politicians for things that are not their fault. For example, NBC just released a poll showing that Joe Biden has low marks for economic policy.

Some of that is appropriate (his fiscal policy is atrocious, to cite one reason), but I think the answers to this question show that the president is getting a bum rap on one issue.

Why am I letting Biden off the hook about monetary policy?

For the simple reason that the Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) deserves the blame. The central bank’s inflationary policies are the reason that prices are rising.

One can claim that Joe Biden is partly to blame because he recently re-nominated Jay Powell, the current Chairman of the Fed. But, if that’s the case, then Donald Trump also is partly to blame – or even more to blame – because he nominated Powell in the first place.

Moreover, as illustrated by this chart, the Fed’s mistake that led to rising prices occurred in early 2020.

Simply stated, the Fed pumped lots of liquidity into the system. That set the stage for today’s price increases (as Milton Friedman told us, there’s always a lag between decisions about monetary policy and changes in prices).

If you look closely, you’ll notice that this massive monetary intervention began nearly one year before Biden took office.

Given his support for Keynesian fiscal policy, I suspect Biden also believes in Keynesian monetary policy. As such, we presumably would have had the same policy if Biden had been elected in 2016.

In other words, Biden would have been just like Trump. At least on this issue.

But none of that changes the fact that Biden’s actions since becoming president have very little to do with today’s price increases.

Let’s close with a few additional observations about the aforementioned polling results.

  • The folks at NBC deserve some criticism for failing to give people the option of choosing the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. I’m guessing this was because of ignorance rather than bias.
  • The people who blamed “corporations increasing prices” obviously didn’t pay attention in their economics classes. Rising prices are a symptom of inflation, not the cause.
  • The people who blamed Putin for inflation are even more ignorant. At the risk of stating the obvious, a Russian invasion in February of 2022 obviously wasn’t responsible for rising prices in 2021.

P.S. The inflation-recession cycle caused by bad monetary policy could be avoided if the Fed was constrained by some simple rules.

P.P.S. Or maybe, just maybe, we should reconsider the role of central banks.

P.P.P.S. For what it’s worth, very few politicians have the intelligence and fortitude to support good monetary policy.

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As part of my ongoing efforts to show that free enterprise produces better results than statism, I often use data on per-capita economic output – especially when comparing nations over long periods of time.

And I’ll sometimes build upon those numbers by comparing consumption levels in different nations.

But what if we’re looking at one country rather than several nations?

In the case of the United States, it is useful to peruse data on GDP and consumption, but I’m also a big fan of using the Census Bureau’s data on inflation-adjusted median household income (though even this data isn’t perfect because household sizes are declining over time).

These numbers allow us to gauge, over multi-year periods, whether government policies are making life better for average families. Or whether they are producing stagnation.

But what if we don’t have several years of data?

That’s a very relevant question since we’re in the midst of my series on Bidenomics.

The president has only been in office for a little over one year, so we don’t even have medium-run data, much less long-run data. Moreover, I’m always cautious about using data for just one month, one quarter, or one year. After all, you don’t know if something is a real trend, or just a statistical blip.

That being said, if we want to give a preliminary grade to Biden’s economic performance, the best data would be inflation-adjusted earnings.

On this basis, Joe Biden is doing a bad job. Here’s Chart 1 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report on what happened to hourly earnings in 2021, adjusted for inflation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not good news if most of the bars are in negative territory. I’ve also highlighted (in red) the key takeaways for the year.

Sophisticated observers will point out that hourly earnings are only one piece of the compensation puzzle.

So I then went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report that also includes fringe benefits.

And if you look at Chart 4, which measures compensation after adjusting for inflation, you’ll notice very depressing data for 2021.

Now that we’ve looked at some grim data, let’s contemplate whether Joe Biden deserves blame.

The answer is probably yes, but I’ll share five caveats.

  • First, it’s just one year of data, so always be wary of statistical blips (maybe inflation is just transitory).
  • Second, only a few Biden policies have actually been enacted (though I’m not a fan of his biggest achievement).
  • Third, those policies may not have been in place long enough to have a meaningful effect on the economy.
  • Fourth, keep in mind that the pandemic scrambled economic data (though perhaps in a way that should have meant a boom in 2021).
  • Fifth, bad news in 2021 could merely be a continuation of a preexisting trend, in which case Trump maybe deserves blame.

Regarding the final point, notice in Chart 4 that the data was heading south at the end of 2020, when Trump was still in the White House.

Was that merely a statistical blip? If not, were the numbers bad because of something Trump did, or were they related to the pandemic? Or perhaps the bad numbers at the end of 2020 were related to investors and entrepreneurs fearing a future Biden agenda?

The bottom line is that we should ignore partisan labels and instead focus on policy. If government is becoming a bigger burden, then we can expect slower growth.

As such, it is very reasonable to think that 2021’s bad data is – at least in part – a consequence of Biden’s dirigiste policy agenda.

P.S. If he is able to resuscitate his so-called Build Back Better plan, expect more bad data in 2022.

P.P.S. For previous columns in this series, click here, here, and here.

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Yesterday’s column explained that Biden’s proposals to expand the welfare state were bad news, in part because government subsidies often lead to inefficiency and higher prices.

That’s not a smart strategy when inflation already is at 40-year highs.

President Biden did address the topic of rising prices during his speech, but his approach was so incoherent that even Larry Summers (Treasury Secretary for Bill Clinton and head of the National Economic Council for Barack Obama) felt compelled to share some critical tweets.

This is remarkable. I’ve spent the past three decades fighting against some of Summers’ bad ideas on fiscal policy (he was a big supporter of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project, for instance).

But now we’re sort of on the same side (at least on a few issues) because Biden has embraced a reckless Bernie Sanders-type agenda of budget profligacy, class-warfare taxes, regulatory excess, and crass protectionism that is too extreme for sane people on the left.

Along with a head-in-the-sand view of monetary policy.

In a column for Canada’s Fraser Institute, Robert O’Quinn and I addressed Biden’s strange comments on inflation.

Here’s some of what we wrote on that topic.

After a disastrous first year pursuing an agenda that became increasingly unpopular, President Biden had an opportunity to reset his administration in a centrist direction as part of his first State of the Union Address. But he didn’t. On every domestic issue, he catered to the Democratic Party’s hardcore left-wing activists… Inflation, as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman observed, is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. …In his speech, Biden ignored the true cause of inflation. Instead, he offered a grab bag of statist ideas such as aggressive antitrust enforcement, price controls on prescription drugs, and tax credits for energy conservation and green energy—policies that, whatever their merits, have little or nothing to do with inflation.

Our basic message is that Biden ignored the real cause of inflation (bad monetary policy by the Federal Reserve) and instead came up with ideas (either bad or irrelevant) to addresses the symptom(s) of inflation.

We also noted that Biden’s nominees to the Federal Reserve are underwhelming.

Moreover, he has been pushing three controversial nominees to the Federal Reserve Board—Sarah Bloom Raskin, Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson—who lack monetary expertise and are generally regarded as inflation doves. Raskin’s primary “qualification” is her support for using the Fed’s regulatory powers to divert credit away from oil and natural gas production. Cook and Jefferson have primarily written about poverty and race, which are outside of the Fed’s legislative mandate.

What we need is a president – like Ronald Reagan – who understands that the inflation genie needs to be put back in the bottle and thus pushes the Federal Reserve in the right direction.

Instead, we have a president who thinks it’s a place where left-leaning activists should get patronage appointments.

P.S. If you have the time and interest, here’s an 40-minute video explaining the Federal Reserve’s track record of bad monetary policy.

P.P.S. If you’re constrained for time, I recommend this five-minute video on alternatives to the Federal Reserve and this six-minute video on how people can protect themselves from bad monetary policy.

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Every few years (2012, 2015, 2019), I warn that easy-money policies by the Federal Reserve are misguided.

But not just because such policies eventually can lead to price inflation, which now has become a problem in the United States.

Bad monetary policy also can lead to asset inflation. In other words, bubbles. And it’s no fun when bubbles burst.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that central banks such as the Fed shouldn’t try to steer the economy with Keynesian-style monetary policy.

I’m motivated to write about this issue because the Washington Post recently invited some people to offer their ideas on how to fight inflation.

Some of the ideas were worthwhile.

Some of the ideas were bad, or even awful.

If asked to contribute, what would I have suggested?

Being a curmudgeonly libertarian, I would have channeled the spirit of Milton Friedman and pointed out that bad monetary policy by central banks is the cause of inflation. Simply stated, it is appropriate to blame central banks if there are sustained and permanent increases in the overall price level.

And the only way to fix inflation is for central banks to unwind the policy mistakes that caused the problem in the first place.

Some of the respondents did mention the need for Federal Reserve to rectify its mistakes, so I’m not the only one to think monetary policy is important.

But I’m very fixated on assigning blame where it belongs, so I would not have mentioned any other factor.

For instance, in an article just published by the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna, Robert O’Quinn and I explain that bad fiscal policy does not cause inflation.

Are we seeing higher levels of price inflation because of fiscal profligacy?  Some Republican U.S. Senators and Representatives have blamed this acceleration of price inflation on Biden’s blowout of federal spending. There are many good reasons to criticize Biden’s spending spree. It is not good for the economy to increase the burden of government spending and push for higher tax rates… But that does not necessarily mean deficit spending is inflationary. …Price inflation occurs when the supply of money exceeds the demand for money… Notably, none of the mechanisms that central banks use for monetary policy (buying and selling government securities, setting interest rates paid on reserves, loans to financial institutions, etc) have anything to do with federal spending or budget deficits.  The Fed and other central banks can maintain price stability regardless of whether governments are enacting reckless fiscal policies.

In the article, we cited Japan as an example of a country with huge levels of debt, yet prices are stable.

By contrast, prices are rising in the United States because of Keynesian monetary policies by the Federal Reserve (often with the support of politicians).

What’s causing inflation, if not budget deficits and government debt? …central banks have been pursuing an inflationary policy. But they’ve been pursuing that approach not to finance budget deficits, but instead are motivated by a Keynesian/interventionist viewpoint that it is the role of central banks to “stimulate” the economy and/or prop up the financial market with easy-money policies.

I’ll close by observing that there can be a link between bad fiscal policy and inflation.

In basket-case nations such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Argentina, politicians periodically use central banks to finance some of their excessive spending.

Some governments, particularly in less-developed countries, cannot easily borrow money and they rely on their central banks to finance their budget deficits. And that is clearly inflationary.

Because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, it’s possible that the United States and other western nations eventually may get to this point.

Heck, I speculated just a couple of days ago that the European Central Bank may be doing this with Italy.

But the United States hasn’t yet reached that “tipping point.” There are still plenty of investors willing to buy the federal government’s debt (especially since the dollar is the world’s reserve currency).

The bottom line is that we should pursue good fiscal policy because it makes sense. And we should pursue good monetary policy because it makes sense. But the two are not directly connected.

P.S. On the topic of inflation, Ronald Reagan deserves immense praise for standing firm for good policy in the 1980s.

P.P.S. On the topic of the Federal Reserve, the central bank also should be criticized for interfering with the allocation of credit. And financial repression as well.

P.P.P.S. On the topic of basket-case economies, let’s hope that the American policy makers don’t embrace “modern monetary theory.”

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I’m not a big fan of the Federal Reserve, mostly because of its Keynesian monetary policy.

Incumbent politicians often applaud when the central bank intervenes to create excess liquidity and artificially low interest rates. That’s because the Keynesian approach produces a short-run “sugar high” that seems positive.

But such policies also create boom-bust conditions.

Indeed, the Federal Reserve deserves considerable blame for some of the economy’s worst episodes of the past 100-plus years – most notably the Great Depression, 1970s stagflation, and the 2008 financial crisis.

So what’s the solution?

I’ve previously pointed out that the classical gold standard has some attractive features but is not politically realistic.

But perhaps it’s time to reassess.

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, Professors William Luther and Alexander Salter explain the differences between a gold standard and today’s system of fiat money (i.e., a monetary system with no constraints).

Under a genuine gold standard, …Competition among gold miners adjusts the money supply in response to changes in demand, making purchasing power stable and predictable over long periods. The threat of customers redeeming notes and deposits for gold discourages banks from overissuing… Fiat dollars aren’t constrained by the supply of gold or any other commodity. The Federal Reserve can expand the money supply as much or as little as it sees fit, regardless of changes in money demand. When the Fed expands the money supply too much, an unsustainable boom and costly inflation follow.

They then compare the track records of the two systems.

…nearly all economists believe the U.S. economy has performed better under fiat money than it would have with the gold standard. This conventional wisdom is wrong. The gold standard wasn’t perfect, but the fiat dollar has been even worse. …in practice, the Fed has failed to govern the money supply responsibly. Inflation averaged only 0.2% a year from 1790 to 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act passed. Inflation was higher under the Fed-managed gold standard, averaging 2.7% from 1914 to 1971. It has been even higher without the constraint of gold. From 1972 to 2019, inflation averaged 4%. …the Fed…has also become less predictable. In a 2012 article published in the Journal of Macroeconomics, George Selgin, William D. Lastrapes and Lawrence H. White find “almost no persistence in the variance of inflation prior to the Fed’s establishment, and a very high degree of persistence afterwards.” …One might be willing to accept the costs of higher inflation and a less predictable price level if a Fed-managed fiat dollar reduced undesirable macroeconomic fluctuation. But that hasn’t happened. Consider the past two decades. The early 2000s had an unsustainable boom, as the Fed held interest rates too low for too long.

There was also a column on this issue in the WSJ two years ago.

James Grant opined about (the awful) President Nixon’s decision to make Federal Reserve policy completely independent of the gold anchor.

Richard Nixon announced the suspension of the Treasury’s standing offer to foreign governments to exchange dollars for gold, or vice versa, at the unvarying rate of $35 an ounce. The date was Aug. 15, 1971. Ever since, the dollar has been undefined in law. …In the long sweep of monetary history, this is a new system. Not until relatively recently did any central bank attempt to promote full employment and what is called price stability (but is really a never-ending inflation) by issuing paper money and manipulating interest rates. …a world-wide monetary system based on the scientifically informed discretion of Ph.D. economists. The Fed alone employs 700 of them.

But Grant says the gold standard worked reasonably well.

A 20th-century scholar, reviewing the record of the gold standard from 1880-1914, was unabashedly admiring of it: “Only a trifling number of countries were forced off the gold standard, once adopted, and devaluations of gold currencies were highly exceptional. Yet all this was achieved in spite of a volume of international reserves that, for many of the countries at least, was amazingly small and in spite of a minimum of international cooperation . . . on monetary matters.” …Arthur I. Bloomfield wrote those words, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published them, in 1959.

The new approach, which Grant mockingly calls the “Ph.D. standard,” gives central bankers discretionary power to do all sorts of worrisome things.

The ideology of the gold standard was laissez-faire; that of the Ph.D. standard (let’s call it) is statism. Gold-standard central bankers bought few, if any, government securities. Today’s central bankers stuff their balance sheets with them. In the gold-standard era, the stockholders of a commercial bank were responsible for the solvency of the institution in which they held a fractional interest. The Ph.D. standard brought the age of the government bailout and too big to fail.

By the way, the purpose of today’s column isn’t to unreservedly endorse a gold standard.

Such as system is very stable in the long run but can lead to short-term inflation or deflation based on what’s happening with the market for gold. And those short-term fluctuations can be economically disruptive.

I was messaging earlier today with Robert O’Quinn, the former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor (who also worked at the Fed) and got this reaction to the Luther-Salter column.

Which is better matching the long-term growth of the economy and the demand for money? The profitability of gold mining or central bank decision-making? A good monetary rule may be better than a classical gold standard. The difficulty is sustaining a good rule.

The ;problem, of course, is that I don’t trust politicians (and their Fed appointees) to follow a good rule.

  • Especially in a world where many of them believe in Keynesian boom-bust monetary policy.
  • Especially in a world where many of them think the Fed should prop up or bailout Wall Street.
  • Especially in a world where many of them might use the central bank to finance big government.
  • Especially in a world where many of them support a “war against cash” to empower politicians.

The bottom line is that we have to choose between two imperfect options and decide which one has a bigger downside.

P.S. Since a return to a classical gold standard is highly unlikely (and because the libertarian dream of “free banking” is even more improbable), the best we can hope for is a president who 1) makes good appointments to the Fed, and 2) supports sound-money policies even when it means short-run political pain. We’ve had one president like that in my lifetime.

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One of the worst features of the internal revenue code is the pervasive bias against income that is saved and invested.

People who immediately consume their after-tax income are largely untaxed (thankfully, we don’t have a value-added tax), but there are several additional layers of tax on people who set aside income to finance future economic growth.

This is a self-destructive approach since all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards.

The ideal answer is fundamental tax reform. For instance, all forms of double taxation are abolished with a flat tax.

But that’s not a realistic option, so what about interim steps?

Interestingly, some progress may be possible. According to a Bloomberg report, the Trump Administration may be on the verge of getting rid of the hidden inflation tax on capital gains.

The White House is developing a plan to cut taxes by indexing capital gains to inflation, according to people familiar with the matter, in a move that…may be done in a way that bypasses Congress. Consensus is growing among White House officials to advance the proposal soon, the people said, to ensure the benefit takes effect before President Donald Trump faces re-election in 2020. Revamping capital gains taxes through a rule or executive order likely would face legal challenges, a concern that reportedly prompted former President George H.W. Bush’s administration to drop a similar plan. …Indexing capital gains would slash tax bills for investors when selling assets such as stock or real estate by adjusting the original purchase price so no tax is paid on appreciation tied to inflation. …The inflation adjustment would amount to a several percentage point tax cut for investors, depending on the type of asset and how long it’s held, according to 2018 estimates from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. Corporate stock with dividends held for 10 years would be currently be subject to an effective tax rate of 24.3%. That same holding indexed to inflation would be subject to a 21.4% tax rate, CRS said.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal opines that this would be a very desirable reform.

What if President Trump had the authority—on his own—to enact a second powerful tax reform? He does. The momentum is building for him to use it. …forces are aligning behind a plan: a White House order to index capital gains for inflation. It’s a long-overdue move—one that would further unleash the economy and boost GOP election prospects. …At President Reagan’s behest, Congress in the 1980s indexed much of the federal tax code for inflation. Oddly, capital gains weren’t similarly treated. The result is that businesses and individuals pay taxes on the full nominal amount they earn on investments, even though inflation eats up a good chunk of any gain. It’s not unheard of for taxes to exceed real gains after inflation. …the Internal Revenue Code does not require that the “cost” of an asset be measured only as its original price—meaning there is no reason Treasury could not construe it in today’s dollars. …The move would set off an explosion of buying and selling—of which the government would get its cut. The lower tax on capital would also help asset prices grow. All of this would be excellent news for the economy.

This 2010 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity elaborates on the reasons for indexing.

I especially like the examples showing how, even with modest levels of inflation, the actual capital gains tax rate can be much higher than official rate.

Remember, it’s the effective marginal tax rate that determines incentives for additional productive activity.

This is why any form of capital gains taxation is wrong. And it’s especially wrong to impose a hidden – and higher – tax simply because of inflation.

Indeed, it’s fundamentally immoral to let the government profit from inflation.

So what would happen if the rumors are true and Trump unilaterally eliminates the tax on inflationary gains?

The Tax Foundation estimated how such a change would affect the economy and the budget. The report includes a helpful example of how this reform would protect investors.

…if an individual purchased an asset for $100 in January 1, 2000 and sold that asset for $200 on July 1, 2018, the nominal capital gain would be $100. However, inflation over that period increased the price level by 49 percent. Under an indexing proposal, the individual would be able to gross up the basis of $100 by the total inflation during that period to $149. As a result, the individual would only be taxed on $51 instead of the full $100.

Here’s a table comparing the status quo with indexing.

Here’s the estimate of the economic benefits.

…indexing capital gains to inflation would increase the long-run size of the economy by 0.11 percent, which is equivalent to about $22 billion in 2018. This provision would primarily boost output by reducing the service price of capital, which would increase the incentive to invest in the United States. We estimate that the service price of capital would be 0.15 percent lower under this proposal. The capital stock would be 0.26 percent larger and the larger capital stock would boost labor productivity leading to 0.08 percent higher wages.

And here’s the accompanying table.

The Tax Foundation also prepared an estimate of the impact on tax revenue.

On a dynamic basis, the revenue loss would be…$148.3 billion over the next ten years. The increase in output due to the lower cost of capital would boost incomes, which would boost payroll revenue and slightly offset individual income tax revenue losses.

The bottom line is that this is not a self-financing reform (that only happens in rare instances), but it is a reform that would help the economy by encouraging more jobs and growth.

And, remember, even small improvements in growth have a meaningful impact over time.

Let’s close with a video from an unlikely supporter of inflation indexing.

Notwithstanding these remarks, I don’t think Schumer will applaud if Trump indexes the capital gains tax. Instead, I suspect he’s now more likely to support measures that would exacerbate this form of double taxation. Though I think he’s still on the right side (at least behind the scenes) on the issue of “carried interest,” so maybe he’s not a totally lost cause.

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Looking through an economic lens, what’s the best country in the world?

If your benchmark is economic liberty, then Hong Kong is the answer according to both the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation.

If per-capita GDP or per-capita wealth is your benchmark, then Monaco wins the prize.

And you get different answers if you focus on specific features such as competitiveness (the United States) or ease of doing business (New Zealand).

You can also measure national performance by looking at key economic variables.

And that’s what Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University has done.

In the sphere of economics, misery tends to flow from high inflation, steep borrowing costs and unemployment. …Many countries measure and report these economic metrics on a regular basis. Comparing them, nation by nation, can tell us a lot about where in the world people are sad or happy. …To answer this question, I update my annual Misery Index measurements.

Hanke explains the evolution of the Misery Index and how he puts together his version.

The first Misery Index was constructed by economist Art Okun in the 1960s as a way to provide President Lyndon Johnson with an easily digestible snapshot of the economy. That original Misery Index was just a simple sum of a nation’s annual inflation rate and its unemployment rate. The Index has been modified several times, first by Robert Barro of Harvard and then by myself. My modified Misery Index is the sum of the unemployment, inflation and bank lending rates, minus the percentage change in real GDP per capita. Higher readings on the first three elements are “bad” and make people more miserable. These are offset by a “good” (GDP per capita growth), which is subtracted from the sum of the “bads.”

You can see the entire list of 95 nations (some countries don’t report adequate data, so they aren’t counted) by clicking here.

And here are the nations with the best scores (remember, this is a Misery Index, so the top results are at the bottom of the list).

Professor Hanke comments on Thailand’s first-place results and Hungary’s second-place results.

Thailand takes the prize as the least miserable country in the world on the 2018 Misery Index. It’s 2018 rank of No. 95 out of 95 countries is a stunner. …Hungary delivered yet another stunner, making a dramatic improvement from 2017 to 2018.  It comes in at No. 94 as the second least miserable country in the world. While the European Union and the international elites have thrown everything they can throw at Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, it’s easy to see why he commands a strong following at home.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Hanke’s list is a measure of annual economic outcomes.

So a relatively poor country can get a very good score. Indeed, they should get comparatively good scores according to convergence theory.

Assuming, of course, that they have decent policy.

However, if you look at the nations with the most miserable outcomes, you can see that many countries don’t have decent policy.

Here’s Hanke’s analysis of the world’s worst performers.

Venezuela holds the inglorious title of the most miserable country in the world in 2018, as it did in 2017, 2016, and 2015. The failures of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist, corrupt petroleum state have been well documented… Argentina jumped to the No. 2 spot after yet another peso crisis. Since its founding, Argentina has been burdened with numerous economic crises. Most can be laid at the feet of domestic mismanagement and currency problems (read: currency collapses). To list but a few of these crises: 1876, 1890, 1914, 1930, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1985, 1989, 2001, and 2018.

For what it’s worth, if you look at the actual Misery Index numbers, Venezuela is in first place by an enormous margin. Chalk that up as another “victory” for socialism.

Moreover, I’m not surprised to see that Jordan, Ukraine, and South Africa are doing poorly. Sadly, there’s not much hope for improvement in those nations.

It’s also not a surprise to see Brazil on the list, though there may be room for optimism if the new government can adopt meaningful reforms.

P.S. Professor Hanke noted that Arthur Okun created the first Misery Index. Okun also is famous for his explanation of the equity-efficiency tradeoff. Okun supported redistribution in order to increase equality of outcomes, but he was honest and admitted that this would mean less prosperity. Too bad international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF don’t share Okun’s honesty.

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Ideally, there should be no capital gains tax.

After all, the levy is a self-destructive form of double taxation that reduces the quantity and quality of investment. And that’s not good for wages and jobs.

To add insult to injury (to be more accurate, to add injury to injury), the tax isn’t indexed for inflation. So investors get taxed on the full increase in the value of an asset even though a significant chunk of the increase often is due solely to inflation.

Steven Entin of the Tax Foundation has some new research on this issue.

Many elements of the income tax are adjusted for inflation, such as tax brackets, standard deductions, and income thresholds or dollar amounts of some tax credits. However, the purchase price of assets later sold for capital gains or losses is not adjusted for inflation. As a result, inflation can do a real number on savers by turning real losses into taxable nominal gains. To avoid such outcomes, it would make sense for the government to allow an inflation adjustment for the cost of assets.

Steve points out that the absence of indexing is very brutal during periods of high inflation – which may soon become a relevant issue again.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, when inflation was high and the stock market was flat, it was not uncommon for people who sold assets to report inflated nominal capital gains that were negative in terms of purchasing power. In effect, the savers were taxed on a real loss. …Suppose one had bought $100 of stock in the XYZ Corporation in 1965, and sold it in 1981, for $110. This looks like a $10 gain. But…The stock would have had to rise to $286 just to keep pace with inflation. …the investor lost $176, in 1981 dollars ($286 – $110). Any tax collected on the nominal $10 gain was, in fact, a tax on a real loss.

But even if inflation remains low, this is still an important issue.

Taxing genuine capital gains is bad enough, so it’s not a surprise to learn that taxing inflationary gains is even worse. It exacerbates the anti-capital bias in the current tax code.

Taxation of fictitious gains or other capital income reduces saving and raises the cost of capital, thereby retarding investment, productivity growth, and wage growth. …In an ideal tax system, saving would not be treated worse than consumption. …When we earn income and pay tax, and use the after-tax income for consumption, the federal government generally leaves the consumption alone, except for a few excise taxes… The earnings are taxed, but not the enjoyment of the subsequent purchases. Saving is a purchase too. It lets us “buy” a stream of future income with after-tax money. But if we buy a bond, the stream of interest is taxed. If we buy a share of stock, the dividends are taxed, and any reinvested earnings that increase the value of the company are taxed as capital gains.

Here’s Steve’s conclusion.

Inflation raises the price of many assets acquired by savers. When they sell the assets, much of their capital gains may be due only to inflation. Inflation-related gains are not a real increase in wealth. Indexing the purchase price (tax basis) for inflation would provide savers some relief for this type of tax on fictitious income.

Well said, though I have one minor quibble. A capital gain, whether real or caused by inflation, is not income. It’s a change in nominal net worth.

Though I’m sure Steve would agree with me. He’s presumably using “income” because the tax code treats that change in net worth as income.

There is a chance we’ll see some progress on this issue. Ryan Ellis, writing for Forbes, is optimistic that the newly appointed head of Trump’s National Economic Council will try to fix this problem.

There’s one project that Kudlow needs to get to work on right away: indexing the basis of capital gains to inflation. …Just last August, Kudlow wrote an op-ed…urging President Trump to do this by executive order. …This finally may be the time that this issue is ready to cross the finish line.

Executive order?

Yes, because the law specifies the rates for capital gains taxation, but it’s up to the Treasury Department to specify what counts as a gain. And there’s a very strong argument that it’s not a genuine gain if an asset rises in value solely because of inflation.

Ryan explains the mechanics of how indexing would work..

How would indexing capital gains basis to inflation work? In the tax world, reporting a capital gain is a pretty simple exercise. When you sell an asset, like a stock, you report how much you sold it for. You can subtract what you bought it for (your “basis”) from what you sold it for to arrive at your gain. …If you’ve held the asset longer than a year, you generally pay tax at…20 percent, plus the 3.8 percent Obamacare investment surtax… A problem arises in that your basis purchase may have happened many years ago. The real value of the money you used to buy a stock has been eroded by inflation. For example, $100 in 1990 is only worth $51.41 today, a little more than half the supposed basis in real terms. …Someone whose $100 initial investment has grown to $500 would see a big difference in taxes.

Here’s the table showing that difference.

And here’s what it means.

Uncle Sam still gets to tax the gain–he just doesn’t get to take the phantom gains attributable to inflation. In fact, $22.50 of the current law tax–nearly one quarter of the tax bill–is entirely due to inflation, not any real increase in wealth. …This law change would help owners of real estate, including corporate owners of real estate. It would help small businesses who pay the capital gains tax when acquired by larger firms. It would help everyone in America with a prized collection of old baseball cards or stamps sitting in an album in their den. This is truly a tax cut for everyone.

For more information, here’s a video on the topic from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

As was pointed out in the video, Ronald Reagan indexed much of the tax code as part of his 1981 tax cut. Now it’s time to take the next step.

But let’s not forget that indexing should only be an interim step (assuming, of course, that the White House and Treasury are willing to do the right thing and protect investors from inflation).

The real goal should be total repeal of the capital gains tax.

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I have no idea whether Donald Trump believes in bigger government or smaller government. Higher taxes or lower taxes. More intervention or less. Sometimes he says things I like. Sometimes he says things that irk me.

Politicians are infamous for being cagey, but “The Donald” is an entirely different animal. Instead of using weasel words that create wiggle room, he simply makes bold statements that are impossible to reconcile.

Consider his views on government debt.

Here’s an interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV from earlier this week. I was in Zurich and it was past midnight, so I was a tad bit undiplomatic about Trump’s endlessly evolving views. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to default. And it’s not a good idea to monetize debt either.

For what it’s worth, while Trump is oscillating between different position on debt, one of his top advisers is claiming that his plan will produce a multi-trillion dollar surplus.

Sigh.

The sensible approach would be for Trump to make simple points.

  1. Debt is a symptom and the real problem is too much spending.
  2. The solution is to follow the Golden Rule.
  3. Therefore, impose a Swiss-style spending cap.

But he hasn’t asked me for advice, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to say the right thing.

It’s also a challenge to decipher Trump’s position on tax policy.

He actually put forth a good tax proposal, but nobody takes it seriously since he doesn’t have a concomitant plan to restrain spending.

So his campaign supposedly designated Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore to modify the plan, but then said the original proposal would stay unchanged.

This does not create a sense of confidence.

Trump also is getting pressure on his personal tax situation. He said he would release his tax return(s). Now he says he won’t. I speculated on what this implies in an essay for Time, listing five reasons why he may decide to keep his returns confidential.

The first two reasons deal with a desire for privacy and a political concern that he may appear to be less wealthy than he’s led folks to believe.

First, he may resent the idea of letting the world look at his tax returns for reasons of personal privacy, which is an understandable sentiment. …Can Trump get away with stonewalling on his returns? Perhaps. President Barack Obama refused to release his college transcript and didn’t seem to suffer any political damage. …Second, Trump’s tax return will probably show a surprisingly low level of income, and he might be concerned that such a revelation would erode the super-successful-billionaire aura that he has created.

I also suspect he’s worried that his tax return will make him look like…gasp…a tax avoider.

Third, to the degree that Trump’s return shows a lower-than-expected amount of taxable income, this will probably be because his accountants and tax lawyers have carefully plumbed the 75,000-page internal revenue code for deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions and other preferences… Since we all seek to legally minimize our tax liabilities, that shouldn’t be a political problem. …That normally would be a persuasive answer, but voters may look askance when they learn that Trump is taking advantage of mysterious provisions dealing with things they don’t understand, like depreciation, carryforwards, foreign tax credits, muni bonds and deferral. …Fourth, for very wealthy individuals and large companies, the complexity of the tax code means there’s no way of knowing if a tax return is accurate. …Given Trump’s persona, he presumably pushes the envelope.

Last but not least, I imagine Trump has “offshore” structures.

Fifth, it’s highly likely that Trump does business with so-called tax havens. For successful investors and entrepreneurs with cross-border economic activity, this is almost obligatory because jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands have ideal combinations of quality governance and tax neutrality. …But in a political environment where the left has tried to demonize “offshore” tax planning, any revelations about BVI companies, Panama law firms, Jersey trusts and Liechtenstein accounts will be fodder for Trump’s many enemies.

Needless to say, I greatly sympathize with Trump’s desire to minimize his tax burden and I applaud his use of so-called tax havens (which are routinely utilized by wealthy Democrats).

And I even sympathize with his desire for privacy even though divulging personal financial information is now a routine obligation for politicians.

The point I should have made in my essay is that Trump would be in a stronger position if he said from the start that his tax returns are nobody else’s business.

And shifting back to policy, he’ll be in a stronger position if he picks a message and sticks to it (though ideally not the same message as Hillary Clinton).

P.S. Since I mentioned Obama’s still-secret college transcript, I may as well share this very clever mock transcript that explains a lot about his misguided approach to policy.

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The standard argument against an easy-money policy is that it creates distortions in an economy that lead to either rapid increases in the price level, like we endured in the 1970s, or unsustainable asset bubbles, like we experienced last decade.

Those arguments are completely valid, but they only tell part of the story.

Central banks also should be criticized because “quantitative easing” and “zero interest rate policies” create major imbalances in capital markets.

A major new study from Swiss Re quantifies the damage to savers. Here are some excerpts from a CNBC report.

The Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate the U.S. economy after the financial crisis ended up costing savers nearly half a trillion dollars in interest income, according to report released Thursday. Since the central bank dropped interest rates to near zero at the end of 2008, savers have labored under plain-vanilla bank accounts and money market funds that have yielded close to nothing. …In a landmark report, Swiss Re quantifies just how much savers and others have languished… The reinsurance firm put the number at $470 billion in the 2008-13 period studied, so the number is likely even higher now. …”the impact of foregone interest income for households and long-term investors has become substantial.” …Swiss Re said the “financial repression” has taken its toll not only on savers but also on some areas of investing.

Here’s a chart from the Swiss Re report. As you can see, an easy-money policy is a massive tool for redistribution, with savers being hurt and government being subsidized.

Indeed, Swiss Re actually calculates a “financial repression index.”

Financial repression reflects the ability of policymakers to direct funds to themselves that would otherwise go elsewhere.

And the level of this repression has been at record highs in recent years.

It is true that some households benefit from easy money and artificially low interest rates. Their debt expenses have been reduced and they also are enjoying higher asset values.

But those benefits may be fleeting if the end result is a bubble that bursts, as happened in 2008.

Writing for the Washington Times, my Cato colleague Richard Rahn agrees that central banks are hurting savers, but he augments this analysis by making the very important point that easy-money policies simply don’t work.

Government economic policymakers have been trying to solve a problem of too much government spending, taxing and regulation by inappropriately using monetary policy, which has not and cannot solve the fundamental problems (it is like using a hammer rather than a shovel to dig a hole). The major central banks have been holding down interest rates, which is actually a massive indirect tax levied on the world’s savers. Historically, savers would receive about 3 percent interest above the rate of inflation on their safest investments, but now interest rates often do not cover even the low inflation that is occurring in the developed countries. …Many economists expected savers to save less and consume more as a result of low or even negative interest rates… When businesses and individuals look at the world debt situation and the increased chances of another financial collapse, their rational response is to increase “precautionary” savings, even though they are not receiving interest on them.

So the bottom line is that central banks are engaging in “financial repression” today and creating risks of price instability and/or asset bubbles tomorrow.

But there’s no compensating benefit to make all these costs (and future risks) worthwhile.

That’s not a good deal.

So what’s the alternative?

In the short run, the best hope is that central bankers, including the ones at the Federal Reserve, will take their feet off the figurative gas pedal and follow some sort of monetary rule that precludes destructive intervention.

In the long run, the ideal answer would be a return to market-provided private currencies. This isn’t just silly libertarian fantasy. There actually have been countries that successfully used this “free banking” approach.

Professor Larry White has a must-read historical review of what happened before governments monopolized currency issue.

When we look into these episodes, we find a record of innovation, improvement, and success at serving money-users. As in other goods and services, competition provided the public with improved products at better prices. The least regulated systems were not only the most competitive but also by and large the least crisis-prone. …the record of these historical free banking systems, “most if not all can be considered as reasonably successful, sometimes quite remarkably so.”…Those systems of plural note issue that were panic prone, like those of pre-1913 United States and pre-1832 England, were not so because of competition but because of legal restrictions that significantly weakened banks. Where free banking was given a reasonable trial, for example in Scotland and Canada, it functioned well for the typical user of money and banking services.

The history of central banking, by contrast, is not nearly as successful. There’s been massive erosion in the value of money and central banks are largely responsible for the boom-bust cycle that has afflicted many economies.

At this point, you may be wondering why central banking triumphed over free banking if the latter is so superior.

The answer is simple. As Professor White explains, look at what’s in the best interest of the political elite.

Free banking often ended because the imposition of heavy legal restrictions or creation of a privileged central bank offered revenue advantages to politically influential interests. The legislature or the Treasury can tap a central bank for cheap credit, or (under a fiat standard) simply have the central bank pay the government’s bills by issuing new money. …Central banks primarily arose, directly or indirectly, from legislation that created privileges to promote the fiscal interests of the state or the rent-seeking interests of privileged bankers, not from market forces.

In other words, a system of competitive currencies is perfectly plausible, but it’s not in the interest of politicians (just as having no income tax is plausible, but also not in the interest of politicians).

For more information on free banking, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Professor White also has a good video explaining why a central bank isn’t needed.

P.S. For those of you who like the gold standard, Professor George Selgin (now head of Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives) has some major concerns (at least if the government is in charge of it).

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the Federal Reserve also imposes a lot of costly regulation on the financial sector.

P.P.P.S. Thomas Sowell has some wise observations on why we shouldn’t grant more power to the Fed and John Stossel explains why monetary competition would be good.

P.P.P.P.S. To end with some humor, here’s the famous “Ben Bernank” video. And if that doesn’t exhaust your interest in the topic, here’s a snarky cartoon video mocking the Fed and another video with 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

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During periods of economic weakness, governments often respond with “loose” monetary policy, which generally means that central banks will take actions that increase liquidity and artificially lower interest rates.

I’m not a big fan of this approach.

If an economy is suffering from bad fiscal policy or bad regulatory policy, why expect that an easy-money policy will be effective?

What if politicians use an easy-money policy as an excuse to postpone or avoid structural reforms that are needed to restore growth?

And shouldn’t we worry that an easy-money policy will cause economic damage by triggering systemic price hikes or bubbles?

Defenders of central banks and easy money generally respond to such questions by assuring us that QE-type policies are not a substitute or replacement for other reforms.

And they tell us the downside risk is overstated because central bankers will have the wisdom to soak up excess liquidity at the right time and raise interest rates at the right moment.

I hope they’re right, but my gut instinct is to worry that central bankers are not sufficiently vigilant about the downside risks of easy-money policies.

But not all central bankers. While I was in London last week to give a presentation to the State of the Economy conference, I got to hear a speech by Kristin Forbes, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

She was refreshingly candid about the possible dangers of the easy-money approach, particularly with regards to artificially low interest rates.

Here is one of the charts from her presentation.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s will be concerned about her first point. And this is important. It would be terrible to let the inflation genie out of the bottle, particularly since there may not be a Ronald Reagan-type leader in the future who will do what’s needed to solve such a mess.

But today I want to focus on her second, fourth, and fifth points.

So here are some of the details from her speech, starting with some analysis of the risk of bubbles.

…when interest rates are low, investors may “search for yield” and shift funds to riskier investments that are expected to earn a higher return – from equity markets to high-yield debt markets to emerging markets. This could drive up prices in these other markets and potentially create “bubbles”. This can not only lead to an inefficient allocation of capital, but leave certain investors with more risk than they appreciate. An adjustment in asset prices can bring about losses that are difficult to manage, especially if investments were supported by higher leverage possible due to low rates. If these losses were widespread across an economy, or affected systemically-important institutions, they could create substantial economic disruption. This tendency to assume greater risk when interest rates are low for a sustained period not only occurs for investors, but also within banks, corporations, and broader credit markets. Studies have shown that during periods of monetary expansion, banks tend to soften lending standards and experience an increase in their assessed “riskiness”. There is evidence that the longer an expansion lasts, the greater these effects. Companies also take advantage of periods of low borrowing costs to increase debt issuance. If this occurs during a period of low default rates – as in the past few years – this can further compress borrowing spreads and lead to levels of debt issuance that may be difficult to support when interest rates normalize. There is a lengthy academic literature showing that low interest rates often foster credit booms, an inefficient allocation of capital, banking collapses, and financial crises. This series of risks to the financial system from a period of low interest rates should be taken seriously and carefully monitored.

Her fourth and fifth points are particularly important since they show she appreciates the Austrian-school insight that bad monetary policy can distort market signals and lead to malinvestment.

Here’s some of what she shared about the fourth point.

…is there a chance that a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates is allowing less efficient companies to survive and curtailing the “creative destruction” that is critical to support productivity growth? Or even within existing, profitable companies – could a prolonged period of low borrowing costs reduce their incentive to carefully assess and evaluate investment projects – leading to a less efficient allocation of capital within companies? …For further evidence on this capital misallocation, one could estimate the rate of “scrappage” during the crisis and the level of capital relative to its optimal, steady-state level. Recent BoE work has found tentative evidence of a “capital overhang”, an excess of capital above that judged optimal given current conditions. Usually any such capital overhang falls quickly during a recession as inefficient factories and plants are shut down and new investment slows. The slower reallocation of capital since the crisis could partly be due to low interest rates.

And here is some of what she said about the fifth point.

A fifth possible cost of low interest rates is that it could shift the sources of demand in ways which make underlying growth less balanced, less resilient, and less sustainable. This could occur through increases in consumption and debt, and decreases in savings and possibly the current account. …if these shifts are too large – or vulnerabilities related to overconsumption, overborrowing, insufficient savings, or large current account deficits continue for too long – they could create economic challenges.

In her speech, Ms. Forbes understandably focused on the current environment and speculated about possible future risks.

But the concerns about easy-money policies are not just theoretical.

Let’s look at some new research from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the University of California, and the University of Bonn.

In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they look at the connections between monetary policy and housing bubbles.

How do monetary and credit conditions affect housing booms and busts? Do low interest rates cause households to lever up on mortgages and bid up house prices, thus increasing the risk of financial crisis? And what, if anything, should central banks do about it? Can policy directed at housing and credit conditions, with monetary or macroprudential tools, lead a central bank astray and dangerously deflect it from single- or dual-mandate goals?

It appears the answer is yes.

This paper analyzes the link between monetary conditions, credit growth, and house prices using data spanning 140 years of modern economic history across 14 advanced economies. …We make three core contributions. First, we discuss long-run trends in mortgage lending, home ownership, and house prices and show that the 20th century has indeed been an era of increasing “bets on the house.” …Second, turning to the cyclical fluctuations of lending and house prices we use novel instrumental variable local projection methods to show that throughout history loose monetary conditions were closely associated with an upsurge in real estate lending and house prices. …Third, we also expose a close link between mortgage credit and house price booms on the one hand, and financial crises on the other. Over the past 140 years of modern macroeconomic history, mortgage booms and house price bubbles have been closely associated with a higher likelihood of a financial crisis. This association is more noticeable in the post-WW2 era, which was marked by the democratization of leverage through housing finance.

So what’s the bottom line?

The long-run historical evidence uncovered in this study clearly suggests that central banks have reasons to worry about the side-effects of loose monetary conditions. During the 20th century, real estate lending became the dominant business model of banks. As a result, the effects that low interest rates have on mortgage borrowing, house prices and ultimately financial instability risks have become considerably stronger. …these historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing byproducts of easy money must be taken seriously

In other words, we’re still dealing with some of the fallout of a housing bubble/financial crisis caused in part by the Fed’s easy-money policy last decade.

Yet we have people in Washington who haven’t learned a thing and want to repeat the mistakes that created that mess.

Even though we now have good evidence about the downside risk of easy money and bubbles!

Sort of makes you wonder whether the End-the-Fed people have a good point.

P.S. Central banks also can cause problems because of their regulatory powers.

P.P.S. Just as there are people in Washington who want to double down on failure, there are similar people in Europe who think a more-of-the-same approach is the right cure for the problems caused in part by a some-of-the-same approach.

P.P.P.S. For those interested in monetary policy, the good news is that the Cato Institute recently announced the formation of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives, led by former UGA economics professor George Selgin, which will focus on development of policy recommendations that will create a more free-market monetary system.

P.P.P.P.S. If you watch this video, you’ll see that George doesn’t give the Federal Reserve a very high grade.

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan.

He’s definitely the greatest president of my lifetime and, with one possible rival, he was the greatest President of the 20th century.

If his only accomplishment was ending malaise and restoring American prosperity thanks to lower tax rates and other pro-market reforms, he would be a great President.

He also restored America’s national defenses and reoriented foreign policy, both of which led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a stupendous achievement that makes Reagan worthy of Mount Rushmore.

But he also has another great achievement, one that doesn’t receive nearly the level of appreciation that it deserves. President Reagan demolished the economic cancer of inflation.

Even Paul Krugman has acknowledged that reining in double-digit inflation was a major positive achievement. Because of his anti-Reagan bias, though, he wants to deny the Gipper any credit.

Robert Samuelson, in a column for the Washington Post, corrects the historical record.

Krugman recently wrote a column arguing that the decline of double-digit inflation in the 1980s was the decade’s big economic event, not the cuts in tax rates usually touted by conservatives. Actually, I agree with Krugman on this. But then he asserted that Ronald Reagan had almost nothing to do with it. That’s historically incorrect. Reagan was crucial. …Krugman’s error is so glaring.

Samuelson first provides the historical context.

For those too young to remember, here’s background. From 1960 to 1980, inflation — the general rise of retail prices — marched relentlessly upward. It went from 1.4 percent in 1960 to 5.9 percent in 1969 to 13.3 percent in 1979. The higher it rose, the more unpopular it became. …Worse, government seemed powerless to defeat it. Presidents deployed complex wage and price controls and guidelines. They didn’t work. The Federal Reserve — custodian of credit policies — veered between easy money and tight money, striving both to subdue inflation and to maintain “full employment” (taken as a 4 percent to 5 percent unemployment rate). It achieved neither. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, there were four recessions. Inflation became a monster, destabilizing the economy.

The column then explains that there was a dramatic turnaround in the early 1980s, as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker adopted a tight-money policy and inflation was squeezed out of the system much faster than almost anybody thought was possible.

But Krugman wants his readers to think that Reagan played no role in this dramatic and positive development.

Samuelson says this is nonsense. Vanquishing inflation would have been impossible without Reagan’s involvement.

What Reagan provided was political protection. The Fed’s previous failures to stifle inflation reflected its unwillingness to maintain tight-money policies long enough… Successive presidents preferred a different approach: the wage-price policies built on the pleasing (but unrealistic) premise that these could quell inflation without jeopardizing full employment. Reagan rejected this futile path. As the gruesome social costs of Volcker’s policies mounted — the monthly unemployment rate would ultimately rise to a post-World War II high of 10.8 percent — Reagan’s approval ratings plunged. In May 1981, they were at 68 percent; by January 1983, 35 percent. Still, he supported the Fed. …It’s doubtful that any other plausible presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, would have been so forbearing.

What’s the bottom line?

What Volcker and Reagan accomplished was an economic and political triumph. Economically, ending double-digit inflation set the stage for a quarter-century of near-automatic expansion… Politically, Reagan and Volcker showed that leaders can take actions that, though initially painful and unpopular, served the country’s long-term interests. …There was no explicit bargain between them. They had what I’ve called a “compact of conviction.”

By the way, Krugman then put forth a rather lame response to Samuelson, including the rather amazing claim that “[t]he 1980s were a triumph of Keynesian economics.”

Here’s what Samuelson wrote in a follow-up column debunking Krugman.

As preached and practiced since the 1960s, Keynesian economics promised to stabilize the economy at levels of low inflation and high employment. By the early 1980s, this vision was in tatters, and many economists were fatalistic about controlling high inflation. Maybe it could be contained. It couldn’t be eliminated, because the social costs (high unemployment, lost output) would be too great. …This was a clever rationale for tolerating high inflation, and the Volcker-Reagan monetary onslaught demolished it. High inflation was not an intrinsic condition of wealthy democracies. It was the product of bad economic policies. This was the 1980s’ true lesson, not the contrived triumph of Keynesianism.

If anything, Samuelson is being too kind.

One of the key tenets of Keynesian economics is that there’s a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve).

Yet in the 1970s we had rising inflation and rising unemployment.

While in the 1980s, we had falling inflation and falling unemployment.

But if you’re Paul Krugman and you already have a very long list of mistakes (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples), then why not go for the gold and try to give Keynes credit for the supply-side boom of the 1980s

P.S. Since today’s topic is Reagan, it’s a good opportunity to share my favorite poll of the past five years.

P.P.S. Here are some great videos of Reagan in action. And here’s one more if you need another Reagan fix.

P.P.P.S. And let’s close with some mildly risqué Reagan humor that was sent to me by a former member of Congress.

Reagan Clinton Joke

If you want more Reagan humor, click here, here, and here.

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I’ve written a couple of serious posts about the death panels at the VA’s government-run health facilities.

I think it’s particularly important to understand that the problem has nothing to do with funding levels. Instead, it’s about the chronic inefficiency of government.

But sometimes mockery is more effective than analysis, and this Remy video, produced by Reason TV, is definitely worth sharing.

Enjoy.

By the way, if you like the Remy videos from Reason TV, here’s one about Sandra Fluke and the birth control mandate, one about the TSA Hokey Pokey, and two more Christmas-themed songs about the TSA (here and here).

But I want to spend the rest of today’s column celebrating the fact that America is not Venezuela. No matter how much we complain about the inefficiency, waste, and corruption in Washington, things could be worse.

Much worse.

Here are three stories to give you an idea what total statism produces.

First, I’ve written about how government intervention is causing toilet paper shortages and food shortages in Venezuela (also in Cuba). Well, there’s also a shortage of water, as reported by Bloomberg.

The rationing of tap water amid a drought and a shortage of bottles because of currency controls are forcing people to form long lines at grocery stores and bottle shops as soon as deliveries are made. …a government-mandated water rationing plan in Caracas and hot weather are fueling demand as supply shrinks. “I haven’t been able to find 5-liter bottles of water in the supermarket for the past two weeks, and there haven’t been half-liter bottles this week,” Maria Hernandez, a 36-year-old secretary, said in an interview in Caracas today. “I have four at home, but I’m afraid that they’ll run out and that I won’t be able to find more. They ration water at my house on Wednesdays.”

Though maybe water rationing is a good thing. At least when you live in a nation where the water that does (sporadically) materialize is contaminated.

Some areas of the city receive water service only three days a week, with most neighborhoods going without water at least one day a week. When water does flow, few residents dare to drink it because of contamination.

So why is there a problem? Because the government doesn’t let the market operate.

Regulated prices for bottled water have not been raised since November 2011, industry association Anber said in a May 19 statement. Since then, consumer prices have risen 110 percent, according to central bank data, while the bolivar has lost 87 percent of its value on the black market, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the value on the Colombian border.

Our second story also comes from Bloomberg. It’s about the one thriving sector of the Venezuelan economy.

The arrival of a Liberian-flagged freighter with Ukrainian, Arab and Filipino sailors spells one thing for Elena — dollars. And greenbacks are king in Venezuela, the 32-year-old prostitute says. …Prostitutes more than double their earnings by moonlighting as currency traders in Puerto Cabello. They are the foreign exchange counter for sailors in a country where buying and selling dollars in the streets is a crime — and prostitution isn’t. Greenbacks in the black market are worth 11 times more than the official rate as dollars become more scarce.

Indeed, some women may be turning to prostitution because the government is doing so much damage to the economy.

Prostitution has become the only boom industry in Venezuela’s biggest port. …“Before I was working to support my kid and my mom; now I support my entire family,” said Paola, a prostitute who like Elena comes from Zulia and declines to give her real name. “Dollars are the only way to get by. The bolivar wages of my uncles and cousins barely mean anything now.” …“We can make more in two hours here than working in a shop in a month,” said a prostitute who calls herself Giselle. …For women like Giselle, Elena and Paola, prostitution for dollars has become a lifeline keeping them from poverty. “We haven’t studied, we have no education. What would we do now if we stopped?” said Giselle. “Work for a minimum wage that doesn’t even pay for food? If we wouldn’t be here working the scene, we would be living on the streets.”

Amazing. Venezuelan women are famous for their beauty, but the economy is such a mess that they earn twice as much money by trading currency. Way to go, big government!

Last but not least, our third story shows that government intervention is even making death more difficult. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Guardian.

…even in death, Venezuelans are afflicted by shortages. Coffin production has dropped between 20% and 30% this year for lack of materials, forcing funeral and burial delays… Pedro Navarro, former president of Venezuela’s funeral parlor association, has blamed lagging production at the state-run foundry Sidor. …Demand for coffins has grown in recent years. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates. People have been coping with shortages since 2006, long before the death from cancer last year of the pro-socialist president, Hugo Chávez.

The moral of the story is that government interventions such as price controls and government policy mistakes such as inflation have very negative consequences for ordinary people. It’s not just shortages of water and a prostitution-encouraging desire to escape the local currency.

The entire economy is a mess.

Empty shelves in shops and long queues have become a fixture of the daily hunt for staples such as milk, cooking oil and flour. Pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are also scarce. The anti-government street protests that began in February by an emboldened opposition have grown with the shortages.

So when someone tells you that big government is good for people, ask them for an example of successful statism.

And if they’re open to rational evidence, show them this chart. It shows that Venezuela used to be twice as prosperous as Chile.

But Venezuela has stagnated because of statism and Chile has boomed because of free markets. Kind of hard to argue with these facts (though Chile’s current crop of politicians apparently don’t like success and are seeking to expand the burden of government).

Let’s close with some very accurate humor. This poster nicely summarizes the difference between capitalism and statism.

Or the parable of the two cows also does the job.

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This is an easy question for me to answer. To be honest, I have no idea.

If I knew such things, I could time the market and I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams and relaxing on the beach in the Cayman Islands instead of sitting in my kitchen in chilly Virginia.

Heck, I don’t even know whether the Fed’s policy is wrong or just worrisome. It’s possible, after all, that the central bank has provided appropriate liquidity and it will soak it up at the right time.

I don’t think that’s the case. I fear Bernanke is in over his head and that the Fed is engaging in the monetary version of Keynesian economics.

And if that’s true, something bad will happen at some point. If there’s too much liquidity out there, it presumably will show up at some point as either rising prices or an asset bubble.

Then again, we know banks are keeping more than $1 trillion of excess reserves parked at the Fed and maybe it will stay that way forever. In which case the private sector is inadvertently protecting us from bad monetary policy. Thomas Sowell has suggested that something like this is happening.

I can say for sure is that we wouldn’t have to worry if we were in a libertarian fantasy world and the private sector was responsible for money.

You may think that sounds crazy, but that’s the way it used to be, as explained in this short video.

John Stossel has made the same point about competing market-based currencies.

And if you want to see how well money has maintained its value since the Federal Reserve took over, this link has an excellent video.

P.S. I often get asked about the gold standard. It’s good in theory, but the real issue is whether governments can be trusted to operate it prudently and honestly.

P.P.S. Since Christmas is just two days away, we can all wonder whether we will get this present from Ben Bernanke. And if you still have some last-minute shopping to do, here’s a Bernanke t-shirt for your liberal friends.

P.P.P.S. For some laughs, check out Ben Bernanke’s Facebook page.

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I’ve been worried for quite some time that the European Central Bank was losing its independence, thus undermining the long-run prospects of the euro.

Well, yesterday’s announcement that the ECB would buy the dodgy debt of nations such as Spain didn’t make me feel any better.

Central banks should not be bullied into creating too much money simply because politicians are too corrupt, venal, and short-sighted to control spending.

Here is some of what Allister Heath of City A.M. wrote earlier today. He begins with a wise warning about moral hazard.

There is nothing markets love more than a good dose of monetary activism, especially when they detect a hidden bailout, so it is no wonder that traders and investors reacted so positively to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan. …Yet generally speaking these days, the more the markets like a central bank intervention, the more I worry. This is because all too often investors are trying to get central banks – and ultimately, the taxpayer – to monetise debt to protect themselves, or because they believe that there are monetary solutions to real, structural problems. I disagree on both counts: excessive debt needs to be written off, with the cost born by the creditors, not redistributed to the taxpayers of more prudent countries or inflated away. It is right that investors should be able to make a fortune if they make a correct bet – but it is equally right that they should lose their shirt when their investment goes sour. This habit of quietly enjoying the former but loudly refusing the latter is one of the main reasons why the City’s reputation is at such a low ebb.

He then explains that the ECB shouldn’t try to mask reality.

…there is a perfectly good reason why the yields of peripheral Eurozone nations have shot up over the past year. It is because the markets have finally started to price risk properly. Higher yields on Spanish or Greek debt reflect the reality of deeply troubled, structurally uncompetitive nations… The market is sending a clear and precise signal, and warning the world that there is a major problem that needs resolution; buying vast amounts of bonds to try and distort or even entirely eliminate that signal and pretend that nothing is wrong with Europe’s weaker economies would be an absurd act of delusion.

I’m not as optimistic as Allister is in this next section, largely because the supposed conditionality will lead to the kind of fiscal gimmicks and moving goal posts that we see in Greece.

…while there are many problems with Draghi’s plans, he is actually being relatively sensible. He will not help Portugal, Ireland and Greece until they are able to access bond markets; even more importantly, Spain and Italy will need to ask for European bailout fund support, and accept the ensuing conditionality, before ECB bond-buying starts. It will theoretically be unlimited in scale but Draghi only wants to “do whatever it takes” as long as politicians toe the line. Given that they won’t, and that many countries will soon be borrowing even more, the crisis will soon flare up again. The simple reality is that the Eurozone in its current form is doomed. Draghi’s plan will buy some time, and his next one even more, as will the one after that. But eventually the size of the fiscal and competitiveness crisis, combined with voter anger in both Northern and Southern countries, will overwhelm all of his attempts at papering over the cracks. It’s just a matter of time.

But I obviously agree with his conclusion. Unless European politicians decide to reduce the burden of government spending, the continent is in deep trouble.

Last but not least, the problem in Europe is not the euro. It is the welfare state. I’m not a huge fan of the single currency, but it is way down on my list of reasons that nations such as Spain, Italy, and Greece are in trouble.

P.S. America will be in the same boat at some point in the future if we don’t reform entitlements.

P.P.S. Allister is the author of this great article explaining why tax competition and tax havens are so important and valuable in the global economy.

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To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

One of the challenges in this field is that opponents of the Fed often are portrayed as cranks. Defenders of the status quo may not have a good defense of the Fed, but they are rather effect in marginalizing critics. Congressman Ron Paul and others are either summarily dismissed or completely ignored.

The implicit assumption in monetary circles is that there is no alternative to central banking and fiat money. Anybody who criticizes the current system therefore is a know-nothing who wants to create some sort of libertarian dystopia featuring banking panics and economic chaos.

To be fair, it certainly might be possible to create a monetary regime that is worse than the Fed. That is why the next videos in this series will offer a careful look at the costs and benefits of possible alternatives.

As they say, stay tuned.

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