Archive for the ‘Keynesian’ Category

In the world of fiscal policy, there are actually two big debates.

  1. One debate revolves around the appropriate size of government in the long run. Folks on the left argue that government spending generates a lot of value and that bigger government is a recipe for more prosperity. Libertarians and their allies, by contrast, point out that most forms of government spending are counterproductive and that large public sectors (and the accompanying taxes) undermine economic performance.
  2. The other debate is focused on short-run economic effects, and revolves around the “Keynesian” argument that more government spending is a “stimulus” to a weak economy and that budget-cutting “austerity” hurts growth. Libertarians and other critics are generally skeptical that government spending boosts short-run growth and instead argue that the right kind of austerity (i.e., a lower burden of government spending) is the appropriate approach.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I wrote a lot about the Keynesian stimulus fight. In more recent years, however, I have focused more on the debate over the growth-maximizing size of government.

But it’s time to revisit the stimulus/austerity debate. The National Bureau of Economic Research last month released a new study by five economists (two from Harvard, one from NYU, and two from Italian universities) reviewing the real-world evidence on fiscal consolidation (i.e., reducing red ink) over the past several decades.

This paper studies whether what matters most is the “when” (whether an adjustment is carried out during an expansion, or a recession) or the “how” (i.e. the composition of the adjustment, whether it is mostly based on tax increases, or on spending cuts). …We estimate a model which allows for both sources of non-linearity: “when” and “how”.

Here’s a bit more about the methodology.

The fiscal consolidations we study are those implemented by 16 OECD countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States) between 1981 and 2014. …We also decompose each adjustment in its two components: changes in taxes and in spending. …we use a specification in which the economy, following the shift in fiscal policy, can move from one state to another. We also allow multipliers to vary depending on the type of consolidation, tax-based vs expenditure-based. …Our government expenditure variable is total government spending net of interest payments on the debt: that is we do not distinguish between government consumption, government investment, transfers (social security benefits etc) and other government outlays. …In total we have 170 plans and 216 episodes, of which about two-thirds are EB and one-third are TB.

By the way, “EB” refers to “expenditure based” fiscal consolidations and “TB” refers to “tax based” consolidations.

And you can see from Table 5 that some countries focused more on tax increases and others were more focused on trying to restrain spending.

Congratulations to Canada and Sweden for mostly or totally eschewing tax hikes.

Though I wonder how many of the 113 “EB” plans involved genuine spending reforms (probably very few based on this data) and how many were based on the fake-spending-cuts approach that is common in the United States.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s now look at some findings from the NBER study, starting with the fact that most consolidations took place during downturns, which certainly wouldn’t please Keynesians, but shouldn’t be too surprising since red ink tend to rise during such periods.

…there is a relation between the timing and the type of fiscal adjustment and the state of the economy. Overall, adjustment plans are much more likely to be introduced during a recession. There was a consolidation in 62 out of 99 years of recession…, while we record a consolidation in only 13 over 94 years of expansion. …it is somewhat surprising that a majority of the shifts in fiscal policy devoted to reducing deficits are implemented during recessions.

And here are the results that really matter. The economists crunched the numbers and found that tax increases impose considerable damage, whereas spending cuts cause very little harm to short-run performance.

We find that the composition of fiscal adjustments is more important than the state of the cycle in determining their effect on output. Fiscal adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses – such losses are in fact on average close to zero – than those based upon tax increases which are associated with large and prolonged recessions regardless of whether the adjustment starts in a recession or not. …what matters for the short run output cost of fiscal consolidations is the composition of the adjustment. Tax-based adjustments are costly in terms of output losses. Expenditure-based ones have on average very low costs.

These findings are remarkable. Even I’m willing to accept that spending cuts may be painful in the short run (not because of Keynesian reasons, but simply because resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated to more productive uses).

So if the economists who wrote this comprehensive study find that there is very little short-run dislocation associated with spending cuts, that’s powerful evidence.

And when you then consider all the data and research showing the positive long-run effects of smaller government, this certainly suggests that the top fiscal priority should be shrinking the size and scope of government.

P.S. I mentioned above that Keynesians doubtlessly get agitated that governments engage in fiscal consolidation during downturns. This is why I’m trying to get them to support spending caps. The good news, from their perspective, is that the government’s budget would be allowed to grow when there’s a recession, albeit not very rapidly. The tradeoff that they must accept, however, is that spending would be limited to that modest growth rate even during years when there’s strong growth and the private sector is generating lots of tax revenue.

Honest Keynesians presumably should yes to this deal since Keynes wanted restraint during growth years to offset “stimulus” during recession years. And economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies seem sympathetic to this tradeoff. I don’t think there are many honest Keynesians in the political world, however, so I’m not expecting to get a lot of support from my leftist friends in Washington.

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Earlier this year, I criticized the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for endorsing an orgy of Keynesian spending.

Did my criticism have an effect? Well, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that bluntly suggests a reorientation of fiscal policy to achieve more growth.

…the global economy remains in a low-growth trap with weak investment, trade, productivity and wage growth and rising inequality in some countries. …a stronger fiscal policy response is needed to boost near-term growth and strengthen long-term prospects for inclusive growth.

Sounds good to me. I welcome sinners who want to repent. Is the OECD now recommending corporate tax rate reductions? A flat tax? Entitlement reform? Elimination of wasteful departments, agencies, and programs? A spending cap?

Don’t be silly. This is the OECD. Some of the professional economists are sensible and competent, but major policy initiatives almost always are determined by the high-level hacks who crank out proposals designed to give cover to politicians that want ever-more taxes and spending.

So when the bureaucrats in Paris suggest “a stronger fiscal policy response,” they’re actually advocating for more government. Which is exactly what they did back in February. And what they’ve been repetitively doing all during the Obama Administration. I’m not joking. Here are some further excerpts.

…this chapter emphasises the need for a fiscal initiative…to foster productivity in the medium to long term. Measures should be chosen depending on each country’s most pressing needs and could include not only raising soft and hard infrastructure or education spending… In many countries, such a package could be deficit-financed for a few years, before turning budget-neutral.

The OECD says that “stimulus” would be a good idea because nations now have more “fiscal space,” which is bureaucrat-speak for an estimate of how much additional red ink is supposedly feasible feasible given interest rates, existing debt levels, and other variables.

I’m more worried, for what it’s worth, about the level of spending. And on that basis, there’s less fiscal space. Here’s a comparison (based on the OECD’s own dataset) of the burden of spending before the great recession/global financial crisis and today. As you can see, government outlays are consuming almost 2-percentage points more of economic output.

Needless to say, there’s hasn’t been much “austerity” over the past decade (other than higher income taxes and higher VAT taxes, which means taxpayers have taken a hit but not bureaucrats and interest groups).

In any event, the OECD ignores all this evidence and thinks today is the perfect time for another spending binge. Here are additional details from the report.

OECD governments could finance a ½ percentage point of GDP productivity-enhancing fiscal initiative, for three to four years on average in OECD countries without raising the debt-to-GDP ratio in the medium term, provided the selected activities and projects are sound. Such an initiative could encompass high-quality spending on education, health and research and development as well as green infrastructure that all bring significant output gains in the long run. …the average output gains for the large advanced economies of such a fiscal initiative amount to 0.4-0.6% in the first year.

It’s laughable that the bureaucrats project more growth as a result of Keynesian “stimulus” even though we just suffered through the failure of Obama’s 2009 program (not to mention the repeated failure of Keynesian economics in Japan and elsewhere).

The only good news, if we grade on a curve, is that the bureaucrats apparently don’t think Keynesian “stimulus” would be that helpful for the American economy.

Though I’m worried this Table, buried four pages from the end of the report, won’t get much attention (just as other decent portions of the report, such as commentary about the damage caused by bad tax policy, also will get ignored).

If you think I’m being paranoid, check out these passages from a news report in the Wall Street Journal. The main takeaway from the OECD’s new publication, according to the reporter, is that politicians around the world have a green light for more wasteful spending.

Adding detail to earlier calls for a switch to budget stimulus from exhausted monetary policies, the Paris-based think tank said most governments have room to boost spending by half a percentage point of economic output over a period of three to four years without risking an increase in their already high debts. …The think tank calculates that an increase in spending on the scale it recommends would lift economic growth in the countries involved by between 0.4 and 0.6 of a percentage point, with an additional 0.2 percentage point boost if the effort were to be coordinated internationally. …If governments were to follow the OECD’s advice, it would mark a further turn away from the policies of austerity that were an immediate response to surging government debts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. …A slow shift toward a greater reliance on fiscal policy has been under way since last year, when Canada embarked on a fiscal stimulus, while the OECD noted that increases in spending are also under way in Germany, Italy and China. …“There is quite a bit more receptivity to the notion of using fiscal policy more actively,” said Ms. Mann.

And I’m worried that this kind of bad advice may influence President-Elect Trump, who already has made worrisome comments about spending for infrastructure and entitlements.

P.S. But I’m semi-hopeful that Trump won’t be a fan of the OECD in general, if for no other reason than the head bureaucrat in Paris called him a racist and was remarkably open about favoring Hillary Clinton’s election.

Gurria tells UpFront’s Mehdi Hasan: “I would tend to agree with those who say that this is not only misinformed, but yes, I think the word racist can be applied. “I think that because the American public is wise, it will then act in consequence,” Gurria adds.

I’ve previously argued that ending American subsidies for the OECD (and its leftist agenda) is an IQ test for Republicans. In prior years, GOPers on Capitol Hill have failed this test. Maybe Trump, if for no other reason than Secretary General Gurria’s harsh attack, will finally end the gravy train for this parasitical bureaucracy.

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Since it’s very likely that Hillary Clinton will be our next President, I’m mentally preparing myself for upcoming fights over her agenda of bigger government and class warfare. But the silver lining to this dark cloud is that I don’t think I’ll be distracted by also having to fight against protectionist policies.

My tiny bit of optimism is based on the fact that hackers at Wikileaks got access to the secret speeches she gave to Wall Street and other corporate bigwigs and we learned that, when she can speak freely with no cameras and outside observers, she believes in “open trade.”

In other words, I was right when I said on TV that she was lying about being in favor of protectionism.

Since I don’t think bureaucrats and politicians should have the power to interfere with our buying decisions, I’m glad Hillary is a secret supporter of free trade.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that she also is a genuine and sincere supporter of the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics (i.e., the theory that more government spending is a form of “stimulus” notwithstanding all the evidence of failure from the spending binges of Obama, Hoover and Roosevelt, and Japan).

Here’s what the Daily Caller is reporting about one of her secret speeches to a corporate audience.

Hillary Clinton argued that expanding food stamps and other safety net programs is essential to fuel economic growth at a speech to General Electric executives, according to an excerpt of the transcript made public by WikiLeaks Friday. “Economic growth will take off when people in the middle feel more secure again and start spending again,” Clinton said in her speech at General Electric’s Global Leadership Meeting in January, 2014. …Giving people income assistance, like the food stamps program, would help the economy because families on food stamps will have more money to spend, Clinton argued.

Wow, this is depressing. If this was an off-the-record speech to the Democratic National Committee, a George Soros group, or some other left-leaning outfit, I’d be tempted to dismiss her remarks as rhetoric.

But GE executives presumably aren’t big fans of income redistribution (other than to themselves, of course). So Hillary’s comments were not a form of pandering. She presumably really believes that Keynesian economics is some sort of elixir, that you actually can boost economic performance by taking money out of the economy’s right pocket and putting it in the economy’s left pocket.

Not only is this wrong, it’s backwards.

  • When the crowd in Washington spends money, much of it is lost to bureaucracy and waste. This may not matter to Keynesians since they just want there to be spending (no joke, Keynes actually did write that  it would be good policy to bury money in the ground so that people would get paid to dig it out). Sensible people, by contrast, understand that it matters for the economy whether money is spent wisely.
  • Moreover, redistribution spending tends to be especially harmful since it subsidizes people for not working or for having low levels of income, which is why research has shown that policies such as Obamacare, jobless benefits, and food stamps are associated with lower levels of employment. In other words, redistribution is bad for economic performance.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t expect any sort of economic renaissance if Hillary is our next president. Just another four years of the kind of anemic performance we’ve experienced under Obama.

P.S. Click here to learn more about the failure of Keynesian economics.

P.S. If you want both substance and entertainment, here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.


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When I was younger, folks in the policy community joked that BusinessWeek was the “anti-business business weekly” because its coverage of the economy was just as stale and predictably left wing as what you would find in the pages of Time or Newsweek.

Well, perhaps it’s time for The Economist to be known as the “anti-economics economic weekly.”

Writing about the stagnation that is infecting western nations, the magazine beclowns itself by regurgitating stale 1960s-style Keynesianism. The article is worthy of a fisking (i.e., a “point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies”), starting with the assertion that central banks saved the world at the end of last decade.

During the financial crisis the Federal Reserve and other central banks were hailed for their actions: by slashing rates and printing money to buy bonds, they stopped a shock from becoming a depression.

I’m certainly open to the argument that the downturn would have been far worse if the banking system hadn’t been recapitalized (even if it should have happened using the “FDIC-resolution approach” rather than via corrupt bailouts), but that’s a completely separate issue from whether Keynesian monetary policy was either desirable or successful.

Regarding the latter question, just look around the world. The Fed has followed an easy-money policy. Has that resulted in a robust recovery for America? The European Central Bank (ECB) has followed the same policy. Has that worked? And the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has done the same thing. Does anyone view Japan’s economy as a success?

At least the article acknowledges that there are some skeptics of the current approach.

The central bankers say that ultra-loose monetary policy remains essential to prop up still-weak economies and hit their inflation targets. …But a growing chorus of critics frets about the effects of the low-rate world—a topsy-turvy place where savers are charged a fee, where the yields on a large fraction of rich-world government debt come with a minus sign, and where central banks matter more than markets in deciding how capital is allocated.

The Economist, as you might expect, expresses sympathy for the position of the central bankers.

In most of the rich world inflation is below the official target. Indeed, in some ways central banks have not been bold enough. Only now, for example, has the BoJ explicitly pledged to overshoot its 2% inflation target. The Fed still seems anxious to push up rates as soon as it can.

The preceding passage is predicated on the assumption that there is a mechanistic tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve), one of the core concepts of Keynesian economics. According to adherents, all-wise central bankers can push inflation up if they want lower unemployment and push inflation down if they want to cool the economy.

This idea has been debunked by real world events because inflation and unemployment simultaneously rose during the 1970s (supposedly impossible according the Keynesians) and simultaneously fell during the 1980s (also a theoretical impossibility according to advocates of the Phillips Curve).

But real-world evidence apparently can be ignored if it contradicts the left’s favorite theories.

That being said, we can set aside the issue of Keynesian monetary policy because the main thrust of the article is an embrace of Keynesian fiscal policy.

…it is time to move beyond a reliance on central banks. …economies need succour now. The most urgent priority is to enlist fiscal policy. The main tool for fighting recessions has to shift from central banks to governments.

As an aside, the passage about shifting recession fighting “from central banks to governments” is rather bizarre since the Fed, the ECB, and the BoJ are all government entities. Either the reporter or the editor should have rewritten that sentence so that it concluded with “shift from central banks to fiscal policy” or something like that.

In any event, The Economist has a strange perspective on this issue. It wants Keynesian fiscal policy, yet it worries about politicians using that approach to permanently expand government. And it is not impressed by the fixation on “shovel-ready” infrastructure spending.

The task today is to find a form of fiscal policy that can revive the economy in the bad times without entrenching government in the good. …infrastructure spending is not the best way to prop up weak demand. …fiscal policy must mimic the best features of modern-day monetary policy, whereby independent central banks can act immediately to loosen or tighten as circumstances require.

So The Economist endorses what it refers to as “small-government Keynesianism,” though that’s simply its way of saying that additional spending increases (and gimmicky tax cuts) should occur automatically.

…there are ways to make fiscal policy less politicised and more responsive. …more automaticity is needed, binding some spending to changes in the economic cycle. The duration and generosity of unemployment benefits could be linked to the overall joblessness rate in the economy, for example.

In the language of Keynesians, such policies are known as “automatic stabilizers,” and there already are lots of so-called means-tested programs that operate this way. When people lose their jobs, government spending on unemployment benefits automatically increases. During a weak economy, there also are automatic spending increases for programs such as Food Stamps and Medicaid.

I guess The Economist simply wants more programs that work this way, or perhaps bigger handouts for existing programs. And the magazine views this approach as “small-government Keynesianism” because the spending increases theoretically evaporate as the economy starts growing and fewer people are automatically entitled to receive benefits from the various programs.

Regardless, whoever wrote the article seems convinced that such programs help boost the economy.

When the next downturn comes, this kind of fiscal ammunition will be desperately needed. Only a small share of public spending needs to be affected for fiscal policy to be an effective recession-fighting weapon.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is to wonder why the article doesn’t include any evidence to bolster the claim that more government spending is and “effective” way of ending recessions and boosting growth. Though I suspect the author of the article didn’t include any evidence because it’s impossible to identify any success stories for Keynesian economics.

  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Hoover? No.
  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Roosevelt? No.
  • Has Keynesian spending worked in Japan at any point over the past twenty-five years? No.
  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Obama? No.

Indeed, Keynesian spending has an unparalleled track record of failure in the real world. Though advocates of Keynesianism have a ready-built excuse. All the above failures only occurred because the spending increases were inadequate.

But what do expect from the “perpetual motion machine” of Keynesian economics, a theory that is only successful if you assume it is successful?

I’m not surprised that politicians gravitate to this idea. After all, it tells them that their vice  of wasteful overspending is actually a virtue.

But it’s quite disappointing that journalists at an allegedly economics-oriented magazine blithely accept this strange theory.

P.S. My second-favorite story about Keynesian economics involves the sequester, which big spenders claimed would cripple the economy, yet that’s when we got the only semi-decent growth of the Obama era.

P.P.S. My favorite story about Keynesianism is when Paul Krugman was caught trying to blame a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my video explaining Keynesian economics.

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The War against Cash continues.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.

Now it’s time for Part IV.

Professor Larry Summers of Harvard University is President Obama’s former top economic adviser and he’s a relentless advocate of higher taxes and bigger government. If he favors an idea, it doesn’t automatically make it bad, but it’s surely a reason to be suspicious. So you won’t be surprised to learn that he wrote a column for the Washington Post applauding the move in Europe to eliminate €500 notes. Indeed, he wants to ban all large-denomination notes.

There is little if any legitimate use for 500-euro notes. Carrying out a transaction with 20 50-euro notes hardly seems burdensome, and this would represent over $1,000 in purchasing power. Twenty 200-euro notes would be almost $5,000. Who in today’s world needs cash for a legitimate $5,000 transaction? …Cash transactions of more than 3,000 euros have in fact been made illegal in Italy, while France has placed the limit at 1,000 euros. …In contrast to the absence of an important role for 500-euro notes in normal commerce, these bills have a major role facilitating illicit activity, as suggested by their nickname —“Bin Ladens.” …Estimates by the International Monetary Fund and others of total annual money laundering consistently exceed $1 trillion. High-denomination notes also have a substantial role in facilitating tax evasion and capital flight.

Who “needs cash” for transactions, he asks, but isn’t the real issue whether people should have the freedom to use cash if that’s what they prefer?

Also, in dozens of trips to Europe since the adoption of the euro, I’ve never heard anyone refer to the €500 note as a “Bin Laden,” so I suspect that’s an example of Summers trying to demonize something that he doesn’t like.

But perhaps the most important revelation from his column is that he admits there’s no evidence that crime would be stopped by his plan to restrict cash.

To be sure, it is difficult to estimate how much crime would be prevented by stopping the creation of 500-euro notes. It would surely impose some burdens on criminals and might interfere with some transactions, which is not unimportant.

Unsurprisingly, he wants to coerce other governments into restricting high-value notes.

Europe has led on a significant security issue. But its action should be seen as a beginning, not an end. As a first follow-on, the world should demand that Switzerland stop issuing 1,000-Swiss-franc notes. After Europe’s action, these will stand out as the world’s highest-denomination note by a huge margin. Switzerland has a long and unfortunate history with illicit finance. It would be tragic if it were to profit from criminal currency substitution following Europe’s bold step. …There would be a strong case for stopping the creation of notes with values greater than perhaps $50.

Summers isn’t the only academic from Harvard who is agitating to restrict cash. Prof. Kenneth Rogoff (who’s also the former Chief Economist at the IMF) recently wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining his hostility.

…paper currency lies at the heart of some of today’s most intractable public-finance and monetary problems. …There is little debate among law-enforcement agencies that paper currency, especially large notes such as the U.S. $100 bill, facilitates crime: racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking, the corruption of public officials, not to mention terrorism.

At the risk of bursting his balloon, cash played almost no role in the most notorious terrorist event, the 9-11 attacks. And Rogoff admits that bad guys would use easy substitutes.

There are substitutes for cash—cryptocurrencies, uncut diamonds, gold coins, prepaid cards.

So he then dredges up the argument that cash facilitates tax evasion.

Cash is also deeply implicated in tax evasion, which costs the federal government some $500 billion a year in revenue. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a lot of the action is concentrated in small cash-intensive businesses, where it is difficult to verify sales and the self-reporting of income.

I addressed these issues in Part I of this series, but I’ll simply add that the academic evidence shows that lower tax rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance (as even the IMF has admitted).

To his credit, Rogoff acknowledges that his preferred policy would reduce the rights of individuals.

Perhaps the most challenging and fundamental objection to getting rid of cash has to do with privacy—with our ability to spend anonymously. But where does one draw the line between this individual right and the government’s need to tax and regulate.

His main argument is that our rights should be reduced to give government more power. He especially wants central bankers to have more power to impose Keynesian monetary policy.

Cutting interest rates delivers quick and effective stimulus by giving consumers and businesses an incentive to borrow more. It also drives up the price of stocks and homes, which makes people feel wealthier and induces them to spend more. Countercyclical monetary policy has a long-established record, while political constraints will always interfere with timely and effective fiscal stimulus.

Yes, he’s right. Activist monetary policy does have a long-established track record. It played a key role in causing the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis.

Hooray, Federal Reserve!

And Rogoff wants the arsonists at the Fed to have more power to create boom-bust cycles.

In principle, cutting interest rates below zero ought to stimulate consumption and investment in the same way as normal monetary policy, by encouraging borrowing. Unfortunately, the existence of cash gums up the works. If you are a saver, you will simply withdraw your funds, turning them into cash, rather than watch them shrink too rapidly. Enormous sums might be withdrawn to avoid these loses, which could make it difficult for banks to make loans—thus defeating the whole purpose of the policy. Take cash away, however, or make the cost of hoarding high enough, and central banks would be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession. …if a strong dose of negative rates can power an economy out of a downturn, it could bring inflation and interest rates back to positive levels relatively quickly, arguably reducing vulnerability to bubbles rather than increasing it.

Needless to say, I disagree with Rogoff and agree with Thomas Sowell that an institution that repeatedly screws up shouldn’t be given more power.

Especially since I’m concerned that the option to use bad monetary policy may actually be one of the excuses that politicians use for not fixing the problems that actually are hindering growth.

So, yes, instead of expanding their power, I want to clip the wings of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.

Now let’s consider the harm that would be caused by restricting or banning cash. Two professors from NYU Law School looked at some of the logistical issues of a shift to digital money. The echoed some of the points raised by Summers and Rogoff, but they also pointed out some downsides. Such as government being able to monitor everything we buy.

…centralization of banking under this system would also create a Leviathan with the power to monitor and control the personal finances of every citizen in the country. This is one of the chief reasons why many are loath to give up on hard currency. With digital money, the government could view any financial transaction and obtain a flow of information about personal spending that could be used against an individual in a whole host of scenarios.

It also would cause a mess because so many people around the world rely on dollars, something that’s beneficial to the U.S. Treasury and foreigners from places with untrustworthy central banks.

…a transition to digital currency might come at a large cost for the U.S. in particular, because the dollar remains the world’s de facto reserve currency. The U.S. collects enormous seigniorage revenue that accrues to the economy when the Federal Reserve prints dollars that are exported abroad in exchange for foreign goods and services. These bank notes ultimately end up in countries with less reliable central banks where locals prefer to hold U.S. currency instead of their own. Forfeiting this franchise as the world’s reserve currency might be too costly, as the U.S. currency held abroad exceeds half a trillion dollars, according to reliable estimates.

Professor Larry White of George Mason University (also a Senior Fellow at Cato) writes about what he calls “currency prohibitionists.”

The rhetoric of the anti-high-denomination gang has gotten increasingly shrill.  …Charles Goodhart in September called the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank “shameless” for issuing “vastly high-denomination notes,” namely the €500 and SWF 1000, “which are there to finance the drug deals.” …I have an alternative suggestion for removing $100 bills from the illegal drug trades:  Legalize the trade.  …My suggestion would reduce the demand for high-denomination currency.

Nice plug for sensible libertarian policy.

But even if one favors drug prohibition, that doesn’t mean currency prohibition will be effective.

Today’s high-denomination-currency prohibitionists, like today’s drug prohibitionists and yesterday’s alcohol prohibitionists, only think about the supply side.  But does anyone think that banning the $100 bill during Prohibition (when it had a purchasing power more than 11 times today’s, as evaluated using the CPI) and even higher denominations would have put a major dent in the rum-running business, if an army of T-Men couldn’t? …eliminating high denomination, high value notes we would make life harder” for such criminal enterprises.  No doubt.  But we would also make life harder for everyone else.  The rest of us also find high-denomination notes convenient now and again for completely legal and non-controversial purposes, like buying automobiles and carrying vacation cash compactly.  …currency prohibitionists too often regard those who defend high-denomination notes not as intellectually honest but mistaken opponents, but rather as morally suspect characters.  Larry Summers goes out of his way to smear an ECB executive from Luxembourg (who has had the temerity to ask for better evidence before accepting the case for prohibiting high-denomination notes)… The case for prohibiting large-denomination currency, to summarize, is largely based on guilt by association or on wishful thinking about the benefits of allowing greater range of action to discretionary monetary policy.

On the topic of crime and cash, an article for the WSJ debunks one of the left’s main talking points. If using cash is supposed to be a sign of criminal activity, why are the world’s two most cash-friendly nations also two of the safest and crime-free countries?

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens… The current hoarding in Switzerland and Japan thus underscores one of many ways in which cash is a basic tool of economic liberty: It lets people shield themselves from monetary policies that would force their savings into weak economies that can’t attract sufficient spending or investment on their own. These economies need reforms that boost incentives to work and invest, not negative interest rates and cash limits that raid the bank accounts of law-abiding citizens.

A column by Sarah Jeong in Bloomberg explores some of the additional implications of cash restrictions.

…wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you. …the Department of Justice began to come under fire for Operation Choke Point…the means were highly dubious. …the DOJ got creative, and asked banks and payment processors to comply with government policies, and proactively police “high-risk” activity. Banks were asked to voluntarily shut down the kinds of merchant activities that government bureaucrats described as suspicious. The price of resistance was an active investigation by the Department of Justice. …Where paternalism is bluntly enforced through a bureaucratic game of telephone, unpleasant or even inhumane unintended consequences are bound to result. …the cashless society offers the government entirely new forms of coercion, surveillance, and censorship. …As paper money evaporates from our pockets and the whole country—even world—becomes enveloped by the cashless society, financial censorship could become pervasive, unbarred by any meaningful legal rights or guarantees.

Her observation on Operation Choke Point is very important since that campaign has been a chilling example of how government abuses its power in the financial sector.

Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg column touches on some additional concerns.

What’s not to like? Very little. Except, and I’m afraid it’s a rather large exception, the amount of power that this gives the government over its citizens. Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish. …Unmonitored resources like cash…create a sort of cushion between ordinary people and a government with extraordinary powers. Removing that cushion leaves people who aren’t criminals vulnerable to intrusion into every remote corner of their lives. …If we want to move toward a cashless society — and apparently we do — then we also need to think seriously about limiting the ability of the government to use the payments system as an instrument to control the behavior of its citizens.

For what it’s worth, one way of getting the benefits of a cashless world without the risks is with private digital monies such as bitcoin.

Steve Forbes nails the issue.

Gaining attention these days is the idea of abolishing high denominations of the dollar and the euro. This concept graphically displays the astonishing stupidity–and intellectual bankruptcy–of today’s liberal economic policymakers and the economics profession. …The ostensible reason is to help in the fight against terrorists, bribers, drug dealers and tax evaders by making it more inconvenient for these bad guys to move around and store their ill-gotten cash. …The notion that such evildoers as the Mexican drug cartels and ISIS will be seriously disrupted by the absence of the Benjamin–”These sacks of cash are too heavy now. Let’s surrender!”–is so comical… Monetary expert Seth Lipsky pithily points out in the New York Post, “When criminals use guns, the Democrats want to take guns from law-abiding citizens. When terrorists use hundreds, the liberals want to deny the rest of us the Benjamins.”

Excellent point. Politicians should concentrate on restricting the freedom of bad guys, not ordinary citizens.

So what are the implications of the war against cash? They aren’t pretty.

The real reason for this war on cash–start with the big bills and then work your way down–is an ugly power grab by Big Government. People will have less privacy: Electronic commerce makes it easier for Big Brother to see what we’re doing, thereby making it simpler to bar activities it doesn’t like, such as purchasing salt, sugar, big bottles of soda and Big Macs.

Steve raises a good point about tracking certain purchases. Imagine the potential mischief if politicians had a mechanism to easily impose discriminatory taxes on disapproved products.

He also notes that the war on cash is motivated by a desire to more effectively implement an ineffective policy.

Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and the EU think the reason that their economies are stagnant is that ornery people aren’t spending and investing the way they should. How to make these benighted, recalcitrant beings do what they’re supposed to do? The latest nostrum from our overlords is negative interest rates. If people have to pay fees to store their money, as they do to put their stuff in storage facilities, then, by golly, they might be more inclined to spend it.

And Steve correctly observes that bad monetary policy is now an excuse to not fix the problems that actually are contributing to economic stagnation.

Manipulating the value of money and controlling interest rates, i.e., the price of money, never works. Money measures value. It is a claim on services and is a tool for facilitating commerce and investing. The reason economies around the world are in the ditch–which is fueling anger, discontent and ugly politics–is structural, government-created barriers: unstable money, suffocating rules and too-high rates of taxation.

James Grant, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, is not impressed by the anti-cash agitprop and specifically debunks some of the arguments put forth by Rogoff. He starts with some very sensible observation that politicians should reform drug laws and tax laws rather than restricting our freedom to use cash.

Terrorists traffic in cash, Mr. Rogoff observes. So do drug dealers and tax cheats. Good, compliant citizens rarely touch the $100 bills that constitute a sizable portion of the suspiciously immense volume of greenbacks outstanding—$4,200 per capita. Get rid of them is the author’s message. Then, again, one could legalize certain narcotics to discommode the drug dealers and adopt Steve Forbes’s flat tax to fill up the Treasury. Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option. Government control is not only his preferred position. It is the only position that seems to cross his mind.

Grant makes the (obvious-to-folks not-in-Washington) point that restricting cash to enable Keynesian monetary policy is akin to throwing good money after bad.

Mr. Rogoff lays the blame for America’s lamentable post-financial-crisis economic record not on the Obama administration’s suffocating tax and regulatory policies. The problem is rather the Fed’s inability to put its main interest rate, the federal funds rate, where it has never been before. In a deep recession, Mr. Rogoff proposes, the Fed ought not to stop cutting rates when it comes to zero. It should plunge right ahead, to minus 1%, minus 2%, minus 3% and so forth. At one negative rate or another, the theory goes, despoiled bank depositors will stop saving and start spending. …What would you do if your bank docked you, say, 3% a year for the privilege of holding your money? Why, you might convert your deposit into $100 bills, rent a safe deposit box and count yourself a shrewd investor. Hence the shooting war against currency. …In the topsy-turvy world of Mr. Rogoff, negative rates would be the reward to impetuousness and the cost of thrift. …Never mind that, in post-crisis America, near 0% interest rates have failed to deliver the promised macroeconomic goods. Come the next crackup, Mr. Rogoff would double down—and down.

And he echoes the insights of Austrian-school scholars about how easy-money policies are the cause of problems rather than the cure.

Interest rates are prices. They impart information. They tell a business person whether or not to undertake a certain capital investment. They measure financial risk. They translate the value of future cash flows into present-day dollars. Manipulate those prices—as central banks the world over compulsively do—and you distort information, therefore perception and judgment. The ultra-low rates of recent years have distorted judgment in a bullish fashion. True, they have not, at least in America, ignited a wave of capital investment—who needs it in a comatose economy? They have rather facilitated financial investment. They have inflated projected cash flows and anesthesized perceptions of risk (witness the rock-bottom yields attached to corporate junk bonds). In so doing, they have raised the present value of financial assets. Wall Street has enjoyed a wonderful bull market. The trouble is that the Fed has become hostage to that very bull market. The higher that asset prices fly, the greater the risk of the kind of crash that impels new rounds of intervention, new cries for government spending, bigger deficits—more “stimulus.”

Let’s close with the good news is that Switzerland doesn’t seem very interested in following Europe and the United States down the primrose path of seeking to curtail monetary freedom.

Manuel Brandenberg, a lawmaker in the Swiss canton of Zug, loves cash. …That belief in bills is shared by many of his compatriots, who have a penchant for hard currency even when electronic options are available. In a country whose wealth managers flourished thanks to banking secrecy, citizens often cherish the untraceable privacy conferred by notes and coins. “Cash is property and cash is freedom,” said Brandenberg… Unlike their neighbors, the Swiss have no plans to reconsider banknote denominations — 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 francs. Not even the highest of 1,000 francs ($1,040). …The predilection for notes and coins is evident on the streets of Zurich, where a number of stores don’t take plastic — among them Belcafe at Bellevue, a busy transport hub in the center. …Roughly 20 percent of purchases — including large sums for jewelry — were paid in cash, then-Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told parliament in 2014. …“There’s no reason to change things,” said Rickli. “I don’t want the state to know who goes to what restaurant. That’s none of the government’s business.”

Thank goodness for the “sensible Swiss.” On so many issues, Switzerland is a beacon of common sense and individual freedom.

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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Japan is the poster child for Keynesian economics.

Ever since a bubble popped about 25 years ago, Japanese politician have adopted one so-called stimulus scheme after another.

Lots of additional government spending. Plenty of gimmicky tax cuts. All of which were designed according to the Keynesian theory that presumes that governments should borrow money and somehow get those funds into people’s pockets so they can buy things and supposedly jump-start the economy.

Japanese politicians were extraordinarily successful, at least at borrowing money. Government debt has quadrupled, jumping to way-beyond-Greece levels of about 250 percent of economic output.

But all this Keynesian stimulus hasn’t helped growth.

The lost decade of the 1990s turned into another lost decade and now the nation is mired in another lost decade. This chart from the Heritage Foundation tells you everything you need to know about what happens when a country listens to people like Paul Krugman.

But it’s not just Paul Krugman cheering Japan’s Keynesian splurge.

The dumpster fire otherwise known as the International Monetary Fund has looked at the disaster of the past twenty-five years and decided that Japan needs more of the same.

I’m not joking.

The Financial Times reports on the latest episode of this Keynesian farce, aided and abetted by the hacks at the IMF.

Japan must redouble economic stimulus…the International Monetary Fund has warned in a tough verdict on the world’s third-largest economy. Prime minister Shinzo Abe needs to “reload” his Abenomics programme with an incomes policy to drive up wages, on top of monetary and fiscal stimulus, the IMF said after its annual mission to Tokyo. …David Lipton, the IMF’s number two official, in an interview with the Financial Times…argued that Japan should adopt an incomes policy, where employers — including the government — would raise wages by 3 per cent a year, with tax incentives and a “comply or explain” mechanism to back it up. …Mr Lipton and the IMF gave a broad endorsement to negative interest rates. The BoJ sparked a political backlash when it cut rates to minus 0.1 per cent in January.


Some people thought I was being harsh when I referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy.

I now feel that I should apologize to the now-departed suicide doctor.

After all, Dr. Kevorkian probably never did something as duplicitous as advising governments to boost tax burdens and then publishing a report to say that the subsequent economic damage was evidence against the free-market agenda.

P.S. The IMF is not the only international bureaucracy that is giving Japan bad advice. The OECD keeps advising the government to boost the value-added tax.

P.P.S. Japan’s government is sometimes so incompetent that it can’t even waste money successfully.

P.P.P.S. Though Japan does win the prize for the strangest government regulation.

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, here’s another example of the IMF in action. Sri Lanka’s economy is in trouble in part because of excessive government spending.

So the IMF naturally wants to do a bailout. But, as Reuters reports, the bureaucrats at the IMF want Sri Lanka to impose higher taxes.

Sri Lanka will raise its value added tax and reintroduce capital gains tax…ahead of talks on a $1.5-billion loan it is seeking from the International Monetary Fund. …The IMF has long called on Sri Lanka to…raise revenues… These are likely to be the main conditions for the grant of a loan, economists say.

P.P.P.P.P.S. On a separate topic, the British will have a chance to escape the European Union this Thursday.

I explained last week that Brexit would be economically beneficial to the United Kingdom, but independence also is a good idea simply because the European Commission and European Parliament (and other associated bureaucracies) are reprehensible rackets for the benefit of insiders.

In other words, Brussels is like Washington. Sort of a scam to transfer money from taxpayers to the elite.

Though I wonder whether the goodies for EU bureaucrats can possibly be as lavish as those provided to OECD employees. I don’t know if the bureaucrats at the OECD get free Viagra, but they pay zero income tax, which surely must be better than the special low tax rate that EU bureaucrats have arranged for themselves.

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