Debt limit nonsense

The sky’s the limit

Some things are stated as fact which are nothing of the kind. Right up until the Congressional deal raising the debt ceiling news anchors were parroting that without it the United States government would default. This is nonsense.

Over the next year the US government will take in around $3 trillion in taxes. The interest payments on its $16.9 trillion debt in that period are estimated at around $240 billion. As long as its income is greater than its debt repayments there is no reason whatsoever why the US government should default on those debt repayments.

It may choose to do so, deciding to anger China rather than domestic recipients of Federal money, but there is nothing automatic about it. But at some point the US government will default on somebody.

Since 2002 US government debt has risen from $6 trillion to nearly $17 trillion, a rise of 183%. Under George W. Bush it increased at $625 billion a year, and in 2008 Senator Obama was moved to declare “That’s irresponsible. It’s unpatriotic.” Under President Obama that debt has increased by $900 billion a year. It now stands at around 73% of GDP, or $131,368 for every man, woman, and child in America. Even with record low interest rates, by 2015 repayments on this debt will come to $50,000 a year for each American family [1].

And the situation is forecast to get worse. The Congressional Budget Office’s September 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook warns that government spending is set to outstrip revenues in each of at least the next twenty-five years with the gap opening from 2% of GDP at its narrowest point in 2015 to 6.5% of GDP at its widest in 2038, “larger than in any year between 1947 and 2008”. As a result, after a slight improvement between 2014 and 2018, Federal government debt as a percentage of GDP is projected to rise from about 75% to around 100% in 2038.

The CBO identifies the drivers of this increased spending and debt as “increasing interest costs and growing spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies to be provided through health insurance exchanges)”. Spending on the “major health care programs and Social Security”, the CBO writes, “would increase to a total of 14 percent of GDP by 2038, twice the 7 percent average of the past 40 years” and “The federal government’s net interest payments would grow to 5 percent of GDP, compared with an average of 2 percent over the past 40 years”.

The CBO’s conclusion is stark; “Unless substantial changes are made to the major health care programs and Social Security, those programs will absorb a much larger share of the economy’s total output in the future than they have in the past”. Sadly for the taxpayers of 2038 these are just the changes President Obama and Congressional Democrats steadfastly refuse to consider.

But a refusal to see reality doesn’t make that reality go away. These sorts of figures are unprecedented in peacetime and unsustainable and as the saying goes, ‘If something can’t continue it won’t’. The essential problem is that the US government, as with other western governments, has made spending commitments its tax base cannot support. And a promise that can’t be kept won’t be kept. Drastic change will come to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, not because of ‘evil’ or ‘heartless’ Republicans, but because of math, because there isn’t the money to pay for them.

The desperately sad truth is that Uncle Sam won’t keep his current promise to pay pensions, pay for medical care for the poor or the elderly at a given level because he won’t be able to. This will amount to defaulting on elderly and sick Americans, the only question is whether it happens through some entitlement reform (whether the Democrats want it or not) or through meeting these commitments with devalued dollars (over to you Janet Yellen). Either way, if ‘default’ means a repudiation of a promise of payment this will be America’s default. The US government has a choice about ‘default’ now, it won’t in the future.

[1] The Telegraph, 8 October 2013.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

Motown breaks down

The 2,500 seat Eastown Theatre hosted The Who and The Kinks. The Cass Tech High School taught Diana Ross and John DeLorean. Michigan Central Station, almost 100 feet long, 230 feet wide, and graced with 14 grand marble pillars, once had Franklin Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Thomas Edison pass along its platforms.

Nowadays these buildings are just three of the 78,000 abandoned and blighted structures in Detroit. Reminders of a bygone golden age, the authorities can’t afford to demolish them.

The decline and fall of Detroit, which recently filed for bankruptcy, is a staggering tale. In 1950 Detroit was home to 1,849,568 people, hundreds of thousands of them working in the booming motor industry. In 1955 80% of the planet’s cars were made in America, 40% by Detroit-based General Motors alone. GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, was only a little smaller than the largest non-American car maker, Volkswagen. And Toyota only built 23,000 cars that year compared to GM’s 4 million. In the 1950s the Detroit area had the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any major American city.

But as they grew together, so they died together. Between 1955 and 2000 global car production increased by 273% but the US motor industry saw little of that action, increasing its output by just 39%. Even at home, despite a hastily erected wall of tariffs and quotas, US car companies lost market share; between 1970 and 2000 Japanese car companies’ share of sales in the US rose from less than 5% to 30%. In the same period the share of US car manufacturers fell from 86% to a little over 50%.

The reason was productivity. In 2005 the average Toyota worker produced 16% more cars than the average GM worker and a staggering 128% more than the average worker at Daimler/Chrysler. Toyota made a profit of $12.5 billion, GM a loss of $10.9 billion.

In part as a result of the demise of the motor industry, less than half of Detroit’s over 16s are now employed. And as the jobs disappeared so did the workforce. In 2010 the population was down to 713,777, a fall of 61% in 60 years.

But the city’s government was left with the spending commitments and liabilities it had incurred in the not-so-bad times. One half of Detroit’s $18 billion debt is made up of pension and healthcare spending commitments to city employees. The share of city revenues being spent on debt servicing, pensions, and retiree healthcare has risen from 30% in 2010 to 40% today. It is forecast to rise to 65% by 2017.

The city tried to fund these commitments with higher taxes. Detroit imposes a per capita tax burden on its residents 80% higher than neighbouring Dearborn even though its residents have a per capita income 33% lower. Detroit residents face the highest property tax rates of any similarly sized city in Michigan, but with 3 bed, all brick, colonial houses on the market for under $10,000 many don’t bother paying. Nearly a third of property tax owed in Detroit went uncollected in 2011.

So Detroit slashed spending, even on ‘core’ functions of government. 40% of streetlights don’t work and aren’t being repaired. Last winter just 10 to 14 of the city’s 36 ambulances were in service at any time, some with enough miles on the clock to have circled the planet 10 times. In February, Detroit fire fighters were told not to use hydraulic ladders unless there is an “immediate threat to life” because they hadn’t been inspected in years.

But even with this, spending commitments without the tax base necessary to fund them have caused Detroit to add $700 million to its debt in the last seven years and brought it to bankruptcy. This is a real American horror story.

Is the death of Detroit “just one of those things” as Paul Krugman wrote on Monday? Or are there lessons to be drawn for the rest of us?

The essential problem of Detroit, that for decades its leaders have been writing cheques their tax base can’t cash, is true now to varying degrees of all western governments facing ageing populations. As I wrote elsewhere late last year

America’s unfunded liabilities (including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security), rose by $11 trillion last year to $222 trillion. To put that in context, the entire US economy is just $15 trillion, of which $3 trillion a year is paid in tax. If you expropriated all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans…the $1.7 trillion you would get wouldn’t make a dent.

In Britain the Office of Budget Responsibility reported last week that with zero migration the costs of an ageing population would push government debt up to 174% of GDP by 2062. To hold it where it is Britain would need, the OBR estimates, immigration of 260,000 people a year.

Like the ruins described by Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land” the ruins of Detroit are a warning of hubris and complacency, of the belief that it’ll never happen to us. We should heed the warning.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

Cyprus: The ghost of the West yet to come

Get used to it

When the European Union (with German money) mounted its most recent bailout of Greece, one of the conditions was a 75 percent write down of Greek government debt. For the Cypriot banks, which had made loans to the Greek government totalling 160 percent of Cyprus’s GDP, this was disastrous.

With their capital bases smashed the Cypriot government felt obliged to bail them out. Lacking the funds to do so (in 2011 the IMF reported that the assets of Cypriot banks totalled 835 percent of GDP) it turned to the European Union (in reality Germany again) for a bailout.

The Germans are reluctant to lend money without conditions. If the terms of the bailout are accepted by the Cypriot parliament, in return for the €10 billion corporation tax will rise from 10 percent to 12.5 percent and interest on bank deposits will be subject to a withholding tax.

But the most controversial aspect is the proposal that bank deposits will be subject to a one off “solidarity levy”, amounts under €100,000 at a rate of 6.75 percent and those over €100,000 at 9.9 percent.

This is the eurozone crisis at its most extreme but it only differs from events in Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, by degree. And in as far as  government eventually has to tailor its outgoings to suit its income it is really just an extreme version of the situation which will also eventually face Japan, Britain, and the US, probably in that order.

So what lessons does Cyprus hold for those who still have all this to come?

The first concerns the relationship between banks and our politicians. Over the last few years politicians elected to represent the people have rarely missed an opportunity to dump debts on those people in the interests of saving banks and other financial institutions which have hit trouble. We have been told that banks occupy a unique position in our economy such that the laws of economics don’t apply to them as they apply to Woolworths or Blockbuster. They are too vital, we are told, too big to fail.

Functioning banks certainly are a key part of a modern financial system but why should the same be said of the toxic zombies who are blundering round the current financial landscape?

And how did these rotten banks get so big in the first place? It’s because governments and central banks prop them up. Bad banks rarely go out of business, they just lumber on, soaking up and destroying more wealth. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were bailed out five times in the 20 years before 2008.

The second lesson is that there really is no such thing as private property. In extremis the government considers itself entitled to any amount of your property it desires even if, as in the Cypriot case, it means revoking its own commitments to protect bank deposits.

But then this is the logical outcome of taxation. If you think that a shortage of government revenue can be solved by the government simply helping itself to someone else’s revenue you really can’t have a philosophical problem with this. If you believe in the 50p tax rate this is where you end up.

The third lesson is the limits of democracy. The Cypriot Prime Minister, Nicos Anastasiades, ran at the last election on a promise to protect depositors. Now he stands behind a lectern explaining why he cannot protect depositors. The greater a country’s debts the fewer are its options and in the euro, with no possibility of devaluation, this problem is exacerbated.

The Cypriots will probably feel much as the Irish or Portuguese did to have their economic policy decided by the Troika of the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. They may feel a touch like the Spanish or French did when they elected an anti-austerity candidate only to find that they get some measure of austerity anyway. They may end up feeling like the Greeks or Italians who skipped these intermediary steps and went straight to having their governments foisted upon them by the European Union.

This isn’t just a lesson for eurozone members. Labour currently lead in British opinion polls, appealing to soft-headed types who think that we can back to the big spending and even bigger borrowing days of Gordon Brown if only we tick the right box on a ballot slip. In the United States Barack Obama won re-election last year on the promise that the Chinese will continue to lend the US the money to live it up.

British and American voters might not have been slapped in the face with reality in the same way as the bottom half of the eurozone has thanks to their ability to trash their currencies, but it will come. Sooner or later they will be faced with the fact that a country cannot indefinitely live beyond its means and that voting for snake oil salesmen who tell you there is, is a sure fire recipe for disappointment.

The final lesson though, and perhaps the scariest, is that those in charge are no smarter than the average bloke in the street. It is difficult to find the words for the stupidity of trying to shore up Cypriot banks with a policy which will cause a run on those very same banks.

Cyprus offers a grim glimpse of a possible future for the wider western world: politicians who will sacrifice the people for banks, the expropriation of private property to pay for it, the diminishing options offered by the political process, and idiots in charge. Let’s hope they aren’t coming to a crisis near you.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Ground control to Major Krugman


Paul Krugman was ill/The Day the Earth Stood Still…

One of the standard charges against believers in smaller government is that we are all fans of Ayn Rand and imagine ourselves as John Galt. I get this thrown at me despite the fact that I have never read a single thing Rand wrote.

Indeed, Paul Ryan got a roasting for his admiration of Rand from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who called Rand “a very unserious, unreasonable novelist”. And maybe Krugman is right? Perhaps basing your political and economic philosophy on an old science fiction novel is the height of weirdness.

But hang on, what’s this? In an article for the Guardian titled ‘Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics‘, Krugman writes, “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.”

It’s worth reading that again and remembering that it’s from the same man who quotes the well-worn joke about Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings; “the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man’s character forever; the other book is about orcs.” If nothing else, at least Krugman’s suggestion that a fake alien invasion could rescue the economy makes a little more sense now.

For those who haven’t waded through Isaac Asimov’s several Foundation novels, Krugman explains:

In Foundation, we learn that a small group of mathematicians [including Krugman’s hero Hari Seldon] have developed ‘psychohistory’ (a) rigorous science of society. Applying that science to the all-powerful Galactic Empire in which they live, they discover that it is in fact in terminal decline, and that a 30,000-year era of barbarism will follow its fall. But they also discover that a carefully designed nudge can change that path…The novels follow the unfolding of that plan

There’s only one brief description of a space battle – and the true purpose of the battle, we learn, is not the defeat of an ultimately trivial enemy but the creation of a state of mind that serves the Plan

There are a series of moments in which the fate of the galaxy seems to hang in the balance… Each of these crises is met by the men of the hour, whose bravery and cunning seem to offer the only hope. Each time, the Foundation triumphs. But here’s the trick: after the fact, it becomes clear that bravery and cunning had nothing to do with it, because the Foundation was fated to win thanks to the laws of psychohistory. Each time, just to drive the point home, the image of Hari Seldon, recorded centuries before, appears in the Time Vault to explain to everyone what just happened.

You can see how Krugman pictures himself. He is one of a small band of Psychokeynesians who possess an insight, the IS/LM model, which enables them to predict the future of economies and gives them the tools – vast deficits and credit expansion – to steer them.

Anything that supports the Psychokeynesian analysis is evidence; anything that doesn’t is simply a ruse. And when the next bit of corroborating evidence floats along, Hari Krugman emerges from a Time Vault to say “told you so”.

But there’s a problem. It’s true that Krugman spotted the housing bubble in 2005 but then he had been calling for it in 2002. This might lead you to question Krugman’s omnipotence. Or you might want to wait for Hari Krugman to appear and explain how this crafty Knight’s Move is actually part of The Plan.

Hari Krugman celebrates his clairvoyance:

The IS-LM model (don’t ask) told us that under depression-type conditions like those we’re experiencing, some of the usual rules would cease to apply: trillion-dollar budget deficits wouldn’t drive up interest rates, huge increases in the money supply wouldn’t cause runaway inflation. Economists who took that model seriously back in, say, early 2009 were ridiculed and lambasted for making such counterintuitive assertions. But their predictions came true.

But considering that they also predicted that this mountain of debt and avalanche of new money would lead to economic recovery then no, their predictions didn’t come true.

Remember former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Christina Romer’s prediction that President Obama’s Keynesian stimulus would see American unemployment peak at 8 percent in late 2009 and fall to a little over 5 percent today? Remember that American unemployment actually peaked at over 10 percent in late 2009 and stands at 7.9 percent today?

This doesn’t worry Hari Krugman a bit. In the course of a spat with economist Robert P. Murphy, Krugman wrote:

[I]t’s really important to distinguish between fundamental predictions of a model and predictions that an economist happens to make that don’t really come from the model… [T]he unfortunate Romer-Bernstein prediction of a fairly rapid bounceback from recession reflected judgements about future private spending that had nothing much to do with Keynesian fundamentals, and therefore sheds no light on whether those fundamentals are correct. In short, some predictions matter more than others.

Quite so Paul. Apparently the predictions that come true matter; those that don’t, don’t.

In his Guardian piece Krugman excitedly writes of “the possibility of a rigorous, mathematical social science that understands society, can predict how it changes, and can be used to shape those changes.” Well, looking at the record it’s clear that Hari Krugman hasn’t found it.

Or maybe he has, and we mere mortals simply need to wait for his shimmering likeness to appear from the Time Vault and say “told you so.”

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

When stimulus fails to stimulate

Beats him

Last week’s news that US GDP had shrunk by 0.1 percent presented some with a problem. The United States, with its apparently indefinite commitment to trillion dollar deficits, has been held up by Ed Balls among others as the Keynesian poster boy in comparison to the ‘austerity’ which, it is claimed, is ravaging Europe’s economies.

In December, John Cassidy of the New Yorker wrote: “It’s official: Austerity doesn’t work”, contrasting the growth in US GDP with the miserable stagnation of Britain’s. And here it was shrinking.

Duncan Weldon, the TUC’s resident economist, took to Twitter to explain that the “Primary reason for US GDP fall is govt spending cuts…This enhances rather than disproves case for stimulus.” Does it?

The first thing to note is that GDP is a measure of spending which is used as a proxy for measuring the much more elusive concept of economic wellbeing. As such, getting it to rise or fall is child’s play; a fool could do it as Gordon Brown proved. As Cassidy writes:

“Before the last election there, which took place in May, 2010, the U.K.’s economy appeared to be slowly recovering from the deep slump of 2008-09 that followed the housing bust and global financial crisis. Just like the Bush Administration (2008) and the Obama Administration (2009), Gordon Brown’s Labour government had introduced a fiscal stimulus to help turn the economy around. G.D.P. was growing at an annual rate of about 2.5 per cent.”

Indeed, but that was achieved simply by the spending of 160 billion borrowed pounds in one year. To repeat, if you borrow and spend lots of money you will see an increase in a measure of spending, GDP. This is not rocket science.

And just as this should be obvious, so it should also be obvious that such a strategy has limitations. Governments cannot keep adding to their debts indefinitely especially when, as the Labour government did in Britain, they were doing so during the growth years as well.

Secondly, let us ask what the point of ‘stimulus’ is. It is, as obviously as anything else, to stimulate economic growth, as measured by rises in GDP. Think of it like stabilisers on a child’s bike, they exist to keep the economy upright until such time as it can cycle off on its own.

But what if stimulus doesn’t actually stimulate anything?  What if, even after years riding his bike with stabilisers, your kid still can’t keep his balance unaided?

That is what the US GDP figures showed. Four years of unprecedented trillion dollar deficits have boosted GDP, an effect a sufficient level of spending is guaranteed to have on a measure of spending. But reduce government spending and GDP drops. The economy is still incapable of standing on its own two feet. The stimulus has failed to stimulate.

This suggests two things. First, the extra six and a bit trillion dollars of debt the Democrats have gleefully piled on their kids has failed to achieve its stated aim. Second, those Europeans with their ‘austerity’ might not be as daft as people like Cassidy say. After all, what’s the point in stimulus if it doesn’t stimulate?

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

No, he can’t

Not a great slogan when there’s a pile of crap up ahead

November 6, 2012 gave generations of American history students yet unborn a new standard exam question: how did one of the most ineffectual presidents in US history get re-elected?

Across the OECD countries since the financial crisis hit in 2008 incumbents have had a tough time. Britain, Spain, France, Italy Greece and Ireland have ditched leaders. How did Barack Obama buck this trend?

The pattern has been that economic realities have forced big-spending, heavily-indebted Western governments of whatever stripe to adopt some measure of spending restraint. Even when, as in Spain and France, parties have been elected in opposition to so-called austerity they have been forced into it once in office by the remorseless reality of economics.

Electorates haven’t liked this. They still appear to believe, as the current travails of Britain’s coalition and plummeting popularity of President Hollande show, that there is a magic money tree somewhere, that plenty can return and cruel financial reality be banished simply by ticking a different box on a ballot paper.

Whereas other elections since 2008 have pitched an “austerity incumbent” against a “fantasyland challenger”, in America the roles were reversed. Obama, the incumbent, peddled fantasy; his challenger, Mitt Romney, offered some semblance of reality. Looked at this way the post-2008 pattern was maintained: the fantasy candidate won.

But it won’t make any difference. The people who celebrated Obama’s victory, thinking they had saved entitlement programmes like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from Republican cuts, are deluding themselves. America’s unfunded liabilities, including these programmes, rose by $11 trillion last year to $222 trillion. To put that in context, the entire US economy is just $15 trillion, of which $3 trillion a year is paid in tax. If you expropriated all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans, as some Obama supporters appear to suggest, the $1.7 trillion you would get wouldn’t make a dent.

Those programmes will not be saved by Obama’s waffle. They will die because there is no money to pay for them and there won’t be, no matter which box you tick. That is the lesson of the last few years and it is one the US is going to learn. The laws of economics have a habit of being enforced with the doggedness of Inspector Javert and the merciless brutality of Dirty Harry.

This article originally appeared in Standpoint

Obama’s economic failure


For a man famed for his rhetoric the tweet was simplicity itself: “Four more years”. Indeed, I thought, four more years of high unemployment and economic stagnation.

For the second time Barack Obama had beaten an opponent who understood more about economics than he did. In 2008 John McCain admitted he didn’t “really understand economics” yet in June that year he said,

“We are borrowing from foreign lenders to buy oil from foreign producers. In the world’s capital markets, often we are even borrowing Saudi money for Saudi oil. For them, the happy result is that they are both supplier and creditor to the most productive economy on earth. For us, the result is both dependency and debt. Over time, in interest payments, we lose trillions of dollars that could have been better invested in American enterprises. And we lose value in the dollar itself, as our debt portfolio undermines confidence in the American economy”

Intuitively, McCain had grasped that America could not keep swapping devalued dollars for foreign goods and services.

Obama, meanwhile, gave a speech saying

“I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans. I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit”

So Obama had named five deficits, only three of which were real, and he was going to talk about the two that weren’t. This was typical of the sort of overripe guff soaring rhetoric which enraptures Obama’s supporters. It makes you feel good as long as you don’t try to figure out what it means.

And again, this year, Mitt Romney gave a speech saying

“I met with (former head of Goldman Sachs and the New York Federal Reserve John Whitehead), and he said as soon as the Fed stops buying all the debt that we’re issuing—which they’ve been doing, the Fed’s buying like three-quarters of the debt that America issues. He said, once that’s over, he said we’re going to have a failed Treasury auction, interest rates are going to have to go up. We’re living in this borrowed fantasy world, where the government keeps on borrowing money. You know, we borrow this extra trillion a year, we wonder who’s loaning us the trillion? The Chinese aren’t loaning us anymore. The Russians aren’t loaning it to us anymore. So who’s giving us the trillion? And the answer is we’re just making it up. The Federal Reserve is just taking it and saying, “Here, we’re giving it.” It’s just made up money, and this does not augur well for our economic future.”

Romney was dead right about the parlous state of US finances but, in the same speech, he made his remark about ‘the 47 percent’ and this was drowned out.

Obama, meanwhile, released an ad saying

“Now Governor Romney believes that with even bigger tax cuts for the wealthy, and fewer regulations on Wall Street, all of us will prosper. In other words, he’d double down on the same trickle-down policies that led to the crisis in the first place

Obama thinks this despite the fact that Bush’s deficits were driven by spending increases and not tax rises. There is no mention of loose Federal Reserve monetary policy. There is no mention of political action which pushed banks to lend to marginal borrowers.

Obama’s faulty prognosis follows from his faulty diagnosis. America, he believes, can tax and spend its way back to prosperity.

Well, he tried the spending. In February 2009 the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act came before Congress. If the ARRA was passed, President Obama promised, unemployment would peak at 8 percent in late 2009 and would fall to a little over 5.1 percent by October 2012. He painted a doomsday scenario if the ARRA wasn’t passed; unemployment would peak at 9 percent in 2009 and by October 2012 would still be at 5.5 percent.

The act was passed. Unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and in October 2012 was 7.9 percent. In other words, even with Obama’s $831 billion package, unemployment peaked later, peaked higher, and remains higher than in the doomsday scenario he said would befall America if the ARRA wasn’t passed. Unemployment was wedged above 8 percent for 43 consecutive months, the longest period since the Great Depression. The American economy underperformed even Obama’s own worst case scenario.

But even these dreadful figures might not tell us the whole story. America’s unemployment figures are notorious for their unreliability. Those who just stop looking for work are not counted as unemployed. So many Americans lost hope of finding a job in Obama’s America that in September 2012 the Labor Force Participation Rate fell to its lowest since 1981. If the LFPR was the same as when Obama took office unemployment would be a staggering 10.6 percent.

And even this might understate matters. If unemployment was measured now the same way it was in the 1930s, today’s level would be higher than in any single year of the Great Depression. That is why Obama didn’t run on his record; it’s awful. Instead his pitch was ‘Give a guy a second chance’ like some desperate ex-boyfriend.

And now he’s going to try taxing. But here’s the problem: last year the Federal government’s unfunded liabilities, which includes Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, all programs Obama has no plans to reform, increased by $11 trillion to $222 trillion. To put this in context, the entire American economy is just $15 trillion. If you expropriated the entire wealth of the richest 400 Americans and left them on food stamps you would take $1.7 trillion – it wouldn’t make a dent. All Americans will face huge tax rises.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. Obama must hope he was wrong. As Jay Leno put it, “Economists say we’re heading for a fiscal cliff and we elected a guy whose campaign slogan is ‘Forward!’” Barack Obama: the Thelma and Louise President.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Crisis of statism, not capitalism

In search of that magic money tree

t might not have been the ‘crisis of capitalism’ which some have been waiting so long for, but it is widely thought that the last few years certainly represent a “crisis of capitalism”. But if you think of capitalism as a system whereby profits and losses acting unhindered by the hand of government guide capital to its most productive uses, this is difficult to sustain.

The sectors which blew up and took the rest of the economy with them were riddled with intervention. Banks have their capital adequacy rates set and their bad investments covered by government. The housing market is kept inflated with all manner of tax breaks and politically motivated distortions like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act. Behind it all interest rates are set by a small panel of political appointees, much as the price of alum keys was set in the Soviet Union.

But as we see violence on the streets of Athens and Madrid, the Occupy protests in the United States, and unadulterated rage on the pages of The Guardian’s Comment is Free (Cif), there is certainly some sort of crisis afoot. It is, however, a crisis of big government.

Over the last few decades governments throughout the western world have made extravagant spending commitments. In Ireland the welfare budget was tripled. In Greece pastry chefs, radio announcers, hairdressers, and steam bath masseurs were included among 600 professions deemed so “arduous and perilous” that workers could retire at 50 on a state pension of 95 percent of their final salary.

But it wasn’t just small basket case economies doing it; big basket case economies were doing it too. France decided that its workers could work no more than 35 hours a week and still generate the wealth to pay for everyone to retire at 60 and spend a third of their lives as state pensioners. In the United States the Bush administration launched the largest expansion of Federal spending since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s. In Britain the Labour government increased spending by more than half in six years.

As long as you didn’t look either too closely or too far ahead, these massive spending commitments looked just about affordable as long as there was plenty of money to spend. And there was. In Britain tax receipts rose by 40 percent between 2001 and 2007. In the United States, Federal tax revenues rose by 30 percent between 2000 and 2007. French tax revenue increased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2008.

But these were the effects of the bubble. These were taxes swelled by property values, house sales, and bank profits on those house sales and the myriad ancillary transactions such as securitisation. With the bursting of that bubble that wealth is gone, if it was even there in first place, and it is not coming back. Nor should it.

That does mean, however, that lots of the extravagant government spending promises made before the bust now stand revealed for what they are; unaffordable in the absence of bubble taxation. And given the undesirability of bubbles, that just makes them unaffordable full stop. No amount of general strikes, protesting, occupying, or posting on CiF will change that. We do not have a mighty oak of a money tree, but a bunce bonsai and, in truth, that’s all we ever did have.

Since the crisis hit we have seen both the unavoidability of this truth and the reluctance of electorates to accept it. In the last few years the voters of Greece, Spain, and France have voted out ‘austerity’ governments only to have ‘austerity’ visited upon them anyway by their replacements (at least they were asked, unlike the Italians). There is a very good chance that this November and in May 2015 the voters of the United States and United Kingdom will discover that reality doesn’t just disappear because you tick a box marked ‘Obama’ or ‘Miliband’.

The amount of money spent by the government has grown inexorably. We have reached its limit. In Britain, since 1964, whether top rates of tax have been at 83 percent, as in the 1970s, or 40 percent, the percentage of national income paid in taxes has never exceeded 38% of GDP.

Whatever the designs of the politicians, the social democrats, the Labour party, the Guardian, or Polly Toynbee, the British people, collectively and unconsciously, seem to have decided that they are not willing to fund a state sector any bigger than this. When the share of state spending as a share of GDP reaches 45 percent or 50 percent, as it has recently, the only way is down. That is where we are now.

If the extravagant spending promises of politicians outstrip both the capabilities of even a well-functioning capitalism to generate the necessary wealth and the public’s willingness to pay for it, that is not capitalism’s crisis, but a crisis of big government. Its time is up.

This article first appeared at The Commentator

Bernanke stuck in a bunker

…QE4, QE5, QE6…

At a celebration of Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday in 2002, Ben Bernanke, then a newly appointed member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said “You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again”

Bernanke thought Milton had been right about the Great Depression. Until the early 1960s the common interpretation of the Depression was the Keynesian one, such as that put forward by Peter Temin, where a switch in “animal spirits” had caused aggregate demand to collapse. Then, in 1963, Friedman and his colleague Anna Schwartz produced a radical new interpretation in A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 to 1960.

In this mammoth, exhaustively researched book, Friedman and Schwartz argued that far from money being “neutral”, as was thought at the time, fluctuations in the money supply were closely linked to fluctuations in output. So, if you wanted to stabilise output you had to stabilise the money supply. Monetarism was born.

But the book’s centrepiece – so much so that it was released separately as a book in itself – was that covering the onset of the Depression, “The Great Contraction”. Here, Friedman and Schwartz claimed that a common or garden down turn (brought on by the tightening of monetary policy from 1928 which, they said, had triggered the Wall Street Crash) was turned into a Depression by the Federal Reserve allowing the money supply to shrink by a third between 1929 and 1933.

This, it was argued, had increased the real debt burden of businesses and individuals. As the money supply fell so did prices, this was deflation. Anyone who had debt to service had to service debts of fixed nominal amounts which had grown in real terms as the deflation set in, with money which had shrunk in value at the same time.

Though Friedman subsequently became linked with the fight against inflation he was also concerned about deflation. Friedman argued that a money supply which neither shrank nor grew too fast was needed to bring about the monetary stability which he saw a necessary precondition for economic stability.

So while, in the 1970s, Friedman advocated slowing the increase in the money supply to tame inflation, in the early stages of the Depression, he and Schwartz argued, the Federal Reserve should have fought deflation by expanding the money supply.

That the Federal Reserve didn’t do this was, to Friedman, the cause of the Depression. It was the supposed truth of this insight that Bernanke was acknowledging in 2002.

Ben Bernanke spent his academic career studying the Depression from a Friedmanite perspective, producing a dull but worthy book on the subject. When he took over from Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve in February 2006 the Great Moderation was still in full swing but when the downturn came in 2008 it would have been hard to find a more qualified man to have at the helm. It was a case of cometh the man cometh the hour.

In September 2008 Lehman Brothers collapsed, banks everywhere looked vulnerable and began hoarding cash. The US broad money supply collapsed. Bernanke acted quickly to apply the lessons of the Depression he had learned from Friedman. As one reviewer of his book put it, “He is practicing today what he preached in his book: Flood the system with money to avoid a depression.”

The Fed Funds rate, which had already been reduced from 5.25 percent in early 2007 to 2 percent when Lehman tanked, was cut further to a range between 0 percent and 0.25 percent by the end of 2008 where it remains today. Still, the money supply contracted.

In November 2008 Bernanke launched QE1. Changes in the Fed Funds rate are facilitated by the buying and selling of short term dated securities to alter short term interest rates. Quantitative Easing works the same way except via the purchase of long term dated securities so as to bring down longer term interest rates.

QE1 was an unprecedented attempt to infuse tottering banks with liquidity and shore up the money supply. By the time it came to an end in March 2010 the Federal Reserve had bought $1.75 trillion of mortgage-backed securities.

But still the money supply kept falling so in November 2010 Bernanke initiated QE2 which involved the purchase of $600 billion of Treasury securities. By the time QE2 docked in June 2011 the money supply had stopped shrinking. Indeed, it had returned to fairly brisk growth. Bernanke had made the moves straight out of Friedman’s playbook and staved off deflation.

But, apart from the Federal debt, the money supply was all that was experiencing brisk growth. GDP was slowing and unemployment remained stuck over 8 percent. Bernanke, with a theory of fighting inflation, was now coming under pressure to boost growth and employment.

He took over a year to arrive at his decision but last week Bernanke rolled the dice on QE3, an open ended commitment to spend 40 billion newly created dollars a month on mortgage backed assets until, well, until something turns up.

If you are going to do a job you need the appropriate tools. QE and the mass monetary intervention executed so far by Bernanke were designed to stop the money supply contracting. Eventually it did. But the money supply is not now contracting, it is growing. QE is totally inappropriate now even on Monetarist grounds.

In desperation, with the economy stagnating and fiscal policy at its capacity, Bernanke, to the great relief of the Obama administration, is deploying a policy tool conceived and designed to achieve stability of the money stock, to boost the real variables of output and employment. Increasingly Bernanke resembles a golfer with one club. He’s stuck in a bunker and all he has is a driver.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator