Free Markets, Free People
Economist Dr. Mark Perry has a series of posts at his blog Carpe Diem which makes the case that “speculators” play and key and positive role in commodities markets.
One of the more intriguing posts deals with onions and oil. Oh, and corn. Perry quotes a 2008 Fortune magazine article:
"Before the government starts scrutinizing the role that speculators may have played in driving up fuel and food prices, investigators may want to take a look at price swings in a commodity not in today’s news: onions.
The bulbous root is the only commodity for which futures trading is banned. Back in 1958, onion growers convinced themselves that futures traders were responsible for falling onion prices, so they lobbied an up-and-coming Michigan Congressman named Gerald Ford to push through a law banning all futures trading in onions. The law still stands.
And yet even with no traders to blame, the volatility in onion prices makes the swings in oil and corn look tame, reinforcing academics’ belief that futures trading diminishes extreme price swings."
The proof is in the charts. The first chart compares the volatility in the onion market, in which futures trading was banned, with that of the oil market.
Compare the mean and standard deviation differences in the two markets. Remember blue – no futures trading. Red – futures trading.
So, you say, comparing onions and oil is like, well, comparing onions and oil! OK, how about onions an corn. Again the same difference applies. No futures trading for onions but there is with corn.
Result? The same:
The point, of course, is those futures contracts help moderate a market. Or as Perry says:
The fact that the volatility of onion prices is so much greater than the volatility of corn prices lends further statistical support to the notion that markets with futures trading like corn have lower price volatility than markets without futures contracts like onions.
Bingo. So, the President’s war on “oil speculators” is an obvious distraction. But here’s the other side of that – if successful, you may end up seeing oil act like onions. Is that something most of us would prefer? Given these facts, it seems the height of folly to attempt to regulate or ban futures trading in oil, doesn’t it?
A few more charts to finish the point. First, futures trading in natural gas:
If oil speculation (or, as implied, greed) is the cause of rising oil prices, why aren’t natural gas prices rising as well in futures trades (not as “greedy”)?
In fact, it is because of “speculators” that we’ve seen the price of natural gas go down. So futures markets do what? They react to market signals on supply and demand. What this tells us is we most likely have an over abundance of natural gas.
So what does the market do? It adjusts the price to the reality of the supply v demand – in this case, the price goes down. And it also does things like this:
When natural gas price were up and oil prices down, more drilling rigs were allocated by those markets to natural gas. As oil prices have risen dramatically recently, while natural gas prices have fallen, there’s been just as dramatic a shift in the allocation of drilling rigs from natural gas to oil.
The success in the natural gas sector has driven supply up while demand has yet to increase proportionately. Meanwhile, we’d had an abundant supply of oil, which has now become very tight (geopolitics, folks – governments at work and war) driving up the price of crude. The market is reacting.
And as it reacts, guess what?
Crude futures are down as they obviously see future supply growing as the market adjusts and reacts. All driven by “speculators” who are, right now, in the middle of moderating the market.
So, as President Obama continues with his “blame the speculators” nonsense, you have a choice.
Onions or corn?
Markets or bureaucrats?
PS – if you’d like to read some academic pieces on why “speculators” are a key to a market economy, read this.
And it isn’t what they expected or hoped it would be:
A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge.
Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.
An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor’s degrees.
We continue to hear that we’re in a recovery, that we’re seeing better times, that all is now well.
Of course, it’s not. In fact, as we mentioned in the podcast last night, we’re not seeing anywhere near the growth necessary to shake this recession. Instead, we’ve found and are bouncing along the bottom (or at least what is the bottom for now – believe it or not, it could again get worse).
Unemployment numbers for the last two months have “unexpectedly” worse. And while the official rate is 8.2%, most realize the real unemployment rate is much higher and in double digits.
That is the world today’s college grads are facing. It is a buyers market, for those that are actually hiring college grads and so they are able to select among the best. Guess what majors are faring best?
While there’s strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder.
Majors with immediate applicability in still growing fields of course. Meanwhile, there’s not much demand for the softer and less applicable fields. And even in the majors where demand is still high, entry level jobs are of a lower type:
Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.
This is one of those teachable moments. A sheepskin is no longer a guarantee to a high paying job. And that’s certainly true of those who indulge themselves in a humanities or art degree, etc.
College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.
While perhaps the brightest and best in those areas will indeed find good paying jobs coming out of the chute, the vast majority are going to be taking jobs, if they can find them, well outside their major field of study.
By the way, I use the term “indulge” above purposefully. It would be nice to indulge yourself in something you might enjoy in college and major in it. But then don’t whine when you find out that all of the companies you feel should have the benefit of your august presence aren’t as excited about your degree in gender studies as you are.
That gets down to the purpose of college to each person. Is it a means of achieving a job and a life style to which one aspires and a willingness to do what is necessary to accomplish that? Or is it a place one indulges themselves giving little or no thought to the reality that awaits them at graduation?
What we are seeing is the market for college grads making a very definitive statement. It is sending signals. It is telling everyone what type of degrees are being sought and which aren’t. And because of the tightness of the market, it is making decisions on merit, with the brightest and best capturing jobs and the also ran’s waiting tables.
"I don’t even know what I’m looking for," says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree.
Imagine that … creative writing degree. Wonderful stuff, but not to the market for those with college degrees. One would think that a person pursuing that sort of degree would have probably researched that and have a plan which might not include someone else hiring them first (i.e. selling their work on a freelance basis, etc. and knowing how to do that).
Had Mr. Bldsoe had a degree in physics or accounting or engineering, he’d stand a much better chance of being employed in his field of study. Then he could indulge himself in his creative writing passion. In fact, it would likely give him the means to do that.
Instead … “you want a tall or a grande?”
I still haven’t yet figured out why supposedly bright people can’t figure that little thing out. Markets are talking. Markets are sending signals. When you choose something as your major that these markets have no interest in, what do you suppose is going to happen unless you have a plan to go out on your own immediately?
They’re not going to hire you just because you feel your major is important. You’re going to hire someone if they feel the major is important and you have demonstrated competence in that field at a level they require.
This is the reality that, for the first time, many recent college grads are coming to grips with.
One thing this recession may finally do is drive home the idea that indulging yourself is a useless degree is not very bright or productive.
Want to study creative writing? Fine. They have minors as well in colleges. Make it your minor. But for heaven sake, take a clue and look at what is being demanded out there before declaring a major. Certainly it may not be your passion, but then unless you want to spend your days immediately after college waiting tables or hoping for a labor sellers market, where jobs are plentiful, you had better commit to a useful major.
I know, I know, that supply and demand thingy again. Gender studies majors aren’t into “markets” and “supply and demand” stuff. What’s wrong with me? They have a college degree, the world should be beating a pathway to their door, no?
Welcome to reality … and reality includes the immutable laws of economics whether one likes them or not. And right now, those with useless degrees find themselves on the wrong side of the demand curve.
Don’t like economics?
Then content yourself with making frappes.
Otherwise, it’s time to wise up, use that superior brain for what it was designed and “indulge” yourself in something the job market finds useful and valuable. Refusal to do that means a guaranteed rough transition into the real world, especially now.
The other day this sort of slipped under the media radar:
First Solar Inc. will lay off 2,000 workers and close its factory in Germany following a collapse in solar panel prices that has erased the industry’s profits and forced some smaller companies into bankruptcy.
America’s biggest solar manufacturer said the layoffs amount to 30 percent of its global workforce.
B..b..but why!? Green shoots, alternative energy, clean energy, what the frack?!
This is the future, the government says so! How did it all go so wrong? How in the world could solar panel prices “collapse”?
An influx of Chinese competitors has led to a rapid buildup in supply. At the same time governments in Europe, the biggest market for solar power, are reducing generous subsidy programs that had fueled demand. From March to December last year, solar panel prices dropped 50 percent, said Aaron Chew, an analyst with the Maxim Group.
That damn “supply and demand” thingy again, right?
So let me get this straight … cheap foreign product (subsidized by the Chinese government) flooded the market created by government subsidized demand, driving up supply while lowering the price. Meanwhile the false demand that had been supported by “generous [government] subsidy programs” ended (thus ending the “demand”). Consequently there is no demand for the current over supply and no one is buying the stuff?
Wow … who could have seen that coming?
And the current producer can’t make a profit and thus has to lay off people?
You know, when you’ve seen the same thing over and over and over again (see Einstein’s definition of insanity), sometimes you just have to resort to sarcasm.
By the way for the terminally slow – news flash – that supply and demand thingy also seems to work in the petroleum market as well.
Trying to justify the unjustifiable with a pep-rally like political speech to the UAW, Obama points to what he contends are the favorable results of his decision to intrude into the auto market and rearrange the bankruptcy process to favor his cronies.
I know our bet was a good one because I had seen it pay off firsthand. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask the Chrysler workers near Kokomo — (applause) — who were brought on to make sure the newest high-tech transmissions and fuel-efficient engines are made in America. Or ask the GM workers in Spring Hill, Tennessee, whose jobs were saved from being sent abroad. (Applause.) Ask the Ford workers in Kansas City coming on to make the F-150 — America’s best-selling truck, a more fuel-efficient truck. (Applause.) And you ask all the suppliers who are expanding and hiring, and the communities that rely on them, if America’s investment in you was a good bet. They’ll tell you the right answer.
Of course Chrysler is now owned by a foreign auto company, courtesy of the Obama administration, Ford took no federal money and, had normal bankruptcy proceeded, taxpayers wouldn’t be out $80 billion dollars (still unpaid despite claims to the contrary) and a leaner, more competitive GM would be in existence. Those suppliers would still be supplying and after the shakeout a more viable corporation would have come into existence.
Speaking of those GM workers in Spring Hill, TN, Kaus lays out another reality that the president doesn’t present:
Toyota and Honda are coming back online after the tsunami and Southeast Asia floods crippled production. VW is building roomy American-style cars in Tennessee using $14.50/hour non-union workers instead of $28/hour UAW workers. Hyundai is expanding rapidly. Competition is going to be vicious–it’s widely believed there’s still overcapacity in the industry. A new oil price spike could crimp sales of high-profit trucks. Will GM still be making money in 5 years? Or, I should say, will GM still be making money building cars in the U.S. (as opposed to importing them from China) in 5 years? I’m skeptical. I don’t think deficient corporate cultures change that easily. Normally we rely on the market to simply kill them off.
The two points to be made here are important. One, GM’s current “success” is a result of huge infusion of taxpayer money. Its problem was/is its corporate culture and its unions. Neither problem have been addressed or fixed. Instead, like Solyndra, they’ve simply been given an extension via the taxpayer that will eventually run out. Secondly, as competing auto companies using non-union labor continue to locate in right to work states and pay a competitive wage (but not the high end union wage), they will continue to take market share from GM, who is still stuck with that toxic corporate culture and grasping unions.
But, of course, Obama won’t care because he’ll be out of office. This is the usual short term vote buying, just on a grander scale than we’ve ever seen it before. Crony capitalism at its worst.
Long term viability?
Who cares? Certainly not President Obama.
It appears so. CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson (yes the same Ms. Attkisson who has been the only reporter following up on Fast and Furious) has checked and it seems Solyndra was just one of many “green companies” which the Obama administration attempted to pick as “winners” by “investing” your money via loan guarantees:
Take Beacon Power — a green energy storage company. We were surprised to learn exactly what the Energy Department knew before committing $43 million of your tax dollars.
Documents obtained by CBS News show Standard and Poor’s had confidentially given the project a dismal outlook of "CCC-plus."
Asked whether he’d put his personal money into Beacon, economist Peter Morici replied, "Not on purpose."
"It’s, it is a junk bond," Morici said. "But it’s not even a good junk bond. It’s well below investment grade."
Was the Energy Department investing tax dollars in something that’s not even a good junk bond? Morici says yes.
"This level of bond has about a 70 percent chance of failing in the long term," he said.
In fact, Beacon did go bankrupt two months ago and it’s unclear whether taxpayers will get all their money back. And the feds made other loans when public documents indicate they should have known they could be throwing good money after bad.
That’s one. But there are more:
Others are also struggling with potential problems. Nevada Geothermal — a home state project personally endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – warns of multiple potential defaults in new SEC filings reviewed by CBS News. It was already having trouble paying the bills when it received $98.5 million in Energy Department loan guarantees.
SunPower landed a deal linked to a $1.2 billion loan guarantee last fall, after a French oil company took it over. On its last financial statement, SunPower owed more than it was worth. On its last financial statement, SunPower owed more than it was worth. SunPower’s role is to design, build and initially operate and maintain the California Valley Solar Ranch Project that’s the subject of the loan guarantee.
First Solar was the biggest S&P 500 loser in 2011 and its CEO was cut loose – even as taxpayers were forced to back a whopping $3 billion in company loans.
Anyone – does the Constitution have a “venture capitalist” clause in it that we somehow missed? Is it the job of our government to pick winners and losers in a market using taxpayer dollars?
Well according to the brilliant Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, no politics were involved in any of this. But:
Nobody from the Energy Department would agree to an interview. Last November at a hearing on Solyndra, Energy Secretary Steven Chu strongly defended the government’s attempts to bolster America’s clean energy prospects. "In the coming decades, the clean energy sector is expected to grow by hundreds of billions of dollars," Chu said. "We are in a fierce global race to capture this market."
The government is blowing it big time. Why? Because, despite Chu’s claim, it is all about politics. And ideology.
In fact this administration has no trust in markets to develop the technology they desire so they’re sold on the idea that the central government should be used to facilitate their ideology. And that is precisely what this is all about. Solyndra, Beacon Power, Nevada Geothermal, SunPower and First Solar are just failed indicators of the bankruptcy of their approach. Given a treasury and the ability to spend money almost unchecked, they’ve committed to implementing their ideology on the back of taxpayers. And, unsurprisingly, they’re failing miserably.
But we’re assumed to be so dumb we can’t see through their political scheme.
Unfortunately, as it has been for quite some time, no one will be held accountable for this fiasco that has cost us billions in money we simply don’t have. If anyone ever wanted a case study of how out-of-control and outside the Constitutional box government has become, the failed “green energy” sector loan program provides the perfect scenario.
Meanwhile, in Canada:
Canada is now looking to Asian countries to market its abundance of oil, natural gas and minerals as plans to build the proposed Keystone XL pipeline have stalled with the U.S. administration.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will travel to China next month to discuss selling Canada’s bounty to the rapidly growing nation.
The preferred initial plan was to build the $7 billion Keystone pipeline to deliver Alberta’s oilsands crude to refineries in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.
Harper reasoned that the U.S. government would prefer to deal with a friendly neighbor to help meet its energy needs while creating thousands of jobs.
With widespread opposition by U.S. environmentalists, the Obama administration has delayed its decision on whether to approve the project proposed by energy giant TransCanada Pipelines.
The new plan would market to China and Asian countries through the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would transport Alberta’s oil and natural gas to British Columbia for shipment by tankers.
Yup, no politics at all.
One is domestic and the other is international. On the domestic front we’re again confronted with “good intentions” being horribly and oppressively executed via a bad law.
Wending its way through Congress right now is legislation called the “Stop Online Piracy Act” or SOPA. The intention is obviously laudable. As “piracy” is usually defined, i.e. the theft of copyrighted material, it is certainly a function of government to attempt stop and or prosecute theft.
The problem isn’t found in the intent of the law, as I said. It’s in how it would be executed – the regulations it must spawn to meet the law’s requirements.
Stephen DeMaura and David Segal write about the effect it would have on political campaigns (their particular focus), but it certainly doesn’t take much to translate that effect onto blogs and many other types of websites. Read through the scenario they outline that demonstrates a possible effect on a political campaign and then think blogs:
Here’s a plausible campaign scenario under SOPA. Imagine you are running for Congress in a competitive House district. You give a strong interview to a local morning news show and your campaign posts the clip on your website. When your opponent’s campaign sees the video, it decides to play hardball and sends a notice to your Internet service provider alerting them to what it deems “infringing content.” It doesn’t matter if the content is actually pirated. The ISP has five days to pull down your website and the offending clip or be sued. If you don’t take the video down, even if you believe that the content is protected under fair use, your website goes dark.
The ability of any entity to file an infringement notice is one of SOPA’s biggest problems. It creates an unprecedented “private right of action” that would allow a private party, without any involvement by a court, to effectively shut down a website. For a campaign, this would mean shouldering legal responsibility for all user-generated posts. As more issue-based and political campaigns utilize social media to spread their message and engage supporters, a site could be targeted not only for the campaign’s own posts but also for well-meaning comments from supporters.
It doesn’t take a particularly bright person to see how this sort of a law could be used in a broader sense to kill freedom of speech via frivolous attacks on a site’s content. If QandO embarks on a campaign against a particular politician, for instance, and uses content that it deems to be “fair use” (and may indeed be fair use in a legal sense as well), all it takes is one person anywhere, whether they have a real interest or standing in the case, to file a complaint about “infringing content” and we’re gone unless we remove it. Whether justified or not, the ISP is left in a position of having to enforce removal or face the cost of a lawsuit (whether a lawsuit is ever intended over the claim or not). They will obviously move to protect their interests and that means dropping the so-called offender like a hot rock.
It would effectively chill free speech.
As DeMaura and Segal note, there’s an alternative bill sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa:
The Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act would create a process for rights holders to protect their property that wouldn’t shut down entire sites over a small amount of copyrighted material. This legislation helps to solve copyright infringement while protecting the vitality of the U.S.-based Internet sector — an industry that has contributed 23 percent of the growth in world gross domestic product and has revolutionized the way we live.
Attack real on-line piracy? Yes. Do it with terrible law? No. SOPA should not see the legislative light of day.
Problem two? The UN and other countries around the world want to have the ability to more directly control more of the internet. Robert McDowell of the FCC lays it out:
The 193-member International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N.agency, will meet in Dubai next December to renegotiate the 24-year-old treaty that deals with international oversight of the Internet. A growing number of countries are pushing greater governmental control and management of the Web’s availability, financial model and infrastructure.
They believe the current model is “dominated” by the U.S., and want to “take that control and power away,” Mr. McDowell said. China and Russia support the effort, but so do non-Western U.S. allies such as Brazil, South Africa and India.
“Thus far, those who are pushing for new intergovernmental powers over the Internet are far more energized and organized than those who favor the Internet freedom and prosperity,” he said.
The reason, of course, is fairly straight forward – cash and control:
While growth of the Internet has exploded under a minimal regulatory model over the past two decades, “significant government and civil society support is developing for a different policy outlook,” according to an analysis by lawyers David Gross and M. Ethan Lucarelli on the legal intelligence website www.lexology.com.
“Driven largely by the global financial troubles of recent years, together with persistent concerns about the implications of the growth of the Internet for national economies, social structures and cultures, some governments and others are now actively reconsidering the continuing viability of liberalization and competition-based policies,” they wrote.
So the plan, apparently, is to wrest control from the US via this treaty:
A bad treaty – which would need the support of only a bare majority of U.N.members to pass and which the United States could not veto – could bring “a whole parade of problems,” Mr. McDowell said.
The U.S. and other Western democracies would likely “opt out” of the treaty, he predicted, leading to a “Balkanization” of the global information network. Governments under the treaty would have greater authority to regulate rates and local access, and such critical emerging issues as cybersecurity and data privacy standards would be subject to international control.
Mr. McDowell said the treaty could open the door to allowing revenue-hungry national governments to charge Internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon for their data traffic on a “per click” basis. The more website visitors those companies get, the more they pay.
And, as we’ve watched so many times, a vital and growing market would suffer government intrusion and probable decline:
In 1988, when the treaty was signed, fewer than 100,000 people used the Internet, Mr. McDowell said. Shortly after it was privatized in 1995, that number jumped to 16 million users. As of this year, it is up to 2 billion users, with another 500,000 joining every day.
“This phenomenal growth was the direct result of governments keeping their hands off the Internet sphere and relying instead on a private-sector, multi-stakeholder Internet governance model to keep it thriving,” he said.
Mr. McDowell attributed the massive growth of the Internet to freedom.
“So the whole point is, the more it migrated away from government control, the more it blossomed,” he said.
Freedom? Blossoming? Growth? Can’t have that. It must have government control and, by the way, contribute much more in revenue than it is now. Massive growth without significant contributions to government is just unacceptable in this day and time. And freedom? Anathema to the cult of government.
The servant has become the master and masters instinctively try to gather more and more power to themselves.
This is just another in a long line of examples. The result, of course, will be to cripple something that has been one of the few growth sectors in the global economy. Government greed and the belief of elites that they must control everything via government will eventually kill this proverbial golden goose. Instead of trying to enable more growth, they’re embarked on a campaign to limit and control any growth such that it provides increased revenue for government. Whether it is best for the citizens or economy of the countries so inclined is apparently irrelevant to the quest for more control and cash.
Freedom should be on the march, but instead, we continually see examples of it on the decline. The UN is one of the main culprits in that decline. It is a global organization in search of more power. Under the guise of global democracy, it is involved in killing freedom as it attempts to gather more and more power to itself. It is as obvious as the nose on your face that global governance is its ultimate goal. It can’t do that without exercising more control through willing members and generating more income from which it can demand a share.
To the control freaks and authoritarians out there, the internet is a horrifically dangerous thing. It provides much too much freedom for those they would control. Consequently they seek to wrest that control away. The UN is the perfect vehicle to provide the cover of legitimacy for such a power grab.
Again, here’s a treaty that has no business seeing the light of day. However, if I had to guess, it will pass. And freedom will take another giant step backward.
Brian Dimitrovic, writing in Forbes, is another who takes a shot at Obama’s speech in Kansas (this is almost becoming a series considering the number of people ripping the speech on its economic ignorance) and posits that it is an example of abysmally incorrect economic history. The most obvious reason for the rewriting of that history by President Obama is centered in his ideology. If the history doesn’t prove what he says, President Obama doesn’t have a case. Dimitrovic, using the actual history of the periods Obama cites, shows Obama’s grasp of the history of those eras is as poor as the ideology he touts. Here’s the passage from the speech that Dimitrovic cites. We’ve cited it in previous posts, but Dimitrovic’s demolition of the premise is important:
[T]oday, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what [Teddy Roosevelt] fought for in his last campaign [of 1912]: [including] political reform and a progressive income tax.
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune….If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger….
Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government….And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.
Now there are lots of opinions about economics, but like it or not, facts are facts. Those facts are readily available to those who seek them. By the way, Dimitrovic is a Harvard PhD and an economic historian, so this is right in his wheelhouse.
First is his contention that Roosevelt’s “progressive” ideas are what essentially saved the nation. That the intrusion it represented was necessary. Dimitrovic pretty much says that’s nonsense. In fact, he says, what happened then may be the reason we’re suffering now.
Let’s look at the past as it actually was.
There is one major inflection point in U.S. economic history. Before this point, growth was high, at about 4% per year for a century. Also in this period, there was remarkable price stability and so little unemployment that the nation had to import tens of millions of workers from abroad.
After this point, growth was moderate, at about 3% per year for the long term, with variations in the form of major depressions and recessions and a 23-fold inflation which had no like in the previous epoch.
This inflection point was 1913 – the very year which the reforms TR plumped for in his last campaign, the income tax and the Federal Reserve, came into being. 1913 marks the one secular shift in American economic history toward lower growth and more economic unpleasantness in the form of unemployment, inflation, and serial recession.
Had this nation grown at the 4%-rate achieved in the pre-1913 period, we would be twice as well-off today. As for inequality, unemployment and inflation are scourges to the working class, but not so much to the rich, and these are 20th- and 21st- century innovations.
That’s the actual history coupled with the economy’s real performance. The economy here worked pretty darn well before 1913 and we saw consistent growth that continued to lift all boats. After 1913, not as much. An entire percentage point of growth was, on average, was lost. The only real and significant difference – income tax and the Federal Reserve. What does economic history show happened after this inflection point where government intruded significantly?
As Dimitrovic points out, “lower growth and more economic unpleasantness in the form of unemployment, inflation, and serial recession.” And again, this isn’t a claim that government has no role in the economy as Mr. Black and White would like to claim. This is to point out that what he is attempting to sell with his rhetoric and in support of his premise that it is capitalism that has failed (and thus government is the answer) has no basis in fact. In fact, it appears the opposite is probably true.
Dimitrovic then turns to the 20th and 21st centuries and their history:
Now about that 20th-century, the only reason its record came in even respectably is that at certain junctures, decided efforts were taken to withdraw the impress of the institutions of 1913, the Federal Reserve and the income tax.
He lists a number of facts that contradict Obama’s contentions about the market. In fact, as Dimitrovic says, it was decidedly anti-progressive ideas which saved the 20th Century, for example:
The President says, “It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression.” These would be the years 1921-1929, when on account of a tax cut put together in 1921, the economy boomed at 4.8% per year as unemployment and inflation (the latter recently on a 100% run) both collapsed. How does a president, in a major, prepared speech make such an indefensible factual error?
Next: “It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s.” No? The trough of the recession at the end of World War II was 1947, when the Republican majority in Congress conspired to win a tax cut over President Truman’s veto. Result: a 6-year run of 4.8% growth.
Note the question Dimitrovic asks in the last sentence off the first example. This isn’t something that would be difficult to find for a research staff. These numbers and facts exist and are out there. But they don’t fit the ideology. You either have to assume they didn’t research the claims or that they rejected the facts because the were inconvenient to the premise. It is hard to believe the didn’t research the claims, isn’t it? They’re pretty definitive claims. One would assume, listening to a President of the United States, they’re anchored in fact. Obviously they’re not. The question is whether this is true economic historical ignorance or willful economic historical revisionism?
Dimitrovic also includes an example of where tax cuts were resisted, and the result, and where they were instituted afterward and that result. Again, the facts seem to refute the President’s premise:
In 1953, when recession came, President Eisenhower resisted calls for another tax cut, and recessions came again and again such that Eisenhower left office in 1960 with a record of 2.4% annual growth on his watch. John F. Kennedy followed, as every schoolchild should know, with another big tax cut. The great 1960s boom ensued, with 4.9% growth from 1961 to 1969.
Also interesting are the parties of the presidents. The numbers, however, aren’t controversial at all. This has been a fact with which almost all of those who’ve followed politics for any length of time and have been interested in the effect of tax cuts on our economy are familiar. These aren’t obscure, little known facts. But they certainly have been facts that one side of the ideological spectrum have tended to ignore when trying to spin more government and not less. That is precisely what President Obama’s object was in his Kansas speech.
The reason for Dimitrovic’s rebuttal of the contentions and claims made in the speech is fairly easy to discern:
Two years ago, I happened to publish a book, Econoclasts, canvassing all this history. I also happen to know that the White House library has a copy.
It also explains his disbelief in what was said:
I have to wonder what historical scholarship the president and his speechwriters are consulting as they come up with their strange counter-narrative of American economic history. I truly don’t know what the books could be.
After all, when the major library bibliographical service, Choice, reviewed Econoclasts, it said the book “fills a gaping hole in the literature.” Has there been some new revisionist history of the effects of tax cuts since 1913 that validates the president’s new narrative? If so, no one’s ever heard of it.
Then again, you can find the stuff the President reiterated in Kansas here and there in left wing redoubts, Berkeley, California and the like – on bumper stickers.
But not in the history of the actual eras in question. In fact, precisely the opposite of the claims made by the President seem to be true. Government intrusion is what has dampened our economic growth. You can see the percentage amounts for yourself. The cycles of recession, unemployment and inflation are a result of more government, not the failure of the market. In fact, per Dimitrovic’s examples, every contention made by the President, which Dimitrovic highlighted, are demonstrably wrong.
The reason for the claims is obvious, however. The ideology of market failure and the demand for more government requires that history, whether it is accurate or not.
We have an old word for that – propaganda. The dishonesty being employed ought to make the current purveyor of that propaganda ashamed of himself. But there is certainly no sign of that being the case.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is frightening to read the words by this President and it is hard not be appalled by the apparent economic ignorance they contain. We’ve remarked on it several times. In particular this statement is stunning in that regard:
Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Steel mills that needed 100—or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle. And these changes didn’t just affect blue-collar workers. If you were a bank teller or a phone operator or a travel agent, you saw many in your profession replaced by ATMs and the Internet.
Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution noticed it too. And in very blunt language, points the very same thing we’ve been talking about:
To anyone schooled in economics, these statements reveal a breathtaking ignorance about the sources of national prosperity. It is a good thing when plants can achieve the same output with less labor. Do we really want an America in which thousands of people work in dangerous occupations to turn molten lava into steel bars? Far better it is that fewer workers are doing those jobs. The jobs lost in that industry will be in part replaced by newer jobs created in the firms that build the equipment that make it possible to run steel mills at a lower cost and far lower risk of personal injury. The former workers can seek jobs in newer industries that will only expand by competing for labor.
And what about those ATM machines? Does the president really want people to have to queue up in banks to make deposits or withdraw cash in order to make a boom market for human tellers? Perhaps we should return to the days before automation, when phone calls were all connected by human operators. And why blast the Internet, which has created far more useful jobs than it has ever destroyed?
The painful ignorance that is revealed in these remarks augurs ill for the long-term recovery of America. With the president firmly determined to set himself against the tides of progress, innovation will be harder to come by. The levels of unemployment will continue to be high as the president works overtime to impose additional restrictions on the labor markets and more taxes at the top of the income distribution—both backhanded ways to reward innovation and growth.
The problem, therefore, with the president’s speech is not that it is demagogic in tone. The problem is that it is intellectually incoherent. As a matter of high principle, the president announces his fealty to markets. As a matter of practical politics, he denigrates and undermines them at every step. It is a frightening prospect to have a president who lives in a time warp that lets him believe that the failed policies of 1935 can lead this nation back from the brink. His chosen constituency, the middle class, should tremble at the prospect that his agenda might well set the course for the United States for the next four years.
Well said, but frightening. Take the time to read the rest of Epstein’s piece. It’s worth the read.
Glenn Reynolds has an article in the Washington Examiner about how he believes the higher education bubble is about to burst. Perhaps not imminently, but fairly soon. Why? Because the value of the product doesn’t match its rising cost.
Reynolds talks about the dilution of the worth of a bachelor’s degree even while the price has risen exponentially. Something’s got to give.
But there’s no real incentive for institutions of higher learning to back off the price. Why? Because government has chosen to subsidize those prices by taking over the student loan business.
Sound at all familiar?
With no penalty for raising the price, colleges and universities continue to do so knowing full well that whatever they stick the student with that requires a loan they will get upfront. And if the the student defaults, we, the taxpayers, get stuck with the bill.
One of the big complaints about the Wall Street bailout from both sides of the political isle had to so with “privatizing profits and socializing debt”. That’s precisely what the current government loan program does as well.
Reynolds makes the argument that colleges and universities should be on the hook for the debt. After all they’re the institutions providing the product. Tying the price of the product to the worth of the product is such an old fashioned concept isn’t it? Instead this new-fangled way of doing business has led to bubble after bubble which the uninformed then try to pin on “market failure”.
In fact it is a government takeover of a market. There is no competition, no incentive to revisit pricing, no reason to worry about default. Charge whatever you like, make an outrageous profit and if the loan fails, stick the taxpayers with the cost.
Nice crony capitalist system if you can arrange it, huh?
We all know exactly how it will end up … with a big “pop” and a bunch of surprised politicians asking “how could this have happened?’
And the first words out of most of their mouths?
And what does that usually mean?
More government intrusion and control.
Then the cycle repeats.
The fixation of government on “alternate fuels” and its use of taxpayer money to subsidize some of them is, at least in one case, having a very negative effect on markets. Again we have government market intrusion to hold responsible for rising food prices in an era of high unemployment and economic turmoil.
Again, this is Econ 101 stuff. For a government so full of experts who feel they have the right (based one assumes, in their superior intellect … or something) to decide what we should be using for fuel rather than letting markets decide, they sure have screwed this one up.
Corn is a major food crop. And, for the most part, markets have kept corn relatively cheap and plentiful. Enter government and the mandate that ethanol be produced and mixed with gasoline in an effort, one supposes, to reduce the amount of oil consumed.
The result, however, has been to drive up the price of corn and the price of other commodity foods instead.
Here’s how it works. The set up:
Powerful agribusiness interests collect a 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit to convert this food crop into ethanol, an unnecessary and sometimes harmful additive to gasoline. Another 54-cent-per-gallon tariff is imposed to keep Brazil’s sugar-cane-based ethanol from entering our shores. Nor does the folly end there. The Food and Energy Security Act of 2007 mandates a massive increase in the production of ethanol by 2022 even though there is no demand.
While there’s no demand, there’s plenty of your money to be had. And what do producers react too? Incentive. So what provides the best return on investment right now? Corn. Not for the consumer, but for the producer. So what do producers of other commodity foods do? They switch from growing wheat and soybeans to corn. The result is inevitable:
The lure of free government money reduces the amount of corn available for other uses, primarily as feed for animals. This has a cascade effect, increasing prices down the food chain and for crops unrelated to corn. Farmers might switch from growing, say, soybeans, to corn to get hold of the extra subsidy. That makes soybeans scarcer and drives up their cost. This year, the price of wheat has increased as farmers have switched to corn to take advantage of high corn prices. In either scenario, the price of food increases, and that’s the last thing we need right now.
When the price of feed grain increases, what do you suppose happens to the price of meat?
Want ethanol? Feel it is a necessary and good thing? Drop the mandate, drop the subsidy and drop the tariff. Let the market decide. If it actually does what its champions claim and actually provide an additive to gasoline that increases performance (a dubious claim at best) and lessens our dependence on oil, that ought to be an easy idea to sell.
The fact is, without the subsidy and the mandate, the market would most likely reject ethanol completely. And that would conflict with the ideologically driven agenda that our government has put in place – namely it has the responsibility to decide what we should or shouldn’t use to power our vehicles. Each administration has its own take on how this should be done but make no mistake, this has been something which has survived both Republican and Democratic administrations.
It is another, in a long line of examples, of government intrusion, market distortion and wasting taxpayer money for a product with no demand. It also has the effect of driving up prices in food in an era of high unemployment. It is a disastrous policy and the proof is in the distorted markets.
Time to end the whole program and rescind the foolish government mandate. The effect? Food prices would again react to market pressures instead of government mandates. And taxpayer money wouldn’t be used to distort those markets any longer.
Win win as I see it.