David Stockman has written a controversial Op Ed piece entitled Sundown in America that was published last Sunday in the New York Times.
I’ll quote the opening paragraphs to give a taste of the content:
The Dow Jones and Standard & Poor’s 500 indexes reached record highs on Thursday, having completely erased the losses since the stock market’s last peak, in 2007. But instead of cheering, we should be very afraid.
Over the last 13 years, the stock market has twice crashed and touched off a recession: American households lost $5 trillion in the 2000 dot-com bust and more than $7 trillion in the 2007 housing crash. Sooner or later — within a few years, I predict — this latest Wall Street bubble, inflated by an egregious flood of phony money from the Federal Reserve rather than real economic gains, will explode, too.
I’m not certain I agree with all of it — his political prescriptions towards the end seem especially suspect — but it is absolutely worth a read.
Update: Stockman addresses critics, including Paul Krugman (who in typical fashion fired off a torrent of mocking ad hominems instead of a response), in this interview with Marketwatch.
It appears that it isn’t merely the U.K.’s “Conservative” party that has difficulty recalling 2008, a year now so distant as to be beyond the memory of living politicians:
Obama administration pushes banks to make home loans to people with weaker credit
I’ll give the devil his due — Marx said it best in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon when he noted that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Last night being the last Friday of March, there was a meeting at my place, as already flagged up here. But it was also Good Friday, so I did a bit of extra hustling and emailing around beforehand to ensure some kind of turnout. It worked. Great talk, and there were nine libertarian-inclined Londoners present in the form of: two Americans, a German, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a New Zealander and three Englishmen.
I neglected photography at the January meeting, which I already regret, and did hardly any better at the end of February. This time I tried harder, this being one is my favourite snaps from last night:
Those are two of the three Englishmen who were present, the other being me. On the right there is speaker for the evening Richard Carey, and on the left Simon Gibbs, both of Libertarian Home fame. Gibbs was not rudely ignoring the conversation and catching up on his emails; he was looking up names and titles that were being mentioned in the conversation. I particularly like the potato crisp in Carey’s left hand at the very bottom of the picture.
The talk was everything that I personally was hoping for. There was lots of biographical detail of who the key early Austrians were (Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Wieser) and what kind of intellectual context they were operating in and what they said. And then the same for the later figures of note (von Mises, Rothbard). Other twentieth century figures were mentioned. Given how admiringly Carey spoke about him, I was particularly intrigued by Frank Fetter, only a name to me until now.
Carey made no attempt to disguise the fact that he is a recent arrival to the task of getting his head round Austrian Economics, which for me was a feature rather than a bug, just as I thought it would be. And he made no attempt to suggest that he understood more than he actually did about the subject. His talk entirely lacked that sub-agenda that you so often sense with some speakers, that half the point of telling the story is to tell the story, but the other half of the point is to prove how very clever and well informed the speaker is, more so than he actually is. That Carey had no time for such nonsense only made me admire his intellect all the more.
I had been expecting that the abstract theorising about what it all meant, what the intellectual guts of it all consisted of, would come at the end. The economic way of getting stuff versus the political way, trade versus stealing, individualism versus collectivism, the subjectivity of value, and so forth. Actually that bit came, at some length, at the beginning, so much so that I at first feared that all that biographical detail that I had been so looking forward to would be somewhat skated over. But all ended well, and I learned a great deal.
I did not record this talk in any way. However, Simon Gibbs, the man on the left in the picture above, has already invited Richard Carey to do a repeat performance of this talk for Libertarian Home, and a video camera will presumably then be running. Meanwhile, I am very happy for Carey to have given this talk a first outing in friendly surroundings, and for him to get some early feedback on it. I find that I am making a point of getting speakers to speak about things they’ve not spoken about before, but will undoubtedly be speaking about again, for just these sorts of reasons.
Two books were mentioned in the course of the discussion afterwards that I intend to investigate further.
Christian Michel mentioned this collection of lectures by Michel Foucault, in one of which he apparently said something embarrassingly (given the kind of people who were listening) nice about the free market as the only place where freedom actually happens, or some such surprising thing. I’ve already emailed Christian asking for chapter and verse of the quote in question.
And second, Aiden Gregg (who is an academic psychologist and who has already been fixed to speak at a later one of these meetings) mentioned the writings of somebody called Larken Rose, a new name to me, and in particular this book, which appears to cover similar ground, albeit in a somewhat different style, to that discussed in Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, which has been written about here recently.
Evenings like this don’t have any immediate world-changing impact, but every little helps.
For the first time ever, labourers were able to purchase cheap goods for themselves. The first factories focused on mass production of cheap goods for the poor. Shoes, for example, were produced for the proletariat – the rich bought made-to-measure shoes. This was different from France, where the government’s mercantilist product standards, designed to uphold quality, ensured that nothing was produced for the poor at all. In France, mercantilism continued to be state policy for much longer than in England. This is the reason why industrialisation took fifty more years to arrive on France’s shores.
- This is a typical “I did not know that” moment from J. P. Floru‘s excellent new book Heavens on Earth: How To Create Mass Prosperity, from the chapter about the British industrial revolution.
Well, I myself did not know it. If you did know this particular thing about shoes, you will still probably find a hundred other such titbits in this book that you did not know. In an equal-but-opposite way, this made me think of how we can now buy excellent yet vastly-cheaper-than-before spectacles on the internet, that being a case of a made-to-measure product becoming available to all at a mass production price.
Besides the world-changing success story that was British industrialisation, Floru writes about: the USA and West Germany just after WW2, Hong Kong, China, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The miseries of despotism are not glossed over, but the inevitable failure of statist economic policies and the almost automatic benefits of free market policies, provided only that you can make them stick, are made unmistakably clear.
I hope, Real Soon Now, to be supplying a longer posting here about this fine book, along the lines of the five star reactions to it here. Short version: it is a fine book.
“Money, when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal; it is then the money of the banker, who is bound to an equivalent by paying a similar sum to that deposited with him when he is asked for it…The money placed in the custody of a banker is, to all intents and purposes, the money of the banker, to do with it as he pleases; he is guilty of no breach of trust in employing it; he is not answerable to the principal if he puts it into jeopardy, if he engages in hazardous speculation; he is not bound to keep it or deal with it as the property of his principal; but he is, of course, answerable for the amount, because he has contracted.”
Detlev Schlichter, quoting a 19th Century ruling about the status of bank deposits in the UK. It is, in fact, a sobering thought that many members of the general public might not be fully aware of what actually happens to their deposits, and be aware that to all intents and purposes, they do not “own” their deposits.
Let’s just say that for a lot of people, the Cyprus episode has been a learning experience about the fundamental nature of what banks, today, actually are and do.
The speaker at my next Last Friday of the Month meeting will be Richard Carey of Libertarian Home, and the title of his talk is: Austrian Economics: What It Is and How It Relates To Libertarianism.
And yes, Friday March 29th is not any old Friday. It is Good Friday, which may thin out the ranks of attenders somewhat. Not too much, I hope.
About what he will be saying, Richard Carey says this:
What I intend to look at is as follows: the Austrian School: what it is; what it was; its relationship to libertarianism and its relevance to today. I’d like to look at how it fits into the development of economic thought, its distinguishing features, the main protagonists, some of the most important works. If the task of answering such questions is beyond me, I should at least be able to provide a guide to where such answers can be found.
Here is some video of Richard Carey talking on another subject, about doing libertarian politics. And here is the list of his recent bloggings for Libertarian Home.
I have a very selfish motive in getting Richard Carey to talk about Austrian Economics, which is that I personally find it rather hard to get to grips with this subject, and with subjects like this. What I mean by “subjects like this” is subjects which consist of a lot of logically interconnecting concepts, each of which you have to understand, and the interconnections between which you likewise have to understand, in order to make sense of it all.
What makes me want to make sense of Austrian Economics is that I have become entirely convinced, as have millions of others in recent years and decades (years especially), that Austrian Economics doesn’t just supply the best explanation of what has been going on in the financial world lately (and for that matter for the last several decades and even several centuries); it supplies the only explanation. All else in the way of economics is statistically disguised, fumbling, blundering nonsense, enlivened with many amusing details and incidental truths, but nevertheless, underneath it all, when it comes to the most important questions of all, just plain wrong. I already feel about Austrianism (as I like to abbreviate it) in the way many self-declared Marxists felt about Marxism when the Great Crash and then the Great Depression were unfolding. They didn’t really understand Marxism, but they had heard enough to be utterly convinced that This Is It, as in: This is the place to keep looking to work out what the hell is happening, and what the hell to do about it. The difference being that whereas the Marxists were all deluded and stuck up an intellectual and political blind alley, the Austrianists, and I, are not.
My problem is that I find the great Austrian School writings very hard to actually read, and I typically find your average spoken exposition of Austrianism, by someone long steeped in the subject, very hard to follow.
Part of this is that I am a slow and easily distracted reader, slow partly because so easily distracted, but also just slow. And when listening to a talk, I likewise get easily distracted (for example with trying to get my head around the previous interconnected concept but one, even as the latest one is being expounded), and if the talk is the kind of talk with a logical thread to it (as it so often is when the subject is Austrian Economics), any distraction guarantees that I lose that thread.
But I have another problem, which is that a great deal of Austrian School writing consists of belabouring the obvious.
→ Continue reading: Why I am looking forward to Richard Carey’s talk this Friday about Austrian Economics
Cyprus has a ‘bailout‘ deal blessed by the EU. Certain bondholders face being wiped out.
Now I seem to recall when Ireland got its bailout blessed by the EU, it was expressly forbidden to wipe out bondholders, I am right?
Now if I also recall, many of those bondholders were German, whereas many of the bondholders in Cyprus are Russian.
I am reminded of a certain song…
In other news, it would appear that the “Conservative” party believes that the housing market in the U.K. is insufficiently distorted and in danger of reverting to market principles. To prevent that, the new budget contains provisions to assure that there will be malinvestment, bank bailouts, and direct state losses from mortgage defaults for years to come.
I confess to being impressed. It is normal for politicians to fail to learn from history, but here they’ve managed to forget even 2008. Well done, gentlemen, well done!
Chancellor extends home-buying schemes
This article from John Phelan, at The Commentator, is worth reading:
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 last paragraph is particularly telling. It is good, in a grim sort of way, that people have been alarmed at the idea of governments grabbing savings. But what on earth do people think governments do already? Consider the central banks’ “quantitative easing” policies. Printing money benefits those who get the new money first against those who do not; savers lose out when a government “reflates” an economy. In the UK, for example, inflation – understated by government statistics – is in the low but significant single digits and over a relatively short period, will devastate savings due to the impact of compounding. The proposals from leftist politicians for a so-called “wealth tax” in the UK is merely another form of property rights confiscation, but then again, income taxes are a form of confiscation in that they confiscate the products of work. Confiscation is what governments with a monopoly on the use of physical force do. It is one of their defining characteristics.
Meanwhile, Detlev Schlichter has an interesting new item up about the Cypriot disaster. What is notable about it is that he does not adopt a lazily predictable “bash the eurozone” stance here.
In particular, Schlichter kicks against the assumption that what was proposed – taking a slice of deposits – is somehow uniquely evil:
I am a free market guy. I am in favor of laissez faire so I always like to see placards that read “Hands off”. One could see such placards at demonstrations in Cyprus yesterday: “Hands off Cyprus”. That is great. But be careful what you wish for. A proper hands-off policy means letting the chips fall where they may. That would certainly mean no bailout and thus total collapse of the Cypriot banking system and the Cypriot economy. Don’t forget that Cyprus and its banks and its depositors are still being bailed out with other people’s money here.
That is also what some of my libertarian friends don’t seem to get when they speak, as some of them did yesterday, of another incident of the ‘the state stealing from its citizens’ or of confiscating their property. As much sympathy as I usually have with these views, in this instance they are simply mistaken. If this were expropriation it would mean that the act of abstaining from this expropriation – of the expropriator simply doing nothing – would mean that the ‘victim’ keeps his property. But if the EU did nothing in this situation – “hands off”, laissez faire – it would mean that most depositors, including those under €100,000, got wiped out completely. The choice is not between keeping everything and paying a ‘levy’, but between paying a ‘levy’ and losing almost everything.
If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.
- Sir John Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971, quoted in a recent posting at the Cobden Centre blog by Sean Corrigan entitled Masterly inactivity.
According to this blog posting, these words were spoken by Cowperthwaite to, and recalled by, Milton Friedman (who had asked about the paucity of statistics), in 1963.
For the first time in recorded history, we have nearly every central bank printing money and trying to debase their currency. This has never happened before. How it’s going to work out, I don’t know. It just depends on which one goes down the most and first, and they take turns. When one says a currency is going down, the question is against what? Because they are all trying to debase themselves. It’s a peculiar time in world history.
- Jim Rogers, the investor, adventurer and commentator, as quoted at the splendid Zero Hedge website.
(I like the site’s motto: “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”)
On a related theme of currency debasement and government tactics, this book, Currency Wars, looks a gruesomely entertaining read.
“The Gini coefficient in my office is close to 1.0. How I yearn for the assembly line.” — An anonymous finance professional of arid wit.
I often see postings by friends on social media sites trumpeting the fact that the “gap between rich and poor” (whatever that might mean) is terrible in the United States and we must do something about it.
When confronted with such statements, I usually note that the Gini coefficient (which seems to be what they are referring to) is far lower in India, and yet most poor people in the United States would strongly resist trading places with someone in India at the same decile of income, while strangely most poor people in India probably would trade places with their counterpart in the United States.
The reply I generally get in return is either silence, or sometimes a pointer to some sort of document or video purporting to explain how damaging to society a big “gap between rich and poor” is. (Such materials are generally rather unconvincing, at least to me.)
I continue to hold that it is better to be eating well but to know that others are doing even better than you than it is to know that even though you are starving most other people are too. The former will keep you fed, while the latter should reasonably appeal only to those so encumbered by jealousy that they prefer universal misery to the success of others.
I suppose, however, that it is a question of personal values. To me, envy is not a rational basis for public policy, but others appear to feel it is the only one that counts.