13 February 2009

Repeating Mistakes of the Past

Probably one of the most frustrating things about the financial crisis we are in is that the response is eerily familiar to past crises. Yes, I am talking mainly about the Great Depression. The history we learned in school that FDR’s New Deal brought us out of the Great Depression is patently false.

World War II did end the Great Depression, as revisionists are apt to claim, in a manner of speaking, but not in the way you may think. The U. S. did benefit from the massive war building effort, but after the war was over all that manufacturing had to be turned somewhere else, it simply could not keep churning out guns and ammo for a war that did not exist. When WWII finally came to a close the majority of countries with industries similar to ours before the war were in shambles. The U. S. was intact, had the manufacturing infrastructure and was able to quickly start producing. Another key was that the war effort led to considerable innovations which spurred more job growth. In conclusion, FDR’s New Deal did nothing. In fact, Henry Morgenthau, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in May 1939:

“We are spending more money than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started and an enormous debt to boot.”
Of course the economists today (and even presidents) don’t let the truth stop them from making idle claims. It is interesting to note that, like psychologists, economists adhere to different schools of thought (or ideology if you will). There are the Keynesians, the Austrian School, and others. Frederic Bastiat, a French politician in the 19th century wrote:

“Essentially, economics is the science of determining whether the interests of human beings are harmonious or antagonistic.”

In a way, economics is like psychology because much of it is based on human emotion and interaction, so it should not come as a surprise that economists rally around different schools of thought than reality.

The idea that the government is like Superman coming to save the day is absolutely ludicrous. Time and time again, history has shown us that the government is inept. Yes, they are necessary, but only to a point. The role of government is not to be some big brother making sure you don’t fall and if you happen to fall not only picking you up, but dusting you off and carrying you to bed to rest. Government may provide some programs for people to better themselves by, but for the most part it is not government’s responsibility to make sure you have a roof over head and food on your table – that is called personal responsibility, something that seems to be a foreign concept nowadays. The role of government is to provide a safe environment for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to ensure there are sufficient, but not burdensome, laws to protect society. Government is at its best when it gets out of the way of commerce. Government also wastes a lot of our tax-payer funded time on moral issues like homosexuality, abortion, and gay marriage, and non-political issues like steroids in baseball and the NCAA football championship.

What is now going on is the perversion of the idea of government. President Bush presided over a doubling of our national debt and was at the helm of largest expansion of federal government in decades. Republicans insisted that regulations on financial institutions be relaxed. Democrats forced banks to make bad loans. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates to rock bottom levels. You and I spent more money than we had. Everyone wanted everything now. People borrowed against a home with an inflated value. They ran up their credit cards. People bought houses with no credit, no job, and no money down. Financial instruments like Credit Default Swaps were created. Banks bundled the loans and sold them off only to be sold again by others. The result: a combined $56 trillion debt - $12 trillion for the government and $44 trillion for businesses and individuals. That is approximately four times our annual gross domestic product. How is something like that sustainable? It simply is not.

The government’s response? Pump billions (soon to be trillions, mark my words) into insolvent banks. Spend nearly $1 trillion to get the economy going. It did not work in the 1930’s and it won’t work today. Why? Even though the circumstances are somewhat different, the fundamentals are the same. The banks also don’t trust anyone, especially government, after they got burned for making stupid decisions. They are rightfully (and finally) tightening up credit again. There is no credit crunch. Banks are just getting back to fundamentals. If you don’t have a job you should not be given a loan for a car, let alone a house. The government refuses to understand that the last couple of decades have been built on personal and public debt. The government tries to prop up businesses that should be allowed to fail because they are poorly run (banks and American car companies). The government also refuses to understand that government spending projects do not grow an economy. There needs to be real demand and not more artificial demand based on borrowed money no one has. Once the money is spent to build a road, there is no incentive for that employer to employ that person any more. Once the food stamps are spent, more are needed. Yet, the government, in its infinite wisdom (more like denial), is galloping to the rescue of an empty burning building.

As usual, the government is blind to the consequences of its actions. It cannot think beyond Stage One. “In the Economic Sphere,” Frederic Bastiat wrote:

“An act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.”

To prove his point, Bastiat described what happens when a vandal breaks a shopkeeper’s window. The seen effect is that repairing the glass creates economic value in the payment to the glazier, who then has money to buy a new suit or hire a part-time employee. What is unseen is that the shopkeeper has to pay the glazier with money that he would otherwise have used to buy a suit or add an employee. “The broken-window fallacy, under a hundred disguises, is the most persistent in the history of economics,” wrote the economic journalist Henry Hazlitt in 1946. Another similar parable is Uncle Sam, Cousin Maynard, and the miracle seeds.

There is a hidden cost to everything. It is in the stimulus package and it will be in other legislation that the Obama administration will try to ram through Congress. This so-called stimulus will cost each and every household approximately $6,700 in additional debt, paid for by our children and grandchildren. That does not include the $12 trillion of debt we already have - add each citizen's share of that debt is more than $35,000!

The longer government keeps its blinders on, the more likely the real problems will never get solved and the more likely the future integrity of the U. S. is in doubt. Of course, historians will probably take creative license with Obama’s story and undoubtedly shape it in positive nature, much like they have with Lincoln and FDR.
Photo by KCThinker. My daughter walking along the beach.

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