Power & Market
Last week the United States, Mexico, and Canada agreed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with a new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Sadly, instead of replacing NAFTA’s managed trade with true free trade, the new USMCA expands government’s control over trade.
For example, under the USMCA’s “rules of origin,” at least 75 percent of a car’s parts must be from the US, Canada, or Mexico in order to avoid tariffs. This is protectionism designed to raise prices of cars using materials from outside North America.
The USMCA also requires that 40 to 45 percent of an automobile’s content be made by workers earning at least 16 dollars per hour. Like all government-set wages, this requirement will increase prices and decrease employment.
The USMCA also requires Mexico to pass legislation recognizing the “right of collective bargaining.” In other words, this so-called free trade agreement forces Mexico to import US-style compulsory unionism. If the Mexican legislature does not comply, the US and Canada will impose tariffs on Mexican goods.
The USMCA also requires the three countries to abide by the International Labour Organization (ILO) standards for worker rights. So, if, for example, the bureaucrats at the ILO declared that Right to Work laws violate “international labor standards”’ because they weaken collective bargaining and give Right to Work states an unfair advantage over compulsory unionism states and countries, the federal government may have to nullify all state Right to Work laws.
The USMCA also obligates the three countries to work together to improve air quality. This sounds harmless but could be used as a backdoor way to impose costly new regulations and taxes, such as a cap-and-trade scheme, on America.
This agreement also forbids the use of currency devaluation as a means of attempting to gain a competitive advantage in international trade. Enforcement of this provision will be difficult if not impossible, as no central bank will ever admit it is devaluing currency to obtain a competitive advantage in international trade. Of course, given that the very act of creating money lowers its value, the only way to stop central banks from devaluing currency is to put them out of business. Sadly, I don’t think the drafters of the USMCA seek to restore free-market money.
The currency provision will likely be used to justify coordination of monetary policy between the Federal Reserve and the Mexican and Canadian central banks. This will lead to region-wide inflation and a global currency war as the US pressures Mexico and Canada to help the Fed counter other countries’ alleged currency manipulation and challenges to the dollar’s reserve currency status.
A true free trade deal would simply reduce or eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers. It would not dictate wages and labor standards, or require inter-governmental cooperation on environmental standards and monetary policy. A true free trade deal also would not, as the USMCA does, list acceptable names for types of cheeses.
Those of us who support real free trade must not let supporters of the USMCA get away with claiming the USMCA has anything to do with free trade. We must also fight the forces of protectionism that are threatening to start a destructive trade war. Also, we must work to stop the government from trying to control our economic activities through regulations, taxes, and (most importantly) control of the currency through central banking and legal tender laws.
“In the long run we are all dead.”
This famous retort of the most influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes, was meant as a rebuttal to the views of the classical or free market economists. The entire quote reads:
But the long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again. [A Tract on Monetary Reform, p. 80]
Unfortunately, most rejoinders to this quote from Keynes have focused on the value of long-term thinking in economic analysis, when in fact; the issue is just as surely the nature of the analogy itself. And since most casual readers of Keynes’s quote will be taken with the clever and telling point regarding the thought of economists, it has persuasive power.
But if we are to stop would-be Keynesian propagandists from scoring points with the phrase we must reveal the sleight of hand concealed therein. The nature of this sleight of hand is to take an event occurring in nature, a storm, and treating a depression as if it, too, were an equally and randomly occurring event of nature.
So, while a storm may be a natural occurrence, this is not the case with an economic depression. A depression is caused by intervention into the economy in the form of monetary expansion — hence the boom preceding the bust. With this kept closely in mind we can rephrase Keynes’ quote using an act of human shortsightedness that will render Keynes’ cleverness the thinking of fools:
Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in the case of an extensive drinking binge they can only tell us that once the alcohol’s effect is long past the drinker will feel better again.
It becomes very evident why Keynes chose his particular example for ridiculing long-run thinking economists. By rendering the depression as analogous to a storm at sea, Keynes has taken all focus off the act — artificially increasing the money supply and thus lowering interest rates so that malinvestments accumulate — leading up to the consequences of that act, and thus is relieved of any analysis of the activity which would result in an economic depression.
The Royal Academy made a clear political statement with this year's Nobel Prize in economics. Coming a day after the United Nations panel on climate change issued its dire warning on climate change, this award attempts to emphasize the long term impact of climate change on the economy and economic growth. In Mr. Nordhaus case, he emphasizes how climate change has a significant economic cost. In Mr. Romer's case, he emphasizes how government-stimulated research and technology can be used to address issues such as climate change while enhancing economic growth. They both believe government policy is the key.
The problem here is what we know and what we do not know. What we know is that the climate has always been changing billions of years before humans ever showed up. We know that the climate is changing and that it will continue to change. What we don't know much about is what causes the various changes, what the direction of change is, and whether that change will be good or bad for humans and the economy. We certainly do not know how to control the climate and some our futile efforts, such as electric cars and carbon taxes, have little conceivable impact on climate change and are costly. With President Trump relaxing environmental regulations and pulling out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, this year's award should be viewed as anti-Trump statement by the Academy.
The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is a dubious thing at best.
First, it's not a "real" Nobel Prize in the sense the Nobel Foundation neither chooses nor pays the recipient(s). Technically, it's the "Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel." The award itself is of checkered provenance, created by Swedish central bankers hoping to bolster the scientific image of economics. It's chosen by committee members who purposely apply the same principles used to determine winners in medicine, physics, and chemistry, thereby hoping the public won't much notice its lack of connection to the late Alfred Nobel (or his surviving family, one of whom blasted the prize as a PR effort designed to improve the bad reputation of economists).
More importantly, though, the "Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess," as none other than Friedrich Hayek exclaimed in his own remarkable acceptance speech upon receiving the award in 1974.
In Hayek's view, the Prize threatened to create an aura of hard science certainty around the decidedly social science of economics. This veneer, he worried, would influence both government officials and the public to view economic theory more like laws of physics or properties of molecules.
This was dangerous, in the view of a man who had seen Europe and Russia collapse under "scientific" socialism and written extensively about political economy in The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty. He understood the deadly combination of hubris and certainty, and hoped to impress upon the audience that economics remained a discipline that studied humans, with all their irrationalities and frailties. In this sense he demonstrated the degree of respect he still had for the praxeological foundation of his then recently-departed old mentor Ludwig von Mises.
Murray Rothbard, writing in Human Events, had fulsome praise for Hayek as the surprise winner who eschewed the mathematical orientation of previous recipients:
The Nobel award comes as a surprise on two counts. Not only because all the previous Nobel Prizes in economics have gone to left-liberals and opponents of the free market, but also because they have gone uniformly to economists who have transformed the discipline into a supposed "science" filled with mathematical jargon and unrealistic "models" which are then used to criticize the free-enterprise system and to attempt to plan the economy by the central government.
F.A. Hayek is not only the leading free-market economist; he has also led the way in attacking the mathematical models and the planning pretensions of the would-be "scientists," and in integrating economics into a wider libertarian social philosophy. Both concepts have so far been anathema to the Nobel establishment.
Rothbard saw Hayek's achievement not only as a refutation of the Keynesian orthodoxy regarding stumulative monetary policy, but also as a demolition of the whole socialist political program flowing from Keynes's followers:
The political prescription that flows from the Hayekian theory is, of course, the diametric opposite of the Keynesian: stop the artificial inflationary boom, and allow the recession to proceed as fast as possible with its work of readjustment. Postponement and government attempts to stop or interfere with the recession process will only drag out and intensify the agony and lead to our current and probably future turmoil of inflation combined with lengthy recession and depression. The Mises-Hayek analysis is not only the only cogent theory of the business cycle; it is the only comprehensive free-market answer to the Keynesian morass of government planning and "fine tuning" that we are suffering from today.
But F.A. Hayek did not stop with this monumental contribution to economics. In the 1940s he widened his approach to the entire area of political economy. In his best-selling Road to Serfdom (1944) he challenged the prosocialist and pro-Communist intellectual climate of the day, showing how socialist planning must inevitably lead to totalitarianism, and demonstrating examples in the way in which the socialistic Weimar Republic paved the way for Hitler. He also showed how the "worst always get to the top" in a statist society.
So today let us celebrate Friedrich Hayek, the reluctant and worthy Nobel winner—rather than an economist who once wrote this, in a textbook no less:
The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.
Why is this nomination the subject of such rancor?
I have argued countless times that the federal government has grossly exceeded the limitations the Constitution imposes on it. Wherever you are as you read these words, look around you and try to find something in your line of sight that is not regulated by the federal government. It will be nearly impossible. Today the feds regulate not only our personal private behavior but also the states that created the federal government. More than half of each state’s budgetary expenditures are mandated by the feds.
And passing final judgment on all this — ratifying the Wilsonian view of the federal government (the feds may do whatever there is a political will to do, except that which the Constitution expressly prohibits) and eschewing the Madisonian view (the feds may do only what the Constitution expressly authorizes) — is the Supreme Court.
As the reach of federal power has expanded, the power of the Supreme Court to restrain or unleash that reach has expanded. Add to this the life tenure of Supreme Court justices and the mania for re-election of members of Congress and you can recognize the slow transfer of governmental power from the elected branches to the unelected one.
Should the right to life and the extent of the imperial presidency and whether the government is obligated to provide health care be decided by elected representatives or by the Supreme Court? From those who expect the high court to decide these issues — a court now evenly split, 4 to 4, along ideological lines — is it any wonder the Kavanaugh nomination is worth a bitter battle?
The Supreme Court should not be political. It is the anti-democratic branch of government. Its constitutional obligation is not to do the people’s will but to preserve personal liberty from the tyranny of the majority.
Excerpted from Treating the Court as a Political Branch
This week we witnessed the horrible spectacle of Nikki Haley, President Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, joining a protest outside the UN building and calling for the people of Venezuela to overthrow their government.
“We are going to fight for Venezuela,” she shouted through a megaphone, “we are going to continue doing it until Maduro is gone.”
This is the neocon mindset: that somehow the US has the authority to tell the rest of the world how to live and who may hold political power regardless of elections.
After more than a year of Washington being crippled by evidence-free claims that the Russians have influenced our elections, we have a senior US Administration official openly calling for the overturning of elections overseas.
Imagine if President Putin’s national security advisor had grabbed a megaphone in New York and called for the people of the United States to overthrow their government by force!
At the UN, Venezuela’s President Maduro accused the Western media of hyping up the crisis in his country to push the cause for another “humanitarian intervention.” Some may laugh at such a claim, but recent history shows that interventionists lie to push regime change, and the media goes right along with the lies.
Remember the lies about Gaddafi giving Viagra to his troops to help them rape their way through Libya? Remember the “babies thrown from incubators” and “mobile chemical labs” in Iraq? Judging from past practice, there is probably some truth in Maduro’s claims.
We know socialism does not work. It is an economic system based on the use of force rather than economic freedom of choice. But while many Americans seem to be in a panic over the failures of socialism in Venezuela, they don’t seem all that concerned that right here at home President Trump just signed a massive $1.3 trillion dollar spending bill that delivers socialism on a scale that Venezuelans couldn’t even imagine. In fact this one spending bill is three times Venezuela’s entire gross domestic product!
Did I miss all the Americans protesting this warfare-welfare state socialism?
Why all the neocon and humanitarian-interventionist “concern” for the people of Venezuela? One clue might be the fact that Venezuela happens to be sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves. More even than Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of countries pursuing dumb economic policies that result in plenty of suffering, but Nikki and the neocons are nowhere to be found when it comes to “concern” for these people. Might it be a bit about this oil?
Don’t believe this feigned interest in helping the Venezuelan people. If Washington really cared about Venezuelans they would not be plotting regime change for the country, considering that each such “liberation” elsewhere has ended with the people being worse off than before!
The “libertarian socialists” have struck again.
It began when a state Libertarian Party chapter posted a link to a court decision about an employer that did not allow its employees to have dreadlocks.
This was “discrimination,” the suit against it alleged.
Not so, said the court. The “race-neutral grooming policy,” it declared, was not discriminatory, since a hairstyle, unlike a racial identity, is not an “immutable physical characteristic.” Therefore, an employer is at liberty to enforce such a requirement.
Now that isn’t quite how a libertarian would argue the question, since the crux of the matter is that no contract should be entered into unless both sides agree to its terms, period. The employer may offer terms, and the employee may offer terms. If one side offers terms the other opposes, then they go their separate ways and find people willing to engage with them on terms they prefer.
This is also how we deal with the notorious “bake the cake” case. If the baker prefers not to bake the cake, that ends the discussion. Violently forcing him to bake the cake is out of the question. The Supreme Court may spend its time tying itself in knots analyzing whether cakes themselves are endorsements of relationships, or just the icing on them, or whether a cake is a form of expression, or whatever. We libertarians don’t need any of that nonsense.
All the same, the court reached the correct decision in the dreadlocks case from a libertarian point of view. Not a “right-wing libertarian” point of view, mind you, but a plain-vanilla libertarian one.
Now enter one of the two or three spokesmen for a group calling itself “libertarian socialists” that wants to get a foothold within the Libertarian Party.
He is not happy about this decision at all.
Let’s go one passage at a time.
“This is an affront to the principle of equal liberty. Using financial leverage to compel another human to change their [sic] hair is an initiation of coercive fraud, and the lie is that hair has anything to do with job performance whatsoever.”
Well, whatever “the principle of equal liberty” is, it sure ought to mean that every person is equally entitled to make offers to any other person. It surely cannot mean that any person must be compelled to accept another person’s offer, because that compulsion would violate the former’s “equal liberty.”
Next sentence: “Using financial leverage to compel another human to change their [sic] hair is an initiation of coercive fraud.” (As opposed to voluntary fraud?) By “financial leverage,” the libertarian socialist (we’ll call him LS) means that workers are helpless and without options, and employers wield a kind of coercion over them by threatening not to employ them. This is not really how libertarians view what happens on the market, though it is the way Marxists look at it.
Then LS insists that dreadlocks have no effect on job performance. Irrelevant, of course. People are free to make whatever offers they want, and other people are free to accept or reject those offers. That is the bottom line.
It is not reasonable to expect LS to be able to vet everybody’s job requirements to see if they win his approval. Some requirements have obvious connections to the work involved, and some have more obscure connections that may be more difficult to articulate. But even if the employer should demand that all employees wear a funny hat, that demand is perfectly compatible with libertarianism.
Then we read:
“Libertarians build our viewpoints around maximizing individual liberty, not who holds a magic piece of paper that purports to give them power over others in the name of state-sanctioned economic order. This is a gross violation of the individual and a racist one at that.”
Well, that’s nice: an employment contract is being sniffed at as a “magic piece of paper” that “purports to give [employers] power over others.” Oh, and by “a state-sanctioned economic order” (this is supposed to scare us because the word “state” appears) LS means the state’s occasional defense of private property. So private property and labor contracts are to be viewed as unnatural, and in upholding and defending them the state is violating the natural order (as opposed to doing what would occur anyway in the absence of the state, which is how libertarians look at it).
LS then says a condition for employment involving hair is “a gross violation of the individual.” Forcibly requiring the company to amend its employment requirements, however, would evidently not be a violation, since companies have no rights.
He concludes with this:
“I am sad and embarrassed, but not really surprised to see right-wing ‘libertarians’ celebrating white supremacy openly in the name of markets.”
(Man, what constitutes “white supremacy” sure has come down a few pegs, hasn’t it? It’s almost like hysterical people use the term to refer to just about anything.)
It isn’t “right-wing libertarians” who are “celebrating” this ruling. First, I think the ruling is too wimpy, so “celebrating” is too strong a word. More importantly, all libertarians believe in mutual consent, which means we are all free to offer whatever we like to anyone we’d like to offer it to, and that party is in turn at liberty to accept or reject our offer.
We do not favor threatening people with physical force just because we do not approve of the terms they are offering.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of confusion that so-called “libertarian socialists” are seeking to introduce into more or less everything.
And note well: the word property appears nowhere in the LS complaint. Probably not a coincidence.
After last week’s explosive congressional hearing, the Senate and the Trump administration agreed to reopen the FBI background check into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Former FBI chief James Comey wrote Sunday that “the F.B.I. is up for this” because it is “full” of "people who just want to figure out what’s true."
But truth has often been a scarce commodity in FBI investigations. Consider these cases stretching back decades:
The Federal Reserve today raised the the Federal Funds Rate to a target/range of 2.0-2.25 percent:
According to Business Insider:
The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday, after a two-day policy meeting, that it would raise interest rates for the third time this year.
The decision, which had been widely expected, raised the federal funds rate by 25 basis points, to a range of 2% to 2.25%.
It was the eighth time the Federal Open Market Committee has raised borrowing costs since late 2015. It held rates near zero after the Great Recession to speed up the economic recovery.
Accordingly, the Fed removed language in its statement that had characterized its policy as "accommodative." Still, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at a press conference that the Fed did not have a precise estimate of where accommodation ends.
A look at rates over time shows that at 2.25 percent, the Federal Funds Rate has not been this high since January of 2005. At the time, however, the Fed still had more than two-and-a-half years before indications of an imminent recession led the Fed to begin cutting rates again in September of 2007. Rates peaked during the last cycle at 5.25 percent for 15 months.
It remains to be seen if the Fed will have a similarly broad period of time during which to "normalize" rates after more than seven years of a near-zero target rate. The Fed's pledge to "unwind" its extremely accommodative monetary policy is still a long way from coming to tuition. The Fed's balance sheet, after all, remains enormous by historical standards:
Moreover, if a recession begins within the next year, the Fed will find itself in a place where it will want to pursue "stimulus" by slashing the target rate, but will have to cut rates from a starting point of around 3 percent. That leave considerably less room to move than it had when the target rate was over five percent in 2007.
Given that most everyone expects the Fed to continue with its practice of buying up assets for stimulus purposes, it will then need to add "underpriced" assets to an existing portfolio of over 3 trillions dollars — even assuming the Fed manages to shed a sizable amount of its portfolio over the next year.
Such moves would be unprecedented in the history of American central banking, and we may get to find out what happens if the Fed tries it.
Note: for additional context, here's a longer time horizon on the federal funds rate levels. In recent years, the federal funds rate has been spending more and more time at rock-bottom levels, and with a result of arguably more anemic growth in real incomes.