Power & Market
Through their power to control banking, central banks are unnecessary barriers to commerce. Even those who have spent their entire lives in banking, often in positions of great importance and responsibility, assume that cooperative exchange of goods and services requires a central bank's oversight. But consider a typical trade, whether foreign or domestic. Joe Smith in the US produces widgets. Of course he desires to produce and sell as many as he can at a profit. He has willing buyers in both the US and overseas. Because he manufactures and ships his widgets from the US he is required by legal tender laws to conduct his trade in US dollars. In fact were he to refuse to accept US dollars, by law the buyer could take delivery of Joe Smith's widgets and not pay him at all. But Joe is concerned that the US dollar is being systematically debased by the Federal Reserve Bank and that the dollars he accepts from his sales will depreciate in purchasing power before he can re-employ them to pay for the factors of production to produce more widgets. Therefore, Joe must increase his price to compensate for this currency risk.
But all this changes if the central bank and legal tender laws are eliminated. Joe can accept any form of payment to which he and his buyer agree. Since they both desire to trade, they will use whatever money is the most marketable; i.e., that money that others also will accept willingly. Gradually, sound money will emerge. It may be gold, silver, or something else, but it probably will be a commodity, a certificate (bank note), or account balance that is fully backed by a commodity (one hundred percent reserved).
The commodity itself may be used in hand-to-hand exchange for small, local transactions, but probably most exchange would be conducted no differently than today where electronic tools debit and credit bank accounts. A government controlled central bank is NOT required to settle this transaction. Any honest, private bank could do it and would do it. Nothing more is required than a book entry that increases the gold balance at Joe's bank and decreases the gold balance at his customer's bank, whether foreign or domestic. If Joe and his customer do not use the same bank, a third bank may be involved to settle the transaction. Such a bank is called a "correspondent bank", meaning that both Joe's and his customer's banks have gold accounts there for the purpose of settlement. Many private banks perform this service today, bypassing the Fed.
All trade is conducted by people. The statistics that aggregate a nation's companies' foreign purchases and sales are irrelevant and serve only to perpetuate the fiction that countries trade and not people. This leads to the completely fallacious claim that a nation whose companies and people sell more abroad somehow "wins" or benefits from trade and, likewise, that the nation "loses" if its companies and people in the aggregate buy more abroad than they sell.
This fiction survives only because each nation has a central bank to control foreign exchange and legal tender laws that promote use of its ever-depreciating currency. But if Joe Smith sells widgets to Honda Motors in Japan, each party benefits or the trade would not have occurred. Honda Motors' bank account diminishes by the amount of the purchase and Joe Smith's bank account increases. The reverse would be true if Joe Smith bought raw materials from a Mexican company. If each party benefits as expected from the trade, wealth is increased for the parties involved in the trade. In an unhampered market, of course, there is no need of a national currency or a central bank.
Political Borders Are Irrelevant to Trade
The irrefutable observation that people trade and not nations leads to the epiphany that political borders and politically based trade statistics are irrelevant, meaningless, not necessary, and ultimately harmful. So-called "trade deficit" statistics lead to calls for monetary debasement to spur foreign trade and even protectionist policies to reduce purchases from people and companies in foreign lands. But such trade is no different than buying produce from a local farmer. You and your local farmer both benefit, just as Joe and his Mexican supplier of raw materials benefit. The world is made more prosperous. The truly tragic consequence of keeping national trade statistics is that such irrelevant yet seemingly important data can lead to international tensions. Today we witness our political leaders branding individual nations to be predatory because their people and companies sell more goods to Americans than Americans buy in return. But where is the predation if one ignores national borders? Buying raw materials from Mexico is no different than buying produce from a local farmer.
Misunderstanding International Trade Can Lead to War
As an informative thought experiment consider what would change if Hawaii were not the nation's fiftieth state and had remained a sovereign nation. Would the impact on the US trade balance of the other forty-nine states composing a slightly reduced US have any meaning from the fact that the US purchased pineapples from Hawaiian farmers who now would be branded as foreigners? Of course not! The same is true if Alaska had remained part of Russia and had not been sold to the US during our Civil War. Would our industries be worse off due to the fact that the oil from Alaska was produced by Russian citizens and not American citizens? Of course not! The oil is the same economic benefit, regardless of who produces it. Think this is unimportant? Consider that there is the potential for military conflict in the very far north over future oil exploration. Russians, Canadians, Norwegians and most ominously Americans all claim sovereignty over these heretofore untapped oil reserves and vow to keep out companies headquartered in foreign lands. This is reminiscent of the imperial wars that racked the European powers for centuries as each tried to monopolize world trade. World War II was caused in large part by the Japanese attempt to control all trade in Asia at the expense of the old colonial powers. Since 1945 the Japanese economy has benefited immensely from simple trade without the need to control its trading partners politically. This should be a lesson to today's world leaders, but don't hold your breath.
A world of peace and increasing prosperity depends upon strictly limiting the ability of governments to interfere in international trade through their central banks and legal tender laws. Eliminating both would expose many economic fallacies that purport to characterize international trade as a competition between nations with their own citizens either winners or losers depending upon whether they are net exporters (winners) or net importers (losers). Central banks not only are barriers to trade and prosperity, they are fomenters of international tension and even war. Time to scrap them. Remember, the US did not have a central bank between the Age of Jackson--after President Andrew Jackson was successful in preventing the renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1837--and just prior to the Great War in 1913 when the Federal Reserve System was founded. During this era, despite fighting a civil war, the US economy grew probably at the greatest rate of any economy in the history of the world.
Today Jerome Powell got out of the beltway and enjoyed some southern hospitality at Mississippi Valley State University, speaking at the Hope Enterprise Corporation Rural Policy Forum.
Most of the Fed Chairman’s talk was dedicated to talking about how the Fed could the financial needs of rural areas, a questionable claim considering the direct role central banks have played in increasing wealth inequality. He did, however, provide some additional thoughts on the strength of the US economy as a whole.
In particular, when asked about future risk, he said he did not “feel that the probability of recession is at all elevated.”
What’s interesting is that this claim does not follow the models published by the NY Federal Reserve which shows the current risk of recession at the highest they’ve been since 2008.
(H/T @TexarkanaFed via Twitter)
Of course, given the poor track record of Federal Reserve models, perhaps more useful is that this rosy view of the US economy seems to contradict the recent policy trends from the Powell Fed.
This includes changes to recent FOMC statements and projections about the rate of future rate increases, as well as indicating a willingness to stall the slow normalization of the Fed’s balance sheet that is currently in process. As he said in late January:
We’re listening carefully with – sensitivity to the message that the markets are sending and we’ll be taking those downside risks into account as we make policy going forward...If we came to view that the balance sheet normalization or any other aspect of the normalization was part of the problem, we wouldn’t hesitate to make a change.
Though the statement was made in carefully managed “Fed Speak”, the message it communicated couldn’t have been more clear – particularly since Powell has long been an inner Fed voice concerned about the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. The market understood that Trump finally got the Dovish Federal Reserve that he has spent the last year campaigning for. The day of the announcement was the first in Powell's tenure that the market reacted positively to one of his rate-setting announcements.
Unfortunately for Powell, none of the arguments for “normalizing” monetary policy has changed since Powell first outlined his desires for a slow and gradual wind down. The economic data that the Fed claims to make its decisions off of continue to look strong and the dangers of facing a crisis with the monetary interventionists tools they desire have not gone away. So what has changed? Maybe, just maybe, it’s the perceived risk of a future recession that the Fed’s models, other signals, and a growing legion of economists are projecting.
Of course, in the Chairman’s defense, it would be a mistake to see the Fed’s top role as one of truth teller. The Fed’s job is necessarily a political one, to project an air of confidence and try to maintain confidence in the system. Unfortunately, hot air only goes so far, as Bernanke learned in 2007.
I’ve periodically opined about why politicians should not try to control people’s behavior with discriminatory taxes, such as the ones being imposed on soda.
And I’ve cited some examples of how these taxes backfire.
The big drop in soda purchases after a tax on sugary drinks was imposed in Berkeley.
The big drop in soda sales after a big tax on sugary products in Mexico.
The big drop in soda purchases expected to occur following Seattle’s new tax.
If the following headlines are any indication, we can add Philadelphia to that list.
For instances, this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Or this story from the local CBS affiliate.
These examples reinforce my view that it is not a good idea to let meddling politicians impose more taxes in an effort to control people’s behavior.
Some of my left-leaning friends periodically remind me, however, that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence. There’s a lot of truth to that cautionary observation.
To be sure, I could simply respond by saying a pattern is evident when a couple of anecdotes turns into dozens of anecdotes. And when dozens become hundreds, surely it’s possible to say the pattern shows causality.
That being said, it is good to have rigorous, statistics-based analysis if we really want to convince skeptics.
So let’s look at the results of some new academic research from scholars at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Minnesota. We’ll start with the abstract, which nicely summarizes their findings about the impact of Philadelphia’s big soda tax.
We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beveragesfor a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely o↵sets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.
Here are some of their conclusions.
We draw several lessons about the effectiveness of local sweetened-beverage taxes from these analyses. First, the tax was ineffective at reducing consumption of unhealthy products. Second, in terms of revenue generation, the tax was only partly effective due to consumers substituting to stores outside of Philadelphia. Third, low income households are less likely to engage in cross-shopping, and instead are more likely to continue to purchase taxed products at a higher price at stores in Philadelphia. The lower propensity for low income households to avoid the tax through cross-shopping leads to a relatively larger tax burden for those households. In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue.
If you’re wondering why consumers responded so strongly, here’s a chart from the study showing the price difference after the tax was imposed.
The bottom numbers in Figure 3 show that some sales still occurred in the city, but a persistent gap between city sales and suburban sales appeared.
And here’s what happened to sales inside the city (taxed) and outside the city (untaxed).
Wow. This data makes me wonder if suburban sellers will start contributing to the Philadelphia politicians who have generated this windfall?
Others have noticed how the tax is hurting rather than helping.
The Wall Street Journal opined about the failure of Philly’s soda tax.
When Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would improve public health while funding universal pre-K. Two years in, the policy hasn’t delivered on that elite ideological goal. But the tax has come at the expense of working people… On Jan. 2, Brown’s Super Stores announced the closure of a ShopRite on Haverford Avenue. The supermarket is close to the city limit, and customers discovered they could avoid the soda tax by shopping outside Philly. …the once-profitable store began losing about $1 million a year. …That means fewer opportunities for workers with a criminal record. Mr. Brown’s supermarkets employ more than 600 of them, with the majority in Philadelphia. Some of the ex-cons have become his most-valued employees.
And Kyle Smith explained in National Review how the tax backfired.
Philadelphia’s outlandish soda tax is what Democratic-party politics looks like when it lets its freak flag fly. So many classic elements are there: (failed) social engineering and “think of the children!” on one side, paid for with a punitive tax on poor people and destroyed businesses, which means destroyed jobs, which in turn means lives upended. …Now that beer is, in some cases, cheaper than soda in Philadelphia, alcohol sales are up sharply. …the total loss attributable to the tax in sales of all items was $300,000 a month per store. Other, untaxed drinks also suffered sales declines within the city, suggesting people were simply saving up their shopping trips for when they left town.
I don’t feel compelled to add much to what’s been cited.
Though I will cite a headline from the Seattle Times to reinforce one of the points in the academic study about consumers bearing the cost of the tax rather than the soda companies.
And my one modest contribution to all this analysis is this comparison of the winners and loser from Philadelphia’s new tax.
Originally published at International Liberty
Mises Institute Fellow Patrick Newman recently joined the Age of Jackson podcast to discuss Murray Rothbard's The Panic of 1819.
Topics discussed on the show include Rothbard's analysis of the panic, why he believed it to be the best received of his books among his profession, and why it remains one of the most cited works on the era.
The online magazine Aeon currently features an outstanding article from our scholars Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss on the trend toward "bossless" business structures. Far from being redundant middlemen, they argue, good managers are needed more than ever even in firms that aspire to flat, decentralized, and democratic organization.
Klein and Foss challenge the idea that managers will become obsolete, replaced by self-directed and super connected knowledge workers:
This movement is gaining steam for a couple of reasons. First, the bossless-company model arguably captures some tendencies, however inaccurately. Second, it is very much part of the 21st-century Zeitgeist in its emphasis on personal development, resilience and fulfilment through empowering employees, and decentralised and democratic decision processes. There is also a strong moralistic and political undertone to the narrative; in Private Government (2017), the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that firms are effectively totalitarian states, enjoying rights and privileges that would be unconstitutional for ordinary states to impose on their citizens. The historian Caitlin Rosenthal has argued that the factory system, hierarchy and managerial authority are partly derived from the slave system. What can be more morally defensible than getting rid of the remnants of slavery?
Unfortunately, the bossless-company narrative is dead wrong. It misunderstands the nature of management, which isn’t going away, and it is based on questionable evidence. Given these fundamental defects, this narrative is potentially harmful to managers, students and policymakers.
Are the benefits of technology in assembling and organizing modern firms oversold?
While technological miracles such as the internet, cheap and reliable wireless communication, Moore’s law, miniaturisation and information markets have induced sweeping changes in manufacturing, retail, transportation and communication, the laws of economics are still the laws of economics. And human nature hasn’t changed. The basic problem of management and business – how to assemble, organise and motivate groups of people and resources to produce goods and services that consumers want – is still the same. Since the industrial revolution, entrepreneurs have been organising extremely complex activities in firms that are neither completely centralised nor completely flat. Imagine the complexity involved in operating a national railroad, a steel mill or an automobile assembly plant in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These were all ‘knowledge-based activities’ and were conducted in teams organised in various structures. Are things so different today?
In short, today’s business landscape features exciting developments in information technology, networking and collaboration that have led to new forms of organisation, production and distribution. Far from making management obsolete, however, these changes make good management more important than ever. The shift from management as direction to management as making and enforcing the rules is slowly entering the management literature and the business-school curriculum. That’s a paradigm shift worth embracing.
This is a must-read article for anyone interested in the very hot topic of business management in the 21st century.
Following last February's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, some students claimed local government officials were at fault for failing to provide protection to students. The students filed suit, naming six defendants, including the Broward school district and the Broward Sheriff’s Office , as well as school deputy Scot Peterson and campus monitor Andrew Medina.
On Monday, though, a federal judge ruled that the government agencies " had no constitutional duty to protect students who were not in custody."
This latest decision adds to a growing body of case law establishing that government agencies — including police agencies — have no duty to provide protection to citizens in general:
“Neither the Constitution, nor state law, impose a general duty upon police officers or other governmental officials to protect individual persons from harm — even when they know the harm will occur,” said Darren L. Hutchinson, a professor and associate dean at the University of Florida School of Law. “Police can watch someone attack you, refuse to intervene and not violate the Constitution.”
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government has only a duty to protect persons who are “in custody,” he pointed out.
Moreover, even though the state of Florida has compulsory schooling laws, the students themselves are not "in custody":
“Courts have rejected the argument that students are in custody of school officials while they are on campus,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “Custody is narrowly confined to situations where a person loses his or her freedom to move freely and seek assistance on their own — such as prisons, jails, or mental institutions.”
Hutchinson is right.
The US Supreme Court has made it clear that law enforcement agencies are not required to provide protection to the citizens who are forced to pay the police for their "services."
In the cases DeShaney vs. Winnebago and Town of Castle Rock vs. Gonzales, the supreme court has ruled that police agencies are not obligated to provide protection of citizens. In other words, police are well within their rights to pick and choose when to intervene to protect the lives and property of others — even when a threat is apparent.
In both of these court cases, clear and repeated threats were made against the safety of children — but government agencies chose to take no action.
A consideration of these facts does not necessarily lead us to the conclusion that law enforcement agencies are somehow on the hook for every violent act committed by private citizens.
This reality does belie the often-made claim, however, that police agencies deserve the tax money and obedience of local citizens because the agencies "keep us safe."
Nevertheless, we are told there is an agreement here — a "social contract" — between government agencies and the taxpayers and citizens.
And, by the very nature of being a contract, we are meant to believe this is a two-way street. The taxpayers are required to submit to a government monopoly on force, and to pay these agencies taxes.
In return, these government agents will provide services. In the case of police agencies, these services are summed up by the phrase "to protect and serve" — a motto that has in recent decades been adopted by numerous police agencies.
But what happens when those police agencies don't protect and serve? That is, what happens when one party in this alleged social contract doesn't keep up its end of the bargain.
The answer is: very little.
The taxpayers will still have to pay their taxes and submit to police agencies as lawful authority. If the agencies or individual agents are forced to pay as a result of lawsuits, it's the taxpayers who will pay for that too.
Oh sure, the senior leadership positions may change, but the enormous agency budgets will remain, the government agents themselves will continue to collect generous salaries and pensions, and no government will surrender its monopoly on the use of force.
Unsurprisingly, these large fiscal burdens have resulted in anemic economic performance, which helps to explain why middle-class French taxpayers launched nationwide protests in response to a big increase in fuel taxes.
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, capitulated.
But some have suggested that Macron’s problem is that he wasn’t sufficiently bold.
I’m not joking. Led by Thomas Piketty, a few dozen European leftists have issued a Manifesto for bigger government.
We, European citizens, from different backgrounds and countries, are today launching this appeal for the in-depth transformation of the European institutions and policies. This Manifesto contains concrete proposals, in particular a project for a Democratization Treaty and a Budget Project… Our proposals are based on the creation of a Budget for democratization which would be debated and voted by a sovereign European Assembly. …This Budget, if the European Assembly so desires, will be financed by four major European taxes, the tangible markers of this European solidarity. These will apply to the profits of major firms, the top incomes (over 200,000 Euros per annum), the highest wealth owners (over 1 million Euros) and the carbon emissions (with a minimum price of 30 Euros per tonne).
Here are the taxes they propose as part of their plan to expand the burden of government spending.
I’m surprised they didn’t include a tax on financial transactions.
And here’s a video (in French, but with English subtitles) explaining their scheme.
To put it mildly, this plan is absurd. It would impose another layer of governmentand another layer of tax on a continent that already is suffocating because the public sector is too large.
I’m not the only one with concerns.
In a column for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky points out why he is underwhelmed by Piketty’s proposal.
The reforms proposed by Piketty and a group of intellectuals and politicians — notably Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s leftist Podemos party — include the creation of a European Assembly. It would have the power to shape a common budget and impose common taxes…Piketty advocates four measures that would collect a total equivalent to 4 percent of Europe’s GDP… What is being proposed is essentially a return to the fiscal policies of the 1970s, which provoked Astrid Lindgren to write her satirical essay “Pomperipossa in Monismania.” In 1976, the children’s author was confronted with a tax bill of 102 percent of her income. …Hit them with new taxes and watch them flee to the U.S. and Asia. They won’t stay like patriotic Lindgren, whose essay helped to topple the Swedish government in 1976. And no amount of government funding…will repair the damage that envy-based taxation can wreak on economies already finding it hard to innovate.
Let’s not forget, by the way, the many thousands of French households who also have suffered 100 percent-plus tax rates.
But let’s not digress.
Writing for CapX, John Ashmore explains why Piketty’s plan will make Europe’s problems even worse.
…a group of politicians, academics and policy wonks spearheaded by…French economist Thomas Piketty…have put their names to a new Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe. …For the most part, the manifesto reads like a souped up version of the kind of policies we’ve heard time and again from leftwing politicians. …The details of today’s ‘manifesto’ make Labour’s Marxist Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell look like a moderate centrist. Where Labour advocate putting corporation tax back up to 26 per cent, Piketty and co want it hiked to 37 per cent. And while we Brits spent plenty of the Coalition years discussing whether income tax should be 45p or 50p in the pound, the Manifesto goes all guns blazing for a 65 per cent top rate… these measures are projected to raise 800bn euros, equivalent to four times the current EU budget. …that would be a huge transfer of power, not from the rich from the poor, but from taxpayers to politicians.
Moreover, based on America’s experience during the Reagan years, it’s safe to say that actual tax receipts would fall far, far short of the projection.
But the higher spending would be real, as would the inevitable increase in red ink. And it’s worth noting that the Manifesto proposes to subsidize the debt of bankrupt welfare states. Very much akin to the eurobond scheme, which I pointed out would be like cosigning a loan for an unemployed alcoholic with a gambling addiction.
P.S. During my recent trip to London, I repeatedly warned people that a real Brexit was the only sensible choice because the European Union at some point will fully morph into a transfer union (i.e., a European budget financed by European taxes). It was nice of Piketty to issue a Manifesto that confirms my concerns. Simply stated, the United Kingdom will be much better off in the long run if it escapes.
Originally published at International Liberty
It’s not often that US Government officials are honest when they talk about our foreign policy. The unprovoked 2003 attack on Iraq was called a “liberation.” The 2011 US-led destruction of Libya was a “humanitarian intervention.” And so on.
So, in a way, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was refreshingly honest last week when, speaking about newly-imposed US sanctions, he told the BBC that the Iranian leadership “has to make a decision that they want their people to eat." It was an honest admission that new US sanctions are designed to starve Iranians unless the Iranian leadership accepts US demands.
His statement also reveals the lengths to which the neocons are willing to go to get their “regime change” in Iran. Just like then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it was “worth it” that half a million Iraqi children died because of our sanctions on that country, Pompeo is letting us know that a few million dead Iranians is also “worth it” if the government in Tehran can be overthrown.
The US Secretary of State has demanded that Iran “act like a normal country” or the US would continue its pressure until Iran’s economy crumbles. How twisted is US foreign policy that Washington considers it “normal” to impose sanctions specifically designed to make life miserable – or worse – for civilians!
Is it normal to threaten millions of people with starvation if their leaders refuse to bow down to US demands? Is the neoconservative obsession with regime change “normal” behavior? Is training and arming al-Qaeda in Syria to overthrow Assad “normal” behavior? If so, then perhaps Washington’s neocons have a point. As Iran is not imposing sanctions, is not invading its neighbors, is not threatening to starve millions of Americans unless Washington is “regime-changed,” perhaps Iran is not acting “normal.”
So what is normal?
The continued Saudi genocide in Yemen does not bother Washington a bit. In fact, Saudi aggression in Yemen is viewed as just another opportunity to strike out at Iran. By making phony claims that Yemen’s Houthis are “Iran-backed,” the US government justifies literally handing the Saudis the bombs to drop on Yemeni school busses while claiming it is fighting Iranian-backed terrorism! Is that “normal”?
Millions of Yemenis face starvation after three years of Saudi attacks have destroyed the economy and a Saudi blockade prohibits aid from reaching the suffering victims, but Secretary Pompeo recently blamed Yemeni starvation on, you guessed it: Iran!
And in a shocking display of cynicism, the US government is reportedly considering listing Yemen’s Houthis as a “terrorist” organization for the “crime” of fighting back against Saudi (and US) aggression. Labeling the Yemeni resistance a “terrorist” organization would effectively “legalize” the ongoing Saudi destruction of Yemen, as it could be justified as just another battle in the “war on terror.” It would also falsely identify the real culprits in the Yemen tragedy as Iran, which is repeatedly and falsely called the “number one sponsor of terrorism” by Pompeo and the rest of the Trump Administration neocons.
So yes, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told one wicked truth last week. But before he demands that countries like Iran start acting “normal” or face starvation, perhaps he should look in the mirror. Are Pompeo and the neocons “normal”? I don’t think so.
Paul Volcker, the cigar smoking former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, literally and figuratively towers over his successors (he is reportedly 6'7"). Mr. Volcker is the the last Chair under whose tenure American savers could earn a decent rate of interest, the last Chair who demonstrated any meaningful political independence (clashing with presidents Carter and Reagan), the last Chair who really hated inflation, and the last Chair who eschewed the technocratic management of monetary policy. He's the last of the old-guard central bankers who saw monetary policy as a regulator and not a stimulus machine. As bad as he was on gold—as an undersecretary in Nixon's Treasury department he advocated the suspension of gold convertibility— Volcker was a gut-level banker who understood complex markets but also the concerns of average people. He was never a policy wonk with his head in the clouds.
Still active and robust at 91, he's written a new memoir documenting his long tenure at the central bank. If his comments (excerpted from the book) in this recent Bloomberg opinion piece are any indication, it should be a welcome refutation of technocratic monetary policy by his successors—particularly when it comes to the current bizarro-world understanding of inflation and deflation:
More recently, a remarkable consensus has developed among central bankers that there’s a new “red line” for policy: A 2 percent rate of increase in some carefully designed consumer price index is acceptable, even desirable, and at the same time provides a limit.
I puzzle about the rationale. A 2 percent target, or limit, was not in my textbooks years ago. I know of no theoretical justification. It’s difficult to be both a target and a limit at the same time. And a 2 percent inflation rate, successfully maintained, would mean the price level doubles in little more than a generation.
Who else in the world of central banking even mentions inflation these days, other than to tell us it's not a problem? Do any Fed or ECB economists think doubling prices on consumer goods every couple of decades is a good thing? Why do today's policy makers think prices are rising too slowly, a position totally at odds with the public? Volcker points out the absurdity of their thinking:
Yet, as I write, with economic growth rising and the unemployment rate near historic lows, concerns are being voiced that consumer prices are growing too slowly — just because they’re a quarter percent or so below the 2 percent target! Could that be a signal to “ease” monetary policy, or at least to delay restraint, even with the economy at full employment?
Certainly, that would be nonsense. How did central bankers fall into the trap of assigning such weight to tiny changes in a single statistic, with all of its inherent weakness?
Perhaps an increase to 3 percent to provide a slight stimulus if the economy seems too sluggish? And, if 3 percent isn’t enough, why not 4 percent?
I’m not making this up. I read such ideas voiced occasionally by Fed officials or economists at the International Monetary Fund, and more frequently from economics professors. In Japan, it seems to be the new gospel. I have yet to hear, in the midst of a strong economy, that maybe the inflation target should be reduced!
He also provides some very clear thinking about the bogeyman known as deflation. Systemic crises, in the form of deep recessions, are the danger—not falling prices. Of course deep recessions are deflationary, as banks, businesses, and households shed debt and lower consumption. But loose monetary policy, not Volckerian rate hiking, creates the biggest risk of a future systemic crises:
The lesson, to me, is crystal clear. Deflation is a threat posed by a critical breakdown of the financial system. Slow growth and recurrent recessions without systemic financial disturbances, even the big recessions of 1975 and 1982, have not posed such a risk.
The real danger comes from encouraging or inadvertently tolerating rising inflation and its close cousin of extreme speculation and risk taking, in effect standing by while bubbles and excesses threaten financial markets. Ironically, the “easy money,” striving for a “little inflation” as a means of forestalling deflation, could, in the end, be what brings it about.
Mr. Volcker's memoirs hopefully will serve as a much-needed corrective against the inanity of monetary policy today and a warning against the folly of what Nomi Prins calls "financial alchemy," the false belief that central bankers can conjure up prosperity using technical wizardry. Production, productivity increases, profit, and investment are the only way to create a truly prosperous and sustainable economy, and no amount of policy tinkering can change this. Volcker is not an Austrian, but he is someone who understands the threat to America's economic future posed by disconnected central bank policies. Fed officials, current and former, would be well-served to worry less about Donald Trump's tweets and more about their own reputations. As R. Christopher Whalen reminds us in this excellent analysis, "the greatest threat to the central bank’s existence is the tendency of Fed governors and economists to pursue abstract economic theories that make no sense in real world terms and often do more harm than good."
Let's hope Jay Powell reads Mr. Volcker's book.