Bootleggers and Baptists: XLIX- Keynesianism, Stimulus, and Political Manipulation

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Frequently in economics, the views of a specific theorist are exploited for the interests of various political factions. The most salient examples are economic theorists are labeled as “free market” economists. Conservatives generally celebrate Adam Smith as a defender of unfettered commerce but conveniently ignore his concern for the blight of the poor. Smith was too multidimensional to be distilled to a simplistic bumper sticker slogan. The great F.A, Hayek suffered from a similar syndrome as many Conservative and Libertarian pundits disregard the nuances of his work and paint him as radical. However, there are also instances of the intellectual advances of various theorists being embellished by their opponents for partisan purposes. For example, the moderate and subtle rationalizations of James M. Buchanan are characterized as extreme libertarianism. Nancy Maclean is unacquainted[1] with the work of Murray Rothbard!

The inaccurate framing of economic theory for political interests is not limited to right-of-center economists. Many left-wingers exaggerate the beliefs and postulations of their favored economists, the most conspicuous example being the abuse of John Maynard Keynes [2]. Yes, in the eyes of most Conservatives and Libertarians, Keynes had a flawed perception of market processes. Although, he was not communist. Keynes still had some semblance of a pragmatic filter, which placed constraints on his sanguine view of consumption. Keynes did believe that after the end of an economic downturn, deficits should be eliminated. Therefore, Keynes did not advocate for a policy of perpetual deficit spending, most likely would take issue with the massive debts amassed by the United States over the past couple of decades.

It wouldn’t be outlandish to examine the embellishment of Keynesian economics for political gain from the precepts of Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers and Baptists (1983) coalition paradigm. A political relationship between various factions of policy advocates where some supports sincerely believe in the normative intention of the policy (the Baptists). In contrast, the tacit beneficiaries (the Bootleggers) merely ride the coattails of the moralistic advocates (either silently or vocally alongside the Baptists). The support for various stimulus policies would have its share of Bootleggers and Baptists to defend “stimulus spending”. The most recent examples are the Obama-era stimulus programs (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and multiple rounds of COVID stimulus allocations. Often, Keynesianism is justified when it becomes politically suitable to do so. The most recent examples of economic stimulus initiatives exemplify this point quite well. This observation becomes more striking when you consider that the convergence of our monetary and fiscal policy has amounted to a hand-selected bastard-breed mutation [3] of Keynesian economics and Monetarism. The conception of this flawed system is being spurred by policymakers trying to select the most politically advantageous characteristics of both economic philosophies.

We could consider the founder of Keynesian economics the Baptist of stimulus spending policies. As Keynes envisioned stimulus spending as being a temporary remedy amid an economic downturn. Despite his good intentions, Keynes failed to recognize the political incentives to politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, activists, and even ordinary voters; factors that only serve to reinforce one of Milton Friedman’s most enduring dictums “There is nothing more permanent than a government program”. While stimulus initiatives come and go, policymakers still keep implementing them as a remedy to soothe economic turmoil. Stimulus policies were adopted with little regard for the implied discipline advocated for by Keynes. After all, he was still an economist and was not ignorant of the discipline’s conceptual pillars. Stimulus spending is an unsound policy, but he never intended for it to be at the regular disposal of politicians and lawmakers. Dating back to the observations of Niccolò Machiavelli, politics is a game of perception, not one of technical proficiency. Conversely, economics is ideally a positive social science unconcerned with popular opinion.

Moral values always enter the equation whenever we enter the realm of actual decision-making, even in economic decision-making. Unfortunately, the line between economic science and public perception is often blurred, especially by the adroit manipulation of politically savvy elected officials, activists, lawmakers, and activists. Promising ever-larger transfer of “free” goods and services to the voting public. Applying the principles of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, voters believe they have made out like bandits. Thereby, forming a mutually beneficial feedback loop of voters believing they have won and political actors presented in a positive light; as being defenders of the common man. Elected officials portrayed as advocates for the “little guy” helps establish social currency with the voting public. Social currency dovetails nicely with a politician’s incentive to remain in their position of political power.

Foot Notes:

  1. Maclean is aware of Rothbard’s work to a superficial extent, but if she sincerely understood his work, she would not be portraying Buchanan as a radical.
  2. The author is not an exponent of Keynesian economics.
  3. Despite the intense debate between Keynesians and Monetarists, both have their commonalities.

Time to Restore The Gold Standard- Part I

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August 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Nixon administration ending the Bretton Woods Agreement. The conferenced strived to establish a stable global monetary regime in the post-World War II era. Through centering fixed exchange rates around a gold-backed U.S. Dollar. The U.S. permanently closed the gold window in 1971. A gold standard made the money supply inflexible, thus making it impossible to fund the Vietnam War and other government initiatives. Instead of tightening spending when faced with a lack of gold reserves. Nixon declared us all  Keynesians, forever divorcing the U.S. dollar from gold for good.

The Bretton Woods Agreement was not flawed. A clear departure from the classical gold standard (1834-1933) in America; it was still better than a pure fiat standard. The fixed supply of gold in the vaults provides hardline constraints on inflation and government spending, a lesson learned by cryptocurrency creators. Limiting the amount of money produced helps it retain its value. Helping us refrain from reducing our currency to being a worthless piece of “Monopoly money” (think Weimar Germany). Some argue that the threat of hyperinflation in the United States is hyperbole; it is crucial to remember how much the dollar has depreciated since eliminating the fixed-gold standard. Since 1971, the dollar has suffered from a rate of cumulative inflation of 570.90%! Now might be the ideal time to start arguing for a return to the gold standard. This argument is not merely a knee-jerk reaction to the 2008 financial crisis.

Hayekian Triangle -Part I

Sourced from The Mises Circle Blog. Page 39 Prices and Production.

 

Introduction:

 

The Hayekian Triangle is a visual representation of the stages of production. Many professional Austrian economists refer to it as a pedological device for explaining the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (Block & Barnett, 2006, P.2) [1]. Above all, it is something of an outlier in the Austrian School of Economics. Due to the methodological rejection of the Neo-Classical approach, graphs and equations are rarely ever used. Despite this methodological consideration, the Haykeian Triangle is viewed by many as being imperative in understanding “boom-bust” business cycles. Even though some prominent Austrian economists such as Walter Block have expressed their grievances with this depiction of ABCT.

 

The triangle was first introduced by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek in his 1931 book Prices and Production (revised in 1935). Presenting the variable of time on the Y-axis and output of consumer goods on the X-axis.  Forming a right triangle. Per Hayek’s own explanation:

…. means of production is expressed by the horizontal projection of the hypotenuse, while the vertical dimension, measured in arbitrary periods from the top to the bottom, expresses the progress of time,  so that the inclination of the line representing the amount of original means of production used means that these original means of production are expended continuously during the whole process of production. The bottom of the triangle represents the value of the current output of consumers’ goods. The area of the triangle thus shows the totality of the successive stages through which the several units of original means of production pass before they become ripe for consumption.  (Hayek, 1931, P.39-40) [2]

 

The triangle diagrams the relationship between time and productive output. It measures this relationship from the harvesting and producing higher-order goods (those in earlier stages of production. All the way to the final phases of production such as packaging. Hayek’s diagram also details the amount of capital deployed into production per a specific stage. Per his observations, all variables unencumbered by manipulation, more money is spent in the earlier stages of production (Hayek, 1931, P.53) [3]. The amount tends to decrease in the later stages. Much of the variance in resource allocation throughout the stages of production mirrors consumer demand.

 

Understanding consumption patterns is key to production. As acting individuals, we can either save, invest, or spend money.  The entrepreneur who is managing the production of consumer goods will cater it patterns of buying behavior (Hayek. 1931. P.50) [4]. If consumers are saving more and spending less demand will go down. Consequentially, savings are not necessarily detrimental. Despite the Keynesian consensus that drop-in aggregate demand will bring the economy to grinding stop. Commonly known as the Paradox of Thrift. When consumers start saving they become more future ordinated as Dr. Roger Garrison would put it. They put off present consumption today for future consumption. This can include investment. Investment differentiates itself from consumer consumption by aiding production potential. An increase in investment now can help producers acquire capital to expand production capacity later (Hayek, 1931, P.60, 88) [5].

 

One fact that cannot be overstated is how the loanable funds market parallels production. When demand is low prices are low and vice versa. It is important to remember that all sectors of the economy are interconnected. Under normal conditions, interest rate fluctuations, supply-and-demand drives the rate. Much how consumer prices do the same. If consumer demand is low prices will reflect demand. The same goes for acquiring a loan. When consumer demand is low production hits a lull. However, consequentially the going interest rates will be low as well. Making it an ideal time to get a loan to upgrade old and worn-out equipment. As more business people acquire loans the interest rate will naturally increase. It is no more different than any other segment of the economy. Just a different product.

 

Because consumers are not ravenous demand new products, more money is spent on starting production. Hence, the greater expenditures in the earlier stages. There isn’t any immediate need to have completed products. Once consumer demand starts to increase more business owners will be acquiring loans to increase production. Driving the interest rate upward. Then as the interest rate increases, fewer entrepreneurs will be taking out loans. This will impact demand on the loanable funds market. Once the price for consumer goods increases there will be a decline in demand for products and services.  Bringing us right back to where we started. Lower interest rates, prices, and product demand. This cycle is cylindrical and self-regulating. Per popular consensus of Austrian economists will result in economic growth.

 

The problem becomes that often policymakers seek to interfere with this process. This circles back to the Paradox of Thrift. When consumer confidence is down, lowering interest rates operate as a form of stimulus. Whether they are lowered to out of genuine concern for the economy or callous political opportunism is irrelevant. It is still an erroneous course of action. Artificially decreasing the interest rate will lead to malinvestment (Hayek, 1931, P.58) [6]. Entrepreneurs borrow money for projects that would not be profitable to undertake with higher interest rates (Hayek, 1931, P. 86) [7]. They will invest more money into the earlier stages of production when consumer demands reflect more emphasis on the later stages. Also, they will be bold enough to undertake entrepreneurial ventures that require long production times.

 

The mechanism by which institutions such as the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates is important to note. They engage in credit creation by injecting more currency into the money supply. In other words, they get the printing presses up and running. Trading purchasing power for liquidity. This will result in higher prices for consumers. This is known as inflation. Prices will continue to rise until the institution manipulating the interest rate finds the rate of inflation to be exorbitant. Subsequently decides to lower the interest rate (Hayek, 1931, P. 90) [8].  Alternately, the rate of inflation becomes so hight that people stop using U.S. fiat currency altogether (Murph, 2015, P.253) [9]. That is an extreme example, reserved for the most extreme cases of hyperinflation.  Unfortunately, the bubble has burst and the fall out is just beginning.  All the ventures started under the low-interest rates are now insolvent and cannot be completed (Hayek, 1931, P. 92).  Unless the borrower is able to complete the project at a loss. Resulting in mark failures and economic depressions.  Assumably worsening economic conditions than if the interest rate had remained unmanipulated.

 

In part II: we will examine the innovations made to the Haykeian Triangle by Dr. Roger Garrison. He attempted to revise the triangle, making it easier to be applied in a Neo-Classical context.