Category Archives: Monetary Theory

All I Want for Christmas Is an End to Quantitative Easing

This short video from Remy and Reason.tv is both amusing and enlightening, though, as the description notes, “The value of Remy’s soon-to-be Christmas classic can only be determined after adjusting for inflation.” Click here if the embed doesn’t work.

Towards a More Transparent Fed

Iain Murray and I have a piece in today’s American Spectator breaking down the new paper we co-wrote with John Berlau about questions we would like Janet Yellen to answer, whether in her confirmation hearing or elsewhere. The main point is transparency:

Transparency is essential for a public body that takes trillion dollar decisions. We need to know what she feels about the possibility of auditing the Fed. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul has already announced that he will place a hold on her nomination until he sees some progress with his Federal Reserve Transparency Act bill — something that Senate Majority Leader Reid used to support. If and when Professor Yellen does come before a confirmation hearing, Senators need to make her views on these questions transparent to the nation too.

Read the whole thing here. The full paper is here.

Questions for Janet Yellen

janet yellen
The Federal Reserve is arguably the government’s most important agency, even if it is (nominally) independent. It has control over the price system, the most fundamental part of any economy. It also exercises significant power over the banking sector, and in recent years has taken to doing large favors for Wall Street. These are all reasons why Janet Yellen’s nomination for Fed Chair needs to be carefully vetted. To that end, my CEI colleagues John Berlau and Iain Murray and I put together some questions about several facets of the Fed’s mission we would like to Yellen answer, whether during her confirmation hearing or elsewhere. You can read the short WebMemo here. Here is one of our questions about inflation:

Many observers expect you to pursue an inflationary stimulus, and believe this is likely a reason for your nomination. If your actions are already expected, will markets not take these expected price level changes into account in advance? If so, do you believe this would blunt the employment impact of any monetary expansion? Would you respond to these pre-existing expectations with an unexpectedly high inflationary policy?

As John, Iain, and I write, Yellen’s credentials are not in question. But the policies she might pursue as Fed Chair are. Read more here.

CEI Podcast for August 22, 2013: Germany Legalizes Bitcoin

bitcoins
Have a listen here.

Vice President for Strategy Iain Murray discusses Germany’s decision to legalize Bitcoin, a controversial digital currency. With the euro’s future up in the air, competing currencies are one way to ensure monetary stability in case the worst happens.

Printing Money Troubles

There is a lot of talk lately about the Fed’s quantitative easing policy. It is an indirect way of printing money, and also a huge mistake. It turns out the Fed can’t even print money the direct way without making mistakes. A new $100 bill that is harder to counterfeit has been rolling off the presses recently. 1.1 billion of them have been printed so far, at a cost of $120 million.

CNBC reports:

An official familiar with the situation told CNBC that 1.1 billion of the new bills have been printed, but they are unusable because of a creasing problem in which paper folds over during production, revealing a blank unlinked portion of the bill face.

A second person familiar with the situation said that at the height of the problem, as many as 30 percent of the bills rolling off the printing press included the flaw, leading to the production shut down.

The total face value of the unusable bills, $110 billion, represents more than ten percent of the entire supply of US currency on the planet, which a government source said is $930 billion in banknotes.

Coincidentally, these would be the first bills to feature Timothy Geithner’s signature.

Quantitive Easing, aka Printing Money

This video doesn’t get all the particulars right, but it gets most of them. And boy, does it have some good zingers. It has also gotten over 800,000 views; sometimes people do listen to good economics. Enjoy.

The Deflating Quality of Economic Journalism

Cato’s Jagadeesh Gokhale with an example of the current state of economic journalism:

[NPR reporter Adam] Davidson: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing investment opportunity for you. Give me $100, just a hundred, and in one year I promise it will be worth 93 bucks. We call it the deflation special.”

My reaction: No, sir! Under deflation, $100 today would increase in value to $107 (assuming your implicit rate of deflation). Help! Stop the car! …Wait, I’m the one driving…what just happened?

Davidson: “All right, seriously, nobody is giving anybody a hundred bucks just so they can lose seven.”

My reaction: No, no, please, please take my money! I’d give you a million dollars if I had that amount. I really would!

It gets worse from there. Davidson completely misunderstands the effects of deflation — and thousands of listeners take him at his word. No wonder public understanding of economics is so poor.

People spend little time learning about economics in the first place because of rational ignorance. Compounding the problem is that in the little time they do spend learning — usually from economically untrained journalists — they get incorrect information from people who know not of what they speak.

I previously wrote about the troubled relationship between economics and journalism here and here.

Financial Fiasco

I recently finished reading Swedish economist Johan Norberg‘s book about the financial crisis, aptly titled Financial Fiasco. It’s both short and informative. Six chapters and 155 pages, all of them worth reading.

The first two chapters are about the two big regulatory causes of the recession. One, monetary policy that was too easy for too long. The price system works. When the Fed messes with that price system, prices send out the wrong signals. People behave accordingly. Two, a decades-long drive to raise homeownership rates caused a lot of people to take out loans they couldn’t afford. It was only a matter of time before the consequences would come to bear.

Chapters 3 and 4 are about how the private sector reacted to the incentives regulators gave them. Let’s just say they acted badly. If people can game the system, they often will. Norberg’s criticism of overly-complicated securitized mortgage packages is both shocking and infuriating.

Chapter 5 is about how the government and private sector reacted to the crisis once the housing bubble popped. The $700 billion bailout program to reward bad behavior comes under fire.

Norberg is in top form in Chapter 6. Having looked at the causes and consequences of the crisis, now he offers a way out. One lesson is that politicians will always behave badly. “Politicians who distribute pork they cannot afford are reelected; butcher shops that sell pork they cannot afford go bankrupt. (p. 150)” Politicians are just like you and me. They go wherever their incentives lead them. We need to approach them accordingly.

The way to a full recovery is not bailouts. It is letting bad companies fail. And just as important, letting good ones prosper. “Government support for companies is thus not a way to save jobs, as politicians try to make us believe. It is a way to move jobs from good companies to bad companies.” (p. 151) In the long run, bailouts keep the economy down by keeping jobs and resources away from where they would do the most good.

Financial Fiasco has echoes of Tocqueville; a foreigner is trying to figure out how America works. Norberg, like Alexis de Tocqueville, is uncommonly perceptive. His experience living under an economy more thoroughly mixed than America’s allows him to see things that have escaped American commentators. This is extremely valuable. The fact that his book is concise, well written, and accessible to those of us who don’t have economics Ph.Ds makes it even moreso.

New Trotsky Biography

Robert Service’s new biography of Trotsky is reviewed in today’s Wall Street Journal. Having read Service’s excellent biography of Lenin a few years ago, this seems like a book worth reading. Joshua Rubenstein’s thoughtful review touches on some thoughts about socialism and socialists.

Socialism had three major failings. The first is what economists study most closely. It is the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism, because of the rejection of prices and money as a medium of exchange. Whether you support socialist ideals or not, it is literally impossible to achieve. Do away with prices and currency, and they will emerge in a different form. They are part of human society.

The second aspect of socialism intrigues philosophers: socialism genuinely sought to change human nature itself. People as they currently are are in no shape to realize Marx’s vision of communist society. So part of the communist program was to actively mold and change people so that vision could one day become a reality.

Before Marx came along, Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia were also written about societies with a fundamentally changed human nature. More, knowing his ideal to be impossible, coined the word “utopia,” which literally means “no place.” His book is a pleasant dream (for a collectivist at least), but More knew it was one that could ever come true. We are they way we are. And we’re stuck that way, for better or worse.

This leads us to the third aspect of socialism, which most concerns Trotsky. This is, for me, the most remarkable part, and the most chilling. It is the sheer violence that accompanied Marxism-Leninism everywhere it was tried. And I mean everywhere. Every single country to adopt communism had a checkered human rights record. No exceptions. Not one had anything resembling freedom of speech or press, or due process, or property rights.

Most historians now estimate that communist governments killed around 100,000,000 people. Mostly their own citizens. At no other point in human history have governments been so murderous of their own people. No other ideology has had consequences so bloody as Marxism and its variants.

One reason for the violence is that it allowed the governments to maintain power; resistance is less likely when the prevailing climate is of fear. Another is that human nature is stubborn. If it is to be changed, force is required. But, of course, the basic tenets of humanity are immutable. We are who we are.

Communist leaders, including Trotsky, were simply chilling. Many of them come off as sadists. They seemed to actually enjoy bloodshed. Revel in it. Yet Trotsky still has his admirers today. They need to answer for why they look up to someone who would even have thoughts like the following, let alone give voice to such brutish impulses in public speeches:

“The strength of the French Revolution,” he shouted to a group of revolutionary sailors, “was in the machine that made the enemies of the people shorter by a head. This is a fine device. We must have it in every city.” And have it they did. Once in power, Trotsky advocated show trials and the execution of political prisoners; he suppressed other socialist parties and independent trade unions; he pushed for the censorship of art that did not support the revolution; and he created the institutions of repression that were later turned against him and his followers.

Hoover and the Great Depression

One of the oddities of U.S. history is that Herbert Hoover is regarded as a free-market president. He grew federal spending by 52% in just four years. Engaged in massive deficit spending. Created the Federal Home Loan Bank. And the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Signed the Smoot-Hawley tariffs into law. And the Agricultural Marketing Act. And so on. Free-market, he was not.

The Hoover myth is showing some cracks, fortunately. Where most civics textbooks would blame Hoover’s laissez-faire policies for the Great Depression, a new paper by UCLA’s Lee Ohanian fingers Hoover’s labor market interventions.

I’m personally convinced the Depression was more of a monetary phenomenon than a fiscal one. But Ohanian is surely right that Hoover’s dictating to companies what wages shall pay their workers was a net negative for the economy.

It’s certainly possible to blame Hoover’s policies for the Great Depression. Just not on the grounds that those policies were free-market. People shouldn’t have to read obscure academic journals to find that out.