Felicitations on your birthday. Your leadership and dedication have been a blessing to many in need of friendship and support. Your kindness and goodwill have helped our networks succeed. Your scholarship and teaching have advanced liberal understanding. You’re making a great difference, and your birthday is a great day to say: Thank you!
Warmest congratulations to Mario Rizzo on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Having been associated with Mario for close to a half-century (ever since, as he never forgets to remind me, I arrived late to deliver a talk which he had arranged) – I count myself as one of the many who have been uplifted and illuminated by Mario’s steel-trap mind, depths and subtlety of understanding, and unswerving intellectual integrity.
By the time this richly deserved tribute is published, Eileen and I will be cruising down the Danube. I promise that you will not be in our thoughts every moment of the trip. But at least for one or two short moments, you take pride of place even as against the anchor tenant of the Epstein household for the last 46 years.
I want to wish Mario Rizzo the very best on his 70th birthday. To this day, the phone call I received from him in March of 1990 remains the highlight of my professional career. Mario called me at my office at Oakland University to tell me I was going to be offered an Assistant Professorship in the Economics Department at NYU. I ran home, rang the doorbell, and did my best Frank Sinatra impression of “New York, New York” for Rosemary and we hugged and jumped up and down. The next 8 years of my professional life were critical in so many ways, and I owe that to Mario and Israel Kirzner, their mentorship and their guiding example. So, on a personal-professional level, my debt to Mario is very deep, and my friendship with him at an intellectual and personal level is something I cherish greatly.
I am writing to wish very best birthday greetings to Mario Rizzo, who will be 70 on July 6th. It is a landmark I reached last October.
Mario is my most longstanding friend. Our friendship goes back to undergraduate days at Fordham University. We met in intermediate macroeconomics. We resisted the textbook Keynesian message. Our instructor was patient, and even allowed us once to address the class in a debate format. We generally upheld a classical economic position.
Once upon a time, there was a factory in the Soviet Union that made nails. Moscow set quotas on nail production. When the quotas involved quantity, the factory churned out many small, useless nails. When Moscow realised its error and set a quota by weight instead, the factory produced big, equally useless nails that weighed a pound each.
This much repeated tale of Soviet industrial inefficiency is an urban legend. But it contains a large grain of truth. Communism failed in large measure because central planners had inadequate knowledge of conditions on the ground and their attempts at control were generally thwarted. It would be nice to think that we have learnt from the mistakes of Stalin’s Russia. This is not the case as Jerry Muller explains in his book, “The Tyranny of Metrics.” The world remains in thrall to what Muller calls “metric mania.”
China’s economy has long defied the doom-mongers. In place of their ominous critique, a more constructive view of economic management in the People’s Republic has surfaced. Beijing, we are told, has found the right balance between state and market forces, and is best positioned to exploit exciting new technologies, such as big data and artificial intelligence. Politically fractured and economically sclerotic Western nations can only look on in envy.
Dinny McMahon, a former financial journalist and mandarin speaker who spent many years reporting on the Middle Kingdom, doesn’t buy this line. In his view, China’s economy has spent years locked in continuous stimulus mode, accumulating bad debts and generating great economic imbalances along the way. This is not an original thesis. But it’s a welcome reality check on the current China hype. Of the many books that have observed the fragility and contradictions of China’s economic model, “China’s Great Wall of Debt” is the best. McMahon writes well, has a fine eye for detail and finds original stories to illustrate his argument.
A couple months ago, a judge ruled in favor of Seattle’s ordinance that will allow ridesharing drivers to engage in collective bargaining agreements. The ordinance has granted the labor union, Teamsters, the right to represent drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft. Under current U.S. labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRA) gives employees the right to unionize, but ridesharing drivers are legally classified as independent contractors, and thus outside of the purview of this legislation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has initiated litigation to challenge the validity of this ordinance on several grounds (e.g., preemption by NLRA, antitrust violations), though while in the appeals process, the city has begun to move forward to implement this first-in-the-nation law.
The collapsed UK construction firm’s problems may look idiosyncratic. But its problems with “onerous contracts” were exacerbated by a balance sheet stuffed with intangible assets and ultimately shaky assumptions. These issues are not peculiar to Carillion.
The European Central Bank will increase the overall volume of its bond purchase program to 2,550,000,000,000 euros by September 2018. The main refinancing rate will remain at zero. Mario Draghi has stressed that this policy shall continue until inflation picks up sustainably (which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future). The works of Friedrich August von Hayek (1931, 1944, 1976) help to explain why the tremendous monetary expansion is increasingly causing growing economic and political instability in Europe.
Similar to the credit unions in the US, the goal of the Japanese Shinkin banks is the promotion of the sound development of the regional economy. The members of these non-profit cooperatives are small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as natural persons from the respective regions of Japan. The Shinkin banks manage deposits, perform banking operations and make loans. Until the Japanese bubble economy burst in the early 1990s, they were the backbone of the regional economy in Japan. Since then, however, the business model has been gradually changing, driven by the Bank of Japan. The upshot is that the Shinkin banks’ business activities have been gradually turning away from the regions and, therefore, their original aim.
Massive losses for Germany’s former catch-all parties (CDU/CSU and SPD) and record gains for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have caused turmoil in Germany’s political landscape. The tumbling leaders Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz keep affirming that good policies were simply not explained sufficiently. They blame globalization and refugees to be at the roots of growing political discontent. Meanwhile, a rightward shift in Austria and the Czech Republic has occurred, albeit the number of refugees in the Czech Republic is low and growth is high. Everywhere in Europe far-right parties flourish independently from the level of income and the number of welcomed refugees. What is the common driving factor?
The U.S. economy has been growing slowly but steadily since the trough of the Great Recession in June 2009. Deep recessions are typically followed sharp recoveries. Not so this time.
More recently, there is the mystery of low inflation. The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core PCE index, has consistently fallen short of its target rate of 2 percent. In July 2017, it came in at a 1.41-percent annual rate. For the Fed, improved growth in employment and the falling unemployment rate should foreshadow a higher inflation rate. The rationale for this is the old Phillips Curve. The reality is that the model is flawed.Continue reading →
For many years, pundits have been predicting the demise of cash for payments. Currency is bulky, dirty, subject to theft, etc. Making change at the point of payment is time consuming. The rise of e-commerce will surely bring about the demise of cash. Cash is passé.
The European Central Bank (ECB) continues buying securities. By the end of 2017, the balance sheet is expected to have further grown by about 800 billion euros. This corresponds to a growth rate of 20 percent per year, while real growth of the euro area is expected to be only 1.5 percent. Despite this tremendous monetary expansion, euro area inflation remains below the two percent target. This raises the question of whether the quantity equation, which Mark Blaug called “the oldest surviving theory in economics,” is still valid.
In the second half of the 1980s, 13 Japanese city banks climbed into the group of the world’s largest banks, boosted by a domestic speculation boom. With the bursting of the Japanese financial “bubble” in the early 1990s, a gradual decline followed. Since then, the Japanese city banks have been driven by Japanese monetary policy into a concentration process, which has produced new giants without increasing efficiency. Continue reading →
The Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump were unexpected and were followed by a search for explanations. Subsequently, the common view spread that globalization is at the root of the frustrations of more and more people who are susceptible to strong nationalist statements from populists. This is surprising because for a long time, the reduction of trade barriers was acknowledged to be a basis for global prosperity. Why should the accepted view suddenly be so different?
Venezuela is in deep political and economic crisis. According to Reuters – quoting a leaked document from the Venezuelan Central Bank – output fell 19% and prices increased 800% during 2016. Even though the “Socialism of the 21st Century”, the political program initiated by former President Hugo Chavez, has been losing support in other countries, in Venezuela it is still alive. The government has responded to people’s discontent with violence rather than with economic reforms. One reason for the reluctance to reform can be that the government would have to assume high political costs if it wanted to solve the current economic crisis.
Rafael Correa was inaugurated as President of Ecuador in 2007. He joined forces with Chavez to promote the idea of a so-called “Socialism of the 21st Century” in Latin America. After Chavez’s death in 2013, Correa became the self-proclaimed leader of the movement. Because the new socialism has led to severe problems, it has recently lost support. Latin America is moving to the right. If a majority of Ecuadorians vote against Correa’s ruling socialists on April 2 this year, the entire project should be on its way out. The odds are good. The governments’ authoritarian behavior and the slowdown of the economy have eroded the popularity of Correa’s political party.
I have been reading Central Bank Governance & Oversight Reform, edited by John H. Cochrane and John B. Taylor. It is a conference volume of unusually high quality with all the discussions of presentations included.
I plan to write more about the book later, but to highlight one chapter here. It goes beyond the usual topics, covered well in the book, on rules versus discretion, credible commitments, policy legislation, and the historical record.
Earlier this summer, de Blasio attempted to cap the number of Uber and other ride-sharing drivers in New York City. Although he ended up dropping the proposal, the event itself serves as a wonderful pedagogical illustration of public choice insights. Here’s an excerpt from my op-ed on this:
What can we learn from this Uber fight and public choice economics? We need to have a more practical understanding of politics rather than indulging in a romantic notion that all policies intend to help residents or consumers. We often get bad policies because of self-interested exchanges between politicians and special interest groups. We shouldn’t fall head over heels every time politicians tell us they support a particular policy in order to “help the people.” Sometimes that’s just a façade for what is going on behind closed doors. So when politicians tell us they want to limit ride-sharing to “protect riders,” residents should take this public justification with caution and not immediately assume that they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.
The Association of Private Enterprise Education will hold its annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, April 3rd to 5th, 2016. This year’s conference theme is Capitalism: Free-Market or Crony? Papers are welcome on that topic, as well as other topics relevant to market economies. That list certainly includes Austrian economics, Public Choice, etc. Here is a link to the Call for Papers: https://www.apee.org/call-for-papers/
I am the Vice President of APEE this year and have responsibility to organize the conference. Visitors to ThinkMarkets are invited to submit papers for the conference. If you want to organize a session, contact me and I will advise how to proceed. My contact is at the Call for Papers.
If there is one single law in economics then it is that markets tend to equilibrium. Or, to align this with Grove’s law (“Technology will always win. You can delay technology by legal interference, but technology will flow around legal barriers”), the free market will find its ways, whether in white, grey or black market. Despite of initially strong resistance of the Zimbabwean government it was market forces and not political consent that abolished central banking and legal tender laws in the South African country. Paper money of its original currency was replaced with notes from other countries, the shortage of coins was addressed by “efficient rounding”, condoms and sweets.
While inflation was mostly in double digits ever since its independence in 1980 it began to climb when the government faced high deficits and deep recessions in the early 2000s. In late 2008 it eventually reached a peak of 8.97 x 10 (to the 22nd power) percent. Prices doubled almost every day.
Because of the limited supply of foreign currencies and fixed exchange rates some people used this time to exploit arbitrage opportunities. The term burning money was coined when well-connected people in Harare exchanged their Zimbabwe Dollars into the limited supply of South African Rand at the fixed exchange rate and sold the Rand in the parallel market at a fair price.
The continuing devaluation of its own currency moved Zimbabwean citizens into other currencies, most notably Rand, Pula, US Dollar, Euro and Pound. In spite of legal tender laws these currencies became established in the regions which traded frequently with the countries issuing these currencies or having previously adopted them. Continue reading →
The public eulogies marking the passing of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95 on December 5, 2013 have refocused attention on the long struggle in South Africa to bring about an end to racial discrimination and the Apartheid system.
Forgotten or at least certainly downplayed in the international remembrance of Mandela’s nearly three decades of imprisonment and his historical role in becoming the first black president of post-Apartheid South Africa is the fact that through most of the years of his active resistance leading up to his arrest and incarceration he accepted the Marxist interpretation that racism and racial discrimination were part and parcel of the capitalist system.
Mandela was a member of a revolutionary communist cohort who were insistent and convinced that only a socialist reorganization of society could successfully do away with the cruel, humiliating, and exploitive system of racial separateness.
With the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the communist model of socialist transformation was too tarnished and delegitimized to serve a as a guidebook for post-Apartheid South Africa by the time that Mandela assumed office as the first black president in that country in May 1994.
Instead, Mandela’s government followed the alternative collectivist path of a highly “activist” and aggressive interventionist-welfare state, with its usual special interest politicking, group-favoritism, and its inescapable corruption and abuse of power. Its legacy is the sorry and poverty-stricken state of many of those in the black South African community in whose name the anti-Apartheid revolution was fought.
But this did not have to be the road taken by South Africa. There were other voices that also opposed the racial and Apartheid policies of the white South African government, especially in the decades after the Second World War.
These voices argued that racial policies in that country were not the result of “capitalism,” but instead were precisely the product of anti-capitalist government interventionism to benefit and protect certain whites from the potential competition of black Africans.
One of the most prominent of these voices was economist, William H. Hutt. Hutt had come to South Africa from Great Britain in 1928 and taught at the University of Cape Town until the 1970s, when he moved to the United States where he died in 1988. Born in 1899, he had attended the London School of Economics and studied under Edwin Cannan, the noted historian of economic thought and liberal free trade economist. Continue reading →
For the month of November, Cato Unbound features an essay by me on “The Fed at 100.” Over the course of a week, there will be comments by Larry White, Scott Sumner and Jerry Jordan. I will respond to these as appropriate.
“End the Fed” has become a political slogan. Long before that, however, there was a serious academic literature on the prospects for competitive banking. I examine that literature in my posting. One interesting aspect of that literature is that important papers on free banking came out of Federal Reserve banks in the 1980s.
I argue that “the literature on free banking demonstrates the viability of private, competitive banking without a central bank.” But we now have a system of central banking almost everywhere. The fact that the road not taken would have been a viable path does not mean that we can retrace our steps and take that path now.
I devote roughly half the posting to consideration of what it would take to end the Fed. It would be a formidable but not impossible task. It is generally acknowledged that to be viable, a system of competing currencies would need convertibility into something that is in inelastic supply. Historically that has been a commodity, and I suggest gold is as good as any (though many disagree about that). What are the prospects for a return to a commodity standard?
Central banking is historically linked to governments running deficits and needing them to be financed. That is equally true today. Central banks cannot be abolished until permanent deficits are abolished, and governments are shrunk down in size. What are the prospects for that?
I have just returned from a very important conference at the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University on “Instead of the Fed: Past and Present Alternatives to the Federal Reserve System.” As the title suggests, alternatives to central banking in the past and the future were discussed. All three discussants of my posting also participated in important roles at that conference. I was a discussant of three papers, including one by Scott Sumner. So I imagine we will be continuing our dialog at Cato Unbound.
One of the most interesting discussions was among advocates of Fed abolishment and of Fed reform. All agreed that we need better monetary policy now and into the future, regardless of our differences on the issue of free banking versus central banking. I will observe that it was encouraging that people as diverse as George Selgin, Scott Sumner, Ben McCallum and I were able to arrive at a consensus.