Let Wedding Cake Bakers Discriminate in Peace

December 8, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

“A Colorado judge says a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony must serve gay couples despite his religious beliefs, a ruling that a civil rights group hailed as a victory for gay rights.” Fox News 12/06/2013

Friedrich Hayek argues in his famous essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” that conservatives and socialists alike have no principled way of dealing with people whose moral views differ from theirs. Neither of them has absorbed the true lessons of toleration. Socialists (and I would add “progressives”) argue, in effect, for the imposition of their specific collective hierarchy of values including ideas about the allocation and distribution of resources in society. Conservatives often want to impose a hierarchy  of social values including restrictions on pornography, teaching of traditional values in the public schools (“creationism”), restrictions on entry into consensual social relations (“marriage is exclusively for one man and one woman”) and so forth.

The classical liberal insistence on a society that makes maximal room for a pluralism of values starts with the insight that markets permit individuals to make decisions according to their own hierarchies of values. Markets do not insist that we all share the same goals about the use of resources. And yet, subject to a few basic general rules, we can have coordination (not homogenization) of values through the price system. You can work , for example, for Amazon to help pay for your child’s clothing while the manager in your Amazon division is saving for a flat screen TV; the executive working for Amazon may be working for a vacation while the senior-citizen stockholder of Amazon is using the appreciation of stock-value to pay for copays on his medicine. And then there are all of the different goals of those working or investing in firms that deal with Amazon. And so forth as we spread our sights through the whole complex system of market interactions. Read the rest of this entry »

Economics Will Not Be Mocked

December 1, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

A few years ago I read and studied in great detail Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on globalization “Caritas in Veritate” or “Charity in Truth.” I posted a three-part analysis on the doubtful economics contained therein at ThinkMarkets. The first part is about the destructive influence of the encyclical. The second part is about globalization. The third part is about the attack on classical liberalism.

Shortly thereafter, I went to a conference that included discussion by economists of the encyclical. There were almost no defenders of the pope’s economics. In fact, I was told by one participant not to waste my time in a detailed examination of papal ideas relating to economics. No one in places of intellectual or policy influence much cares what the pope says. I was told that I care only because of my sixteen years of Catholic education. Perhaps this is all true; I do not know.  Nevertheless, the pope is worth listening to and reacting to because, in the modern world, there are few attempts by prominent public figures to address moral issues honestly.

The current statement of the “social gospel” by Pope Francis in “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel” is less authoritative than the previous encyclical by Benedict insofar as it is considered simply an “apostolic exhortation” or pastoral letter. However, the ideas expressed are in keeping with the recent Church teaching. (Nevertheless, one cannot help thinking that Pope John-Paul II’s economics in the encyclical “Centesimus Annus” was much better than that expressed by the two most recent popes.)

I will not go into the details of the current letter because I think my previous comments on Pope Benedict at ThinkMarkets effectively cover most of these. I want now simply to make a “meta-critique” of Pope Francis’s letter only insofar as it deals with issues that have economic content. Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Smith and Obamacare

November 14, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

Based on my non-scientific sampling of the morning talk-programs on TV, the “progressives” have discovered the law of unintended consequences. There seems to be universal agreement that if Obamacare is altered to allow people to keep their current healthcare insurance, regardless of whether it covers all of the contingencies the law has so far mandated, the entire Obamacare framework will begin to unravel. As Steve Rattner (of the auto bailout “fame”) admitted on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe,” the law is a complex web of interrelated provisions. Once you pick at one, the law may unravel.

Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone of the famous passage from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he sees so clearly the problem with statist redesign of social institutions.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder (VI.II.42, Liberty Press edition).

There really is nothing more to add. So I will not (for now).

Instead of the Fed

November 5, 2013

by Jerry O’Driscoll


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.

I invite everyone to visit Cato Unbound this month and follow the conversation.


The Macroeconomics of Food Stamps

November 2, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

The expansion of food stamp eligibility in response to the Great Recession was part of the so-called stimulus package. There were several aspects. First, there was a simple increase in the maximum amount allowed to beneficiaries of about 14%. There was also a tremendous drive to get people who are eligible, but did not get food stamps, to apply and get them. Then there was a loosening of eligibility requirements in some states. Finally, there was the increase in unemployment resulting from the recession and thus an increase in the number of eligible people.

In 2007 the number of people on food stamps was 26 million. Today it is about 48 million! But look more closely at the data (in thousands):













The reader should note that, even as unemployment has declined, the number of food-stamp recipients has increased. Based on decades long trends we should have observed a significant decrease in the number of recipients. Read the rest of this entry »

O’Driscoll on Inflation

October 30, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

ThinkMarkets blogger, Cato Senior Scholar, and former VP of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., speaks on the Fox Business channel about the problems of deliberate inflation as a policy to reduce unemployment and spur growth. See the video here:

Gerald O’Driscoll on Inflation

The Return of Inflationism?

October 29, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

The Fed has become desperate, not because the American economy is currently falling apart, but because the economy has stubbornly failed to respond well to the policies of the “best and the brightest.” And now, as if to welcome the impending chairmanship of Janet Yellen, stories are surfacing in various places about the growing consensus inside and outside of the Fed for inflation. There is not enough inflation to stimulate adequate economic growth. Just a little more, or maybe even a lot more (perhaps as high as 6 percent) is needed as Ken Rogoff of Harvard is suggesting.

The arguments being used today are not exactly the same as those of the 1970s, yet I have the feeling that I have been here before.  It is important to distinguish theory from what policy economics is about. Policy economics often comes down to rather simple ideas. The real world has a way of making a mockery of today’s sophisticated macroeconomic theory. For one thing, policy has to be relatively simple if it is to be transparent. Read the rest of this entry »

Military Service and the New Paternalism

October 27, 2013

by Mario Rizzo

In the last few years there has been a small expansion in the number of universities that are reinstating ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) after the cancellation of such programs due to protests against the war in Vietnam. I express no opinion here about whether universities should have ROTC programs. My points here have equal applicability to military recruiting of all kinds.

My concern here is a relatively wonkish one. Why have not the new paternalists (those who base their paternalistic policies on the findings of behavioral economics) sought to apply their ideas to young college students signing up for ROTC? Or to other young people going to their neighborhood military recruitment center.

Consider that these potential recruits seem to meet all of the behavioral red flags. First, they are young with little experience of the world and so their decision is would be one in which their data base is deficient. They would seem to be similar to first-time home buyers who are alleged to be easily subject to fraud and manipulation. Read the rest of this entry »

Lawrence Klein: Keynesian Economist Who Wanted to Sidestep the Constitution

October 24, 2013

By Richard M. Ebeling

Nobel Prizing-winning Keynesian economist, Lawrence Klein died on October 20, 2013, at the age of 93. A long-time professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his development of econometric (or statistical) models of the United States “macro” economy for purposes of prediction and “activist” government policy making.


He also was a senior economic advisor to Jimmy Carter during his successful run for the presidency in 1976, but Klein declined a position in the Carter Administration for fear of the negative publicity from his membership in the American Communist Party in the 1930s. 


What is less well known today is that immediately after World War II he was one of the great popularizers of the “new economics” of John Maynard Keynes, especially in his widely read book, The Keynesian Revolution, published in 1947.


Keynes’ Conception of Government as Savior

In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) Keynes had argued that the market economy was inherently unstable and susceptible to wide and unpredictable swings in output, employment, and prices. Worse yet, he asserted, the market could get stuck in a prolonged period of high unemployment and idle resources. Only judicious government monetary and fiscal policy could assure a return to sustainable full employment. Read the rest of this entry »

Questions for Free Market Moralists? Some Answers

October 22, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

A philosopher, Amia Srinivasan, fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, University of Oxford, writing in the New York Times Opinionator (online commentary) says that in order to be a consistent defender of Robert Nozick, the free market and classical liberalism, one must answer “yes” to all four questions below. And she believes that such consistent yes answers are not plausible. She is wrong that we are required to answer yes to all four and she is wrong that yes answers on any are implausible. She also misconceives the task of liberalism as a political philosophy.

Let us start with the last point. As Ludwig von Mises constantly reminded us, liberalism is not a philosophy of life. It does not deal with the ultimate questions of man’s place in the universe and the full range of choices human beings must make both in dealing with others and in guiding one’s own life. It is a philosophy about the role of the state in a world in which people differ in their life-philosophies or in the concrete application of a philosophy to different circumstances of time and place.

With this in mind we can briefly answer her questions: Read the rest of this entry »


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