Economic Myths #15 – Unemployment

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One of the key indicators of the economic “performance” of any given country is its rate of unemployment. Low rates of unemployment are understood as a sign of prosperity while high rates are taken as a sign of recession and stagnation. Indeed, during the Great Depression, unemployment reached as high as 25% in the United States. Politicians are particularly keen to monitor the rate of unemployment as low unemployment lends credence to the economic policies of those in power while high unemployment stocks the arsenal of those in the opposition. Given also that entire economic dogmas such as the so-called trade-off between full employment and inflation, not to mention the generation-long post-war Keynesian consensus are, at least, part rooted in the concept of unemployment, one would expect unemployment to be a unique and important category in economic theory.

This short essay will not explore in detail the government induced causes or aggravations of unemployment such as the minimum wage and excessive regulations heaped upon the shoulders of employers. Such topics have been examined countless times over by many economists, “Austrian” or otherwise. Rather, what we wish to concentrate on here is the validity of the very term “unemployment” itself and to determine whether it is really a useful concept in shaping so-called “economic policy” or whether it is really redundant and meaningless.

In the first place, as “Austrians” we must be highly suspicious of any concept that is an aggregation and is not explicitly linked to any notion of individual human action. All voluntary actions are, as we know, the result of the best choice of ends available with scarce means. A man who has several million pounds stashed in his bank account may be content to spend all of his time in leisure and would be “unemployed”. Yet aside from any moral wrangling over the worth of such a lifestyle we would hardly view this as a problem. But what about those lesser privileged folk – the ones who are not working but nevertheless have the outward appearance of needing an income from some kind of employment? Shouldn’t we classify these people as “unemployed” and doesn’t this state of unemployment indicate an egregious case of market failure?

The question turns on whether employment at the terms of the available opportunities is worthwhile for the individual person. If there are jobs available yet he refuses to accept them then it indicates that he is not satisfied with the terms of those opportunities. Perhaps it is the wrong industry, it is in wrong the place, or – most likely – the wage offered isn’t high enough for him. He therefore chooses to abstain and holds out for a better opportunity to appear in the future. From the point of view of individual satisfaction with the scarce means available, the outcome of seeming “unemployment” is therefore optimal. Indeed, labour, like anything else, is a resource that is available for an individual to use. Not all resources are deployed 100% of the time as it would be wasteful to do so. Everyone, for example, owns possessions that are not being used at the current moment – food in the fridge, clothes in the wardrobe, books and DVDs on the shelf, etc. Clearly it would be wasteful – nay, ridiculous – to try and use all of these “unemployed” resources at once. They are more valuable being kept in abeyance ready for utilisation when an opportune moment appears, i.e. when the person believes that use of them would yield more benefit than leaving them idle. More widely, there are always buildings to let, oil in the ground, trees that are left standing, water in lakes and reservoirs, and so on. All of these resources remain idle because an opportunity valuable enough for deploying them has not yet arisen. Indeed, consistent requirement for all resources to be utilised would mean that shops should be empty of all goods as they have already been purchased and consumed, and ultimately everything in the world should be consumed right now. To put it at its most basic, a person actively searching for the right job is not, in his mind, unemployed in the sense of carrying out a wasteful activity.

The inability to see labour as a resource that is deployed at the choosing of the individual labourer leads to many related fallacies and reveals the dangers of looking only at surface phenomena and appearance. An individual does not view employment as an end itself – work for work’s sake. Rather, all employment is action aimed at diverting scarce means available to their most highly valued ends. Employment per se is not a goal or achievement. No one would dig a hole in the ground and fill it up again unless the act of doing so led to a valuable end. Governments and people succumb to the illusion of economic activity brought about by “employment” and the apparent lack of it by “unemployment”, with any focus on providing “full employment” never stopping to ask whether the activity in which employment will be created is worthwhile or is wasteful. The most grievous example of this this is, of course, the forced lowering of interest rates to provoke an artificial investment boom. There will be lots of employment, everyone will be engaged in lots of activity and wages will be rising rapidly. But it is clear that everyone’s endeavours are ultimately wasteful and lie on a doomed path. So-called full employment policies are therefore nothing more than a surface coating to prevent social unrest, to make people feel as though they are doing something worthwhile and to put money into their hands that they can spend. To the extent that these actions create no new wealth, however, they should properly be regarded as welfare and not as employment. The wheels may be turning but the carriage goes nowhere and it is simply expending fuel on motionless activity. Far more difficult would be for governments to concentrate on policies that promote full production instead of full employment as this would, of course, require a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of government power and interference.

We submit, therefore, that unemployment is a meaningless concept at least when applied to the unfettered free market. It may have some relevance in economies where governments impede the ability of the supply of labour to meet demand through minimum wages and the like. Apart from shutting out a good number of low-productive persons from the labour market entirely, such interferences ultimately distort people’s views as to which terms of employment are achievable – they hold out for high wages because there is the illusion that that is what their labour is worth. They do not realise, however, that supply is unwilling to meet demand at that inflated level and hence their search for employment is in vain. All of this, however, is simply a particular application of price theory. If the price of any good is fixed too high it will remain unemployed. There is, therefore, no special concept of unemployment applying only to labour that attracts a different body of theory. Furthermore, the whole question of “nominal rigidity” or so-called “sticky wages” is beside the point when it comes to economic theory. If the demand for a particular good – in this case, labour – should drop it is entirely open for the particular labourers to express incredulity at this fact and to stubbornly hold out for wages that will never meet a willing demand. This is not, however, evidence of the market’s “failure to clear”. It is simply that the supply curve remains stuck to the left. There is an misconception that the market is “efficient” because it “values” everything correctly – a doctrine that underpins so-called “efficient market hypothesis”. But the “efficiency” of the market – the  nexus of voluntary exchanges between individual people – comes from its superior ability to channel goods to where they are most highly valued; it has nothing to do with whether a good should be valued or whether any particular valuation is correct. A good could be utterly useless but if a significant enough people chase a small supply it will command a relatively high price. The market will place this ware in the hands of those who value it the most, but the source of that value is the human mind and this valuation can be and often is erroneous. If people remain unemployed, holding out for unrealistically high wages, the fault lies in their incorrect assessment of the value of their labour, not in any market’s failure. Needless to say, however, the causes of these erroneous valuations are government interferences. It is because government creates such macroeconomic calamity that price bubbles and collapses occur and so-called “sticky prices” are a phenomenon associated with post-boom deflations. Having become accustomed to high wages, it is natural for workers to become frustrated and resistant when supply for these wages suddenly dries up and they not only have to face the prospect of lower wages but also a mass shift out of the capital goods industries – where they may have developed significant, specialist skills in the meantime – to consumer goods industries. In a genuine free market it is highly unlikely that workers would be faced with these problems. However, none of this really has much to do with economic theory, the purpose of which is to expound the formal characteristics of human action rather than the substance of those actions. Rather, sticky wages is more a topic for psychology, the field of human action that studies why people make the valuations that they do.

We conclude, therefore, by emphasising that there is no special category of “unemployment” as it applies solely to labour. Any “unemployment” of labour is explained either as the willing choice of the individual worker to withhold his labour from the market (and thus, to him, the best possible outcome), or as the result of government price fixing which is merely a particular instance of the economic effects of that wider category of interference.

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Economic Myths #12 – The Deflation Danger

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Politicians and mainstream economists have been warning us again lately of the so-called “deflation danger” – the idea that falling prices is calamitous for economic growth and that a perpetual and ceaseless price inflation is needed in order to bring us back to prosperity. With price deflation, so these sages tell us, lower prices today cause people to expect prices to be lower tomorrow so that, as a result, they put off their purchases until a later date, which causes prices to fall further and further. Hence we end up in an endless downward spiral of depression and impoverishment. Inflating prices, however, cause people to buy today so that they may insulate themselves from future price rises, thus bringing about economic growth and an increase in the standard of living. This fresh round of deflation warnings comes in the wake of the news that prices in the Eurozone were 0.2% lower than at the same time the previous year – something of an hilarious travesty when, regardless of the merits of the deflation thesis, this figure amounts to little more than a rounding error.

In basic economic theory, a price will fall as a response to the fact that demand is insufficient to meet supply at the current price. For some reason – say, as a result of the revelation of malinvestments – the demand curve for a particular asset or good shifts sharply to the left, meaning that prices now have to fall in order for the inventory to be sold to a willing level of demand. It will eventually settle at such a level. Indeed, all of the talk of “illiquid” and “toxic” assets on the balance sheet of banks following the 2008 financial crisis resulted from the unwillingness to find these lower prices and to, instead, retain assets at the old, inflated prices. Any asset, however, is surprisingly liquid when you offer a low enough price for it. However, the deflation thesis rests on the proposition that the initial fall in price, based on some exogenous factor, will then in and of itself cause a further shift in the demand curve to the left so that prices have to fall further. And then that this second price fall will cause yet another shift in the demand curve and prices will fall even further. Hence the thesis requires repeated, fresh rounds of shifting demand curves which are caused by nothing other than a previous shift in the demand curve.

However, there is no reason to suggest that prices falling as a result of a genuine, external change in valuation will, in and of themselves, cause further price falls. Indeed, every businessman will tell you that if you lower prices people will buy more and if you raise them people will buy less – precisely the opposite of the deflation thesis. More importantly, however, even if such price falls did result, there is no further reason to suggest that it would cause economic calamity. First, goods are, at the end of the day, evaluated for the ends that they meet. The fulfilment of these ends, as a result of the logic of human action, cannot be put off indefinitely and each individual will have to consume at some point. A person may simply be waiting for prices to bottom out before he purchases but there must come a time where he believes this to be. Taken to its logical extreme, the deflation thesis suggests that falling prices will cause people to simply stop acting altogether – that they cease seeking the fulfilment of ends through means. This will never happen so long as they remain human. Indeed, price deflation in entire industries – particularly in personal technology, such as computers and mobile phones – has not caused the collapse of this sector precisely because the value of owning a more expensive computer today is greater than that of waiting for a less expensive one in, say, three years. In other words, even if a person knows that a computer may cost £1000 today but only half as much in three years, he will still spend £1000 today if the benefit to be derived from the computer today is more valuable than saving £500 and waiting three years for that benefit. Second, viewed from the point of view of the satisfaction of each individual’s ends, there is no reason to suggest that artificially inflating prices, thus causing a person to buy sooner, will cause a greater fulfilment of that person’s ends compared to an economy where there is no deliberate price inflation. From that individual’s point of view, the earlier purchase may be wasteful compared to the later purchase he would have made had prices not been forcibly inflated. Third, even though the opposite of “catastrophic” deflation – namely, hyperinflation – in and of itself causes shifts in the demand curve to the right that accelerate the price rises, the motivation for this is not so much the rising prices as the realisation, on the part of the public, that the currency is worthless. Hence, a hyperinflation always ends in a flight to other currencies and stores of value. Indeed, following the recent Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the government there has gone as far as to recognise no fewer than nine foreign currencies as legal tender. No such realisation exists during falling prices and, funnily enough, people do not seem to be eager to flee to inflating currencies during a deflation! Fourth, there is no reason to suggest that falling prices will dampen business prospects. Nominal revenue will, of course, fall during a general price deflation. However, the success of a business – measured by its profit – depends not only upon the height of its revenue but also upon the height of its costs and these too are falling. Businesses would only put off purchasing and investing if revenue was predicted to remain constant while costs were predicted to fall, or fall further. If, however, falling revenue is met by falling costs then there still exists a profit motive, with every incentive to invest and trade today. Fifth, much of the deflation fear comes from the monetarist analysis of the Great Depression where, indeed, there was a monetary contraction1. However, the stagnation during that era was not due to the deflation per se but because of the widespread attempt to keep wages and prices high in spite of the monetary contraction. Had prices been allowed to fall then recovery would have been much swifter.

The real reason for the deflation scare is, of course, because perpetual inflation serves to protect the vested interests of the state and its corporate cronies and banker elites. The characteristic of any deflation is that the purchasing power of the monetary unit becomes stronger; all else being equal, therefore, assets that are merely quoted in the unit of currency and promise to pay no amount of fixed currency – such as shares, houses, precious metals, and so on – will fall in value. However, assets that are denominated in the unit of currency and promise to pay a fixed number of dollars, euros or whatever – such as bonds and debt instruments – will not lose value. Governments and banks, having benefited from borrowing cheap, printed money, used it to purchase assets that are mostly dollar quoted while their liabilities are dollar denominated2. Hence, a deflation would cripple the prices of the government’s or a bank’s assets while leaving its liabilities untouched. Hence not only large banks but entire states would be obliterated by bankruptcy. Clearly the political-banker elite cannot permit this to happen. The need for constant inflation is not, therefore, something that is necessary for economic growth and the wellbeing of the general public. Rather, it is necessitated by the asset-liability mix brought about by previous inflation which would threaten the existence of large, establishment institutions if it was to reverse. They need more cheap money, more theft of your purchasing power, in order to keep their assets rising and their liabilities from doing the same. The deflation myth, therefore, is nothing more than a part of the big statist fraud, benefitting a select few and the expense of everybody else.

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1Although the failure to overcome this was not from want of trying – see Murray Rothbard, America’s Great Depression, Part III, where he argues that the deflation was the result of factors that negated the inflationary response of the government and the Federal Reserve.

2Although mortgages, which were a heavy factor in the 2008 financial crisis, are dollar denominated, the security behind the loan – the amount the lender will receive in the event that the borrower can no longer pay – is the house that the mortgage has been used to purchase. This asset is merely dollar quoted and hence during a deflation the value of the security of a bad mortgage will dissipate and with it any chance of recovery at par for the mortgagee.

Money – the Root of all (Government) Evil?

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In addressing the evil and parasitic nature of the state, libertarians focus on many of the state’s specific characteristics in order to demonstrate its destructive effects upon civilisation – whether it is nationalised industries, market interference, the minimum wage, anti-discrimination and egalitarian pursuits, the business cycle, or whatever, there is a treasure trove of libertarian literature available that explains and elaborates the deleterious effects of these particular state endeavours. However, a less addressed question is which of these areas, if any, are the most important? Which of them amount to mere nuisances that can be circumvented or otherwise put up with and which, if any, of them amount to a significant transfer of wealth and power to the state with seemingly permanent effects? Furthermore, is there any one issue that libertarians should stress above all others if we are to deliver a real and significant puncture to the state’s ever-inflating balloon?

One prime candidate for this title is war and international conflict. With war comes every glittering prize that the state could ever dream of – mass mobilisation of labour and industry towards a common purpose dictated by the state; control of all markets; mass propaganda; control of communications; suspension of free speech and possibly of habeas corpus; and not to mention the bogeyman of the supposed enemy to which to channel the attention and hatred of the average citizen. Indeed Murray Rothbard, relatively in his career, recognised that while libertarians had some very profound things to say about the state’s mismanagement of, for example, the post office, focussing on war was the real key to unravelling the state’s power and oppression of the population.

Nevertheless, while a permanent and lasting degree of state power and control is enabled by war there is another contender for the top spot. That is the government’s control of money and, specifically, the ability to create an endless supply of paper money distributed to itself and its favoured outlets, as opposed to the rigour and discipline imposed by a “hard money” standard such as gold. Ultimately it is the state’s ability to fund itself that is at the root of all of its other absorption of power and control – even war.

In order to demonstrate this let us look at what the situation would be if government was constrained by a denationalised, “hard” money such as gold. In the first place, government would be wholly reliant upon the tax receipts of its individual citizens for funding and would be unable to resort to extensive deficit spending or inflation. The plainness and visibility of that confiscation places a much lower limit upon the state’s coffers. Put simply, when too much money is taken out of your hands physically you are likely to revolt much sooner. Indeed, in the past, war itself was an expensive operation and battling kings often struggled to raise funds to maintain campaigns. Strategic brilliance was often not accomplished by an all-out destruction of the enemy but, rather, by out-manoeuvring your opponent and preserving for as long as possible expensively-trained soldiers and equipment. In many cases funding had to come from external sources. The genesis of the aristocracy was in those who were rewarded with titles to the conquered land in return for funding the war – in other words the ruler had to parcel out parts of the new territory to those who had helped him grab it. Indeed even the English parliament itself and the Magna Carta­ – famed as the genesis for two cardinal principles of liberty, no taxation without consent and no trial without due process – resulted in part from the reliance of the king upon his relationship with the barons for support and funding. Hard money therefore not only physically restricts the amount the state can spend but has been the indirect cause of the enshrinement of restrictions upon the state’s despotic power.

In more recent times, however, the ability to provide funding from a non-stop printing press has permitted the state to expand its activities without having to account for them through tax receipts. People do not see the money disappearing from their pay packets or from their bank accounts; all they see is the prices they have to pay for goods and services rising and squeezing their purchasing power, a fact that can be easily blamed on greedy businessmen and shareholders. It is possible for a libertarian to be sympathetic with the view that as long as you know how much the government is taking from you then it has a reasonable degree of tolerability. But when government resorts to the smoke and mirrors trick of robbing not the money in your hand but, rather, its purchasing power then it must be opposed emphatically. In comparison to earlier conflicts, the wars of the twentieth century were so prolonged and destructive precisely because government could resort to the printing press. Had they relied solely upon tax receipts “war-weariness” would have set in much sooner among the population and they would have demanded a swift end to hostilities. Hence all of the overreaching effects of the state’s engagement in war flows directly from its ability to control the supply of money. If we wish to end the consequences of war upon the state’s metastasised growth then we need to attack the root of its ability to fund it.

It is true, of course, that there may be something of a chicken and egg story when it comes to war and paper money. Does paper money cause government to engage in war or does war cause government to print paper money? Either way, however, even if government was previously respectful of a hard money standard which it does not abandon until the outbreak of a war, it is this power of printing paper money in and of itself that fuels the extent of its belligerence. And in any case, the ease with which government can suddenly suspend a hard money standard only comes about because they have arrogated to themselves monopolistic control of the operation of money issuance. It would be much harder for government to print un-backed notes and force their acceptance when others are issuing notes fully redeemable in gold. Whatever comes first, however, either the paper money or the war and the growth of the state power, if you wish to prevent the flood then you must turn off the taps.

In more peaceful times hard money also disciplines the citizenry into realising that government is not the fountain of all wealth. The state has grown so much under democracy because, apart from the veneer of legitimacy that popular elections lend to the state, politicians are able to bribe the electorate with endless goodies that they do not believe that they have to pay for. The resulting borrowing and inflation – now reaching an eye-watering level in the West – which does not touch the citizen directly gives the impression of government as an endless stock of resources, the only difficult task being to elect someone who will give them to you rather than worrying about the more trifling matters of production and enterprise. Indeed, public discourse rarely seems to acknowledge the fact of scarcity, usually focussing on single issues and concluding with an explosion of outrage about how government isn’t “doing more” to combat the alleged societal ill. The more difficult question of the expense that we would endure, what should be given up as a result and which goods cannot be brought into being because of the new expenditure diverted to cure the problem complained of is overlooked. To the citizen there is always more money, more resources and more of everything that government can acquire from somewhere other than himself. However, in exactly the same way as a hard money standard would induce “war-weariness” in belligerent times so too would it induce “state-weariness” in peaceful times. People would soon tire of having their pay packets robbed to fund goods for other people; and people would soon realise that many of the things they would otherwise want from government for free simply cannot be afforded and must be worked for by themselves.

Let us turn next to the whole problem of the business cycle. Although panics existed before the advent of modern central banking many of these occurred precisely because hard money rules were casually abandoned, with issuing institutions expanding the volume of credit beyond the stock of monetary gold and government happily stepping in and relieving them of the obligation to redeem their notes in specie. But whatever the characteristics of pre-central banking business cycles it is undeniable that they reached a depth, severity and prolongation in the twentieth century that was not seen before. There are two reasons for this. First, government’s enhanced control over the supply of money induces a more serious degree of malinvestment than would otherwise be the case where the supply of money is checked by the stock of redeemable gold. In both of the biggest collapses of the last one hundred years – 1929 and 2008 – credit expansion ran for the best part of a decade or more. The longer the false signals towards entrepreneurs are continued the more they will borrow and invest in unsustainable capital projects and the further those projects go the more difficult they will be to unwind. When the bust finally comes, therefore, the situation is far more serious than it otherwise would have been. This brings about the second factor – that it lends credibility to the argument that the government should step in and “do something” to combat the malaise. The reason why the Great Depression endured for years (and why we are still enduring the current one) is not because of the initial collapse – it is because government did everything it could to maintain the existing structure of production, wages and prices. Fittingly enough President Hoover often invoked the language of war in describing the threat of the downturn and the culmination of this in the New Deal – the complete cartelisation of industry and agriculture into a fascistic economy – was achieved by the resurrection of World War One era departments and programmes. It is supremely ironic that government-caused depressions give rise to ever more invasive government intrusions, an irony that turns truly into tragedy when we consider that what followed the Great Depression was the carnage and destruction of World War II. With the current belligerence of the US in provoking tension with Russia and China another war is something that cannot be ruled out as a result of the present crisis; and we all know how destructive war is to freedom.

What we can see therefore is that government control of money is a prime contender for the top spot of issues that libertarians should consider as the most serious when combatting threats to liberty. If this should be doubted then one has to question why the mystery of central banking and its ability to pull the monetary strings from a shady, secretive outlet has been a political non-issue for decades. Politicians only bring into debate the relatively “easy” problems that do not upset the apple cart. While they are keen to oust their immediate, political opponents they never provide the public with any serious choice that would restrict the power and growth of government as a whole. At least democracy – another cause of government growth and legitimacy – gets praised and lauded from time to time, if only ever to justify the government’s military crusades against foreign tyrants. But before the last few years central banking and monopoly issuance of money was hardly even mentioned – not even to give it a blessing. It seems as though government is fine with brainwashing its citizens into embracing the justice of elections by voting but it is far too scared to even make them aware of its power over money. Although this is now beginning to change and there is a greater enquiry into and scrutiny of the US Federal Reserve (not least because of ex-Congressman Ron Paul’s emphasis of the issue) the acceptance of and absence of discussion of these evil institutions has pervaded for too long. This is where government would be truly and irredeemably hurt. It could enact as many reams of invasive and destructive legislation as it liked, yet they would be of zero threat if government was starved of funding to enforce them.

It is appropriate to end with the words of Ludwig von Mises who recognised everything we have been saying here in his first major treatise on the subject of money:

Defense of the individual’s liberty against the encroachment of tyrannical governments is the essential theme of the history of Western civilization. The characteristic feature of the Occident is its peoples’ pursuit of liberty, a concern unknown to Orientals. All the marvellous achievements of Western civilization are fruits grown on the tree of liberty.

It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights. The demand for constitutional guarantees and for bills of rights was a reaction against arbitrary rule and the non-observance of old customs by kings. The postulate of sound money was first brought up as a response to the princely practice of debasing the coinage. It was later carefully elaborated and perfected in the age which—through the experience of the American continental currency, the paper money of the French Revolution and the British restriction period—had learned what a government can do to a nation’s currency system.

[…]

Thus the sound-money principle has two aspects. It is affirmative in approving the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is negative in obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system.

The sound-money principle was derived not so much from the Classical economists’ analysis of the market phenomena as from their interpretation of historical experience. It was an experience that could be perceived by a much larger public than the narrow circles of those conversant with economic theory. Hence the sound-money idea became one of the most popular points of the liberal program. Friends and foes of liberalism considered it one of the essential postulates of a liberal policy1.

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1 Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, p 414.