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How Central Banks Create Inflation (Intellectual Capitalism Part 4)

This article continues from where my article Money and Banking ended.

Central Banks like the Federal Reserve in the United States are different than commercial fractional reserve banks.   As explained in the article A Brief History of Central Banks on the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s website,

A central bank is the term used to describe the authority responsible for policies that affect a country’s supply of money and credit. More specifically, a central bank uses its tools of monetary policy—open market operations, discount window lending, changes in reserve requirements—to affect short-term interest rates and the monetary base (currency held by the public plus bank reserves) and to achieve important policy goals.[1]

Unfortunately, this definition misses that fact that central banks are monopolies and therefore not part of capitalism (free market).

A central bank, or monetary authority, is a monopolized and often nationalized institution given privileged control over the production and distribution of money and credit. In modern economies, the central bank is responsible for the formulation of monetary policy and the regulation of member banks.[2]

According to this definition a central bank has control over “printing” the national currency, which in the modern world can be done by just a computer entry.  If you look into the Federal Reserve of the United States you will find that they have control over printing paper money, while the Treasury has control over minting coins.  However most currency today is just a computer entry and here the answers get even more obscure.  The best answer is that direct money creation is a dance between Congress, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve.  Everything becomes convoluted when a central bank is added into the equation and so far we have only discussed direct creation of currency not open market operations, discount window lending, and changes in reserve requirements.  I think politicians and central banks, not to mention the largest banks and brokerages, like this obscurity.

In order to make this less obscure I will analyze each “tool” of a central bank separately.  In addition, we are going to analyze the direct money creation issue through the lens of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  One reason to look at MMT it is how most central bankers see the world, which is illuminating.  It also points out some uncomfortable truths and exposes some of the Keynesian nonsense.  Wikipedia explains MMT as:

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT or Modern Money Theory, also known as Neo-Chartalism) is a macroeconomic theory which describes and analyses modern economies in which the national currency is fiat money, established and created by the government. The key insight of MMT is that “monetarily sovereign government is the monopoly supplier of its currency and can issue currency of any denomination in physical or non-physical forms. As such the government has an unlimited capacity to pay for the things it wishes to purchase and to fulfill promised future payments, and has an unlimited ability to provide funds to the other sectors. Thus, insolvency and bankruptcy of this government is not possible. It can always pay”.[3]

This quote is very revealing, especially the idea that “the government has an unlimited capacity to pay for the things it wishes to purchase and to fulfill promised future payments, and has an unlimited ability to provide funds to the other sectors.”  At the beginning of this series I pointed out that when money enters the equation in economics, people think magic happens and logic disappears.  The MMT people think they can create wealth by manipulating money.  The MMT advocates believe money and banking allow for good magic and Austrian Economics argues that money and banking are bad magic (meaning it destroys wealth). econgrowth.small

This is why I wrote my book on The Source of Economic Growth, which shows that increases in real per capita wealth are created by applying our reason to the objective problems of life – in other words by inventing and increasing our level of technology.  Money is not wealth, as I showed earlier in this series.  Money and banking are mainly a lubricant for the economy.  Of course real inventions in money and banking do increase our per capita wealth, such as cryptocurrencies might do if the governments (central banks) of the world would get out the way.  Cryptocurrencies hold the promise of significantly reducing the cost of transferring money around the world.

Modern Monetary Theory is correct that the government cannot run out of money if has legal tender laws, but that does not mean that “the government has an unlimited capacity to pay for the things it wishes.”  The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States in 2016 was around $17 trillion.[4]  If the government decides to spend $20 trillion of wealth and continues to spend more than the total output of wealth of the United States, then the Unites States will go bankrupt.  The ability to print (create) more money will not matter.  Venezuela has a central bank, but it has not saved Venezuela or allowed its government “to pay for the things it wishes.”  The expected inflation rate in 2017 for Venezuela is 1,660% according to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and its GDP fell 15% in 2016.  It also did not save the Weimar Republic which had a central bank, and it did not provide the government an unlimited capacity to pay for the things it wishes.  The MMT’s answer to the Weimar Republic is that they were forced to repay their war debts in gold.  According to MMT governments with a central bank and legal tender can be infinitely wealthy, which is clearly absurd.

The problem with MMT is it confuses money with wealth.  This is similar to how Keynesians reverse cause and effect, by arguing wealth is created by spending (consumption).  The ideas underlying MMT were proposed by John Law, who created the Mississippi Company in France in the early 1700s and almost bankrupt the whole country.[5]  It is a fascinating story, but beyond the scope of this article.

According to MMT the government creates money by spending.  As this article, Why a Central Bank Can Never Run Out of Money, explains:

The U.S. government spends it currency into existence. This is important, too. The government spends first and then collects taxes. (Logically, this is how it began, or else how would people get the money to pay taxes?) Taxes are what give the dollar value. As Alfred Mitchell-Innes, a diplomat and credit theorist, once put it: “A dollar of money is a dollar, not because of the material of which it is made, but because of the dollar of tax which is imposed to redeem it.”

According to this statement then increasing spending causes inflation, while increases in taxes cause deflation.  In the United States the Democrats (socialists) always want to increase spending and taxes, which cancel each other out according to MMT.  Republicans (conservatives) want to reduce spending and taxes which would also cancel each other out by this theory.  This analysis again confuses money with wealth and it ignores debt financing.

Another amazing thing about this statement is that if you or I “spent money into existence” it would be called counterfeiting and would be considered theft.  Somehow when the government does this, it is okay and according to MMT stimulates the economy (creates wealth).

The parenthetical comment “else how would people get the money to pay taxes?” is easily refuted by history.  People in the United States paid taxes, before the United States government had any legal tender.  As a result, there was no way for the government to spend before it collected taxes.  Even a cursory review of history provides numerous other examples, including early man in which there was no formal government.  In addition, my earlier article on Banking shows that banks create money when they create loans, which any MMT advocate should know.

I cannot make any sense of the final statement that the value of a dollar is created because of the tax necessary to redeem it.  This statement could only make sense to a totalitarian.  Totalitarians believe that when the government spends money it gives up some of its power and when it taxes and redeems the money it redeems this power.

This article explains the mechanism by which money is created as:

The Treasury spends dollars into existence through the central bank. The central bank credits the accounts of banks, and banks credit whoever is getting paid. Taxes reverse the process. Banks then debit accounts, and the central bank debits the banks. The government cannot run out of credits.

Note that no liability is created by the government in this direct money creation and no one is paying interest on this money, just like no one pays interest when money is printed.  There is a myth that all money in the United States (most modern countries) is created by a loan and that we have to pay the banks interest on all money created.  This is incorrect, the money created by this direct money creation process is not a loan and no one pays interest to have this money.

This process of money creation is only possible because the government has legal tender laws.  In my earlier article on Banking, I pointed out that legal tender laws were necessary for the government counterfeit money.  Since a central bank is tasked with controlling the money supply they require legal tender laws.  One of the fastest ways to undermine (eliminate) the Federal Reserve is to eliminate legal tender laws.

In theory Congress has to first authorize spending first.  However, in the United States we are not allowed to audit the Federal Reserve.  Thus it is possible even likely that the Federal Reserve creates money (direct money creation as opposed to a loan) and no one knows about it.  For instance, the Federal Reserve admitted that it could not account for $9 trillion of off-balance sheet transactions.[6]  While these may have been loans (we don’t know because we cannot audit the Federal Reserve), it shows how easy it would be for the Federal Reserve (or Treasury) to just credit someone’s bank account without anyone knowing.  Of course, I have no evidence of this, because we cannot audit the Fed, but human history would be on my side.

 

“Simple Inflation” under a Central Bank

In my earlier article on Banking and Inflation I defined simple inflation as that which occurs because of printing money or debasing the currency.  This direct creation of money function the same as these processes.  The amount of direct money created is equal to the total amount of money spent by the government, less the amount of taxes received, and less the amount of money borrowed by the government.  When a government resorts to direct money creation to pay for a large part of their operations, it results in rapidly increasing inflation rates.  Venezuela is the most blatant example today.

 

What we have learned:

  *Central banks do not arise in a free market (capitalism) they are a distortion of the free market.

            *Central banks require legal tender laws in order to fulfill their mission of controlling the money supply.

            *The amount the government spends less the amount it taxes and borrows is the amount of money created by the government (government counterfeiting), which results in simple inflation.

            *Modern Monetary Theory confuses money with wealth.

            *The fastest way to undermine (eliminate) the Federal Reserve is to eliminate legal tender laws.

 

Discount Window Lending

When most people think about the Federal Reserve (the central bank in United States) they immediately think about interest rates.  The Federal Reserve mainly affects interest rates in the United States by it setting of the Federal Funds Rate and by the Discount Rate.  The Federal Funds Rate is set by the Federal Reserve and is the interest rate at which banks lend reserve balances to each other.  The Discount Rate is the interest rate that the Federal Reserve charges banks to borrow from the Federal Reserve.  Both of these are related to the Federal Reserve’s function as a lender of last resort and are intended to prevent a “run on a bank.”

A run on bank is when a bank does not have enough cash (species) on hand to meet its customers demand.  This can occur to a sound bank and just represents a cash flow issue or it can be the result of a legitimate lack of solvency and confidence in the bank.  One of the main justifications for creating the Federal Reserve was to reduce the frequency of this occurring.  The empirical evidence is a mixed on this issue.  The Federal Reserve was created before the Great Depression and there were huge numbers of bank failures then.  However, the number of runs on banks and the number of bank failures where depositors lost money have probably decreased in frequency since the Great Depression.

When the Federal Reserve changes the Federal Funds Rate or the Discount Rate, which they usually change at the same time, it affects the interest rates that banks charge.  If the Federal Reserve increases either or both of these interest rates it usually causes banks to increase the interest rates they charge customers.  Generally the goal of raising interest rates is to reduce the number of loans banks are making and thereby decrease the money supply or slow its growth.  The opposite is true when the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates.  Thus it is normally considered inflationary when interest rates are lowered and deflationary when interest rates are raised.  Unfortunately, the empirical evidence is a bit murky on this issue.  For instance, interest rates were very low during the Great Depression in the United States and the money supply was shrinking.[7]  Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz argued that the Federal Reserve failed to fulfill their responsibility of lender of last resort.[8]

Since there appears to be some contradiction between the empirical data and the theory let’s examine this issue more closely.  When the Federal Reserve increases interest rates above the free market rate the result is that some projects that would have made economic sense to fund with a loan no longer are.  As a result fewer loans will be imitated by banks than would have been the case if interest rates were at the free market rate (the free market rate is the interest rate that banks would charge if there was no central bank).  This will reduce the money supply.  However this is a transient effect.  Once the economy has adjusted to the new interest rates loans will be created at this new lower rate.  At this point it is likely the money supply will grow (shrink) roughly at the same rate as the economy, as I explained in my earlier article on Banking.  If the Federal Reserve raises interest rates too far above the free market rate it can cause a nationwide liquidity crises, which will destroy some wealth that was or would have been created.  The government can destroy wealth, but it cannot create wealth only redistribute it.

If the Federal Reserve sets the interest rate lower than the free market rate but not too low, then more projects that would have not made economic sense to fund with a loan now are.  This results in a one-time increase the money supply and after that it the money supply should grow at about the same rate as the economy.  As a result, lowering the interest rate below the free market rate, but not too low, will result in a one-time increase in the money supply.

If a central bank lowers the interest rates too low, banks will refuse to initiate loans.  How low?  Well if the interest rate that banks can charge to commercial customers is the same as they can get on Treasuries, then the banks are not compensated for the risk and expense of initiating a commercial loan.  Banks need to be able to charge interest rates to their commercial customers that compensates for the extra risk and expense involve over supposedly safe investments like Treasuries (government bonds).  As a result, when interest rates are set too low by the central bank it results in a contraction of the money supply.

This shows that low interest rates (lower than free market rates) are not the cause of long term inflation and if the interest rate is too low it can be deflationary.  This is likely what has been happening in Japan since the 1990s and happened in United States during the Great Depression.  Other government policies can also effect how the economy behaves, which makes it hard to nail down the exact effect of the central banks policies.  For instance, Friedman and Schwartz seemed to blame the Federal Reserve for everything that happened in the Great Depression, however it is clear that other anti-free market policies by Roosevelt and Hoover before him also contributed significantly to the Great Depression.

Central banks can also change the number of loans that are initiated by changing the reserve ratio requirement.

The commercial bank’s reserves normally consist of cash owned by the bank and stored physically in the bank vault (vault cash), plus the amount of the commercial bank’s balance in that bank’s account with the central bank.[9]

However, this also should have a one-time effect on the money supply.  The result is that long term inflation is not caused by a central bank’s interest rate policy.  A central bank’s failure to act as a lender of last resort may cause an extended period of deflation however.

 

Open Market Operations

Another tool of central banks is open market operations where the bank goes into the market and sells or buys securities, usually bonds.  When a central bank buys securities it increases the money supply.  This operation involves the central bank creating money (a computer entry without any associated liability) and then buying the securities, which puts money into the economy.  As those bonds (normally the central bank buys bonds) are paid off it decreases the money supply.  As a result, buying securities results in a one-time increase in inflation that is removed as the bond is paid back.  Of course the central bank can continue to buy bonds if it wants to continue to inflate.

Alternatively, the central bank can sell securities, which results in a decrease in the money supply as private parties trade cash for the security.  As the private parties receive payments from the securities (if they are bonds) the money is reintroduced into the economy.  Each purchase by the central bank is a one-time decrease in the money supply (assuming the security is a bond) that is removed over time as the bond is paid back.

Both of the scenarios above assume that the central bank is buying or selling bonds (or other securities) at their free market rate.  If the central bank over pays for a bond the amount that it overpays for the bond is a direct creation of money and is not redeemed as the bond is paid off.

When the bond is a government bond (national) and the central bank agrees to purchase the bond at a lower interest rate than the free market rate, then this results in the direct creation of money equal to the difference in the required payments in a free market verses what the government actually pays.  This is clearly inflationary and very subtle.

When a central bank starts buying a significant percentage of the government bonds when issued, the most likely reason is that private buyers are not willing to purchase the bonds at the price (interest rate) the government wants to sell them at.  This is one of the surest signs that the central bank is creating large amounts of money to finance the government.  However, it is very subtle.  It is very hard to calculate how much money has been directly created.  If the central bank buys the government bonds near their real cost and requires payments based on tax receipts, then the amount of inflation is very small or not at all.  The central bank can just quietly retire these bonds and then the inflation is huge.  Since in the United States we cannot audit the Federal Reserve we have very little idea of what is really happening.  Inflation caused by open market operations and interest rate targeting are subtle and hard to detect and I call the inflation caused by these operations “complex inflation.”  Central banks and the legal tender laws they depend are designed to obscure what the government and central bank are doing.  This allows for all sorts of mischief and inside deals.

Attempts to measure money creation, M0-M4, do not differentiate between these mechanisms and therefore are poor at predicting inflation.

How many companies did the Federal Reserve bail out in 2008?  Did these companies really pay back these loans?  We know for sure that banks were allowed to “borrow” huge sums money from the Federal Reserve at near zero interest rates and then “invest” this money in Treasuries.  This was just a complex way of hiding the fact that the Federal Reserve created (printed) money and gave it to these banks.  The procedure was obscure enough that most Americans would either not understand what was happening or would get bored when someone explained it to them.  However, the money created was paid for by (really stolen from) all those Americans (and people forced to use US dollars around the world) who hold or work for US dollars.  The bankers then paid themselves huge bonuses for their brilliant investment strategies.

 

Here is what we have learned:

          *Central banks create money directly, although in theory in the United States with the direction of Congress and the Treasury.
            *When central banks change the interest rates it causes a one-time increase in inflation (deflation).  Low interest rates do not

            *Open market operations provide numerous ways to increase inflation that are subtle and hard to detect. 

 

 

History of Central Banks in the United States

Many people label the First National Bank of the United States as a central bank.  A central bank is different from a national bank, such as the First National Bank (FNB) of the United States setup during Washington’s presidency.  The FNB was a private bank in which the federal government had a twenty percent equity interest.  It was forbidden from buying government bonds, had a mandatory rotation of directors, it could not issue notes or incur debt beyond its capitalization, and the federal government could withdraw its money from the FNB and place it with another bank.[10]  The FNB of the United States was a truly a private bank not a central bank.  It did not set the policies that “affect a county’s supply of money and credit.”  It also did not issue legal tender.

Hamilton and Washington pushed for a national bank because the national government had to be able to pay bills through-out the nation and a national bank made this easier than working with multiple different banks.  Depending on a person’s view of central banking they either vilify Hamilton or think he was a genius.  Both sides seem to confuse the national bank issue with the Hamilton’s efforts to put the newly formed United States government on sound footing.  Hamilton’ s first report on public credit did not mention a national bank, it only dealt with the state and foreign bonds left over from the revolutionary war.  The report called for:

1) Assumption of the state and foreign bonds that were trading around 20-25% of their face value.

2) Paying off these state and foreign bonds at their face value by issuing new federal bonds.

3) Tariffs and tonnage duties would back these new federal bonds.

The result of this legislation, according to Wikipedia was:

The adoption of Hamilton’s Report had the immediate effect of converting what had been virtually worthless federal and state certificates of indebtedness into $60 million of funded government securities. Fully funded, the central government regained the ability to borrow, attracting foreign investment as social unrest destabilized Europe. In addition, the newly issued bonds provided a circulating currency, stimulating business investment.[11]

Hamilton’s plan worked brilliantly and it had nothing to do with a National Bank.

            The national bank was proposed in a separate report.  Hamilton would not have been in favor of a central bank.  Hamilton believed that a bank run by the government would be tempted print too much money.[12]  The First National Bank was not a central bank, however it was a government chartered and supported enterprise sort of like Fannie Mae and not strictly a free market enterprise either.  Such enterprises are prone to inside deals.

Most people point to the Second National Bank of the United States created in the Madison administration as a central bank.  The Second National Bank was modeled after the First National Bank, except it had some regulatory authority over other banks.  This made it closer to a central bank, however it did not have the power of legal tender or a monopoly on the issuance of money.  Apparently, the Second National Bank was poorly run and became involved in politics.  Andrew Jackson refused to renew its charter so its operations ended in 1836.  The information I could find on the Second National Bank was sparse compared to the First National Bank.

The first real central bank in the United States is the Federal Reserve, which was created in 1913.  The Federal Reserve is a private entity of sorts.  It is more like Fannie Mae than a true private bank however.  It has the power to create legal tender, it is tasked with setting interest rates to achieve policy goals, and it has regulatory control over the whole banking system in the United States.

There were two main justifications for the Federal Reserve: 1) the United States needed a lender of last resort to avoid banking panics, and 2) the idea that the United States government almost went bankrupt a couple of times, but JP Morgan saved the day.[13]

The United States did suffer from a number of bank panics, but these were due to over-regulation, not the free market.  Oddly, finance (stocks and bonds) was not regulated at all in the United States until the Kansas’ Blue Sky Law in 1911, which was the blue print for the Securities Act of 1933.  Banks on the other hand were highly regulated, the most obvious of these regulations were unit banking laws.  Unit banking laws required that banks could have only one location and these laws existed in a number of states and was applied to federal banks.  These resulted in a lack of diversification in banks’ portfolios, which increased their risk of failure.[14]  Canada did not have these restrictions.  Canada had many nationwide banks and as a result did not have a single bank fail during the Great Depression.[15]

Private banks had already created clearing houses that acted as a lender of last resort, before the Federal Reserve.

Friedman understood . . . that before the Federal Reserve Act financial panics in the US were mitigated by the actions of private commercial bank clearinghouses. Friedman and Schwartz’s view of the 1930′s was that the Fed, having nationalized the roles of the clearinghouse associations [CHAs], particularly the lender-of-last-resort role, did less to mitigate the panic than the CHAs had done in earlier panics like 1907 and 1893. In that sense, the economy would have been better off if the Fed had not been created. This position is perfectly consistent with the position that, provided we take the Fed’s nationalization of the clearinghouse roles for granted, the Fed was guilty of not doing its job.[16]

The idea that the United States needed a central bank, is not justified by the banking failures before the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve failed in this function during the Great Depression.

The other justification for the creation of the Federal Reserve was the supposed bailouts of the United States federal government in 1893 and 1907 by JP Morgan.  The United States was on a gold standard and the governments gold reserves were being depleted rapidly in both cases.  In both cases Morgan guaranteed to buy bonds issued to purchase gold for the United States Treasury.  These bonds were sold on the strength and credit of the United States and Morgan profited by both of these so-called bailouts.  If the Treasury had been doing its job correctly it would have cultivated a market for these bonds long before this crisis.  In addition, the federal government could also have slashed spending.  Not surprisingly the bailout of 1907 happened under the bad economic policies of Teddy Roosevelt.  In addition, the United States had the power to issue legal tender, which it could have done to conserve its gold.  The history surrounding these events is confused and has not been fully explored.  This paper is not full exploration of this topic, however it raises serious doubts that the narrative of these panics was a legitimate justification for the creation of the Federal Reserve.

Another narrative pushed by the banking interests is that somehow banks are different than other businesses.  Banks always argue that if one bank (large politically connected bank) fails then the whole banking system will collapse.  This narrative is trotted out every time banks demand a bailout, the most recent being the bailouts in 2008.  When a bank fails it goes through bankruptcy, which acts as a circuit breaker from a cascading series of failures.  This is exactly what happens in other areas of the economy.  Another solution that I do not endorse, but is better than bailouts, was the Resolution Trust Corporation that was created to liquidate the savings and loan failures of the late 1980s.  The Resolution Trust Corporation was essentially a massive bankruptcy proceeding and importantly its existence was limited.  It had to liquidate all its assets by 1992 (five year life).

The justifications of for the Federal Reserve are weak at best and considering the damage the Federal Reserve has done to the economy and its potential for abuse it should be ended.  The origins of the Federal Reserve are based on government failure, specifically interference in a free market.

 

What we have learned:

        *Central banks do not arise naturally in a free market and are not part of a free market.

            *Central banks and legal tender laws are the source of inflation, not private fractional reserve banks.

            *Central banks provide an easy way to obscure that the central bank and the government are creating inflation.

            *Lowering interest rates causes a one-time increase in the money supply over the trend line.

            *The fastest way to undermine (eliminate) the Federal Reserve is to eliminate legal tender laws.

 

 

[1] Bordo, Michael D., A Brief History of Central Banks, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland,

http://www.clevelandfed.org/research/commentary/2007/12.cfm, A Brief History of Central Banks, December 1, 2007.

[2] Investopedia, Central Bank http://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/centralbank.asp#ixzz4V5iaLeW, accessed January 7, 2017.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Monetary_Theory, accessed January 13, 2017.

[4] We can debate the accuracy of the actual number, however the point is the same.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_Company, accessed January 13, 2017.

[6]

[1] Lawrence Hunter, Forbes, OCT 29, 2012,  Is The Federal Reserve Using Money-Laundering Techniques To Cleanse Banks’ Balance Sheets?, http://www.forbes.com/sites/lawrencehunter/2012/10/29/are-federal-reserve-regulated-banks-laundering-dirty-money/#6da1ce8f27cb accessed February 7, 2017.

[7] Ivan Pongracic Jr., The Great Depression According to Milton Friedman, FEE, Saturday, September 01, 2007, . https://fee.org/articles/the-great-depression-according-to-milton-friedman/, accessed January 14, 2017.

[8] [8] Ivan Pongracic Jr., The Great Depression According to Milton Friedman, FEE, Saturday, September 01, 2007, . https://fee.org/articles/the-great-depression-according-to-milton-friedman/, accessed January 14, 2017.

[9] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserve_requirement , accessed January 14, 2017.

[10] The book, Hamilton’s Blessing, is a great reference for this but I do not have a copy anymore.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Report_on_the_Public_Credit#Funding_the_national_debt , accessed January 15, 2017.

[12] Gordon, John Steele, Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Time of Our National Debt, Penguin Books, 1997, p. 34.

 

[13] http://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/08/federal-reserve.asp, accessed January 15, 2017.

[15] CARPE DIEM, http://mjperry.blogspot.mx/2008/09/great-depression-not-single-canadian.html , accessed January 15, 2017.

[16] . https://fee.org/articles/the-great-depression-according-to-milton-friedman/,  The Great Depression According to Milton Friedman, Ivan Pongracic Jr., Saturday, September 01, 2007, accessed January 15, 2017.

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January 16, 2017 Posted by | Intellectual Capitalism | , , , , | 1 Comment

Latest Review of Source of Economic Growth

This is an excellent book that cuts through the morass of theories about the source of wealth to make an identification that gave me a thrilling “Eureka!” moment, followed by an “Of course! Why didn’t I see that?” which comes with every brilliantly made, clearly expressed discovery. Thank you for clearing the cobwebs on the vital issue on the source of ongoing wealth — the dissemination of your well-supported identifications can make the difference in the quality of life in all nations for all lifetimes to come.
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January 11, 2017 Posted by | Intellectual Capitalism | | Leave a comment

Money and Banking (Intellectual Capitalism Part 3)

There are a lot of misconceptions about money and banking.  Often people either think these are the root of all our problems or the solution to all our problems.  Both seem to believe that once money enters the equation in economics magic happens.  This paper will focus on how money and banking work in a free market and then examine the distortions caused by government manipulation of money and banking.

 

Money

If you examine an economics book on money it will tell you money is a medium of transaction, a store of value, and a unit of account.  Some economist say that money being a medium of exchange is the real function (definition) and the other two functions follow from money’s primary purpose.  I agree and therefore in this paper the definition of money is a medium of exchange.

All sorts of things have served as money including sea shells, tobacco leaves, grain, large immovable stones, tea leaves, cigarettes, silver, gold, paper, and computer bits (entries).  Why money is a useful invention is usually explained by way of an example.  Suppose that you raise cows for a living and you wanted to buy a loaf of bread.  If you tried to trade your cow to the butcher, you would want several hundred loaves of bread in return.  Most of the bread would spoil before you can eat it, so you only want two loaves of bread now.  On top of this, the baker wants chickens not a cow.  Under a bartering system these transaction will not occur, however with the addition of money you can sell your cow to the butcher and he will give you money.  You can then use the money to buy two loaves of bread, which the baker can use the money to buy chickens.

It is likely that money originally grew out of an IOU (I Owe yoU) system.  For instance, in the example above it is possible that once the rancher and the baker agree that the cow is worth 300 loaves of bread, then the baker would give the rancher two loaves of bread and an IOU for 298 loaves of bread.  The rancher intends to present the IOU to the baker every week for his two loaves of bread.  At which time the baker will give him two loaves of bread and an amended (new) IOU.

Unfortunately, the rancher gets sick and needs a doctor.  The doctor agrees to accept the baker’s IOU in payment for his services.  Now the baker’s IOU has acted as medium of exchange, which means it is money.

Money is just a generally accept IOU.  In other words many people will accept it as a general IOU that they can “redeem” from most people.  In the example above the doctor would have to worry that the baker might not make good on his IOU.  Now some people will argue that only paper fiat money is a generalized IOU.  However, even gold is functioning as a generalized IOU.  It is commodity money and as a result may have value in the market separate from its use as an IOU, but the person accepting it as money does not need it as a commodity.  He is planning on trading it with other people for goods and services.  On a deserted island (with no hope of rescue) you could have a ton of gold, but it would useless and you would not be better off with it than without it.  This also shows that wealth is not the same thing as having money.

One of the advantages of this point of view on money as an IOU is that it makes it clear that money is not wealth, even gold. The Spanish Kings and Queens found out this point when they brought back tons, literally, of gold and silver but still ended up going bankrupt.  The gold was not wealth and they spent their gold on things that did not create wealth.  Wealth is the things and knowledge that solve the objective problems of life (inventions).  I added the knowledge part because if you give an aboriginal person living in the Brazilian rain forest a super-computer, or an MRI machine, or even a bulldozer they are not wealthier because they do not know how to use these things (inventions) or even trade them.  Wealth is also about the objective problems of life, the most fundamental ones being air, water, and food.  These are still problems for many people in the third world.  Even in wealthy first world countries people have real objective problems, such as health problems, safety, etc.  It might not be as obvious why cruise control or smart phones solve objective problems, however if you think about it both do.

The idea that money is not wealth is important because it immediately makes the fallacy of Mercantilism apparent, which Adam Smith spent 100s of pages on.  In addition, it makes it clear that we cannot become wealthier by manipulating the money supply.  The only way to become wealthier on a per capita basis is to create new things that are more efficient at solving the objective problems of life or solve new objective problems of life, in other words create new inventions.

People often argue about the differences between money, currency, real money, commodity money, debt money, paper money, and fiat money.  Currency is generally defined as something that is specifically designed to function as money, such as coins.  Commodity money is when the money is a commodity such as silver, gold, grain, or is backed by a commodity.  Now real money can mean several different things, however I am talking about people who argue that only gold (silver) is real money.  By this they seem to mean that gold is a commodity money and all other currencies are to be measured against gold.  All commodity moneys have the advantage that they are more difficult for the government to devalue, however bitcoin also has this feature.  The other point is that gold has a long tradition as a widely recognized money.  This is true but does nothing to enlighten what money is or what its function is.

Fiat money is money that is not backed by a commodity.  Usually it is paper money although more and more it is just electronic entries in a computer and often it is legal tender, which will discuss in more detail shortly.  Paper money is self-explanatory.  Debt money can have several meanings, but usually means the money “created” when a person (entity) takes out a loan.  Many people argue that debt money is evil or somehow costs us interest just to have money.  Since all money is essentially an IOU, all money is created by a debt, i.e., a claim to future goods and services.

 

Proto Banking

Banking and money have been closely linked at least since the Agricultural Revolution about 11,000 year ago.  The Agricultural Revolution was a series of inventions that provided man with access to a huge increase in the number of calories per acre.  As a result, the human population expanded enormously and the territory of humans also expanded.  These excess calories were converted into population increases until the number of calories collected/created by the human population were roughly equivalent to the number necessary to support that population.

The grains that were the major source of these extra calories had to be stored, because the grains ripened all at once.  While the grain was stored, it needed to be protected from water and vermin.  If the grain ran out before the next harvest, people starved to death.  Efficient, effective storage of grains reduced the chances of running out grain before the next harvest.  A centralized grain storage (grain silos) was more effective than econgrowth.smallindividual storage of grains.  When a farmer deposited their grain they received a receipt (clay tablet) for the grain.  Eventually people started to use these receipts to pay for other goods (services).  For instance, if you wanted to buy a chicken instead of going to the grain silo and taking out enough grain to pay for the chicken, you just handed over some of these clay tablets to the owner of the chicken.  In other words these receipts became money.

In ancient Mesopotamia, as long ago as 5000 B.C.E., clay tablets were used to represent beer or grain.[1]  These clay tablets functioned as money.  Gold also started functioning as money about the same time, but was probably only used for large or long distance payments and therefore was not used by average people.[2]  These clay tablets were “created out of thin air” in the vernacular of today.  After a harvest there would be a lot of these clay tablets around and we would say the money supply increased.  As people withdrew grain, the grain bank would redeem these receipts.  We do not know if the “bank” destroyed these clay tablets, which would have been the logical thing to do or if they stored them for the next harvest.  Either way the money supply would shrink until the next harvest.  In fact the number of clay tablets (in circulation) would have shrunk to almost to zero just before the next harvest.  We know this is the case because of evolution.  Population expands until it takes up the available food supply, which is known as the Malthusian Trap.  This means the grain would be almost gone by the time the next harvest rolled around.

If you eliminate money (clay tablets) this does not change the economic situation.  Until the Industrial Revolution people lived on the edge of starvation and it was common for families to have to ration their food and even pick who would get food and who would not.  Because the healthy adults were the only way any of them would survive through the next year, the old, the young, and the sick were the first one’s whose food was cut off.  This is a grim reminder that economics is not just a game, but has real world consequences.

If we replaced the clay tablets with coins (e.g., silver, gold), then the money supply would not go up and down.  However, the price of food (and other goods) would go up and down.  After a harvest the price of food would be cheap and just before the harvest food would be very expensive.  The monetary system would not change the underlying economic situation one bit.

This is what we have learned about money in a free market:

1) Money is a medium of exchange

2) Money is a generalized IOU

3) The money supply can vary in a free market without fractional reserve banking.

4) Many things can function as money and only the market should “decide” what is money.

5) Money is not magic and does not allow magic in economics.

Now we are going to introduce some government (non-free market) distortions to money.  Going back to our clay tablets, someone probably realized that it did not make sense to destroy the clay tablets when people withdrew grain, since they would have to make new clay tablets after the harvest.  The “bank” probably started storing them and this of course led to the temptation of stealing the clay tablets.  Also the government probably decreed that taxes had to be paid in these clay tablets, which was the first step to making them legal tender.

We are going to skip forward to Roman times.  The Roman’s used silver coins as their currency.  The main unit of money was the denarius, which was between the size of a modern nickel and dime and equivalent to a day’s worth of wages for a skilled laborer.[3]  As late as 68 C.E. the silver in a denarius was almost 100%, but then it started to decline.  People balked at using this debased money, however the government declared the new, lower silver coins legal tender.  By 265 C.E. the silver content in coins was down to 0.5%.  Not surprising the Roman Empire suffered huge inflation.  The Roman’s minted so many coins that even today you can buy several Roman coins of standard quality for twenty dollars or so.[4]  For clarity later on I am going to call this “simple inflation”.

An important point here is that legal tender laws are always the first step towards inflation.  The only reason for a government to pass a legal tender law is so that they can “print” money.  In other words, the government is undertaking an endeavor that would get any private citizen throw in jail.  With the end of the Roman Empire legal tender laws and banking died out during the Dark Ages.  Coins were mainly used by the rich during this period.

By the 1700s legal tender laws were being seen again in Europe.  France experimented with legal tender laws, allowing The Mississippi Company in the 1710s to have control over its legal tender with disastrous results.  Supposedly, the French swore off paper money and modern banking for years after this.  Some historians have even argued that this backwardness in France’s finance system was part of why they were beaten by the English.  This is a fascinating story, but beyond the scope of this article.

The British followed suit in 1833 making banknotes issued by the Bank of England (a private bank at the time) legal tender.[5]  The United States had no legal tender laws (after the Constitution) until 1862 during the American Civil War.  The North printed $450,000,000 under this law to help finance the war.  Eventually this law was declared unconstitutional in Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. 603 (1870).  The Court reasoned that the Constitution allowed the federal government to coin money, but not the power to make paper legal tender.  The government argued that since it had the power to carry out war and the issuance of the legal tender was necessary for carrying on the war, then legal tender laws fell under the “necessary and proper’ clause of the Constitution.  The Court rejected this argument and also pointed to the fact that the Constitution prohibited the states from interfering with contracts.  The Constitution did not specifically, prohibit the federal government from interfering with private contracts, but it would be against the spirit of the Constitution to allow the federal government to do so.  In one of the stranger twists in history, Salmon P. Chase helped push the legal tender legislation through as Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury, then he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and lead a 5-3 decision to declare the law unconstitutional.  Unfortunately, this case was quickly overruled by the Knox v. Lee, 79 U.S. 457 (1871) Supreme Court decision.

Multiple competing bank notes were the norm at that time.  According to the Cato Institute, “the government did not entirely monopolize issuance of notes until 1935, but the laws that made the monopoly possible date from the Civil War.”[6]  Today the legal tender law in the US is 35 USC § 5103 which states:

United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues. Foreign gold or silver coins are not legal tender for debts.

Legal Tender laws are necessary for government counterfeiting[7] to be successful.  Without legal tender laws, people would quit accepting the money printed by the government.  The key point is that legal tenders are necessary to create inflation.  Any further investigation of money will require that we first examine how banks work.

 

Banking

The first banks in Europe after the Dark Ages were goldsmiths.  Because goldsmiths were working with valuable materials they needed vaults.  Wealthy patrons would often give some of their gold or other valuables to the goldsmith to secure in their vault.  The goldsmith would give the patron a receipt for their gold.  Overtime, just like the clay tablets for grain, people started to trade the receipts instead of taking out gold and paying with the gold.

Some of the customers also started asking for loans.  The goldsmiths wanted to reduce their risk if the customer defaulted on the loan, so they asked for collateral.  Originally, they probably asked for jewelry or other things made of silver and gold, since they knew they could liquidate (sell) these items fairly easily.  The goldsmiths could have given the customer gold out of their gold reserve (capital) and they probably did initially.  Most likely many customers then gave the gold back to the goldsmith and took receipts for the gold.  If the goldsmith’s receipts were trusted enough, they could skip this step and just give the customer receipts.  If the customer failed to pay the loan back, the jewelry (collateral) became the property of the goldsmith.

Or the goldsmiths could have given the borrower gold on deposit from other customers, which is the way most people think of banking working.  In that case then the gold the goldsmith had on hand (deposit) was less than the amount of the receipts outstanding for the gold, which is fractional reserve banking (assuming the goldsmith had no gold capital or the loan(s) were greater than the goldsmith’s gold capital).  Fractional reserve banking is defined as:

a banking system in which only a fraction of bank deposits are backed by actual cash on hand and are available for withdrawal.[8]

Most customers probably deposited the borrowed gold with the goldsmith and took receipts.  Again the goldsmiths probably began to skip the step of giving the borrower actual gold (silver) and just gave them receipts for the gold.  At this point it might appear that the goldsmith is “creating money out of thin air”, however the receipts in this case are backed by the collateral, jewelry in this example.  Actually, all the outstanding receipts are now backed by the gold on hand and the collateral the goldsmith has for loans.

At this point the goldsmith risks all the holders of these receipts asking for their gold and the goldsmith does not have enough gold to fulfill all these demands.  However, the goldsmith does have enough capital to fulfill the demands, because the collateral, jewelry and gold on deposit in this example.  It is likely that initially most of these loans were “callable”, meaning that the goldsmith could demand the borrower pay them back in full (gold or receipts) at any time.  If the borrower paid up, then the goldsmith had no problem paying off the receipts.  If the borrower did not pay up, then goldsmith became the owner of the collateral (jewelry) and could sell it to fully back the receipts.[9]

Eventually the goldsmiths realized it was not only jewelry (gold and silver items) that had value and could act as collateral.  For instance, arable farmland was one of the most valuable assets that people could own for most of history since the Agricultural Revolution.  The goldsmith could not put the farmland in his vault, however he could have a legal claim to the land.  That claim stated that if the borrower did not pay back the loan, then the goldsmith owned the farmland.  Of course it takes longer to liquidate farmland than jewelry and farmland might be more subject to market fluctuations.  As a result, the amount the goldsmith would lend against the farmland was lower than for gold and silver items.

At first goldsmiths probably made loans against farmland that someone owned outright.  Eventually, they figured out that they could make loans on farmland that was being purchased, as long as there was a big enough down payment (the equivalent of loaning less than the value of collateral).  What the goldsmith is doing is securitizing assets other than gold.  When the goldsmiths created receipts for gold and silver deposits they were securitizing gold (and silver).  “Securitize is a pooled group of financial assets that together create a new security”[10] or banknote in this case.  This means that goldsmiths receipts (banknotes) are backed by not only gold deposits but the other assets that they hold as collateral.

This is exactly what a company does when it sells bonds (stock).  The bond is backed by the assets (collateral) of the company.  The bonds are usually very liquid and can be sold or traded in exchange for goods and services, i.e., the bonds are money.

These goldsmiths became fractional reserve banks once they started securitizing assets other than gold.  Fractional reserve banking is an important invention and is created (exists) in a free market.  A fractional reserve bank is doing something analogous to what engineers have done with the telephone system.  The backbone that connects two people together on a phone line does not have the capacity to allow everyone to make a call at the same time.  The engineers know that only a certain fraction of people will normally be on their phones at the same time.  By designing a system to handle this level of usage plus a margin, the cost of the telephone system is reduced.  Of course occasionally, like in the time of an emergency, everyone wants to use their phone at the same time and then you receive a message like ‘all circuits are busy, please try your call again later.’  Another example is the time sharing of resources is done by computers.  Before the 1980s this was done by having a number of computer terminals all connected to one large computer that time shared its resource among these terminals.  This is still done within your computer when it runs multiple programs.  The processing power of the microcontroller is time shared among these programs.

Banks know that only a small number of people will want gold at the same time.  Most of the time people will be happy with banknotes or just accounting entries.  However, if people lose confidence in the bank, then they will all want to withdraw gold (cash) at the same time.  This is called a ‘run on the bank’ and is the same thing as everyone trying to make a telephone call at the same time.  Note that this is a cash flow issue and can happen even to a bank that is profitable.  Usually, banks that were clearly profitable could borrow gold from other banks to weather the run.

When a fractional reserve bank (hereinafter bank) initiates a loan against an asset, let’s say a farm, the bank creates a security (banknotes or an entry in a ledger) equal to the amount of the loan.  In this process it “creates money” equal to the loan.  At one time this might have been done by printing a bunch of banknotes, but now it is an electronic entry in the banks accounting system.  An article entitled “Money Creation in the Modern Economy” published by the Bank of England explains “whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”[11]  This article also points out that “money creation in practice differs from some popular misconceptions — banks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out deposits that savers place with them, and nor do they ‘multiply up’ central bank money to create new loans and deposits.”[12]  According to the article, “Money in the Modern Economy: an Introduction”, there are three main sources of money in modern economies, currency, bank deposits (loans by commercial banks) and central bank reserves.[13]  This article also points out that most money in the economy is created by banks initiating loans.  [14]

Some people call this debt money and argue it is bad for the economy.[15]  They imply that this system of money creation requires we pay interest to have money.  First, it is important to point out that this sort of money creation happens in a free market.  Second, the only one paying interest is the person who took out the loan.  In a free market there would also be other forms of money, such as gold, silver, bitcoin etc.

When loans are paid back money is destroyed, just like the case of the clay tablets being destroyed (taken out of circulation) when people turned them in for their grain.  The bank no longer has access to the collateral (e.g., farmland, jewelry, etc.).  As a result, the banknotes (electronic entries) are destroyed.  Note that money is also destroyed if the borrower defaults on the loan.

In a free market (for this discussion most importantly means no legal tender laws and no central bank) banks’ ability to ‘create money’ is limited by the value of the assets used as collateral.[16]  The bank is not creating money, it is securitizing assets and the banks’ ability to create money is then limited to the assets that can be securitized.

If the banks create too many loans that cannot be paid back, then they will tighten their lending standards.  This will result in fewer loans and less money being created.  When the economy is growing banks will fund more loans and create more money.  However, the amount of money in the economy will be proportional to the assets that can be collateralized in the economy.

As a result, in a free market fractional reserve banks do cause variations in the money supply, but do not cause inflation or deflation.  Note that the United States had fractional reserve banks from before the revolution and the United States did not have any periods of inflation.  The banks were constrained in how much money they could create.  Now prices did vary widely sometimes, particularly in times of war.  However it is necessary to separate out the fluctuation in prices due to changes in supply and demand from those due to changes in the quantity of money.  During a war (crop failure) there is an increase in the demand for goods and services, particularly food.  Men are off fighting instead of planting their fields and the war itself often destroys the crops on large tracks of land.  This increase in the price of food will mean that farmland that is not threatened by the war will be more valuable.  As a result, it is likely banks will be willing to lend more money against these farms.  This will result in some increase in the money supply.  However, when the war ends the prices of the farm goods will fall and so will the value of the farmland, which will reduce the number of loans outstanding, reducing the amount of money in the economy.  Averaged out over time money grows at the same rate as the economy and prices are roughly stable.[17]

 

This is what we have learned about banking in a free market:

1) Fractional reserve banking exist in and our an invention of a free market.

2) Fractional reserve banks do create and destroy money, however the amount of money created is proportional to the assets in an economy.  

3) Fractional reserve banks do not cause inflation.

 

(I wanted to include a discussion of central banks, however this article is already too long.  So I will post on central banks and their effects in another article)

[1] Peter Dockrill, This 5,000-year-old artefact shows ancient workers were paid in beer, http://www.sciencealert.com/this-5-000-year-old-clay-tablet-shows-ancient-mesopotamians-were-paid-for-work-in-beer; and

Rachelle Samson, History of money: From clay tablets to legal tenders

History of money: From clay tablets to legal tenders, http://www.versiondaily.com/the-history-of-money-from-clay-tablets-to-legal-tenders/.

[2] Wikipedia, History of money, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_money, accessed 11 November 2016.

[3] Jeff Desjardins, Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire, http://money.visualcapitalist.com/currency-and-the-collapse-of-the-roman-empire/, accessed 11 November 2016.

[4] coins  https://www.amazon.com/Lot-10-Uncleaned-Ancient-Bronze/dp/B001BMWATA?SubscriptionId=AKIAIKBZ7IH7LXTW3ARA&&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=B001BMWATA&tag=wwwbookcompar-20&ascsubtag=5820b98a48308f0454a513ac

[5] A. Andreades, History of the Bank of England 1640 to 1903, http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/andreades/HistoryBankEngland.pdf,

[6] Schuel, Kurt, Cato Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 2001) p 454.

[7] Counterfeiting in an economic sense is any currency that is not backed by productive or creative effort that someone willing exchanged their creative effort for.  Gold is clearly not counterfeit money, since it requires productive effort to mine gold.  Buy paper money presents a problem.  It takes productive effort to make and print paper, but no one would trade twenty dollars of their effort for someone who printed a twenty dollar bill.  Economic counterfeiting is really a fraud where someone believes the other person has provided value that they did not provide and purposely withheld this fact from the other party.

[8] Fractional Reserve Banking Definition | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/fractionalreservebanking.asp#ixzz4QUDQvzpR, accessed November 19, 2016.

[9] The collateral is usually worth more than the loan to deal with market fluctuations.  This is why people used to say that a bank would only loan you money if you were already rich.

[10] Securitize Definition | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/securitize.asp#ixzz4QVLtJy4H, accessed on November 19, 2016.

[11] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money creation in the modern Economy, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q102.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[12] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money creation in the modern Economy, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q102.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[13] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money in the modern economy: an introduction, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q101.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[14] Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas, Money in the modern economy: an introduction, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/2014/qb14q101.pdf, accessed November 19, 2016.

[15] Debt-Based Money vs. Sovereign Money, http://positivemoney.org/our-proposals/debt-based-money-vs-sovereign-money-infographic/, accessed November 19, 2016.

[16] Credit cards and personal loans may seem to violate this, but a person’s willingness to work is an asset.

[17] JOSH ZUMBRUN, A Brief History of U.S. Inflation Since 1775,  http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/12/14/a-brief-history-of-u-s-inflation-since-1775/, accessed 12/3/2016.

January 2, 2017 Posted by | -Economics, -History, Intellectual Capitalism | , , , | 5 Comments

FEE: Ayn Rand Predicts Its Intellectual Bankruptcy

FEE or the Foundation for Economic Education has proven to be intellectually bankrupt.  For instance, their position against patents and Intellectual property shows that they do not understand property rights or rights generally.  They also revere the work of the philosopher David Hume, who argued “cause and effect” does not exist, induction is just correlation, and that a rational ethics is not possible (the so-called is-ought problem).  This means that Hume undermined reason, science and ethics.  Despite this FEE thinks Hume is a great guy.  FEE also promotes Matt Ridley who denigrates human achievement in science and engineering, calling Nobel Laurites in science and inventors frauds, for more click here.

Interestingly Ayn Rand predicted this.  The founder of FEE, Leonard Read, sent Rand a prospectus for his plan to create FEE.  Rand told Read that his premises were flawed.

The mistake is in the very name of the organization. You call it “The Foundation for Economic Education.” You state that economic education is to be your sole purpose. You imply that the cause of the world’s troubles lies solely in people’s ignorance of economics and that the way to cure the world is to teach it the proper economic knowledge. This is not true–therefore your program will not work. You cannot hope to effect a cure by starting with a wrong diagnosis. (The whole letter is reproduced below)

 

According to FEE reason and capitalism are incompatible, which is why they promote the works of Mises, Hayek, Menger, and Rothbard.  You cannot defend capitalism successfully while attacking reason and a rational ethics.  These ideas are incompatible with Natural Rights, which is what created econgrowth.smallthe United States and capitalism.  FEE is worse than the socialists, because they undermine the very basis of freedom.

Hat tip to Christopher Budden for finding this letter.

To Leonard Read

February 28, 1946

 

Dear Leonard,

 

I have read the prospectus of your proposed organization very carefully. No, you have not given our case away. But you have not presented it completely. You have covered only one minor, secondary aspect of it. The partial presentation of a great issue, featuring a secondary aspect, will amount in practice to giving the issue away. Therefore I don’t think that your organization will serve your purpose—if this prospectus represents its program.

 

The mistake is in the very name of the organization. You call it “The Foundation for Economic Education.” You state that economic education is to be your sole purpose. You imply that the cause of the world’s troubles lies solely in people’s ignorance of economics and that the way to cure the world is to teach it the proper economic knowledge. This is not true–therefore your program will not work. You cannot hope to effect a cure by starting with a wrong diagnosis.

 

The root of the whole modern disaster is philosophical and moral. People are not embracing collectivism because they have accepted bad economics. They are accepting bad economics because they have embraced collectivism. You cannot reverse cause and effect. And you cannot destroy the cause by lighting the effect. That is as futile as trying to eliminate the symptoms of a disease without attacking its germs.

 

Marxist (collectivist) economics have been blasted, refuted and discredited quite thoroughly. Capitalist (or individualist) economics have never been refuted. Yet people go right on accepting Marxism. If you look into the matter closely, you will see that most people know in a vague, uneasy way, that Marxist economics are screwy. Yet this does not stop them from advocating the same Marxist economics. Why?

 

The reason is that economics have the same place in relation to the whole of a society’s life as economic problems have in the life of a single individual. A man does not exist merely in order to earn a living; he earns a living in order to exist. His economic activities are the means to an end; the kind of life he wants to lead, the kind of purpose he wants to achieve with the money he earns determines what work he chooses to do and whether he chooses to work at all. A man completely devoid of purpose (whether it be ambition, career, family or anything) stops functioning in the economic sense. That is when he turns into a bum in the gutter. Economic activity per se has never been anybody’s end or motive power. And don’t think that any kind of law of self-preservation would work here—that a man would want to produce merely in order to eat. He won’t. For self-preservation to assert itself, there must be some reason for the self to wish to be preserved. Whatever a man has accepted, consciously or unconsciously, through routine or through choice as the purpose of his life—that will determine his economic activity.

 

And the same holds true of society and of men’s convictions about the proper economics of society. That which society accepts as its purpose and ideal (or to be exact, that which men think society should accept as its purpose and ideal) determines the kind of economics men will advocate and attempt to practice; since economics are only the means to an end.

 

When the social goal chosen is by its very nature impossible and unworkable (such as collectivism), it is useless to point out to people that the means they’ve chosen to achieve it are unworkable. Such means go with such a goal; there are no others. You cannot make men abandon the means until you have persuaded them to abandon the goal.

 

Now the choice of a personal purpose or of a social ideal is a matter of philosophy and moral theory. That is why, if one wishes to cure a dying world, one has to start with moral and philosophical principles. Nothing less will do.

 

The moral and social ideal preached by everybody today (and by the conservatives louder than all) is the ideal of collectivism. Men are told that man exists only in order to serve others; that the “common good” is man’s only proper aim in life and his sole justification for existence; that man is his brother’s keeper; that everybody owes everybody a living; that everybody is responsible for everybody’s welfare; and that the poor are the primary concern of society, its holy shrine, the god whom all must serve.

 

This is the moral premise accepted by most people today, of all classes, all stages of education and all political parties.

 

How are you going to sell capitalist economics to go with that? How are you going to get them to accept as moral, proper and desirable such conceptions as personal ambition, economic competition, the profit motive and private property?

 

It can`t be done. Their moral ideal has defined these conceptions as evil and immoral. So modern men are consistent about it. Our “common-gooder conservatives” are not. It’s one or the other.

 

Here is the dilemma in which the public finds itself when listening to our conservatives: the public is told, in net effect, that collectivism is a noble, desirable ideal, but collectivist economics are impractical.

 

In order to have a practical economy, that of capitalism, we must resign ourselves to an immoral society, that of individualism. This amounts to saying: you have a choice, you can be moral or you can be practical, but you can`t be both. Given such a choice, men will always choose the moral, because it is preposterous to expect them to choose that which, by the speaker`s own assertion, is evil. Men may be mistaken about what they think is good (and how mistaken they’ve been! And what lying they indulge in to deceive themselves about it!), but they will not accept evil with full, conscious intent and by definition.

 

Nor will men accept the idea that a moral ideal is impossible, that it cannot be achieved in practice. (And they are right about that, too—it’s a thoroughly *unnatural* proposition.) Therefore it is absolutely useless to tell them that Marxist economics are impractical, so long as you`re also telling them in the same breath that Marxism is noble. They will merely say: “Well, if that’s the ideal, and it cannot be achieved through the economics of capitalism, to hell with the economics of capitalism! If Marxist economics do not work, we’ll find something that works. We must find it. So we’ll go on experimenting. At least Marxism tries in the right direction, while capitalism doesn’t even try to achieve the collectivist ideal. Capitalist economics do not even try to offer us a solution.” How often have you heard this last one?

 

Now the most futile and ludicrous of all stands to take on this question is the one attempted at present by most of our conservatives. It may be called the “mixed philosophy.” It’s a parallel to the theory of a “mixed economy,” just as untenable, silly and disastrous. It’s the idea that capitalism can be morally justified on a collectivist premise and defended on the grounds of the “common good.” It goes like this: “Dear pinks, our objective, like yours, is the welfare of the poor, more general wealth, and a higher standard of living for everybody—so please let us capitalists function, because the capitalist system will achieve all these objectives for you. It is in fact the only system that can achieve them.”

 

This last statement is true and has been proved and demonstrated in history, and yet it has not and will not win converts to the capitalist system. Because the above argument is self-contradictory. It is not the purpose of the capitalist system to cater to the welfare of the poor; it is not the purpose of a capitalist enterpriser to spread social benefits; an industrialist does not operate a factory for the purpose of providing jobs for his workers. *A capitalist system could not function on such a premise.*

 

The economic benefits which the whole society, including the poor, does receive from capitalism come about strictly as secondary consequences, (which is the only way any social result can come about), not as primary goals. The primary goal which makes the system work is the personal, private, individual profit motive. When that motive is declared to be immoral, the whole system becomes immoral, and the motor of the system stops dead.

 

It’s useless to lie about the capitalist`s real and proper motive. The awful smell of hypocrisy that accompanies such a “mixed philosophy” is so obvious and so strong that it has done more to destroy capitalism than any Marxist theory ever could. It has killed all respect for capitalism. It has, without any further analysis, simply at first glance and first whiff, made capitalism appear thoroughly and totally phony.

 

The effect is precisely the same as that produced by Willkie, Dewey and all the rest of the “me-too,” “I’ll-get-it-for-you-wholesale” Republicans. Do not underestimate the common sense of the “common man” and do not blame him for ignorance. He could not, perhaps, analyze what was wrong with Willkie or Dewey—but he knew they were phonies. He cannot untangle the philosophical contradiction of defending capitalism through the “common good” —but he knows it’s a phony.

 

Is there anything more offensive and preposterous than to tell an unemployed worker that the millionaire who is throwing a champagne party on his yacht is doing so only for his, the worker’s benefit, and for the common good of society? Can you really blame the worker if he then goes out and demands that the yacht be confiscated? Is it economic ignorance that makes him do so?

 

The more propaganda our conservatives spread for capitalist economics while at the same time preaching collectivism morally and philosophically, the more nails they’ll drive into capitalism’s coffin. That is why I do not believe that an economic education alone is of any value. That is also why you will find it difficult to arouse people`s interest in the subject. I believe you are conscious of this difficulty; your prospectus shows anxiety on the scope of “creating a greater desire for economic understanding.” You will not be able to create it.

 

The great mistake here is in assuming that economics is a science which can be isolated from moral, philosophical and political principles and considered as a subject in itself, without relation to them. *It can’t be done.*

 

The best example of that is Von Mises’ “Omnipotent Government.” That is precisely what he attempted to do, in a very objective, conscientious, scholarly way. And he failed dismally, even though his economic facts and conclusions were for the most part unimpeachable. He failed to present a convincing case because at the crucial points, where his economics came to touch upon moral issues (as all economics must), he went into thin air, into contradictions, into nonsense. He did prove, all right, collectivist economics don’t work. And he failed to convert a single collectivist.

 

The organization desperately needed at present is one for EDUCATION IN INDIVIDUALISM, in every aspect of it: philosophical, moral, political, economic—in that order. (That is the actual order in which men’s thinking proceeds on these subjects.) As part of such a program, an education in sound economics would be essential and valuable. Without it, it is a wasted effort.

 

I suspect that you might have been misled by the fact that you have heard businessmen accept the most preposterous economic fallacies; and you concluded that once the fallacies are exposed, the trouble is cured. Do not be deceived by superficial symptoms; the trouble goes much deeper than that; the trouble is not in the nonsense they accept, *but in what makes them accept it*.

 

I have written all this at such great length because I consider an organization created by you as potentially of tremendous importance. I consider you the only man in my acquaintance who has the capacity to translate abstract ideas into practical action and to become a great executor of great principles. Therefore I would hate to see you fail in what could be a great undertaking, by attempting it on the wrong premise and in the wrong direction.

 

I am particularly worried by the fact that you intend to start on such a grand scale (a $3,000,000 budget). If you do not lay the proper foundation first, a three-million-dollar skyscraper will collapse on you more surely and more disastrously than a little bungalow. You will find yourself widely, publicly known and tagged as another ineffectual outfit like the N.A.M. or the Industrial Conference board; your name will become that of “another one of those conservatives,” instead of a new, powerful figure that would attract national attention by representing a real cause, and gain a following through courage, integrity and an unanswerable case, which is what I want you to become. You will find yourself caught in the ruins and forced to go on by the responsibility of so expensive an organization. The end of such a process is—Virgil Jordan.

 

It would be so much better and so much more practical to start in a smaller way and grow by a natural process rather than a forced one. You do not have at present the men and the educational material to use on a $3,000,000 scale. It would be better to gather your specialists and train them first, rather than release on the nation a flood of unprepared, “mixed philosophy” propagandists.

 

This letter is my contribution to your cause. If it helps you to analyze the situation, that is the best help I can offer you. If you agree with my analysis, I can continue to help you in this way, in the matter of philosophical direction. I know you have plenty of economists to call on for your work, but no people capable of undertaking the philosophical-moral part of it. Your main problem is to find them. And I will help you long-distance, to the extent that I can.

 

I shall be most interested in your answer to this.

 

As to your proposed radio program, I don’t think it’s a good plan. Personally, in spite of my interest in the subject, I’m afraid I would not listen to such a program. I think it would bore me. Five men talking on the same subject from the same general viewpoint would be more monotonous than just one man making a connected speech. The fact that the five men disagree on details would only add confusion, dilute and diffuse the subject and make the whole of the broadcast inconclusive and probably pointless.

 

If you decide to use Anthem in The Freeman, let me know. I’d like to have you do it, only I’d want to edit the story a little first; it’s old and there are some passages which I think are bad writing and which I’d like to straighten out.

 

Ayn Rand

January 1, 2017 Posted by | -Economics, -Philosophy, Intellectual Capitalism, Patents, philosophy | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Economics as it Should Be

I gave a talk at Atlas Summit on ‘Economics, Evolution, and Rand’s Meta-Ethics’ and one person asked me how my ideas would alter economics.  In my talks and in my book Source of Economic Growth, I suggest that economics needs to be rethought from the ground up based on my findings.  Here are some of the ways economics needs to be changed in order to make it a science.econgrowth.small

 

1) Fundamental Questions of Economics

No school of economics is even asking the right questions.  I have written another post on point (Intellectual Capitalism: Part 1), so I will not repeat all of it here.

Every science is defined by the questions it asks.  According to a sampling of websites three of the major questions economics asks are:

1) What goods will be produced?

2) How will the goods be produced?

3) For whom are the goods produced?

All of these questions are inherently collectivist and in a truly capitalist country (i.e., one that protects Natural Rights) all of these questions lead to very boring answers.  In addition, none of these questions are scientific questions (Just another example of how economics is not a science).

The single most important question in economics is:

What is the source of real per capita increases in wealth?

This immediately leads to the second most important question in economics today which is: What caused the Industrial Revolution?  Both of these questions have empirical and objective answers.

The answer to the first question is inventions and this leads to a number of other important questions, such as how do we measure the rate of technological change?, what things influence the rate of technological change?, why does Singapore appear to have a faster growth rate than Hong Kong despite a lower economic freedom index?, are inventions subject to diminishing returns?, etc.

 

2) Definition of Economics

Since economics is asking the wrong questions, the definition of economics is incorrect.  Here is my suggested definition of economics vs. standard definitions.  Note that I have a whole chapter on this subject in my book Source of Economic Growth.

Standard Definitions

Economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.

The science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, or the material welfare of humankind.

 

My Definition

Economics is the study of how man obtains those things he needs to live.

 

3) Cause and Effect in Economics

Classical, Neo-Classical, and Austrian economics emphasize manufacturing and trade, while Keynesian economics emphasizes consumption as the driver of economics and all of them are wrong.  The chain of cause and effect in economics is shown in the chart below.

EconomicCauseEffect

When man applies his reason to the problems of survival he invents.  Production, which is really about reproduction or replication, is not the driver in economics as the questions from mainstream economics imply.  Trade is also not the driver and in fact the Manufacturing and Trade steps are not absolutely necessary.  Keynesian economics focuses on consumption, so it is on the far wrong side of the cause and effect chain.

Because Classical, Neo-Classical, and Austrian economics emphasizes the effects instead of the causes in economics they waste an huge amount of time on supply and demand curves.  Every supply and demand curve should come with two caveats: 1) demand does not create supply and 2) this chart assumes a technologically stagnant world.  If demand could create supply then Keynesians would be right.  What a supply and demand chart shows is how much people would be willing to sell of their present stock at various prices, it does not show that anyone will produce anything.

 

4) Economics is not a Social Science its Foundations are in Biology and Evolution

Economics is not a social science, it is a real science based on the biological facts of human existence.  Specifically that humans have to obtain a certain number of calories (calories here substitute well for all our needs, including oxygen, water, etc.) per day or we die.  This gives us a physical definition of profit and loss.  Modern economics treats the whole subject as if it was merely a game.  Venezuela, North Korea, China, and the USSR prove that it is not.

For more information see Economics, Evolution, and Rand’s Meta-Ethics (Intellectual Capitalism: Fundamentals Part 2)

The fact that profit and loss have real physical definitions means that economics is a real empirical science.  Neoclassical economics pretends to be an empirical science but too often they create mathematical models in which none of the variables are measurable.  That is not science.

 

5) Perfect Competition

Perfect competition is an inherently flawed concept that has no place in economics.  All conclusions based on perfect competition are wrong, including the whole monopoly power and anti-trust analysis.  Perfect competition should be laid to rest and only discussed as a historical example of how absurd economics once was.  I have a large section analyzing perfect competition in my book Source of Economic Growth.

Competition is not the source of our wealth.  One of the narratives of economics is that competition drives down profit margins and that is how we become wealthy.  This is left over from the nonsense of perfect competition.  While it is true that we do not want the government to setup rules that provide an advantage for one market participate over another and that these rules hurt the economy, it does not follow that competition creates wealth.  The wealthiest countries in the world are those in which a larger percentage of people create unique products and services that have little or no direct competition.  The goal is for everyone to be producing unique high value items, not 300 million or even 100 million people all producing me too products.

 

6) Property Rights/Ethics

There has been a movement to eliminate ethics from economics and this runs through all schools of economics.  The justification for this is that science is devoid of ethical considerations.  This is not true and the best example of what happens when scientists divorce themselves of ethics is Anthropomorphic Global Warming.  All science has an ethics that at least includes the rules of: 1) you must report the data accurately, and 2) you must follow the data to its logical conclusions.  Some sciences such as medicine have additional ethical constraints.  In medicine it is not ethical for the doctor to give the patient poison or prescribe poison just to see what happens or undertake surgery just to see how the human body reacts.  Similarly, economics must not prescribe economic poison.  Economics is ethically constrained to policies that promote life.

This attempt by economics to divorce itself from ethics not only means that economics defaults to a utilitarian based ethics, it also means that economists have no idea what property rights are.  Property rights cannot be justified on utilitarian grounds.  The utilitarian benefits of ‘property rights’ are the effect not the cause.  Because of this confusion economists will go around saying that taxing medallions are property rights or FCC licenses or slavery in the South.  It also means that when they combine their flawed ideas on ‘property rights’ with the nonsense of perfect competition they start talking about true property rights as giving monopoly power.  This leads to all sorts of nonsense including the idea that patents and copyrights are monopolies.

Property rights are based in ethics and cannot be divorced from ethics.  Property rights are the recognition that someone created something of value.  When economics attempts to redefine property rights, it commits both a scientific error and an ethical error.  The scientific error is the result of ignoring definitions and reality.  Words have meaning and when economists say property rights are any legally enforceable control over an object it is like a biologist saying a mammal is any warm blooded animal (birds are warm blooded).  The definition of a mammal is based in reality and is not arbitrary and the definition of property rights are based in reality.  Ignoring reality is not science.

Ethically when economists attempt to redefine property rights they are advocating fraud or theft, by advocating that a creator’s creation be taken from him and given to someone else without the creator’s consent.

It is a sad fact that most economists have no idea what property rights are, however they are in good company.  Lawyers, free market advocates, and even Objectivists do not have a firm grounding in what property rights are or how they come about.  Historically, the study of property rights peaked around the time of the Homestead Act of 1862 and was dead when Hoover said the airwaves belong to the public.

Adam Mossoff is one of the few academics trying to advance the theoretical foundations of property rights.  Studying the nature of property rights is part of economics and is completely neglected by all modern schools of economics.

 

7) Regulation and Opportunity Costs (An Application)

Regulation is usually analyzed on its effectiveness and based on its opportunity costs.  For instance, if we mandate that all cars have airbags, this means that the cost of all cars will increase but the cars will be safer.  This means that people will put off buying newer. safer cars and when they do buy a new car they will likely be forced to buy a smaller car that is less safe.

Another example is that if we force houses to meet building codes, builders will have to spend more time complying with these rules and will not be able to make certain tradeoffs.  The supposed advantage is safety, but the opportunity costs is that housing is more expensive which means consumers have to drive cars that are not as safe or eat food of lower quality or have fewer children or spend less on education.

This analysis is flawed, because the largest opportunity cost of regulation is the lost inventions.  The main justification for regulations is safety.  However, because regulations such building codes and the FDA lock us into a technological stagnant (or retarded) market, in the long run we are less safe and these regulated product cost more.  In the case of the FDA I am sure that what minor benefits we obtain in safety are wiped out within a year or two by the lost technological advances.  However there have been no empirical studies on point to my knowledge.  In fact, studies looking at this issue would be excellent research project in economics.

 

8) Immigration (An Application)

Does immigration lower wages or not?  Economists argue both side of this argument and point to differing empirical evidence to support their positions.  The reason for this confusion is that economists do not understand that inventions are the source of real per capita increases in wealth.  I will show how my system of economics resolves this debate and why there appears to be conflicting empirical data.

We will start with the simplest case first.  If we have a country where the overwhelming majority of people are living in the Malthusian Trap (i.e., the edge of starvation, subsistence living) then if more people move into that country people’s wages will not go down, but people will starve to death.[1]  With this information let’s examine the two extreme cases: a technologically stagnant country and a technologically dynamic country.  In a technologically stagnant country the total GDP is flat to declining slowly.  If immigrants increase the population of this country they will not and cannot increase its GDP, so real per capita incomes will decrease and therefore wages will decline.  This is similar to the country in the Malthusian Trap.

When a country is technologically dynamic then its real per capita GDP is increasing.  Immigrants in this case can contribute to the country’s increasing level of technology and therefore the wealth of the country.  In that case each new person that is open to using their mind is an asset and only makes the country wealthier.  A pretty good measure of how technologically dynamic a country is its economic freedom index.

No countries on Earth today are fully optimized to increase their level of technology and only a few are absolutely technologically stagnant.  Some of the more technologically dynamic  countries

include Singapore and Honk Kong.  As Peter Thiel has pointed out the rate that the U.S. creates new technologies outside the information technology area has slowed significantly.  Countries that are close to being technologically stagnant include Venezuela and North Korea and many African countries

Since economists do not control for how technologically dynamic the economy (or part of the economy) was that they used in their studies of whether immigrants increase or decrease wages, it is not surprising they got differing results even if they did everything else right in their studies.

 

Conclusion

My proposed school of economics, Intellectual Capitalism, is profoundly different than Neo-Classical, Austrian, Keynesian or any other school of economics.

 

For more on Intellectual Capitalism see:

My Book Source of Economic Growth

These Articles:

Intellectual Capitalism: Philosophy

Intellectual Capitalism: Fundamentals Part 1

Economics, Evolution, and Rand’s Meta-Ethics (Intellectual Capitalism: Fundamentals Part 2)

Talk:

The Source of Economic Growth

[1] Note this assumes that this country is technologically stagnant, which is likely if most people are living in the Malthusian Trap.  s

July 25, 2016 Posted by | -Economics, bioeconomics, Intellectual Capitalism, News | , | 1 Comment

Economics, Evolution, and Rand’s Meta-Ethics (Intellectual Capitalism: Fundamentals Part 2)

This post is serving a dual purpose of being my outline for my talk at Atlas Summit 2016 and to explain my ideas on Intellectual Capitalism.

 

The most important question in economics is: What is the source of real per capita increases in wealth?  In my talk at Atlas Summit 2015, I examined how many prominent economists throughout history have answered this question.  I finished this survey with the latest research in this area which is known as “New Growth Economics.”  I explained where I thought these economists had gone off track and where they were inconsistent with Ayn Rand’s ideas.  I concluded with an outline of a science of economics that I think is consistent with Objectivism, natural rights, and the founding principles of the United States.

econgrowth.smallIn this talk I am going to investigate this question from a bioeconomics point of view.  Bioeconomics or thermoeconomics (aka biophysical economics) attempts to tie economics to biology and thermodynamics.  In other words its goal is to provide a physical as opposed to a sociological basis for economics.  This area of study has been around since the 1920s and has never been accepted as part of mainstream economics for good reason.  In most cases the research in this area has been an endless way of restating or proving the ideas of Thomas Malthus, a favorite of the environmentalist movement.  The famous physicists Edwin Schrodinger, of the Schrodinger wave equation in quantum mechanics, waded into this area and developed some interesting ideas about life and entropy.  However, it turned out that a number of his ideas were based on an unsound position about entropy or the second law of thermodynamics.

Despite this I think there is some useful information to be gleaned from this work and the goal of providing a physical basis for economics.  Most of the economics profession disagrees, however there was a lady from Russia who thought that ethics was based in reality, specifically the biological reality of man and what is necessary to sustain his life, despite the scorn of most philosophers.  Rand showed that ethics was not arbitrary whim, but derived from the nature of man.

I am going to do something unusual, I am going to state some of the most important claims of this talk upfront.

  1. If man did not invent, then the study of economics would be the same as the study of human evolution.
  2. Inventions are the equivalent of genetic changes from an evolutionary point of view.
  3. Rand’s metaethics and biological evolution are aligned.

I bet that you think that some of these claims are bit far out.  However, I think you will have to admit that if I can show that these are true then they have profound consequences.

Rand’s analysis of ethics starts with the understanding that man is a living organism and he has some things in common with all living organisms and some things that differ.

“An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival.”

The Virtue of Selfishness, “The Objectivist Ethics.”

 

“If an organism fails in the basic functions required by its nature … [it] dies.”

The Virtue of Selfishness, “The Objectivist Ethics.”

Rand’s ability to build an ethics on biological reality is a profound accomplishment and a big reason why Objectivism became so important to me.  Ethics is about what we should do.  It’s a code of action.  Economics as I define it is about how we accomplish this: that is how we survive.  As Rand points out for most organisms their code of actions is hardwired in their genetics.  “How” to accomplish these goals is also hardwired.

“A plant has no choice of action: the goals it pursues are automatic … determined by its nature.”

The Virtue of Selfishness, “The Objectivist Ethics.”

This is what I mean by metaethics, it is the ethics of non-volitional beings.

Rand’s metaethics is aligned with the fundamentals of biological evolution.  Evolution is built on two or three very simple observations: 1) a selection mechanism, commonly called natural selection, and 2) a change mechanism, which includes sexual reproduction and asexual genetic changes.  Rand’s point that if an organism fails it dies which is another way of stating that there is a selection mechanism.  The idea of a selection mechanism is an inevitable result of the nature of life and its fundamental alternative, death.  The “goal” of life is not competition (selection of the fittest) despite the natural selection component of evolution.  By “goal” I mean the natural direction the process will take.  In the case of life and evolution, the goal is to maximize the amount of energy converted into life.

What determines if an organism or a species survives is its automatic code or DNA that determines both what it should do and how it should do it.[1]  For instance a plant values water and it grows roots into the soil to obtain water.  Both the value and how to achieve the value are “hardwired” by its DNA.  This shows that Rand’s metaethics hints at the idea of a genetic code that is changeable biologically.

The unique nature of man is that he is a rational animal according to Rand and Aristotle.[2]  This means that man does not have an automatic code of values or automatic knowledge, in other words he does not have an instinct.  This provides the advantage of being able to obtain new knowledge and react to different situations in unique ways but it also means that we have to define our own code of values and acquire knowledge.

Biology provides support for Rand and Aristotle.  Human (homo sapiens sapiens) brains use 25% of the bodies total caloric intake, despite the fact that they are only 2% of the total weight.  This is significantly more than other animals.  Mammals’ brains only use 2%-10% of their total caloric intake.[3] Those calories and that brain do not provide any immediate evolutionary advantage, they do not allow humans to run faster, or give them stronger jaws to tear flesh, or a hard shell to protect them from predators. However, the ability to reason allows humans to create all these things and more.

It turns out for all those dieters out there that it does not matter whether we think hard with our brains or just leave them in idle. This means the brain has very high fixed costs, but very low marginal costs. It seems like something that a venture capitalist might invest in.

All organisms have a certain minimum number of calories they need to obtain to stay alive.  This resting rate of burning calories we can consider to be entropy.  Entropy was originally a concept from thermodynamics. One dictionary definition of entropy is that it is a measure of thermal energy per unit temperature that is not available for useful work.  Here we are just using entropy to denote that every living being consumes energy that is not available for the organism to do useful work.  We could just say that life requires energy without probably any loss of meaning. Failure to overcome this entropy results in the death of that organism.  Life requires a profit meaning we have to produce more than the amount of energy than we consume.  A loss is when we spend more energy than we have obtained.  This provides us a biological definition of profit and loss and shows that consistent losses result in biological death, just like consistent financial losses result in the financial death of an organization.

On a species level (except humans), life attempts to overcome entropy by adaptations that make it more successful at acquiring useful energy.  The more successful the species is at acquiring useful energy, the greater its population (and territory) will become, which will increase its chances of having offspring and useful adaptations.  However, it will mean that the individuals in the species will also eventually begin to compete with each other for the resources that provide the energy to overcome the entropy.  Because of population increases and using up the available energy, the species will be back at the point at which the calories it acquires are just on the edge of starvation, otherwise known as the Malthusian trap.  Then, another adaptation of that species or another species will result in excess free energy, an increase in the population of that adapted species, and the process will repeat.

Humans have a low genetic diversity especially for a species with our population and geographic territory.[4]  This would appear to be inconsistent with biological evolution, however it is important to remember that humans adapt the environment to their needs, while other organism adapt to the environment.  The way humans adapt the environment is by creating things to solve problems and these are called inventions.  An invention is a unique combination of elements that solves an objective problem.  Thus the invention of how to make (preserve) fire solves the objective problems of cooking and providing warmth.  Humans do not wait for genetic changes they create inventions that allow them to change the environment.  This means that inventions function like genetic changes for humans.  Our inventions allow us to create a great diversity of beings that can survive in dry hot deserts, wet tropical forests, and frigid arctic conditions.  A human with a club and fur skin is a different species (organism) from a non-biological evolution point of view than a man with a high power rifle and wearing synthetic fibers who raises cows, chickens, and grows wheat.

When humans created a new invention our population increased and many times our territory also increased.  The two biggest historical examples are the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.  After the Agricultural Revolution the population and geographical territory of humans expanded rapidly.  The Agricultural Revolution was really a group of inventions.  Unfortunately, the Agricultural Revolution did not result in humans escaping the Malthusian Trap (living on the edge of starvation).  This was because the surplus energy provided by agriculture was taken up by the increase in human population, which is the same thing that happens to organisms with successful genetic mutations.

How did we escape the Malthusian Trap then?  We had to create inventions at a rate that gave us a profit that exceeded the rate at which human population expanded.  This happened during the Industrial Revolution for the first time in history.  Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the percentage of people escaping the Malthusian Trap has continued to increase despite an explosion in our population.  Something happened at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that had never occurred in human history: we started inventing at an unprecedented rate.  The question is why that occurred?  Before the Industrial Revolution, around 1800, inventions occurred roughly at a rate that was proportional to our population, however this is not what happened in the Industrial Revolution.  The explosion of inventions was fairly isolated to a small population in a relatively small geographic area, specifically the people of Great Britain and the United States.  The reason this occurred is that this was the first time in human history that large groups of people had access to property rights in their inventions (i.e., patents).

An interesting question is whether other organisms could evolve biologically fast enough to escape the Malthusian Trap?  The answer is no, because organisms modify themselves (adapt to the environment) and to escape Malthusian Trap it is necessary to modify the environment.  An organism that was highly effective at modifying itself would just become so successful that it would destroy its inputs (consume all its resources).

Would it be possible, as some environmentalists suggest, that once we escaped the Malthusian Trap we could just stop inventing and stay at our present level of wealth?  No, because of entropy or diminishing returns.  The classical economists argued that diminishing returns were due to the lower quality of inputs overtime.  For instance, once it was found that coal was useful the initial coal could be picked up off the ground and used relatively near where it was found.  Over time people had to start mining the coal and transporting it over longer distances.  As they dug into the ground water would collect in their mines and that had to be removed.  The easy to mine coal was used up first.  This problem is related to the randomness conception of “entropy.”[5]  The coal is not uniformly spread throughout the world.

The result is that our output (wealth) will decline over time if we do not continue to invent.  The second law of thermodynamics says that we cannot create a perpetual motion machine.  When environmentalists offer the solution of sustainability they are attempting to build a perpetual motion machine.

Sustainability is not Sustainable

They are trying to create a system in which the quality of the inputs never decreases.  The environmentalists are correct that we create waste (low value outputs) and we will not be able to forever use the same processes without running into problems.  However the solution is not to stop inventing and freeze our technology, but to continue to create new technologies at a rapid rate.  This has the following implications for economics:

  1. The per capita wealth of a technologically stagnant people will be stagnant or declining.

      2  The only way to increase real per capita incomes sustainably is to increase our level of technology.

  1. The only way to increase our level technology in the long run is to create new inventions.

The first statement has a perfect analogue in evolution, if you replace technology with genetic changes and per capita wealth with increasing population: a species that does not evolve will have a stagnant or declining population.  The best human example of this that I know of is the Dark Ages.  The level of European technology declined.  For instance, the process of creating concrete was lost.  The Romans had a mechanical reaper for corn, which was lost until Cyrus McCormick invented a new (commercially practical) reaper in 1837, and numerous construction techniques, such as those used to build the Pantheon were also lost.  As a result Europe’s population decreased and so did its population density.  Another, example is Easter Island around 1600, where the islanders cut down all the trees and lost the top soil to farm and without the tall trees they were no longer able to fish.  Because the Easter Island Polynesians were technologically stagnant their inputs declined until they could not longer support their population.  It is estimated that their population fell from a peak of 15,000 to 10,000 down around 2,000.  Farmland is another example where the output declines overtime without new technologies.

This leads to the question of whether inventions are subject to diminishing returns.  I discuss this is great detail in my book Source of Economic Growth.  Here I will just cover some of the most basic points.  An invention is a unique combination of elements (things, components) that provide an objective result.  Every invention can be a component (element) of another invention.  As a result, every invention opens up a number of potential inventions.  The number of potential inventions expands combinatorially as new inventions are created.

However, this is just potential inventions.  Studies have shown that narrow areas of technology often appear to be subject to diminishing returns over time.  Meaning the next invention is more expensive or provides less performance gain or both.  For instance, vacuum tubes were limited in their switching speed and how small they could be made.  The cost and performance of military jets is another example.  There was a chart created by an undersecretary of the Army, Norman Augustine, showing that in the not too distant future a single jet fighter would cost the entire GDP of the U.S.  The physical speed of vehicles also seems to have peaked.

Generally, these technology bottlenecks have been solved by cross over technologies.  For instance, vacuum tubes were replaced with discrete transistors, which were replaced by integrated circuits.  Ray Kurzweil, futurist and prolific inventor, has shown that despite the limitations of individual areas of technology, computing power has been growing at a relatively uniform rate since Babbage created the mechanical computer around 1822.

The cost performance limitations of jet fighters have been overcome by electronics and UAVs.  Electronics have allowed old airframes to be upgraded significantly in performance, without the cost of building better or even new airframes.

There is no macro evidence that inventions are subject to diminishing returns.

 

Conclusion

I have approached the question of “What is the source of real per capita increases in wealth?” from both a New Growth and Bioeconomics point of view and they both provide the same answer, inventions.  This is consistent with Rand who points out that man’s mind is the ultimate source of all human wealth.  Inventions are just the application of man’s mind to the problems of life.

Inventions are the evolutionary equivalent of genetic changes.  Manufacturing (reproduction) and distribution are the evolutionary equivalent of reproduction and territory expansion of new biological organisms.

Profit and loss have a real physical meaning.  They are not just an arbitrary way of keeping score in a parlor game as both the left and to some extend the economics profession treats them.  Those people who advocate making profits illegal are advocating death, literally.

Sustainability is not Sustainable because of entropy.  However, if peoples’ natural rights are protected and their rights to their inventions are secured, then technology can grow much faster than entropy.

This research shows that Rand’s criticisms of economics were spot on and the whole of economics needs to be rethought in light of these insights.

 

 

 

 

[1] As Rand explains it “by an automatic knowledge and an automatic code of values.” The Virtue of Selfishness, “The Objectivist Ethics.”

[2] Rational means the ability to reason.  Reason is volitional and people can choose to not exercise their ability to reason.

[3] Suzana Herculano-Houze,  Scaling of Brain Metabolism with a Fixed Energy Budget per Neuron: Implications for Neuronal Activity, Plasticity and Evolution. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0017514, accessed February 20, 2016.  Also see http://www.human-memory.net/brain.html access 2/20/16.

[4] Greater genetic diversity found among the great apes than among humans, Department of Experimental and Health Sciences, https://www.upf.edu/cexs/news/genetica.html, accessed 2/21/16.

[5] My investigation of this issue has shown me that out present conception of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics has some inconsistencies.  The easiest problem to understand with entropy (2nd law) is that it only applies to an isolated system.  However an isolated system is one that in which there is no gravity.  Such a system does not exists.

February 29, 2016 Posted by | bioeconomics, Intellectual Capitalism | , , | 7 Comments

Intellectual Capitalism: Fundamentals Part 1

This post is part of series on Intellectual Capitalism.  The first post in the series is Intellectual Capitalism: Philosophy.

 

 

Every science is defined by the questions it asks.  According to a sampling of websites three of the major questions economics asks are:

1) What goods will be produced?

2) How will the goods be produced?

3) For whom are the goods produced?

Under free market capitalism (the system of economics that occurs when peoples’ natural rights are protected by the government ) the answers are: 1) those goods that produce a profit, 2) by the people who want to make a profit by producing them, and 3) for those people willing to pay for them.  When I say pay for them, I mean by their own productive effort in producing other goods.  Under any other political system the answer is the government and then economics boils down to the psychology of those people in power – in other words it is arbitrary.

These questions and answers are pretty boring and provide no great insight into the world.  We could explore in more depth how the goods will be produced, but this is really a question of engineering and management.  We could ask why those goods produce a profit and eventually we will start studying supply and demand, and pricing.  These are the standard discussions of economics, however I still don’t think the questions being asked are very interesting.

The most important question in all of economics is:

What is the source of real per capita increases in wealth?

The second most important question in economics is:

What is the cause(s) of the Industrial Revolution?

The second question is important, because it is the first time in history that large groups of people escape the Malthusian Trap (living on the edge of starvation) and their incomes start to grow.

The answer to the first question is by increasing one’s level of technology, which can only be accomplished for the world as whole by inventions (human creations with objective results) the answer to the second question is Patents (property rights for inventions).

In my book Source of Economic Growth I provide copious evidence and logic for these answers and I will not repeat those here.  In this article I want to layout some of the fundamental principles of my system of economics, which I call Intellectual Capitalism.  These questions are much more profound than the ones posed by mainstream economics and more relevant to most people.

These questions and answers lead to a system of economics that is consistent with man’s unique nature; his ability to reason.  When man applies his reason to the problems of survival he invents.  Production, which is really about reproduction or replication, is not the driver in economics as the questions from mainstream economics imply.  In economics the chain of cause and effect is:

Invention comes first, then production, and then trade or consumption.

Keynesian economics focuses on consumption, so it is on the far wrong side of the cause and effect chain and as a result, almost everything taught by Keynesian economics is nonsense.  Keynesians will make the argument that you will not produce the hamburger until I order it, so consumers are as important as producers.  As I will explain in more detail below, try that living on a deserted island (Robinson Crusoe economics).  Most of economics focuses on production, which is better than the Keynesians but is an intermediate step and not what causes economic growth.  Generally, this branch of economics focuses on capital as the source of economic growth.  This has been shown over and over to be a mistake.  The paper that is given the most credit for showing capital is not the source of economic growth is Robert Solow’s “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function.” As econgrowth.smallI show in my book, Source of Economic Growth, the capital theory of economic growth does not explain the Industrial Revolution.  Some libertarians, such as Matt Ridley, have proposed that trade is the key to economic growth.  This is almost as bad as the Keynesians on the scale of cause and effect.  Other economists focus on monetary issues, such as central bank policies and financial markets.  Money is a way of facilitating trade or a way of transferring capital and is not the source of economic growth.  Now there have been inventions in finance that have contributed to economic growth including: fractional reserve banks, stock and bond markets, and limited liability corporations, among others.

 

Definition of Economics

With this background we can now define what the study of economics is: it is the study of how man obtains those things necessary to live.  There is no rational distinction between living and thriving from an economic point of view as I explain in detail in my book Source of Economic Growth.  Some people have objected that this definition is too broad.  For instance, they argue that this might include the study of engineering.  However, there is no reason to repeat other subjects and the various branches of engineering are not about the study of how people obtain the things they need, they are about how to apply science to solve various problems of invention, production, or distribution.  However the study of invention is definitely part of the study of economics.  Very little work has been done on the study of the process and principles of inventing.  I have discovered six laws of invention and a short preview of these can be found here.  A more detailed explanation can be found in my book, Source of Economic Growth.

An important point of this definition is that it makes it clear that Robinson Crusoe economics (a solitary man) applies.  The cause and effect of economics is probably most clear in the case of Robinson Crusoe economics, it can also be useful for analyzing many other situations.  For some reason when trade or money is added to economic discussions people think that magic happens.  As a result, when you are analyzing a problem in economics and you get stuck, remove money (or trade) from the equation and most of the  time this will make the situation clear.

 

Ethics in Economics

Many economists subscribe to the idea that if economics is going to be a science it needs to be value free.  There is no such thing as a value free science.  All sciences are built on an ethics and a philosophy.  At a minimum this includes a commitment to the idea that there are not any supernatural forces as the cause of what we observe, a commitment to the existence of cause and effect, and the ethics to honestly report the data (evidence) and to follow the evidence to its logical conclusion.  Some people may argue that this is not ethics or philosophy because these things are logical, however a short sampling of history shows that this ethics is incredibly unique in the history of humans and even today.

Different sciences may have other philosophical/ethical foundations.  For instance, medicine has the ethical limitation that doctors are not just studying the effect of disease, injuries, poisons, etc. on the human body.  Ethically doctors must use their knowledge to heal and save lives.  In various tyrannical regimes there have been doctors who have studied the effects of poisons or injuries or even the lack of love/affection on babies and these doctors have all been universally condemned.

Bad economic policies can induce more death and suffering than any doctor or group of doctors.  One only need look at the hundreds of millions of deaths that have been caused by economic policies that promote the various forms of socialism.  Economics is the study of how man obtains those things necessary to live.  Just as it would be unethical for a doctor to purposely cause injury to a patient in order to study the effects on the human body, it is unethical for economists to prescribe economic poison for their personal gain, or just because they think if would make an interesting experiment.  Thus the study of economics requires the ethical responsibility of searching for and prescribing policies that promote life.

 

Property Rights and Patents

This dispenses with the nonsense in economics for a need to define property rights in non-ethical terms.  Defining property rights in utilitarian terms is actually going backwards in history to the time when property “rights” were arbitrary grants by the King (government).  Property rights are an ethical concept and are earned by people when they create something useful for humans (or a single human).  The scope of these property rights is limited by the value the person has created.  The law may standardize some of these rights for practical reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.

Some people get confused about how this applies to employees or people who trade (buy) property.  For instance, I buy a house and the associated land, how does this give me property rights in the house since I did not build it?  The reason I have property rights in the house, is that I created something else of value, for instance let’s say a novel.  I trade my novel which I have property rights in for gold (money, currency) and I trade this for the house.  Part of my property rights include the ability to trade what I create for what someone else created.  So I have obtained property rights in the house because I created value.

In the case of an employee he creates value, but has agreed to trade the property rights he would have in the thing he created, let’s say part of an automobile, for a pay check (gold, money, etc.).  Some people are confused that there is no way the employee could have any property rights in the car he helped build because he did not own any of the parts going into the car.  That would be incorrect.  The employee would have a partial ownership in the car.  It is quite common for many people to have property rights in a single object.  For instance, multiple people may own a farm or thousands of people may own a corporation.  In the case of the employee he does not want (or the company is not willing) to have a situation with multiple owners, he wants to contract for immediately payment and relinquishs his property rights.

Now that we have a proper understanding of property rights we can determine if something is a real property right.  Is a taxi medallion a property right?  The question is whether the owner created value for the “rights” obtained with the medallion?  The government sold the medallion to the taxi company.  However, what did the government do to create the taxi medallion?  It limited other people from starting a taxi service.  That is not creating value and the money the taxi company paid to the city does not create value.  When someone trades a value for a non-value it destroys or at best just transfers the value from a producer to a non-producer.  The most common case of this is a swindler who takes value from the victim and provides nothing in return and this is what a thief also does.

A new invention is creating value and therefore a person obtains a property right in their invention.  Academics, Libertarian, Socialists, and Austrian Economists have filled the ether with numerous nonsensical arguments against patents.  I deal with these in depth in my books The Decline and Fall of the American Entrepreneur and The Source of Economic Growth as well as other posts on my blog and will not repeat them hear.

A property right can never be a monopoly.  Economist attempt to show patents or other property rights are monopolies based on perfect competition.  In fact they base their anti-trust analysis on perfect competition.  (I explain this in more detail in my book The Source of Economic Growth)  However, perfect competition is a recipe for the destruction of wealth and therefore human life.  Perfect competion is a value laden concept whose value is not the man’s life, but the destruction and sacrifice of mens’ lives and their productive efforts.

Intellectual Capitalism specifically rejects the concept of perfect competition as a valid economic concept or ideal and also as being useful to analyze any real life economic situations.  As a result, Intellectual Capitalism rejects the whole anti-trust and rent seeking analysis based on perfect competition, and as a result rejects all anti-trust laws (as formulated in the United States, but not the original Statute of Monopolies) as wealth destroying economic policies.

A monopoly is an abrogation of proper property rights and is created by government decrees that impinge of proper property rights  When the government does this and creates laws that give a single company (person) the right to a market say for salt or telephone services then it creates a monopoly.  When the government’s laws just limit access to a market by impinging on valid property rights then the company or companies (people) who are the beneficiaries are rent seeking.  The proper response when one of these situations is found is to restore people’s valid property rights.  The analysis of monopoies or rent seeking starts with and ends with an analysis of property rights.  As should be apparent Intellectual Capitalism rejects the whole idea of natural monopolies, which are abrogations of peoples’ property rights.

 

Supply and Demand and Spontaneous Order

Supply and demand is one of the most fendamental concepts/tools in economics.  The price of an item is set where the supply curve and the demand curve overlap.  Note that these curves are conceptual not quantitative.  The whole analysis is based on the idea that markets will drive towards this equalibrium point.  Unfortunately, this whole analysis is based on a technologically stagnant economy.  In addition, it can give the incorrect impression that demand or consumption is just as important in economics as production.

The requirement of supply and demand that the economy be technologically stagnant means that supply and demand only applies in the most unimportant part of the economy.  Supply and demand curves do not tell us how wealth is created or how to create wealth.  Some people see supply and demand plus the pricing information as ordering the economy.  This in fact is Hayek’s spontaneous order argument.  Again this is only true of a technologically stagnant market (and one with essentially free trade).  However, prices plus supply and demand rules do not tell people what to invent.  Now it is true that people, who live in a country with property rights for inventions, tend to invent in the largest markets, however there is no way to create or even postualte a supply and demand curve for such a situation.  Most experts saw no need for a device that transmitted voice.  What the experts (people with the money) wanted was a way to send telegraph signals faster or more of them over the same wire.  So the demand was almost nil for an invention that transmit voice signals before it was invented and for sometime there after.  No price could have been determined for an invention that could send voice signals.  Hayek’s spontaneous order did not direct the economy to invent telephones or any other major inventions.  Hayek’s spontaneous order is interesting, but hardly earth shattering and limited to the most uninteresting, low value areas of the economy.

Supply and demand curves are useful as long as there limitations are properly recognized.  As a result, they are part of Intellectual Capitalism, but only of minor import.

 

 

January 18, 2016 Posted by | -Economics, Innovation, Intellectual Capitalism | , | 1 Comment

Economics and Evolution: How We Think and Grow Rich

I was visiting the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany, when I was confronted by a display of a homo sapien sapiens, or a modern man. The display explained that homo sapien sapiens have a brain that is only 2% of their mass, but consumes 20-25% of all the calories they take in. That makes modern man an incredibly risky evolutionary experiment, one that almost failed.[1] Those calories and that brain do not provide any immediate evolutionary advantage, they do not allow humans to run faster, or give them stronger jaws to tear flesh, or a hard shell to protect them from predators. However, the ability to reason allows humans to create all these things and more.

econgrowth.smallIt turns out for all those dieters out there that it does not matter whether we think hard with our brains or just leave them in idle. This means the brain has very high fixed costs, but very low marginal costs. It seems like something that a venture capitalist might invest in. This reminded me of the following connection between economics and evolution:

If humans did not invent, then the study of economics would just be the study of human evolution.

Now this might strike you as odd, however if I can convince you it is true or even plausible, you would have to admit that it would have profound consequences. Some of the most important discoveries are those that connect two areas of knowledge that were thought to be separate, such as electricity and magnetism, or geometry and algebra, or physics and chemistry.

Plants and animals adapt to their environment, while humans adapt their environment to them. In evolution when a plant or animal mutates (changes) so that it is better adapted to the environment, then their population increases (as does their range) until they again reach an ‘equilibrium’ between their food supply or resources and the size of their population. This idea was first proposed by Thomas Malthus with respect to man and Charles Darwin was the one that applied it to evolution.

Once the organism has reached this equilibrium, it either has to change again, or some other organism does so. Less successful organisms go extinct or evolve into other more successful life forms. Evolution is a process for producing those life forms that are best adapted at converting energy into life.

Most free market people have rejected Malthus’ ideas in the realm of economics, however it is important to point out that Malthus was correct for all of human history until the Industrial Revolution. Humans do not evolve biologically to become more successful, instead they create things, i.e., they invent.[2] In many ways a man with a spear or bow and arrow is not the same thing from an evolutionary point of view as a man whose only technology is a stone hand axe, who is not the same organism from an evolutionary point of view as a man whose technology includes agriculture. Our inventions allow us to create a great diversity of beings that can survive in dry hot deserts, wet tropical forests, and frigid antic conditions. We can do this despite the fact that homo sapien sapiens are genetically very non-diverse. The point I am making is that:

Inventions are the equivalent of genetic changes from an evolutionary point of view.

Like other organisms when we changed to become more successful at converting energy into life our population grew. For instance, when man invented agriculture, the population of humans increased exponentially as did the territory over which man spread. This is exactly what would happen with a species that had a positive genetic change.

The sad point is that the humans who were part of the initial agricultural revolution were probably somewhat wealthier than previous generations, however that wealth went into increasing the population until the average person was no wealthier than before the agricultural revolution. This is known as the Malthusian Trap and it is where the average person’s (organism) income is just sufficient to keep them from starving to death or what people call a subsistence income.

This is a depressing perspective. How did humans ever escape the Malthusian Trap? Extrapolating from what we have learned, it is clear that humans had to increase their technology (new inventions) faster than their population grew. In other words, we had to do more thinking (inventing) and less procreating. Modern economic research has confirmed this. Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a paper that showed exactly this. He studied the sources of economic growth in the U.S. economy and found that it was not increases in land, labor, or capital, but increases in the level of technology that increased real per capita incomes.

This has the following implications for economics:

  1. The per capita wealth of a technologically stagnant people will be stagnant or declining.
  2. The only way to increase real per capita incomes sustainably is to increase our level of technology.
  3. The only way to increase our level technology in the long run is to create new inventions.

The first statement has a perfect analogue in evolution, if you replace technology with genetic changes and per capita wealth with increasing population: a species that does not evolve will have a stagnant or declining population. The reason I suggest that that income (population) will fall is because of ‘entropy.’[3]  In my book Source of Economic Growth, I make an analogy between entropy and the classical economics idea of diminishing returns, however that is beyond the scope of this article.

This area of economics is called bioeconomics or thermoeconomics. Most of the economics profession has ignored this area of study, probably because it usually devolves into successive proofs that we are doomed by the Malthusian Trap. Despite this I think there is much to be learned in this area. For instance, Edwin Schrodinger’s failed attempt to tie life to entropy is eye opening. An interesting economist in this area is Gregory Clark, who wrote Farewell to Alms. I do not agree with all his conclusions, but he asks the right questions,[4] which is more important that having the right answers to the wrong questions. Clark’s analysis of the results of economic policies in an economy stuck in the Malthusian Trap is unassailable.

Economies today are hamstrung by absurd regulations and there would be an immense, but one-off benefit in freeing up the economy. Then the question arises—once completely free, how does this economy continue to grow? Statement II follows from I and has an analogy in evolution: The only way for a species to increase its population (in the long run) is for it to evolve (change, mutate). Most economists want to place their emphasis on manufacturing and trade. Manufacturing and trade are about the dissemination of new technologies (or replacement of worn out equipment) they are more similar to increasing the population of a species and spreading out its territory once the species has had a successful mutation.

People can only increase their level of technology by creating new inventions, which means they can only become wealthier by inventing faster than their population increases. Now this is a confusing statement, because population can be counted easily, but what does it mean to say that inventions or technology are increasing and how does that compare to the population. We know that the increases in productivity due to the new technologies must be greater on a percentage level than the increases in the population for per capita incomes to grow. One of the interesting self-correcting outcomes of this proposition is that the more people there are, the more likely someone will come up with a new invention. This means that a declining population or even a stagnant population is not the driver of real per capita increases in wealth. Indeed, declining populations often also lead to a problem in the demographic pyramid—the ratio of the very old and infirm to the productive.

The key question in economics is how do we encourage people to create these positive mutations (inventions)? In the history of the world, the rate at which new inventions were created was roughly proportional to the size of the population and somewhat to population density until the Industrial Revolution. It is also clear that inhibiting peoples’ right to act freely will inhibit the creation of new technologies. It was not until around 1800 that England, and then, the United States, created an explosion in the rate of new inventions on a scale the world had never seen. This resulted in large numbers of people escaping the Malthusian Trap for the first time in history. What these countries had in common is that they created effective property rights for inventors for large numbers of people for the first time in history.

Inventing for humans is analogous to genetic adaptations in other organisms. Originally, human inventions resulted in population increases, just like successful adaptations in other species resulted in population and territory increase for them. A technologically stagnant human civilization is like a genetically static species and in both cases their population (or income) will be flat or declining.[5] The study of economics is about how we create, produce, and distribute these inventions (genetic adaptions). If humans did not invent then the only way for us to become more successful would be genetic adaptation, which would mean that the study of economics would be the same thing as the study of human evolution.

 

Mr. Halling discusses these ideas in more depth in his book, Source of Economic Growth.

 

[1] Other animals have brains with a similar or greater brain to body mass ratio, but humans consume the most energy as a percentage of total calories on maintaining their brains.

[2] The term invention is poorly defined in common usage and in economics and law. An invention is a human creation that has an objective result. A human creation that has a subjective result is art.

[3] The word entropy here is analogous to that used in physics and chemistry, but not exactly the same. In fact, the way entropy is defined in these areas is not perfectly consistent, but that is the subject of another article.

[4] The two most important questions in economics are: 1) What is the cause of increasing real per capita income, and 2) What was the cause of the industrial revolution (the first time people escaped the Malthusian Trap)? I believe I got both of these questions from Professor Clark.

[5] It is hard to find great examples of this in human history but three are the Vikings on Greenland, the Anasazi around Chaco Canyon, and the European dark ages.

November 9, 2015 Posted by | -Economics, Innovation, Intellectual Capitalism | , , | Leave a comment