The Democracy of the Marketplace – Ludwig von Mises

Reprinted from mises.org

[Adapted from Planning for Freedom by Ludwig von Mises.]

The consumers by their buying and abstention from buying elect the entrepreneurs in a daily repeated plebiscite as it were. They determine who should own and who not, and how much each owner should own.

As is the case with all acts of choosing a person — choosing holders of public office, employees, friends, or a consort — the decision of the consumers is made on the ground of experience and thus necessarily always refers to the past. There is no experience of the future. The ballot of the market elevates those who in the immediate past have best served the consumers. However, the choice is not unalterable and can daily be corrected. The elected who disappoints the electorate is speedily reduced to the ranks.

Each ballot of the consumers adds only a little to the elected man’s sphere of action. To reach the upper levels of entrepreneurship he needs a great number of votes, repeated again and again over a long period of time, a protracted series of successful strokes. He must stand every day a new trial, must submit anew to reelection as it were.

It is the same with his heirs. They can retain their eminent position only by receiving again and again confirmation on the part of the public. Their office is revocable. If they retain it, it is not on account of the deserts of their predecessor, but on account of their own ability to employ the capital for the best possible satisfaction of the consumers.

The entrepreneurs are neither perfect nor good in any metaphysical sense. They owe their position exclusively to the fact that they are better fit for the performance of the functions incumbent upon them than other people are. They earn profit not because they are clever in performing their tasks, but because they are more clever or less clumsy than other people are. They are not infallible and often blunder. But they are less liable to error and blunder less than other people do. Nobody has the right to take offense at the errors made by the entrepreneurs in the conduct of affairs and to stress the point that people would have been better supplied if the entrepreneurs had been more skillful and prescient. If the grumbler knew better, why did he not himself fill the gap and seize the opportunity to earn profits? It is easy indeed to display foresight after the event. In retrospect all fools become wise.

A popular chain of reasoning runs this way: The entrepreneur earns profit not only on account of the fact that other people were less successful than he in anticipating correctly the future state of the market. He himself contributed to the emergence of profit by not producing more of the article concerned; but for intentional restriction of output on his part, the supply of this article would have been so ample that the price would have dropped to a point at which no surplus of proceeds over costs of production expended would have emerged. This reasoning is at the bottom of the spurious doctrines of imperfect and monopolistic competition. It was resorted to a short time ago by the American Administration when it blamed the enterprises of the steel industry for the fact that the steel production capacity of the United States was not greater than it really was.

Certainly those engaged in the production of steel are not responsible for the fact that other people did not likewise enter this field of production. The reproach on the part of the authorities would have been sensible if they had conferred on the existing steel corporations the monopoly of steel production. But in the absence of such a privilege, the reprimand given to the operating mills is not more justified than it would be to censure the nation’s poets and musicians for the fact that there are not more and better poets and musicians. If somebody is to blame for the fact that the number of people who joined the voluntary civilian defense organization is not larger, then it is not those who have already joined but only those who have not.

That the production of a commodity p is not larger than it really is, is due to the fact that the complementary factors of production required for an expansion were employed for the production of other commodities. To speak of an insufficiency of the supply of p is empty rhetoric if it does not indicate the various products mwhich were produced in too large quantities with the effect that their production appears now, i.e., after the event, as a waste of scarce factors of production. We may assume that the entrepreneurs who instead of producing additional quantities of p turned to the production of excessive amounts of m and consequently suffered losses, did not intentionally make their mistake.

Neither did the producers of p intentionally restrict the production of p. Every entrepreneur’s capital is limited; he employs it for those projects which, he expects, will, by filling the most urgent demand of the public, yield the highest profit.

An entrepreneur at whose disposal are 100 units of capital employs, for instance, 50 units for the production of p and 50 units for the production of q. If both lines are profitable, it is odd to blame him for not having employed more, e.g., 75 units, for the production of p. He could increase the production of p only by curtailing correspondingly the production of q. But with regard to q the same fault could be found by the grumblers. If one blames the entrepreneur for not having produced more p, one must blame him also for not having produced more q. This means: one blames the entrepreneur for the facts that there is a scarcity of the factors of production and that the earth is not a land of Cockaigne.

Perhaps the grumbler will object on the ground that he considers p a vital commodity, much more important than q, and that therefore the production of p should be expanded and that of q restricted. If this is really the meaning of his criticism, he is at variance with the valuations of the consumers. He throws off his mask and shows his dictatorial aspirations. Production should not be directed by the wishes of the public but by his own despotic discretion. But if our entrepreneur’s production of q involves a loss, it is obvious that his fault was poor foresight and not intentional.

Entrance into the ranks of the entrepreneurs in a market society, not sabotaged by the interference of government or other agencies resorting to violence, is open to everybody. Those who know how to take advantage of any business opportunity cropping up will always find the capital required. For the market is always full of capitalists anxious to find the most promising employment for their funds and in search of the ingenious newcomers, in partnership with whom they could execute the most remunerative projects.

People often failed to realize this inherent feature of capitalism because they did not grasp the meaning and the effects of capital scarcity. The task of the entrepreneur is to select from the multitude of technologically feasible projects those which will satisfy the most urgent of the not yet satisfied needs of the public. Those projects for the execution of which the capital supply does not suffice must not be carried out. The market is always crammed with visionaries who want to float such impracticable and unworkable schemes. It is these dreamers who always complain about the blindness of the capitalists who are too stupid to look after their own interests. Of course, the investors often err in the choice of their investments. But these faults consist precisely in the fact that they preferred an unsuitable project to another that would have satisfied more urgent needs of the buying public.

People often err very lamentably in estimating the work of the creative genius. Only a minority of men are appreciative enough to attach the right value to the achievement of poets, artists, and thinkers. It may happen that the indifference of his contemporaries makes it impossible for a genius to accomplish what he would have accomplished if his fellow men had displayed better judgment. The way in which the poet laureate and the philosopher à la mode are selected is certainly questionable.

But it is impermissible to question the free market’s choice of the entrepreneurs. The consumers’ preference for definite articles may he open to condemnation from the point of view of a philosopher’s judgment. But judgments of value are necessarily always personal and subjective. The consumer chooses what, as he thinks, satisfies him best. Nobody is called upon to determine what could make another man happier or less unhappy. The popularity of motor cars, television sets and nylon stockings may be criticized from a „higher“ point of view. But these are the things that people are asking for. They cast their ballots for those entrepreneurs who offer them this merchandise of the best quality at the cheapest price.

In choosing between various political parties and programs for the commonwealth’s social and economic organization most people are uninformed and groping in the dark. The average voter lacks the insight to distinguish between policies suitable to attain the ends he is aiming at and those unsuitable. He is at a loss to examine the long chains of aprioristic reasoning which constitute the philosophy of a comprehensive social program. He may at best form some opinion about the short-run effects of the policies concerned. He is helpless in dealing with the long-run effects. The socialists and communists in principle often assert the infallibility of majority decisions. However, they belie their own words in criticizing parliamentary majorities rejecting their creed, and in denying to the people, under the one-party system, the opportunity to choose between different parties.

But in buying a commodity or abstaining from its purchase there is nothing else involved than the consumer’s longing for the best possible satisfaction of his instantaneous wishes. The consumer does not — like the voter in political voting — choose between different means whose effects appear only later. He chooses between things which immediately provide satisfaction. His decision is final.

An entrepreneur earns profit by serving the consumers, the people, as they are and not as they should be according to the fancies of some grumbler or potential dictator.

Ludwig von Mises was the acknowledged leader of the Austrian School of economic thought, a prodigious originator in economic theory, and a prolific author. Mises’s writings and lectures encompassed economic theory, history, epistemology, government, and political philosophy. His contributions to economic theory include important clarifications on the quantity theory of money, the theory of the trade cycle, the integration of monetary theory with economic theory in general, and a demonstration that socialism must fail because it cannot solve the problem of economic calculation. Mises was the first scholar to recognize that economics is part of a larger science in human action, a science that he called „praxeology.“

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Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire – Joseph R. Peden

[This is a transcript of Professor Joseph Peden’s 50-minute lecture „Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire,“ given at the Seminar on Money and Government in Houston, Texas, on October 27, 1984. The original audio recording is available as a free MP3 download.]

Two centuries ago, in 1776, there were two books published in England, both of which are read avidly today. One of them was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the other was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s multivolume work is the tale of a state that survived for twelve centuries in the West and for another thousand years in the East, at Constantinople.

Gibbon, in looking at this phenomenon, commented that the wonder was not that the Roman Empire had fallen, but rather that it had lasted so long. And scholars since Gibbon have devoted a great deal of energy to examining that problem: How was it that the Roman Empire lasted so long? And did it decline, or was it simply transformed into something else (that something else being the European civilization of which we are the heirs)?

I’ve been asked to speak on the theme of Roman history, particularly the problem of inflation and its impact. My analysis is based on the premise that monetary policy cannot be studied, or understood, in isolation from the overall policies of the state.

Monetary, fiscal, military, political, and economic issues are all very much intertwined. And they are all so intertwined because any state normally seeks to monopolize the supply of money within its own territory.

Monetary policy therefore always serves, even if it serves badly, the perceived needs of the rulers of the state. If it also happens to enhance the prosperity and progress of the masses of the people, that is a secondary benefit; but its first aim is to serve the needs of the rulers, not the ruled. This point is central, I believe, to an understanding of the course of monetary policy in the late Roman Empire.

We may begin by looking at the mentality of the rulers of the Roman Empire, beginning at the end of the 2nd century AD and looking through to the end of the 3rd century AD. Roman historians refer to this period as the „Crisis of the 3rd Century.“ And the reason is that the problems of the Roman society in that period were so profound, so enormous, that Roman society emerged from the 3rd century very different in almost all ways from what it had been in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

To look at the mentality of the Roman emperors, we can look just at the advice that the Emperor Septimius Severus gave to his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. This is supposed to be his final words to his heirs. He said, „live in harmony; enrich the troops; ignore everyone else.“ Now, there is a monetary policy to be marveled at!

Caracalla did not adhere to the first part of that advice; in fact, one of his first acts was to murder his brother. But as for enriching the troops, he took that so seriously to heart that his mother remonstrated with him and urged him to be more moderate and to restrain his increasing military expenditures and burdensome new taxes. He responded by saying there was no longer any revenue, just or unjust, to be found. But not to worry, „for as long as we have this,“ he insisted, pointing to his sword, „we shall not run short of money.“

His sense of priorities was made more explicit when he remarked, „nobody should have any money but I, so that I may bestow it upon the soldiers.“ And he was as good as his word. He raised the pay of the soldiers by 50 percent, and to achieve this he doubled the inheritance taxes paid by Roman citizens. When this was not sufficient to meet his needs, he admitted almost every inhabitant of the empire to Roman citizenship. What had formerly been a privilege now became simply a means of expanding the tax base.

He then went further by proceeding to debase the coinage. The basic coinage of the Roman Empire to this time — we’re speaking now about 211 AD — was the silver denarius introduced by Augustus at about 95 percent silver at the end of the 1st century BC. The denarius continued for the better part of two centuries as the basic medium of exchange in the empire.

By the time of Trajan in 117 AD, the denarius was only about 85 percent silver, down from Augustus’s 95 percent. By the age of Marcus Aurelius, in 180, it was down to about 75 percent silver. In Septimius’s time it had dropped to 60 percent, and Caracalla evened it off at 50/50.

Caracalla was assassinated in 217. There then followed an age that historians refer to as the Age of the Barrack Emperors, because throughout the 3rd century all the emperors were soldiers and all of them came to their power by military coups of one sort or another.

There were about 26 legitimate emperors in this century and only one of them died a natural death. The rest either died in battle or were assassinated, which was totally unprecedented in Roman history — with two exceptions: Nero, a suicide, and Caligula, assassinated earlier.

Caracalla had also debased the gold coinage. Under Augustus this circulated at 45 coins to a pound of gold. Caracalla made it 50 to a pound of gold. Within 20 years after him it was circulating at 72 to a pound of gold, reduced to 60 at the end of the century by Diocletian, only to be raised again to 72 by Constantine. So even the gold coinage was in fact inflated — debased.

But the real crisis came after Caracalla, between 258 and 275, in a period of intense civil war and foreign invasions. The emperors simply abandoned, for all practical purposes, a silver coinage. By 268 there was only 0.5 percent silver in the denarius.

Prices in this period rose in most parts of the empire by nearly 1,000 percent. The only people who were getting paid in gold were the barbarian troops hired by the emperors. The barbarians were so barbarous that they would only accept gold in payment for their services.

The situation did not change until the accession of Diocletian in the year 284. Shortly after his accession he raised the weight of the gold coinage, the aureus, to 60 to the pound — this was from a low of 72.

But ten years later, he finally abandoned the silvered coinage, which by this time was simply a bronze coin dipped in silver rather quickly. He abandoned that completely and tried to issue a new silver coin, called the argenteus, struck at 96 coins to the pound of silver. The argenteus was fixed as equal to 50 of the denarii (the old coinage). It was designed to respond to the need for higher-tariffed coins in the marketplace, to reflect the inflation.

Diocletian also issued a new bronze coin tariffed at ten denarii, called the nummus. But less than a decade later, the nummus had gone from being tariffed at ten denarii to now equaling 20 denarii, and the argenteus had gone from 50 denarii to 100. In other words, despite Diocletian’s efforts, the Empire suffered 100 percent inflation.

The next emperor who interfered with the coinage in a meaningful way was Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. In the year 312, which is also the year he issued the Edict of Toleration for Christianity, Constantine issued a new gold piece, which he called by a new name, the solidus — solid gold. This was struck at 72 to the pound, so it was in fact debased more than Diocletian’s.

These were very large issues of coin and historians have puzzled over where Constantine got all the gold; but I think the puzzle is not so difficult once you begin to look at his legislation.

First of all, Constantine issued two new taxes. One was on the estates of the senators. This was rather new because senators were usually free of most taxes on their land. He also issued a tax on the capital of merchants; not their earnings, but their capital. This was to be levied every five years and it was to be paid in gold. He also required that the rents from the imperial estates, which were rented out to tenants, were to be paid only in gold.

Constantine took on the bullion reserves of his former partner Licinius, who had extracted, by force, bullion from the treasuries of the cities of the Eastern Empire. In other words, any city that had any gold bullion or silver bullion left in its treasury was simply requisitioned by Licinius. This gold passed on now into the hands of Constantine who had gotten rid of Licinius in a civil war.

We’re also told that he stripped the pagan temples of their treasuries. This he did rather late in his reign. In the early days he was apparently still somewhat afraid of angering the gods of Rome. As his Christianity became more fixed, he felt greater ease at robbing the temples.

Now, in one sense, Constantine’s reform began the reversal of the process: the gold coinage was sufficiently large that it began to take hold and to circulate more freely. However, the silver coinage failed and, what was worse, at no time in this period did the central government try to control the token coinage. The result was that token coinage was being minted not only by the imperial mints, but also by the mints of cities. In other words, if a city couldn’t pay its costs or pay the salaries of its employees, it simply struck up some token coinage and issued that.

By the late 3rd century we also begin to have the massive appearance of what numismatists call counterfeits. I would say it would be called credit money today. People need small change, and they simply go and manufacture it. All of this of course meant that the amount of token coinage in circulation was uncontrolled and increasingly massive.

Now, one of the things that had happened in the course of this 3rd-century inflation was that the government found that when it paid its troops in token coinage, or even in debased silver coins, prices immediately rose. Every time the silver value of the denarius dropped, prices naturally rose.

The result was that the government, in order to try to protect its civil servants and its soldiers from the effects of inflation, began to demand payment of taxes in kind and in services rather than in coin. They wound up, in effect, repudiating their own issued coins, not accepting them for tax collection purposes.

With Constantine’s reform, this situation changed somewhat and, slowly but surely, the government began to move away from collecting taxes and paying salaries in kind, and began to substitute collecting taxes and paying salaries in gold. Over the long run, this meant that the gold standard was strengthened and gold remained the real money of the Roman Empire.

However, the inflation did not end for the masses of the people. In other words, gold was a hedge against inflation for those who had it, and these were principally the troops and the civil servants.

The taxpayers had to buy these gold coins in order to pay their taxes. If they were wealthy enough, they could afford to buy these gold coins, which were increasingly expensive in terms of token money. If they were poorer they simply couldn’t pay the taxes; they lost their lands in one form or another or became delinquents. We hear constant references to people abandoning their land, disappearing.

„If a city couldn’t pay its costs or pay the salaries of its employees, it simply struck up some token coinage and issued that.“

As a matter of fact in the 3rd century this was a constant problem in Rome: all sorts of people were trying to escape the increased taxes that the military needed. The army itself had grown from the time of Augustus, when they had about a 250,000 troops, to the time of Diocletian, when they had somewhat over 600,000. So the army itself had doubled in size in the course of this inflationary spiral, and obviously that contributed greatly to the inflation.

In addition, the administration of the state had grown enormously. Under Augustus, essentially, you had the imperial administration at Rome, the secondary level of administration in the governors of different provinces, and then the primary governmental units in the Roman Empire in this time were the cities.

By the time of Diocletian this pattern had broken apart. You had not one emperor, but four emperors, which meant four imperial courts, four Praetorian Guards, four palaces, four staffs, etc.

Under them were four Praetorian prefectures, regional administrative units with their staffs and their budgets. Under these four prefectures, there were then 12 dioceses, each diocese having its administrative staff and so on.

Under the diocesan rulers, the vicars of the dioceses, we have the provinces. In Augustus’s time there were approximately 20 provinces. Three hundred years later, with no substantial increase in territory, there were over a hundred provinces. The Romans had simply divided and subdivided provinces for the purposes of maintaining internal military control of the regions. In other words, the cost of policing and administrating the Roman state became increasingly enormous.

All these costs, then, are some of the reasons why the inflation took place; I’ll get to others in a moment. To give you some idea of the situation after Constantine’s reform of the gold, let me just briefly give you the figures for what it cost in terms of the denarius, the silver coinage, or token coinage now, to buy a pound of gold.

In Diocletian’s time, in the year 301, he fixed the price at 50,000 denarii for one pound of gold. Ten years later it had risen to 120,000. In 324, 23 years after it was 50,000, it was now 300,000. In 337, the year of Constantine’s death, a pound of gold brought 20,000,000 denarii.

And by the way, just as we are all familiar with the German currency of the 1920s with the bigger stamp on it, the Roman coinage also has stamps over stamps on the metal, indicating multiples of value.

At one point, one of the Roman emperors had a marvelous idea: instead of issuing coins he devised a method to handle the inflation. He took brass slugs, put them in a leather pouch, and called it a follis; and people began passing these pouches back and forth as value. I guess it was the Roman equivalent to those baskets of paper we see in the pictures of Germany in the 1920s.

Interestingly enough, within ten years or so after that began, the word follis — which had meant this bag of coins — had now drifted to mean just one of those brass slugs. One of those slugs was now the follis. They couldn’t even keep the bags stable, they too were inflated.

Now one interesting thing with all this inflation should be a great comfort to us: historians of prices in the Roman Empire have come to the conclusion that despite all of this inflation — or perhaps we should say, because of all of this inflation — the price of gold, in terms of its purchasing power, remained stable from the first through the fourth century. In other words, gold remained, in terms of its purchasing power, a stable value whereas all this other coinage just became increasingly worthless.

What were the causes of this inflation? First of all, war. The soldiers’ pay rose from 225 denarii during the time of Augustus to 300 denarii in the time of Domitian, about a hundred years later. A century after Domitian, in the time of Septimius, it had gone from 300 to 500 denarii; and in the time of Caracalla, about 10 years later, it had gone to 750 denarii. In other words, the cost of the army was also rising in terms of the coinage; so, as the coinage became more worthless, the cost of the army had to be increased.

The advance in the soldiers’ pay in the rest of the 3rd century and into the 4th century is not known; we don’t have figures. One reason is that the soldiers were increasingly paid in terms of requisitions of supplies and goods in kind. They were literally given food, clothing, shelter, and other commodities in lieu of pay. This applied also to the civil service.

When one Roman emperor refused to pay a donative on his accession — this was a bonus given to the soldiers on the accession of the emperor — he was simply murdered by his troops. The Romans had had this kind of problem even in the days of the Republic: if the soldiers don’t get paid they rather resent it.

What we find is that the donatives had been given on the accession of a new emperor from the time of Augustus on. In the 3rd century, they began to be given every five years. By the time of Diocletian, donatives were given every year, so that the soldiers’ donatives had in fact become part of their basic salary.

The size of the army, I indicated already, had also increased. It had doubled from the time of Augustus to that of Diocletian. And the size of the civil service also increased. Now, all these events strained the fiscal resources of the state beyond its ability to sustain itself; and the ship of state was kept going, frequently by debasing, then by taxing, and then often simply by accusing people of treason and confiscating their estates.

One of the Christian fathers, Saint Gregory Nazianzus, commented that war is the mother of taxes. I think that’s a wonderful thing to keep in mind: war is the mother of taxes. And it’s also, of course, the mother of inflation.

Now, what were the consequences of inflation? One of the odd things about inflation is, in the Roman Empire, that while the state survived — the Roman state was not destroyed by inflation — what was destroyed by inflation was the freedom of the Roman people. Particularly, the first victim was their economic freedom.

Rome had basically a laissez-faire concept of state/economy relations. Except in emergencies, which were usually related to war, the Roman government generally followed a policy of free trade and minimal restriction on the economic activities of its population. But now under the pressure of this need to pay the troops and under the pressure of inflation, the liberty of the people began to be seriously eroded — and very rapidly.

We could start with the class known as the decurions. This was your prosperous, small- and middle-landowning class who were the dominant elements of the cities of the Roman Empire. They were the class from whom the municipal counsels, magistrates, and officials were chosen.

Traditionally, they had viewed service in the governments of their towns as an honor and they had donated, not merely their time, but also their wealth to the betterment of the urban environment. Building stadiums and bathhouses, and repairing the streets and providing for pure water were considered benefactions. It was a kind of philanthropic act and their reward was, of course, public recognition and esteem.

This class, in the mid-3rd century, was assigned the task of collecting the taxes in the municipality. The central government could no longer collect its taxes effectively, so they made the decurion class collectively responsible for getting revenues and passing them on to the imperial government.

The decurions, of course, had as much difficulty as anyone else in doing this, and the returns were, again, frequently inadequate. So the government solved that problem by simply passing a law that any taxes that decurions could not collect from others, they would have to pay out of their own pockets. That’s known as the incentive method for the tax collector. [laughter]

As you can well imagine, as the crises became greater and the economy was disrupted by civil conflicts and invasions and the effects of inflation, the decurions, strangely enough, no longer wanted to be decurions. They began to abandon their lands, abandon their cities, and escape to wherever they could find refuge in other larger cities or other provinces. But they were not to be allowed to do that with impunity, and a law was then passed that any decurion discovered somewhere else was to be arrested, bound like a slave, and carted back to his hometown where he would be restored to his dignity as a decurion. [laughter]

The 3rd century is also the period of the persecution of the church. We find that at least some of the emperors must have had a sense of humor because they passed a regulation that if a Christian was arrested and found guilty of a capital crime, namely believing in Christ, he was not to be executed but offered the option of becoming a decurion. [laughter]

Now, the merchants and the artisans were traditionally organized into guilds and chambers of commerce and that sort of thing. They now, too, came under government pressure because the government could not obtain enough material for the war machine through regular channels — people didn’t want all that token coinage. So merchants and artisans were now compelled to make deliveries of goods.

So that if you had a factory for making garments, you now had to deliver so many garments to the government requisitions. If you had ships, you had to carry government goods in your ships. In other words, what we have here is a kind of nationalization of private enterprises, and this nationalization means that the people who use their money and their talent are now compelled to serve the state whether they like it or not.

When people tried to get out of this they were then, by law, compelled to remain in the occupation that they were in. In other words, you couldn’t change your job or your business.

This was not sufficient because, after all, death is a relief from taxes. So the occupations were now made hereditary. When you died, your son had to take up your profession. If your father was a shoemaker, you had to be a shoemaker. These laws started by being restricted to the defense-oriented industries but, of course, gradually it was realized that everything is defense-oriented.

The peasantry, known as the coloni, were leaseholders on both imperial and private estates. They too were formerly a free class. Now under the same kinds of pressures that all smallholders were in in this situation, they began to drift away, trying to find better opportunities, better leases, or better occupations. So under Diocletian the coloni were now bound to the soil.

Anyone who had a lease on a particular piece of land could not give that lease up. More than that, they had to stay on the land and work it. In effect, this is the beginning of what in the Middle Ages is called serfdom, but it actually has its origins here in late Roman society.

„War is the mother of taxes.“

We know for example from studies of Palestine, particularly in the Rabbinical writings, that in the course of the 3rd and early 4th century the structure of landholding in Palestine changed very dramatically. Palestine in the 2nd century was mostly composed of peasant landholders with very small acreage, perhaps an average of two and a half acres.

By the 4th century those smallholders had virtually disappeared and been replaced by vast estates controlled by a few large landowners. The peasants working the estates were the same people, but in the meantime they had lost their land to the larger landowners. In other words, landholding became a kind of massive agribusiness.

In the course of this, the population of Palestine, still principally Jewish, also changed in that the ownership of land passed from Jews to Gentiles. The reason for that undoubtedly was that the only people with large amounts of cash who could buy out these smallholders who were in distress were, of course, the government officials. And we hear of them being called potentates, powerful ones. In effect there is a shift in the distribution of wealth in Palestine; and obviously, from other evidence, similar things were happening in other places.

With regard to taxes, they naturally increased across the board, but Diocletian decided that it was a very inefficient system that he had inherited. Every province more or less had its own system of taxation going back to pre-Roman times. And so he, with his military mind, demanded standardization.

And what he did was to have all wealth, which was of course landed wealth, assessed by a standard unit of productivity, the iugum. In other words, every person who had land was either singly, if he was a large landowner, or collectively, for those who were smaller landowners, put into a iugum.

This meant that the emperor for the first time had the basis of a national budget, something the Romans never had before. Therefore, he knew at any given time how many taxable units of wealth there were in any province. He could simply levy an assessment and expect to get a fixed amount of money.

Unfortunately, this took no account of the fact that in agriculture productivity varies considerably from season to season, and that if an army has passed through your district it may take years to recover. The result is that we hear of massive petitions from whole regions asking the emperor to forgive them their taxes, to remit five years of past dues, or to reduce the number of units of productivity to reflect the loss of population or materials.

As a matter of fact, when people began to say „it used to be I had five people paying this unit of taxation, but two of them have fled and it’s only half the land in production,“ the response of the government was, „that doesn’t matter, you still have to pay for the land that is now out of production.“ So, I mean, there was no relationship between taxes and actual productivity.

How did people protect themselves from this? Well, first of all, long-term mortgages virtually ceased to be given. Long-term loans of any kind disappeared. No one would lend unless they were guaranteed payment in gold or silver bullion.

In fact the government itself, under Diocletian and Constantine, refused to accept gold coins in payment of taxes, but insisted instead on gold bullion. So that the coins that you bought in the marketplace had to then be melted down and presented in the form of bullion. The reason was that the government was never sure how adulterated its own gold coinage really was.

Pledges and securities for crops and for loans were always in gold, silver, or indeed in crops themselves. In Egypt we have a document in which it seems that the banks had been refusing to accept coins with the divine image of the emperor; in other words, state issues. The government’s reaction to that, of course, was to force the banks to accept the coinage. This led to wholesale corruption in Roman society, as people refused to exchange coinage at the officially fixed tariffs but instead used the black market to exchange coinage on a market principle.

There was, obviously, flight from the land, massive evasion of taxes, people left their jobs, they left their homes, they left their social status. Now, Diocletian’s final contribution to this continuing disaster was to issue his famous Edict on Maximum Prices, in 301 AD. This is a very famous instance of a massive effort by the government to limit inflation by price controls.

You have to realize that there was a little problem: the Roman Empire was a vast region running from Britain in the West to Iraq in the East; from the Rhine and the Danube to the Sahara.

It included areas of very sophisticated and very primitive economies, and thus the cost of living varied considerably from province to province: Egypt seems to have had the lowest cost of living; Palestine had a cost of living twice that of Egypt, and Roman Italy had a cost of living twice that of Palestine.

„The Roman people, the mass of the population, had but one wish after being captured by the barbarians: to never again fall under the rule of the Roman bureaucracy.“

Diocletian ignored that; he just issued a single standard price for the entire empire. The result was that in Egypt, the Edict probably had no effect, because the maximum price fixed in the Edict was very rarely reached in Egypt. It was the people in Rome, of course, who found the maximum price lower than the market price.

The result of that, of course, was riots in the street, and the disappearance of goods. The penalty for violating this law was death, a very common penalty in Rome for almost anything.

The mentality of Diocletian, and the cause of the maximum price edict, comes out in the preface to the law. I’ll just quote briefly some of it. When you hear these first words I’d like you to pay attention, because you may have a different interpretation of them than what Diocletian meant.

He says, „if the excesses perpetrated by persons of unlimited and frenzied avarice could be checked“ — he doesn’t mean himself [laughter] — „if the general welfare could endure without harm this riotous license, if these uncontrolled madmen, the unscrupulous, the immoderate, the avaricious, could be persuaded to desist from plundering the wealth of all, then all would be well.“ Now who are these people? They are the merchants; they are the avaricious greedy types who cause inflation as we all know.

Then he speaks about himself and his three partners. „[We, the protectors of the] human race“ — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? [laughter] „We are agreed that decisive legislation is necessary, so that the long-hoped-for solutions, which mankind itself could not provide“ — you know, it’s the same stuff [laughter]; we can’t do anything ourselves, we need the legislator.

„By the remedies provided by our foresight [laughter], these things may be remedied for the general betterment of all.“

In fact, as you read through the rest of the thing it becomes clear that the reason the Edict on Prices was issued was that the soldiers were the principal victims of the inflation. Diocletian was afraid he was losing control of his army. And so the people who are to be protected are the soldiers and the other servants of the state.

Now Diocletian’s monetary reforms were tentative steps in the right direction; except for the Edict on Prices, which, by the way, simply didn’t work and was gradually dropped. But his steps were not radical enough.

Because of his inability to create a sufficient supply of gold and silver coinage, combined with his continued reliance on payments in kind for taxes and salaries, and his continued issuance of fiat bronze coinage in endless amounts, he failed to make a significant dent in the problem.

Constantine’s reforms were also partial, but of sufficient vigor and radical character to make a difference. Through his willingness to extract by compulsion the gold reserves of the taxpayers, forcing them to disgorge their bullion, he placed an ever-increasing supply of gold in the hands of government officials.

This was increasingly used to pay military bonuses, salaries for bureaucrats, and even payments for certain public works. Increasingly, then, a two-tier monetary system emerged in which the government, the soldiers, and the bureaucrats enjoyed the benefits of a gold standard while the nongovernmental portion of the economy continued to struggle with a rapidly inflating fiat currency.

The new gold solidus — circulated widely by its possessors, the government-salaried employees — sold at various market rates to customers who desperately needed it to pay their taxes. Thus the state had found a way to protect itself and its servants from the unwholesome effects of its own earlier inflationary cycle, while slowly withdrawing from the cumbersome and wasteful system of accepting taxes and paying salaries in kind. Meanwhile, the masses suffered from a massive injection of fiat money, which they had to accept in payment for government requisitions of gold, silver, or other commodities.

Now, we may wish to find some lessons in this tale of the monetary policies of the late Roman Empire. The first lesson, I think, must be that if war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne said, it is poison to a stable and sound money. The Roman monetary crisis therefore was closely connected with the Roman military problem.

Another lesson is that problems become solvable when a ruler decides that something can be done and must be done. Diocletian and Constantine clearly were willing to act to protect their own ruling-class interests, the military and the civil service.

Monetary reforms were necessary to win the support of the troops and the bureaucrats, who composed the only real constituency of the Roman state, and the two-tier system was designed to this end. It brought about a stable monetary standard for the ruling group, who did not hesitate to secure it at the expense of the mass of the population.

The Roman state survived. The liberty of the Roman people did not. When freedom became possible in the West in the 5th century, with the barbarian invasions, people took advantage of the possibility of change. The peasantry had become totally alienated from the Roman state because they were no longer free. The business community likewise was no longer free. And the middle class of the cities was no longer free.

The economy of the West was perhaps more fatally weakened than that of the East. The early 5th century Christian priest Salvian of Marseille wrote an account of why the Roman state was collapsing in the West — he was writing from France (Gaul). Salvian says that the Roman state is collapsing because it deserves collapse; because it had denied the first premise of good government, which is justice to the people.

By justice he meant a just system of taxation. Salvian tells us, and I don’t think he’s exaggerating, that one of the reasons why the Roman state collapsed in the 5th century was that the Roman people, the mass of the population, had but one wish after being captured by the barbarians: to never again fall under the rule of the Roman bureaucracy.

In other words, the Roman state was the enemy; the barbarians were the liberators. And this undoubtedly was due to the inflation of the 3rd century. While the state had solved the monetary problem for its own constituents, it had failed to solve it for the masses. Rome continued to use an oppressive system of taxation in order to fill the coffers of the ruling bureaucrats and soldiers. Thank you. [applause]

This is a transcript of Professor Joseph Peden’s 50-minute lecture „Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire,“ given at the Seminar on Money and Government in Houston, Texas, on October 27, 1984. The original audio recording is available as a free MP3 download. This transcript ran first at LewRockwell.com

How the Early Capitalists Saved Europe From Starvation – Ludwig von Mises

Two hundred years ago, before the advent of capitalism, a man’s social status was fixed from the beginning to the end of his life; he inherited it from his ancestors, and it never changed. If he was born poor, he always remained poor, and if he was born rich-a lord or a duke-he kept his dukedom and the property that went with it for the rest of his life.

As for manufacturing, the primitive processing industries of those days existed almost exclusively for the benefit of the wealthy. Most of the people (ninety percent or more of the European population) worked the land and did not come in contact with the city-oriented processing industries. This rigid system of feudal society prevailed in the most developed areas of Europe for many hundreds of years.

However, as the rural population expanded, there developed a surplus of people on the land. For this surplus of population without inherited land or estates, there was not enough to do, nor was it possible for them to work in the processing industries; the kings of the cities denied them access. The numbers of these „outcasts“ continued to grow, and still no one knew what to do with them. They were, in the full sense of the word, „proletarians,“ outcasts whom the government could only put into the workhouse or the poorhouse. In some sections of Europe, especially in the Netherlands and in England, they became so numerous that, by the eighteenth century, they were a real menace to the preservation of the prevailing social system.

Today, in discussing similar conditions in places like India or other developing countries, we must not forget that, in eighteenth-century England, conditions were much worse. At that time, England had a population of six or seven million people, but of those six or seven million people, more than one million, probably two million, were simply poor outcasts for whom the existing social system made no provision. What to do with these outcasts was one of the great problems of eighteenth-century England.

Another great problem was the lack of raw materials. The British, very seriously, had to ask themselves this question: what are we going to do in the future, when our forests will no longer give us the wood we need for our industries and for heating our houses? For the ruling classes it was a desperate situation. The statesmen did not know what to do, and the ruling gentry were absolutely without any ideas on how to improve conditions.

Out of this serious social situation emerged the beginnings of modern capitalism. There were some persons among those outcasts, among those poor people, who tried to organize others to set up small shops which could produce something. This was an innovation. These innovators did not produce expensive goods suitable only for the upper classes; they produced cheaper products for everyone’s needs. And this was the origin of capitalism as it operates today. It was the beginning of mass production, the fundamental principle of capitalistic industry. Whereas the old processing industries serving the rich people in the cities had existed almost exclusively for the demands of the upper classes, the new capitalist industries began to produce things that could be purchased by the general population. It was mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses.

This is the fundamental principle of capitalism as it exists today in all of those countries in which there is a highly developed system of mass production: Big business, the target of the most fanatic attacks by the so-called leftists, produces almost exclusively to satisfy the wants of the masses. Enterprises producing luxury goods solely for the well-to-do can never attain the magnitude of big businesses. And today, it is the people who work in large factories who are the main consumers of the products made in those factories. This is the fundamental difference between the capitalistic principles of production and the feudalistic principles of the preceding ages.

The development of capitalism consists in everyone’s having the right to serve the customer better and/or more cheaply. And this method, this principle, has, within a comparatively short time, transformed the whole world. It has made possible an unprecedented increase in world population.

In eighteenth-century England, the land could support only six million people at a very low standard of living. Today more than fifty million people enjoy a much higher standard of living than even the rich enjoyed during the eighteenth-century. And today’s standard of living in England would probably be still higher, had not a great deal of the energy of the British been wasted in what were, from various points of view, avoidable political and military „adventures.“

These are the facts about capitalism. Thus, if an Englishman-or, for that matter, any other man in any country of the world-says today to his friends that he is opposed to capitalism, there is a wonderful way to answer him: „You know that the population of this planet is now ten times greater than it was in the ages preceding capitalism; you know that all men today enjoy a higher standard of living than your ancestors did before the age of capitalism. But how do you know that you are the one out of ten who would have lived in the absence of capitalism? The mere fact that you are living today is proof that capitalism has succeeded, whether or not you consider your own life very valuable.“

In spite of all its benefits, capitalism has been furiously attacked and criticized. It is necessary that we understand the origin of this antipathy. It is a fact that the hatred of capitalism originated not with the masses, not among the workers themselves, but among the landed aristocracy-the gentry, the nobility, of England and the European continent. They blamed capitalism for something that was not very pleasant for them: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the higher wages paid by industry to its workers forced the landed gentry to pay equally higher wages to their agricultural workers. The aristocracy attacked the industries by criticising the standard of living of the masses of the workers.

Of course-from our viewpoint, the workers’ standard of living was extremely low; conditions under early capitalism were absolutely shocking, but not because the newly developed capitalistic industries had harmed the workers. The people hired to work in factories had already been existing at a virtually subhuman level.

The famous old story, repeated hundreds of times, that the factories employed women and children and that these women and children, before they were working in factories, had lived under satisfactory conditions, is one of the greatest falsehoods of history. The mothers who worked in the factories had nothing to cook with; they did not leave their homes and their kitchens to go into the factories, they went into factories because they had no kitchens, and if they had a kitchen they had no food to cook in those kitchens. And the children did not come from comfortable nurseries. They were starving and dying. And all the talk about the so-called unspeakable horror of early capitalism can be refuted by a single statistic: precisely in these years in which British capitalism developed, precisely in the age called the Industrial Revolution in England, in the years from 1760 to 1830, precisely in those years the population of England doubled, which means that hundreds or thousands of children-who would have died in preceding times-survived and grew to become men and women.

There is no doubt that the conditions of the preceding times were very unsatisfactory. It was capitalist business that improved them. It was precisely those early factories that provided for the needs of their workers, either directly or indirectly by exporting products and importing food and raw materials from other countries. Again and again, the early historians of capitalism have-one can hardly use a milder word-falsified history.

The Fear of Robots – Pedro Schwartz

One morning a week I take part in a discussion programme on a Spanish radio station that specializes in economic and business matters. Just before we come on air we hear the day’s expected events and statistics read by a new journalist in the firm: Sarah Bot, a very young robot with a strange voice. For the time being she has not displaced me and taken over my job.

I know I use robots continuously. I start with the iPhone that wakes me up in the morning, then read the mail I receive on my laptop, chase down on the internet the information I need to write my stuff (after all, Wikipedia is half run by machines!), send my ‘copy’ through the ether, so to speak, and read the newspaper where my article will be ‘printed’ also from far away. I well remember when I used to dictate my articles over the phone to patient tachygraphers at a cost perhaps higher than what I was paid for the piece. Still, like many others, I feel a vague disquiet at the as yet benign invasion of the robots.

Say’s Law

To allay my fears I remind myself, first, of Say’s Law and second, of the fate of horses. Let me start with Jean Baptiste Say (1767-1832). He was the French economist who introduced Adam Smith to French public opinion and to the learned classes of the European continent, most of whom read French rather than English. Say was born in a Protestant family that had taken refuge in the Swiss city of Geneva, fleeing persecution in France. The family returned to the textile city of Lyon, where Jean Baptiste was born. As a young man, he was sent by his father to England to see for himself how England was industrialising. It was not his only visit to the land of economic progress. Later in life he met and befriended the great economists of the time—David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, James Mill, and John Ramsay McCulloch—and corrected and bettered some of the classical theories of English political economy. He published his successful Treatise of Political Economy in 1803. Napoleon invited him to dinner to try to make him correct some anti-protectionist and anti-statist passages in the book. Say, a moderate republican and a defender of individual liberty, did not comply. At different moments in his life, Say tried his hand at business—banking, insurance, cotton spinning, and sugar—variously succeeding and failing as an entrepreneur. In 1828-29 he published an ambitious Course of Political Economy in no less than six volumes. Say made signal contributions to economics. In price theory, he introduced utility into the demand side of price formation. He corrected Adam Smith by including services in the definition of wealth. Notably, he introduced the figure of the entrepreneur in the explanation of economic progress. Finally and in parallel with James Mill, he codified what is known as ‘Say’s Law’, to which I now turn in search of hope and consolation in a world beset with robots.[1]

One of the fears caused by robots is that total production in the economy will so increase that demand will not be sufficient to take it up, especially if people have become unemployed due to competition from non-humans. Could this bring about a general glut of the whole system? Would there then a crisis of overproduction, which might cause more unemployment? What Say’s law sets down is that the very fact of bringing goods to the market amounts to demanding goods in exchange. In the case of overproduction, the economy will tend to return to equilibrium if supply prices are flexible and are allowed to fall. This may take time, since the alarm caused by falling prices may lead to a period of money hoarding. In the long run, however and as Ricardo said, „there is no limit to demand,“ surprising or even shocking though this may sound to people who hate our consumptionist civilisation. This whole idea was summed up by Say in the following phrase: „Supply creates its own demand“.[2]

Disproportionate production

Say and his classical companions of course accepted that there could temporarily be excess production in one industry and shortages in another whose products were more demanded. This would be the case with path-breaking technological advances, such as steam threshing machines or mechanical knitting frames in the early 19th century (or robots today). Though not leading to general under-consumption, those advances would for a time bring technological unemployment in their wake, as workers were displaced by the new, more productive methods or by free trade. What is called ‘sunk capital’ can also be affected, so there may also be resistance put up by the owners of capital or land endangered by shifts in supply through new productive methods or through trade.

The revolts of workers who saw their wages fall because of competition from new machines are now a part of the social history of capitalism. In the years around 1810, summers were very wet in England, badly affecting crops. Also, the general blockade of trade with Britain decreed by Napoleon in Berlin and Milan in 1806 and 1807 throttled the import of grain and made bread unwontedly expensive. The wages got by threshing wheat from November to February in England gave employment in the lean winter months. Hostility to the new-fangled steam threshing machines erupted in an epidemic of machine breaking by crowds allegedly led by a legendary ‘Captain Ludd’—hence the name ‘Luddites’ applied to workers who wanted the competition of new machinery stopped. A repeat movement happened in the summer of 1830, dubbed the ‘Swing Letters’. Again, times were harsh in the hungry thirties. It was a time of political turmoil, what with the campaign for Parliamentary reform in England and the Revolution in France. Landlords who were known to use threshing machines in the Southern English counties received letters signed by a certain Captain Swing, threatening to break the threshers up and demanding higher wages.

This was not the only example of harsh technological competition suffered by manual workers. By 1830 the livelihood of some 400,000 handloom weavers was being threatened by the power-looms and knitting machines in the cotton mills. Those weavers were whole families who worked at home for merchants who ‘put out’ work at growingly extortionate rates, given the higher productivity of large factories. Petitions rained on Parliament. By 1840 the number of handloom weavers had fallen to 100,000, mainly specialised in silk fabrics and the more expensive cloths. The recourse to the 1834 Poor Law was felt to be a paltry remedy, since Poor Houses were organised on the principle that their standards should be less attractive than the least paid employment. A Royal Commission was formed to examine the plight of these workers, chaired by the economist Nassau William Senior. Famed for his understanding of the rapidly increasing productivity of the factory system when other classical economists saw England „within a hands breadth of the stationary state,“ Senior saw there was not much that could be done. Attrition had a human cost, but in the end an open door to radical technological change was the only answer. It is thus that the hungry 1830s and 40s turned into the more prosperous second half of the 19th century—helped by Robert Peel’s decision in 1844 to repeal the Corn Laws. The social safety net of today is much more comfortable than Dickensian poor houses. The opportunities of gainful employment, much greater.

What happened to horse-power?

When I say that the plight of working horses brings me some consolation as I think of the possible effect of robots on employment, I do not mean to belittle their centuries’ long contribution to the productive or destructive efforts of humanity. They were used in peaceful transport. Also, in all wars up to the middle of the 20th century, pack animals were used and sacrificed on the battlefields by their cruel and warring masters. I myself did my peacetime military service in a mounted regiment, where I learnt to ride the friendly beasts. In Hyde Park in the centre of London there stands a most affecting monument to the horses, mules, and donkeys misused by all armies in history. Anybody visiting London should take time to stop before it.

What I mean by linking the case of humans menaced by robots with that of horses displaced by the internal combustion engine is that there you have an example of job destruction by technological advance. The point I want to make is that horses could not and did not learn to drive motorcars and lorries. We men and women can learn new trades, albeit with some difficulty when we get older. Luddites are a danger to the very people they want to help because in the end progress will prevail.

The benefits of growth for the individual

Here is the crux of the matter. Technical advance makes for growth. The increasing use of robots is but a continuation of the story of triumphant capitalism. The countries of what we call the West have experienced a singular and unexpected two centuries of growth that is pulling the entire population out of poverty and into prosperity as never before in history. Now the rest of the world is joining in the ride, which we hope will last. There have been periods of growth in history that did not extend to the entire population of the world and ended in ruination. The examples that come to mind are those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, China, and the Aztec and Inca empires in America. In all of them the flame of growth died or was snuffed out by military disaster. Something quite different, however, happened in Britain around the beginning of the 19th century and then spread to continental Europe and North America. Productivity increased by leaps and bounds and was not even stopped by two world wars.

The size of these developments in the capacity to produce more with less are difficult to measure precisely. William Nordhaus, whose first claim to fame with the general public was his joint authorship with Paul Samuelson in the later editions of Economics, the textbook which has been the initiation rite of so many into the queen of social sciences. More recently, he has become one of the high priests of the new religion of climate change. Whatever the disagreements one might have with that textbook and this alarm, he is an outstanding professional economist. I want to draw attention to the striking way in which he has presented the growth of real wages from 1800. To calculate real wages he has to take nominal wages and deflate them by a price index. He finds much to query about the price indices normally used to do this calculation. He shows that price increases over the years are much exaggerated by not properly accounting for improvements in the quality of goods due to technological progress. The case he uses is that of lighting. Prices per ‘lumen’ (the measure of light intensity) have fallen much more quickly than shown by ordinary price indices. If the same method he uses for the true price of light is applied to general consumption (so as to take account of the incredible improvement of goods and services over the last hundred years), then real economic growth will turn out to have been much greater in the United States and Western Europe than is generally thought. „In terms of living standards, the conventional growth of real wages has been a factor of 13 over the 1800-1992 period.“ If the downward bias is corrected as Nordhaus thinks it should be on the lines of the cost of lighting, „real wages have grown by a factor of 970.“ Some growth! [3]

Let me show a graph I have used in a previous column, since it comes from so respected a pen as that of Angus Maddison. It shows the sudden increase in per capita production in the United States and the United Kingdom around 1840. The inflation adjustment is of the conventional kind: the productivity surge would be much larger if we used the Nordhaus method.

Figure 1. GDP Per Capita

SchwartzGDPpercapita

Note: A graph compiled from Angus Maddison’s data comparing the GDP per capita of a few major economies since 1700 AD. Source: M Tracy Hunter: Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34088252

A tax on robots?

Recently, Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller has taken up the idea, characteristically hatched in the European Parliament, that a moderate tax should be laid on robots so as to put a brake on robot use. This tax would „slow the adoption of disruptive technologies“. He seems to be worried about the effects of robots in increasing inequality and considers the tax would „accord with our natural sense of justice“. The produce of the tax could then be used to finance an insurance fund to help the displaced workers who need time to change their calling. Professor Shiller seems to be another of those Nobel laureates who speaks outside his field of speciality, which in this case financial economics, not economic growth.[4]

What Shiller does not do is underline the trade-off between technical progress and anti-market regulation. In his future pronouncements in favour of a tax on robots he should pay some attention to worries generally expressed about the trend of economic growth in the United States and the rest of the Western world, especially Europe. I recently watched a TED talk by Professor Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University.[5] As he has been doing for a number of years, he worried about the fall in the long term growth rate of the American and the world economy due to the lack of great technical innovations. He showed us pictures of 19th and 20th century transformative innovations that, he says, are not happening any more—water closets, electrical appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators, the internal combustion engine, airplanes or telephones—but he pictured no robots. Professor Gordon may turn out to be right in discounting robots and artificial intelligence as engines of growth, if the likes of Professor Shiller have their way. Luddites all!

 

[1] See Thomas Sowell’s doctoral thesis: Say’s Law. An Historical Analysis. Princeton University Press, 1972.

[2] One could not think of a view more contrary to the Keynesian idea that the main macroeconomic problem in a downturn is a failure of aggregate demand. Crises caused by the failure of misapplied investment suddenly revealed by a technical shift are characterised by a general thirst for cash or money hoarding. Capitalist growth is inevitably cyclical. It can be made less volatile by trying to keep the money supply stable, as Milton Friedman proposed. But this question is for another day.

[3] William D. Nordhaus: „Do Real Output and Real Wages Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not.“ NBER. PDF file.

[4] Robert J. Shiller: „Why robots should be taxed if they take people’s jobs“The Guardian, March 27, 2017.

[5] Robert J. Gordon, „The death of innovation, the end of growth,“. TED 2013.

The Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism – Ralph Raico

Originally published over several months in 1992, Raico’s brief history of classical liberalism was written in memory of Roy A. Childs, Jr. You can read the original here in three installments.

Part 1

Classical liberalism — or simply liberalism, as it was called until around the turn of the century — is the signature political philosophy of Western civilization. Hints and suggestions of the liberal idea can be found in other great cultures. But it was the distinctive society produced in Europe — and in the outposts of Europe, above all, America — that served as the seedbed of liberalism. In turn, that society was decisively shaped by the liberal movement.

Decentralization and the division of power have been the hallmarks of the history of Europe. After the fall of Rome, no empire was ever able to dominate the continent. Instead, Europe, became a complex mosaic of competing nations, principalities, and city-states. The various rulers found themselves in competition with each other. If one of them indulged in predatory taxation or arbitrary confiscations of property, he might well lose his most productive citizens, who could “exit,” together with their capital. The kings also found powerful rivals in ambitious barons and in religious authorities who were backed by an international Church. Parliaments emerged that limited the taxing power of the king, and free cities arose with special charters that put the merchant elite in charge.

By the Middle Ages, many parts of Europe, especially in the west, had developed a culture friendly to property rights and trade. On the philosophical level, the doctrine of natural law — deriving from the Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome — taught that the natural order was independent of human design and that rulers were subordinate to the eternal laws of justice. Natural-law doctrine was upheld by the Church and promulgated in the great universities, from Oxford and Salamanca to Prague and Krakow.

As the modern age began, rulers started to shake free of age-old customary constraints on their power. Royal absolutism became the main tendency of the time. The kings of Europe raised a novel claim: they declared that they were appointed by God to be the fountainhead of all life and activity in society. Accordingly, they sought to direct religion, culture, politics, and, especially, the economic life of the people. To support their burgeoning bureaucracies and constant wars, the rulers required ever-increasing quantities of taxes, which they tried to squeeze out of their subjects in ways that were contrary to precedent and custom.

The first people to revolt against this system were the Dutch. After a struggle that lasted for decades, they won their independence from Spain and proceeded to set up a unique polity. The United Provinces, as the radically decentralized state was called, had no king and little power at the federal level. Making money was the passion of these busy manufacturers and traders: they had no time for hunting heretics or suppressing new ideas. Thus, de facto religious toleration and a wide-ranging freedom of the press came to prevail. Devoted to industry and trade, the Dutch established a legal system based solidly on the rule of law and the sanctity of property and contract. Taxes were low, and everyone worked. The Dutch “economic miracle” was the wonder of the age. Thoughtful observers throughout Europe noted the Dutch success with great interest.

A society in many ways similar to Holland had developed across the North Sea. In the 17th century, England, too, was threatened by royal absolutism, in the form of the House of Stuart. The response was revolution, civil war, the beheading of one king and the booting out of another. In the course of this tumultuous century, the first movements and thinkers appeared who can be unequivocally identified as liberal.

With the king gone, a group of middle-class radicals emerged called the Levellers. They protested that not even Parliament had any authority to usurp the natural, God-given rights of the people. Religion, they declared, was a matter of individual conscience: it should have no connection with the state. State-granted monopolies were likewise an infringement of natural liberty. A generation later, John Locke, drawing on the tradition of natural law that had been kept alive and elaborated by the Scholastic theologians, set forth a powerful liberal model of man, society, and state. Every man, he held, is innately endowed with certain natural rights. These consist in his fundamental right to what is his property — that is, his life, liberty, and “estates” (or material goods). Government is formed simply the better to preserve the right to property. When, instead of protecting the natural rights of the people, a government makes war upon them, the people may alter or abolish it. The Lockean philosophy continued to exert influence in England for generations to come. In time, its greatest impact would be in the English-speaking colonies in North America.

The society that emerged in England after the victory over absolutism began to score astonishing successes in economic and cultural life. Thinkers from the continent, especially in France, grew interested. Some, like Voltaire and Montesquieu, came to see for themselves. Just as Holland had acted as a model before, now the example of England began to influence foreign philosophers and statesmen. The decentralization that has always marked Europe allowed the English “experiment” to take place and its success to act as a spur to other nations.

In the 18th century, thinkers were discovering a momentous fact about social life: given a situation where men enjoyed their natural rights, society more or less runs itself. In Scotland, a succession of brilliant writers that included David Hume and Adam Smith outlined the theory of the spontaneous evolution of social institutions. They demonstrated how immensely complex and vitally useful institutions — language. morality, the common law, above all, the market — originate and develop not as the product of the designing minds of social engineers, but as the result of the interactions of all the members of society pursuing their individual goals.

In France, economists were coming to similar conclusions. The greatest of them, Turgot, set forth the rationale for the free market:

“The policy to pursue, therefore, is to follow the course of nature, without pretending to direct it For, in order to direct trade and commerce it would be necessary to be able to have knowledge of all of the variations of needs, interests, and human industry in such detail as is physically impossible to obtain even by the most able, active, and circumstantial government. And even if a government did possess such a multitude of detailed knowledge, the result would be to let things go precisely as they do of themselves, by the sole action of the interests of men prompted by free competition.”

The French economists coined a term for the policy of freedom in economic life: they called it laissez-faire. Meanwhile, starting in the early 17th century, colonists coming mainly from England had established a new society on the eastern shores of North America. Under the influence of the ideas the colonists brought with them and the institutions they developed, a unique way of life came into being. There was no aristocracy and very little government of any kind. Instead of aspiring to political power, the colonists worked to carve out a decent existence for themselves and their families.

Fiercely independent, they were equally committed to the peaceful — and profitable — exchange of goods. A complex network of trade sprang up, and by the mid-18th century, the colonists were already more affluent than any other commoners in the world. Self-help was the guiding star in the realm of spiritual values as well. Churches, colleges, lending-libraries, newspapers, lecture-institutes, and cultural societies flourished through the voluntary cooperation of the citizens.

When events led to a war for independence, the prevailing view of society was that it basically ran itself. As Tom Paine declared:

“Formal government makes but a small part of civilized life. It is to the great and fundamental principles of society and civilization — to the unceasing circulation of interest, which passing through its million channels, invigorates the whole mass of civilized man — it is to these, infinitely more than to anything which even the best instituted government can perform that the safety and prosperity of the individual and the whole depend. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. Government is no further necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilization are not conveniently competent.”

In time, the new society formed on the philosophy of natural rights would serve as an even more luminous exemplar of liberalism to the world than had Holland and England before it.

Part 2: Triumphs and Challenges

As the nineteenth century began, classical liberalism — or just liberalism as the philosophy of freedom was then known — was the specter haunting Europe — and the world. In every advanced country the liberal movement was active.

Drawn mainly from the middle classes, it included people from widely contrasting religious and philosophical backgrounds. Christians, Jews, deists, agnostics, utilitarians, believers in natural rights, freethinkers, and traditionalists all found it possible to work towards one fundamental goal: expanding the area of the free functioning of society and diminishing the area of coercion and the state.

Emphases varied with the circumstances of different countries. Sometimes, as in Central and Eastern Europe, the liberals demanded the rollback of the absolutist state and even the residues of feudalism. Accordingly, the struggle centered around full private property rights in land, religious liberty, and the abolition of serfdom. In Western Europe, the liberals often had to fight for free trade, full freedom of the press, and the rule of law as sovereign over state functionaries.

In America, the liberal country par excellence, the chief aim was to fend off incursions of government power pushed by Alexander Hamilton and his centralizing successors, and, eventually, somehow, to deal with the great stain on American freedom — Negro slavery.

From the standpoint of liberalism, the United States was remarkably lucky from the start. Its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, was composed by Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading liberal thinkers of his time. The Declaration radiated the vision of society as consisting of individuals enjoying their natural rights and pursuing their self-determined goals. In the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Founders created a system where power would be divided, limited, and hemmed in by multiple constraints, while individuals went about the quest for fulfillment through work, family, friends, self-cultivation, and the dense network of voluntary associations. In this new land, government — as European travelers noted with awe — could hardly be said to exist at all. This was the America that became a model to the world.

One perpetuator of the Jeffersonian tradition in the early 19th century was William Leggett, a New York journalist and antislavery Jacksonian Democrat. Leggett declared:

“All governments are instituted for the protection of person and property; and the people only delegate to their rulers such powers as are indispensable to these objects. The people want no government to regulate their private concerns, or to prescribe the course and mete out the profits of their industry. Protect their persons and property, and all the rest they can do for themselves.”

This laissez-faire philosophy became the bedrock creed of countless Americans of all classes. In the generations to come, it found an echo in the work of liberal writers like R L. Godkin, Albert Jay Nock, H. L. Mencken, Frank Chodorov, and Leonard Read. To the rest of the world, this was the distinctively, characteristically American outlook.

Meanwhile, the economic advance that had been slowly gaining momentum in the Western world burst out in a great leap forward. First in Britain, then in America and Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution transformed the life of man as nothing had since the neolithic age. Now it became possible for the vast majority of mankind to escape the immemorial misery they had grown to accept as their unalterable lot. Now tens of millions who would have perished in the inefficient economy of the old order were able to survive. As the populations of Europe and America swelled to unprecedented levels, the new masses gradually achieved living standards unimaginable for working people before.

The birth of the industrial order was accompanied by economic dislocations. How could it have been otherwise? The free-market economists preached the solution: security of property and hard money to encourage capital formation, free trade to maximize efficiency in production, and a clear field for entrepreneurs eager to innovate. But conservatives, threatened in their age-old status, initiated a literary assault on the new system, giving the Industrial Revolution a bad name from which it never fully recovered. Soon the attack was gleefully taken up by groups of socialist intellectuals that began to emerge.

Still, by mid-century the liberals went from one victory to another. Constitutions with guarantees of basic rights were adopted, legal systems firmly anchoring the rule of law and property rights were put in place, and free trade was spreading, giving birth to a world economy based on the gold standard.

There were advances on the intellectual front as well. After spearheading the campaign to abolish the English Corn Laws, Richard Cobden developed the theory of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries as a foundation for peace. Frederic Bastiat put the case for free trade, non intervention, and peace in a classic form. Liberal historians like Thomas Macaulay and Augustin Thierry uncovered the roots of freedom in the West. Later in the century, the economic theory of the free market was placed on a secure scientific footing with the rise of the Austrian School, inaugurated by Carl Menger.

The relation of liberalism and religion presented a special problem. In continental Europe and Latin America, freethinking liberals sometimes used the state power to curtail the influence of the Catholic Church, while some Catholic leaders clung to obsolete ideas of theocratic control. But liberal thinkers like Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton saw beyond such futile disputes. They stressed the crucial role that religion, separated from government power, could play in stemming the growth of the centralized state. In this way, they prepared the ground for the reconciliation of liberty and religious faith.

Then, for reasons still unclear, the tide began to turn against the liberals. Part of the reason is surely the rise of the new class of intellectuals that proliferated everywhere. That they owed their very existence to the wealth generated by the capitalist system did not prevent most of them from incessantly gnawing away at capitalism, indicting it for every problem they could point to in modern society.

At the same time, voluntary solutions to these problems were preempted by state functionaries anxious to expand their domain. The rise of democracy may well have contributed to liberalism’s decline by aggravating an age-old feature of politics: the scramble for special privilege. Businesses, labor unions, farmers, bureaucrats, and other interest groups vied for state privileges — and found intellectual demagogues to rationalize their depredations. The area of state control grew, at the expense, as William Graham Sumner pointed out, of “the forgotten man” — the quiet, productive individual who asks no favor of government and, through his work, keeps the whole system going.

By the end of the century, liberalism was being battered on all sides. Nationalists and imperialists condemned it for promoting an insipid peace instead of a virile and bracing belligerency among the nations. Socialists attacked it for upholding the “anarchical” free-market system instead of “scientific” central planning. Even church leaders disparaged liberalism for its alleged egotism and materialism. In America and Britain, social reformers around the dawn of the century conceived a particularly clever gambit. Anywhere else the supporters of state intervention and coercive labor-unionism would have been called “socialists” or “social democrats.” But since the English-speaking peoples appeared for some reason to have an aversion to those labels, they hijacked the term “liberal.”

Though they fought on to the end, a mood of despondency settled on the last of the great authentic liberals. When Herbert Spencer began writing in the 1840s, he had looked forward to an age of universal progress in which the coercive state apparatus would practically disappear. By 1884, Spencer could pen an essay entitled, “The Coming Slavery.” In 1898, William Graham Sumner, American Spencerian, free-trader, and gold-standard advocate, looked with dismay as America started on the road to imperialism and global entanglement in the Spanish-American War: he titled his response to that war, grimly, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.”

Everywhere in Europe there was a reversion to the policies of the absolutist state, as government bureaucracies expanded. At the same time, jealous rivalries among the Great Powers led to a frenzied arms race and sharpened the threat of war. In 1914, a Serb assassin threw a spark onto the heaped-up animosity and suspicion, and the result was the most destructive war in history to that point. In 1917, an American president keen to create a New World Order led his country into the murderous conflict “War is the health of the state,” warned the radical writer Randolph Bourne. And so it proved to be. By the time the butchery ended, many believed that liberalism in its classical sense was dead.

Part 3: The 20th Century

The First World War was the watershed of the twentieth century. Itself the product of antiliberal ideas and policies, such as militarism and protectionism, the Great War fostered statism in every form. In Europe and America, the trend towards state intervention accelerated, as governments conscripted, censored, inflated, ran up mountains of debts, co-opted business and labor, and seized control of the economy. Everywhere “progressive” intellectuals saw their dreams coming true. Thee old laissez-faire liberalism was dead, they gloated, and the future belonged to collectivism. The only question seemed to be: which kind of collectivism?

In Russia, the chaos of the war permitted a small group of Marxist revolutionaries to grab power and establish a field headquarters for world revolution. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx had concocted a secular religion with a potent appeal. It held out the promise of the final liberation of man through replacing the complex, often baffling world of the market economy by conscious, “scientific” control. Put into practice by Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, the Marxist economic experiment resulted in catastrophe. For the next seventy years, Red rulers lurched from one patchwork expedient to another. But terror kept them firmly in charge, and the most colossal propaganda effort in history convinced intellectuals both in the West and in the emerging Third World that communism was, indeed, “the radiant future of all mankind.”

The peace treaties cobbled together by President Woodrow Wilson and the other Allied leaders left Europe a seething cauldron of resentment and hate. Seduced by nationalist demagogues and terrified of the Communist threat, millions of Europeans turned to the forms of state worship called Fascism and National Socialism, or Nazism. Though riddled with economic error, these doctrines promised prosperity and national power through integral state control of society, while fomenting more and greater wars.

In the democratic countries, milder forms of statism were the rule. Most insidious of all was the form that had been invented in the 1880s, in Germany. There Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, devised a series of old-age, disability, accident, and sickness insurance schemes, run by the state. The German liberals of the time argued that such plans were simply a reversion to the paternalism of the absolutist monarchies. Bismarck won out, and his invention — the welfare state — was eventually copied everywhere in Europe, including the totalitarian countries. With the New Deal, the welfare state came to America.

Still, private property and free exchange continued as the basic organizing principles of Western economies. Competition, the profit motive, the steady accumulation of capital (including human capital), free trade, the perfecting of markets, increased specialization — all worked to promote efficiency and technical progress and with them higher living standards for the people. So powerful and resilient did this capitalist engine of productivity prove to be that widespread state intervention, coercive labor-unionism, even government-generated depressions and wars could not check economic growth in the long run.

The 1920s and ’30s represent the nadir of the classical-liberal movement in this century. Especially after government meddling with the monetary system led to the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, dominant opinion held that history had closed the books on competitive capitalism, and with it the liberal philosophy.

If a date were to be put on the rebirth of classical liberalism, it would be 1922, the year of the publication of Socialism, by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. One of the most remarkable thinkers of the century, Mises was also a man of unflinching courage. In Socialism, he threw down the gauntlet to the enemies of capitalism. In effect, he said: “You accuse the system of private property of causing all social evils, which only socialism can cure. Fine. But would you now kindly do something you have never deigned to do before: would you explain how a complex economic system will be able to operate in the absence of markets, and hence prices, for capital goods?” Mises demonstrated that economic calculation without private property was impossible, and exposed socialism for the passionate illusion it was.

Mises’s challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy opened the minds of thinkers in Europe and America. F.A. Hayek, Wilhelm Roepke, and Lionel Robbins were among those whom Mises converted to the free market. And, throughout his very long career, Mises elaborated and reformed his economic theory and social philosophy, becoming the acknowledged premier classical-liberal thinker of the twentieth century.

In Europe and particularly in the United States, scattered individuals and groups kept something of the old liberalism alive. At the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago, academics could be found, even in the 1930s and ’40s, who defended at least the basic validity of the free-enterprise idea. In America, an embattled brigade of brilliant writers, mainly journalists, survived. Now known as the “Old Right,” they included Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, H. L. Mencken, Felix Morley, and John T. Flynn. Spurred to action by the totalitarian implications of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, these writers reiterated the traditional American creed of individual freedom and scornful distrust of government. They were equally opposed to Roosevelt’s policy of global meddling as subversive of the American Republic. Supported by a few courageous publishers and businessmen, the “Old Right” nursed the flame of Jeffersonian ideals through the darkest days of the New Deal and the Second World War.

With the end of that war, what can be called a movement came into being. Small at first, it was fed by multiplying streams. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, alerted many thousands to the reality that, in pursuing socialist policies, the West was risking the loss of its traditional free civilization. In 1946, Leonard Read established The Foundation for Economic Education, in Irvington, New York, publishing the works of Henry Hazlitt and other champions of the free market. Mises and Hayek, now both in the United States, continued their work. Hayek led in founding the Mont Pelerin Society, a group of classical-liberal scholars, activists, and businessmen from all over the world. Mises, unsurpassed as a teacher, set up a seminar at New York University, attracting such students as Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. Rothbard went on to wed the insights of Austrian economics to the teachings of natural law to produce a powerful synthesis that appealed to many of the young. At the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Aaron Director led a group of classical-liberal economists whose specialty was exposing the defects of government action. The gifted novelist Ayn Rand incorporated emphatically libertarian themes in her well-crafted best-sellers, and even founded a school of philosophy.

The reaction to the renewal of authentic liberalism on the part of the left — “liberal” — more accurately, social-democrat-establishment was predictable, and ferocious. In 1954, for instance, Hayek edited a volume entitled Capitalism and the Historians, a collection of essays by distinguished scholars arguing against the prevailing socialist interpretation of the Industrial Revolution. A scholarly journal permitted Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harvard professor and New Deal hack, to savage the book in these terms: “Americans have enough trouble with home-grown McCarthys without importing Viennese professors to add academic luster to the process.” Other works the establishment tried to kill by silence. As late as 1962, not a single prominent magazine or newspaper chose to review Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Still, the writers and activists who led the revival of classical liberalism found a growing resonance among the public. Millions of Americans in all walks of life had all along quietly cherished the values of the free market, and private property. The growing presence of a solid corps of intellectual leaders now gave many of these citizens the heart to stand up for the ideas they had held dear for so long.

In the 1970s and ’80s, with the evident failure of socialist planning and interventionist programs, classical liberalism became a world-wide movement. In Western countries, and then, incredibly, in the nations of the former Warsaw Pact, political leaders even declared themselves disciples of Hayek and Friedman. As the end of the century approached, the old, authentic liberalism was alive and well, stronger than it had been for a hundred years.

And yet, in Western countries, the state keeps on relentlessly expanding, colonizing one area of social life after the other. In America, the Republic is fast becoming a fading memory, as federal bureaucrats and global planners divert more and more power to the center. So the struggle continues, as it must. Two centuries ago, when liberalism was young, Jefferson had already informed us of the price of liberty.

Beyond GDP, A New Way To Measure The Economy – Mark Skousen

By Dr. Mark Skousen. First appeared on Forbes in 2013.

Starting in spring 2014, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release a breakthrough new economic statistic on a quarterly basis.  It’s called Gross Output, a measure of total sales volume at all stages of production. GO is almost twice the size of GDP, the standard yardstick for measuring final goods and services produced in a year.

This is the first new economic aggregate since Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was introduced over fifty years ago.

It’s about time. Starting with my work The Structure of Production in 1990 and Economics on Trial in 1991, I have made the case that we needed a new statistic beyond GDP that measures spending throughout the entire production process, not just final output.  GO is a move in that direction – a personal triumph 25 years in the making.

GO attempts to measure total sales from the production of raw materials through intermediate producers to final retail.  Based on my research, GO is a better indicator of the business cycle, and most consistent with economic growth theory.

GO is a measure of the “make” economy, while GDP represents the “use” economy.  Both are essential to understanding how the economy works.

While GDP is a good measure of national economic performance, it has a major flaw:  In limiting itself to final output, GDP largely ignores or downplays the „make“ economy, that is, the supply chain and intermediate stages of production needed to produce all those finished goods and services.  This narrow focus of GDP has created much mischief in the media, government policy, and boardroom decision-making. For example, journalists are constantly overemphasizing consumer and government spending as the driving force behind the economy, rather than saving, business investment, and technological advances.  Since consumer spending represents 70% or more of GDP, followed by 20% by government, the media naively concludes that any slowdown in retail sales or government stimulus is necessarily bad for the economy.  (Private investment comes in a poor third at 13%.)

For instance, the New York Times recently reported, “Consumer spending makes up more than 70% of the economy, and it usually drives growth during economic recoveries.” (“Consumers Give Boost to Economy,” New York Times, May 1, 2010, p. B1)  Or as the Wall Street Journal stated a few years ago, “The housing bust has chilled consumer spending – the largest single driver of the U. S. economy…” (“Home Forecast Calls for Pain,” Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2011, p. A1.)

Or take this report during the economic recovery:

“Friday’s estimates of second-quarter gross domestic product [1.3%, well below consensus forecasts] provided a sobering look at how a decline in public spending and investment can restrain growth….The astonishingly slow growth rate from April through June was due in large part to sluggish consumer spending and an increase in imports, which subtract from growth numbers. But dwindling government spending also held back growth.”  (“The Role of Government Spending,” New York Times, July 29, 2011.)

In short, by focusing only on final output, GDP underestimates the money spent and economic activity generated at earlier stages in the production process. It’s as though the manufacturers and shippers and designers aren’t fully acknowledged in their contribution to overall growth or decline.

Gross Output exposes these misconceptions.  In my own research, I’ve discovered many benefits of GO statistics.  First, Gross Output provides a more accurate picture of what drives the economy.  Using GO as a more comprehensive measure of economic activity, spending by consumers turns out to represent around 40% of total yearly sales, not 70% as commonly reported. Spending by business (private investment plus intermediate inputs) is substantially bigger, representing over 50% of economic activity.  That’s more consistent with economic growth theory, which emphasizes productive saving and investment in technology on the producer side as the drivers of economic growth.  Consumer spending is largely the effect, not the cause, of prosperity.

Second, GO is significantly more sensitive to the business cycle.  During the 2008-09 Great Recession, nominal GDP fell only 2% (due largely to countercyclical increases in government), but GO collapsed by over 7%, and intermediate inputs by 10%.  Since 2009, nominal GDP has increased 3-4% a year, but GO has climbed more than 5% a year.   GO acts like the end of a waving fan.  (See chart below.)

GOandGDP

I believe that Gross Output fills in a big piece of the macroeconomic puzzle.  It establishes the proper balance between production and consumption, between the „make“ and the „use“ economy, and it is more consistent with growth theory.   As Steve Landefeld, director of the BEA, and co-editors Dale Jorgenson and William Nordhaus state in their work, A New Architecture for the U. S. National Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2006),  “Gross output [GO] is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare.  Both are required in a complete system of accounts.”

Historical Background

The history of these two economic statistics goes back to several pioneers.  Two economists in particular had much in common – they were both Russian Americans who taught at Harvard University, and both won the Nobel Prize.  Simon Kuznets did breakthrough work on GDP statistics in the 1930s.  Following the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1946, GDP became the standard measure of economic growth.  A few years later, Wassily Leontief developed the first input-output tables, which he regarded as a better measure of the whole economy.  I-O accounts require examining the “intervening steps” between inputs and outputs in the production process, “a complex series of transactions…among real people.”

I-O data created the first estimates of Gross Output.  However, GO was not emphasized as an important macroeconomic tool until my own work, The Structure of Production, was published in 1990 by New York University Press.  In chapters 6 and 9, I created a universal four stage model of the economy (see the diagram below) demonstrating the relationship between total spending in the economy and final output.

final-output

In chapter 6, I made the point that GDP was not a complete picture of economic activity, and compared it to GO for the first time, contending that GO was more comprehensive and more accurately revealed that business investment was far bigger than consumption in the economy.

Since writing Structure, I discovered that the BEA’s Gross Output does not include all sales at the wholesale and retail level.  The BEA only includes value-added data for commodities after they become finished products.  Gross sales are ignored at the final two stages of production.  David Wasshausen, a BEA staff researcher, offers this rationale:  since “there is no further transformation of these goods…to the production process, they are excluded from wholesale/retail trade output.”

Therefore, in the 2nd edition of Structure, published in 2007, I created my own aggregate statistic, Gross Domestic Expenditures (GDE), which includes gross sales at the wholesale and retail level and is therefore significantly larger (more than double GDP).  For a comparison between GDE, GO and GDP, see my working paper.

The BEA has been compiling GO statistics from input-output data for years, but the media have largely ignored these figures because they came out only every five years (known as benchmark I-O tables).  Since the early 1990s, the BEA has been estimating industry accounts annually.  Even so, the data was never up-to-date like GDP.  (The latest input-output industry accounts are for 2011).

That has gradually changed. Under the leadership of BEA director Steve Landefeld, the BEA now has the budget to report the input-output data, including Gross Output, on a quarterly basis, and has already begun publishing quarterly data prior to 2012.  This is a major breakthrough involving the cooperation of the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve Board, and other government agencies.

Controversies Over This New Statistic

Several objections have been made over the years to the use of GO and GDE. Economists are especially fixated over the perceived problem of “double counting” with GO and GDE.  I am the first to note that GO and GDE involve double counting.  A commodity is often sold repeatedly as it goes through the resource, production, wholesale and retail stages.  Why not just measure the value added at each stage rather than double or triple count? they ask.  GDP eliminates double counting and measures only the value added at each stage.

There are several reasons why double counting should not be ignored and is actually a necessary feature to understanding the overall economy.  As accountants and financiers know, double counting is essential in business.  No company can operate or expand on the basis of value added or profits only. They must raise the capital necessary to cover the gross expenses of the company – wages and salaries, rents, interest, capital tools and equipment, supplies and goods-in-process.  GO and GDE reflect this vital business decision making at each stage of production.  Can publicly-traded firms ignore sales/revenues and only focus on earnings when they release their quarterly reports?  Wall Street would object.  Aggregate sales/revenues are important to measure on an individual firm and national basis.

In my own research, I find it interesting that GO and GDE are far more volatile than GDP during the business cycle.  As noted in the chart above, sales/revenues rise faster than GDP during an expansion, and collapse during a contraction (wholesale trade fell 20% in 2009; retail trade dropped over 7%).

Economists need to explore the meaning of this cyclical behavior in order to make accurate forecasts and policy recommendations.  Double counting counts.

Another objection involves outsourcing and merger/acquisitions.  Companies that start outsourcing their products will cause an increase in GO or GDE, while companies that merge with another company will show a sudden decrease, even though there is essentially no change in final output (GDP).

That’s a legitimate concern.  Similar problems occur with GDP.  When a homeowner marries the maid, the maid may no longer be paid and therefore her services may no longer be included in GDP.  Black market activities often fail to show up in GDP data as well.  Certainly if a significant trend develops in outsourcing or merger & acquisition activity, it will be reflected in GO or GDE statistics, but not necessarly in GDP.  It bears further investigation to see how serious this issue is.  No aggregate statistic is perfect, but GO and GDE offer forecasters an improved macro picture of the economy.

In conclusion, GO or GDE should be the starting point for measuring aggregate spending in the economy, as it measures both the “make” economy (intermediate production), and the “use” economy (final output).  It complements GDP and can easily be incorporated in standard national income accounting and macroeconomic analysis.  To see how, take a look at the 4th edition of my textbook, Economic Logic (Capital Press, 2014), available in paperback and Kindle.

Mark Skousen is editor of Forecasts & Strategies and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University in 2014.  He is the author of The Structure of Production (New York University Press, 1990, 2007), which introduced the concept of Gross Output as an essential macroeconomic tool.  

Housing: Too Good to Be True – Mark Thornton

Reprinted from Mises InstitutePosted on 06/04/2004 by Mark Thornton.
It’s incredibly important to note the DATE on this article. This was published only a few months into the rise in subprime lending and private label securitization – which means it was written, probably, only a month or two into it. „Subprime“ was barely a thing and Thornton is already warning of a bubble.

Signs of a „new era“ in housing are everywhere. Housing construction is taking place at record rates. New records for real estate prices are being set across the country, especially on the east and west coasts. Booming home prices and record low interest rates are allowing homeowners to refinance their mortgages, „extract equity“ to increase their spending, and lower their monthly payment! As one loan officer explained to me: „It’s almost too good to be true.“

In fact, it is too good to be true. What the prophets of the new housing paradigm don’t discuss is that real estate markets have experienced similar cycles in the past and that periods described as new paradigms are often followed by periods of distress in real estate markets, including foreclosure sales, bankruptcy and bank failures.

The case of Japan’s real estate bubble is instructive. Japan had a stock market bubble in the 1980s that was very similar to the U.S. stock market bubble in the 1990s. As the Japanese stock market started to bust, the real estate market continued to bubble. One general index of Japanese real estate shows that prices rose for almost two years after the stock market crashed with prices staying above pre-crash levels for more than five years. The boom in home construction continued for nearly six years after the stock market crash. Prices for commercial, industrial, and residential real estate in Japan continue to fall and are now below the levels measured in 1985 when these statistics were first collected.

It has now been three years since the U.S. stock market crash. Greenspan has indicated that interest rates could soon reverse their course, while longer-term interest rates have already moved higher. Higher interest rates should trigger a reversal in the housing market and expose the fallacies of the new paradigm, including how the housing boom has helped cover up increases in price inflation. Unfortunately, this exposure will hurt homeowners and the larger problem could hit the American taxpayer, who could be forced to bailout the banks and government-sponsored mortgage guarantors who have encouraged irresponsible lending practices.

More Greenspam

Once again, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has created a new-age economic panacea, and earlier this year he applauded his contribution to the economic recovery: „very low interest rates and reduced taxes, have permitted relatively robust advances in residential construction and household expenditures. Indeed, residential construction activity moved up steadily over the year.“

The key to this panacea is the process of „equity extraction“ that occurs when people refinance their homes; they take equity out and spend it to increase their standard of living. However, because variable rate mortgages are so low, their payments actually go down so they have more of their income to spend, or they can upgrade to a more expensive house.  As Greenspan explained:

Other consumer outlays, financed partly by the large extraction of built-up equity in homes, have continued to trend up. Most equity extraction—reflecting the realized capital gains on home sales—usually occurs as a consequence of house turnover. But during the past year, an almost equal amount reflected the debt-financed cash-outs associated with an unprecedented surge in mortgage refinancings.

As is the norm, Greenspan hedges his statements. He also considers some of the potential drawbacks and pitfalls on the horizon for the new paradigm in housing, but in the end he concludes that we really have nothing to worry about. Low interest rates, rising home prices, and lower financing costs mean that we actually can have our cake (homes) and eat it too (equity extraction).

To be sure, the mortgage debt of homeowners relative to their income is high by historical norms. But as a consequence of low interest rates, the servicing requirement for the mortgage debt of homeowners relative to the corresponding disposable income of that group is well below the high levels of the early 1990s. Moreover, owing to continued large gains in residential real estate values, equity in homes has continued to rise despite sizable debt-financed extractions. Adding in the fixed costs associated with other financial obligations, such as rental payments of tenants, consumer installment credit, and auto leases, the total servicing costs faced by households relative to their incomes are below previous peaks and do not appear to be a significant cause for concern at this time.

The Housing Bubble

I first reported on the housing bubble in the U.S. at the beginning of this year when the bubble was already well under way, if not in full bloom. As the chart below indicates, real residential investment has jumped far above both its historical trend and even above its cyclical channel. This indicates to me that there is a bubble in residential real estate. The data for this chart stop at the beginning of 2003. We now know that investment in housing increased by 8.8% last year. This is a historically high rate of construction, but far from a record rate increase. However, 2003 marks the ninth year in a row that housing investment was positive, the first time that has ever occurred since the statistic has been collected. Frank Shostak and Christopher Mayer have also written very informative articles on the Housing bubble.

Recently I came across a piece of anecdotal evidence of a housing bubble. Last Sunday afternoon, a friend of mine put a „For Sale by Owner“ sign in the front lawn of a small house he owned on a side street. It wasn’t listed with a real estate agent or in the newspaper, but he nonetheless had a couple of calls that afternoon, with many more to follow, and within a couple of days he had multiple offers before finally accepting a bid that was over his original asking price.

Mainstream economists who discount the possibility of a housing bubble would dismiss such evidence. But they also ignore all the macro evidence of the current housing boom and see it as a positive development. For example, the number of new homes being constructed is at an all-time high, despite a „soft“ labor market. In the graph below, the annualized rate of new home construction is shown to have surpassed the two surges of the 1970s when inflation was out of control.

The prices of houses are also up, but mainstream economists have generally ignored this development as well; and as noted above, Greenspan sees this as a positive development. Some economists can even point to the Consumer Price Index which shows that the housing component in the CPI is steady or falling. And yet reports are coming out nearly every day saying that housing prices are up dramatically and setting records all across the country. Record prices have been recently reported in the San Francisco Bay Area, Denver, Boston, Las Vegas, the state of Washington, and even Buffalo, New York.

Nationally, the price of a median family home was up 15% between 2001 and 2003, with regional increases of 30% in the Northeast, 8.5% in the Midwest, 14.4% in the Southeast, and 20.4% in the West. Over the last year, increases have been reported as 18.7% in the Northeast, 1.9% in the Midwest, 3.8% in the Southeast, and 10.7% in the West, or 6.5% for the nation as a whole. Interestingly, the median price has actually dropped 7.2% in the Midwest and 7.3% in the South since peaking in the 3rd quarter of 2003, while prices have been generally flat in the West. Statistics from the last couple of quarters might therefore suggest that the housing bubble may have topped out, or at least temporarily cooled down, in most of the country.

Why have home prices been increasing? David Lereah, chief economist with the National Association of Realtors, explained: „It’s a simple matter of supply and demand…We continue to have more home buyers than sellers in most of the country, which results in tight housing inventories and higher rates of home price appreciation.“ Of course the cause of higher home prices is that the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates, and thus mortgage rates, at historically low rates so that people find it easier to finance homes. In fact, despite an 18% increase in home prices since 2001, the median monthly payment remained the same at $789/month and the „median payment as a percentage of income“ has actually fallen. This is the magic of monetary inflation, courtesy of Alan Greenspan.

Price inflation follows monetary inflation

The price of just about everything I buy is going up these days. Gasoline is higher, dairy products are higher, paper products and just about everything else—higher. Mainstream economists have sounded surprised by the recent upturn in price inflation and they have offered us every excuse to ignore signs of inflation: Ignore rising oil prices. Ignore rising food prices. Ignore rising health care costs. Ignore higher taxes and government fees. And then there is their dirty little secret about housing prices.

Higher price inflation should not have been a surprise given that the Fed has increased the money supply by 25% during the period 2001–2003. In addition, the price of basic commodities has been rising for many months and these higher commodity prices eventually turn up in the price of goods and services. One leading indicator of higher commodity prices is the Dow Jones Commodity Index (stock prices of major commodity producers). It has been rising since the fourth quarter of 2001 and has doubled in value since that time. This stock index is now higher than it has ever been, outside of the blip that occurred in mid-2002.

Only recently have commodity prices begun influencing government price indexes like the Producer Price Index and the Consumer Price Index. For the first four months of 2004 CPI-inflation increased at an annual rate of 4%, which is a higher rate than we have „experienced“ in the last few years. The Producer Price Index actually decreased in 2001, but has increased in 2002 and 2003. Over the last year, prices for finished producer goods increased 3.7% while at earlier stages of production the prices for intermediate goods increased by 5.1% and the prices of crude materials index surged 20.4%. This would suggest that there is plenty of price inflation still in the pipeline. The experience of the 1970s would suggest that price inflation adds fuel to housing bubbles because tangible assets like homes serve as a hedge against inflation.

The Dirty Secret

While this price inflation did not surprise me, the delay in its arrival did. That is, until I came across the dirty little secret in the CPI. With prices increasing all around us, there is one thing in Auburn, Alabama that seems to be in abundance with stable, if not declining prices. This „good“ is now being advertised on most streets throughout the town, whereas in the past it did not require much, if any, advertising over the twenty-plus years I have lived in this college town. This abundant good is apartments and rental houses.

It is a truly odd market when houses and apartments move in opposite directions. After all, houses and apartments are just different products in the same „market for housing.“ In Auburn, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of house you want to buy despite frantic building by construction companies, and yet rental properties (which include many smaller houses) seem to be readily available in all shapes and sizes. Has the population changed? Have people become anti-rent? Or are we just in a „new housing paradigm“? Is this a „new era“ of homes?

Greenspan’s low interest rates have driven renters to become homeowners and knocked the market out of equilibrium. Underneath this Fed-inspired distortion rests the dirty little secret of how the cost of housing has served to limit increases in measured inflation. The Consumer Price Index has underreported price inflation because the government uses the rental value of housing, rather the actual price of houses, in their index.

In the basket of goods used to calculate CPI, the goods that have increased slower than housing include food and beverages, recreation, and education, which total to about a 30% weighting of the CPI basket of goods. Housing accounts for 42% of the basket, with housing „prices“ representing almost 25% of the entire basket. However, housing prices are calculated with „Owner’s equivalent rent“ which is an estimate of the rent that people would have to pay for their houses. With home prices rising and rental rates stagnant, CPI underestimates the real rate of price inflation over the last year by about 50%.

Do Housing Bubbles Burst?

Housing prices never, or rarely, go down. That is the conventional wisdom and the conventional wisdom is correct. Housing is always a good investment, isn’t it? It’s an inflation hedge and it’s an investment that you get to use everyday, plus you get a great tax break. And the home, after all, is a big part of the American dream.

However, government can screw up just about everything. Given enough power and time it will screw up everything. Housing and real estate in America is just the latest example. The Federal Reserve and the Mac-May family (Freddie, Fannie, Sallie, etc.) have conspired to create a housing bubble in the U.S. and as the old saying goes, „what goes up must come down.“ It’s only a matter of time.

Housing bubbles typically do not pop like a balloon; they don’t even crash like stock markets. Rather, the air in housing bubbles tends to leak out slowly—painfully slowly—while in commercial real estate markets there is a more noticeable hiss. We really don’t know the current value of our homes until we sell them. They are not traded on a daily basis, like shares of stock in Wal-Mart. Some never get exchanged in the market, but are passed on within a family from generation to generation. The market value of a home may drop 20% and the owner might never realize it.

Worse yet, when the market for real estate collapses, prices are less likely to collapse because when buyers fail to make offers houses simply don’t sell. Sellers often resist cutting their prices in favor of just leaving the house on the market or taking it off the market. Traditionally the market adjustment to a collapse in real estate markets has come from the quantity side, not the price side—fewer houses are sold—while price reductions tend to come gradually. This doesn’t mean that housing bubbles can’t exist or that the bust is any less painful, only that it doesn’t make as much noise.

It is difficult to predict how long bubbles will last and when they will go bust. The best indicator is interest rates, because when the Fed forces rates down it tends to create bubbles, and when rates are forced upward bubbles tend to pop. My guess is that Greenspan will raise rates after the election. The rates of interest on long-term bonds have already „spiked“ up from their historical lows. The chart below shows the recent increase in the interest rate on 10-Year Treasury bonds to the highest levels in almost two years.

Prior to this spike up, interest rates had been falling since the early 1980s. As mentioned above, lower rates have coaxed people into refinancing their homes and drawing equity out of their homes to spend on other purchases, like cars, boats, renovations, vacations, or even investments in the stock market. As a result, owner equity as a percentage of real estate value is now at an all-time low.

Here is the unmentioned problem with Greenspan’s panacea. What happens to all these „equity poor“ homeowners if the return of monetary inflation establishes a new trend of higher prices and higher interest rates over the coming years?

An ever-increasing proportion of mortgage financing has come in the form of variable-rate mortgages, where the payment increases as interest rates increase. In my experience, variable-rate mortgages come with a „cap“ that only allows the variable rate to increase by a certain amount. Even with the cap, however, your mortgage payment could increase by around 50%. I have recently learned that many variable-rate loans are now offered without a cap. If rates were to explode upward, mortgage payments for these folks could double or triple. And if this did happen, the housing market would collapse with sellers swamping buyers.

Given the government’s encouragement of lax lending practices, home prices could crash, bankruptcies would increase, and financial companies, including the government-sponsored mortgage companies, might require another taxpayer bailout.

Of course inflation might not materialize. Interest rates could stay low. In a recent column, I reported on a new book that even predicts that deflation will reign in our financial future. Greenspan has suggested that his economic panacea has given American homeowners greater economic „flexibility.“ I would suggest that it is not flexibility he offers, but the shackles to an economic nightmare. Stick with the fixed-rate mortgages, keep the equity in your homes, or go get one of those cheap apartments.