The British Labour Party and economic decision making

It appears the British are getting ready to elect a Labour Party government which is hoping to introduce some “structural” changes to economic decision-making.

This blogger believes economic changes are urgently needed but also figures the changes proposed by the Labour Party will only change the faces making decisions and will do nothing to change the well-being of English people.

0*V_sRwC4Rvi4GfN3ZWhen socialists realize that central planning does not accomplish what they want they try to reform by decentralizing the central planning. To see how the British are likely to try this, see this article in The Economist.

The main issue in capitalism versus socialism is who gets to make decisions about what economic projects are undertaken and who gets to do them.

There are three main ways in which this decision-making can be done.

The first is that major decisions are made by bankers who get to do this via their control over money creation. Fractional reserve banking means bankers create money when they make loans and this gives them a great deal of power to decide what projects go ahead and by whom. The capital in capitalism comes from the money created when loans are made. Even small decisions like who gets to build housing and who gets to buy the houses are made by bankers when they approve the loans and mortgages. Any meaningful reform will require changes in the way in which money is created. There are ways to do this. Not only will bankers object to the loss of power but a lot of people have an emotional committment to money and will fiercely oppose changes. Another strong feature of this system is that governments pass legislation that restricts competition and allows some people to make profits. This system we call capitalism.

The second approach to decision-making is called socialism or central planning. Decisions are made by political leaders or their bureaucrats. Socialists like to use words such as “democratic” and “public interest” but in reality make decisions according to their own values and interests. Because of this socialist economies tend to be an inefficient use of resources. Decision making is still made by a few people even if they claim it is on behalf of others.

The third way of making decisions is a true market or perfect competition. We like to think our economy is based on markets but a lot of it is based on legislation that restricts competition such as patents, copyright,licensing and tariffs. In North America one area of life in which competition is allowed is religious services. As we are committed to freedom of religion the government does not interfere. One often hears of people who go church shopping.

Greens often say they want an economy based on small business but they also automatically reject everything said by economists. This is unfortunate because economics has worked out the theory of small business and can say exactly what to do.

In order to have perfect competition all participants in a market, sellers and purchasers, must be so small that no one can influence the price by increasing or decreasing the amount they buy or sell. There must also be perfect knowledge. All participants need to know all prices. Entry to and exit from an industry needs to be easy which means there can be no patents or copyright.

For the purposes of this post decision-making is made by customers who vote with their buying decisions. Price changes are signals to producers to increase or decrease production.

One of the reasons this blogger likes the true market economy is that it allows a lot of decisions to be made by individuals. One of the problems is that individuals to not have a lot of power. People with common vested can form powerful lobbying groups and can get governments to pass legislation which restricts competition and provides them with excess profits.

Socialists talk of giving workers influence over economic decisions, but their proposals give decision-making to boards or councils. Workers are also consumers and with a market system they will have the same influence as all consumers. A market system also allows for a great variety of products. For example, if schools were based on a market there could easily be schools based on different educational philosophies and parents could choose which they wanted for their children. A voucher system could ensure that all children got an education.

Socialists also argue that capitalism encourages greed. This may be true when decisions are made by bankers, but in a true market there are no profits, just wages and a return on investment. If there are profits being made in an industry, more people will go into it until there are no profits.

If the British Labour Party gets elected and is successful in changing the “structure” of their economy, they may change the size of a few of the units for which decision are being made. However, they will still be steering the same ship in the same ocean. Jeremy Corbyn is not radical or brave enough to change the way in which money is created or to drop a committment to economic growth, both of which are urgently needed to protect people from an economic collapse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Self-driving cars: promises and some problems

Self-driving cars will be an incremental but disruptive step into science fiction in that we will be abandoning a major part of the economy and replacing it with something different. Science fiction will become a reality. Do we really want to go there? Probably we have no choice but to drive down this road.

A recent special report in The Economist discusses some of the technology and outlines the promises of autonomous vehicles. There are also some economic problems of which we should be aware – the resource base, marginal cost and potential disruption in the money supply.

driving-clipart-45The promises are mostly based on a continuation of the North American growth economy. We will be continuing to use machines to move individuals or small groups mostly to places of employment. Probably self-driving vehicles will be used in combination with mass transit, especially if vehicle sharing comes into its own. Great benefits will accrue to a lot of people in the form of greater inexpensive mobility which will also allow us to contradict Facebook with more direct social activity.

Self-driving vehicles may add to the over population problem if there are fewer accidents and fewer fatalities.

One of the problems will be the availability of resources. This blogger figures the economy is currently on a down trend because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Sure, there are lots left in the crust of this planet but the amount of energy required to retrieve them makes them mostly useless.

The exception is solar energy, the cost of which has been dropping and will probably continue to drop. This could mean a major change in economic power as it appears solar will become cheap enough for individuals to make their own decisions about using it. No longer will bankers and governments be deciding which power provision projects go ahead and by whom.

The replacement of the current fleet of internal combustion vehicles with electric and driverless vehicles will probably mean a lot of the current infrastructure will need to be replaced. This will require large quantities of mineral resources which may be very expensive. Henry Ford realized that in order to sell automobiles they had to be inexpensive enough for working people to buy them. Since then we have extracted a lot of the most easily accessible mineral resources. It is not clear we will able to retrieve or recycle enough resources for the transition.

The economic concept of marginal cost creates a couple of problems for the introduction of self-driving vehicles. This states the price of an item is equal to the marginal cost of producing the last item. As the cost of solar energy is falling and is likely to continue falling at some point solar will determine the price of electricity. When that happens all those firms currently producing electricity from hydro, gas or oil will find their facilities and investments worthless. Not good news for bankers or for the rest of us when all that debt has to be written off.

Recycling may be another source of problems. Most of us accept that recycling is a civil responsibility and believe that doing so will help to save the environment and the economy. However we may find marginal cost interferes with some things. Suppose a pound of copper can be recycled for half the cost mining new stuff. Does this mean manufacturers will be able to purchase recycled copper for half the cost and their customers will benefit from the cheaper prices? Not likely. Copper prices will be set by the last pound mined and the recycler will make a windfall. So the benefits of recycling will likely go to the recyclers rather than the rest of us. This is what happened in the oil industry as prices rose. We all paid higher prices and those producers who could extract the stuff at lower cost did very well. Recycling may be a joke on us.

Most of us know how to manage our money but few understand how money is created in our economy. Most of the money we use to exchange goods and services is based on the debt created when bankers make loans. This works so long as the economy is growing and bankers make more and more loans.

Economists seldom if ever talk about what happens when the economy stops growing and loans have to be written off. Loans are being written off all the time but so long as the economy is growing they are replaced with even more loans. However, when large amounts have to be written off such as the recent mortgage crisis the money supply goes down and without money it becomes difficult to exchange goods and services and lots of people lose their savings and their employment. Because of the fractional reserve system we use the money supply goes down with a multiplier effect.

I do not know how much of the current money supply is based on debt to the automotive and energy firms. The introduction of self-driving electric vehicles could hit the banks and us with a double whammy if firms in both industries cannot repay their debts. We could lose a lot of the money supply as well as a lot of people losing their savings and pensions.

A lot of changes are likely to be forced upon us. Some of those changes we may not appreciate.

Through the millenia of history when there have been major economic upheavals up to 90 percent of populations have died. If something like that happens in the near future, the technology of self-driving electric cars will not be lost and the promises may be available to the survivors.

The opportunities and challenges of unemployment

 

For most people their job is their life, their identity and their future.  Therefor the future of employment is a major issue especially for those young people who, through no fault of their own, are finding the job  scene difficult.  It is both an opportunity and a challenge,

It is an opportunity because most if not all of us can be freed from the drudgery of daily life to soar in the enjoyment of our humanity.  It is a challenge because to achieve this we will have to reorganize our economy and cope with limited resources.

The opportunity comes from the huge agricultural surplus which has allowed us to build an incredible civilization.  Only a few people are required to do the work to provide all of us with food and shelter.  This leaves open what the rest of us do, how is the surplus distributed and who makes the decisions.

Up to this time the rest of us have been making goods and providing services for each other, the surplus has been distributed via employment and it is not clear who has been making the decisions.  Bankers are probably deeply involved as they create money when they make loans and this control over the money supply gives them a lot of power.  We like to think we make our own decisions but there are limits.  We can make decisions so long as they are politically and/or economically correct.

This system is now breaking down and it is not clear there will be a recovery in the near future.  Our civilization is very precarious with numerous threats ranging from a breakdown of the food factories through disease pandemics to an electro magnetic pulse from the sun (or a nuclear bomb) which could knock out most of the electric power grids and all computer chips.  A major source of current economic problems could be that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  There are lots left but they will require excessive amounts of energy to extract them.

This crisis is being felt most strongly by the “lost generation” of young people who are finding employment difficult.

This breakdown in employment provides opportunities to use the agricultural surplus in new and hopefully satisfying ways but we will also have to make changes in how the surplus is distributed.  One way would be some sort of universal income scheme – the “free money” giveaway which a few people have been talking about.  This would also spread the  decision-making power to more people.   As subsidies distort prices  they should be given to consumers rather than producers.  An income scheme would set a minimum wage and those who like fast food would have to pay enough to attract workers.

The opportunities are great but the challenges are even greater.  A lot of people have vested interests which would be crushed and even more people have religious-like beliefs and faiths in the current economic system.  Some people believe with  committment  that everyone should work and support themselves.   A lot of us who are comfortable now will not worry about those who are less comfortable and will not want to make sacrifices.  But if we don’t make changes in how our economy is organized, a lot of people will probably live poor and miserable lives.

What do we want the future to look like.  There  is a lot of potential for the future and lots of visions.  But overcoming the differences of opinion will be a major challenge.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

 

 

 

 

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The basics of banking

Somebody has questioned how it is that banks can/should make their profits on the spread between deposits and loans.  Sometimes, when we are familiar with a subject we ass u me that everyone understands all the basics.

In the jargon of economics banks are financial intermediaries which means they are the facilitator between people who have money to lend and those who want to borrow.  People with money they don’t want to spend immediately can deposit that money in a bank.  The bankers then lends that money to somebody who has an use for it.

Bankers charges interest on the loan.  Some of that money is paid as interest on the deposit and the balance, the difference between the two interest rates, is the spread with which the banker pays his expenses and takes his profit.  It is very similar to the retailer who purchases goods wholesale and marks them up to sell at a retail price.

DooFi_PiggybankThat is the core business of banking.  Boring.  However there are a couple of additional factors which make banking  very important and very risky.

The first is that banks operate under the fractional reserve principle which means they are required to keep a percentage of deposits as cash or in a form which is immediately available.  This is just in case many people want their deposits returned at the same time.  Loans cannot always be called in quickly.  A “run” on the bank has to be most bankers worst nightmare.  I believe all bankers would lie about the financial health of their banks  to try to prevent a run.

I try to avoid dealing with bank loans staff but a couple of times I have asked how it feels to be creating money.  They cannot believe they are creating money in making loans but to those who have studied economics of money and banking that is what they do.  The process is explained  in the essay “LETS got to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”  I figure the process is a Ponzi scheme and responsible for a lot of economic evils.  It also gives bankers a great deal of power.  Because banks create money it makes them so essential for the economy they cannot be allowed to fail.

The second complication is that making loans is a risky business in that borrowers are not always able to repay their loan.

This can be a problem for the economy as a whole  because if the banks have to write off  a large quantity of their outstanding loans,  the money supply can drop quickly and without money the exchange of goods and services stops.

Risk also  makes it easy for bankers to take for themselves some huge profits.  The general rule is that the longer the term of a loan or deposit the higher the interest rate charged or paid  because the risk is higher.  Prudent banking requires bankers to match the terms of their loans and deposits so that a loan for five  years is matched with a deposit that is committed for five years.  Thus the depositor gets more interest because he/she is carrying more risk.  In an ideal world the spread will be the same for all time periods.

But bankers can make huge profits by financing long-term loans upon which they receive a high interest rate with short-term deposits upon which they pay low-interest rates.  This way they increase the spread and take the rewards of the  higher risk.  This  tactic increases the risk as interest rates can go up above the returns from the loan or depositors may decide to withdraw their money.  I know of a Canadian financial institution that purchased some government bonds (made a loan) at ten percent.  Management expected interest rates to go down so that the interest received would be greater than what they had to pay on deposits – a nice profit,  This was just before interest rates went up to 19 percent and for a while the loses were considerable for the size of the institution.  Just before the financial crisis of 1907/08  at least some of the Wall Street banks were financing long-term sub-prime mortgages with low-cost overnight deposits.  As it became apparent a housing crisis was in the making the depositors stop renewing their deposits.

Of course when risk becomes reality and banks are faced with huge loses they are so important they cannot be allowed to fail and taxpayers end up paying for the risk.

So there you have it.  Prudent banking is simple and boring.  Breaking the basic rules brings in huge profits and ends with a major crisis.

Health care greed

This post was inspired by a rather long article on why health care in the United States is so expensive.

As I read the first section I was thinking that when it comes to greed some health care people make Wall Street bankers look like amateurs.  By my values the bankers are higher on the ethical ladder than some medical people because the bankers are conning people who are just as greedy.  Medical people are exploiting people when they are sick and at their most vulnerable.

metalmarious_Medicine_and_a_StethoscopeOne of the more interesting university courses I took was sociology of work in which the professor talked about the professional encounter.  We go to a professional when we are in a crisis situation and because the professional has specialized knowledge which can be used to get us out of the crisis.

This gives the professional a great deal of power over us and according to the article it appears some in the he medical profession take full advantage of it.

How do we protect ourselves from medical exploitation?  Normally I would say increase competition.  But one probably doesn’t want to take time to compare prices when having a heart attack.

 

To some extent we can choose a family doctor.  More competition would make this easier.  We might get a little more competition if health people were to be certified by associations rather than licensed by governments in that associations could certify more practitioners and more different types of practitioner.

Maybe the best way to protect ourselves is to live a healthy lifestyle – exercise, eat mostly healthy foods and practice defensive driving.  Even so it is hard to imagine anyone getting through life without interacting with the medical profession.

A warning for all investors

The following was posted to the comments section of the Buttonwood column  in the January 7, 2012 issue of The  Economicst.

The following story is from an article on hedge funds in the The Economist of November 16, 2006.

http://www.economist.com/node/8173853

THERE is an old Wall Street story that can be adapted for the modern world of hedge funds. A young hedge-fund trainee is taken to the harbour. “Here”, says his boss, “are the partners’ yachts. And over there are the yachts of the bankers who lend to us.” The naive youth replies: “But where are the customers’ yachts?”

This story should probably be issued as a warning to anyone who trusts somebody else to look after their money.

(The author of this comment has a web log on economics at https://economics102.wordpress.com/)

Why we hate bankers

The following was posted as a comment on The Economist website to an article on demonizing bankers in the January 7, 2012 issue.

http://www.economist.com/node/21542389

The reason bankers are the focus of economic frustrations is that they create money when they make loans.

By creating money they have lots of opportunities to take cuts for themselves, they have the power to say what projects go ahead and by whom and they get to charge rent (interest) on the money they create.  Those are three good reasons for people to hate them and for bankers to tolerate the hatred.

(The author of this comment has a web log on economics at https://economics102.wordpress.com/)

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