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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Money creation by bankers, central banks or individuals

That the Swiss are going to have a referendum on changing the way in which they create money is great news. That the referendum is certain to fail is even greater news.

(First link and second link.)

As regular readers of Economics 102 will know this blogger is extremely committed to reforms in how we create money. You will also know that I am strongly opposed to state control over the economy. I also believe there is an urgent need for reforms in the way we produce and exchange goods and services. There is a 99.99 percent probability of economic turmoil as the economy continues its downward decline and without major changes there will be a lot of human suffering.

CurrencyThe Swiss proposal is that the creation of money be restricted to the central bank rather than the current fraction reserve process in which money is created when banks make loans. The authors of the proposal should be lauded for recognizing that there are big-time problems with money based on debt and that charging interest on money created makes our economic problems even worse.

My problem with the proposal is that it wants all money creation to be in the hands of the central bank. The central bank would have direct control over lending. “The money created by the monetary authority would be transferred to the Treasury and would come into circulation by public spending; thus, it would benefit the public purse and contribute to the reduction of national debt. ” Money creation and this type of spending would also mean a lot of economic control by the government.

The essay about this proposal lists private control as one of the problems with the current system. Control is a major economic issue and I can see where a lot of people are strongly opposed to anything but “public” control.  However “public” control is just control by different people with slightly different interests from the bankers. They will still be acting in their own interests – such as getting re-elected. I want an economic system in which control and decision-making is by individuals and I believe the way to get this with a true competitive market economy which we do not have. I also figure the current system is marginally better than money creation in the hands of a government agent.

The authors also point out there is a need to “secure the independence of the monetary authority.’ This is a serious concern as the people who control money creation get to determine which economic projects go ahead and by whom. There are very few prime ministers of any political leanings who would allow that kind of power into any hands but their own.

There is an alternative to money creation by a central bank and that is to combine money creation with a guaranteed annual income scheme. This would solve the problems of lots of people without jobs and it would put primary economic decision-making into the hands of all of us as individuals.

This guy has written extensively about this on this weblog and in an e-book Funny Money: Adapting to a down economy. The book is available free by following the link on the sidebar.

Any changes in how money is created, whether to a central bank or to an income scheme, would hit the profits and power of bankers. Expect them to be more than just vocal in their opposition if either becomes a serious threat.

I figure economics is largely about relationships and to be satisfactory relationships need to be based on a more or less equal two-way exchange. I also believe money should be considered a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services and it should encourage good relationships rather than be an instrument for exploitation. To maintain good relationships money should not give power to some people over others. I fear that giving a central bank the sole right to create money would make it easy for governments to exploit their citizens.

There are lots of serious problems with the fractional reserve way of creating money and there is an urgent need for reform. The big question is what the reforms will do to the way in which we exchange goods and services and how we relate to each other.

Why your savings and pensions are at risk

The fractional reserve way of creating money means a lot of people are at risk of losing all or part of their savings and pensions.

If there is too much money supply in the economy then we have inflation and people with savings or pensions lose some of their purchasing power and those who owe money benefit because they repay their loans with less purchasing power.  Now you know why governments and the people who speak on their behalf promote mild inflation.  This is at least unauthorized taxation if not theft.

pexels-photo-2105902If you have deflation, then people who are owed money win because they are repaid with more purchasing power than they loaned.  The borrowers lose because they have to repay with more purchasing power.

To be fair to everyone we need to manage the economy so that just the right amount of money is available at all times.  At a time when the economy is on a down trend, this is very important as too much money puts us in danger of hyperinflation.

Getting this amount right has long been a challenge to central banks although the common sense answer is fairly simple.  The money supply should vary with the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange and it should be flexible up and down.

The wrench in the simplicity is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  When banks make loans they must (or should) keep a fraction of the amount on reserve for when the depositor wants his/her money returned.  As the amount is only a fraction banks are at risk of a “run” if depositors lose faith.  And because of the fractional reserve there is a multiplier effect involved.  Does not this sound like a set up for a crisis?  The mechanics of this process are a little complex although I have always found it easy to understand. To figure it out I suggest you Google “fractional reserve” or look at my free e book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy or look at the essay Going to Market on this weblog.

The other end of the wrench is  that interest is charged on the loans made by the banks.  Mainstream economists have given little or no thought to the consequences of this. Because all of our money is created by the making of loans, if all the outstanding debt were to be paid off at one time there would not be enough money to repay it all because of the interest.  The charging of interest on the debt/money means there is never enough money available to repay all outstanding debt. Inflation is built into the fractional reserve way of creating money.

The system works only so long as the economy and the money supply continues to grow.  An upset in either means crisis of which we have had many.

The relationship between money supply and economic output is expressed in a formula, MV=PQ, some times known as the quantity theory of money.  Money times the velocity at which it circulates in the economy is equal to a price index times the quantity of goods and services produced.

I get ticked off because this is frequently taken to mean there is a direct, proportional relationship between the money supply and the inflation rate or price level.   Can’t people see there are four variables in this formula?  Total output is an important part of this formula.  If it should happen to go down something needs to happen to another variable.

Our society has a strong commitment to economic growth and a need to keep it growing so that people will not suffer from unemployment.   Some desperate people are trying to stimulate growth by increasing the money supply. This may increase inflation but it will not lead to growth unless we can find inexpensive energy and mineral resources to support it.  I suspect the new American president has  his eye on parks and reserve lands to encourage more economic activity.  He will probably succeed in the short term to be followed by a major economic collapse.

This blogger thinks we need some major economic reforms, not only in our financial system but in our commitment to economic growth.  We need to minimize our production and exchange of goods and services so we are using fewer energy and mineral resources.

A lot  of people operate on faith in our financial system and ignore suggestions we need reform.  I think the risk is so great that prudent people will at least give some thought to these issues.  It is your savings and your pensions and your future that is at risk.

 

 

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Regulating those evil payday lenders

Here is a link to an article from the Mises Institute opposing regulations for the American payday lending industry.

This simple proposal to regulate short-term lending raises important questions about how we treat poor people, about the role of money in our economy and how we regulate business activity.

This writer believes we should have a collective responsibility to ensure every one has the opportunity for the same standard of living as most other people.  Probably the best way to meet this responsibility would be a universal basic income scheme.  Such a program would not stop everyone from mismanaging their finances but it should eliminate the need for a lot of short-term credit.

Money can be an instrument of exploitation and is based on the debt created when banks make loans.  Debt is a path to slavery, especially for poor people.

We need a radical revision of the way in which we create money.  We treat money as a commodity which has its own intrinsic  value.  We would be better to treat money as a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  As a tool rather than a commodity there would be no need for interest.  Also the total amount of money available needs to be flexible up and down as the quantity of goods and services we need to exchange expands or retracts.  This guy has written extensively on this topic on his weblog and in his book.

As much as possibly economic forces, competition, should be used to regulate business activity. The more competition the fewer profits and the less need for regulation.  Regulations tend to restrict competition, allow greater profits and increase the demand for more regulations.

This writer is not enthusiastic about supporting the payday loan industry but does recognize that in our society there is a need for short-term credit.  I also believe there is a need to reform our financial system and the reforms could reduce the need for credit from all of us including the poor.

How can we afford a universal basic income?

How can we possibly afford a universal basic income?

This appears to be the strongest argument against an income scheme. It also illustrates one of the basic problems in economic analysis.

When macroeconomic professors stand at the black board they generally draw an x-shaped graph and label one line to represent the real or physical part the economy and the other to represent the financial side. This is an important distinction because if one analyses economic problems only in financial terms the complexities of the financial system get in the way of clearly seeing problems.  Too often economic problems are analyzed in financial terms.

In the case of the universal basic income the question should be are we capable of producing enough goods and services to provide everyone with the desired standard of living.  The answer should determine the level of the basic income.

There are a number of economic issues with which we need to deal:  we have extracted the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources and those left require a lot of energy to get; there are serious problems resulting from the fractional reserve way of creating money; the work ethic is a problem in a high technology world; and there is a need to recognize our economy, what we call capitalism,  is based on legislation which restricts competition and allows some people to make profits they would otherwise not get.

I believe most of these need to dealt with at the same time.  Certainly a UBI should be introduced at the same time as a reform of the financial system. These are complex emotional issues and will be extremely difficult to resolve.

The book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy, by the author of this post discusses these issues. Please have a look at it.

Answering concerns about an income scheme

A discussion forum on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website brought out a number of concerns about proposals for a basic income scheme. There were more than 2,000 comments.  Here are answers to some of the concerns.

How do we pay for a basic income scheme?

There are two answers to this question.  The first is that it would replace a range of existing social welfare payments and would make these payments with more efficiency.  Employing fewer people this would increase the need.  Also I believe subsidies should be given to consumers rather than producers so this would release a lot more money for an income scheme.

For the second answer we have to focus on the agricultural surplus, the excess production by each agricultural worker which allows food for people to do other things. Without the agricultural surplus we would not have civilization as we know it.

Until now the agricultural surplus has been distributed via employment but the current level of technology is making this more difficult.  Thus the interest in a universal basic income scheme.  We should note that the agricultural surplus is based largely on petroleum and could be somewhat precarious.

As most of the technology that has gone into the agricultural surplus has been developed over the last 2,000 years and most if not all of us have ancestors who worked on that, we should consider it a part of our inheritance. We are all entitled to a share.  We should have a collective responsibility to ensure everyone has the opportunity for the same standard of living as most other people.  The amount of payments should depend upon the population and the quantity of goods and services we are able to produce.  If this ratio goes up then the payments should go up and if this ratio goes down then the payments will have to go down.

I believe there are some serious problems with the way in which our economy creates money.  As an income scheme involves money this would be a good time to deal with that problem.

How do we stop people from smoking dope all day?

The simple answer to this question is that we do not. We do not need everyone to work all the time to maintain the agricultural surplus.    We no longer need a work ethic.

A basic income scheme would be a tremendous transfer of decision-making power to individuals (from governments and from bankers who create money via the fractional reserve banking system) and we have to allow people to make their own decisions and to take or benefit from the consequences.  The agricultural surplus should give us all the right to decide what to do with our time.

An income scheme would be communist.

This blogger dislikes the isms because they tend to be mostly meaningless.  As I understand communism it involves treating people humanely and government control of the economy.  It seems to appeal to people who wants to tell others how to live their lives.    I believe we should try to treat people humanely and I do not want others telling me how to live my life. As decision making power goes with money an income scheme would be a transfer of power to individuals.  It is difficult to think many communists would want that.

A guaranteed basic income scheme would help with a lot of social and economic problems but such major changes would go against a lot of vested interests.  Even people who would benefit the most are likely to fear the unknown.  Therefore concerns need to be taken seriously.

This blogger has just published an eBook Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy which discusses a lot of these issues. The price is only 99 cents.  I encourage you to have a look at it. Until April 19, 2016 you can get a free copy from Smashwords.  Use the link and code at the top of this weblog.

Some concerns about the Swiss money creation referendum

The Swiss are going to hold a referendum on a proposal to change the way in which money is created by transferring this function from private banks to the central bank.  The more I think about this the more I see it as an attack on banks by people who do not really understand what money is and how the financial system functions, or should I say by people whose understanding of money is different from mine.

I believe there are some serious problems with the current fractional reserve way of creating money and anything which might lead to reform is to be encouraged.  However, I would like to see some debate rather than letting those who would tell the rest of us how to live win by default.  I want to see a libertarian reform in which decision-making is by all individuals rather than a select few.

Here are two links to information about the referendum. One, two.

Money is a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services and is backed by the agricultural surplus of which we have a huge amount although its continuation is somewhat precarious.  The fractional reserve way of creating money gives great power to bankers who create money each time they make a loan.  The Swiss critics are right about that. Money represents purchasing power for people who hold it and those who create money can decide to whom they will transfer that purchasing power. Transferring the money creation function to the central banks would be transferring power from one small group to another. I am not certain bureaucrats would be any better at making decisions in the public interest than private bankers.

A more libertarian approach would be to combine monetary reform with a universal income scheme and to call money agricultural surplus credits.  This is explained in my just released ebook Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy.  The book also talks about the problems with fractional reserve banking. (You may get a free copy of this book from Smashwords until March 19, 2016. See previous post.)

In reforming the way in which we create money two other factors need to be considered.  The total amount of money available needs to be flexible up and down as the quantity of good and services exchanged varies. If it is not flexible we should expect inflation or deflation, both of which rob people of their savings.  The Swiss proposal says the central bank would use its statistics facilities to help in this.

The other concern is interest.  I believe the charging of interest on loans is a Ponzi scheme which leads to periodic financial crises.  This too is in the book. I did not see anything in the proposal to indicate how interest would be handled.  It could be the people who crafted the proposal do not see that interest is a problem in money creation.

I fear that not too many people truly understand how money works in the economy and how the fractional reserve way of creating money is a serious problem.  Reforms are needed although I can not see that transferring money creation from one small group to another small group will be a satisfactory reform.

Why we have financial crises

I believe the root cause of financial crises is in the fractional reserve system of creating money.  Therefore the way to avoid future crises is to change how we create money.

Dear Reader,  This post requires you to understand how money is created by the banks.  I’m feeling too lazy to write that up now so if you don’t already know I encourage you to figure it out.  Google “fractional reserve money”  or look at my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the financial crisis” or these other posts on this weblog.  It may appear complicated and overwhelming but if you think it out it should be easy to understand.  I think very few people understand this process which is unfortunate because we can not reform something people don’t understand.  There is a lot of emotion when dealing with money.

There are two aspects to the economy – the physical and the financial.  It’s a distinction which is easily forgotten because we measure the physical side in financial terms.    Both of these can cause economic crises and solutions probably require knowing where the problem originates.  A complication is that a physical problem can and usually does trigger a financial problem.  I believe our current economic problems are largely physical in that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  There are lots of resources left but they are becoming more and more difficult to extract.

The big problem with fractional reserve money is that  interest is charged on the money created by the banks.  But the process does not create money to cover the interest.  So long as the economy and the money supply continues to grow there is no problem.  However, when growth ceases and the money supply contracts there just isn’t enough money in the economy to repay all the loans with interest.  It’s sort of like a Ponzi scheme.

Fractional reserve banking is about increasing the money supply but to the best of my knowledge not much thought has been given to when the process unfolds.  Just as money can be created out of thin air it can just as easily disappear into thin air.  This is a problem because money is essential in our economy for the exchange of goods and services.  Even a small reduction in our money supply can cause severe economic hardship because losses on bank loans come out of the reserves.  Thus losses are high powered money or leverage in reverse.  A run on the bank would also be a loss of reserves if the money is put under some mattresses.  If the money is transferred to another bank then there would be no loss of money supply to the economy although it would take some time for the adjustments to work through the system.

During the crisis of 2008 I figure the losses to the banks reduced the money supply forcing a slowdown in the physical side of the economy.  During the crisis people talked about a shortage of credit and the need for banks to start lending.  As our money supply is based on loans this is the same as saying we didn’t have enough money to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.

The U.S. officials dealing with the crisis were aware of the danger to the economy. They were also aware that a large part of the economy was sound and that the banks had to be saved so as to not have a complete collapse.  They were in a bind because saving the banks appeared to be saving people who did not deserve to be saved.  To have let the banks fail would have hurt all of us.  That is the power of the banks.  They are too important to fail.

The financial intermediation industry is focused on the double  R – risk and rewards.  The great  profits and bonuses of the industry are based on maximizing the rewards and passing the risk on to others.  As a general rule the higher the risks the greater the rewards.  In an ideal world the rewards would go to the people taking the risks but bankers have ways of grabbing the rewards while leaving the risks with the depositors.

The first thing they do is that their  marketing focuses on expected returns.  The risks involved are seldom mentioned so that customers don’t demand the rewards to go with the risk they are taking.  Governments try to protect savers with deposit insurance schemes although the real reason is to prevent runs on the bank.

The second trick is leverage.  If you did your homework you know that banks are required to keep a fraction of deposits on reserve for people who want to withdraw their deposits.  The smaller this reserve requirement the greater the leverage and the more money they can create and the larger the profits.  Regulated banks are told how much they must keep on reserve.  Unregulated financial institutions can get away with greater leverage – until things go wrong and they cannot repay their depositors.

The third profit-making stunt is to finance long-term loans with short-term deposits.  As short-term interest rates are generally lower than long-term interest rates this increases the spread/margin for the banks.  Some people claim this conversion of short-term deposits into long-term loans is a great accomplished of the financial system.  In fact it is a very dangerous practice and through the centuries many bankers have lost their businesses, if not their shirts. (But the profits were great while they lasted.) This is because when there is a crisis people will refuse to roll over their short-term deposits.  With no way to call in their loans the banks become bankrupt even though most of their outstanding loans are good.

If banks were to match the terms of their deposits with the terms of their loans their business would be financial intermediation rather than speculation and the risk would go to depositors  who are carrying the risk in any case.

I hope you can see from these notes that there are serious problems within the financial industry and the fractional reserve way of creating money.  Money is such an emotional issue and the interests of the financial industry are so strong that I believe it will be impossible to make reforms.  

 

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Some reasons economists don’t get it.

What is wrong with economics?  Through the years a lot of people, including the current group of students have recognized there are problems.  This blogger figures there are two types of problems –  problems with human nature and problems within economic theory and understanding.

Most of us most of the time think and act in our own short-term interests,  Some people won’t listen to things that contradict their interests.  This can be a problem for economists as their paychecks often depend upon telling business people and politicians what they want to hear.  It is likely some of the students demanding changes in the way economic is taught will have to come to terms with this.

The other human nature problem which interferes with economics is that some people like to exploit others – sometimes deliberately and sometimes because they believe it is their right.  Using money as a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services allows us to have economic relationships with strangers from many parts of the world..  It also makes it easier for some people to exploit others. I am currently reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis in which he details the people who foresaw the subprime mortgage bust and profited from it.  It’s sort of interesting to see the exploiters being conned although I  believe that for relationships to be satisfactory there needs to be a more or less equal two-way exchange.  Another interesting thing is that most of the players on either side came out of it rich.

Neither of these human nature problems is likely to be resolved by changing the economic curriculum or the way the subject is taught.

It may be that for economists to tell their employers what they want to hear the economists have to be blind to some realities.  Here are four examples.

One of the greatest of economic myths is that growth can continue forever.  Economists occasionally talk about scarce resources then assume that there never will be scarcity.  Yes, we still have lots of mineral and energy resources.  However we have used up the most easily accessible of them.  What’s left is difficult and takes lots of energy to extract. This is a diversion of energy from other uses.  From history we know that all previous civilizations have collapsed.  Some people talk as if we will be the exception.

The second unseen reality relates to free market competition.  The problem with competition is that the more competition the smaller the profits.  In large parts of our economy competition is restricted by government legislation and regulation.  Licenses, patents, copyright, tariffs all allow firms to make profits they wouldn’t get with full competition.  It also means consumers pay more than they would otherwise.  When we talk about a market economy we ignore how governments work to restrict competition.

Sometimes economists distinguish between the real economy and the financial economy.  It’s an important distinction and we lose some understanding when we forget it as we often do.  My favorite example is with pensions.  Most people plan their pensions in money terms.  But there are three things that can happen to one’s pension savings:  inflation, failure of the firms in which savings have been invested and a government mandated haircut.  For most of us our standard of living in retirement will depend upon the ratio of goods and services produced to the number of people making demands on those goods and services.  If we experience a major drop in production, it will not matter how much pension money one has.  It might be prudent to plan for retirement at least partially in terms of the physical economy. How about a large garden?

The complexities of money creation and the deep emotions associated with money make it the most misunderstood and problematic  aspect of economics.  A number of posts on this weblog have dealt with the problems of money.  I believe that in the fractional reserve method of creating money economists have ignored the fact that interest is charged on the money created.  This feature makes the fractional reserve money into a Ponzi scheme. This explains the regular financial crises our economy has experienced.  If more people understood how the banking system creates money and the problems, we would probably be demanding changes which would take away from the profits and powers of bankers. How many economists would even dare to think that?

There appear to be lots of problems within economics.  How we exchange goods and services and the relationships involved in these transactions are an important part of our lives. It may be that some people can  benefit if most of us don’t see these relationships clearly. However, I think we would all be happier if we did.

 

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Ministers, teachers and consumer power in the economy

How much power do consumers have in our economy?  In theory they have all the power but in reality their power varies according to the degree of competition in any industry and their own personality.

Economic power means the ability to make decisions about what and how much is produced. If we lived  in small self-contained communities such as a Pacific island these decisions would be made mostly by people for themselves.  If we had perfect competition we would also make these decisions for ourselves and the market mechanism would transmit our decisions to producers.  As there are lots of people who want to make decisions for others one of the conflicts of our society is over economic decision-making.

Two examples illustrate how decision-making by individuals can vary according to competition in the industry.  The provision of spiritual services is, at least in Canada, the industry which comes closes to perfect competition.  Education is a mostly a monopoly.

As most of us Canadians have a strong commitment to freedom of religion people are free to attend the church of their choice or not at all. This means governments do nothing to restrict competition. Anyone with an inclination to preach can rent a school or community hall on Sunday mornings and some congregations allow anyone to do services.  No licenses are required by the government although some denominations use ordination, a form of licensing.  A minister’s career path is determined by his ability and his/her reputation. The Bible and most other religious texts are not copyrighted.  Churches receive no government subsidies other than an exemption from property taxes (which makes entry into the business easier).

On the other hand governments interfere extensively in education.  Parents are required by law the send their children to school, teachers must be licensed and governments closely supervise curriculum. Teachers generally must be licensed and are very difficult to fire.  Job security goes with length of service rather than teaching skills.  The result is a monopoly which is strongly defended by its employees.

In the spiritual world the customers are kings and make their own decisions.. :People can and do express dissatisfaction with their feet and some people go church shopping.  Ministers can be and are fired.  (My observation is that ministers are asked to leave for one of two reasons:  They get into an inappropriate relationship or they stay too long.)  Those people with the right skills rise to the top and those without the skills drop out.  To survive churches and staff must satisfy the spiritual needs of their congregations.

In education the customers (or their parents) make very few decisions.  They have no say in the curriculum and very little over who teaches their children.  Education is one of the most important things parents should give their children, yet it is where they have the least control.  This may be why home schooling and private schools are appealing to those who can manage them.  I believe education is too important to leave all decision-making to those employed in the field.

In other sections of the economy producers have to be more creative in influencing customer decision-making. Governments are usually willing to limit competition with licensing, tariffs, subsidies, patents and copyright.  Some firms can use the media to make emotional appeals to customers. Consumer power comes from being able to switch to another provider. The reaction to emotional  appeals may vary by person and personality. Maybe those people who don’t watch television have it easier when it comes to economic decision-making.

Another aspect of economic control is money creation.  The fractional reserve money we currently use creates money when bankers make loans.  This gives bankers a great deal of power to decide what economic activity happens and who does it.  On the other hand creating money  via a national exchange trading system as proposed in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog would transfer this power to individuals.

Some of us like to make our own decisions, some people like to make decisions for others and probably some people don’t care.  As one of those who likes to make his own decisions I like the perfect competition model.

 

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A grumpy old man in favour of a basic income scheme

The “free money” giveaway or basic income or universal income scheme being proposed by a few people is a great idea but one that is probably impossible to implement.  However it is nice to dream and fun to think out how to solve economic problems; so here goes.

The basic questions are where does the money come from and how to give the money to people?

The simple answer to the first question is that with a universal income scheme there will no longer be a need for subsidies to producers.  A more difficult answer is that the introduction of an income scheme would be the ideal time to reinvent money.

Generally subsidies (sometimes as tax exemptions)  are given to firms to encourage them to establish plants and provide employment or to save the business and save jobs.  This is great for those who get the jobs or whose employment is saved but it leaves a lot people with nothing.  Subsidies also distort prices so that when we make purchasing decisions based on price we are not necessarily getting the item that was cheapest or most efficient to produce.

Money is something most of us use daily and is probably the least well understood of all the things that are a part of our economy.  When central banks were doing quantitative easing there was some disbelief that they could create money out of nothing.  This is because we have for so long associated money with gold that we think of it as a commodity with value in itself.  It might be better to think of it as a tool with which to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  It represents purchasing power.

Most of what we use as money is created by bankers making loans.  How this works is explained at numerous locations throughout the world-wide web.  My own version along with some of the problems with fractional reserve money is included in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

One way to reinvent money and implement a universal income scheme would be to take the concept of “local exchange trading system”  and expand it to the national level.  A good part of the essay talks about how this could work and again  I refer you to the essay.  There are many details to be worked out and many problems to be overcome.  The mechanics of the money supply would be easy.  Getting people to accept new ways of thinking about money would be extremely difficult.   Getting people to accept that others should be allowed to do as they wish, whether that be creating art works or drinking beer, would also be difficult.  Getting people to change their vested interests would probably be impossible.

One of my concerns is that our economic order is going to return to something similar to what existed before the industrial revolution in which there was a small group living in relative luxury and the balance of the population lived at a subsistence level. (The ultimate inequality)  I am concerned because I think our economy is possibly going into an extended period of decline.  While there are lots of energy and mineral resources left on this planet the energy required to extract them is becoming more and more excessive to the point it will be less viable.  Without resources it will difficult to maintain everyone at what has been the North American standard of living.

An income scheme would make it a lot easier to cope with an economy on a downward slope.

More and more I am getting to be a grumpy old man.  My generation has been very lucky in the time and place we have lived out our lives.  More and more I am recognizing the next generations, including my grand children, are going to have to deal with a lot of economic pain.  I hope I am wrong and if not I hope I won’t have to see it.

 

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Government debt default and the money supply

A United States debt default will hit the economy as a reduction of government spending and it could also  hurt by forcing changes in the money supply.

The first thing to say about debt is that there is so much of it around the world that there is a high probability most of it will be written off either by defaults of inflation.  This debt is not so much borrowing from children as a transfer of purchasing power within this generation, some/most of which will never be returned. And those with the most are likely to lose the most but will still probably be more comfortable than the rest of us.

The second thing to say is that the probable root  cause of the economic crisis is in the real side of the economy as well as the financial sector.  We have used up most of the easily accessible energy and mineral resources and those that are left take a lot more work to extract.

If the United States defaults  some of its debt the government will have less money to spend.  As government spending is a component of gross domestic product there will be a reduction in economic activity.  Government spending currently makes up about 20 percent of GDP but only a small part of this will likely be cut immediately.

The effect of a debt default on the money supply is more complex and uncertain.  A drastic reduction in the money supply would bring a lot of economic activity to a halt.

Money is based on loans issued by the banks, involves fractional reserves (they are required to keep a percentage of deposits as reserves)  and dependant upon what is called high powered money which is subject to a multiplier because of the fractional reserves. (for and explanation of how money is created see these links, one, two.)  In a default one issue would be how much the losses fall upon institutions subject to fractional reserves because losses would reduce their reserves.  A reduction in their reserves would bring down the quantity of loans they could make – by a multiplier.  Thus the money supply in the economy would be reduced and without money the exchange of goods and services becomes difficult.

Under normal circumstances a reduction in the money supply would mean a reduction in the real economy.  But the real economy is already in trouble as noted above.

At this point I need to remind you of the formula MV=PQ.  The money supply times its velocity or the rate at which it changes hands is equal to prices or a price index times the quantity of goods and services.

In an attempt to stimulate the economy central banks have been using “quantitative easing” to inject more high powered money into the financial system so the banks will have more money to lend.   If the above formula is correct then there should have been a reduction in velocity or an increase in prices (inflation) or economic activity.  It may be that velocity has fallen but there is little evidence that inflation or GDP has increased.

If the formula is correct then something has to have happened to one of the other variables.   One possibility is that at least some of this extra money has gone into the financial markets and inflation has hit stocks.  If this is correct, then a reduction in money supply could hit the financial sector.

So there you have it a U.S. default would probably lead to a reduction in economic activity and it could also cause problems in the financial markets.  I just had a horrible thought.  What would happen if a lot of the major countries were to default at the same time?

Why we can’t let banks fail

It appears investors are putting money into banks in the belief the banks are safe because governments can be relied upon to bail them out the next time they get into trouble.  These investors could be right.

It’s not so much that banks are too big to fail, it is more that they are too important to let fail.

Banks are essential in creating the money supply. When banks make a loan they create money and the total money supply is increased.. When the loan is repaid, the money supply decreases until the money is re-loaned and the supply goes back up.   Thus the money supply is constant – until a central bank purchases government bonds.  Because the central bank pays for these bonds by adding to the liabilities of its balance sheet, this is the creation of new money.   But because of fractional reserve requirements (banks are required to hold a percentage of deposits in reserve against withdrawals) money created by the central bank is called high powered money and the money supply goes up with a multiplier effect.

institution_iconAll this is explained in any textbook on the economics of money and banking. What I have never seen explained is the effect on the money supply when a bank writes off a loan. Probably it has the reverse effect of high powered money – a decreased money supply subject to the same multiplier. (Here is a link to the wikipedia article on money creation.)

In most cases the writing off of loans will have little effect on the money supply However, if the amounts to be written off are large as was the case with the American housing crisis or is likely to be the case with any sovereign debt write off, the impact on the money supply will be substantial and it we lead to an abrupt decline economic activity. People will invent alternatives to the lost money but the initial devastation will be  a problem.

 The Americans are considering cutting back on their food stamp program.  My prediction is that when the next financial crisis happens, keeping the banks going will come before feeding people.

One way to reduce the importance and power of the banks would be to find a new way of creating money.  One proposal for doing this is in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

Let’s end this post with the following quote attributed to Henry Ford.

“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

(This is an update of a post originally published in June, 2011.)

 

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.

Internet financial firms

The potential for geeky financial firms is featured in an article in last week’s The Economist.  At this time the firms are small compared to the banks but there is probably enough potential that the banks could be threatened.

This could be both good and bad.

It will be good if there develops and alternative to fractional reserve banking.  I am thoroughly convinced that money creation by fractional reserve debt is a Ponzi scheme which frequently collapses in a financial crisis.  If these firms do replace the banks and avoid fractional reserves  we will have to find another way of creating money.  Whatever it is it will require that the money supply be flexible up and down to correspond with the level of economic activity.  I rather like the concept of Local Exchange Trading Systems which could be expanded to a national level.

The not so good feature of geeky financial services is that they would be an ideal new venture for large firms such as Amazon, Facebook or Google, firms whose commitment to privacy appears to be limited to their own.

buttom2I can see two groups rubbing their hands at the prospect of one of these large firms becoming  involved in most financial transactions.

The first are those in the online advertising business who use information about people to target advertising and the second are government spooks and those in government who believe they know what is best for the rest of us and want to control our lives.  Just think: emails, friends, shopping and financial data on everyone all available from one source. I wonder if the spies already have access to personal  financial data.

Probably the people into social control are the most threatening.  Once the monitoring  systems are all in place it will be easy for somebody to misuse them.

Another article this week, from Forbes,  talks about small groups of people getting together to provide each other with financial support.  This sounds like the early  credit unions on the Canadian prairies where a lot of transactions took place on someones kitchen table.

Immigration to solve economic problems?

One has to challenge the idea that rich countries need immigration to improve public finances and to meet the needs of an aging population.  This argument surfaces from time to time in Canada and is now being promoted by the UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility.  The problem is that some people make two major mistakes in economic analysis.  They analyze economic problems in financial terms and they assume economic growth will continue forever.

jetxee_people_near_a_blackboardWhen my economics professors stood at the blackboards they often drew an x-shaped graph.  For the macro economists one line represented the financial aspect of the economy and the other the real or physical aspect.  It is an important distinction and one that is forgotten when we get away from the blackboard.  Ultimately the economy depends upon the resources we use to look after ourselves.  To analyse the economy we need to be aware of what agricultural, energy and mineral resources we have with which to work.

We have problems using financial terms because of the way in which we create money.  It is a sort of Ponzi scheme which collapses from time to time.  Also the purchasing power of any sum of money varies because of inflation or deflation.  Thus it is difficult to use financial terms to evaluate what is happening on the real side of the economy.

Another problem with claims we need immigration to pay our bills is the assumption that economic growth will continue forever and that population drives economic growth.

It is certainly a big mistake to assume economic growth can continue forever.  We have used the most easily accessible agricultural,  energy and mineral resources and it takes more energy to retrieve those remaining.  We see this in increasing prices. (Marginal cost to use the economics term).  As more energy is needed to retrieve the same quantity of resources, the potential for economic growth goes down.

If population were a driver of economies, why aren’t India, China and Africa the richest parts of the world?

Immigration is a difficult issue because it often involves humanitarian and racist issues.  There may be humanitarian reasons for encouraging immigration, but this weblog focuses on economics and it is not clear we should see immigration as a solution to current economic problems.  It could be that immigration will put additional stress on economic resources and make problems worse.

A Chicago plan for reforming banks

This week I came across a couple of articles about the Chicago  Plan for reforming banks and I like it because it proposes changing the way in which we create money and gets rid of the evils of fractional reserve money.

This plan was proposed in the 1930s by some economists from  Chicago and suggests banks be reorganized into two separate identities.  One type of bank would only accept deposits which would be kept 100 per cent with a central bank.  This type of bank would probably have to charge fees for looking after the deposits but they would be safe (except from inflation which would probably be less of a problem – or haircuts.)  No more fear of bank runs.

bankThe second type of bank would be a financial intermediary in that it would make loans based on 100 per cent equity deposits of its customers.  As all deposits would be equity, customers would know there are risks of a loan not being repaid.

As most, if not all,  bankers would see immediately, this would be the end of outrageous Wall Street profits.  Under the current system bankers make huge profits by taking for themselves  the premiums from risky loans but when the risk becomes reality somebody else takes the losses because the money creation feature of banks makes them too important to fail.  People putting money into a loan making business would know the risks and expect the returns to compensate.  The end of fractional reserve money creation would also do away with the leverage which allows bankers the profits from creating money on which they charge interest.

According to the Chicago Plan governments would create the money supply at zero interest.  This would be good in that interest charges would not be built into money creation thereby  reducing the potential for inflation.       My concern is that governments make decisions for political rather than economic reasons.  To me a national LETS (local exchange trading system)  would be preferable way to create money because the amount of money in use would depend upon the collective decisions of individuals.  For the sake of price  stability it is essential that the money supply should be flexible up and down.

When I wrote my essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” I didn’t put a lot of thought into how to organize banking with a national LETS money system.  I didn’t know it then but the creators of the Chicago plan had already done that.

Money as a reason for revolution

Here’s a quote from Henry Ford which I like as I believe we need some revolutionary changes in the way in which money is created.

It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.

 

And the revolutionaries probably would not be calling for the creation of a trillion-dollar coin .

 

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.

It takes a crisis to encourage a new way of creating money

Local Exchange Trading Systems have been around for some time but it appears it takes a financial crisis to bring them into their own.

Here are some links to news reports about the TEM currency being used in parts of Greece to replace the Euro. One,   two,   three.

So far as I can see the TEM is a LETS under a different name, maybe because of the different language.

I very much like the concept because it is a different way to create money.  It does not involve banks and loans and interest rates all of which are problems with the way our economy currently creates money.

It is sad that it takes a large-scale crisis to encourage this type of money system.  It is also sad in that the local scale limits it use and restricts the exchange of goods and services to just people in a local district.  To be really useful it needs to be expanded to a national level.

The development of the TEM illustrates that while a financial crisis can cause a lot of human suffering it is not the end of the world.  Recovery is possible.  I wish we could say the same about the other aspect of the current crisis – the depletion of the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.

 

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.

Greed, financial crises and regulation

When greed. irrational exuberance or willful misconduct within the financial industry are seen to cause a financial crisis, then we start hearing calls for more regulation as if regulation can control unacceptable human behaviors.

Here’s a theory to explain it all.

Business people, especially financiers,  don’t  like competition and call upon governments to pass legislation which restricts competition.  This allows profits on top of wages and a return on investment.  It also provides opportunities for exploitation.  When the exploitation gets out of hand and becomes obvious or when there is a financial crisis caused by the way in which money is created, then we get calls for more regulation.

The best way to deal with greed and willful misconduct is probably to increase competition by repealing legislation which restricts competition.  The way to deal with financial crises is to change the way in which we create money.

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