Price Stickiness Is a Symptom not a Cause

In my recent post about Nick Rowe and the law of reflux, I mentioned in passing that I might write a post soon about price stickiness. The reason that I thought it would be worthwhile writing again about price stickiness (which I have written about before here and here), because Nick, following a broad consensus among economists, identifies price stickiness as a critical cause of fluctuations in employment and income. Here’s how Nick phrased it:

An excess demand for land is observed in the land market. An excess demand for bonds is observed in the bond market. An excess demand for equities is observed in the equity market. An excess demand for money is observed in any market. If some prices adjust quickly enough to clear their market, but other prices are sticky so their markets don’t always clear, we may observe an excess demand for money as an excess supply of goods in those sticky-price markets, but the prices in flexible-price markets will still be affected by the excess demand for money.

Then a bit later, Nick continues:

If individuals want to save in the form of money, they won’t collectively be able to if the stock of money does not increase.There will be an excess demand for money in all the money markets, except those where the price of the non-money thing in that market is flexible and adjusts to clear that market. In the sticky-price markets there will nothing an individual can do if he wants to buy more money but nobody else wants to sell more. But in those same sticky-price markets any individual can always sell less money, regardless of what any other individual wants to do. Nobody can stop you selling less money, if that’s what you want to do.

Unable to increase the flow of money into their portfolios, each individual reduces the flow of money out of his portfolio. Demand falls in stick-price markets, quantity traded is determined by the short side of the market (Q=min{Qd,Qs}), so trade falls, and some traders that would be mutually advantageous in a barter or Walrasian economy even at those sticky prices don’t get made, and there’s a recession. Since money is used for trade, the demand for money depends on the volume of trade. When trade falls the flow of money falls too, and the stock demand for money falls, until the representative individual chooses a flow of money out of his portfolio equal to the flow in. He wants to increase the flow in, but cannot, since other individuals don’t want to increase their flows out.

The role of price stickiness or price rigidity in accounting for involuntary unemployment is an old and complicated story. If you go back and read what economists before Keynes had to say about the Great Depression, you will find that there was considerable agreement that, in principle, if workers were willing to accept a large enough cut in their wages, they could all get reemployed. That was a proposition accepted by Hawtry and by Keynes. However, they did not believe that wage cutting was a good way of restoring full employment, because the process of wage cutting would be brutal economically and divisive – even self-destructive – politically. So they favored a policy of reflation that would facilitate and hasten the process of recovery. However, there also those economists, e.g., Ludwig von Mises and the young Lionel Robbins in his book The Great Depression, (which he had the good sense to disavow later in life) who attributed high unemployment to an unwillingness of workers and labor unions to accept wage cuts and to various other legal barriers preventing the price mechanism from operating to restore equilibrium in the normal way that prices adjust to equate the amount demanded with the amount supplied in each and every single market.

But in the General Theory, Keynes argued that if you believed in the standard story told by microeconomics about how prices constantly adjust to equate demand and supply and maintain equilibrium, then maybe you should be consistent and follow the Mises/Robbins story and just wait for the price mechanism to perform its magic, rather than support counter-cyclical monetary and fiscal policies. So Keynes then argued that there is actually something wrong with the standard microeconomic story; price adjustments can’t ensure that overall economic equilibrium is restored, because the level of employment depends on aggregate demand, and if aggregate demand is insufficient, wage cutting won’t increase – and, more likely, would reduce — aggregate demand, so that no amount of wage-cutting would succeed in reducing unemployment.

To those upholding the idea that the price system is a stable self-regulating system or process for coordinating a decentralized market economy, in other words to those upholding microeconomic orthodoxy as developed in any of the various strands of the neoclassical paradigm, Keynes’s argument was deeply disturbing and subversive.

In one of the first of his many important publications, “Liquidity Preference and the Theory of Money and Interest,” Franco Modigliani argued that, despite Keynes’s attempt to prove that unemployment could persist even if prices and wages were perfectly flexible, the assumption of wage rigidity was in fact essential to arrive at Keynes’s result that there could be an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment. Modigliani did so by positing a model in which the supply of labor is a function of real wages. It was not hard for Modigliani to show that in such a model an equilibrium with unemployment required a rigid real wage.

Modigliani was not in favor of relying on price flexibility instead of counter-cyclical policy to solve the problem of involuntary unemployment; he just argued that the rationale for such policies had to be that prices and wages were not adjusting immediately to clear markets. But the inference that Modigliani drew from that analysis — that price flexibility would lead to an equilibrium with full employment — was not valid, there being no guarantee that price adjustments would necessarily lead to equilibrium, unless all prices and wages instantaneously adjusted to their new equilibrium in response to any deviation from a pre-existing equilibrium.

All the theory of general equilibrium tells us is that if all trading takes place at the equilibrium set of prices, the economy will be in equilibrium as long as the underlying “fundamentals” of the economy do not change. But in a decentralized economy, no one knows what the equilibrium prices are, and the equilibrium price in each market depends in principle on what the equilibrium prices are in every other market. So unless the price in every market is an equilibrium price, none of the markets is necessarily in equilibrium.

Now it may well be that if all prices are close to equilibrium, the small changes will keep moving the economy closer and closer to equilibrium, so that the adjustment process will converge. But that is just conjecture, there is no proof showing the conditions under which a simple rule that says raise the price in any market with an excess demand and decrease the price in any market with an excess supply will in fact lead to the convergence of the whole system to equilibrium. Even in a Walrasian tatonnement system, in which no trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed, there is no proof that the adjustment process will eventually lead to the discovery of the equilibrium price vector. If trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed, tatonnement is hopeless.

So the real problem is not that prices are sticky but that trading takes place at disequilibrium prices and there is no mechanism by which to discover what the equilibrium prices are. Modern macroeconomics solves this problem, in its characteristic fashion, by assuming it away by insisting that expectations are “rational.”

Economists have allowed themselves to make this absurd assumption because they are in the habit of thinking that the simple rule of raising price when there is an excess demand and reducing the price when there is an excess supply inevitably causes convergence to equilibrium. This habitual way of thinking has been inculcated in economists by the intense, and largely beneficial, training they have been subjected to in Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis, which is built on the assumption that every market can be analyzed in isolation from every other market. But that analytic approach can only be justified under a very restrictive set of assumptions. In particular it is assumed that any single market under consideration is small relative to the whole economy, so that its repercussions on other markets can be ignored, and that every other market is in equilibrium, so that there are no changes from other markets that are impinging on the equilibrium in the market under consideration.

Neither of these assumptions is strictly true in theory, so all partial equilibrium analysis involves a certain amount of hand-waving. Nor, even if we wanted to be careful and precise, could we actually dispense with the hand-waving; the hand-waving is built into the analysis, and can’t be avoided. I have often referred to these assumptions required for the partial-equilibrium analysis — the bread and butter microeconomic analysis of Econ 101 — to be valid as the macroeconomic foundations of microeconomics, by which I mean that the casual assumption that microeconomics somehow has a privileged and secure theoretical position compared to macroeconomics and that macroeconomic propositions are only valid insofar as they can be reduced to more basic microeconomic principles is entirely unjustified. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about reconciling macroeconomics with microeconomics; it just means that the validity of proposition in macroeconomics is not necessarily contingent on being derived from microeconomics. Reducing macroeconomics to microeconomics should be an analytical challenge, not a methodological imperative.

So the assumption, derived from Modigliani’s 1944 paper that “price stickiness” is what prevents an economic system from moving automatically to a new equilibrium after being subjected to some shock or disturbance, reflects either a misunderstanding or a semantic confusion. It is not price stickiness that prevents the system from moving toward equilibrium, it is the fact that individuals are engaging in transactions at disequilibrium prices. We simply do not know how to compare different sets of non-equilibrium prices to determine which set of non-equilibrium prices will move the economy further from or closer to equilibrium. Our experience and out intuition suggest that in some neighborhood of equilibrium, an economy can absorb moderate shocks without going into a cumulative contraction. But all we really know from theory is that any trading at any set of non-equilibrium prices can trigger an economic contraction, and once it starts to occur, a contraction may become cumulative.

It is also a mistake to assume that in a world of incomplete markets, the missing markets being markets for the delivery of goods and the provision of services in the future, any set of price adjustments, however large, could by themselves ensure that equilibrium is restored. With an incomplete set of markets, economic agents base their decisions not just on actual prices in the existing markets; they base their decisions on prices for future goods and services which can only be guessed at. And it is only when individual expectations of those future prices are mutually consistent that equilibrium obtains. With inconsistent expectations of future prices, the adjustments in current prices in the markets that exist for currently supplied goods and services that in some sense equate amounts demanded and supplied, lead to a (temporary) equilibrium that is not efficient, one that could be associated with high unemployment and unused capacity even though technically existing markets are clearing.

So that’s why I regard the term “sticky prices” and other similar terms as very unhelpful and misleading; they are a kind of mental crutch that economists are too ready to rely on as a substitute for thinking about what are the actual causes of economic breakdowns, crises, recessions, and depressions. Most of all, they represent an uncritical transfer of partial-equilibrium microeconomic thinking to a problem that requires a system-wide macroeconomic approach. That approach should not ignore microeconomic reasoning, but it has to transcend both partial-equilibrium supply-demand analysis and the mathematics of intertemporal optimization.

Paul Romer on Modern Macroeconomics, Or, the “All Models Are False” Dodge

Paul Romer has been engaged for some time in a worthy campaign against the travesty of modern macroeconomics. A little over a year ago I commented favorably about Romer’s takedown of Robert Lucas, but I also defended George Stigler against what I thought was an unfair attempt by Romer to identify George Stigler as an inspiration and role model for Lucas’s transgressions. Now just a week ago, a paper based on Romer’s Commons Memorial Lecture to the Omicron Delta Epsilon Society, has become just about the hottest item in the econ-blogosophere, even drawing the attention of Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post.

I have already written critically about modern macroeconomics in my five years of blogging, and here are some links to previous posts (link, link, link, link). It’s good to see that Romer is continuing to voice his criticisms, and that they are gaining a lot of attention. But the macroeconomic hierarchy is used to criticism, and has its standard responses to criticism, which are being dutifully deployed by defenders of the powers that be.

Romer’s most effective rhetorical strategy is to point out that the RBC core of modern DSGE models posit unobservable taste and technology shocks to account for fluctuations in the economic time series, but that these taste and technology shocks are themselves simply inferred from the fluctuations in the times-series data, so that the entire structure of modern macroeconometrics is little more than an elaborate and sophisticated exercise in question-begging.

In this post, I just want to highlight one of the favorite catch-phrases of modern macroeconomics which serves as a kind of default excuse and self-justification for the rampant empirical failures of modern macroeconomics (documented by Lipsey and Carlaw as I showed in this post). When confronted by evidence that the predictions of their models are wrong, the standard and almost comically self-confident response of the modern macroeconomists is: All models are false. By which the modern macroeconomists apparently mean something like: “And if they are all false anyway, you can’t hold us accountable, because any model can be proven wrong. What really matters is that our models, being microfounded, are not subject to the Lucas Critique, and since all other models than ours are not micro-founded, and, therefore, being subject to the Lucas Critique, they are simply unworthy of consideration. This is what I have called methodological arrogance. That response is simply not true, because the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here is Romer’s take:

In response to the observation that the shocks are imaginary, a standard defense invokes Milton Friedman’s (1953) methodological assertion from unnamed authority that “the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (p.14).” More recently, “all models are false” seems to have become the universal hand-wave for dismissing any fact that does not conform to the model that is the current favorite.

Friedman’s methodological assertion would have been correct had Friedman substituted “simple” for “unrealistic.” Sometimes simplifications are unrealistic, but they don’t have to be. A simplification is a generalization of something complicated. By simplifying, we can transform a problem that had been too complex to handle into a problem more easily analyzed. But such simplifications aren’t necessarily unrealistic. To say that all models are false is simply a dodge to avoid having to account for failure. The excuse of course is that all those other models are subject to the Lucas Critique, so my model wins. But your model is subject to the Lucas Critique even though you claim it’s not, so even according to the rules you have arbitrarily laid down, you don’t win.

So I was just curious about where the little phrase “all models are false” came from. I was expecting that Karl Popper might have said it, in which case to use the phrase as a defense mechanism against empirical refutation would have been a particularly fraudulent tactic, because it would have been a perversion of Popper’s methodological stance, which was to force our theoretical constructs to face up to, not to insulate it from, empirical testing. But when I googled “all theories are false” what I found was not Popper, but the British statistician, G. E. P. Box who wrote in his paper “Science and Statistics” based on his R. A. Fisher Memorial Lecture to the American Statistical Association: “All models are wrong.” Here’s the exact quote:

Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad. Pure mathematics is concerned with propositions like “given that A is true, does B necessarily follow?” Since the statement is a conditional one, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of A nor of the consequences B in relation to real life. The pure mathematician, acting in that capacity, need not, and perhaps should not, have any contact with practical matters at all.

In applying mathematics to subjects such as physics or statistics we make tentative assumptions about the real world which we know are false but which we believe may be useful nonetheless. The physicist knows that particles have mass and yet certain results, approximating what really happens, may be derived from the assumption that they do not. Equally, the statistician knows, for example, that in nature there never was a normal distribution, there never was a straight line, yet with normal and linear assumptions, known to be false, he can often derive results which match, to a useful approximation, those found in the real world. It follows that, although rigorous derivation of logical consequences is of great importance to statistics, such derivations are necessarily encapsulated in the knowledge that premise, and hence consequence, do not describe natural truth.

It follows that we cannot know that any statistical technique we develop is useful unless we use it. Major advances in science and in the science of statistics in particular, usually occur, therefore, as the result of the theory-practice iteration.

One of the most annoying conceits of modern macroeconomists is the constant self-congratulatory references to themselves as scientists because of their ostentatious use of axiomatic reasoning, formal proofs, and higher mathematical techniques. The tiresome self-congratulation might get toned down ever so slightly if they bothered to read and take to heart Box’s lecture.

Putin v. Obama: It’s the Economy, Stupid

A couple of days ago, Daniel Drezner wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post commenting on a statement made by one of the candidates in the recent televised forum on national security.

Last week at a televised presidential forum on national security, Donald Trump continued his pattern of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. In particular, Trump said the following:

I mean, the man has very strong control over a country. And that’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country.

As my Post colleague David Weigel notes, this is simply Trump’s latest slathering of praise onto the Russian strongman:

Trump goes further than many Republicans. In his telling, Putin — a “strong leader” — epitomizes how any serious president should position his country in the world. Knowingly or not, Trump builds on years of wistful, sometimes ironic praise of Putin as a swaggering, bare-chested autocrat.

After the forum, his running mate, Mike Pence, who used to be more critical of Putin, doubled down on Trump’s claim:

Pence walked that line back a little Sunday, suggesting that he was trying to indict the “weak and feckless leadership” of President Obama — but you get the point.

Well, if we are going to compare the leadership of Putin and Obama, why not compare them by measuring what people really care about? After all, don’t we all know that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

So let’s see how what Putin’s leadership has done for Russia compares with what Obama’s leadership has done for the US? We all know that the last eight years under Obama have not been the greatest, but if it’s Putin that Obama is being compared to, we ought to check out how Putin’s “very strong” leadership has worked out for the Russian economy as opposed to Obama’s “weak and feckless leadership” has worked out for the US economy.

Here’s a little graph comparing US and Russian GDP between 2008 and 2015. To make the comparison on an even playing field, I have normalized GDP for both countries at 1.0 in 2008.

putin_v_obamaLooks to me like Obama wins that leadership contest pretty handily. And it’s not getting any better for Putin in 2016, as the Russian economy continues to contract, while the US economy continues to expand, albeit slowly, in 2016.

So chalk one up for the home team.

USA! USA!

Nick Rowe Ignores, But Does Not Refute, the Law of Reflux

In yet another splendid post, Nick Rowe once again explains what makes money – the medium of exchange – so special. Money – the medium of exchange – is the only commodity that is traded in every market. Unlike every other commodity, each of which has a market of its very own, in which it – and only it – is traded (for money!), money has no market of its own, because money — the medium of exchange — is traded in every other market.

This distinction is valid and every important, and Nick is right to emphasize it, even obsess about it. Here’s how Nick described it his post:

1. If you want to increase the stock of land in your portfolio, there’s only one way to do it. You must increase the flow of land into your portfolio, by buying more land.

If you want to increase the stock of bonds in your portfolio, there’s only one way to do it. You must increase the flow of bonds into your portfolio, by buying more bonds.

If you want to increase the stock of equities in your portfolio, there’s only one way to do it. You must increase the flow of equities into your portfolio, by buying more equities.

But if you want to increase the stock of money in your portfolio, there are two ways to do it. You can increase the flow of money into your portfolio, by buying more money (selling more other things for money). Or you can decrease the flow of money out of your portfolio, by selling less money (buying less other things for money).

An individual who wants to increase his stock of money will still have a flow of money out of his portfolio. But he will plan to have a bigger flow in than flow out.

OK, let’s think about this for a second. Again, I totally agree with Nick that money is traded in every market. But is it really the case that there is no market in which only money is traded? If there is no market in which only money is traded, how do we explain the quantity of money in existence at any moment of time as the result of an economic process? Is it – I mean the quantity of money — just like an external fact of nature that is inexplicable in terms of economic theory?

Well, actually, the answer is: maybe it is, and maybe it’s not. Sometimes, we do just take the quantity of money to be an exogenous variable determined by some outside – noneconomic – force, aka the Monetary Authority, which, exercising its discretion, determines – judiciously or arbitrarily, take your pick – The Quantity of Money. But sometimes we acknowledge that the quantity of money is actually determined by economic forces, and is not a purely exogenous variable; we say that money is endogenous. And sometimes we do both; we distinguish between outside (exogenous) money and inside (endogenous) money.

But if we do acknowledge that there is – or that there might be – an economic process that determines what the quantity of money is, how can we not also acknowledge that there is – or might be — some market – a market dedicated to money, and nothing but money – in which the quantity of money is determined? Let’s now pick up where I left off in Nick’s post:

2. There is a market where land is exchanged for money; a market where bonds are exchanged for money; a market where equities are exchanged for money; and markets where all other goods and services are exchanged for money. “The money market” (singular) is an oxymoron. The money markets (plural) are all those markets. A monetary exchange economy is not an economy with one central Walrasian market where anything can be exchanged for anything else. Every market is a money market, in a monetary exchange economy.

An excess demand for land is observed in the land market. An excess demand for bonds is observed in the bond market. An excess demand for equities is observed in the equity market. An excess demand for money might be observed in any market.

Yes, an excess demand for money might be observed in any market, as people tried to shed, or to accumulate, money by altering their spending on other commodities. But is there no other way in which people wishing to hold more or less money than they now hold could obtain, or dispose of, money as desired?

Well, to answer that question, it helps to ask another question: what is the economic process that brings (inside) money – i.e., the money created by a presumably explicable process of economic activity — into existence? And the answer is that ordinary people exchange their liabilities with banks (or similar entities) and in return they receive the special liabilities of the banks. The difference between the liabilities of ordinary individuals and the special liabilities of banks is that the liabilities of ordinary individuals are not acceptable as payment for stuff, but the special liabilities of banks are acceptable as payment for stuff. In other words, special bank liabilities are a medium of exchange; they are (inside) money. So if I am holding less (more) money than I would like to hold, I can adjust the amount I am holding by altering my spending patterns in the ways that Nick lists in his post, or I can enter into a transaction with a bank to increase (decrease) the amount of money that I am holding. This is a perfectly well-defined market in which the public exchanges “money-backing” instruments (their IOUs) with which the banks create the monetary instruments that the banks give the public in return.

Whenever the total amount of (inside) money held by the non-bank public does not equal the total amount of (inside) money in existence, there are market forces operating by which the non-bank public and the banks can enter into transactions whereby the amount of (inside) money is adjusted to eliminate the excess demand for (supply of) (inside) money. This adjustment process does not operate instantaneously, and sometimes it may even operate dysfunctionally, but, whether it operates well or not so well, the process does operate, and we ignore it at our peril.

The rest of Nick’s post dwells on the problems caused by “price stickiness.” I may try to write another post soon about “price stickiness,” so I will just make a brief further comment about one further statement made by Nick:

Unable to increase the flow of money into their portfolios, each individual reduces the flow of money out of his portfolio.

And my comment is simply that Nick is begging the question here. He is assuming that there is no market mechanism by which individuals can increase the flow of money into their portfolios. But that is clearly not true, because most of the money in the hands of the public now was created by a process in which individuals increased the flow of money into their portfolios by exchanging their own “money-backing” IOUs with banks in return for the “monetary” IOUs created by banks.

The endogenous process by which the quantity of monetary IOUs created by the banking system corresponds to the amount of monetary IOUs that the public wants to hold at any moment of time is what is known as the Law of Reflux. Nick may believe — and may even be right — that the Law of Reflux is invalid, but if that is what Nick believes, he needs to make an argument, not assume a conclusion.

Where Do Monetary Rules Come From and How Do They Work?

In my talk last week at the Mercatus Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World, I discussed how monetary rules and the thinking about monetary rules have developed over time. The point that I started with was that monetary rules become necessary only when the medium of exchange has a value that exceeds the cost of producing the medium of exchange. You don’t need a monetary rule if money is a commodity; people just trade stuff for stuff; it’s not barter, because everyone accepts one real commodity, making that commodity the medium of exchange. But there’s no special rule governing the monetary system beyond the rules that govern all forms of exchange. the first monetary rule came along only when something worth more than its cost of production was used as money. This might have happened when people accepted minted coins at face value, even though the coins were not full-bodied. But that situation was not a stable equilibrium, because eventually Gresham’s Law kicks in, and the bad money drives out the good, so that the value of coins drops to their metallic value rather than their face value. So no real monetary rule was operating to control the value of coinage in situations where the coinage was debased.

So the idea of an actual monetary rule to govern the operation of a monetary system only emerged when banks started to issue banknotes. Banknotes having a negligible cost of production, a value in excess of that negligible cost could be imparted to those essentially worthless banknotes only by banks undertaking a commitment — a legally binding obligation — to make those banknotes redeemable (convertible) for a fixed weight of gold or silver or some other valuable material whose supply was not under the control of the bank itself. This convertibility commitment can be thought of as a kind of rule, but convertibility was not originally undertaken as a policy rule; it was undertaken simply as a business expedient; it was the means by which banks could create a demand for the banknotes that they wanted to issue to borrowers so that they could engage in the profitable business of financial intermediation.

It was in 1797, during the early stages of the British-French wars after the French Revolution, when, the rumor of a French invasion having led to a run on Bank of England notes, the British government prohibited the Bank of England from redeeming its banknotes for gold, and made banknotes issued by the Bank of England legal tender. The subsequent premium on gold in Continental commodity markets in terms of sterling – what was called the high price of bullion – led to a series of debates which engaged some of the finest economic minds in Great Britain – notably David Ricardo and Henry Thornton – over the causes and consequences of the high price of bullion and, if a remedy was in fact required, the appropriate policy steps to be taken to administer that remedy.

There is a vast literature on the many-sided Bullionist debates as they are now called, but my only concern here is with the final outcome of the debates, which was the appointment of a Parliamentary Commission, which included none other than the great Henry Thornton, himself, and two less renowned colleagues, William Huskisson and Francis Horner, who collaborated to write a report published in 1811 recommending the speedy restoration of convertibility of Bank of England notes. The British government and Parliament were unwilling to follow the recommendation while war with France was ongoing, however, there was a broad consensus in favor of the restoration of convertibility once the war was over.

After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the process of restoring convertibility was begun with the intention of restoring the pre-1797 conversion rate between banknotes and gold. Parliament in fact enacted a statute defining the pound sterling as a fixed weight of gold. By 1819, the value of sterling had risen to its prewar level, and in 1821 the legal obligation of the Bank of England to convert its notes into gold was reinstituted. So the first self-consciously adopted monetary rule was the Parliamentary decision to restore the convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into a fixed weight of gold.

However, the widely held expectations that the restoration of convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into gold would produce a stable monetary regime and a stable economy were quickly disappointed, financial crises and depressions occurring in 1825 and again in 1836. To explain the occurrence of these unexpected financial crises and periods of severe economic distress, a group of monetary theorists advanced a theory based on David Hume’s discussion of the price-specie-flow mechanism in his essay “Of the Balance of Trade,” in which he explained the automatic tendency toward equilibrium in the balance of trade and stocks of gold and precious metals among nations. Hume carried out his argument in terms of a fully metallic (gold) currency, and, in other works, Hume decried the tendency of banks to issue banknotes to excess, thereby causing inflation and economic disturbances.

So the conclusion drawn by these monetary theorists was that the Humean adjustment process would work smoothly only if gold shipments into Britain or out of Britain would result in a reduction or increase in the quantity of banknotes exactly equal to the amount of gold flowing into or out of Britain. It was the failure of the Bank of England and the other British banks to follow the Currency Principle – the idea that the total amount of currency in the country should change by exactly the same amount as the total quantity of gold reserves in the country – that had caused the economic crises and disturbances marking the two decades since the resumption of convertibility in 1821.

Those advancing this theory of economic fluctuations and financial crises were known as the Currency School and they succeeded in persuading Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister to support legislation to require the Bank of England and the other British Banks to abide by the Currency Principle. This was done by capping the note issue of all banks other than the Bank of England at existing levels and allowing the Bank of England to increase its issue of banknotes only upon deposit of a corresponding quantity of gold bullion. The result was in effect to impose a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the entire British banking system. Opposition to the Currency School largely emanated from what came to be known as the Banking School, whose most profound theorist was John Fullarton who formulated the law of reflux, which focused attention on the endogenous nature of the issue of banknotes by commercial banks. According to Fullarton and the Banking School, the issue of banknotes by the banking system was not a destabilizing and disequilibrating disturbance, but a response to the liquidity demands of traders and dealers. Once these liquidity demands were satisfied, the excess banknotes, returning to the banks in the ordinary course of business, would be retired from circulation unless there was a further demand for liquidity from some other source.

The Humean analysis, abstracting from any notion of a demand for liquidity, was therefore no guide to the appropriate behavior of the quantity of banknotes. Imposing a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the supply of banknotes would make it costly for traders and dealers to satisfy their demands for liquidity in times of financial stress; rather than eliminate monetary disturbances, the statutory enactment of the Currency Principle would be an added source of financial disturbance and disorder.

With the support of Robert Peel and his government, the arguments of the Currency School prevailed, and the Bank Charter Act was enacted in 1844. In 1847, despite the hopes of its supporters that an era of financial tranquility would follow, a new financial crisis occurred, and the crisis was not quelled until the government suspended the Bank Charter Act, thereby enabling the Bank of England to lend to dealers and traders to satisfy their demands for liquidity. Again in 1857 and in 1866, crises occurred which could not be brought under control before the government suspended the Bank Charter Act.

So British monetary history in the first half of the nineteenth century provides us with two paradigms of monetary rules. The first is a price rule in which the value of a monetary instrument is maintained at a level above its cost of production by way of a convertibility commitment. Given the convertibility commitment, the actual quantity of the monetary instrument that is issued is whatever quantity the public wishes to hold. That, at any rate, was the theory of the gold standard. There were – and are – at least two basic problems with that theory. First, making the value of money equal to the value of gold does not imply that the value of money will be stable unless the value of gold is stable, and there is no necessary reason why the value of gold should be stable. Second, the behavior of a banking system may be such that the banking system will itself destabilize the value of gold, e.g., in periods of distress when the public loses confidence in the solvency of banks and banks simultaneously increase their demands for gold. The resulting increase in the monetary demand for gold drives up the value of gold, triggering a vicious cycle in which the attempt by each to increase his own liquidity impairs the solvency of all.

The second rule is a quantity rule in which the gold standard is forced to operate in a way that prevents the money supply from adjusting freely to variations in the demand for money. Such a rule makes sense only if one ignores or denies the possibility that the demand for money can change suddenly and unpredictably. The quantity rule is neither necessary nor sufficient for the gold standard or any monetary standard to operate. In fact, it is an implicit assertion that the gold standard or any metallic standard cannot operate, the operation of profit-seeking private banks and their creation of banknotes and deposits being inconsistent with the maintenance of a gold standard. But this is really a demand for abolition of the gold standard in which banknotes and deposits draw their value from a convertibility commitment and its replacement by a pure gold currency in which there is no distinction between gold and banknotes or deposits, banknotes and deposits being nothing more than a receipt for an equivalent physical amount of gold held in reserve. That is the monetary system that the Currency School aimed at achieving. However, imposing the 100% reserve requirement only on banknotes, they left deposits unconstrained, thereby paving the way for a gradual revolution in the banking practices of Great Britain between 1844 and about 1870, so that by 1870 the bulk of cash held in Great Britain was held in the form of deposits not banknotes and the bulk of business transactions in Britain were carried out by check not banknotes.

So Milton Friedman was working entirely within the Currency School monetary tradition, formulating a monetary rule in terms of a fixed quantity rather than a fixed price. And, in ultimately rejecting the gold standard, Friedman was merely following the logic of the Currency School to its logical conclusion, because what ultimately matters is the quantity rule not the price rule. For the Currency School, the price rule was redundant, a fifth wheel; the real work was done by the 100% marginal reserve requirement. Friedman therefore saw the gold standard as an unnecessary and even dangerous distraction from the ultimate goal of keeping the quantity of money under strict legal control.

It is in the larger context of Friedman’s position on 100% reserve banking, of which he remained an advocate until he shifted to the k-percent rule in the early 1960s, that his anomalous description of the classical gold standard of late nineteenth century till World War I as a pseudo-gold standard can be understood. What Friedman described as a real gold standard was a system in which only physical gold and banknotes and deposits representing corresponding holdings of physical gold circulate as media of exchange. But this is not a gold standard that has ever existed, so what Friedman called a real gold standard was actually just the gold standard of his hyperactive imagination.

Mercatus Center Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World

It’s been almost three weeks since my last post, which I think is my longest dry spell since I started blogging a little over five years ago. Aside from taking it a little easy during this really hot summer in Washington DC, I have been working on the paper I am supposed to present tomorrow at the Mercatus Center Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World.

After Scott Sumner opens the conference with welcoming remarks at 9AM, I will be speaking in the first panel starting at 9:10 AM. My paper is entitled “Rules versus Discretion, Historically Contemplated.” I hope soon to write a post summarizing some of what I have to say and to post a link to a draft of the paper. The conference proceedings are to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Macroeconomics.

I’m especially pleased to be on the same panel as one of my all-time favorite economists, David Laidler. That’s almost enough to lift me out of my chronic depression about the November elections. Other speakers include, Mark Calabria, Robert Hetzel, David Papell, Scott Sumner, John Taylor, Perry Mehrling, Kevin Sheedy, Walker Todd, David Beckworth, Miles Kimball, and Peter Ireland. A stellar cast, indeed. You can watch a live stream here.

Helicopter Money and the Reflux Problem

Although I try not to seem overly self-confident or self-satisfied, I do give myself a bit of credit for being willing to admit my mistakes, of which I’ve made my share. So I am going to come straight out and admit it up front: I have not been reading Nick Rowe’s blog lately. Realizing my mistake, I recently looked up his posts for the past few months. Reading one of Nick’s posts is always an educational experience, teaching us how to think about an economic problem in the way that a good – I mean a really good — economist ought to think about the problem. I don’t always agree with Nick, but in trying to figure out whether I agree — and if not, why not — I always find that I have gained some fresh understanding of, or a deeper insight into, the problem than I had before. So in this post, I want to discuss a post that Nick wrote for his blog a couple of months ago on “helicopter money” and the law of reflux. Nick and I have argued about the law of reflux several times (see, e.g., here, here and here, and for those who just can’t get enough here is J. P. Koning’s take on Rowe v. Glasner) and I suspect that we still don’t see eye to eye on whether or under what circumstances the law of reflux has any validity. The key point that I have emphasized is that there is a difference in the way that commercial banks create money and the way that a central bank or a monetary authority creates money. In other words, I think that I hold a position somewhere in between Nick’s skepticism about the law of reflux and Mike Sproul’s unqualified affirmation of the law of reflux. So the truth is that I don’t totally disagree with what Nick writes about helicopter money. But I think it will help me and possibly people who read this post if I can explain where and why I take issue with what Nick has to say on the subject of helicopter money.

Nick begins his discussion with an extreme example in which people have a fixed and unchanging demand for money – one always needs to bear in mind that when economists speak about a demand for money they mean a demand to hold money in their wallets or their bank accounts. People will accept money in excess of their demand to hold money, but if the amount of money that they have in their wallets or in their bank accounts is more than desired, they don’t necessarily take immediate steps to get rid of their excess cash, though they will be more tolerant of excess cash in their bank accounts than in their wallets. So if central bank helicopters start bombarding the population with piles of new cash, those targeted will pick up the cash and put the cash in their wallets or deposit it into their bank accounts, but they won’t just keep the new cash in their wallets or their banks accounts permanently, because they will generally have better options for the superfluous cash than just leaving it in their wallets or their bank accounts. But what else can they do with their excess cash?

Well the usual story is that they spend the cash. But what do they spend it on? And the usual answer is that they buy stuff with the excess cash, causing a little consumption boom that either drives up prices of goods and services, or possibly, if wages and prices are “sticky,” causes total output to increase (at least temporarily unless the story starts from an initial condition of unemployed resources). And that’s what Nick seems to be suggesting in this passage.

If the central bank prints more currency, and drops it out of a helicopter, will the people refuse to pick it up, and leave the newly-printed notes lying on the sidewalk?

No. That’s silly. They will pick it up, and spend it. Each individual knows he can get rid of any excess money, even though it is impossible for individuals in the aggregate to get rid of excess money. What is true for each individual is false for the whole. It’s a fallacy of composition to assume otherwise.

But this version of the story is problematic for the same reason that early estimates of the multiplier in Keynesian models were vastly overstated. A one-time helicopter drop of money will be treated by most people as a windfall, not as a permanent increase in their income, so that it will not cause people to increase their spending on stuff except insofar as they expect their permanent income to have increased. So the main response of most people to the helicopter drop will be to make some adjustments in the composition of their balance sheets. People may use the cash to buy other income generating assets (including consumer durables), but they will hardly change their direct expenditures on present consumption.

So what else could people do with excess cash besides buying consumer durables? Well, they could buy real or financial assets (e.g., houses and paintings or bonds) driving up the value of those assets, but it is not clear why the value of those assets, which fundamentally reflect the expected future flows of real services or cash associated with those assets and the rates at which people discount future consumption relative to present consumption, is should be affected by an increase in the amount of cash that people happen to be holding at any particular moment in time. People could also use their cash to pay off debts, but that would just mean that the cash held by debtors would be transferred into the hands of their creditors. So the question what happens to the excess cash, and, if nothing happens to it, how the excess cash comes to be willingly held is not an easy question to answer.

Being the smart economist that he is, Nick understands the problem and he addresses it a few paragraphs below in a broader context in which people can put cash into savings accounts as well as spend it on stuff.

Now let me assume that the central bank also offers savings accounts, as well as issuing currency. Savings accounts may pay interest (at a rate set by the central bank), but cannot be used as a medium of exchange.

Start in equilibrium where the stock of currency is exactly $100 per person. What happens if the central bank prints more currency and drops it out of a helicopter, holding constant the nominal rate of interest it pays on savings accounts?

I know what you are thinking. I know how most economists would be thinking. (At least, I think I do.) “Aha! This time it’s different! Because now people can get rid of the excess currency, by depositing it in their savings accounts at the central bank, so Helicopter Money won’t work.” You are implicitly invoking the Law of Reflux to say that an excess supply of money must return to the bank that issued that money.

And you are thinking wrong. You are making exactly the same fallacy of composition as you would have been making if you said that people would leave the excess currency lying on the sidewalk.People in aggregate can only get rid of the excess currency by depositing it in their savings accounts (or throwing it away) therefore each individual will get rid of his excess currency by depositing it in his savings account (since it’s better than throwing it away).

There are 1,001 different ways an individual can get rid of excess currency, and depositing it in his savings account is only one of those 1,001 ways. Why should an individual care if depositing it in his savings account is the only way that works for the aggregate? (If people always thought like that, littering would never be a problem.) And if individuals do spend any portion of their excess currency, so that NGDP rises, and is expected to keep in rising, then the (assumed fixed) nominal interest rate offered on savings accounts at the central bank will start to look less attractive, and people will actually withdraw money from their savings accounts. Not because they want to hold extra currency, but because they plan to spend it.

There are indeed 1,001 ways that people could dispose of their excess cash balances, but how many of those 1,001 ways would be optimal under the assumptions of Nick’s little thought experiment? Not that many, because optimal spending decisions would be dictated by preferences for consumption over time, and there is no reason to assume that optimal spending plans would be significantly changed by the apparent, and not terribly large, wealth windfall associated with the helicopter drops. There could be some increase in purchases of assets like consumer durables, but one would expect that most of the windfall would be used to retire debt or to acquire interest-earning assets like central-bank deposits or their equivalent.

So, to be clear, I am not saying that Nick has it all wrong; I don’t deny that there could be some increase in expenditures on stuff; all I am saying is that in the standard optimizing models that we use, the implied effect on spending from an increase in cash holding seems to be pretty small.

Nick then goes on to bring commercial banks into his story.

The central bank issues currency, and also offers accounts at which central banks can keep “reserves”. People use both central bank currency and commercial bank chequing accounts as their media of exchange; commercial banks use their reserve accounts at the central bank as the medium of exchange they use for transactions between themselves. And the central bank allows commercial banks to swap currency for reserves in either direction, and reserves pay a nominal rate of interest set by the central bank.

My story now (as best as I can tell) matches the (implicit) model in “Helicopter Money: the Illusion of a Free Lunch” by Claudio Borio, Piti Disyatat, and Anna Zabai. (HT Giles Wilkes.) They argue that Helicopter Money will be unwanted and must Reflux to the central bank to be held as central bank reserves, where those reserves pay interest and so are just like (very short-term) government bonds, or savings accounts at the central bank. Their argument rests on a fallacy of composition. Individuals in aggregate can only get rid of unwanted currency that way, but this does not mean that individuals will choose to get rid of unwanted currency that way.

It seems to me that the effect that Nick is relying on is rather weak. If non-interest-bearing helicopter money can be costlessly converted into interest-bearing reserves at the central bank, then commercial banks will compete with each other to induce people with unwanted helicopter money in their pockets to convert the cash into interest-bearing deposits, so that the banks can pocket the interest on reserves. Competition will force the banks to share their interest income with depositors. Again, there may be some increase in spending on stuff associated with the helicopter drops, but it seems unlikely that it would be very large relative to the size of the drop.

It seems to me that the only way to answer the question how an excess supply of cash following a helicopter drop gets eliminated is to use the idea proposed by Earl Thompson over 40 years ago in his seminal, but unpublished, paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” which I have discussed in five posts (here, here, here, here and here) over the past four years. Even as I write this sentence, I feel a certain thrill of discovery in understanding more clearly than I ever have before the profound significance of Earl’s insight. The idea is simply this: in any intertemporal macroeconomic model, the expected rate of inflation, or the expected future price level, has to function, not as a parameter, but as an equilibrating variable. In any intertemporal macromodel, there will be a unique expected rate of inflation, or expected future price level, that is consistent with equilibrium. If actual expected inflation equals the equilibrium expected rate the economy may achieve its equilibrium, if the actual expected rate does not equal the equilibrium expected rate, the economy cannot reach equilibrium.

So if the monetary authority bombards its population with helicopter money, the economy will not reach equilibrium unless the expected rate of inflation of the public equals the rate of inflation (or the future price level) that is consistent with the amount of helicopter money being dropped by the monetary authority. But the fact that the expected rate of inflation is an equilibrating variable tells us nothing – absolutely nothing – about whether there is any economic mechanism whereby the equilibrium expectation of inflation is actually realized. The reason that the equilibrium value of expected inflation tells us nothing about the mechanism by which the equilibrium expected rate of inflation is achieved is that the mechanism does not exist. If it pleases you to say that rational expectations is such a mechanism, you are free to do so, but it should be obvious that the assertion that rational expectations ensures that the the actual expected rate of inflation is the equilibrium expected rate of inflation is nothing more than an exercise in question begging.

And it seem to me that, in explaining why helicopter drops are not nullified by reflux, Nick is implicitly relying on a change in inflation expectations as a reason why putting money into savings accounts will not eliminate the excess supply of cash. But it also seems to me that Nick is just saying that for equilibrium to be restored after a helicopter drop, inflation expectations have to change. Nothing I have said above should be understood to deny the possibility that inflation expectations could change as a result of a helicopter drop. In fact I think there is a strong likelihood that helicopter drops change inflation expectations. The point I am making is that we should be clear about whether we are making a contingent – potentially false — assertion about a causal relationship or making a logically necessary inference from given premises.

Thus, moving away from strictly logical reasoning, Nick makes an appeal to experience to argue that helicopter drops are effective.

We know, empirically, that helicopter money (in moderation of course) does not lead to bizarre consequences. Helicopter money is perfectly normal; central banks do it (almost) all the time. They print currency, the stock of currency grows over time, and since that currency pays no interest this is a profitable business for central banks and the governments that own them.

Ah yes, in the good old days before central banks started paying interest on reserves. After it became costless to hold money, helicopter drops aren’t what they used to be.

The demand for central bank currency seems to rise roughly in proportion to NGDP (the US is maybe an exception, since much is held abroad), so countries with rising NGDP are normally doing helicopter money. And doing helicopter money, just once, does not empirically lead to central banks being forced to set nominal interest rates at zero forever. And it would be utterly bizarre if it did; what else are governments supposed to do with the profits central banks earn from printing paper currency?

Why, of course! Give them to the banks by paying interest on reserves. Nick concludes with this thought.

The lesson we learn from all this is that the Law of Reflux will prevent Helicopter Money from working only if the central bank refuses to let NGDP rise at the same time. Which is like saying that pressing down on the gas pedal won’t work if you press the brake pedal down hard enough so the car can’t accelerate.

I would put it slightly differently. If the central bank engages in helicopter drops while simultaneously proclaiming that its inflation target is below the rate of inflation consistent with its helicopter drops, reflux may prevent helicopter drops from having any effect.

On Liberalism, Political Correctness, and Illegal Immigration

Last week I wrote a post about criticism by some left-wing liberals of Tim Kaine. My post elicited a series of comments from Peter Schaeffer. I responded to his first comment in the comment section, and he has followed up with some further comments, which raise a number of important issues, partly historical and partly philosophical. While his comments are in some respects insightful, I think that are also very misguided. But it is certainly the case that many of the positions he takes are rather widely held, including by some well-known public figures, so I think that they are worth responding to. So even though some of what Peter and I disagree about are fairly obscure matters of British and American history, I think that it is worth taking the time to respond to most of Peter’s comments.

Peter begins by challenging the main point of my previous post, which was that the attacks on Tim Kaine for being insufficiently liberal, owing to Kaine’s support for free trade, were historically anomalous and ignorant, liberalism having originated in Britain as a political party and political ideology in the course of the mid-19th century struggle over free trade, in which liberals were the advocates for free trade. Peter takes issue with a comment I made in reply to Lars Christensen’s comment on my post. I wrote:

The idea that support for free trade means that you are not a liberal was just too hilarious for me to ignore.

To which Peter responded:

It’s not hilarious at all. It’s reasonable and serious. Modern liberalism is not British 19th century liberalism and doesn’t claim to be. Modern liberalism rejects the ideas (laissez-faire capitalism) and the consequences (extreme inequality) that British 19th century liberalism enthusiastically supported.

They may share the same word, they are not the same thing.

I am fully aware that modern liberalism and 19th century liberalism are not the same thing; much of my post was devoted to explaining why modern American liberalism moved away from 19th century liberalism. But the differences don’t mean that they are totally unrelated and have nothing in common. John Stuart Mill, unmentioned by Peter, was an exemplar of 19th century liberalism, and he surely was not indifferent to the extreme inequality resulting from pure laissez-faire capitalism. Nor did I deny that it is possible to be a liberal and oppose free trade. All I said was that it is a stretch to say that if you support free trade, you can’t be a liberal, which seemed to be the message of the “liberal” opponents of Tim Kaine.

Peter continued:

The nation of Columbia provides a good example. The Columbian Liberal Party was originally a liberal (using the old British sense of the word) party and is now a liberal party (in the modern sense of the word).

What point Peter is trying to make by citing the not very relevant or interesting (WADR) example of the obviously dysfunctional Columbian Liberal Party escapes me. And Peter goes on to show exactly how dysfunctional the party is by providing the following bit of historical trivia.

To put this in perspective, in 1982 Pablo Escobar (yes, that Pablo Escobar) was elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia as a CLP candidate. Presumably, 19th century British liberals would not have welcomed Pablo as one of their candidates.

To which all I can say is: OMG! Perhaps, Peter would like to identify for us which liberals, other than the dysfunctional Columbian ones, he thinks would have welcomed such a one Pablo as a candidate.

From his confusing musings about the squalid state of Columbian liberalism, Peter moves on to a bitter attack on 19th century British Liberalism, accusing the Liberals of having been supportive of slavery and the South in the Civil War. He cites, as he has previously, the remarkable statement by a 19th-century British politician and diplomat, Charles Bowring (whose obscurity can be inferred his absence in the index of Morely’s three volume biography of Gladstone): “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.”

To show that this weird formulation was somehow typical of British Liberals, Peter cites Lord Palmerston, the Liberal Prime Minister during the American Civil War, who complained to Charles Francis Adams (US ambassador to Britain) about the Morril tariff, from which Peter infers that tariffs were more hateful to the British Liberals than was slavery. Peter also cites Gladstone as a Liberal supporter of secession. In fact, Palmerston and all the British Liberals were opposed to slavery. However, Palmerston believed that the national interests of Britain might be better served (Britain First?) if the Confederate States were to secede from the Union. It is true that Gladstone made a speech in 1862 in which he suggested that the early military successes of the Confederacy meant that the South had succeeded in creating a new nation, and that it might be best to acknowledge that reality. Gladstone later regretted that this speech, calling the speech “an undoubted error, the most singular and palpable, I may add the least excusable of them all. In the autumn of that year [1862] . . . I declared in the heat of the American struggle that Jefferson Davis had made a nation, that is to say, that the division of the American Republic by the establishment of a Southern or secession state was an accomplished fact. Strange to say, this declaration, most unwarrantable to be made by a minister of the crown with no authority other than his own, was not due to any feeling of partisanship for the South or hostility to the North.” J. Morely, Life of Gladstone, vol. 2, p. 81).

In addition, both Richard Cobden and John Bright, the two leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, and the most fervent British supporters of free trade, were both equally fervent supporters of the Union. And I just found this 2013 article by Bill Cash, author of a recent biography of Bright showing that Lincoln and Bright were united by common ideals and deep mutual admiration.

For those who have seen the brilliant film Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, you may have noticed in the scenes set within the study that there was a photograph in the left hand corner of the mantelpiece of a great British statesman, John Bright. I have that exact photograph in my personal collection, as described in my book, John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator (IB Tauris, 2011). Bright was the leading advocate in Britain against slavery throughout the American Civil War and who was highly esteemed by Abraham Lincoln for his advocacy in the run up to the Emancipation Proclamation – which had its 150th anniversary on 1 January, 2013.

During the course of the American Civil War, Bright had devoted all his energies to protecting his beloved American democracy – a key influence on his own campaigns for parliamentary reform – centring his arguments on the moral repugnance of slavery. In this, he had the support of the workers at his own cotton mill in Rochdale who, even when impoverished during the cotton famine caused by the war, refused to accept Southern slave-grown cotton. Yet, the relationship between Bright and Lincoln was not merely a real influence on Lincoln himself but on the history of the civil war and the relationship between Britain and America from that time on and still today.

When Steven Spielberg and Day-Lewis were interviewed on television about the film, both of them revealed that what had fascinated them, as much as everything else, was the mind of Abraham Lincoln. And what the photograph in the film represented was the extent to which Lincoln himself paid his own tribute to Bright.

It was testimony to Bright’s influence that Schuyler Colfax (who, as those who have watched the film will have seen for themselves voted for the constitutional amendment in 1865) and Henry Janney – both of whom were confidants of Lincoln – wrote to Bright after the assassination telling him that his portrait and only his portrait was in President Lincoln’s reception room. Lincoln had sent two portraits of himself to Bright, and of the two portraits hanging in Lincoln’s own office, one was of Bright.

Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote to Bright in 1866, requesting a likeness of Bright, saying, “Your face is quite familiar to me already, as your portrait hung up in President Lincoln’s Reception room, and often, in the many evenings I spent with him there, he referred to you with sincere regard & even affection. Every loyal man & woman in the land knows you, knows you and esteems you. But your correspondence with Senator Sumner, whom I often meet (& we often talk about you, you may be assured) has informed you of all this.”

A letter from another of the confidants of Lincoln, Henry Janney (dated 24 April, 1865, immediately after the assassination), wrote to Bright relating how he “told the President I had a letter from thee and he requested me to bring it up and let him see it, saying, ‘I love to read the letters of Mr Bright.’ I complied, when he read carefully every word, then remarked to those around him, ‘my friend has show me a letter from Mr Bright. I believe he is the only British statesman who has been unfaltering in his confidence in our ultimate success – look there.’ I stepped up to the wall and seeing a familiar face read beneath it John Bright MP. It was the only portrait in the room.”

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that a long-standing testimonial from Bright calling for Lincoln’s re-election was found in Lincoln’s pocket when they were emptied immediately after his assassination. Bright was known to Lincoln’s intimate friends as greatly influencing the president’s mind.

In the midst of his anti-liberal tirade, Peter suddenly dives into a discussion of political correctness, possibly in reply something I wrote in response to his disparagement of the support that modern liberals lend to political correctness. Here’s what I said:

Political correctness can be problematic, but that doesn’t justify abusive speech in the public arena. Yelling “political correctness” in response to criticism of indecent and abusive rhetoric and incitement is just as reprehensible as suppressing legitimate debate under the guise of “political correctness.” Both sides of this idiotic debate are just sloganeering.

I thought that was a pretty clear statement of opposition to attempts to shut down debate in the name of political correctness; I was just pointing out that abusive and indecent speech cannot be justified or exempted from appropriate expressions of disapproval by the bare assertion that the speaker was merely objecting to political correctness. But Peter doesn’t see it that way:

It is naïve to view Political Correctness (PC) as some sort of antidote to “abusive speech in the public arena”. PC is a comprehensive system of authoritarian thought control that exists to exclude non-PC ideas from the public arena, no matter how innocently they are expressed and no matter if they are well-supported by facts. Note that PC has been highly successful to date in achieving its goals of censorship, oppression, etc.

Peter seems to imply that I believe that Political Correctness is an antidote to “abusive speech in the public arena,” but what I said was that abusive speech cannot be justified as an antidote to, or protest against, Political Correctness. Big difference – but, apparently, not big enough for Peter to grasp. Peter then goes on to cite the case of Larry Summers, who was subjected to considerable public criticism for his comments at an academic conference about the reasons for the under-representation of women in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.

However, the pseudo-Stalinist show trial of Larry Summers (roughly derived from Saletan, Parker, Taylor, and others) is one of the best example. Larry Summers’s comments to the NBER conference were a model of legitimate, highly rational, scientific, academic discourse (read them in the original). For daring to mention (part of) what science knows he was pilloried around the world and driven from office. His subsequent recantations and groveling apologies would have made a communist show-trial judge proud.

The first thing to notice about Peter’s comment is his Freudian slip in referring to the “pseudo-Stalinist show trial of Larry Summers” when the Slate article by William Saletan to which Peter refers was titled “The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers.” And the second thing is that Kathleen Parker’s column about the rescinding of an invitation by the University of California to Summers to deliver a commencement address compared Summers’s treatment to McCarthyism not to Stalinism. I disapprove of how Summers was forced out of his position as President of Harvard, in part owing to his comments on the reasons for the under-representation of women in the sciences and engineering at top universities and research institutions. But to compare Summers’s treatment to Stalinist oppression is so far over the top that one has to wonder about Peter’s grasp on reality.

Certainly it was embarrassing for Summers to be subjected to verbal abuse and unjustified accusations of prejudice against women. He was also compelled to apologize more abjectly for his remarks than the substance of those remarks warranted. I don’t dismiss the possibility that discrimination is one factor in explaining the paucity of tenured female faculty in the sciences and engineering at top universities, and I can see why Summers’s remarks could have been misunderstood to deny that such discrimination is a factor reducing the number of females in those positions. But after being forced out of his position at Harvard – and his remarks about women were only one factor in turning the Harvard faculty against Summers – Summers received a quite lucrative severance package as well as an appointment as the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard. It was hardly to the credit of the University of California to rescind its invitation to Summers to deliver a commencement speech, but to suggest that such an action rises to the level of McCarthyism, much less Stalinism, is simply laughable.

If you want to know what Stalinism really looks like, read this article in Saturday’s New York Times about the recent show trials of four Chinese human-rights activists who were compelled to read self-denunciations in court after being convicted of subversive activities in promoting human rights and civil society.

BEIJING — Chinese lawyers and rights activists appeared in televised trials throughout this week in what seemed to be a new, more public phase of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to cleanse the country of liberal ideas and activism.

Legal experts and supporters of four defendants denounced the hearings, held on consecutive days in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, as grotesque show trials. All four men were shown meekly renouncing their activist pasts and urging people to guard against sinister forces threatening the Communist Party, before they were convicted and sentenced.

But for the government, the trials served a broader political purpose.

By airing the abject confessions and accusations of a sweeping, conspiratorial antiparty coalition, Mr. Xi’s administration was “putting civil society in all its forms on trial, and vilifying them as an anti-China plot,” Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said in emailed comments.

I don’t defend what was done to Summers, but the way that Summers was treated pales in comparison to what was done to those four brave Chinese activists. Peter continues:

The issue isn’t “abusive speech in the public arena”, but ideological suppression of anyone who dares to deviate from PC orthodoxy.

To restate the obvious yet again, I condemn the ideological suppression of opinions that deviate from PC orthodoxy. But waving the flag of opposition to PC orthodoxy does not give anyone a free pass to engage in abusive speech in the public arena. Which is exactly what abusive speakers are doing nowadays to evade responsibility for their abuse and their threats. Peter goes on to cite an excellent article by Jonathan Chait chastising liberals for siding with the PC police. And Chait makes the valid point that anti-liberal right-wingers and misguided liberals and leftists are all happy to conflate liberalism with left-wing ideology, ignoring the key difference between liberalism and left-wing ideology, which is that liberalism holds that there are certain neutral principles that take precedence over specific objectives and concrete outcomes. Or stated differently, liberalism stands for the idea that it’s not only the ends that people are trying to achieve that matters, it’s also the means that they use to achieve those ends that matters. Certain means are illegitimate no matter how noble the ends. One might have thought that this would satisfy Peter, but it doesn’t.

However, the issue here go further. Let’s say that PC only objected to “abusive speech in the public arena”. That’s not true (at all). But let’s say it was true. So what? Charlie Hebdo has no right to satirize Islamists? Didn’t Voltaire say “I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”? What exactly is “abusive speech”? The church regarded Galileo’s claims as “abusive speech”. Was the church right to suppress Galileo? Today’s “abusive speech” may well be tomorrow’s truth. How can any society hope to find truth without allowing dissenting opinions?

Peter seems unable to grasp even basic distinctions. I can express disapproval of Charlie Hebdo without banning it, or tolerating, much less justifying, terrorist attack against the magazine and its staff. Being against abusive speech does not mean suppressing it; it means that those who practice abusive speech should be just as subject to criticism as is everyone else who ventures to expose his thoughts to public scrutiny. When you express an opinion, both the substance of the opinion and the manner in which you express it are legitimately subject to criticism. Trying to shield yourself from criticism by saying that you are being anti-PC is nothing but a dodge and a scam. And to suggest preposterously that Galileo was imprisoned for abusive speech is just a travesty. Legitimate criticism of the way in which an argument is presented is not the same as suppressing the opinion.

In a further comment, Peter responds to something I wrote in response to Benjamin Cole’s comment. I wrote:

I don’t dismiss the effects of trade on workers as some free traders do, but that doesn’t mean that all free trade does is harm workers. Same for the effects of immigration. Those effects are complex, and they are hard to disentangle. Property zoning is a real problem and I am certainly against criminalization of push-cart vending, just as I am against criminalization of non-legal (“illegal” is a pejorative misnomer, which invidiously connotes criminality as does the term “amnesty” when used in the context of immigration reform) immigration.

Peter wrote:

“Illegal” is a statement of fact. We have immigration laws. If you have violate them, you have done something illegal. Sort of like robbery, assault and battery, and arson. These acts are violations of the law. They are illegal. Stealing a car is illegal. If you steal a car and drive it, you are an illegal driver. If you rob a bank, you are a criminal. Calling car thieves and bank robbers criminals (illegals) isn’t pejorative, it’s simply a statement of fact.

“Illegal” is a statement of fact only insofar as there are statutes that declare immigration not in compliance with the statutorily established procedures for immigration to be illegal. But that doesn’t mean that illegal immigration is no different from robbery, theft, fraud, assault, battery, and arson. Robbery, theft, fraud, assault, battery, and arson are common law offenses. The act of immigration is not in and of itself a criminal, destructive, or anti-social act. Intrinsically destructive and anti-social acts are common law crimes even without a statutorily created offense. Illegal immigration is a crime only because statutes declare it to be such, not because any aspect of immigration is presumptively illegal. So the analogy between immigration and offenses at common law is completely false, without merit, pejorative, and invidious.

The fact that calling illegals, “illegals”, is now deemed to be non-PC (offensive even) is a classic example of how PC is used to censor honest discussion of the issues facing America.

Of course, everyone knows this. If illegals weren’t violating U.S. laws, why would anyone be trying to provide Amnesty for them? Why would any legalization be needed? The fact that the advocates of Amnesty demand “legalization” proves that “illegals”, are in fact illegal.

No, Peter, you are insisting that your narrative is factual and that mine is PC and censorious. So we are having an argument about how to describe the fact that people who cross a certain international border without complying with the procedures established for such crossings to be lawful are subject to punitive consequences for failing to comply with the prescribed procedures. You are simply invoking PC as a way of trying to get the upper hand in this discussion about a given factual situation. But PC is a completely irrelevant red-herring. Stick to the facts. And the fact is that, unlike robbery, theft, etc., immigration, i.e., crossing an international border, is not an offense at common law. Amnesty is your term. It implies that there was an offense, but the only offense was non-compliance with an administrative procedure specified by an arbitrary statute. There was no offense at common law, as you yourself acknowledge below. There is a huge difference between an amnesty for a technical administrative violation and an amnesty for offenses at common law.

Please observe that ”illegal” is not just a generic statement. Illegally entering the U.S. is a Federal crime (see below). Illegally residing in the U.S. (even after legally entering) is a Federal civil offense (deportation is the stated penalty). Of course, documentation fraud, Social Security fraud, identify theft, etc. are all Federal crimes and the vast majority of illegals have violated these laws.

Peter, you confirm that illegally residing in the US is not a criminal offense even under US law. And your further comments about the definition of “immigrant” under US immigration statutes do not change the fact that there is nothing inherently criminal or offensive about illegal immigration, and that the criminal status of illegal immigrants is the result of the administrative system created by US immigration policy, not the offensive nature of the actions of those who enter or remain in the US in violation of those administrative regulations.

I don’t dispute that the US, as a sovereign state, has the right to establish such regulations, but those regulations have no inherent moral content, as do common law offenses. They are purely utilitarian. And any assessment of how those regulations are being implemented, administered or modified should be made strictly on the basis of how the system as a whole contributes to or detracts from the benefit of the people of the US. And as I indicated in my reply to Benjamin’s comment, it is difficult to disentangle the effects that immigrants have on the well-being of current residents and citizens of the US. Platitudes about upholding the rule of law are simply question-begging when, unlike the basic laws of just conduct, the immigration laws in question have no moral content, but are merely instruments for achieving the goals of the current immigration policy of the US.

Trump’s Economic Advisers and Me

Donald Trump announced his stable of 13 economic advisers last Friday. Most of them are professional business types — hedge fund managers, bankers, financiers, real-estate men, one oil man — who have contributed heavily to Trump’s campaign.  Three of the advisers — Peter Navarro, Stephen Moore, and David Malpass — have some background as professional economists. Peter Navarro is a Harvard Ph. D. and a professor of economics and public policy at the University of California at Irvine, Tyler Cowen recently wrote a short piece about him for Bloomberg. Stephen Moore is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a former member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and a frequent contributor of op-ed pieces to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and other publications. David Malpass was undersecretary in the Treasury Department during the Reagan administration and later was chief economist at Bear Stearns before starting his own consulting firm.

I don’t know any of these people, but as it happens, I have written about both Moore and Malpass on this blog. In fact, both of my posts were written almost exactly five years ago in August 2011; they were both provoked — I choose that verb carefully — by op-ed pieces they wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The first post (“There They Go Again” on 8/5/2011) was about Malpass. Here’s what I had to say about him.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, David Malpass, who, according to the bio, used to be a deputy assistant undersecretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, and is now President of something called Encima Global LLC (his position as Chief Economist at Bear Stearns was somehow omitted) carries on about the terrible damage inflicted by the Fed on the American economy.

The U.S. is practically alone in the world in pursuing a near-zero interest rate and letting its central bank leverage to the hilt to buy up the national debt. By choosing to pay savers nearly nothing, the Fed’s policy discourages thrift and is directly connected to the weakness in personal income.

Where Mr. Malpass gets his information, I haven’t a clue, but looking at the table of financial and trade statistics on the back page of the July 16 edition of the Economist, I see that in addition to the United States, Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore, had 3-month rates less than 0.5%.  Britain, Canada, and Saudi Arabia had rates between 0.5 and 1%. . . .

As for Malpass’s next sentence, where to begin?  I won’t dwell on the garbled syntax, but, even if that were its intention, the Fed is obviously not succeeding in discouraging thrift, as private indebtedness has been falling consistently over the past three years.  The question is whether it would be good for the economy if people were saving even more than they are now, and the answer to that, clearly, is:  not unless there was a great deal more demand by private business to invest than there is now.  Why is business not investing?  Despite repeated declamations about the regulatory overkill and anti-business rhetoric of the Obama administration, no serious observer doubts that the main obstacle to increased business investment is that expected demand does not warrant investments aimed at increasing capacity when existing capacity is not being fully utilized. . . .

From here Malpass meanders into the main theme of his tirade which is how terrible it is that we have a weak dollar.

One of the fastest, most decisive ways to restart U.S. private-sector job growth would be to end the Fed’s near-zero interest rate and the Bush-Obama weak-dollar policy. As Presidents Reagan and Clinton showed, sound money is a core growth strategy—the fastest and most effective way to tell world capital that the U.S. is back in business.

Mr. Malpass served in the Reagan administration, so I would have expected him to know something about what happened in that administration.  Obviously, my expectations were too high.  According to the Federal Reserve’s index of trade weighted dollar exchange rate, the dollar exchange rate stood at 95.66 when Reagan took office in January 1981 and at 90.82 when Reagan left office 8 years later.  Now it is true that the dollar rose rapidly in Reagan’s first term reaching about 141 in May 1985, but it fell even faster for the remainder of Reagan’s second term. . . .

Then going in for the kill, Mr. Malpass warns us not to repeat Japan’s mistakes.

Only Japan, after the bursting of its real-estate bubble in 1990, has tried anything similar to U.S. policy. For close to a decade, Tokyo pursued a policy of amped-up government spending, high tax rates, zero-interest rates and mega-trillion yen central-bank buying of government debt. The weak recovery became a deep malaise, with Japan’s own monetary officials warning the U.S. not to follow their lead.

Funny, Mr. Malpass seems to forget that Japan also pursued the sound money policy that he extols. . . . In April 1990, the yen stood at 159 to the dollar.  Last week it was at 77 to the dollar.  Sounds like a strong yen policy to me. . . .

I will just note that, given Mr. Malpass’s affection for a strong dollar, it seems a bit odd that Trump, who constantly rails against currency manipulation and devaluations by other countries, which tend to raise the exchange value of the dollar against those currencies, has chosen Malpass as an economic adviser and that Malpass has agreed to advise Trump, who seems to want anything but a strong dollar. But then again, it’s a strange world that we are now living in.

Then almost two weeks after Malpass’s little masterpiece, along came Mr. Moore with another gem of the kind that the Wall Street Journal editorial page specializes in. The result was that I wrote this post (“The Wall Street Editorial Page is a Disgrace” 8/18/2011).

Stephen Moore has the dubious honor of being a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.  He lives up (or down) to that honor by imparting his wisdom from time to time in signed columns appearing on the Journal’s editorial page.  His contribution in today’s Journal (“Why Americans Hate Economics”) is noteworthy for typifying the sad decline of the Journal’s editorial page into a self-parody of obnoxious, philistine anti-intellectualism.

Mr. Moore begins by repeating a joke once told by Professor Christina Romer, formerly President Obama’s chief economist, now on the economics department at the University of California at Berkeley.  The joke, not really that funny, is that there are two kinds of students:  those who hate economics and those who really hate economics.  Professor Romer apparently told the joke to explain that it’s not true.  Mr. Moore repeats it to explain why he thinks it really is.  Why does he?  Let Mr. Moore speak for himself:  “Because too often economic theories defy common sense.”  That’s it in a nutshell for Mr. Moore:  common sense — the ultimate standard of truth.

So what’s that you say, Galileo?  The sun is stationary and the earth travels around it?  You must be kidding!  Why any child can tell you that the sun rises in the east and moves across the sky every day and then travels beneath the earth at night to reappear in the east the next morning.  And you expect anyone in his right mind to believe otherwise.  What?  It’s the earth rotating on its axis?  Are you possessed of demons?  And you say that the earth is round?  If the earth were round, how could anybody stand at the bottom of the earth and not fall off?  Galileo, you are a raving lunatic.  And you, Mr. Einstein, you say that there is something called a space-time continuum, so that time slows down as the speed one travels approaches the speed of light.  My God, where could you have come up with such an idea?  By that reasoning, two people could not agree on which of two events happened first if one of them was stationary and the other traveling at half the speed of light.  Away with you, and don’t ever dare speak such nonsense again, or, by God, you shall be really, really sorry.

The point of course is not to disregard common sense — that would not be very intelligent — but to recognize that common sense isn’t enough.  Sometimes things are not what they seem – the earth, Mr. Moore, is not flat – and our common sense has to be trained to correspond with a reality that can only be discerned by the intensive application of our reasoning powers, in other words, by thinking harder about what the world is really like than just accepting what common sense seems to be telling us.  But once you recognize that common sense has its limitations, the snide populist sneers — the stock-in-trade of the Journal editorial page — mocking economists with degrees from elite universities in which Mr. Moore likes to indulge are exposed for what they are:  the puerile defensiveness of those unwilling to do the hard thinking required to push back the frontiers of their own ignorance.

In today’s column, Mr. Moore directs his ridicule at a number of Keynesian nostrums that I would not necessarily subscribe to, at least not without significant qualification.  But Keynesian ideas are also rooted in certain common-sense notions, for example, the idea that income and expenditure are mutually interdependent, the income of one person being derived from the expenditure of another.  So when Mr. Moore simply dismisses as “nonsensical” the idea that extending unemployment insurance to keep the unemployed from having to stop spending, he is in fact rejecting an idea that is no less grounded in common sense than the idea that paying people not to work discourages work.  The problem is that our common sense cuts in both directions.  Mr. Moore likes one and wants to ignore the other.  (continue reading here).

So, no question about it, Mr. Trump, the man who chose Corey Lewandowski and then Paul Manafort to run his campaign, and selected Meredith McIver to work with Melania Trump on her speech to the Republican convention, proves again that he is a great judge of talent.

How Liberalism in America Became Synonymous with its Antithesis

In the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine to be her running mate, one of the recurring comments was how unpopular Tim Kaine is with the liberals who supposedly comprise the bulk of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and must somehow be coaxed, cajoled or persuaded to reconcile themselves with Kaine’s supposedly moderate centrist political views.

Here’s a typical description of Kaine’s liberal problem in the Washington Post:

Hillary Clinton has made her selection for vice president: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

That will come as a disappointment to many liberals. After rallying behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and being teased with Elizabeth Warren as Clinton’s potential running mate — an audition that appeared to go very well — Clinton opted for a more boring, more moderate pick. This despite some liberal groups saying Kaine was unacceptable and even “disastrous.”

First, let’s run through why some liberals don’t love Kaine. Over at Wonkblog, Max Ehrenfruend details three issues on which Kaine could be a particular disappointment to the Warren/Sanders crowd: trade (he’s generally pro-free trade), banking (he has suggested softening some Dodd-Frank regulations) and abortion (he is personally pro-life but votes pro-choice).

So, according to this article, which I think accurately reflects the current understanding of what it now means to be a liberal in America, we have arrived at a state of affairs in which supporting free trade is sufficient justification for casting Tim Kaine out of the liberal fold. Or to make the point in a slightly different way, on international trade at least, Donald Trump’s views are more liberal than those of either Tim Kaine or Hillary Clinton. In this crazy year of 2016, we have witnessed all kinds of farcical events that no one ever dreamed would actually happen. But for protectionism to now be identified as a defining tenet of liberalism surely belongs on any list of the improbable plot twists in the tragicomedy of an election campaign that we have been watching in disbelief in America’s political theater of the absurd.Considered historically, the notion that you can’t be a liberal if you support free trade is nothing short of preposterous, the British Liberal Party having came into existence in the nineteenth century largely as a result of the great political battle over free trade in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.

The Conservative Party was founded in 1834 as a combination of the Tories and a number of Whig followers of William Pitt the Younger. Led by Sir Robert Peel, the Conservatives were committed to protecting the interests of the landed aristocracy from whom the Tories were largely drawn, and were generally solicitous of the royal prerogatives. Although they too were drawn from the landed aristocracy, the Whigs were hostile to the royal prerogatives, seeking to enlarge the powers of Parliament and limit those of the Crown. In opposing royal powers, the Whigs were the natural allies of the Radicals, who represented the interests of the rising industrial and commercial sectors and the growing middle classes.

Reflecting the predominant influence of the Tory landed aristocracy, the Conservatives supported protective tariffs to keep domestic grain prices and land values high. Although the economic interests of the Whig landed aristocracy were also served by protection and high grain prices, the Whigs were prepared to sacrifice their economic interests (perhaps more diversified than the Tories’ interests) and to accept free trade as the price to regain power in concert with the Radicals, whose laissez-faire principles and economic interests strongly inclined them to oppose protection and high grain prices.

As Prime Minister in the 1840s, Peel reversed his previous opposition to free trade, having been persuaded by Richard Cobden, a Radical and the chief Parliamentary advocate of free trade, that allowing foreigners to increase grain exports to Britain would increase foreign demand for British manufactured goods. The famous, possibly legendary, story of Peel’s conversion to free trade has it that, after one of Cobden’s compelling Parliamentary speeches in favor of repealing the Corn Laws restricting grain imports into Britain, Peel, turning to his colleague Sidney Herbert, said: “Sir, you must answer him, for I cannot.” Whatever the motivation for Peel’s conversion to free trade, Peel’s decision split the Conservative party, with most Conservatives still opposing free trade, while about a third of Conservative MPs, including the future Liberal Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone, sided with Peel to form a separate faction.

Eventually, in 1859 the Whigs, Radicals and most of the Peelite Conservatives, joined to create the Liberal Party. So the British Liberal Party was formed as a coalition united by their support of free trade. Although the Conservative Party later came to support free trade, at the beginning of the twentieth century Conservatives turned against free trade, renewing the old conservative-liberal ideological divide.

Given the origins of liberalism as a political movement supporting free trade, it’s disconcerting to watch self-styled liberals transform liberalism into its own antithesis. I’m not trying to suggest that there is such a thing as a true liberalism, or that any departure from the original creed is a kind of heresy. All I’m saying is that leftist critics of Kaine show their own ignorance and ideological illiteracy — not to mention sheer arrogance — when they claim that support for free trade, which for almost two centuries was considered a basic liberal tenet, invalidates Kaine’s standing as a liberal.

I am also not saying that there are no good arguments to be made against free trade, though there are certainly a lot of bad ones, especially those that focus on the trade deficit as a measure of the harm caused by trade. I have actually written previously about the inadequacy of standard economic defenses of free trade, which doesn’t mean that attacks on free trade are right, just that those attacks are not necessarily countered by the standard defenses.

But we are now so disconnected from history that we habitually use terms as labels or as epithets in ways that are completely at odds with the meanings that the terms used to have. President Obama, for example, is routinely described as a socialist and even as a Marxist based, as far as I can tell, on nothing more than that he wants the federal government to reduce the inequality of income and wealth in the US. I have written some posts in the past suggesting why a lot of high income earnings from finance and intellectual property do not increase net social welfare, but I don’t  have a well-thought-out position about overall income and wealth inequality. As a starting point, I think Rawls’s difference principle that income inequality is justified only insofar as the inequality redounds to the absolute benefit of the least well-off members of society is a good way to think about how to handle income and wealth inequality in a free and democratic society. But I don’t think that Rawls gets us very far. The problem with the Rawlsian difference principle is that, in practice, it is nearly impossible to make the principle operational. I have no doubt that Ludwig von Mises would have been totally comfortable arguing that laissez-faire capitalism actually satisfies the difference principle. I believe that he actually made such an argument in Human Action.

But the point that I am making here is simply that it is entirely possible for someone to favor non-trivial redistribution of wealth and income from the wealthy to the less wealthy without being either a socialist or a Marxist. And in fact there have been many non-socialists and non-Marxists who have favored some degree of wealth and income redistribution. So the routine smear attacks on Obama for being a socialist or a Marxist as just typical of the degradation of our semantic environment.

Of course, there is nothing to stop anyone from defining “socialist” and “Marxist” so that anyone who supports redistributing income and wealth is both a socialist and a Marxist. But such definitions would be a trivial exercise with no historical basis. The exercise would be self-defeating if it’s artificiality were acknowledged. What “socialism” has meant historically is a political doctrine favoring the state ownership and operation of all or most of the non-human means of production. But as the number of people who believe in government ownership and operation of the means of production has fallen steadily over the last half century or so, the term “socialism” has gradually been transformed into a vague and nearly meaningless catchword.

What makes Bernie Sanders a socialist is not a belief that government should own and operate most industries, but a general ethos that he feels is captured and communicated by the term. “Socialism” is a convenient way to signal hostility to capitalism – though not a desire to replace it with state ownership and control — and support for wealth redistribution. Similarly, those on the right find “socialism” a handy term of abuse with which to vilify their opponents.

I am no expert on Marxism, but my understanding is that it is a belief in a particular theory of the (supposed) historical laws governing the past and future development of society, supposedly leading to the creation of a socialist state. I assume that there are still some Marxists out there, but if you really do believe that Barack Obama is one of them, there is a good chance that you are delusional.

But what strikes me as especially interesting is not just that liberalism, like socialism, no longer means what it used to mean, but that it has come to mean, in the minds of many, the exact opposite of what it used to mean. So I’d like suggest my own linguistic theory of how liberalism in America has come to take on a meaning so very different from what it once meant. What led to the transformation of liberalism in America was, I conjecture, the lack of a successful socialist political movement in the US. In one sense that was a good thing,  because socialism is not now and never was a sensible way to organize a society or to promote widespread prosperity. However, the failure of socialism in the US to become a politically viable left-wing alternative meant that “liberal” became one of the two default terms for moderately left-leaning political activists to use for self-description and self-identification, the other being the peculiarly American term “progressive.”For similar reasons, liberalism and progressivism also came to be associated with the political activism of organized labor. In Europe, however, socialism aka “social democracy” became a politically powerful movement, gaining the support of much, if not most, of the labor unions. So the contrast between the middle-class orientation of European liberalism on the one hand and the labor activism and socialist ideology of the left-wing parties on the other was much sharper than the contrast between middle-class liberalism and labor activism in the US.

Similarly, because American political parties were almost totally non-ideological, having developed as loose coalitions of diverse sectional and economic interests, the Democratic and Republican parties, unlike the European parties, developed few systematic political doctrines. The antebellum Democratic Party, for example, purported to espouse the doctrine of states’ rights, but professed adherence to that doctrine did not prevent the Democrats from insisting on a federal fugitive slave law requiring Northern states to cooperate with slaveholders to return runaway slaves to their owners, thereby overriding the laws of those Northern states that recognized runaway slaves as free human beings rather than the property. Until the Civil War, the slavery issue dominated political discourse, making the Democratic Party the pro-slavery, or the slavery-neutral, party. For sectional reasons, the Democratic Party also tended to be the anti-tariff party, while the Republican Party was the high-tariff party, rendering both parties unsuitable homes for liberal doctrines, thereby depriving liberalism of a coherent political voice.

The political failure of socialism in the US compelled reformist political movements to focus on piecemeal rather than comprehensive social and economic changes, e.g., the unsuccessful free-silver movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the whole panoply of Progressive measures enacted in the early twentieth century under the Republican and Democratic administrations of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. With no competing popular doctrine available, liberals and progressives occupied almost all of the left side of the political spectrum. So left-wing political activism in the US was co-opted by the liberal and the progressives instead of socialists or social democrats. In Europe, competing with the socialists to their left, liberals had good reason to emphasize their differences with the socialists as well as their similarities, and there was only limited incentive for liberal parties to try to compete with the left-wing parties by shifting to the left. In the US, however, there was an incentive for liberals to shift to the left to foreclose the entry of a new left-wing party or movement that might drain support from liberals and progressives.

Similarly, insofar as liberals shifted to the left to foreclose a more left-wing alternative, it became easier for moderate or right-leaning liberals to shift their  political allegiance to conservatism than it would have been for European liberals to switch their allegiance to conservatism, because many American conservatives more or less shared the liberal values espoused by liberals, as those values were enshrined in the founding documents of the American Republic. European conservatives, unlike most American conservatives, were ideologically hostile to the basic democratic and liberal values that most American conservatives also acknowledged, notwithstanding the hypocrisy of supporting or tolerating legal segregation and other forms of legal racism. Even in Britain, the cradle of liberalism, the Liberal Party, which had governed Britain for most of the second half of the nineteenth century up to and including the First World War, was eventually reduced to insignificance when the rise of a Labour Party to its left drove Liberal voters, fearing a Labour victory, into the Conservative camp.

Thus, liberalism in Europe retained a more distinct character as a middle-class, democratic, secular, non-socialist ideology than American liberalism. American liberalism was drawn steadily to the left, becoming increasingly attuned to the political agenda of organized labor and becoming increasingly identified with left-wing economic ideas that were not necessarily socialist in the traditional sense, but were also not compatible with liberal doctrines like free trade. Many moderate and right-leaning liberals found it preferable to adapt to the political program offered by an American conservatism that seemed to have embraced many of the key elements of classical nineteenth century liberalism, but without totally rejecting the post-war consensus of a limited welfare state providing a social safety net for the less fortunate, than to follow the leftward drift of American liberalism.

So with the transition of many American moderates and liberals into conservatives, American liberalism has evolved into a left-wing ideology that has animated and energized the Sanders political revolution of 2016, thereby creating the impression in America, among both liberals and non-liberals, that liberalism is more or less interchangeable with left-wing or socialist ideas, albeit socialist ideas that have little relationship to socialism in the original sense of the term. This doesn’t mean that all American liberals are leftists. Many, if not most, American liberals w remain politically moderate, but the ideological energy of American liberalism seems now to be headed in a leftward direction. Years of ideological confusion have obliterated the distinction between liberalism and “leftism,” so that liberalism as an economic doctrine no longer stands for anything — in the American context — other than a demand for government intervention to reduce income equality, to raise wages, which is basically all that socialism now signifies. Disconnected from its historical origins and meaning, American liberalism now represents nothing more than a vague term more or less synonymous with an equally vague “socialism” whose meaning is no more definite than the sentimental message of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

 


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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