Archive

Tag Archives: 1991

By George P. Brockway, originally published December 2, 1991

1991-12-2  Taxing Our Credulity Title

EVERYONE seems to agree on two things. First, the economy is in a mess and something should be done about it. Second, neither the President nor congress did anything this year (beyond a belated extension of unemployment benefits), and nobody will want to do anything fundamental next year because of the election. If the second thing is correct, the first is moot: At least from now to 1993 we will have to test how we run on an automatic pilot that does not seem a whole lot more competent than the one in Airplane.

In the meantime, you and I can work off our frustrations by talking about them. We might as well start by talking about taxes, which can always generate heat on a wintry day. Several tax proposals are floating around Washington. All of them provide for reductions of one sort or another, most of them claim that they “target” the middle class, and some of them pretend to improve our productivity and beef up our international competitiveness.

The longest-running of the tax-cut schemes is Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp‘s undismayed conviction that the way to balance the budget is to cut taxes à outrance. Kemp got us to go along with him on this scheme 10 years ago, when he was a New York Republican Congressman. He promised that savings and investment and tax collections would all increase, and we (present company excepted) believed him. None of his promises was fulfilled; instead we got an instant recession, followed by still burgeoning deficits. There is no reason to expect that what contributed to a recession yesterday will end a recession today.

The next longest-running notion is the President’s steadfast passion for a capital gains tax cut. The Education President told the children about it the other day when he visited a grade-school class. No one gave him an argument, but the best that can be said for the idea is that it might result in a modest one-time increase in tax collections as speculators rush to cash in old gains they’ve been sitting on.

Until 1987, when capital gains became taxed as ordinary income, executives with an eye to the main chance devoted endless time and ingenuity to schemes allowing them to take their compensation as capital gains. The use of stock options, a fairly routine dodge, could have gaudy results. One Donald A. Pels (whom you never heard of), CEO of LIN Broadcasting (which you never heard of), cashed his options in 1990 for $186,200,000 (which looks like a thousand times the speed of light). After paying taxes he had only $134,064,000 (plus a few millions in regular salary) left to show for 10 years’ work. If Bush had been able to get his tax cut through, Pels would have had $158,270,000 left, and his incentive wouldn’t have been so sapped.

Returning to a more mundane level, we find several Senators, Texas Democrats Lloyd Bentsen and Phil Gramm among them, eager to stir up lRAs again. You probably remember the commercials of a few years ago that had sports stars and movie actors earnestly urging us to join them in planning for a wealthy old age.

The beauty of it was that our self-serving endeavors would have the incidental effect of increasing the national saving rate and consequently the national investing rate. What happened, of course, is that those who participated merely switched their savings from one account to another. I can’t think why it would prove any different the second time around.

Finally, there are at least two proposals for reforming the income tax, both advanced by Democrats. A group led by Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee and Representative Thomas J. Downey of New York is pushing a plan they call (in pointed contrast to the President’s) the Working Family Tax Relief Act. This would reduce the taxes of 95 per cent of all families with children. Cuts would range from roughly $875 at the bottom of the income scale to $185 at the top; singles and families without children would continue to pay the present rates. The reductions would be paid for by increasing the taxes of the richest 1 per cent of taxpayers (whose average income is $676,000) by an average of $21,600, and of the next 4 per cent (whose average income is$132,000) by an average of $530. These increases are about 3.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent of the respective incomes. You will note that the Working Family Tax Relief Act is intended to be “revenue neutral” and so doesn’t upset last year’s budget agreement.

The simplest proposal has been made by Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D.-Ill.), Chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, who would allow a tax credit equal to one- fifth of Social Security and Medicare taxes. He would pay for it by boosting the tax on the richest 1 per cent; so he would be revenue neutral, too.

The effects of his plan on individuals look like this: The median family had an income in 1989 (the latest figure I can lay my hands on) of $35,975. Assuming that the entire income is from wages, the family pays $2,752.09 in Social Security taxes (which is an outrage, as Senator Moynihan says). One-fifth of that tax is $550.42, or $10.58 a week-not enough to make a difference in financing a new car or a new home or even a new video camcorder, but certainly welcome as a help in covering expected increases in bus and subway fares.

Chairman Rostenkowski’s average cut is about the, same as Senator Gore’s for a $75,OOO income. Since the Chairman’s plan is tied to Social Security taxes paid, the benefit for the lowest quintile of taxpayers is dramatically lower – $161, as opposed to the Senator’s $875. Also, of course, the cap on Social Security taxes puts a cap on Rostenkowski’s benefits – about $8S0, which would apparently be available to everyone right up to whoever succeeds Donald Pels as leader in the income sweepstakes.

Speaker Tom Foley of the state of Washington says he expects the House to pass Rostenkowski’s plan. Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican whip, sneers that the plan would merely redistribute the wealth but would not make more money available for investment. For my part, I don’t think redistributing the wealth is such a bad idea. After all, those at the top of the income pyramid had wealth redistributed to them by the Kemp-Roth tax law 10years ago. As Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute puts it, the bill should be sent to those who went to the party and are thirsting for another one.

If the purpose is to jump-start the economy, the trouble with all these plans is in the timing. Even if we could get Congress and the President to agree on one of them, could run it successfully past the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and could manage veto-proof majorities in both houses (in case the President noticed at the last minute that the cost of an abortion would still be a deductible medical expense} – even then little good would come of it in our winter of discontent.

With luck we might put our 1040s in order by April 15 and begin getting our hands on the increased disposable income a week later, with spring already a month old. The economy would no doubt be startled, but the time for jump-starting would be past. This is not to suggest that the tax schedule should not be changed, and right quickly. As I’ve said before (see “The Evils of Economic Man,” NL, July 9-23, 1990), our economy and the society it supports are in for a long decline unless we correct our present course toward increased polarization.

So the correct answer to the multiple choice question asking which scheme will end the recession seems to be “None of the above.” None of the proposals on the table is likely to do much to get the economy out of the doldrums. Furthermore, they are not self-sufficient. Each silently assumes that a further step will be taken, yet that depends on whether their beneficiaries will be of a mind to take it. If they are not psychologically ready to spend their benefits with enthusiasm, the effects on the economy will be tentative and minimal.

WHAT IS needed is something positive to get money circulating – to get people working, to get consumers consuming, to get producers producing. I can think of two ways to achieve these results.

The first is the way we’ve done it for the past decade: Damn the deficit and go ahead with a military buildup. The effectiveness of defense spending has been demonstrated repeatedly over the centuries, from Periclean Athens to Reaganite America. Not the least of its virtues is its dramatic size. It is plainly visible. Its impact on localities and industries and job classifications can be calculated and counted upon, and so can the multiplier effects that spread throughout the economy. Plans can be made to get a piece of the action. Things start stirring very quickly.

Happily, there is another way. We are not doomed to waste our wealth and energy on devices we hope will never be used. Again we can learn from Periclean Athens, which is remembered now less for the power of the Delian League than for the wonders of the Acropolis, the most glorious public works project the world has yet seen.

American public works projects have hitherto been hampered by the lack of ready plans; consequently, they have been viewed as too slow-starting to be useful in ending a recession. But it happens that this is not true today of the states and municipalities.

Partly because of the niggardliness of the Reagan-Bush “New Federalism,” and partly because of the current recession, state and local governments have been in trouble for a couple of years and are in grave trouble now. Caught between constitutional requirements that they balance their budgets and the blind frenzy of taxpayers’ revolts, they have had to abandon capital improvements, emasculate services and fire thousands upon thousands of employees.

These draconian measures could be reversed in a moment. New York City alone has a list of several hundred bridges it needs to repair. Work on many of these could start tomorrow if money were available. In almost every city and suburb, library hours have been reduced and branches closed; what only a year ago was a marvelously helpful and rapid system of inter-library loans currently operates only sluggishly. The people who used to make that system function could be rehired overnight. The second cop who used to man patrol cars is also ready to return to duty in a flash. A year’s volume of this magazine could be filled with examples from every corner of the land.

If Federal grants to state and local governments were restored merely to the same proportion of Federal expenditures as in 1980, a sum of $63.1 billion would be available to fund such projects and break the back of the recession-peacefully. Could we do it? Well, we spent a lot more than that trying to drive Saddam Hussein from office. We could do it, all right, if we had the sense and the will.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 7, 1991

1991-10-7  The Long and Short of Interest Rates Title

PEOPLE are beginning to growl that recovery from the recession is being delayed by the slow growth of the nation’s money supply, which seems in danger of falling through the bottom (or “lower parameter” if you want to be fancy) of the Federal Reserve Board’s target. The said target is to keep the annual rate of increase between 2.5 and 6.5 per cent.

Now, suppose that the Reserve agrees that the money supply is in danger of falling through its bottom. Resolved to their own selves to be true, they have to increase it. What do they do? The most obvious thing would be to coin some more coins and print some more paper money. But what would they do with it?

You may be sure that they wouldn’t send a packet of the stuff to each of us by Express Mail. Nor would they add to our savings accounts (although they firmly believe we ought to save more).

Instead, the Reserve would make it easier and more profitable for the banks to lend us money. We have some credit, represented by a plastic card that we show to a shoe clerk, who makes a copy of all the numbers, has us sign it, and hands us a pair of shoes. We have spent our credit like money, except we now are in debt to the bank that sent us the card.  Our credit has become money by becoming debt. Businesses create   money in the same way when they take down their line of credit extended by their friendly banker.

This pleasant arrangement expands the money supply, but it is limited in various ways – the chief one being the interest rate, the price banks charge us for the use of money. There are those whose doctrine requires them to pretend that the Federal Reserve Board has no control over interest rates, that they are made in the market, if not in heaven, by an invisible hand, and no mere mortal can do anything about them. More sophisticated observers recognize that the Reserve really and truly does determine short-term interest rates. When the Board sets the Federal Funds rate or the Discount rate, it is setting a rate at which banks can borrow (short term) from each other or from the System. When the Federal Open Market Committee buys or sells bonds, it raises or lowers the price of bonds and consequently is lowering or raising the interest rate. If the Board did not set at least short-term rates in these ways, it would be hard to ascribe any significance to its activities.

Indeed, the fact is that whenever the Reserve fears the money supply will fall through the lower parameter, it lowers the interest rate. It claims to control the money supply, yet all it can actually control is the interest rate.

If that is the case, why doesn’t the Board say so? I regret to have to tell you that it is possessed by doctrines that might have made sense in the days of mercantilism but have nothing to do with a modern capitalist economy.

In the days of mercantilism money was a commodity-gold, silver, sea shells, or some such. Trade was essentially barter. You swapped grain for silver, and then you swapped the silver for candles. At any given time (say, 1492) there was a certain amount of silver in circulation, and other commodities traded at more or less stable prices in terms of silver. Christopher Columbus (whether he discovered America or not) made a historical difference. The European supply of silver multiplied rapidly, while the supplies of other commodities, being agricultural products or custom made goods, expanded slowly, if at all. Some of the increasing supply of silver was swapped for the stagnant supplies of other commodities, whose prices rose.  Hence the notion that prices depend on the money supply.

Although the Federal Reserve Board seems not to have noticed, the modern economy is quite different from that of pre-Industrial Revolution days. As Karl Polyani rather sorrowfully pointed out, goods are now produced for the market, rather than on special order. While occasional shortages are far from impossible, industry is so organized that if a demand for an especially cute T-shirt suddenly develops, the supply can be replenished in a few hours or days. Since the supply of most commodities is now indefinite, if not infinite, the supply of money has no substantial effect on prices.

The way the interest rate is managed does, however, have an effect on prices. Here, again, is a historical change the Reserve has failed to notice. A frequently cited survey, published in the Harvard Business Review in 1939, reported that business people then paid little attention to the interest rate in making their plans. A few years later I was a business planner myself, and I assure you that’s the way it was. After all, the prime rate, held down by an “accord” between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, was only 1.5 per cent. The accord was annulled in 1951, whereupon the Reserve embarked on its long and still-continuing hunt for the inflation snark, with the result hat today interest is one of the most prominent and most unpredictable costs of doing business.

Here, yet again, is a historical turning – one that has been missed by most mainstream economists but has been forcefully called to the attention of most businesspeople. If you have ever met a payroll, you know that your costs are an inescapable factor of the prices you charge. When your costs go up, so must your   prices, if you propose to stay in business. For 40 years now the Reserve has been idiotically trying to control inflation by inflating the cost of doing business.

In short, the price of money matters. Unhappily, it is widely believed – even by many who agree the Reserve can set short-term rates – that long-term rates are set by the “market” anticipating what the future will bring. Some say that the market anticipates the future rate of inflation; others that the market anticipates the short-term rates the Reserve will set in the future. In the former case, long-term lenders think of themselves as lending purchasing power and want to get their purchasing power back, with interest. In the latter case, long term borrowers guess that borrowing will be more expensive in the future than in the resent because the Reserve will, in its anti-inflation battle, allow (or force) short-term rates to rise.

It will be seen that the customary policies of the Federal Reserve Board work to reinforce both groups. Inflation, of course, is the Board’s panatrophy, and raising the interest rate is the Board’s panacea. What borrowers and lenders anticipate in, the long future is that the Board will continue to pursue the policies it is pursuing today. They may be wrong, just as prophets may be wrong about what the Board will do tomorrow morning. he point is that, regardless of the Federal Reserve Board’s intentions, its actions effectively control the long-term interest rate as well as the short-term rate.

THE SAME POINT may be reached from another direction. Keynes deplored the fact that most professional investors and speculators “are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it ‘for keeps,’ but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence.” In the 55 years that have passed since Keynes published this judgment, three months or a year has come to seem an unusually long time to hold an investment.

1991-10-7  The Long and Short of Interest Rates Nicholas Brady

The bond market is a place where people buy and sell bonds in which at least the seller did not intend to invest for keeps. Portfolio managers and professional traders treat long bonds and short bonds alike, and treat both as they treat stocks. They rank them according to their relative safety and relative liquidity and so on; and in that ranking it will happen that some long bonds are judged more liquid than any common stock. (After all, common stocks are “longer” than long bonds because they do not promise to return your money.) In all cases, long-term or short-term, the traders’ question is what the market will bear tomorrow, not what will happen over the next 30 years.

This being so, the long-term interest rate is not a separate problem. Even new bond issues are priced in relation to the current market, and that is priced in relation to short -term interest rates. Therefore, all interest rates respond to the activities of the Federal Reserve Board.

But may not international rates restrain those activities? In response to that question apologists for the present system will surely warn us about a flight from the dollar. We will be reminded that former Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker was tireless in arguing that interest rates had to rise to attract foreign money to finance our budget deficit. Rates had to stay high to keep the foreigners from pulling their money rugs  out from under us. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady has a similar fear of flying.

Who are the foreigners whose money is so important to us? Everyone knows that mainly they’re the Japanese. That knowledge should give us furiously to think. For the money that lands on our shores takes off from theirs. The flights to the dollar are flights from the yen. Yet their economy has been outperforming ours for the past many years. Have they outperformed us because they sent their money to us? Hardly. But their domestic saving and their currency’s flight had the same cause. Both were the result of their comparatively low interest rates and correspondingly high production (not productivity, but production). It was their expansion of employment and plant and output that made them prosperous.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Japan’s interest rate was so low because Japan’s savings rate was so high. In the first place, you have to produce a lot before you have a lot to save. You can’t save what does not exist. In the second place, Japan’s recent hike in its interest rate was not caused by a fall in savings but by the cold -blooded and wrong-headed decision of its central bank. The increased interest rate will reduce economic activity, and reduced savings will follow as a consequence, not as a cause.

The Federal Reserve Board’s money growth target is irrelevant. The Reserve should set the short-term interest rate at least as low as it did during the 1942-51 accord with the Treasury. The long-term rate conformed then, and it would do so today.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published July 15, 1991

1991-7-15 The Tintinnabulation of the Baby Bells Title

IF YOU READ your morning paper thoroughly over the next several months you will read a lot of stories about the Baby Bells-the seven regional telephone companies that the courts split off from AT&T seven years ago. The stories will only occasionally make the front page, but buried in them will be accounting problems whose solutions are bound to have far-reaching social consequences.

Despite their popular name, the Baby Bells are all well up among the nation’s largest corporations and, as frequently happens with large corporations, they want to become larger. Their ambitions have been thwarted by the court order that created them; it forbids them to design, develop or manufacture telecommunications equipment. They are tempted by that forbidden fruit. At least one of them (the Pacific Telesis Group) is eager to turn pay phones into “information terminals, allowing customers to obtain and print out information on the spot.” No doubt you’ll dial a 900 number,  which will charge your credit card a couple of dollars a minute and instruct you to “Press 1” if you want to know whether it’s raining, “Press 2” if you want the latest quotations on pork belly futures, and so on. As Stan Freberg would say, “Fright’nin’!”

Why has the fruit been forbidden? For the same reason that AT&T was broken up. Before 1984, the telephone system was a practically airtight monopoly. Although there were a few independents, almost everyone used equipment manufactured by Western Electric and owned, installed and serviced by AT&T. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, you could have any color you wanted as long as it was black. Now you can have a phone in every room or at the side of every chair, and no two need be of the same shape or color or come from the same source. But if the Baby Bells are allowed to manufacture phones, they’ll be able to diddle their costs in such a way that they will drive competitors off the market, and decorators will have to express our personalities for us in some other way.

I don’t mean to make light of the prospect, because far more than phone color is at stake. The issue-common to all business-turns on principles of cost accounting and (it is not too much to say) on the fundaments of economics itself.

You don’t have to read many of the debates in and out of Congress to realize that the Baby Bells want to expand into unregulated enterprises, of which the manufacture and sale of telephone equipment is one. Pacific Telesis wouldn’t be so eager to deploy an information network if it expected the system to be regulated. The Bells are no doubt averse to regulation in any circumstances (even if the fates of the S&Ls and the airlines should give them pause), but what mainly draws them to unregulated industries is the muddle headedness of conventional economics that would allow (or even require) them to charge the principal costs of their new unregulated businesses to their existing regulated telephone business. I’m sure you’ll be astonished to learn that the designated payers of these costs will be you, me, and other personal telephone subscribers.

Costs are important, and so are cost accountants. It used to be said of Macy’s (and perhaps of all department stores and many departmentalized businesses) that every department lost money but the store made money (it’s more likely vice versa today). Such a situation occurs when operating departments are charged too much for overhead, rent, taxes, or whatever.

But what is “too much”? The management of a department store may well feel helpless to control the different departments’ buying except by forcing them to become cost conscious. I once connived with the treasurer of a small company to confuse the president, whom we all admired and loved, by introducing a large entry for “late bills prior season” in the advertising budget, thus eliminating any reserve. The exuberant president couldn’t spend what apparently didn’t exist, and the company survived some hard times.

Every business makes not-dissimilar decisions constantly. If a company expands, management takes profits earned by this year’s operations and invests them in new products or new divisions. Or management may price a certain product more tightly or advertise it more generously than it does other products. The favoritism may be explained by expectations of increasing returns or by use of the underpriced product as a loss leader or by pursuit of the prestige attached to prominence in a certain business – or by flipping a coin. Regardless of the explanation, the favoritism is a business decision. It shapes the corporation.

Public utilities, naturally, are not quite free enterprise. The investors in a public utility are free to do what they want with their money. They can leave it in or take it out (they hope). The workers are free to do what they want with their labor power: They can stay on their jobs (if they are not made obsolete by technology) or leave them. But the management cannot set prices-at least not without regulators looking over their shoulders -and when prices are regulated, costs and their allocation must be regulated, too.

Neither managers nor regulators have much of a problem with costs so long as the utility is merely a utility and does not long to embark on an ambitious expansion program. There may be a little scuffle over whether certain costs should be capitalized rather than expensed, but “generally recognized accounting principles” will take care of most such questions. When, however, a local phone company wants to shift from copper wire to fiber optics, the cost is hard to justify-unless management intends to expand into cable television or computer networking or some other wave of its future. Alert regulators will not let the cost of fiber optics become part of the cost of local telephone service, and the local phone company will complain that regulation impedes progress.

Moreover, the utility’s lawyers, tutored by their economics experts, will adduce what they call scientific reasons for charging the new costs to the old users. There are several ways of doing this. One is called Ramsey Pricing, a.k.a. the Inverse Elasticity Rule (elasticity is a big idea in economics, but I’m not inclined to take it seriously, for reasons I may someday explain). Another is Marginal Cost Pricing.

It is not my present purpose to examine the two strategies in detail, especially since I can refer you to two excellent articles that do so in the March 1991 Journal of Economic Issuesthe first by Michael Sheehan, an Oregon public utility economist, and the second by Peter S. Fisher, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa. In a nutshell, both articles demonstrate that, as Fisher writes, “There is a systematic bias” to these pricing policies “in favor of those who are more mobile, who have more income, and hence have more choices regarding consumption, and against those whose income or social position leaves them with fewer alternatives and with large portions of their incomes going to basic goods and services.”

IS SCIENCE, then, anti-people? No, and it’s not pro-progress, either. Science has nothing to do with the case. The various pricing policies obviously concern values. But, as Max Planck wrote, “The values of an objective science like physics are wholly independent of the objects to which they relate.” In other words, electrons know no value, but accuracy in physics reports has great personal and social value. In contrast to electrons, the prices set by Ramsey Pricing are social values.

The whole idea of scientific or objective pricing in economics is a confusion of thought. Science can’t be regulated as industry can. No matter how forceful your argument, you can’t change E =MC2 to E= MC3, or some other exponent more to your liking. But utility rates are not written in the book of nature; they are regulated by public commissioners in accordance with guidelines laid down by the legislature and subject to review by the courts.

The regulations represent the public will, deliberately supplanting the will of the utility companies. If the regulations didn’t have such force, there would be no point to them. Likewise, if the uncontrolled will of the utilities were not thought liable to produce rates that would in some manner be unfair to some segments of society; there would be no point to the regulations.

Conventional economics, of course, maintains that all rates and prices are or should be set by the market, and we are so used to the idea that we nod in unthinking assent. It is hardly clear, though, how a market sets a price. A market can’t talk or write or make gestures or pass resolutions or do anything. How can it set a price? The conventional story is a pathetic fallacy.

Prices are set by human beings or by corporations of human beings. That is reasonable, but there is nothing scientific about any of it. If there were, there would be no failures-and no smash successes. When you mix the proper proportions of hydrogen and oxygen, you get water. Every time. But a 50 per cent markup doesn’t guarantee a retailing success, nor did strong popular interest in a new mid-price car guarantee the success of the Edsel.

There is no one way to determine prices, nor do any of the possible ways have invariable consequences. Furthermore, price plays an original role in business planning. The Edsel was planned from the beginning to be a mid-priced car. With the price given, engineers and designers and marketing people had goals to work toward. As it turned out, fatal mistakes were made, but without the price, their endeavors would have been altogether without form and void.

Price, in short, is not determined; it is determining. That is the way it is in business, with the possible exception of some agriculture, occasional auctions and the stock exchanges. Setting the price (which may be done by buyer or middleman as well as by seller) is an act of will. It is a free and responsible act. It is at the very heart of free enterprise. In private business, setting the price is a determinant of the kind of business we will have, of the kind of people we will be. In the case of public utilities, setting the price is a determinant of the kind of society we will have.

When a private company fails because its prices are too high (or too low), it doesn’t get a gold star for having set the prices in some conventional pseudoscientific fashion. Nor does a regulatory commission get Brownie points for following pseudoscientific Ramsey Pricing if the result is to foster another way of finding out whether it’s raining by rendering ordinary telephone service too expensive for its most needy subscribers.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published April 8, 1991

1991-4-8 Where Keynes and Kalecki Went Wrong Title

1983-12-26 John Maynard Keynes

EVERY NOW AND THEN a learned journal carries an article, or a think tank issues a report, that effects a significant change in academic theory. Once in a blue moon, such an article or report results in a revision of public policy.

Given the volume of material produced every year by the dozens of think tanks and scores of learned journals devoted to economics, it is no wonder that even many of their best offerings bloom to blush unseen. Neither is it surprising that the most open of professions is slow to embrace challenges to established doctrine (and hence, if you want to be mean-minded about it, to established reputations). It is doubtful that learning could proceed in the midst of incessant turmoil.

That said, the fact is that groundbreaking work does appear; moreover, its appearance must be widely discussed if learning is indeed to proceed-and if public policy is to benefit. Accordingly, I rise to salute a recent article and a recent report. The article, by Fred Block, professor of sociology (not economics) at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Davis, is entitled “Bad Data Drive Out Good: the Decline of Personal Savings Revisited. It leads off the Fall 1990 issue of the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. The report, by Robert A. Blecker, assistant professor of economics at American University, is entitled Are Americans on a Consumption Binge? The Evidence Reconsidered. It is available from the Economic Policy Institute, 1730 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Washington’ DC 20036.

These two papers are careful empirical examinations of two claims or assumptions that have ruled American economic policy for the past 30 or 40 years, and especially for the past 10. Blecker looks at the claim that Americans are irresponsible wastrels who have starved American industry and the American government. Block looks at the related claim that personal savings in this country have fallen so low we can no longer finance our own deficits or maintain a civilized standard of public services.

Together the Blecker and Block papers destroy both claims at their roots and thus cut off the theoretical sustenance that has nourished Reaganomics and Bush Voodoo. If it is not, as a matter of empirical fact, true that Americans have been consuming at an extraordinary rate, or that they have failed to save at some expected rate, then there must be other reasons to explain the misfortunes the American economy has suffered over the past decade.

A couple of months ago I remarked on the irony that the noisy supply-siders of recent years are now noisily complaining that the current recession has been caused by the failure of the demand side to consume (“Our Austerity Recession,” NL, January 14). They can’t have it both ways – the more fools we if we let them. Nor should we continue to hang our heads in shame whenever our saving is compared with that of the Japanese and Germans. As Block shows, we’re saving more today than we did in the early postwar years when our unemployment rate was lower, our inflation rate was also lower, and our after-tax profits were higher. On the record, it is not improbable that we have been saving too much rather than too little.

Besides the empirical facts about saving, there are a couple of theories. The one you hear in urban bars, on commuter trains and within the Washington Beltway argues that if you want to make anything (the supply side), you have to have proper raw materials and tools, and you have to have enough food, clothing and shelter to keep you and your colleagues going while you’re making it. Saving all these things, in short, is necessary to production. After all, you can’t grow corn unless you’ve saved seed.

But no so fast. You can’t save seed unless you’ve already harvested it. Your ancestors had to gather seed before they could plant their first crop. That’s not a quibble, but since it sounds like one lets turn to high theory.

In college classrooms, saving equals investment, or S = I. This neat little equation, arrived at independently about 60 years ago by John Maynard Keynes and MichaI Kalecki, is fatally flawed yet has been fatefully influential. Kalecki published his work three or four years before Keynes; but because he wrote in Polish, only his countrymen and only a handful of them-knew about it until much later (minority-language advocates, please note).

Kalecki s proof, though not difficult, is too complicated to retail in this space. Approaching the problem more directly, Keynes constructed and solved a pair of simultaneous equations that go as follows: (1) National output equals consumption plus investment; (2) national output equals consumption plus saving; therefore (3) saving equals investment.

As mathematical proofs both the Keynes and the Kalecki equations are perfectly valid. The conclusion S = I, however, is flawed in a way that is particularly characteristic of mathematical reasoning.

My great teacher, John William Miller (author of The Paradox of Cause and four other books I recommend to you), was fond of quoting Touchstone: “Much virtue in if.” Keynes’ first and second propositions would be clearer reading: (1) If national output equals consumption plus investment, and (2) if national output equals consumption plus saving….

Keynes was well aware of the virtue in if and devoted many pages of his great book to defining his terms so that his propositions made sense. But no more than Homer was he exempt from nodding, and here he did nod, with dire consequences. In these instances he is correct only in “real” terms, that is, only if he is talking about goods and services and is specifically excluding money and any of the legal instruments possible in a money economy. But we do live in a money economy (as Keynes knew more profoundly than his predecessors and most of his successors), and our society would collapse if we tried to live without money.

In another passage Keynes gives “investment” a portmanteau definition that is misleading in a different respect. He writes, “In popular usage it is common to mean by [investment] the purchase of an asset, old or new, by an individual or a corporation. Occasionally, the term might be restricted to the purchase of an asset on the Stock Exchange ….” Again Keynes nods. A share of stock or a bond is not an investment in the same way that a machine purchased with the proceeds of that share or bond is an investment. The machine is a producer’s good; it makes other goods. The share or bond makes nothing; it is not an economic good at all, it is a legal asset.

Keynes had some fun writing about stock speculators who made (or lost) money guessing what other speculators were going to do, and he implied that the New York Stock Exchange is a casino (which it isn’t). Still, he had little trouble believing that the exchanges were reasonably efficient ways of evaluating business enterprises. Although he was pre-eminently the analyst of a money economy, he did not quite see that a bull market continues to rise only with continuing infusions of money that is thereby denied to the producing economy (or what he called the industrial circulation).

In short, the conclusion of his (and Kalecki’s) exercise should have been: Saving equals investment plus speculation.

THE CORRECTION is clearly necessary if the elements of the equation are to be quantified in terms of money. Once one has money, it is obvious that one can hide it under one’s mattress. Hidden money is certainly saved, and just as certainly it is not invested. Hoarding (which Keynes called liquidity preference) may be done for a great variety of reasons, but all of them amount to speculating that the future will be more propitious for investing or consuming than is the present.

More important than hoarding is the money that flows into a bull market. While that influx of money may be said to be “invested” in the market, it has only tangential effects on the enterprises whose shares are traded. Practically all the activity on every exchange is speculation, and most of it is in search of capital gains (see “Why Speculation Will Undo Reaganomics,” NL, September 7, 1981). Similarly, investing in land is frequently speculation. The saving for which the Japanese are famous is sunk in real estate to such an extent that you could buy all the land in the 50 United States for less than you would have to pay for the land of Japan (even though it is smaller than Montana).

The high price of real estate does not make Japan a better place to live, of course, or even a richer country. But it needs to be said that speculating doesn’t make any country a better place to live. And it is crucial to insist that saving equals investment plus speculation. Policies that are supposed to encourage saving, such as many advanced in the U.S. this past half century, are worse than useless when what is encouraged is speculation rather than investment.

The Block and Blecker papers underscore this point. They prove that we have not been on a consumption binge, and that we have not imprudently failed to save. Since our interest rate has unquestionably been too high for our industries, since we have unquestionably used money borrowed abroad to finance a large part of our deficits, since those deficits are unquestionably used to excuse our failures in education and medical care and the general welfare, we must now look beyond the false answers of high consumption and low saving to find the explanation not only for the current recession but for the shameful general performance of our economy.

I’ll give you a couple of hints. Try looking at (1) the increasing share of our income that is diverted to speculation, and (2) at the increasing polarization of our society.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published February 11, 1991

1991-2-11 Don't Bet On The Banks Title

I CAN’T THINK of a single good reason why the rest of the financial sector, led by the commercial banks, should not eventually follow the S&Ls to the woodshed. In a few cases the usual arguments about “the others” being more experienced or diversified may carry some weight, but in general their problems and those of the S&Ls have similar causes and will have similar consequences.

There is more than a trace of poetic justice here; the commercial banks lobbied hard for the deregulation that did in the S&Ls, and the same deregulation has returned to plague its champion.

Only 11 years ago, the states had usury laws that set the maximum interest rates for different loans. There were, of course, exceptions of various degrees of complexity, but the important point is that there were limits to what could be charged. The Federal Reserve Board set limits in the other direction, the most discussed being Regulation Q. To give the S&L’s a chance to survive, and to offset their being restricted essentially to home financing, Regulation Q allowed them to pay savings accounts a fraction of a point more than the commercial banks.

That system was a casualty of the Federal Reserve Board’s sensational and long-running battle with inflation (see “Who Killed the Savings and Loans?” NL, September 3, 1990). It took almost 30 years for the system to start to break down, and the collapse is not yet complete.

The reason for the long Untergang is the inherent stickiness of finance. In any 12months the nonfinancial sectors (public and private) make new borrowings equal to less than one-twelfth of their total indebtedness. The other eleven-twelfths includes 30-year mortgages still paying 4 per cent interest, 20-year Treasuries paying 15.75 per cent, credit card freaks paying 19.9 per cent, and all sorts of things in between.

With this big backlog (currently about $8.3 trillion), even very large shifts in the interest rate on new loans have only a lethargic effect on the nation’s overall interest rate. The overall rate was 9.55 per cent in 1979-when former Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker took well publicized command of the inflation battle-and reached 10.61 per cent a year later. As a result of Volcker’s policies, however, the average prime rate on new loans jumped from 12.67 per cent in 1979 to 15.27 per cent in 1980 and topped out at 21.5 per cent that December and the following January. Since what is comparatively slow going up is also comparatively slow coming down, the average interest rate is higher today than it was in 1980, although the prime is less than half its 1980 peak.

The stickiness of finance enabled the S&Ls and the commercial banks to withstand the surge of interest rates as long as they did. It is probable that the bankers (of all kinds) do not yet know what hit them; certainly the Federal Reserve Board (called the nation’s central bank by its present chairman, Alan Greenspan) does not know. So I’ll give them a hint. If they pay high interest to attract funds, they must charge high interest to cover their costs. And if businesses must pay high interest, they must charge high prices for their goods. At this point, the bubble gets very thin. Consumers do not have money to pay high prices, particularly if many have lost their jobs.

You can charge whatever amuses you for a book or a loaf of bread or a new broom to sweep things clean. Only the book or bread or broom business will be affected. But when you charge too much for the use of money (and it is the Federal Reserve Board that ultimately sets the rate), all businesses, all banks and insurance companies and “institutions,” and all men, women and children are affected.

The S&Ls were driven to the wall first, but the death march of the commercial banks is gathering momentum. Both S&Ls and commercial banks cheered when the state usury laws were suspended, and rushed to expand their real estate business. They are now suffering from a surfeit of residential condos, motor inns, office buildings, and shopping malls. The commercial banks greedily participated in the Great Recycling of OPEC’S profits and as a result will have to face up to their losses in the Third World. Many S&Ls and commercial banks have stuck themselves with junk bonds. How many will survive the recession?

Well, the Bush Administration proposes to help them by getting rid of two of the few remaining New Deal banking reforms. The most important of these keeps commercial banking separate from investment banking, insurance and especially ordinary business. The other restriction keeps commercial banks from branching out beyond a state’s borders.

In the cheery days of President Ronald Reagan, these regulations were anathema simply because they were regulations, and because, as some sports-minded journalist noticed, not one American bank ranked among the top 10 in the world. Even more shameful, most of the giant banks were Japanese. Once again it seemed that they knew something we didn’t know.

In the drearier economic days of President George Bush, less is said about the Japanese banks, for they have fallen on harder times. The index of leading stocks on the Japanese exchange fell 38.7 per cent in 1990, and the Japanese banks (this is one of the secrets of their size) have long positions in those stocks. They have long positions, too, in a rapidly falling real estate market, which they can speculate in (unlike American banks) as well as lend money on.

A few years ago, proposals to permit interstate Banking and to allow banks to own brokerage houses and insurance companies (and vice versa) would have caused a considerable hullabaloo. The large banks were in favor of changing everything; they wanted to get on that top 10 board with the Japanese. Likewise the big stock brokerage houses and insurance companies and all-in-one companies such as Sears, Roebuck. Smaller operators (except those who wanted to sell out for capital gains) preferred the existing conditions-although some would not have objected to dabbling in additional financial services, provided that other financial servers couldn’t dabble back.

Today, the Bush banking moves are not stirring much controversy. A professor of finance suggested recently in the New York Times that this is because they don’t go far enough, that there is nothing to shout about. But commercial banks are in trouble, and since the trouble is no longer confined to Texas and Oklahoma, there is little reason to expect greener pastures in other states. Nor is the solution to be found in putting them together with the problem plagued brokerage houses, insurance companies, pension funds, investment banks-and Sears, Roebuck. A couple of dozen such financial smorgasbords would likely result in a couple of dozen concentrated headaches, if not hemorrhages.

To be sure, the Administration promises to supervise the banks closely to prevent their making more bad loans. Does that mean they are not supervised closely now? Yes, it does. You see, supervision costs money, and you’ve heard about the deficit. Increased costs will have to be matched by increased taxes-in this case, Federal insurance fees. Higher insurance fees will mean lower interest on deposits, and that means money-market funds and Treasury bills will attract cash away from the banks. To keep their deposits, banks will have to pay higher interest, and to do that they’ll have to make more loans at high rates. Sound borrowers won’t pay high rates; so the banks will have to hunt for riskier deals (see “Big Is Ugly,” NL, September3, 1984). And that’s what got them where they are.

In short, interest rates aren’t innocent.  If you refuse to control them, you destabilize the financial sector-and the whole economy. If you manipulate them in a fallacious attempt to contain inflation, you bring on recession (See “Bankers Have the Classic COLA,” NL, January 9, 1989). And that’s what the Federal Reserve has done.

A GOOD DEAL of the trouble lies in the fact that few bankers understand how the capitalist system differs from the mercantilist system. In Legal Foundations of Capitalism (one of the neglected great books),

John R. Commons explains the shift from property as use-value to property as exchange value. This did not start in the United States until the first Minnesota Rate Case a century ago, and most bankers are still out of date. They remain mainly interested in fixed assets that can be attached, not in going concerns that generate cash flow and profits. Hence their fatal fascination with real estate and the idiotic recycling that transformed OPEC profits into loans that are in effect gifts of American money to rulers of Third World nations.

Willard Butcher, when he was chairman of Chase Manhattan, once delivered himself of a perfect example of bankerly thinking: “Is Mexico worth $85 billion?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course it is. It has oil, gold, silver, copper. … “All these assets are physical. You can touch them, and you can attach them. But they aren’t worth much if they can’t be sold at a profitable price, and when usurious interest rates are charged profitable prices are impossible.

On an arguably more modest level, I came up against this sort of thinking at another bank while I was in the publishing business. The bank examined our balance sheet and advised us that our inventory was too low. Did we have an unusually large number of titles out of stock? I asked. No, on that point our record was exceptionally good. Did we allow titles to go out of print too quickly? No, rather the contrary. Were we slow to fill orders? No, again. Our record here was the best the bank knew of. Did our practice of printing in relatively small quantities (this was before the Japanese made “just in time” inventory control famous) result in significantly higher unit costs? No, yet again.

You’d have to say that we were managing our inventory as well as anyone in publishing. Nevertheless, the bank insisted it was too low. The unspoken (or unrecognized) reason was that our low inventory meant we did not have much for the bank to attach if we got in trouble. It never crossed the bank’s mind that too much money tied up in inventory might get us in trouble, and that if we couldn’t sell the inventory profitably, the bank certainly would be unable to do so.

Commercial bankers aren’t the only people still living in a precapitalist world. Our financial system as a whole (S&Ls, banks, insurance companies, pension funds, “institutions” and supervisors) continues to be essentially mercantilist. Its ideal profit, like Bush’s, is a capital gain. In this understanding it is joined by mainstream economics, which analyzes business as a disconnected series of market-clearing ventures, not as a going concern. Until these two powerful sectors of our society are brought into the modern world, stagnation, punctuated by bankruptcies, is likely to be our lot.

 The New Leader

%d bloggers like this: