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By George P. Brockway, originally published March 6, 1989

1989-3-6 How We Can Control The Interest Rate Title

IN THREE recent contributions to this space[1] I have argued that the conventional theories of inflation are wrong-that it is not caused by full or almost-full employment, and that it is not cured by raising the interest rate. I have gone further: I have maintained that raising the interest rate (which I call the Bankers’ COLA) is precisely what produces inflation in the first place. A legitimate question now is: What do I propose we do?

Let it be admitted – nay, insisted – at the outset that there aren’t any easy answers. No matter how ingenious the laws we enact, we can be certain that ingenious ways of avoiding them will be discovered. Legal avoidance happens with even the most uncomplicated statutes. There is a book out on how to defend against a drunk-driving charge by a trial lawyer who has had thousands of such cases and never lost a one. The unremitting search for loopholes in the income tax laws is sporadically countered by searches for ways to close them. It will be the same with whatever we propose. Perfection is impossible, because perfection cannot act.

To control the interest rate – to eliminate the Bankers’ COLA – one must be able to control the money supply. The Federal Reserve Board tries to do that now (for reasons different from those I’ve advanced) by fiddling with the reserve requirements it imposes on the banks and with the interest it charges them for temporary loans. Using these levers, the Fed can control the supply pretty well; but the interest rate – the cost of money – depends also on demand, and there is one demand for money that the Fed has so far refused to do much more than talk about. Seven and a half years ago (“Why Speculation Will Undo Reaganomics,” NL, September 7, 1981), I wrote in these pages: “Unless one is ready to run the printing presses flat out, the only way to get money into productive hands is to see to it that little or none of it falls into speculative hands.”

Although there is probably no way of keeping speculators from getting their hands on money if they want to, it would be quite easy to keep them from wanting to. All one has to do (as Felix Rohatyn and others have suggested in order to inhibit leveraged buyouts) is tax capital gains at 100 per cent on property held less than a year or two, then at 95 per cent on property held less than two or three years, and so on until the rate got down to the level of ordinary income.  (This, it will be noticed, is exactly contrary to the proposal of our new President, but he has never been quite clear in his mind what was and what was not Voodoo Economics.)

The foregoing, however, earth shaking as it is, would not be enough. For the archetypical speculators of our day are not beefy gents in flashy suits on the order of Betcha-million Gates or even aristocratic gentlemen with narrow ties on the order of J.P. Morgan or even indescribables like Ivan Boesky. No, the big-time wheeler-dealers are “institutions,” and institutions are churches and colleges and foundations and pension funds and insurance companies and mutual funds. We might almost say with Pogo that we’ve met the enemy and they is us, for most of us are beneficial owners of pieces of one or more of the nameless, faceless institutions the market gossips gossip about.

These institutions, our surrogates, write the computer programs that run the market, and they do it for capital gains. Unless that candy is taken away from them, it will do little good to take it away from the old-time speculators who still exist. Consequently, we’ll have to take a deep breath and tax the capital gains even of charitable institutions. (I said it wasn’t going to be easy.) The demand of nonproducing speculators for money would thus be greatly reduced, if not altogether stopped, and the Reserve Board, by increasing the money supply, could lower the interest rate for everyone else and take a step toward eliminating the Bankers’ COLA.

But it would be only a step. The bankers would resist, and their line of argument would be practically identical with the one they used in freeing themselves from most of the New Deal regulation. They were, in fact, remarkably successful in getting Democrats to make their arguments for them, as William Greider documents at excellent length in Secrets of the Temple. For example, Wisconsin’s recently retired Senator William Proxmire “delivered a short lecture on inflation and interest rates. At 15 per cent inflation, an investor lending $1 million at 10 per cent ‘loses’ $50,000 a year. ‘You cannot count on the lender being a complete idiot,’ Proxmire said. Sooner or later, he will stop lending at the low interest rate and invest the money himself in commodities or real estate.”

Our capital gains tax would cancel the commodities option and could be made to cancel the real estate option, but suppose the Senator’s million-dollar lender is smart and doesn’t lend at all, thus saving that $50,000 “loss.” He would be like the unfaithful servant in the parable, for at the end of a year he would have only his million dollars, while his neighbor, who wasn’t so smart and lent his million at 10 per cent interest, would have $1,100,000. What happened to the $50,000 loss Senator Proxmire talked about? If there was anything more to it than fancy rhetoric, the 15 per cent inflation affected both investors. The one who refused to lend wound up with $850,000 worth of purchasing power, while his neighbor wound up with $950,000. A negative “real” interest rate, in apparent defiance of the laws of mathematics, proves to be greater than zero. Perhaps we can count on the lender not being a complete idiot.

Of course, the millionaires have other choices. They could take their money and invest it directly in productive enterprise, or they could live it up. The former option is what we had hoped they would do, anyhow; that’s why all the editorial writers in the land have been urging them to save. As for the latter option, they might find consuming a million a little difficult, but it would be fun to try, and the economic result would at least be some priming of the pump. Someone has to consume what the economy produces.

The fact remains, though, that both millionaires have taken a loss in purchasing power, and that deliberate, cold-blooded national policy has forced the loss upon them. That’s not nice, and it’s nothing we can be proud of. So what can we do? Well, all that the Fed and other true believers in traditional economics have proposed (and put into practice) is raising the interest rate, usually by restricting the money supply. That’s how former Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker got the prime interest rate up to 21.5 per cent in December 1980, while the Consumer Price Index was up only 13.5 per cent, leaving Senator Proxmire’s investor with “real” interest of 8 per cent, which should have made him happy. The funny thing was, it didn’t make others eager to become like him. The real interest rate was greater than the prime itself had ever been (with one exception) before 1978; nevertheless, the national savings rate fell, and in spite of the subsequent Reaganomic tax cuts for the wealthy, the savings rate continued to fall. Moderately reflective true believers should have had their beliefs shaken just a bit.

Moderately compassionate believers should have been severely shaken by what else happened. The number of people unemployed went from 6.1 million in 1979 to 10.7 million in 1983. In the same years, 9.2 million more people were impoverished, and the median family income (in constant dollars) fell $2,305. That was not so nice either, and it was brought about by deliberate, coldblooded national policy.

Nor was that the whole story. The Federal deficit soared, our foreign trade was savaged, and Latin America was saddled with loans at un-payable interest rates. And all this was done to keep the real interest rate from falling below zero.

IFTHAT WERE merely a trade-off – suffering a lot of grief and getting back a little stability – it would be bad enough, for what was exchanged was the livelihood and prospects of millions of fellow citizens for the” reality” of usurious interest rates. The economy was deliberately depressed to “save” it from the possibility – the mere possibility – of being depressed later. But the savings rate continued to fall, corporate investment continued to fall, and industry after industry was allowed to fall before the Germans and Japanese, the Koreans and the Taiwanese.

At this point Wall Street-wise types will explain that Volcker was concerned about more than Senator Proxmire’s millionaire; he was concerned about the Japanese. He needed their money to pay for the deficit, which was all of $40.2 billion in 1979 (or about a third of the Gramm-Rudman target President Bush is going to be unable to meet). If Volcker had not given the Japanese what they wanted, they wouldn’t have bought our bonds, and Proxmire’ s millionaire would have sent his money abroad. The argument, in short, is that any attempt to reduce the interest rate will cause a flight from the dollar, and that the flight cannot be stopped because the financial world is international, its denizens are multinational, and they communicate electronically, instantaneously and secretly.

That is almost true. Yet multinational corporations are taxed. Granted, some of them may not be above diddling their books a bit, and very likely the diddling is difficult to detect; but taxes are collected, and where taxes are collected money can be controlled. The fact that financial operatives set up shop in the Cayman Islands to escape inconvenient regulation indicates that a flight from the dollar has to be an actual flight; a pretended flight won’t do.

We could perhaps stop the flight if we wanted to, but it would be much easier to let the money go. It is merely marks on paper; the factories and even the computers remain. The time to do the stopping is when the money wants to come back. Under present law, the Treasury Department is responsible for control of foreign exchange. It could require those who want to bring money into the country to go to the Treasury to buy dollars and to satisfy any taxes and regulations they had been fleeing from. The flight would no longer be so attractive, or serve any purpose.

Would that be the end of the problem? Of course not. Still, the proper direction of policy is, I think, clear. To control inflation, the interest rate has got to be brought down – way down. To do this, money has to be withdrawn from speculation and made available to productive enterprise. Faced with inconvenient regulation, finance will flee the dollar. The flight can be controlled by controlling foreign exchange. Such control will certainly affect foreign trade; but only doctrinaire true believers in laissez faire will blanch at that, and doctrinaire laissez faire is what got us into the mess we’re in.

The New Leader

 

By George P. Brockway, originally published February 6, 1989

1989-2-6 The Truth About InflationTitle

1989-2-6 The Truth About Inflation Dollar Sign

THERE ARE supposed to be two kinds of inflation, cost-push and demand-pull.  A benevolent

Providence is supposed to have provided them with the same cure: raising the interest rate or – if you prefer to do things indirectly – restricting the money supply. Last time out (“Bankers Have the Classic COLA,”NL, January 9), we looked at the panacea macro-economically and came up with the heretical conclusion that it caused inflation, rather than cured it. This should have occasioned no surprise, since medicine is a lot older than economics, and it was not until about a hundred years ago that your odds were better if you consulted a doctor than if you didn’t. Neoclassical economics has about caught up with Paracelsus.

The interest-rate panacea is, nevertheless, so solidly fixed in everyone’s pharmacopoeia that we’d better look at it micro-economically to try to discover its supposed merits. I should confess, at the outset, though, that having once met a payroll, as they used to say, I can’t imagine how raising the interest rate is expected to inhibit or prevent businesses from raising prices in response to the increased cost.

Every business must have money, and it therefore has to consider the cost of money, which is interest, whether it is a borrower or not. If it needs to borrow, interest is obviously a cost of doing business. If it is cash rich and doesn’t need to borrow, interest is an opportunity cost. By investing in its own business, it passes up the opportunity of lending its money to someone else and thereby earning the going rate of interest without working; so unless its own business can earn at least that much, it’s not worth continuing.

Interest is thus an inescapable element in doing business, and hardly a trivial one. Moreover, raising the rate not only affects every business, it does so geometrically. An increase in the interest rate is continuously compounded; the push is to an upward slope that becomes steadily steeper. Consequently, if the problem is cost-push inflation, upping the rate makes it worse.

In contrast, an increase in the price of oil is a one-time affair: It pushes most costs (not all, but most) up to a higher plateau, because oil is essential for the contemporary economy. At any given moment – now, for example – a certain quantity of it is used in myriad ways. At another moment – tomorrow, for example – the price may be doubled, thus doubling the economy’s outlay for oil and of course the percentage of total costs devoted to it. Producers, faced with the new cost, will raise their prices. They could maintain their profits if they just covered the increased cost of oil. In all probability, however, they will have been brought up to set their prices as a percentage markup on costs, and workers will have been brought up to expect their wages to be a certain percentage of costs.

Whether or not the new prices are enough to restore the balance among the factors of industry, they pretty quick-1yr each a new level and settle down there. Some industries and companies and workers may make out better than others, especially in the short run, yet by and large business soon goes on about as before. Prices are somewhat higher, to the detriment of people living on fixed incomes and of people who have lent money-and to the benefit of people who have borrowed money. But there is no reason for prices to rise above the new plateau unless the interest rate is tampered with.

When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) made its successful moves, the Federal Reserve Board characteristically reacted in precisely the wrong way. OPEC raised costs for almost all businesses, and they now needed more money to continue. The Reserve Board perversely tightened the money supply, hiking the interest rate. I suppose they thought that by hurting business they would reduce the need for oil and OPEC would then be forced to lower the price. If so, they forgot that we had, as Art Buchwald wrote, encouraged the sheiks to send their sons to Harvard Business School rather than to Bowling Green State to learn basketball. At any rate, OPEC’S response was the standard one of a modem business faced with falling demand. Instead of cutting the price (as a neoclassical economist would have done), they cut production (as a modern businessman would do).

To be sure, the Reserve Board did manage to induce a recession, and that did, after eight years of trying, eventually result in an oil glut and lower oil prices. Just as in Vietnam some of our more thoughtful military leaders occasionally destroyed a village in order to save it, the Reserve Board caused massive unemployment, widespread bankruptcies, a growing Federal deficit, disaster in Latin America and the Third World, and a loss of much of our overseas business – all in the effort to control the price of oil. It was not a rational trade-off; and micro-economically the fact remains that raising the cost of any of the factors of production, of which interest is one, is not the way to inhibit cost-push inflation.

Demand-pull inflation is described by the popular cliché of too much money chasing too few goods. What is in the back of everyone’s mind is either an auction where millions of dollars are unexpectedly bid for a painting, or the hyperinflation that occurred in Weimar Germany, or the bread riots of pre-Revolutionary France. Briefly let us note that modern business is nothing like an auction, that hyperinflation occurs only when a nation has un-payable debts denominated in a foreign currency, and that the failure of the bread supply caused, not general inflation, but a deflation of all other prices as desperate people sold whatever they could at distress prices in order to pay for bread.

Putting to one side the probability that there is no such thing as demand pull inflation, we may doubt whether raising the interest rate will prevent too much money from chasing too few goods. A high interest rate no doubt chills the ardor of borrowers and thus may be thought to hold down the amount of money in circulation. Not all borrowers, however, are chilled equally. Speculators find high rates stimulating. Of course, money that goes into speculating doesn’t go into consuming; it chases paper, not goods; as far as consumption (or production, for that matter) is concerned, it might as well not exist.

Consumers, for reasons thought important by Professor Franco Modigliani and others, are said to try to maintain their accustomed or desired standard of living. They will shoulder heavy debts at usurious rates to do so. Hence their readiness to assume mortgages at more than double the maximum legal interest rate of a few years ago; hence the cavalier expansion of credit-card borrowing; and hence the failure of high interest rates to impede the chase for goods. In fact, because high interest rates have proved acceptable to consumers, the consumer loan business, once left to frowned-upon outsiders, has become attractive to banks-with the paradoxical probability that high rates have resulted in more money chasing goods, not less.

The famed bottom line, on the other hand, forces a more circumspect demeanor on businesses; few of them find it profitable to expand when the cost of financing is well up in the double-digit range. Many find it impossible to go on (right now, in this supposedly prosperous time, corporations are going bankrupt at a greater rate than at any time since the Great Depression). So high interest rates, while having only a minor effect on demand, have a major effect on supply. Whether or not there is more money in the chase, there are fewer goods in the running. To put it more generally, there are fewer goods than there might have been otherwise.

OUR HALF-CENTURY-LONG preoccupation with inflation is a sign of a profound confusion of American-even of global mind and will. Since World War II, inflation has been regarded as a pandemic disease, and a panacea has been sought. But social ills are specific, not universal, and corrective policies must be similarly specific.

If inflation were all prices going up together, a few people would be befuddled, but no one would be hurt much. As early as David Hume it was recognized that moderately rising prices stimulate the vital juices of entrepreneurs. As recently as the current “prosperity” it has been evident that business can readily accommodate itself to pretty steep inflation if it is fairly steady.

The trouble is that even moderately rising prices can be devastating to people living on fixed incomes, because they have no way of protecting themselves. This is a specific ill (there are others). Specific treatments are available, and some of them have been successfully applied. In 1966 Medicare began to protect the aged from one of the most crushing burdens of old age, and at the same time to provide millions with health care that otherwise would have been denied them. Since 1972 the Social Security COLAS have done much to prevent many of the retired from falling into poverty.

Some now say that the aged have it too good. This is a dubious proposition, but it is not to the point. The point is that the mentioned policies have had an effect. A specific ill was perceived, a specific treatment was devised, specific cures were effected, the cures may be judged, and specific improvements in them can be made. In contrast, the conventional theory of inflation that regards it as a pandemic ailment can propose only the panacea of a growing underclass of the chronically unemployed, and a narrowing overclass of those who have been able to make the Bankers’ COLA work for them.

Because interest payments are made pursuant to contract and continue years, often decades, into the future, the heavy hand of the Bankers’ COLA will be upon us, no matter what we do, for years to come. In the meantime our urgent task is to free ourselves, our politicians and our bankers from thralldom to the most dismal view of this dismal science.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 9, 1989[1]

1989-1-9 Bankers Have The Classic Cola Title

IN “The Fear of Full Employment” (NL, October 31, ’88) we examined some of the fallacies behind the almost universally held doctrine that full employment makes for high inflation. This time we’ll look at another almost universally held doctrine, namely that raising the interest rate is the cure for whatever inflation exists. An astonishing thing about the latter doctrine is that no one bothers to say why it should work. The New York Times, which never mentions the prime interest rate without pedantically explaining that it is the rate banks charge their most credit-worthy borrowers, regularly reports without question that if the Consumer Price Index (CPI) starts to rise, the Federal Reserve Board will have to raise the interest rate.

Economists divide what they call the nominal or “money” interest rate (which is what you pay) into two parts: “real” interest (what they think you’d pay if the economy were in equilibrium) and an allowance for inflation. The allowance for inflation is what in other sectors of the economy is called a Cost of Living Adjustment, or COLA. People with money to spare are said to be enticed into lending by the prospect of getting back their money at a stated time with stated interest. What they want back is not the money, but the money’s purchasing power; and in inflationary times the only way to get back the same purchasing power is to get back more money. Hence the Bankers’ COLA.

Of course, bankers don’t call it a COLA. They have, in fact, been unremitting in propagandizing the notion that COLAS are bad and greedy and inflationary and likely to cause the downfall of the Republic. The COLAS bankers talk about are those that appear (or used to) in labor contracts, where they are manifestly an increased cost of doing business for companies with such contracts, and those that appear in Social Security and other pension payments, where they are manifestly an increased cost of running the government. (Another COLA, seldom mentioned, is the indexing of the income tax.) Since increased costs of doing business increase prices, and increased costs of running the government increase taxes (or the deficit), it is argued with some reason that COLAS are inflationary.

The propaganda against them (coupled with high unemployment and underemployment) has pretty well knocked cost-of-living clauses out of labor contracts. The Social Security COLAS are somewhat more secure because there are more worried senior citizens than alert union members. Even so, the steady cacophony from Peter Peterson and other investment bankers (when they take time off from promoting leveraged buyouts, which they evidently don’t think inflationary) has put the American Association of Retired Persons on the defensive. The Bankers’ COLA, however, is accepted as a natural law and discussed matter-of-factly in the textbooks, while the others are deplored as the work of greedy special interests out to line their own pockets at the expense of the nation and its God-fearing citizens.

One way of stating the Banker’s COLA is that it is the difference between the interest rate now and that of some earlier, less inflationary time. The prime rate at the moment is 10.5 per cent, and may have gone higher by the time this appears. In the 4O-oddyears since the end of WorId War II, there is one stretch, from 1959 through 1965, when the CPI and the prime were both substantially stable. In those seven years the CPI varied from 0.8 per cent to 1.7 per cent, and the prime from 4.48 per cent to 4.82 per cent. (Readers with a political turn of mind will note that the Presidents in this period were a Republican and two Democrats- Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.). The Bankers’ COLA was evidently no more than 1.7 in those years, and the “real” interest rate was somewhere between 3.5 per cent and 4.5 per cent.

Let’s accept the higher figure, even though it is substantially higher than, for example, the rate in the years when the foundations of the modern economy were laid. Subtracting 4.5 per cent “real” interest from the current prime, we determine that the current Bankers’ COLA is, conservatively, 6 per cent.

But only about a tenth of outstanding loans were written in the past year, and many go back 25-30 years. Over the past 10 years the CPI has increased an average of 6.01 per cent a year. That is remarkably (and coincidentally) close to our estimate of the current Bankers’ COLA.  The average gets higher as we go back 15 and 20 years, and falls slightly if we go back 25 years. Consequently if the Bankers’ COLA has been doing what it’s supposed to do, we are not overstating the case in saying that today it is running at about 6 per cent.

Now, the present outstanding debt of domestic  non-financial sectors is about $8,300 billion. This figure includes everything from the Federal debt to the charge you got hit with when you didn’t pay your bank’s credit card on time; excluded are the debts banks owe each other and, for some reason, charges on your nonbank credit card. The cost of the Bankers’ COLA for this year therefore comes to about $498 billion (6 per cent of $8,300 billion).

As the late Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen would have said, we’re talking about real money. Let’s try to put it in perspective. At the moment the CPI is said to be about 4.5 per cent (less, you will have noticed, than the Bankers’ COLA, because bankers expect inflation to get worse). Since the GNP is currently about $4,500 billion, inflation is currently costing us 4.5 per cent of that, or $202.5 billion. The Bankers’ COLA is thus costing us almost two and a half times as much as the inflation it is claimed to offset.

So we come to Brockway’s Law No. 1: Given the fact that outstanding indebtedness is greater than GNP (as is always the case, in good years and bad), the Bankers’ COLA costs more than the total cost of inflation, at whatever rate.

Another comparison: The Bankers’ COLA costs close to three times as much as the Federal deficit the bankers moan about. (If there were no Bankers’ COLA, we’d be running a surplus, not a deficit.)

Also: The Bankers’ COLA costs many times more than all the other COLAS put together, and about 50 times – repeat 50 times – more than the Social Security COLA that so exercises investment banker Peter Peterson. (If there were no Bankers’ COLA, none of the other COLAS would exist, because the cost of living would not be going up.)

Also: The Bankers’ COLA costs more than giving every working man and woman in the land, from part-time office boy to CEO, a 10 per cent raise. (So much for the fear of full employment.)

SINCE THE Bankers’ COLA costs the economy more than inflation does, without it there would in effect be no inflation. Other things being equal, there would actually be deflation. And of course very great changes would follow if so large a factor as the Bankers’ COLA were eliminated. Reducing the interest rate to its “real” level would quickly and powerfully stimulate investment in productive enterprise, with a consequent growth in employment. It would trigger a one-time surge in the stock and bond markets, followed by a gradual tapering off of speculation.

1989-1-9 Bankers Have The Classic Cola Factory

As matters stand now, the Bankers’ COLA is an incubus of terrible weight depressing the economy. That this is so is revealed by the statistics whose subject is people rather than things. The standard of living of the median family is falling, even with two earners per family much more common than formerly. The number of people living in poverty is growing, and within that group the number of those who work full time yet are poverty stricken is growing still faster. The rate of unemployment – even counting part-timers as fully employed, and not counting at all those too discouraged to keep looking for work – would have been shocking a few years ago. These are signs of recession, of bad times.

The interest cost is the only one that has a general effect on the economy. We used to hear a lot about the wage price spiral, but a wage increase in the automobile industry (for many years the pundits’ whipping boy) works its way through the economy slowly and uncertainly. Initially it affects only the price of automobiles, and it never brings about a uniform wage scale. Wages of grocery clerks remain low, and all wages in Mississippi remain low. A boost in the prime rate of a prominent bank, on the other hand, immediately affects the rates charged by every bank in the country; and while it is possible for borrowers to shop around a bit for a loan, they find that rates vary within a very narrow range.

More important, interest costs affect all prices, because all businesses must have money, even if they don’t have to borrow it, and the cost of money is interest.

Vastly more important, the Bankers’ COLA is a forecast, a prediction, a prophecy. The figures we have been working with are from the past, but bankers – including, especially, those who make up the Federal Reserve Board – set rates that will have to be paid decades into the future. Well into the 21st century, for instance, we will be paying up to 15.75 per cent interest on a trillion dollars’ worth of Treasury bonds sold in the wonder-working days of former Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker.

So we come to Brockway’s Law No. 2: Raising the interest rate doesn’t cure inflation; it causes it.

The New Leader

[1] Editor’s Note:  For those who are too young or forget the Coca Cola company came out with the “New Coke” in 1985, and it bombed.  Under-duress they kept the New Coke on the market, for a while, and re-issued the product people wanted to buy as Coca-Cola Classic, or the “Classic Cola.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca_Cola_Classic. Thus the gentle wit of the title of this article.

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 31, 1988

1988-10-31 The Fear of Full Employment title

The other day a friend sent me a clipping from the morning paper. My friend is a poet, whom I occasionally charge with deliberate obfuscation, and she was, she said, getting some of her own back. “What gives?” she asked, showing she can use ordinary speech when she wants to. “Who’s obfuscating now?”

The clipping she sent me read as follows: “Economists have become more pessimistic in recent days because the most recent batch of economic statistics, including yesterday’s strong employment report, suggests that the economy may be picking up steam and may overheat.” This was, of course, a run-of-the-mill news note of the sort we have all read many times, and I wondered why it was bothering my friend. I gave her a ring. “Surely your Webster or OED has all the words,” I remarked cuttingly, and only a couple of them have more than three syllables.”

“Yes,” she replied, “and many of my poems are made up of even shorter words. What I’d like to know is, what kinds of idiots are made pessimistic by an economy’s picking up steam? If it’s in danger of overheating, why not put more water in the boiler? I know you economists are even more devoted to metaphors than we poets are, but I thought you were all enamored of the one about a rising tide lifting all boats.”

“Don’t look at me,” I objected. “I’m not one of ‘you economists’. The pessimists of your clipping know that if business gets really good the Federal Reserve Board will get nervous about inflation and raise the interest rate, and that lowers the capitalized value of all stocks and bonds.”

“You mean, if I invest my royalties in a hundred-dollar bond that pays five dollars a year, and if the interest rate goes up to 10 percent, then my bond will be worth only fifty dollars?”

“I don’t know how a poet gets a hundred dollars in royalties,” I said, “but you’re absolutely right.”

“Eureka!” she cried. “I’ve outdone Archimedes! There’s no way the stock market can go up.”

“Keep your shirt on,” I advised.

But she paid no attention. “If business is bad,” she said, “poor earnings will send stock prices down. And if business is good, higher interest rates will send the market down. Why hasn’t anyone discovered this before? If you sell short, you can’t lose. Please give me the name of a good discount broker. I sincerely want to be rich.”

It’s a shame that my friend is merely one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world. We could use some of her guileful questioning in high places, and particularly in regard to the received doctrine that high employment makes for high inflation. Practically all economists, businessmen, bankers, politicians, and journalists are united in endorsement of this doctrine. Their unanimity is very curious – first, because few, if any, other economics propositions command such universal assent; second, because it is among the most unequivocally dismal notions in all this dismal science; and third, because there is no evidence whatever to support it. I don’t mean that no evidence is offered; I mean that the evidence offered is false or irrelevant or both.

If the proposition weren’t so dismal, it wouldn’t be worth troubling about. But look at what it means: It assumes that inflation is the worst economic misfortune that could befall us, and it asserts that in order to avoid – or simply to control – inflation, we must prevent several million people from having jobs. Even if all these millions were fully qualified and fully motivated, given the inexorable working of the system, they would still be unemployable.

Let’s think about that for a minute. It is the practically unanimous opinion of everyone who talks about the subject that our system, of which we are told to be so proud, must condemn upwards of seven million people to lives of undeserved squalor, uselessness, and hopelessness. Of course, that adds up to fifteen or twenty million men, women, and children when you count their dependents.

If I believed that our system were inevitably, necessarily, and indeed systematically that cruel, I’d be on the barricades in a minute – and I like to think I would be joined by you and by most of those who thoughtlessly repeat the dismal doctrine. My God, they’re talking about fellow human beings!

I don’t believe our system has to be that cruel. It is that cruel, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re given to understand that right now, with inflation running at about 3-5 percent and unemployment at about 6-5 percent, things are perhaps actually a little better than can be expected. Certainly our leaders consider them so good that they seem able to congratulate themselves without embarrassment.

Well, consulting Economic Report of the President[1] I find that since World War II there have been thirty-four years in which unemployment was at a lower rate, twenty-one years with lower inflation, and no fewer than twenty years where both inflation and unemployment were lower. Not only that, but in the year of lowest unemployment, inflation was lower than in all except four of the forty-odd years in question. In the year of highest inflation, unemployment was higher than in seven of the years. These figures certainly do not support the doctrine.

That may be said to be the small picture. A bigger picture is presented by the runaway inflations of our time that are regularly flashed on the screen to scare us into doing something drastic about inflation now, before we all have to get wheelbarrows to carry our worthless money to market to buy a loaf of black bread.

Besides the Weimar Republic runaway, the prime examples are Hungary after World War II and Brazil recently. If the doctrine were sound, those countries would have had full employment and overheated economies to start their runaways. Exactly the contrary, though, was the case. Each one suffered from appalling unemployment, and Brazil still does, without in any way impeding or controlling the inflation. These examples do not support the doctrine, either.

To complete the empirical record, we may note that today, of all industrialized nations, Japan has the second lowest unemployment and the lowest inflation. In short, there is no relevant evidence reliably connecting high inflation and full employment. We have not, after all, ever had full employment except in wartime, when inflation of civilian prices is to be expected because civilian production is necessarily curtailed. On the other hand, we have many times had inflation in peacetime, and we have perversely tried to control it by raising the interest rate in order to curtail production.

My poet friend asked me why, if the unemployed had jobs, they couldn’t produce goods at least equal in value to their wages. I couldn’t think why. “Then there wouldn’t be more money chasing fewer goods, would there?” she asked. “So why isn’t full employment the cure for inflation?”

Well, why isn’t it?

The New Leader


[1] The basis for this post is the re-print in the book “Economics Can Be Bad For Your Health” and the author updated the data to use the 1994 Economic Report.  The original was written in 1988. The points still hold.

By George P. Brockway, originally published June 1, 1987

1987-6-1 Vale, Volker Title

1987-6-1 Vale, Volker Greenspan

A COUPLE OF years ago, Mayor Edward I. Koch was asked who was responsible for pulling New York City back from the brink of bankruptcy. In one of his formerly frequent bright moments, he replied. “Well, I suppose someone has to get the credit, and it might as well be me.”

It is worth remembering that New York had been pushed to the brink by Walter B. Wriston’ s Citibank, David Rockefeller’s Chase, Donald T. Regan’s Merrill Lynch, and the rest, because in their self-advertised wisdom they thought it safer to lend our money to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Well, I suppose someone should get the credit for the mess our banks and the debtor nations are in, and it might as well be them.

But they don’t deserve all the credit. They should share it with Paul A. Volcker, for they couldn’t have raised the interest rate to usurious heights without his help. That may not be a nice thing to say about a man who is now retiring from government after many years of undoubtedly self-sacrificing service. Unhappily; I have some even less nice things to say. I say them not only in sorrow but also in anger, because people have been hurt-have had their lives ruined-by the lordly mistakes of this big man, and because his smaller successor as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, is apparently ready to keep making most of the same mistakes (besides, when the wind is north-northwest, declaring his devotion to Ayn Rand and longing for the gold standard).

Let’s briefly examine the Volcker record in five areas- (1) inflation, (2) general welfare, (3) economic output, (4) foreign trade, and (5) the deficit and then look more closely at his underlying theory. Volcker is admittedly not single-handedly responsible for the bad things-or the good things, if any-that can be pointed to in each case. He had a lot of help from Ronald Reagan, from legions of people who were sure they were doing what the President would have wanted had he been paying attention, and -yes- from you and me. Nevertheless, even if Paul VoIcker wasn’t, as the commentators liked to say, the second most powerful man in the world, he is, as they also say, a legend in his own time. It’s really what he stands for that I will [be] talking about.

1. Inflation. There is no doubt that VoIcker’s present fame is based on his claim to have been the tamer of the inflation dragon. He took office at the Fed in October 1979 and immediately began his attack. What really happened? From that December through December 1986, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 51.06 per cent in constant dollars. In comparison, the increase from 1972 through 1979 was considerably greater, 73.50 per cent, but from 1964 through 1972 it was considerably less, 34.88 per cent. And if we go back to the bad old days of Harry S. Truman, we find that the increase from 1948 (following the jump when wartime controls were suddenly ended) through 1952 was only 10.26 per cent. On the record, VoIcker, the great inflation tamer, turns out not to have been all that great.

2. General Welfare. VoIcker never made a secret of the fact that his program was going to hurt. That may have been, as Ring Lardner would have said, one of its charms. Again using constant dollars, we find that from 1964 through 1972 the median family income increased 25.46 per cent; from 1972 through 1979 it increased 1.56 per cent; but in the VoIcker years, from 1979 through 1985 (the latest Economic Report of the President doesn’t have 1986 figures for this), the median income fell 4.56 per cent. Given that more families had multiple wage earners in 1985 than earlier, the drop in family income was even steeper.

The fate of the poor was much more dramatic. The number of our fellow Americans living in poverty actually declined 32.13 per cent from 1964 through 1972; it held unchanged from 1972 through 1979; but it jumped 26.81 per cent in the Volcker years.

On October 19, 1979, shortly after taking office, Volcker proclaimed, “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.” He made it happen.

3. Economic Output. Volcker’s rationale for hurting people was that inflation would thus be controlled, and the rationale for controlling inflation was that prosperity depended on it. As we have seen, inflation was only slightly restrained; perhaps it will be said that is why the recovery has been so lackluster.

The GNP rose (in constant dollars) 32.19 per cent from 1960 through 1972; 22.38 percent from 1972 through 1979; and only 12.30 per cent in the Volcker years. Since the working-age population increased 8.19 per cent in the last period, and more people produce and consume more goods, the Volcker recovery has been overpraised.

4. Foreign Trade. Everyone knows that our recent performance in foreign trade has been abysmal. If the monthly deficit on current accounts falls a point or two, it is hailed as a triumph. Everyone knows, too, that the strong dollar of recent years has made it difficult for American industry to compete either at home or abroad. What few remember, however, is that the strong dollar was a deliberate objective of Volcker’s policy, announced as early as October 17, 1979. It was supposed to stabilize international trade, and it sure made it fun to travel in Europe and to buy Volvos and Mazdas and madras shirts in the U.S. All this naturally contributed to the trade deficit and put Americans out of work. It also made it easier to sell American bonds-not goods but bonds-abroad. Volcker wanted the strong dollar because it made it easier to finance the American deficit-again a way to achieve a questionable result by imposing unquestionable hardship on millions of people.

5. The Deficit. The deficit question is a phony, and so is the problem of financing it; and I don’t mean merely that it wouldn’t have seemed important if it hadn’t been for the Kemp- Roth tax cuts. Volcker certainly isn’t to blame for those. He is to blame, though, for crying wolf over the deficit.

There are a few ways a national debt is like a personal debt, and one of them is that the amount of debt a nation can bear is a function of its income. Poor people and poor countries have trouble with small debts; rich people and rich countries can carry big debts. The United States’ debt is always thought enormous by knee-jerk conservatives; this was one of Reagan’s arguments against Jimmy Carter. In 1979 the Federal debt held by the public (some of it, of course, is held by government agencies, mainly Social Security) was 26.33 per cent of GNP. That was one of the lowest ratios in years, but Reagan promised to wipe it out and Volcker strengthened the dollar to help him. By 1986 the debt had risen to 41.94 per cent of GNP. This is a lot hairier than the 1979 animal, but even so it’s not a real wolf.

For something like a real wolf, we can go back to 1946, the last year of World War II, when the Federal debt held by the public was 113.62 per cent of GNP. If there is validity to the notion that a high debt/GNP ratio induces or requires a high interest rate, the 1946 rate should have been wild. Yet in that year, three-month Treasury bills paid all of three-eighths of 1 per cent, and the prime was 1.5 per cent.

Now consider this: During the Volcker years the Federal debt held by the public increased by $1,102 billion, and the interest paid on that debt amounted to $844 billion. Suppose the 1946 rate had been paid instead of the Volcker rate. The interest bill would have been reduced by about $812 billion, while the debt itself would have increased only $290 billion. At the same time, the debt/GNP ratio would have fallen to 2.46 per cent-hardly anything to get excited about (except as probably too low), and certainly below the urgent need for foreigners to invest in our bonds.

It comes down to this: Volcker allowed interest rates to soar, partly to reduce the average American’s standard of living, and partly to encourage foreign investment in government bonds. He was successful on both counts. But if the rates had been lower, the deficit would have been minuscule, and the foreign investors wouldn’t have been needed. High interest rates simply gave a lot of money to rich foreigners-and to rich Americans, too.

I HAVE ALREADY said that Volcker’s attack on the inflation dragon was not outstanding. I now make the heretical claim that his maneuvers with the interest rates indeed caused inflation to be greater than it might have been.

First, let me make a minor observation. The inflation rate is not a figure you read off an instrument, like barometric pressure. It is a statistical construction, and one of its factors is the interest rate.  Consequently, interest rates and inflation rates have a tendency to go up and down together. This is an arbitrary and possibly small effect, and one that could be eliminated by slight pressure on a computer key; nonetheless, it stands as a real fact in the real world.

Second, let me make the much more important observation that speculation is vastly stimulated by volatile interest rates. Volcker says that if the strong dollar weren’t available to bring in foreign money, Federal borrowing would crowd producers out of the money market. But speculation can always crowd out production, and that is what Volcker’s policy has encouraged.

There is a still more serious effect than either of these. If you are running a business and your friendly banker says he wants 20 per cent to renew your 10 per cent loan, your first defense is to increase your prices. Moreover, the loan isn’t the only thing that bothers you, because what economists call the “opportunity cost” of the money you and others have invested in your business increases as well. That is, whoever invests in your business passes up the opportunity to make easy money by being a lender rather than a borrower; so you have to raise prices to take care of that, too, and keep your colleagues from wanting to sell out.

A significant aspect of these increases is that they are percentages. What’s more, similar percentage increases are being made by everyone who supplies you with raw materials or rents you office space or provides shipping services for you. Every company below you in the production chain is adding a percentage to its prices, and you add your percentage on top of their inflated prices, and the companies above you in the chain do the same. The result is that, as Adam Smith observed in a little-noticed passage, prices are increased geometrically, whereas a wage increases pushes up prices only arithmetically.

The immediate impact of an increase in interest rates, therefore, is an increase in inflation. Of course, the intended decrease in the level of business follows sooner or later (it took Volcker almost three years to get things down to where he wanted them). Sooner or later, people can’t afford the new prices. Businesses can’t sell as much as they used to. Workers get laid off. Unions get afraid to strike. Wages are held down, and so price increases can be relaxed. This is what Volcker frankly worked for. But true to Adam Smith, we see that when wages go down (empirically, when any cost-including interest-goes down), prices fall only arithmetically; and if interest rates remain high, the net pressure on prices will continue to be upward.

Even a very severe depression (and Volcker made us one) will at best slow inflation; it will not stop it as long as interest rates remain high.

Volcker’s announced policy was to control the money supply (Ml) and let the interest rate take care of itself.

1987-6-1 Vale, Volker Table

His theory was that a controlled money supply would raise the interest rate, and that a drop in the inflation rate would take place. He was never able to keep M1 growth within the guidelines advocated by Milton Friedman. It’s just as well.

As the table above shows, in 1981 a minor fall in Ml growth (one of only two such occurrences in Volcker’s career) was accompanied, not by a rise, but by the second largest fall in the prime rate, and followed by the largest fall in the CPI. On the other hand, in 1985 the biggest jump in Ml was accompanied by a substantial fall in the prime and followed by the most dramatic fall in the CPI. In general, the figures in the table can be made to support Volcker’s theory only by appeals to “lags” and “anticipations” and other statistical gyrations of the sort J .B. Rhine used to “prove” extrasensory perception. For true believers in the Volcker magic, when 1980’s slight tightening of the money supply was followed by a slightly lower inflation rate, that “proved” the theory. But when 1984’s greater tightening was followed by an increased inflation rate, that “proved” businessmen had expected the tightening and had moved to offset it. Either way, Volcker’s theory was a winner. But such pseudo-logic can equally “prove” the opposite.

In short, there is no way on earth to construct a valid correlation of changes in the money supply, interest rates and inflation rates that will support Volcker’s theory of what he was doing. And there is no way on earth to deny that what he did reduced the standard of living of average Americans and forced millions more into poverty. The theory that I (and Adam Smith) have advanced (for a somewhat fuller exposition, see my note in the Winter 1986-87 Journal of Post Keynesian Economics) goes at least part way in showing why Volcker’s theory was wrong.

A case can be made for many Volcker virtues, especially in impeding somewhat the rush to deregulate banking. But the false legend of big Paul Volcker and the dragon is one that shouldn’t be told to children-or to grown-ups, either.

The New Leader

Originally published September 7, 1981

Thinking Aloud

WHY
SPECULATION
WILL UNDO
REAGANOMICS

IF YOU’VE GOT some money and want to use it to get more, there are three quite different things you can do: You can gamble, you can speculate, or you can invest. Since all three are ways of getting rich – or of going broke – your choice may not make much difference to you. But it will make an enormous difference to the economy, especially in a period of inflation. Perhaps because the choice is immaterial to the person with money, the effect on the economy is not generally noticed, with devastating consequences.

Speculation – what we’re mostly going to be concerned about here – has long had a bad name with the man in the street. Speculators, whether in Continental scrip or Civil War greenbacks, in city lots or rolling farm land, in domestic silver or imported coffee, have traditionally excited the envy or the hatred of their fellow citizens. In everyday speech speculation falls somewhere between gambling and investing; its connotations are disapproving. Although not quite so reprehensible as gambling, it is still suggestive of something secured for nothing, generally at an undue or unsafe or unsound or even unsocial risk. Brokers warn against speculative stocks, and the courts consider it imprudent to risk widows’ and orphans’ pittances on such issues. A successful speculator is a standing reproach to anyone who works for a living.

Most academics, however, disapprove of disapproving holding it to be unscientific, and possibly for this reason you can read many standard introductions to economics without ever encountering the word “speculation.” Hard-headed bankers and publicists ‘and – more to the point – hard-headed lawmakers tend to follow ‘the textbooks’ lead and ignore the activity. This neglect has helped to skew the economy and, in the present state of the world to frustrate many well intentioned measures to control inflation. For speculation is real enough, and there is reason to believe it is as much a cause as a result of inflation. To see why, we must distinguish among the three roads to riches. Our distinctions are not idle; they are of the utmost importance for the understanding and management of the economy-and, I am sorry to say, they are original.

Gambling is risking wealth in a zero-sum game. In any gamble-betting on cards or horses or football games- if some players win, some other players must lose the same amount. The winnings and the losings (after properly allocating taxes and the house’s cut) add up to zero. Nothing has been accomplished.

Speculation differs significantly from gambling in that it is not a zero-sum game. Speculation is risking wealth in an activity where all the players can win, or all can lose, or some can win and some can lose. It involves the buying and selling of stocks and other claims to wealth, the attempt to profit from or hedge against the vagaries of the market, the merging and spinning off of businesses, occasionally the churning of exchanges, the hoarding and dumping of almost anything imaginable. It creates no wealth but rearranges – sometimes to the very great profit of the re-arranger – wealth that already exists. It has been argued that, in the aggregate and over time, what goes up must come down and therefore speculation is a zero-sum game, too. But the speculative run is parallel, if not identical, with the inflationary run. If speculation were an irrelevant zero-sum game, inflation would likewise be nothing to fuss about: the two would rise and fall (assuming they do) together.

Investing is akin to speculation in that it is not a zero-sum game. In a healthy economy it is possible for all reasonably astute producers to profit, at least to-a degree, and contrary to current thinking this is true whether or not resources are limited. Investing differs from speculating in that it uses wealth to create new wealth. Its aim is the production and distribution of goods and services. These may be new kinds of goods and services, or they may be more of the same; they may be produced in new ways or in the good old ways; they may be provided by new businesses or by expansions of existing businesses; they may be what your heart desires or what you scorn as shoddy. The point is, economically they are goods.

Gambling, speculating and investing are frequently distinguished, notably by laymen and lawyers, on the basis of risk. Yet all three are risky. (To paraphrase President Kennedy, life is risky.) Nor is there any correlation between risk and economic effect. In gambling, the odds are often known with mathematical precision; that is ‘what makes casino owners rich. In speculating, one can command the services of brokers and advisers who spin out their lives poring over charts and tables. Investing, On the other hand, can be very risky indeed; despite meticulous market research, a highly promising new product may turn out to be an Edsel.

Economists, being locked into their equilibrium models; generally confuse the issues in another way. Gambling, it is obvious to them, has no impact on the economy, except to the problematic extent that it distracts people from more productive endeavors. What one wins, another loses, and the GNP remains as before. I n a world enjoying relative equilibrium, speculation seems no different. Commenting on John Maynard Keynes‘ ultimate disapproval of speculation (after he had made a small fortune buying and selling foreign currencies), Roy Harrod gives us the classical view: “As regards the gains of the successful speculator, in the case of foreign exchanges, this was solely at the expense of the unsuccessful, who, since he has voluntarily incurred the risk, had no legitimate hardship if the risk went wrong. In the case of commodities, the same argument largely applied: what speculator A gained, speculator B lost….”

That is a fair enough description of what happens-provided the-economy is in equilibrium. But suppose the economy is not in equilibrium, or even close to it. Suppose, indeed, that inflation is, as they say, raging: 4 per cent a year, 5, 8, double-digit, 12 per cent-with no end in sight. What does speculation look like now? Most important for our purposes, it no longer looks even vaguely like a zero-sum game. With a little bit of luck almost any of the speculators can win. There need be no losers among those who play the game. Some may, to be sure, gain more than others. I may sell my pot of gold just before it makes a great leap forward, but even the more sluggish hog-belly futures that I then buy are also on their way up.

IN SUCH a situation only the timid or foolish (or impoverished) will forgo the fun. The brash and clever and rich will, moreover, recognize that in inflationary times the thing to do is speculate: in common stocks of companies that (like Conoco) have substantial holdings of natural resources, in commodities, condominiums, works of art, objets d’art, collectibles. Almost anything can be a collectible. One of G. Gordon Liddy’s regrets was that he felt obliged to shred his match-folder collection lest it reveal to the Watergate investigators the many motels he had stayed at as he careened down the sub rosa way.

Keynes devoted 10 pages of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money to an attempt at differentiating between short-term speculation (which he saw as the pervading vice of Wall Street) and long-term “investment” by a “professional” who makes a point of understanding the businesses whose securities he buys and “who most promotes the public interest.” Yet except as one has a pseudo-esthetic preference for steadiness over flashiness, it is hard to see the differentiation. Even Keynes acknowledges that the lucky or clever speculator may make larger sums than his more careful cousin. And it does not matter to the companies whose securities are traded. After the first sale to the public, the buying and selling of their shares does them no good, and ordinarily no harm, either. Surely they don’t care how intelligent or stupid the buyers and sellers may be.

Corporation executives do of course take an intense interest in the vicissitudes of their companies’ stocks. Partly this is because they may own some, or have options that are worth more as the stock goes up; partly it is because their present salaries, and prospective salaries elsewhere, are dependent upon their success in making money for the speculative investors who play the market. In certain instances their companies may want to attract additional funds for some purpose or other-even including the expansion of production, although this is not very likely in inflationary times.

One of today’s common misapprehensions is that the securities and commodities exchanges are engaged in supplying capital to those who produce goods and offer services. No doubt the exchanges once did actually encourage the investment of funds that might otherwise have lain hidden in mattresses because of their owners’ liquidity preference. But that day is long past. The value of all new stock issues (many – if not most- of which had only speculative ends in view) on all exchanges in all of last year, was about the same as one week’s trading on the New York Stock Exchange alone.

 It is safe to say that considerably less than 1 per cent of the transactions on the financial and commodities exchanges have anything whatever to do with productive investments. The rest are speculations. No producer gains the use of capital from them. Though the traders-may become rich, no new wealth is created by their frenzied activity. Yet because it became public policy (Icing before supply-side economics was thought of) to encourage investment, so-called long-term capital gains are taxed at a very favorable rate-just cut to

20 per cent. Given the tiny fraction of exchange transactions actually supporting production, it is plain that the favorable treatment almost exclusively stimulates speculation.

And speculation sucks money into itself like a firestorm. It always can use more. Vast sums are needed merely to keep transactions afloat for the few days it takes the brokers’ back rooms to complete them. These sums swell with speculation. In the first six months of this year, the New York Stock Exchange set a new record of 6.1 billion shares traded, thus requiring upwards of 10 times as much money to conduct its business as it did only a few years ago. Meanwhile, everything from a collection of beer cans to an example of Picasso’s blue period has been soaring in price as much as 100 percent a year, and the amount of money this ties up obviously has been increasing correspondingly

No productive enterprise can make money that fast. The after-tax earnings on equity of the Fortune 500 business runs around 10-15 percent, even in good years. Now that the interest rates they have to pay (or earn internally are well into the double-digit range, their record is poorer. (That’s why this inflation hasn’t sent the stock market through the roof, as everyone expected.) Smaller businesses – the kinds that arouse the same sentiments as mom’s apple pie – are on the whole having a much harder time. A man is a fool to work to produce something in the hope of earning 10-15 per cent when he can make many times that simply collecting Dresden china (should his fancy rake that turn).

The speculator, on the other hand, is perfectly happy borrowing every dollar he can lay his hands on at 15-20 per cent or more if he can thereby turn a profit of 20-30 percent. Aside from his apparent gain, he gets an enormous bonus from the income tax laws. The interest he pays on the money he borrows is deductible at the same rate as ordinary income, while his profits are taxed at the very much lower capital gains rate. Leverage like that can be very attractive.

Similar considerations underlie the activities of conglomerating corporations. In fact, they levy a greater toll on the money supply than all the individual speculators combined. DuPont is borrowing $4 billion to consummate its CONOCO deal (a speculation in coal more than in oil, but certainly not in enterprise). Bankers argue that Conoco’s happy stockholders will recirculate their windfall by making new” investments.” Yet whether they take out their profits in riotous living or use them to bid up other speculations, the economic effect will be inflationary.

Twelve other giant corporations – mostly oil companies with conglomeration in mind – have secured lines of credit totaling $42 billion. This may be the iceberg. or only its tip, for scores of smaller (but still large) corporations have un totaled lines of credit to finance takeovers, Whatever they add up to, they represent money withdrawn from the economy at least until taken down, and in any case not available for productive investment. There is seldom the slightest pretense that conglomeration will increase production; the goal is the fast buck, and many billions of dollars are being devoted to pursuing it.

The situation has been aggravated by the policy of the Federal Reserve Board under former chairman Arthur F. Burns and his successor, Paul Volcker, The Fed’s attempt to hold down inflation by controlling the money supply has further encouraged speculation at the expense of productive investment. With speculators and conglomerators snapping up the limited funds available irrespective of interest rates, producers cannot afford the financing they would invest in new products or services, or new ways of providing old ones. This is how the recently discovered productivity gap came about, and the easing of the capital gains tax will widen it for having enhanced the appeal of speculation.

Productive enterprise has been so systematically starved during the Burns- Volcker years that-especially with the addition of millions of women and blacks to the labor force-a great influx of money probably will be required to get the economy working again. This is, indeed, an insight that supply-siders share with fiscalists. But so long as nothing is done to curb speculation, the new money, whether from the Fed or from lower taxes, will flow into speculation or consumption and leave production as hungry as before.

THE THING about speculation, of course, is that sooner or later the kissing stops; and almost everyone gets caught with a long position in tulip bulb futures. The South Sea Bubble bursts; Wall Street lays an egg. When the bubble bursts, speculation feeds on itself going down, as it had fed on itself going up. Going up, everyone can win; going down, everyone can lose. Successful bears are very few, and their contribution to the common wealth is to make the disaster worse faster.

Is a disastrous outcome inevitable? In the light of the nostrums the Reagan Administration has had enacted into law, some sort of disaster can be predicted with confidence (if that is the right word). Because of the FDIC (horrors! – Federal regulation), there will be no run on the banks this time, and that will be a blessed distinction from the Great Depression. Because of the SEC (another regulative agency!), Wall Street pools are a thing of the past, and it’s harder to make a killing there (so fewer will be killed).

But the expectations of the innocent supply-siders will surely be dashed on the rock of speculation: The proceeds of the tax cuts will not go into productive investment; the money· supply will continue to resist management; interest rates will not fall; the surge of inflation wiII not abate this side of recession. If there are cynical supply-siders, and I rather think there may be some, they will be pleased with what they see:· The rich will be richer (at least comparatively), the big will be bigger, and the nation’s markets will be more firmly controlled by the kind of leaders who have made such recent successes of the automotive and steel industries. Amid all this, cruel unemployment will steadily spread.

The disease was first named by the British, who called it “stagflation.” A moderately reflective person might have expected that the experience of Great Britain (which doesn’t have the excuse of OPEC) would give pause to the noisy enthusiasts for low capital gains taxes and high interest rates. The British have been playing the game longer than we have-and their stagflation is worse than ours. But it seems (hat we are doomed to repeat their game plan.

It is a crying shame. The grief that will be caused is incalculable. And speculation could be easily inhibited. The Federal Reserve Board could forbid the granting of loans for purposes of trading on any securities or commodities exchange, or for purposes of merging or acquiring businesses, The Fed already sets limits to brokers’ margin accounts; at various times in the past it has forbidden them altogether; it could do so again tomorrow morning. Congress could readily tax capital gains as. ordinary income (owner-occupied dwellings might be treated differently, although I can imagine strong arguments against this). At the minimum Congress could, without being reproached for irrationality, define a long-term” capital gain as one on property held for IO years instead of one. Even five years (recognized by the money markets as the definition of “long-term” financing) would be a great step forward, particularly if coupled with modifications of the charitable deduction and elimination of other inflationary tax shelters.

The Fed and the Congress don’t do these things because they think the sole difference between speculation and productive investment is that the former involves more risk than the latter. But the true difference is, to repeat, that speculation has only financial gain in view, while productive investment uses wealth to produce more wealth. Though the risks may be great, investment can stimulate the production of goods and services. Regardless of risk, speculation can only stimulate inflation. Production improves the common wealth and the standard of living of the citizens; speculation simply redistributes what is otherwise created, and deflation destroys it.

It should be remarked that my proposals to deter speculation do not take sides – and do not need to take sides – in the fiscalist vs. monetarist controversy. There is very likely much truth on both sides, but there is assuredly no help possible from either side if speculation is not discouraged. While I am not a gambling man myself, I do not think there will be no more cakes and ale. It is not proposed to outlaw gambling or speculation. It is merely proposed that our government stop encouraging speculation. The Fed’s doctrinaire (false doctrine) refusal to consider the uses to which our money is put encourages speculation. The Congress’ espousal of a low capital gains tax encourages speculation. The new gift and inheritance tax encourages speculation. It would be easy enough for us to cease and desist from these encouragements.

As matters stand, one may read the Wall Street Journal or the financial pages of tile New York Times or any other metropolitan newspaper day after day and find very little news on some days none at all – concerning people producing something to sell to other people to satisfy their needs or wants. The shocking fact is that a great number of the best and best educated brains in the country are caught up in speculation of one kind or another, in devising new speculative schemes and new tax shelters. Our laws foster a sad misuse of this potential national resource. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. President Coolidge was wrong: The business of America in the 1920’s was not business; it was speculation. It is speculation again today,

Finally, it may be objected that the proposed discouragement of speculation will not, of itself, control inflation. Certainly not. But unless speculation is deterred, inflation cannot possibly be controlled. Unless one is ready to run the printing presses flat out, the only way to get money into productive hands is to see that little or none of it falls into speculative hands. The first step toward achieving this is understanding what speculation is. Speculation is not risky productive investment. Nor-emphatically-is it economically neutral, like gambling. Far from it: Speculation is coterminous with inflation-and, as we are in grave danger of soon rediscovering, coterminous with deflation, too.

The New Leader

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