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By George P. Brockway, originally published September/October 2000

2000-9-10 New Use for a Bad Idea - title.jpg

IN ECONOMICS no bad idea goes unused. This is perhaps to be expected in a discipline that prides itself on being the science of the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Ideas are hard to come by in the best of times. With many hundreds of doctoral candidates looking for original dissertation subjects, and many thousands of tenure-track assistant professors looking for profound article topics, nothing that looks like an idea can be allowed to waste its fragrance on the desert air. In addition, there are the diurnal needs of business-page journalists and bond salesmen. Not to mention the problems of NEW LEADER columnists.

A subject that has met all the above needs for at least the past quarter century is the productivity index. It is with mixed feelings that I report on a quite new use that has been thought up for this fallacious procedure. Since, as we shall see, the new use is in the very highest reaches of national policymaking, it is in an especially bad place for a bad idea.

The February 8, 1982, column in this space was titled “Productivity: The New Shell Game.” On May 28, 1984, “The Productivity Scam” appeared. The third antiproductivity- index piece had to wait until  May 19, 1993, and the fourth is here and now. Productivity being a protean idea, each column is concerned with a different use of the index.

True to its metaphor of a shell game, the earliest column said that in the new game each of the three shells had a “pea” under it. The first pea, “which always turns up on metropolitan bars and suburban bridge tables,” was that “it just seems people aren’t willing to work the way we did when we were young.”

Next was the “America has gone soft pea.” We let them beat us in Vietnam; investigative journalism got out of hand over Watergate; and now a court has said that creationism isn’t science. It’s hard to tell what the country stands for anymore. It’s no wonder that productivity is down and we have to have this recession to get us back on the track.

Under the third shell was the “archaic industry pea.” Our productivity is down because we don’t invest enough, because we don’t save enough, because we tax business-too much.

In other words, the productivity “peas” were Reaganomic explanations of the recession then stagnating. Regardless of the shell we chose, we got a pea; and regardless of the pea we got, we lost.

By May 1984, the productivity focus had narrowed, with this conclusion: “The uproar about labor productivity is a scam to distract attention from a massive shift in the distribution of the goods of the economy. The share of nonmanagerial labor is being reduced; the share of managerial labor is being increased; and the share of those who do no labor, who merely have money, is being increased most of all. This is what Reaganomics (or, if you will, Volckerism) is all about, and the Atari Democrats have been gulled into going along with it.”

(Those whom the late Robert Lekachman, a wise and witty contributor to this journal, dubbed Atari Democrats called themselves New Democrats. Atari was at one time the leading producer of electronic games, and was early seduced abroad by the promise of cheap labor. What became of it, deponent knoweth not.)

Nine years later (May 19, 1993), the focus had narrowed again. The talk was all about downsizing, a nasty and disgraceful business practice that continues to this day.

The productivity index is thus one of the most powerful ideas of our time. It has malignly affected the lives of millions of men and women, the fortunes of thousands of enterprises, and the economies of nations.  It is a tragedy of almost universal scope.

The basic idea of the index is sound enough. Output is divided by input to determine how many units of input achieve a unit of output. The result is an index number that can be compared with other numbers similarly derived. A single index number, of course, is almost useless; but much can be learned from comparisons, and they are of great and daily use in business management. The current performance of a company’s sales (or any other) department can be compared with. its performance in prior years, or with the performance of corresponding departments of the particular industry as a whole. Banks routinely analyze their customers’ profit and loss statements in this way, and trade associations frequently do the same for their members.

It must be confessed that executives sometimes make unreasonable use of the comparisons. A sales department may be faulted for a falling sales index, while the sales force argues that the quality of the product has declined, or that the advertising has been inadequate, or that the sales representative suffer from stress caused by driving poorly equipped automobiles.

Rumbles from the executive floor suggest that the sales reps are too well paid, or that there are too many of them, or that some territories are not worth covering.  This is the way that downsizing begins.  Every job in every department is ultimately at risk.

Years ago a chapter in a tome on book publishing started this way: “There are two simple principles by which the business thinking of a publishing house should be guided.  They are (1) Reducing costs by $1,000 has roughly the same effect on the profit and loss statement as increasing sales by $25,000.  (2) You have to spend a dollar to make a dollar.

Downsizing tends to forget the second principle, and also the greater principle that the human beings who are so easily hired and fired are not a means to an end but are ends in themselves.  But the ethical objections to downsizing shouldn’t allow us to decide that there are not solid, hard-nosed, business-is-the-only-thing objections to the national productivity index.

THE INDEX numbers are simple fractions:  national output for a certain period in dollars (because we can’t add shoes and ships and sealing wax) divided by the hours worked by everyone engaged in production, whether paid or not.  Fractions, of course, are not unequivocal; you can increase their value either by increasing the nominator or by decreasing the denominator (2/3 and 1/2 are both greater than 1/3).  So you can increase a productivity index number either by increasing “dollars of output” or by decreasing “hours worked.”  As we shall see, the hours present a special problem.  Consider some examples of how the index works.

First, microeconomically:  Think of a journeyman plumber whose output is x, whose hours worked is y, and whose productivity is therefore x/y.  Suppose by taking on a plumber’s helper (a human being) he increases his output 20 per cent.  Being a rational person, you might conclude that such an increase in output would result in a substantial increase in productivity, but you would be sadly mistaken.  According to the formula, his productivity becomes 1.2x/2.0y, or .6x/y, and thus has fallen 40 percent.

We get similar results macroeconomically.  Take the 5.4 million or so people counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed. (There are about 10 million more who aren’t counted because they have a part-time job, or are too discouraged to continue looking for work, or are too turned off ever to have seriously entertained lawful employment).

Let’s accept (for argument only) that the conservative press is correct in saying the 4 percent of our civilian workforce officially designated unemployed are so careless, stupid, uneducated, arrogant, sickly or pregnant that they’re unlikely, if employed, to produce on the average more than a third as much as an equal number of those who are currently employed.  Even at that level, if we could find the wit and will to employ these people on this basis, we could increase our gross domestic product by 1.2 percent, or about $130 billion a year.

Being still a rational person, you might think such a tidy sum would increase our productivity, but again you would be sadly mistaken.  Productivity is still output divided by hours worked or x/y.  After finding jobs for the 4 percent of our civilian workforce that is now unemployed, our productivity becomes 1.012x/1.04y, a fall of 2.7 percent.

So if we really believe in the conventional theory of productivity, we must deny help to our plumber and jobs to the unemployed.  Unfortunately, a large majority of the members of the American Economic Association do believe in the theory.

A couple of other examples may clinch the case.

A young slugger lived up to his promise by hitting a grand slam home run his first time at bat in the majors.  His next time up, there were only two men on base.  His manager yanked him because (aside from drawing a walk or being hit by a pitch, neither of which would count as a time at bat) his productivity could only go down.

Then there was the unsung predecessor of Tiger Woods who hit a hole in one on the first hole of a club tournament, but retired when his drive on the second hole stopped rolling two feet short of the cup. “My productivity could only go down,” he lamented as he gave his clubs to his caddy and took up water polo to sublimate his aggressions[1].

THE THING about “hours worked” is that Gertrude Stein couldn’t have said “hour is an hour is an hour” because they aren’t. I was a lousy salesman, though I worked doggedly at it for almost five unproductive and depressing years. Many years later I became a moderately successful CEO of a small company and worked doggedly at that. I put in approximately the same number of hours a day as a salesman as I did as a CEO. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. But the value of my work as CEO really and truly was vastly greater than the value of my salesmanship, and you may believe I was paid more for it, too. Adding those different hours together in the denominator is less sensible than adding apples and oranges.

Karl Marx[2] faced a similar problem when he was wrestling with his theory of surplus value. He finally declared victory and wrote: “We therefore save ourselves a superfluous operation, and simplify our analysis, by the assumption, that the labor of the workman employed by the capitalist is unskilled average labor.” If this was a valid assumption in his day (and it probably wasn’t), it certainly is not in ours.

John Maynard Keynes also felt a need to devise a homogeneous unit of labor. He wrote: “Insofar as different grades and kinds of labor and salaried assistance enjoy a more or less fixed relative remuneration, the quantity of employment can be sufficiently defined for our purpose by taking an hour’s employment of ordinary labor as our unit and weighting an hour’s employment of special labor in proportion to its remuneration, i.e., an hour of special labor remunerated at double ordinary rates will count as two units.”

The minimum wage (currently $5.15 an hour) may be taken as a homogeneous unit of labor. But why bother? It is merely a multiple of a homogeneous unit we already had ($1.00) and tells us nothing new.

Unless you naturally think like an economist, you may wonder why the denominator of the productivity fraction is “hours worked” rather than “dollars paid for labor.” The deep secret is that economists, like well-bred  characters in an early 19th-century English novel, are with a few exceptions embarrassed by talk about money. General equilibrium analysis, the most fashionable economic theory at the bulk of elite American universities, can find no place for money in its doctrine. Even monetarism, despite its name, is scornful of the stuff we pay our bills with, which it speaks of as “nominal” money, and insists that what it calls “real” money is what matters, although no such thing exists. (If you’ve read much medieval philosophy, you may find such talk familiar.)

There is another problem with the denominator. We learned in school that the factors of production are land, labor and capital. Some add technology, and Adam Smith wrote of a propensity to barter. In any case, labor is merely one of the factors of production; yet the productivity index treats it as the only one.

To be sure, labor may be the largest factor. A quasi-constant of the economy is that the cost of labor currently runs about 60 per cent of GDP. But the cost of capital-the money spent for interest by nonfinancial, nonagricultural businesses -has increased roughly five and a half times in the past 40 years, partly because the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates, and partly because today American business relies much more on borrowed money than it used to. Common laborers, not Protestant financiers, are now the austere actors on our economic stage[3].

This shift in roles may be good or bad or indifferent, but the productivity index, no matter how constructed, will at best only call our attention to the fact that a shift has occurred. It will neither judge the desirability of the shift nor tell us what to do about it. Econometrics-c-playing with statistics-is the beginning, not the end, of economics.

ALL THAT said, we come to the new use of the productivity index mentioned at the start. I’m sorry, but I can’t say who invented the new use. It was a stroke of genius, even though the Federal Reserve Board had already pioneered the implausible idea of using high productivity (according to the index) as an excuse for trying to reduce production. I’m sorry again, but I can’t say, at least with a straight face, why we should reduce production.

The new scheme goes like this: (1) Production is produced by workers exercising their productivity. (2) The population of workers increases about 1 per cent a year. (3) The productivity index, fallacies and errors and all, increases about 1.5 per cent a year. (4) Put them together, and you get 2.5 per cent a year as the rate at which a well-mannered economy should expand. (5) The economy has been expanding at better than that rate in every year except one in the last eight. (The low one was 2.4 per cent in 1993.) Conclusion: Look out! It must be overheating!

Well, I ask you!

I regret to have to add that the Democratic Party Platform Committee listened solemnly to this kind of stuff. I doubt that the Republicans bothered their heads about it. All they need to know on earth is that a tax cut is beauty, and beauty is a tax cut, especially a tax cut for millionaires. I regret further to have to admit that the economics profession is careless about such nonsense. The other day I read a paper by a friend of mine that was decorated by several equations in which a symbol for productivity occurred. I objected that the symbol stood for a fallacy, and that his equations were therefore fallacious.

He laughed. “Everybody does it,” he said. “You’re expected to do it. It doesn’t matter.”

Well, I’ve already asked you.

The New Leader

[1] Ed:  As a similar tale goes, a golfer played at Pine Valley, arguably the best golf course on earth, and in the first four holes had two birdies and two eagles. One eagle was a hole-in-one.  He was 6 under par.  The fourth green is back at the club house.  The golfer walked off the course and into the bar and would not come out as he’d only screw up the round.

[2] Ed:  Though likely not as a salesman….

[3] Ed: emphasis mine

By George P. Brockway, originally published September 23, 1993

1993-9-23 The Reserve Takes Flight Again title

On July 20, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan announced a fundamental change in the way the august body he heads looks upon the economy. This is not merely a tactical shift, as from easy money to tight money – although the Board’s volatility on the tactical level is bad enough – but a basic rethinking of how the economy works and what the Board should therefore do. It is the second such revision in Greenspan’s six and a half years as chairman, and the fourth in something under 14 years. So many radical rethinkings in so few years suggest an unseemly flightiness in an institution whose primary excuse for existence is to provide financial stability beyond the turmoil of partisan politics.

Let’s look at the record. On October 6, 1979, Paul A. Volcker, the then new chairman, revealed that thereafter the Reserve would “be placing greater emphasis on day-to-day operations of the supply of bank reserves, and less emphasis on confining short-term fluctuation in the Federal rate” (the rate at which banks borrow reserves from each other overnight or for a day or two). Monetarism had taken charge.

For the next six or seven years we heard a great deal about M1 and its velocity. (In case you’ve forgotten, M1 is cash and traveler’s checks and checking deposits; M2 is all that plus most savings accounts, money market funds, and other odds and ends.) Milton Friedman, the leading monetarist, wanted M1 to grow annually between 3 and 5 per cent. Expansion beyond 5 per cent, he claimed, would cause inflation – instantaneously if the expansion was anticipated, or with a lag of a year if it was not. Not only that, but the inflation would accelerate without limit. By 1986, expansion beyond 5 per cent was surely anticipated by all rational economic agents, because it had not been below 5 per cent for 10 years. Yet in 1986, when M1 jumped 16.8 per cent (and M2 jumped 9.4 per cent), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose only 1.9 per cent – its smallest rise in 22 years. Monetarism clearly missed the call, and missed badly.

The Federal Reserve Board was left without a theory – that is, without a coherent idea of what it was doing or why. For the rest of Volcker’s term, the nation was forced to rely on seat-of-the-pants judgments of officials whose cerebral judgments had proved sensationally wrongheaded.

In the spring of 1987, Alan Greenspan succeeded to the chairmanship and at once set three economists to work on an equation intended to use M2 to prophesy the price level two or more years ahead. Also, true to the teachings of Ayn Rand, he cut expansion of M1 and M2 back below the 5 per cent target. And what did the CPI do? It surged ahead 4.4 per cent in both 1987 and 1988.

Nevertheless, on June 13, 1989, the Reserve went to extraordinary lengths to publicize what two years of labor by those three economists had produced. If you yearn to know more about P-star (as their equation was called by insiders), I refer you to “The Reserve’s Silly New Equation” (NL, June 12-26, 1989), in whose last sentence I wailed, “How long must we allow ourselves to be deluded by silly equations?” Well, the Reserve seems at last to have abandoned this equation, or the theory behind it, which, Greenspan said last month, “has been downgraded as a reliable indicator.”

Of course, the money supply never was a reliable indicator, for the simple reason that no one can say what it is. The Federal Reserve owlishly publishes aggregates it calls M1, M2, M3, and L. L is about six times M1. Friedman once said the number used did not matter, so long as one stayed with it. Since the tracks of the different aggregates have been substantially different, it would appear to have made some difference.

You would think that by this time we might all agree to stop fretting over the money supply. Yet the Reserve, perhaps for ritualistic reasons, has adopted a new target for M2 growth (1-5 percent), even though it acknowledges that hitting (or missing) the target won’t indicate anything special.

The downgrading of M2 does not mean the Chairman is without any indicator. He has mentioned only one aspect of his new one (and that I will discuss presently), but he has used it with results that can hardly be called encouraging. In his July 20 testimony before Congress, he forecast a second quarter growth rate of 2.5-3.0 per cent. Nine days later, the official number proved to be 1.6 per cent.

I think I can promise you that the new indicator will continue to get things wrong. According to Greenspan, “one important guidepost” of the new indicator win be the so-called “real” interest rate: the actual rate minus the rate of inflation. When, as now, the Federal funds rate is about 3 per cent and the CPI rate is about 3.5 per cent, the “real” Federal funds rate is negative 0.5 per cent. Anyone lending $1,000 at 3 per cent gets back $1,030 at the end of a year, but his purchasing power will have shrunk to $993.95. So why should he lend? Because if he buries his money like the slothful servant in the Parable of the Talents, he will still have his $1,000 but his purchasing power will shrink to $965.

Greenspan thinks that’s unfair and hints about raising the Federal rate one-half a percentage point or more to make things even. Naturally, if he raises the Federal rate, he effectively raises others, including those that are far from negative.

What Greenspan is threatening is a Cost of Living Adjustment (cola) for bankers. It is well understood by bankers and economists that colas on workers’ wages are inflationary and should be resisted. How are bankers’ cola different? In a word, they aren’t, and they cost the economy (that is, you and me) about $500 billion a year (see “Bankers Have the Classic COLA,” NL, January 9, 1989).

Although bankers do most of the talking about the interest rate, their role in lending is comparatively passive. If no one wants to produce a better mousetrap or buy a better automobile or take a flyer in the stock market, bankers must sit on their cash. Putting consumers and speculators aside for the moment, consider a company with plans for a better mousetrap, requiring investment in a factory, equipping it with machinery, buying supplies, hiring workers. The company figures all that to cost $10 million. For convenience, let’s say it can borrow at prime, currently 6 per cent, for an annual interest expense of $600,000. It feels it can just about swing it.

Now suppose Greenspan gives bankers a one-half percentage point cola. At 6.5 per cent, the interest expense is up to $650,000 – an increase of 8.3 per cent in cost, and a decrease of 8.3 per cent in the amount of money the mousetrap company can afford to borrow.

The company then has three options: (1) Abandon or scale down the expansion and the jobs it would have created. (2) Raise prices to cover the added cost. (3) Make do with lower profits, which would make future borrowing still more expensive. These options are faced every day by every company, large or small. Even rich companies that do not need to borrow must consider the opportunity cost of using their own money instead of lending it out.

If investment is as important as everyone says it is, and if stable prices are as important as the Reserve says they are, Greenspan’s half point adjustment would be bad for every company and for the whole economy in one of the ways I’ve noted, and quite possibly in all three ways. Not only that, but the bond market would fall, as it necessarily does when interest rates rise. The stock market would surely follow later, for the same reason – and, considering its present fragile highs, could very well crash.

The interest rate, not the money supply, is what the Federal Reserve Board can control directly and assuredly. It sets the Federal funds rate and the discount rate, and it controls them by buying or selling Treasury bonds on the open market. In order to buy, it offers a high price, which is the same as a low interest rate. The banks that sell bonds thus increase their cash reserves, putting additional downward pressure on the interest rate.

If all this activity increases borrowing, as it is likely to do, it will increase the money supply, because money is negotiable debt. But who cares? It is the interest rate that matters to the economy, and it is through stabilizing the rate at a low level (about half what it is today) that the Reserve could (if it would) do its bit to stabilize the economy.

Milton Friedman has long contended that the Federal Reserve Board has used its great powers so erratically in the past that it should be put under strict statutory regulation. He may be right. But he would regulate the growth of the money supply within a narrow range, even though he doesn’t know what the money supply is, and the Board has shown it doesn’t know how to control it, whatever it is.

That there is a determinate money supply, and that its size determines the price level, is an old mercantilist idea. It was valid enough when money was something rare and tangible and not readily reproducible, like gold or silver. The capitalist system turns on borrowing, however, and borrowing depends on the interest rate, and the lower the rate the greater the economy. How long must we allow ourselves to be deluded by archaic ideas?

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published June 12, 1989

1989-6-12 The Reserve's Silly New Equation Title

IN HIS EXCELLENT and comprehensive book about the Federal Reserve Board, Secrets of the Temple, William Greider properly fastens on the first word of his title, the Board being at least the third most secretive arm of the United States government. The rationale for the secrecy is that billions of dollars can be made by uncovering what, if anything, the Reserve is going to do next . Greider suspects, as I do, that the secrecy is useful mainly for instilling awe in us poor mortals.

1989-6-12 The Reserve's Silly New Equation Greenspan

Whatever the case, in contrast with its usual practice, the Reserve has recently gone to considerable trouble to call attention to a new equation that is supposed to predict inflation levels two years or so in advance. We are told that Chairman Alan Greenspan set a team of three economists to work on the problem when he took over in the spring of 1987, and that there is now light at the end of the tunnel. Remembering a New Yorker cartoon of a couple of years ago, I expect the apparent light will turn out to be New Jersey.

As constant readers know, I am, like Adam Smith, skeptical of all alleged mathematical solution to basic economic problems. Happily, the present formula is very elementary mathematics; something that kids probably do today in kindergarten, and that you used to toss off in fifth or sixth grade. So don’t panic.

First, a bit of background. Culminating a century of deep thinking by deep economists, Irving Fisher of Yale promulgated , 80-odd years ago, an equation sometimes said to be the essence of monetarism. Milton Friedman, in The New Palgrave (a four -volume economics encyclopedia I wish I could afford), assures us that monetarism is something else, and he’s entitled to his opinion; but it is Fisher’s formula the Reserve starts with.

 

Friedman also tells us, “There is no unique way to express either the nominal or the real quantity of money.” Nevertheless, some number is chosen and fed into an equation that says the quantity of money, multiplied by the velocity of its circulation, is equal to the general price level, multiplied by the goods produced. The equation, written all in capitals, looks formidable (MV = PQ) but expresses a simple, even a simplistic idea.

 

The money supply (M) is not the only term beset with difficulties. It turns out that the velocity (V) cannot be determined except by means of this equation. Fanciers of the theory contend that over the past many years V has been reasonably constant; MV is practically a single term.

 

The right-hand side of the equation presents different difficulties. Q stands for the total of the goods and services produced – that is, the “real” (stated in things), as opposed to the “nominal” (stated in money), gross national product. I have from time to time averred that the GNP, whether real or nominal, is less than it is cracked up to be, yet for the moment let’s accept it at its face value. We are immediately struck by the fact that its face value is expressed in money. Moreover, it cannot be expressed otherwise, for money is the sole relevant unit of measurement that applies to apples and oranges and tons of steel and all the rest. The paradoxical truth is that the “real” GNP can only be quantified “nominally.”

 

What, then, is the price level (P)? It is the sort of index I often grumble about, derived by combining the prices of a great variety of goods and services, each one weighted to allow its supposedly proper importance in the economy. But the prices of goods and services are already and necessarily included in the GNP. Many have therefore dropped P from the equation, effectively reducing it to M=Q. Translating it back into English, we learn that the total money spent for goods and services equals the total prices charged for those goods and services. Not much to learn from two centuries of study.

 

This is the reed the Federal Reserve leans on. It starts again with MV = PQ. Dividing both sides of the equation by Q. it gets P= MV/Q. Mainly because M2 yields a relatively constant value for V, which the Reserve wants, M2 is selected as the quantity of money. (M2 consists-you don’t have to pay attention here-of  currency, traveler’s checks, checking deposits, savings and ordinary time deposits, money market funds, and overnight Eurodollar deposits, but excludes time deposits of $100,000 or more.)

 

Next, the Reserve pretties up the equation with some asterisks or stars, like this: P* = M2 x V*/Q*. P* (or “P-star,” as insiders say) stands for the price level a couple of years down the road. V*is the determined constant, now with a suspiciously precise value of 1.6527. Q* is the future “real” GNP, assuming a steady growth of 2.5 per cent a year.

 

That last assumption is of course the secret of the game. The inflation-fighting Reserve wants the fraction to the right of the equal sign to be as small as possible, since it is equal to P*, or the future price level. As you remember from the fifth grade, you can reduce the value of a fraction either by reducing the numerator (1/3 is less than 2/3) or by increasing the denominator (1/3 is also less than 1/2). So taking the Reserve’s equation at face value, we could hold the price level (P*) down either by decreasing the money supply (M2) or by increasing production (Q*).

 

Faced with such an alternative, anyone who had not altogether taken leave of his (or her) senses would opt for increasing production, because after all that makes possible our standard of living. The Reserve, I’m sorry to say, opts for decreasing the money supply. It would unfair to imply that the Reserve doesn’t have a reason for its unnatural decision; the trouble is, the “reason” is erroneous. The Reserve, in fact, is not unlike one of my favorite characters in all literature, “The King of Korea I [who] was gay and harmonious: / he had one idea I and that was erroneous.”

 

The Reserve’s one idea is to control the money supply. For reasons that have taken me the better part of a book (to be published by Cornelia and Michael Bessie for Harper&Row about a year from now -advt.) to elucidate, the Reserve can very readily reduce the money supply -but it can’t be sure of increasing it. By “money supply” I don’t mean the gabble-gabble of items that make up M2; I mean the money actually at work in the economy. And in the capitalist economy everyone agrees we have, that is credit, the flip side of which is debit, or borrowing.

 

The textbooks say, I know, that bankers create money by lending it, yet actually they produce nothing except some useful services. Although bankers are often hyperactive in thinking up new financial “products” (index trading, etc.), they are passive partners in the work of the world. The active partners in the creation of money, and the uses it can be put to, are the borrowers. If no entrepreneur plans to produce a better mousetrap, if no consumers long for anything beyond their means, if no speculator schemes for a big killing, the banker sits idle. He can refuse to support plans, longings and schemes, but the first and essential step in creating money is taken by borrowers.

 

THE FEDERAL RESERVE –  the banker par excellence – can make it hard for ordinary banks to lend money, and hence hard for productive people to borrow money. Even if it makes borrowing easy, however, it can’t make people borrow. In other words, it can surely reduce the money supply, but can’t be sure of increasing it.

 

On the other hand, the Reserve can affect the interest rate, and that makes a difference the new equation does not take into account. By raising or lowering the Federal funds rate (the interest banks pay on temporary loans from each other, or from the Reserve itself) or the discount rate (the interest Federal Reserve banks charge commercial banks for short-term loans), the Reserve directly raises or lowers the interest banks have to pay, and consequently the interest they have to set. Naturally, too, by making it difficult for people and businesses to borrow money, the Reserve can indirectly raise the interest they have to pay.

 

Given that interest is a cost of doing business and a cost of living, raising the rate (whether directly or indirectly) ups those costs, thus certainly inhibiting or reducing output (Q*). But we remember that reducing Q* increases the value of the Reserve’s equation by increasing P* (the price level). So we find the Federal

 

Reserve deliberately reducing our standard of living and at the same time raising the price level. True to its one idea, the Reserve next solemnly goes about further reducing M2 (which might be the money supply if ours were a mercantilist system instead of a capitalist system).  In the process, it manages both to restrict the national output and to keep the inflation fires burning.

 

That is indeed the record the Federal Reserve Board has compiled since 1951, when it succeeded in abrogating its wartime agreement with the Treasury that kept the prime rate down to 1.5 per cent from 1939 to 1947. The abrogation was necessary, the Reserve argued, so it could be free to control the money supply (then said to be M1), as it dearly wanted to do.

 

Let’s go to the computer tape. Since the fateful year of 1951, the price level has increased 436.9 per cent. (That’s what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says; if food, shelter, clothing, and transportation have anything to do with the cost of living, I’ll say it has gone up a lot more than that.) More to the point, look at the figures that are left out of the Reserve’s equation: (l)interest paid as a percentage of GNP: up from 4.59 per cent in 1951 to 19.19 per cent in 1987; (2)pretax profits: down from 11.82 per cent of GNP to 6.92 per cent; (3) after tax profits (despite the best efforts of Ronald Reagan): down from 5.19 per cent of GNP to 3.94 per cent; (4)unemployment: up from 3.2 per cent to 6.1 percent; (5)Federal budget: from a surplus of 6.1 per cent of GNP to a deficit of 3.35 per cent; (6)foreign trade balance on current account, from positive $884 million to negative $153,964 million.

 

That is one sorry record. Monetarists say it is the consequence of failing to restrain M2 even further; but they know in their hearts that if the Reserve had in fact restrained it any further, the interest rate would have gone God knows how high, and we would have spent the subsequent years in a rapidly deepening depression that would have made 1932 seem idyllic.

 

How long must we allow ourselves to be deluded by silly equations?

 

The New Leader

 

Originally published October 6, 1986

BERYL W. SPRINKEL has given up on monetarism, at least for now. He said as much in a speech recently and stirred some excitement because of who he is. Not only is he the possessor of the most striking public name since Orval Faubus ; he is the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and presumably talks things over with President Reagan, so what he says may foreshadow a shift in Administration policy.

Monetarism has had the great tactical advantage of massaging the egos of the wealthy, and especially of conservative bankers who serve the wealthy. It has as many definitions as it has definers, but all of them are based on the Quantity Theory of Money, a very old idea that treats money as simply another commodity. It then seems plausible to say that at any given moment a country has a certain quantity of money and a certain price level, at which, for example, a subscription to THE NEW LEADER costs $24 (and is a bargain).  Suppose that at midnight tonight President Reagan or Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker or the Sugar Plum Fairy decreed that every dollar you have is hereafter worth two dollars. Would you now be able to buy two subscriptions, sending one to an intellectually needy friend?

Not likely. The first order of business at 275 Seventh Avenue tomorrow morning would be to raise the subscription price to $48. The same thing would happen throughout the economy, so that, subject to considerable slippage because of existing contracts, doubling the quantity of money would merely double the prices of goods and services.

The plausibility of the theory was great in the days when money appeared to be merely a physical object-gold, silver, seashells, or whatnot. But money never was merely a physical object (for reasons, I refer you to my book Economics: What Went Wrong and Why), and it certainly is not now. It is, as the late Professor John William Miller said in The Midworld, a functioning object. That is, it is an object, all right -a piece of metal, a piece of paper, a blip on a computer screen-but what matters is how it functions, not its physical composition. It is not simply another commodity; it is a standard or a control, as is, say, language or a yardstick. A language functions whether it is embodied in sound waves or marks on paper, and a yardstick functions whether it is made of maple or stainless steel. Of course, it doesn’t much matter what a hammer is made of, either, but a hammer is merely a useful tool (glue, or nuts and bolts, could do the job as well as nailing), while nothing can be built-space cannot be organized-without some measuring object.

This may sound pretty metaphysical, and it is, but I’m afraid we must go a step further in that direction. The Quantity Theory will acknowledge that, as a practical matter, it is difficult-indeed impossible-to count the amount of money a nation has. The very existence of the different quantities – M-l, M-2, M-3, and the rest – underlines the point. On the other hand, it is also impossible, as a practical matter, to count the number of electrons in a burst of energy. With electrons, however, it is possible to say that there is a definite number (despite our not knowing precisely what it is), that the number stands in some definite relation (which may also be unknown) to something else, and that therefore we can construct equations capable of yielding reliable predictions.

The trouble with money is that there is not ever a definite amount of it, just as there is not ever a definite number of thoughts expressed in language. Like language, money doesn’t even exist except as it is functioning. “If the coin be lockt up in chests,” wrote David Hume, ‘” tis the same thing with regard to prices as if it were annihilated.” What is true of coin is surely true of credit, the fundamental form of money.

This truth reveals itself in two consequences, one theoretical and one practical. The theoretical consequence is that the attempt to state the Quantity Theory in an equation (MV = PY) results in a sterile tautology. In words, the equation says that the quantity of money (M) times the velocity of its circulation (V) is equal to the general price level (P) times the goods produced (Y). For a fuller explanation I must again refer you to my book; but for present purposes it is enough to see that MV’=PY essentially says that the amount of money paid for goods is equal to the sum of the prices charged for them – which is not much to say.

Practical trouble comes when the attempt is made to use MV =PY as a guide to public policy. If your purpose is to increase production, you look at the equation and decide that all you need to do is to increase the money supply or speed up its circulation, at the same time holding the price level down. On the basis of historical studies that made his reputation, Professor Milton Friedman concluded that the economy could not sustain a steady growth faster than 3-4 per cent a year, that therefore the money supply should be expanded at that rate, and that any faster rate would be inflationary.

From Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Volcker in 1979 until Beryl Sprinkel’s speech this summer, Milton Friedman was the guru of American economic policy (he is still a guru in GreatiBritain). These seven years have not been an unruffled calm. At the start, the prime rate jumped from just under 10 per cent to 15 per cent, and continued upward until it hit 21.5 per cent after the 1980 election. The inflation rate followed (note the emphasis, which we may examine another day), reaching about 13.5 per cent at the end of Volcker’ s first year in office. Then we had the deliberate depression of 1981-83, driving unemployment from a little over 6 million in 1979 to almost 12 million in 1983. Since that time we’ve had something called “recovery,” punctuated by happenings called “growth corrections,” with unemployment still over 8 million, even counting part-time dishwashers as employed.

During these seven years Friedman has steadily complained that his religion was hardly being tried, and that Volcker was a false prophet. For though Volcker’s policy has been to stop worrying about the interest rate and instead to control the money supply, he never has come close to bringing the yearly increase of M-1 or M-2 down to 4 percent. Consequently, Friedman has been in the comfortable position of taking credit for whatever has turned out well, while disowning whatever has gone wrong.

IN FAIRNESS, Friedman’s gospel has been more modest than that of his followers – a not unusual situation in the history of religions. He argues that because government does not handle money as well as profit-seeking individuals, it should do the barest minimum and should be constitutionally required to balance its budget. His argument in favor of a fixed rate of expansion in the money supply is basically that discretionary control by the Federal Reserve Board has been so awful, almost anything would be an improvement.

Nevertheless, the reasoning behind a low fixed rate of expansion is based on MV = PY: If the money supply expands faster than production, the price level must rise. If, however, the price level remains constant, a monetary expansion would necessarily expand production. For a considerable period now the price level has remained constant, or as near as doesn’t matter, while the money supply has been increasing twice or three times as fast as Friedman recommends. If the professor had his theory right, we should be experiencing the biggest boom in history. It seems the boom isn’t happening or about to happen, so Sprinkel has given up on monetarism.

What went wrong? Well, I’ll tell you: The monetarists have their metaphysics wrong. Money is not a commodity, it is a functioning object. You can’t count it; you use it to do your counting. Since you can’t count it, you can’t fit it into an equation. Beryl Sprinkel is gradually waking up to this fact-and, presumably, his boss is too.

Now, that’s dandy; better late than never, and all that. Except the awakening comes after a night that has destroyed forever the livelihood of millions of older men and women, and has condemned millions of younger men and women to a lifetime of hanging around street corners. It has made a few rich people very rich, and many poor people poorer than ever. It has deliberately stagnated the economy, with the result that in five and a half years the actual GNP has run roughly a trillion dollars less than potential GNP. Simultaneously, another trillion dollars has been taken out of the civilian economy by heating up the arms race. Finally, as a third trillion dollars has flowed into the stock markets, the rate of investment in productive enterprise has fallen.

So they goofed. So who’s perfect? The trouble is, none of this grief was necessary. As early as a speech Knut Wicksell made on April 14, 1898, it has been clear that banks don’t create money, business does. The textbooks continue to say banks create money by making loans, but Wicksell showed the initiative comes from businesses that want to borrow, not from banks that want to lend. Writers as various as Hayek and Keynes developed the idea, and businessmen have always known in their hearts that it is true. Only a fool or a knave borrows money simply because a bank wants to lend it[1]. The banking system can stifle an active economy with high interest rates, but it takes more than low rates to breathe life into a dormant economy.

What does it take? Good morale. Keynes talked of “animal spirits”; unfortunately the expression has the flavor of a biologically determined force that could be let loose if you changed your breakfast cereal. The neoclassical “Keynesians” (who try to press Keynes back into the mold of a classical economist) emphasize incentives to investment, like tax credits; regardless of the incentives, though, investment has languished.

Friedman has permitted himself the observation that rather than money, “The real wealth of a society depends much more on the kind of institutional structure it has, on the abilities, initiative, driving force of its people, on investment potentialities, on technology on all of these things.” Yet he would forbid corporations to concern themselves with the moral consequences of their business, to engage in unpaid public service, or to exercise charity. What is left? The naked bottom line. And what is the naked bottom line? Greed.

Morale is related to, but different from, morals. Greedy people are not necessarily immoral, just as self-sacrificing people are not necessarily moral. But the morale of greedy people is bad. Their universe is ungracious, ungenerous, constricted, pessimistic, often cynical.

As it happens, greedy people are in the ascendance in America today, and the fact of the matter is that the economy has gone just about as far as it can go on the greed standard. The economy is stagnant because its rewards are outrageously skewed in favor of those who already have more than they know what to do with[2].

According to the monetarist theory, these people should be putting their extra money into stepping up production, for the ultimate benefit of all. But they are not fools. Twenty-two per cent of the nation’s industrial capacity is already standing unused: What would be the sense of producing more things no one can buy? So the extra money goes into speculation, an activity that incidentally increases the cost of capital and further inhibits enterprise.

It would be pretty to think that, in giving up monetarism, the Administration will reverse itself and try to rationalize the distribution of income, thus incidentally increasing demand. But the probability is otherwise. Our morale has been so corrupted by the ideal of private greed that it will no doubt be decades before we enjoy again the eagerness with which we once faced the world.

The New Leader


[1] Editor’s note – or, based on the sub-prime lending bubble of the late 2000’s, an individual borrower as greedy as the Wall Street market makers intent on collateralizing fraudulent loans

[2] Editor’s italics…  sounds far too familiar in 2012

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