Power & Market
When lampooning the various arguments for trade barriers, Murray Rothbard would like to try to use the arguments offered against foreign trade to trade between states themselves.
As he wrote in Making Economic Sense:
The best way to look at tariffs or import quotas or other protectionist restraints is to forget about political boundaries. Political boundaries of nations may be important for other reasons, but they have no economic meaning whatever. Suppose, for example, that each of the United States were a separate nation. Then we would hear a lot of protectionist bellyaching that we are now fortunately spared. Think of the howls by high-priced New York or Rhode Island textile manufacturers who would then be complaining about the "unfair," "cheap labor" competition from various low-type "foreigners" from Tennessee or North Carolina, or vice versa.
Fortunately, the absurdity of worrying about the balance of payments is made evident by focusing on interstate trade. For nobody worries about the balance of payments between New York and New Jersey, or, for that matter, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, because there are no customs officials recording such trade and such balances.
If we think about it, it is clear that a call by New York firms for a tariff against North Carolina is a pure rip-off of New York (as well as North Carolina) consumers, a naked grab for coerced special privilege by less-efficient business firms. If the 50 states were separate nations, the protectionists would then be able to use the trappings of patriotism, and distrust of foreigners, to camouflage and get away with their looting the consumers of their own region.
Unfortunately such "absurdity" has been ruled to be the law of the land in Canada. As the National Post reports:
After a legal battle fought all the way to Canada’s highest court, a New Brunswick man’s quest to be able to buy slightly cheaper alcohol in a neighbouring province has failed.
In a unanimous decision handed down Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled provincial trade barriers are constitutional as long as they’re aimed at a valid purpose within the province’s jurisdiction, with only an incidental effect on trade. Canada’s constitution simply “does not impose absolute free trade across Canada,” it declared....
On its face, the case was about booze. But had the challenge been successful, the precedent could have struck down a massive swath of provincial trade barriers, from agricultural supply management to e-commerce to environmental controls. Crown attorneys from every province had lined up at the Supreme Court to argue against the challenge, with the federal government siding with them.
The ruling declared that allowing “full economic integration” within Canada would “significantly undermine the shape of Canadian federalism, which is built upon regional diversity within a single nation.” Federalism means there must be “space to each province to regulate the economy in a manner that reflects local concerns,” the court ruled.
As Maxime Bernier, a Conservative Member of Parliament and a student of Austrian economics noted, "Sad day for defenders of economic freedom in Canada."
It's amazing what you can find in the Mises digital archives.
Here is a lecture by Ludwig von Mises on Socialism that he gave at the University of Houston. In the audience was a doctor from Lake Jackson, TX. After listening to this talk, he decided to run for Congress.
This was the only time Ron Paul met Mises, as he notes in his book Mises and Austrian Economics: A Personal View.
Because of my interest in individual liberty and the free market, I became closely associated over the years with friends and students of Mises, those who knew the greatness of Mises from a long-term personal friendship with him. My contact, however, was always through his writings, except on one occasion. In 1971, during a busy day in my medical office, I took a long lunch to drive 60 miles to the University of Houston to hear one of the last formal lectures Mises gave—this one on socialism. Although 90 at the time, he was most impressive, and his presentation inspired me to more study of Austrian economics.
Between Mises's Austrian accent and the recording quality of the 70s, it's not the easiest to understand. But still, a very neat piece of history.
Today, Chris Calton kicked-off the third season of his Historical Controversies podcast, which will recount the controversial history of the American Civil War.
If you enjoy the podcast, please leave a positive rating and review.
In no area has President Trump differed more from his campaign rhetoric than the field of monetary policy. Yesterday Trump announced the nominations of Richard Clarida and Michelle Bowman to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, with the former to fill the role of Vice Chair. Clarida’s nomination in particular illustrates how uninspiring Trump’s appointments have been, as he was a finalist for a Fed governorship under Obama until he withdrew his name from consideration. Interesting enough, doing so resulted in Jay Powell, Trump’s new Fed Chair, to fill the position.
Richard Clarida, a former Bush Treasury official, currently serves as a Columbia University professor and an adviser to Pacific Investment Management Co. He is a New Keynesian who has published a great deal on “Optimal Monetary Policy.” (Guido Zimmerman has an interesting QJAE article on the topic which references some of Clarida’s work.)
In terms of his policy views, he offers an interesting contrast to fellow Marvin Goodfriend – whose nomination has currently been stalled in the Senate. To Clarida’s credit, he reject’s Goodfriend’s support for negative interest rates – going so far as to question their legality for the Fed. In his advisory role at Pimco, his analysis has questioned the effectiveness of contemporary monetary activism. As he co-wrote in a June 2016 analysis:
In recent years we have described “riding a wave” of central bank interventions, as a range of unconventional policies have been rolled out across countries, driving asset price returns. This wave-riding has worked well in the past. Looking out over the secular horizon, however, diminishing returns to central bank interventions – and the potential for policy activism to do more harm than good, notably in the case of negative policy rates – advise against such an approach.
Of course he also differs in one area where Goodfriend is good, the use of the Fed’s balance sheet. Goodfriend has warned that the Fed’s buying of non-Treasury assets, like mortgage backed securities, gets it into the business of allocating capital. Instead, Clarida thought the Fed was too modest in buying up assets following the financial crisis.
Clarida thought the Fed could effectively respond to downturns by committing to buying as many bonds – including mortgage bonds and corporate bonds – as necessary to "cap" interest rates at the levels it wants:
Much of the existing literature either misses entirely or under-appreciates how robust an LSAP [large-scale asset purchase] program can be at lowering bond yields and/or credit spreads...a central bank can everywhere and always put a floor on any nominal asset price (or set of nominal asset prices) for as long as it wants...So long as the central bank is willing to buy an unlimited volume of those bonds (potentially including the entire outstanding stock) at the interest rate it wishes to put a ceiling on, it will succeed. And of course, the above reasoning also applies directly to an Lsap program targeted at corporate bonds or mortgage backed securities.
The Fed successfully capped U.S. government borrowing costs in the 1940s, and this experience was cited by the Fed's staff in mid-2003. While the idea failed to gain traction among American policymakers, the Bank of Japan has successfully used "yield curve control" to limit yields on Japanese government bonds since 2016. Clarida's position in 2010 suggests he would be keen on something similar, perhaps also including mortgage bonds and corporate bonds, should he be at the Fed during the next downturn.
In terms of Fed reform, Clarida is likely to be an ally for House Republicans who have pushed to make the Fed adopt a rules-based monetary policy framework. Clarida has long written about the advantages of a rules-based framework and even has his own “forward-looking” version of the Taylor Rule.
As a voting Fed member, Michelle Bowman will also have an impact on the future of monetary policy – but as far as I can tell she has made no public comment on the subject. Rather than being an economist, she’s an attorney who had a long career as Washington staffer. Her employers include Senator Bob Dole, House Transportation Committee, the House Oversight Committee, FEMA, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Not the best resume for draining the swamp.
Let interest rates rise. Better yet, let interest rates function in the marketplace, wholly independent of central bank attempts at rate-setting or targeting.
How? Not through a laughably small and slow process of Fed tapering, but through a wholesale and aggressive selloff of assets still polluting the Fed's balance sheet since it began aggressively those assets from commercial bank in 2008.
This was the critical point made by all three speakers at our event in Nashville this past weekend: interest rates need to rise before any true economic recovery can occur. The manipulation of interest rates by the Fed and other central banks causes untold distortions throughout the entire economy. Unless and until we address this problem, no fiscal or monetary policy changes will make much sense or have much salutary effect. Money and credit will continue to flow into less than optimal uses, investors will be forced to continue chasing yields in the casino equity markets, and Congress (plus other western legislatures) will continue to produce trillion dollar annual deficits without much worry about debt service.
Perhaps worst of all, the world will continue to believe a fairy tale: that the Fed effectively recapitalized US commercial banks in the 2008 crisis and through successive rounds of QE without pain or consequences. Are we really to believe the monetary base underpinning the world's reserve currency can be quadrupled in less than a decade without causing lasting damage? That gross overspending by Congress can be wished away simply by having the Fed provide a ready market for Treasury debt at miniscule interest rates? Or that interest rates should have no connection to the savings habits of society?
It all strains credulity, which is precisely why monetary policy relies so heavily on technocratic jargon and opaque processes: they want to confuse or bore us into not paying attention. And thus the can is kicked down the road, politically and policy-wise. That's how we became a high time preference society almost by stealth.
You can watch these engaging presentations by Dr. Robert Murphy, Carlos Lara, and myself here.
These excerpts from my talk attempt to remind the listener that none of this is normal, in fact quite the opposite. Not too long ago prosperous societies were based on the notion of capital accumulation, of producing more than they consumed, making the next generation better off in the process.
This is the fundamental and foundational change that has to occur. We need real, positive interest rates, meaning rates above inflation rates. We have to reward saving if we intend to have a growing or sustainable economy.
It is not exaggeration to say interest rates drive civilization.
They are the most important signals in an economy. Everything flows from them, because the cost of borrowing money effects the cost of almost everything.
This is the fundamental and inescapable starting point for building not only a real economy but a real culture. Every healthy society accumulates capital, every healthy society produces and saves more than it consumes and borrows. The human desire to leave something to future generations explains why all of us sit in splendor today, in this restaurant, enjoying conditions our great grandparents could not have imagined.
To do this you need actual real interest rates, market prices for money. Savers and borrowers, supply and demand, need to meet. We have a mechanism for this, it’s called the market. Without market prices you have socialism, the opposite of markets.
So why do so many otherwise free-market economists not object to monetary central planning?
The most important interest rate is the Federal Funds rate, the rate at which commercial banks borrow from each other overnight if they need to meet reserve requirements for their loans. The Fed controls this rate, or “targets” it, by manipulating the amount of reserves banks have in their accounts with the Fed. Banks with high reserves don’t much need to borrow from each other, so the Fed Funds rate stays low. And since 2008 commercial banks have received interest on excess reserves parked at the Fed, which encourages high balances and keeps rates low.
All commercial interest rates — e.g., the interest you pay on your mortgage — flow from the Fed Funds Rate on a cost-plus basis.
But when the Federal Reserve effectively keeps interest rates lower than they would be naturally, it creates a terrible disconnect between lenders and borrowers. And this disconnect causes unbelievable distortions throughout the economy. As David Stockman says, because of central banks there is no honest pricing of goods anywhere — we simply don’t know, for example, what a barrel of oil or a bushel of wheat or a Honda Accord should cost. The Fed has distorted the single most important price in the entire economy — the Federal Funds rate.