In a recent social media debate, I found myself engaged in a discussion about whether government regulation and intervention can create economic growth and jobs. Readers here won’t be surprised at which side I am on generally with this topic . My opposite interlocutor ended his closing argument with something to the effect of, “government can help to increase the velocity of money (and therefore GDP). Just basic macro.”
“Just basic macro” is how progressive economists and those in never-ending faith in big government view the “expert” technocratic interventions in the market. The basic concept is one in which during market downturns, there can be a multiplier effect that ripples throughout the economy when government spends money. Thus, a $1 spend out of government (read taxpayer) coffers can magically create $3 out in the broader economy, and at least in theory results in economic growth and a positive return to the taxpayer for their “investment” which happens to have been forced upon them via the government’s monopoly on violence (if this statement seems dramatic to you, try not paying your taxes one year and see what happens). A true win-win! However, while this concept may be “just basic macro” to John Maynard Keynes, Paul Samuelson, and Paul Krugman, to the Austrian school economists and those of us toiling away on Main Street, we can grasp a sense of what the elitists in Ivory Towers can’t. To put an economic term to it, these “prime the pump to multiply” government interventionists inevitably always fail to account for opportunity costs. In layman’s terms, opportunity costs are defined as the next best alternative that was not pursued because of decisions to use scarce resources to pursue some other objective end. Very often, the opportunity cost can be larger than the objective end that was ultimately pursued. To use a simple analogy, think of an investor with $1,000 in 2006 who chose to invest in Microsoft rather than Apple. While the Microsoft investment may very well have been positive, it paled in comparison to the return on the investment in Apple. In this scenario, the cost of a foregone opportunity exceeded the option that was actually pursued.
On this topic, I am gaining some great insights as I am slowly and deliberately making my way through Deirdre McCloskey’s incredible book Bourgeois Equality, which is the final installment of a trilogy in which McCloskey sets out to prove a remarkable thesis that can be broadly summarized as follows: the global outlook and economic growth changed dramatically for the better when some geographic regions’ ethics changed substantially in the direction of valuing and dignifying the bourgeois class of traders, merchants, bankers, businessmen, etc. The slow and deliberate pace is due to my desire to fully absorb all of the insights and jot down and highlight the key sections to commit to memory, so to the extent that this post is one-part book review, please don’t let my pace suggest lack of interest in the book or that it is a difficult and laborious read, because I assure you wholeheartedly that this is far from the case. The thesis is essentially that all of the conventional notions of what caused rapid economic development since the 1800s, such as sound government institutions, development of the rule of law, property rights, the Industrial Revolution, and so on, are all sideshows, byproducts, and/or elements that had long existed in a world in which for most of history, life was nasty, brutish, and short, and which most of humanity lived on a mere equivalent of $3 a day. McCloskey powerfully asserts, backed by an unparalleled mountain of facts and her own research, along with quotes from the global history of economics, sociology, philosophy, and literature, that it truly was the ethics and growth of the bourgeois engaging in open competition, resulting in what she calls “trade-tested betterments” that catapulted us to over 1,000% economic growth (from the $3 a day base) in developed parts of the world. Trade-tested betterments is a term coined uniquely by McCloskey, and is just one of many examples of the creative and brilliant mind of the author. One might mistakenly call what McCloskey calls trade-tested betterment “innovation,” but McCloskey stresses the importance of innovators being forced to face competition and global trade to truly push remarkable and rapid innovation to fuel economic growth. In essence, innovation at its best occurs when we don’t allow trade restrictions and competition, both forces that are inevitably rife when a government intervenes in the market.
McCloskey’s Chapter 16 in her book is titled, Most Government Institutions Make Us Poorer. This chapter resonates with the point of my blog post today and ties back to the debate in which it was declared that government intervention grows the economy and creates jobs as “Just Basic Macro.” McCloskey begins the Chapter with a quote from 19th Century French Economist Frédéric Bastiat that is apropos:
“The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen….Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”
Again – the bad economist ignores opportunity costs, moral hazards, and tramples on the rights of citizens with their arbitrary wealth redistribution schemes.
But what if government technocrats could prove themselves truly capable of beating the next best alternatives? Here is what McCloskey has to say about that:
“The fact suggests that the projects of betterment enacted by governments, compared with voluntary deals made among consenting adults free of force or fraud, will fail, as they regularly have, because they are directed not at general betterment but at enriching special interests at the expense of generality, or merely spending mindlessly what money the government can appropriate under the threat of violence. The modern social-democratic habit of regarding the government as a wise and honest distributor of public goods ignores the unseen, the contents of Swiss bank accounts and the misdirected expenditures in aid of the prime minister’s second cousin, which practices govern most of the world. It supposes that every government is like Denmark’s, New Zealand’s, or Finland’s (which together govern 2 percent of the world) when most are instead like Russia’s, China’s, or India’s (39 percent). In James Madison’s words in 1787, ‘If angels were to govern men, neither external not internal controls on government would be necessary.’ Angles are rare, if unseen.”
McCloskey closes the chapter with a sweeping declaration comparing government intervention and regulation with a free market:
“The relevant comparison is not of some unattainable utopia of perfect trade-tested betterment with actual, imperfect government regulation. It is the comparison of the actual record of liberated trade, and the betterment it has brought to the powerless of the world, with the actual record of populism, fascism, socialism, and thick regulation bettering a few favored groups of the poor, every Party official, and most of the owners of the bigger enterprises able to corrupt the government, all at the expense of the rest.”
Once again, the ignored opportunity costs, the actual historical record of how bad governments are at market interventions (either through regulation or prime the pump spending), and the abuse of power and moral hazards it creates, means we as citizens should be extremely skeptical of these interventions.
Taking a quote from one my my favorite blogs, Cafe Hayek, further illustrates the point of how Keynesians fail to capture the true essence of economics when they reduce everything to their formulas and theories.
Quotation of the day is from page 40 of Arnold Kling’s excellent new book, published this year, Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics (link added):
[Paul] Samuelson and his successors taught that the economic machine had a gas pedal that could be used to avoid economic slowdowns. That device was “aggregate demand,” which could be increased by the government’s printing money, running a budget deficit, or both. In this economic subfield, known as macroeconomics, the concept of specialization is forgotten entirely. Instead, economists employ an interpretive framework in which every worker performs the same job, toiling in one big factory that produces a homogeneous output. Macroeconomics replaces specialization with that GDP factory.
Indeed, it’s not too much to say that macroeconomics in the Samuelsonian-Keynesian mode abstracts away from most of what is essential in economics. Market processes and entrepreneurial searches for profit; specialization; the complementarity of different capital goods with each other and with labor; the role of relative prices; the reality and importance of institutions; the reality and importance of the fact that politicians are relatively uninformed and self-interested agents. These important aspects of economic and social reality are either ignored or treated haphazardly in too much of what is called “macroeconomics.”
In short – “Just Basic Macro” is shorthand for legerdemain to justify government abuse, power, and expropriation of citizen wealth that in aggregate would have created higher economic growth (especially in the long run) than all the government experts in the world pumping out formulas could ever achieve.