Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is the market striking?

Anyone who has read Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged would remember the question people asked throughout the story, “Who is John Galt?” The question expressed the confusion and resignation people felt as the United States slowly deteriorated under the yoke of government controls and edicts. John Galt helps to accelerate this decline by recruiting the leaders of various industries to join him in a strike against the forces in government and society who supported confiscating and usurping the wealth they created. Along these lines a Human Events article by Dr. Arthur Robinson titled John Galt Effect proposes that the “men of the mind” (to borrow Ayn Rand’s term) are withdrawing their abilities and contributions in face of growing government intervention in the economy.

As the pendulum of politics now swings toward tyranny in the United States and dangers to those whom they love increase, these men and women partially turn their talents more toward their personal responsibilities. Part of their thoughts, efforts, and ingenuity are lost to society -- and this loss cannot be recovered by either negative or positive incentives.

Throughout our country today, the men of the mind (women, too) are watching the awful scene in Washington and its reflection in state and local capitals throughout the United States. They understand the consequences of the government oppression that has dogged their own footsteps for many years and that will grow much worse in the near future. So, they are taking actions to protect themselves and their families.

We have no way to measure the societal effects of this distraction of the men of the mind. There are immediate effects upon our well being and long term effects from the things that they are no longer working full time to create.

While I agree with the sentiment expressed by Robinson’s piece it is extremely difficult to prove his claims. However, this piece in Forbes DigitalRules, Stocks Hate Obeynomics, seems to provide some empirical support for Robinson’s case.

The results are clear. The market hates Obama’s stimulus package and just about everything related to Obamanomics. … Stocks are down 27% since the Nov. 4th election. Stocks have plummeted more than 40% since Obama sewed up the Democratic nomination in June.

Capital is on strike. And why wouldn’t it be? Private capital has no idea what the future holds in terms of taxes, regulation, trade, deficits and the value of the dollar. None whatsoever.

Capital has figured out one thing, however. The politicians in Washington most hostile to private investment are running the show.

Here’s a question. Why did President Obama let an economic fool and earmark liar like David Obey write the stimulus plan that is so disliked by a majority of Americans and positively hated by the stock market? This is the mystery, isn’t it?

… David Obey is its chief architect, after all. During Obey’s near 40-year career in the House, he has nearly always voted for more government subsidies and less trade, according to the libertarian think tank Cato Institute. Let me repeat: The most anti-libertarian Congressman is in charge of the legislative wing of Obama's economic plan.

If you voted for Obama, you might ask: Why? And where is Austan Goolsbee? Even George Will liked the University of Chicago economist and pro-market centrist who was held up as Obama’s economic brain during the presidential campaign.

Goolsbee is missing in action. His ideas are missing in action. They’ve been replaced by the socialist hack David Obey. And the market has noticed.

As I’ve mentioned before, Obama’s proposed solutions to the current economic mess consists of continuing to apply the same Keynesian policies that got us here. The electorate bought the message of change and (appropriately) rejected the legacy of the last eight years. However, the market has seen the future and doesn’t like it. It doesn’t believe the promised “change” is fundamentally different. We can only hope that the state of the country four or eight years from now will bear no resemblance to the dismal collapse depicted in Atlas Shrugged.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Blanking out about the Bailout

ABC News ran a piece titled Stimulating Phoenix: City Looks for Bailout which detailed the dire housing market in Phoenix. At one point the narrator says that:

"Builders began to believe that they could build almost anything and there would be someone there to buy it," said Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of Arizona State University's business school. "I call it builders gone wild. So now we have 50,000 to 60,000 empty homes in the Phoenix metropolitan area."
The story leads you to believe that all of the builders in the Phoenix area (as well as throughout the rest of the country) mysteriously chose to build houses, offices, apartment buildings and condo complexes when they were not economically justified. As I’ve written in an earlier blog entry when virtually everyone in a market behaves the same way this usually is a sign they are responding to common signals or incentives.

When the pricing system works as it should the information necessary to make good decisions is readily available. When something prevents the pricing system from working correctly or if it is distorted to send false information, most if not all businessmen will act on this false or distorted information. However eventually reality has a nasty way of not abetting these attempts to rewrite the facts. But when it does what would have been a minor correction instead becomes a catastrophe. (For more detailed explanation of the business cycle and the current economic debacle see the Ludwig von Mises Institute web page.)

In the case of the real estate market two predominant forces helped create an environment in which normally prudent businessmen chose to pursue projects that proved to be unsupportable. One was the Federal Reserve’s setting interest rates (the price of borrowing money) lower than what would be the market rate. With inflation factored in the interest rate actually was negative. And second, the aggressive marketing by the management of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as “safe” investments because they were government backed. In both cases, the market signals were masked or completely shunted, leading investors, builders and entrepreneurs to conclude that their projects would be profitable. (Yes, greed played a role to but greed alone doesn’t explain what happened. The threat of losing one’s shirt in ill-advised investments tends to offset the desire to profit.)

Of course, these factors are rarely if ever mentioned in the news pieces and in the political debates. It’s more fun and much easier to find a convenient and well-worn villain: the greedy businessman. Of course, the same demagogues conveniently ignore the fact that at one time the greedy bankers “redlined” (didn’t offer loans) certain people and had to be “encouraged” via the Community Reinvestment Act to make such loans.

A number of premises escape scrutiny in the rush to pass the stimulus package.

1. Should a central group, The Federal Reserve, set interest rates?
2. Should the government force banks to suspend or abandon normal prudent underwriting in order to serve a goal of having everyone become home owners (regardless of whether they can afford it)?
3. Should the government redistribute tax dollars from those who behaved responsibly to those who didn’t?
4. Is it really the purview of government to bend or break economic principles to foster home ownership?

As long as we don’t put these questions under the harsh light of critical thinking we are doomed to not learn any lasting lessons from this fiasco.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stimulus Package: Saving us from … our saviors?

Historic' Stimulus Is Egregious Waste
Taxing The Truth

These two editorials from Investor’s Business Daily touch on the errors of the stimulus package. In earlier blog posts I’ve discussed how government policies that encouraged banks to loosen their lending policies and the role of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have helped set the stage for the current crisis. Seeing all of the drama and demagoguery surrounding the stimulus package brings to mind an analogy: our current situation is similar to a doctor injecting poison into the victim’s blood, causing a person to almost die, then the same doctor heroically tries to “stimulate” the victim’s heart back to life. We’re supposed to gratefully grovel to the same person who induced the illness in the first place! It would be funny if it wasn’t going to cost us nearly a trillion dollars.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Does the government create wealth or redistribute it?

I recently received this e-mail containing a quote by the late Dr. Adrian Rogers (1931 to 2005) Memphis, TN, that seems particularly appropriate in light of the Obama election.

You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the rich out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.

The government cannot give to anybody anything the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend is about the end of any nation.

You cannot multiply the wealth by dividing it.

While I agree with this sentiment it will most likely carry little or no weight with those who, like Obama, want to “spread the wealth” as he said in the famous exchange with “Joe the Plumber” during the election. I’m sure Obama and Democrats don’t argue that the government creates wealth. Instead they feel it is the appropriate vehicle to redistribute wealth.

A key premise behind redistributionism is the idea that the free market unfairly distributes the wealth, that businessmen and the wealthy ultimately don’t deserve what they have, that they succeeded by exploiting others. (In other words, they hold a form of watered-down Marxism.) Therefore redistributionists believe it is moral to use progressive taxation and other measures to right past wrongs and to create a more egalitarian society.

So in order to make any kind of impact on those who argue this way is to show that:

  1. The free market isn’t rigged to exploit the lower classes and that everyone has an equal chance to succeed.
  2. The distribution of wealth is such that you could tax the top earners at 100% and still not make a major impact on the people at the other end of the income spectrum.
  3. It is moral to pursue one’s own interests as long as you don’t violate the rights of others.
  4. Perhaps most important, it is immoral to take what one has earned by their own efforts and give it to others.

Obviously accomplishing all of this is more than I can cover here. I’d recommend sites like the Ludwig Von Mises Institute for the economic counter-arguments and the Ayn Rand Institute for the individualist defense.