Planet Obama

by Russ Roberts on January 11, 2009

in Stimulus

The first ten minutes of this Planet Money podcast I talk about what it was like to have Obama on the GMU campus proposing to spend a lot of my money and yours. The rest of the podcast is John Taylor on the Taylor rule.

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Crusader January 12, 2009 at 12:00 am

Obama has already broken so many promises left and right that who knows where he will be on Jan 20th. We might get a different President every day of his 4 years. Might make slick Willie look like a rock in comparison. I never seen anyone so cynical, without any true principles.

Lee Kelly January 12, 2009 at 12:26 am

Russ, you sounded like the great depression. Everything about these stimulii and bailouts sickens me, so I am just going to rant about stuff I have ranted about before and hope I am wrong:

These bailouts are a disaster for the U.S. economy and ordinary Americans. Bernard Madoff is supposedly facing prison for perpetrating the biggest Ponzi scheme ever, but he has nothing on the U.S. Government. Bush and Obama are currently turning the entire U.S. economy into a giant Ponzi scheme in a misguided attempt to avert a recession. The longer this continues, the greater the fallout will be.

The deflationary aftermath of an inflationary boom is the solution to years of malinvestment and over-consumption. As interest rates increase so does the incentive to save (that is, more is supplied at a higher price), and then the economy can be rebuilt upon a firmer foundation.

Every dollar of debt is a claim on future production. Central banks overextend credit by expanding the money supply and thereby keeping interest rates too low. An economy is then set upon an unsustainable growth path. The phony is edifice undone when people begin paying back or defaulting on their loans. Deflation and recession are the hallmarks of the correction, not the problem. As demand plummets and prices fall, malinvestments are purged from the economy and resources reallocated. Interest rates rise along with the incentive to save again, and labour is shifted away from services and towards industry (unemployment rises suddenly as this correction begins).

Prices are like messengers, and sometimes they bring bad news. The U.S. Government is trying to corrupt the message by way of inflation. But it cannot change the underlying reality, all it can do is make prices send false messages, in this case that Americans have more income to spend on consumption.

The wealth of nations is not created during the inflationary boom, but is squandered. Wealth is created during the deflationary bust, people produce to pay for the consumption and mistakes of previous years. Congress and the Fed refuse to let the market take its course, and are further squandering America's wealth and reputation. Meanwhile, many mainstream economists are giving intellectual credibility to these disastrous policies.

Listening to Obama's talk of tax cuts it is easy to be fooled. This new Democratic administration expects to run up a $2 trillion deficit this year alone, and warns that such may become the norm until the recession ends. But the U.S. Government has no wealth, it is massively in debt. None of the stimulus will come from savings, but from even more debt, and all this spending will increase prices. Americans will not only be paying for this stimulus with a greater tax burden in the future, but immediately as a consequence of inflation. U.S. GDP last year was about $13 trillion and is expected to fall this year, and meanwhile, the Obama adminstration plans to inject at least an extra $2 trillion! This does not even include Bush's stimulii, or the Federal Reserve's secretive handouts.

One may think that all this extra cash would increase supply. When more dollars are being spent, more products are sold and businesses will rush to satisfy the additional demand. But the U.S. is already struggling to pay back its debts, and as defaults begin adding up these stimulii are debasing the dollar. Suppliers are being tricked into exchanging goods for dollars that will be worth less when they go to spend them. Once suppliers wise up, prices will rise quickly to reflect the low value of the dollar.

Here the stage for runaway and then hyper-inflation is set. As prices begin rising President Obama will appear on TV. 'After an unexpected rise in prices', he says with no hint of irony, 'the $775 billion economic stimulus package has been depleted too quickly'. He then goes on, 'many programs vital to the future of the American economy have yet to be undertaken', and after a dramatic pause, 'so today a new $1.5 trillion stimulus will be approved by Congress.' Obama might just stimulate the economy to death.

But there is another problem looming on the horizon. For years the U.S. has operated with a huge trade deficit: more dollars have been leaving the country than coming in. Since the dollar has historically held its value, many of them have been used by foreigners for saving in lieu of their own inflated currencies. But just as inflation reduces the incentive for Americans to save their dollars, so to for foreigners. By trying to stimulate the economy with inflation, the U.S. Government's policies may set in motion a massive influx of dollars from abroad and a corresponding increase in the price of imports.

As more debt is accrued by the U.S. Government, the incentive for politicians increase inflation grows more powerful, since they do not want to pay off their loans with real value. But the economy needs less spending, lower taxes, higher interest rates, fewer military commitments, smaller government, and more saving, or in other words, a recession.

The U.S. Government is currently scared witless by deflation. To combat the problem both expansionary monetary and fiscal policy are being pursued as never before. But this is crazy. The problem is not deflation, but what causes deflation.

An inflationary boom was fuelled by artificially low interest rates, and a deflationary recession is occurring as people begin to default or pay off their loans. That is just how loans work: taking out a loan is inflationary and defaulting or paying it off is deflationary. Over time the net change to the money supply is zero.

Given this, what will be the eventual consequence of all this borrowing to avert deflation? That's right, more deflation in the future! This exposes the absurdity of a central bank targeting some percent inflation per year. It is like accelerating a boat upstream: in order to keep going faster you need to keep adding more power to fight the current. Every time the Federal Reserve inflates by expanding the supply of credit, they are also creating a long run deflationary pressure as people begin defaulting or paying off their debts. To maintain inflation year on year, more and more inflation must be created to overwhelm the ever stronger deflationary current.

The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to let the deflation and recession happen. Change that should have occurred more slowly, such as major companies going bankrupt, happens all at once and with great upheaval because successive political leaders did not want to bite the bullet.

Mainstream economic thought on this issue is akin to belief in a perpetual motion machine (as a commenter named Sally remarked here a couple of days ago). It is almost dogma that Americans do not need to produce in order to consume. Consumption "drives the economy", they tell us. But it is complete and utter nonsense. Prosperity cannot be achieved that way. Productive people will not accept pieces of paper in exchange for goods and services forever; eventually they will want to redeem their IOUs.

If the above happens and is of sufficient magnitude, then the U.S. is in trouble. Recent problems would only be the beginning. But in the meantime, Obama and Bernanke are doing everything they can to further deteriorate the capital assets, which might eventually be needed to return to genuine wealth creation.

I suppose the problems may be mitigated if these bailouts and stimulus packages actually produce good investments. But that possibility seems right up there with Barack Obama pulling off his mask to reveal the face of Hillary Clinton in a fit of maniacal laughter.

While Barack Obama is talking about new public works, the Chinese are poised to start spending their dollars. What good are public works in the U.S. to foreigners? not much I expect. To use Peter Schiff's analogy, it is like redecorating your home to get out of debt: absolute nonsense. Genuine investment would go toward making stuff that foreigners do want to buy. That will be the only way to save the dollar, and thereby entice them to start sending imports again.

Let's just hope that none of this happens, though, and that the Federal Reserve is abolished.

Crusader January 12, 2009 at 12:29 am

Lee – should Russ display false optimism? He's only tellin' it like it is.

Lee Kelly January 12, 2009 at 12:33 am

Disclaimer: I note here that I have only recently become interested in all this and most likely will change my mind about half of it by next week. I would love feedback from someone explaining how wrong I am.

Dan Johnson January 12, 2009 at 1:30 am

Russ–

I highly respect you for your courage to go on shows like this in order to try to persuade listeners, but one thing you said really annoyed me.

Near the end of your interview you said we were in the middle of a large "social experiment". This made me cringe, because studying the stimulus plan will be unlike most experiments done in the natural and physical sciences. Generally, these experiments never harm anyone and if there is a risk of harm consent of the subject is attained. Many of us are not consenting to this stimulus plan and many of us will be harmed.

The use of the term experiment also implies that we, collectively, can study the effects of the government's actions, take note, and change what our government does in the future. I'm highly skeptical that the US as a country can do so as a political entity.

Lastly, if you must use the term, please realize that there have been previous "social experiments" like this. Most countries have not learned much from them at all–instead past mistakes are repeated.

Meanwhile, throughout all this, real property is going to be destroyed and real people are going to be affected. Calling this a social experiment hides this reality and makes the whole thing seem much more harmless than it is.

I'm not saying we shouldn't try to get others to learn from it, but I'd stay away from the term and try to be much more clear about the wealth redistribution the spending will cause.

anon January 12, 2009 at 1:40 am

Lee,

if you're new to this (and by this i assume you mean the ideas and arguments of true free markets) and therefore are being exposed to new ideas and are in search for truth perhaps you should check this out: http://www.lewrockwell.com/long/long11.html

id have emailed you but cant get your email from here

Crusader January 12, 2009 at 5:16 am

Lew Rockwell is a neo Nazi site, I'd steer clear.

Blackadder January 12, 2009 at 8:18 am

Russ,

Did you mention how you were beating them for best podcast?

muirgeo January 12, 2009 at 9:59 am

January 11, 2009

Planet Obama

" I never seen anyone so cynical, without any true principles."

Posted by: Crusader

"Everything about these stimulii and bailouts sickens me,….
These bailouts are a disaster for the U.S. economy and ordinary Americans."

Lee Kelley

I've started my collection for future reference.

muirgeo January 12, 2009 at 10:10 am

This made me cringe, because studying the stimulus plan will be unlike most experiments done in the natural and physical sciences. Generally, these experiments never harm anyone ..

Posted by: Dan Johnson

It most definitely is an experiment. If we did exactly everything YOU wished would it then somehow NOT be an experiment?

You all would rather rewrite history with regards to Hoovers and FDR's responses and their effects to the last Republican Lead Great Depression.

Fact is the experiment in which we were all economic Guinea pigs occurred when we let Wall Street concoct complex financial derivative and things like CDO's with no oversight. That experiment cost me and YOU almost what we pay in income taxes over 10 years in just 1 year. The best evidence suggest the government will get back 1.4 dollars for every dollars of ours it invest. That's better then anything I can think to invest in right now as my mattress doesn't give a very good rate of return.

Superheater January 12, 2009 at 10:39 am

Fact is the experiment in which we were all economic Guinea pigs occurred when we let Washington concoct complex financial interventions like GSE's with no oversight.

Sam Grove January 12, 2009 at 11:16 am

Lew Rockwell is a neo Nazi site, I'd steer clear.

No, they are clearly anti-fascist over at lrc.org. Also pro-free market and pro individual liberty.

You all would rather rewrite history with regards to Hoovers and FDR's responses and their effects to the last Republican Lead Great Depression.

It has already been rewritten, long ago. The rewrite is the current mainstream view.

Have you forgotten that the winners write the history?

Jin Cheng January 12, 2009 at 1:48 pm
vidyohs January 12, 2009 at 2:11 pm

"I see a lot of jewish sounding last names amongst those who are named as columnists at the Neo Nazi Lew Rockwell
Posted by: Jin Cheng | Jan 12, 2009 1:48:20 PM"

And, your point would be?

I could write a lot depending on your response to the question, but I'd rather wait and see what point you think you're making.

Jin Cheng January 12, 2009 at 2:27 pm

My point is, LewRockwell.com doesn't fit the definition of Neo-Nazi.

vidyohs January 12, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Based on the fact that you see names with what you identify as being Jewish?

Are you saying that you think Jews did not, and would not, associate themselves with a radical leftwing movements such as the National Socialist Party?

The Jews of 1930s Europe did not purge themselves of the NAZI Party, the NAZI Party purged itself of Jews.

As for a willingness to participate enthusiastically in radical politics, sir, have you never heard of Leon Trotsky, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, Noam Chomsky, and countless others who were/are devotees of communism? The communist party was and is supported with great enthusiasm by many prominent Jewish people.

Christopher Renner January 12, 2009 at 3:17 pm

I also would say that calling LewRockwell.com a neo-Nazi site is a bit of a stretch. There does seem to be a good bit of anarcho-capitalist nonsense present there, and I suspect if I read further I might find some Confederate revisionist history, but that's not exactly neo-Nazi stuff.

Sam Grove January 12, 2009 at 3:49 pm

a good bit of anarcho-capitalist nonsense present there

A bit of rewrite to make a more objective comment:

"a good bit of anarcho-capitalist thought present sentiment there"

Calling something nonsense does not make it so.
As you don't wish to take the time or space to make a thoughtful critique of the positions represented there, I suggest refraining from subjective characterization.
Visitors to the site can make their own judgment.

Sam Grove January 12, 2009 at 4:03 pm

sorry, I meant that to appear thus:

"a good bit of anarcho-capitalist nonsense thought present there"

brotio January 12, 2009 at 5:01 pm

I just did about thirty Google-searches of Herbie Hoover, St Franklin of Roosevelt and His Holiness: The Divine Prophet Algore I. Not because I was looking for information to post, but because I read that two searches uses as much energy as heating a tea kettle full of water.

I figure if Mierduck, who is a Priest in the Church of AGW, can trample us with his nonsensical, gigantic carbon footprints of Jan 12, 2009 9:59:59 AM and Jan 12, 2009 10:10:00 AM, then I may as well help the British make tea.

Christopher Renner January 12, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Sam Grove: Calling something nonsense does not make it so.
As you don't wish to take the time or space to make a thoughtful critique of the positions represented there, I suggest refraining from subjective characterization.
Visitors to the site can make their own judgment.

You're right. Suggesting that their views included some nonsense, without any description of the reasoning behind my judgment, or citation of an actual article, was foolish.

As an example of nonsense on LRC, here's this reprinted article by Murray Rothbard in which Rothbard complains about other libertarians who don't hate the state as much as he does.
Some quotes:
"Tom Paine’s radical hatred of the State and statism was and is far more important to the cause of liberty than the fact that he never crossed the divide between laissez-faire and anarchism."

Paine hated monarchy, aristocracy, and hereditary succession, not government per se. In Common Sense he says that "Government in its best state is but a necessary evil"; but this is followed in the same section by a largely positive description of government as it had developed in the colonies. His later support for the French Revolution certainly belies Rothbard's assertion that he hated the state.

Another Rothbard quote:
"Amidst the entire spectrum of political alternatives, David Friedman has decided that anarcho-capitalism is superior. But superior to an existing political structure which is pretty good too. In short, there is no sign that David Friedman in any sense hates the existing American State or the State per se, hates it deep in his belly as a predatory gang of robbers, enslavers, and murderers. No, there is simply the cool conviction that anarchism would be the best of all possible worlds, but that our current set-up is pretty far up with it in desirability. For there is no sense in Friedman that the State – any State – is a predatory gang of criminals."

In other words, "Friedman agrees with me on the merits of anarcho-capitalism, but I'm a better anarcho-capitalist because of how much I hate the State." Doesn't that qualify as a nonsensical point?

Doug January 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm

What is anarcho-capitalism? Some kind of society without any rule of law? Capitalism does not flourish without institutions that protect private property and enforcement of contracts. Capitalism needs minimal government at the very least. So "anarcho-capitalism" is some kind of false term.

brotio January 12, 2009 at 11:31 pm

Anarcho-capitalism is a term invented by Leftists like Gil and Mierduck. They apply the term to anyone who disagrees with their notion that we're all property of the State.

Christopher Renner January 12, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Doug, you've kind of summarized the reasons I don't get it either.

Given the following premises which I think are manifestly evident in humanity at large:

1. The existence of insane people,i.e. individuals who through lack of mental capacity cannot engage in rational behavior toward others, and who are outside the realm of whatever parental authority might exist,

2. The tendency of nation-states/tribes/clans toward aggressive behavior towards others (for purposes of my argument it doesn't matter that some groups may not have this tendency, as long as even one does),

3. The inevitability, given a sufficiently large group, of individuals willing to behave against the interests of other group members, namely criminals,

4. The fact that the entire world cannot be united into one single society by any meaningful standard,

5. The necessity of some sort of force, used when necessary, against the groups mentioned in points 1 thru 3,

anarchism, whether anarcho-capitalism, anarcho-communism, or any other form, is not a philosophy which is feasible for humanity at large.

Anarchism is theoretically viable only in a society which is free of criminals and the mentally incompetent, and has no chance whatsoever of being invaded by its neighbors.

A society free of criminals and mentally incompetent people is impossible given the current state of human nature, and one free from the possibility of invasion must be so isolated geographically and impoverished economically that no potential invader would bother (and that's even assuming the absence of an Alexander/Napoleon/Hitler who can't be satisfied without conquering the entire world).

JP January 13, 2009 at 4:20 am

To get back to the podcast that this post is about…

"Sharp-toothed Austrians" I liked that line.

The GMU Econ department should hang that phrase in plain sight.

Gil January 13, 2009 at 6:57 am

"Anarcho-capitalism is a term invented by Leftists like Gil and Mierduck. They apply the term to anyone who disagrees with their notion that we're all property of the State."

Apparently you didn't look too hard brotio:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarcho-capitalism

indiana jim January 13, 2009 at 9:26 am

Russ,

You made the comment that the likelihood of an $800b stimulus being "pork-free" is the same as that of a ham sandwich being pork-free. Spot on, and well put!

brotio January 13, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Gil,

I'm sorry for giving you too much credit. Perhaps you Leftists didn't invent the term.

You merely use it to describe anyone who disagrees with your notion that we are all property of the State.

Gil January 13, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Uh huh . . .

Christopher Renner January 13, 2009 at 9:44 pm

As per wikipedia's entry on the subject, "The term anarcho-capitalism was most likely coined in 1968 by Jarrett Wollstein and revived by economist Murray Rothbard."

Brotio, incidentally, I'm no leftist, and wholeheartedly agree that humans are not the property of the state. I still think there must be a state, however.

On the subject of Obama, how about a shoutout to Dick Cheney?

Henri Hein January 15, 2009 at 8:52 pm

I don't like the N word, but the Lew Rockwell crowd, part of The Fever Swamp, definitely have some disturbing tendencies towards Confederate apologism and outright racism.

I wouldn't put too much into their list of contributors. From what I understand, it's easy to get on it and hard to get off it. Lew Rockwell will add the name of a reputed academic on the slightest pretext and often without their knowledge, and they have to threaten with a law-suit to be taken off again.

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