Thursday, December 18, 2008

How to treat a recession I

In my last article I argued that recessions are actually a good and desirable development and should be greeted whenever they occur. However, I admitted that recessions are connected with temporary hardships that ought to be overcome as quickly as possible.

Quite a number of people put their trust in government to accelerate the process. So I figured I better start a new series: a handbook for the aspiring central banker and bureaucrat to find out how to ruin an economy in transition, in other words, what NOT to do.

Today we shall start with a popular magic trick out of Mr. Keynes' cylinder: deficit spending.

The reasoning behind running up debt to become wealthy is the idea that recessions are not caused by far-reaching shifts in customer preference patterns, but by "uncertainty" and "confusion". If people can be manipulated to spend money faster than they would under true market conditions, this is seen as a success and the correction of a "market failure". Keynes doesn't want to wait until markets have adapted in the long run to what customers actually desire because "we're all dead in the long run".

Debts can be repaid in boom periods, Keynes assumes. That way, we get the best of both worlds: a stable economy and zero public debt.

However, Keynes doesn't answer the question of how to determine which public works program that we need to go into debt for will yield a sufficient profit so we can repay our obligations. Obviously, government doesn't follow the price mechanism - it would be unnecessary otherwise. That leaves political/ideological projects and socialized industries as areas to invest.

An example for an ideological project would be renewable energies. You can pump a lot of money into it without clearly defining your aim. Do you want long-lasting home generators for survivalist-minded folks in the outback, or high-performance cells with a relatively low shelf life for emergency use in factories and offices? Or do you intend to replace every non-renewable energy source in the country with wind parks and solar panels? You need to calculate your budget accordingly, and need a good reason why your specific purpose is more worthwhile than any other use (e.g., researching waterproof solar panels for diving purposes). It's a subsidy in any case, however, and yields no expected positive return. Otherwise, the market would do it.

Socialized industries include, but are not limited to, streets and police. One might wonder how building more streets or hiring more cops is going to boost profitable trade and commerce. As I explained above, there's just no way to determine and thus, no way to promise that debt incurred during a period of economic adjustment will ever be paid back.

And that's exactly what's been going on ever since. A lot more debt during recessions and a little less more debt during a boom. Interest needs to be paid for this debt in the future, this will drag down economic development since taxes need to be levied or money needs to be printed which will lead to inflation, a hidden tax, in order to repay it. Deficit spending is a vicious cycle.

In addition, government needs to borrow somewhere to finance its deficit spending. Even though credit markets have been extended ridiculously through fractional reserve banking and the Fed itself, there is still no unlimited amount of credit available. If government buys up all the credit, this drives up interest rates for private sector businesses in need. They may not get the loan they need and go bust. This is called "crowding out".

Anything more to say about it? Government deficit spending ignores your personal subjective value choices, sacrifices long-term, but stable business plans for short-term, debt-based ones and levies taxes on your children's future. In other words: hands off !

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