Category Archives: Economics 101

What Does Gareth Morgan Really Believe? – Bryan Bruce. 

Last Friday I sat down with Gareth Morgan to talk about why he had started The Opportunities Party and to try to gain a better understanding of his policies.

It’s the first of what I intend will be a series of conversations with politicians leading up to this year’s General Election.

I use the word “conversations” rather than “interviews” because as you will see the style is that I listen to what the person has to say for quite a long time before asking some searching questions.

If you don’t want to watch my  whole conversation with Gareth here are some highlights.

Gareth ultimately wants to give everyone, rich or poor, $200 a week unconditionally as a basic income. He acknowledges he cannot do this all in one go, so he wants to start with 18 to 25 year olds and families with young children.

He says no one would be short changed. If you are on a benefit that is more than $200 you would continue to get it.

Where does he propose to get the money for the UBI for young people from? By taxing the superannuation of over 65 year olds.

All pensioners would get the first $10,000 as of right, the next $10,000 would be subject to a means test. So if you are a wealthy oldie you won’t get the second $10,000 – that money instead would go to younger people as a UBI. 

He also proposes to tax people every year for living in a house they own because he wants to tax the total equity of a person i.e. a wealth tax.

During the conversation you will hear me raise a number of issues which I think are flaws in Gareth’s scheme – but he doesn’t.

For instance , if you are over 65 , receiving the superannuation and living in your own house you would have to pay tax each year on the estimated value of your property.

Now, unlike Gareth a great many superannuitants are not wealthy and will not be unable to pay the tax because they don’t earn enough each year.

No problem says Gareth.

The yearly house tax owed would roll over until you die. The trouble is, if you live for a long time then the State could end up owning your house and you would have nothing to leave to your children or grand children.

Do you think that’s fair?

Gareth thinks so, because he “doesn’t believe in inheritance”. 

He also says that he doesn’t have any preferred coalition partners. He will work with any government that will instigate some of his flagship policies.

I put it to him that if voters cast their vote for TOP then it is a vote for uncertainty (as it is with NZ First) because they will not know what government he is prepared cooperate with until after the election.

He doesn’t see that as a problem.

I of course do see it as a problem because I think voters want to have a very good idea of what kind of coalition government they are electing before they vote.

As you will hear – while I understand why Gareth wants to propose this radical tax reform I do think there are more than a few fish hooks in his plan –  some of which I raise with him on camera and some I didn’t because if people don’t buy into his main proposals then arguing about details that would then  never happen would have been a waste of his time and mine.

I appreciate Gareth took the time to have this conversation and  I have to say, I did enjoy it.

Bryan Bruce talks with Gareth Morgan

How to Use Fiscal and Monetary Policy to Make Us Rich Again – Tom Streithorst. 

The easiest way to return to Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy.

During the post war Golden Age, from 1950 to 1973, US median real wages more than doubled. Today, they are lower than they were when Jimmy Carter was president. If you want an explanation why Americans are pessimistic about their future, that is as good a reason as any. In a recent article, Noah Smith examines the various causes of the slide in labor’s share of national income and finds most explanations wanting. With a blind spot common amongst economists he doesn’t even investigate the most obvious: politics.

Take a look at this chart. From the end of World War II, productivity rose steadily. Until the 1972 recession wages went up alongside it. Both dipped, both recovered and then, right around the time Ronald Reagan became President, productivity continued its upward trajectory but wages stopped following. If wages had continued to track productivity increases, the average American would earn twice as much as he does today and America would undoubtedly be a calmer and happier nation.

Collectively we are richer than we were 40 years ago, as we should be, considering the incredible advances in technology since them, but today the benefits of productivity increases no longer go to workers but rather to owners of stocks, bonds, and real estate. Wages don’t go up, but asset prices do. Rising productivity, that is to say the ability to make more goods and services with fewer inputs of labor and capital should make us all more prosperous. That it hasn’t can only be a distributional issue.

The timing suggests Ronald Reagan had something to do stagnating wages. That makes sense. Reagan cut taxes on the rich, deregulated the economy, eviscerated the labor unions and created the neoliberal order that still rules today. But perhaps an even more significant change is the tiny, technical and tedious shift from fiscal to monetary policy.

Government has two ways of affecting the economy: monetary and fiscal policy. The first involves the setting of interest rates, the other government tax and spending policy. Both fiscal and monetary policy work by putting money in people’s pockets so they will spend and thereby stimulate the economy but fiscal focuses on workers while monetary mostly benefits the already rich. Since Ronald Reagan, even under Democratic presidents, monetary has been the policy of choice. No wonder wages stopped going up but real estate, stock and bond prices have gone through the roof. During the Golden Age we shared the benefits of technological progress through wages gains. Since Reagan, we have allocated them through asset price inflation.

Fiscal policy, by increasing government spending, creates jobs and so raises wages even in the private sector. Monetary policy works mostly through the wealth effect. Lower interest rates almost automatically raise the value of stocks, bonds, and other real assets. Fiscal policy makes workers richer, monetary policy makes rich people richer. This, I suspect, explains better than anything else why monetary policy, even extreme monetary policy remains more respectable than even conventional monetary policy.

During the Golden Age, fiscal was king. Wages rose steadily and everybody was richer than their parents. Recessions were short and shallow. Economic policy makers’ primary task was insuring full unemployment. Anytime unemployment rose over a certain level, a government spending boost or tax cut would get the economy going again. And since firms were confident the government would never allow a steep downturn, they were ready and willing to invest in new technology and increased productive capacity. The economy grew faster (and more equitably) than it ever has before or since.

During the 1960s, Keynesian economists thought they could “fine tune” the economy, using Philips curve trade offs between inflation and unemployment. Stagflation in the 1970s shattered that optimism. Inflation went up but so did unemployment. New Classical economists decided in the long run, Keynesian stimulus couldn’t increase GDP, it could only accelerate inflation. Keynesianism stopped being cool. According to Robert Lucas, graduate students, would “snicker” whenever Keynesian concepts were mentioned.

In policy circles, Keynesians were replaced by monetarists, acolytes of Milton “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” Friedman. Volcker in America and Thatcher in Britain decided the only way to stomp out inflationary expectations was to cut the money supply. This, despite their best efforts, they were unable to do. Controlling the money supply proved almost impossible but monetarism gave Volcker and Thatcher the cover to manufacture the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

By raising interest rates until the economy screamed Volcker and Thatcher crushed investment and allowed unemployment to rise to levels unthinkable just a few years before. Businessmen, union leaders, and politicians pleaded for a rate cut but the central bankers were implacable. Ending inflationary expectations was worth the cost, they insisted. Volcker and Thatcher succeed in crushing inflation, not by cutting the money supply, but rather with an old fashioned Phillips curve trade off. Workers who fear for their jobs don’t ask for cost of living increases. Inflation was history.

The Federal Funds Rate hit 20% in 1980. Now even after a few hikes, it is barely over 1%. The story of the past 30 years is of the most stimulative monetary policy in history. Anytime the economy stumbled, interest rate cuts were the automatic response. Other than military Keynesianism and tax cuts, fiscal policy was relegated to the ash heap of history. Reagan of course combined tax cuts with increased military spending but traditional peacetime infrastructure stimulus was tainted by the 1970s stagflation and for policymakers remained beyond the pale.

Fiscal stimulus came back, momentarily, at the peak of the financial crisis. China’s investment binge combined with Obama’s stimulus package probably stopped the Great Recession from being as catastrophic as the Great Depression but by 2010, fiscal stimulus was replaced by its opposite, austerity. According to elementary macroeconomics, when the private sector is cutting back its spending, as it was still doing in the wake of the financial crisis, government should increase its spending to take up the slack. But Obama in America, Cameron in Britain and Merkel in the EU insisted that government cut spending, even as the private sector continued to retrench.

It is rather shocking, for anyone who has taken Econ 101 that in 2010, when the global economy had barely recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, politicians and pundits were calling for lower deficits, higher taxes and less government spending even as monetary policy was maxed out. Rates were already close to zero so central banks had no more room to cut.

So, instead of going to the tool box and taking out their tried and tested fiscal kit, which would have created jobs and had the added benefit of improving infrastructure, policymakers instead invented Quantitative Easing, which in essence is monetary policy on steroids. Central Banks promised to buy bonds from the private sector, increasing their price, thereby shoveling money towards bond owners. The idea was that by buying safe assets they would push the private sector to buy riskier assets and by increasing bank reserves they would stimulate lending but the consequence of all the Quantitative Easings is that all of the benefits of growth since the financial crisis have gone to the top 5% and most of that to the top 0.1%.

A feature or a bug? The men who rule the planet are happy that most of us think economics is boring, that we would much rather read about R Kelly’s sexual predilections than about the difference between fiscal and monetary policy but were we to remember that spending money on infrastructure or health care or education would create jobs, raise wages, and create demand which the economy craves, we would have a much more equitable world.

One cogent objection to stimulative fiscal policy is that it has the potential to be inflationary. Indeed the fundamental goal of macroeconomic policy is to match the economy’s demand to its ability to supply. If fiscal policy gets out of hand (as arguably it did in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson tried to fund both his Great Society and the Vietnam war without raising taxes), demand could outstrip supply, creating inflation. But should that happen, we have the monetary tools to cure any inflationary pressure. Rates today are still barely above zero. Should inflation threaten, central banks can raise interest rates and nip it in the bud.

Fiscal and monetary policy both have a place in policymakers’ toolkits. Perhaps the ideal combination would be to use fiscal to stimulate the economy and monetary to cool it down. Both Brexit and Trump should have told elites that unless they share the benefits of growth, a populist onslaught could threaten all our prosperity. The easiest way to return to Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy to invest in our future and create jobs today.

2017 August 6

Evonomics.com

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America – Nancy Maclean. 

In 1955 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its second Brown v. Board of Education ruling, calling for the dismantling of segregation in public schools with “all deliberate speed.”

Thirty-seven-year-old James McGill Buchanan liked to call himself a Tennessee country boy. No less a figure than Milton Friedman had extolled Buchanan’s potential. As Colgate Whitehead Darden Jr., the president of the University of Virginia reviewed the document, he might have wondered if the newly hired economist had read his mind. For without mentioning the crisis at hand, Buchanan’s proposal put in writing what Darden was thinking: Virginia needed to find a better way to deal with the incursion on states’ rights represented by Brown.

States’ rights, in effect, were yielding in preeminence to individual rights. It was not difficult for either Darden or Buchanan to imagine how a court might now rule if presented with evidence of the state of Virginia’s archaic labor relations, its measures to suppress voting, or its efforts to buttress the power of reactionary rural whites by underrepresenting the moderate voters of the cities and suburbs of Northern Virginia. Federal meddling could rise to levels once unimaginable.

What the court ruling represented to Buchanan was personal. Northern liberals—the very people who looked down upon southern whites like him, he was sure—were now going to tell his people how to run their society. And to add insult to injury, he and people like him with property were no doubt going to be taxed more to pay for all the improvements that were now deemed necessary and proper for the state to make.

Find the resources, he proposed to Darden, for me to create a new center on the campus of the University of Virginia, and I will use this center to create a new school of political economy and social philosophy. It would be an academic center, rigorously so, but one with a quiet political agenda: to defeat the “perverted form” of liberalism that sought to destroy their way of life, “a social order,” as he described it, “built on individual liberty,” a term with its own coded meaning but one that Darden surely understood. The center, Buchanan promised, would train “a line of new thinkers” in how to argue against those seeking to impose an “increasing role of government in economic and social life.”

Buchanan fully understood the scale of the challenge he was undertaking and promised no immediate results. But he made clear that he would devote himself passionately to this cause.

Buchanan’s team had no discernible success in decreasing the federal government’s pressure on the South all the way through the 1960s and ’70s. But take a longer view—follow the story forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century—and a different picture emerges, one that is both a testament to Buchanan’s intellectual powers and, at the same time, the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.

A quest that began as a quiet attempt to prevent the state of Virginia from having to meet national democratic standards of fair treatment and equal protection under the law would, some sixty years later, become the veritable opposite of itself: a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.

The goal of all these actions was to destroy our institutions, or at least change them so radically that they became shadows of their former selves?

This, then, is the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right, told through the intellectual arguments, goals, and actions of the man without whom this movement would represent yet another dead-end fantasy of the far right, incapable of doing serious damage to American society.

When I entered Buchanan’s personal office, part of a stately second-floor suite, I felt overwhelmed. There were papers stacked everywhere, in no discernible order. Not knowing where to begin, I decided to proceed clockwise, starting with a pile of correspondence that was resting, helter-skelter, on a chair to the left of the door. I picked it up and began to read. It contained confidential letters from 1997 and 1998 concerning Charles Koch’s investment of millions of dollars in Buchanan’s Center for Study of Public Choice and a flare-up that followed.

Catching my breath, I pulled up an empty chair and set to work. It took me time—a great deal of time—to piece together what these documents were telling me. They revealed how the program Buchanan had first established at the University of Virginia in 1956 and later relocated to George Mason University, the one meant to train a new generation of thinkers to push back against Brown and the changes in constitutional thought and federal policy that had enabled it, had become the research-and-design center for a much more audacious project, one that was national in scope. This project was no longer simply about training intellectuals for a battle of ideas; it was training operatives to staff the far-flung and purportedly separate, yet intricately connected, institutions funded by the Koch brothers and their now large network of fellow wealthy donors. These included the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and more, to say nothing of the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries itself.

I learned how and why Charles Koch first became interested in Buchanan’s work in the early 1970s, called on his help with what became the Cato Institute, and worked with his team in various organizations. What became clear is that by the late 1990s, Koch had concluded that he’d finally found the set of ideas he had been seeking for at least a quarter century by then—ideas so groundbreaking, so thoroughly thought-out, so rigorously tight, that once put into operation, they could secure the transformation in American governance he wanted. From then on, Koch contributed generously to turning those ideas into his personal operational strategy to, as the team saw it, save capitalism from democracy—permanently.

In his first big gift to Buchanan’s program, Charles Koch signaled his desire for the work he funded to be conducted behind the backs of the majority. “Since we are greatly outnumbered,” Koch conceded to the assembled team, the movement could not win simply by persuasion. Instead, the cause’s insiders had to use their knowledge of “the rules of the game”—that game being how modern democratic governance works—“to create winning strategies.” A brilliant engineer with three degrees from MIT, Koch warned, “The failure to use our superior technology ensures failure.” Translation: the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy instead of open declaration of what they really wanted.

Future-oriented, Koch’s men (and they are, overwhelmingly, men) gave no thought to the fate of the historical trail they left unguarded. And thus, a movement that prided itself, even congratulated itself, on its ability to carry out a revolution below the radar of prying eyes (especially those of reporters) had failed to lock one crucial door: the front door to a house that let an academic archive rat like me, operating on a vague hunch, into the mind of the man who started it all.

What animated Buchanan, what became the laser focus of his deeply analytic mind, was the seemingly unfettered ability of an increasingly more powerful federal government to force individuals with wealth to pay for an increasing number of public goods and social programs they had had no personal say in approving. Better schools, newer textbooks, and more courses for black students might help the children, for example, but whose responsibility was it to pay for these improvements? The parents of these students? Others who wished voluntarily to help out? Or people like himself, compelled through increasing taxation to contribute to projects they did not wish to support? To Buchanan, what others described as taxation to advance social justice or the common good was nothing more than a modern version of mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no moral right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts. In his mind, to protect wealth was to protect the individual against a form of legally sanctioned gangsterism. Where did this gangsterism begin? Not in the way we might have expected him to explain it to Darden: with do-good politicians, aspiring attorneys seeking to make a name for themselves in constitutional law, or even activist judges. It began before that: with individuals, powerless on their own, who had figured out that if they joined together to form social movements, they could use their strength in numbers to move government officials to hear their concerns and act upon them.

The only fact that registered in his mind was the “collective” source of their power—and that, once formed, such movements tended to stick around, keeping tabs on government officials and sometimes using their numbers to vote out those who stopped responding to their needs. How was this fair to other individuals? How was this American?

Even when conservatives later gained the upper hand in American politics, Buchanan saw his idea of economic liberty pushed aside. Richard Nixon expanded government more than his predecessors had, with costly new agencies and regulations, among them a vast new Environmental Protection Agency. George Wallace, a candidate strongly identified with the South and with the right, nonetheless supported public spending that helped white people. Ronald Reagan talked the talk of small government, but in the end, the deficit ballooned during his eight years in office.

Had there not been someone else as deeply frustrated as Buchanan, as determined to fight the uphill fight, but in his case with much keener organizational acumen, the story this book tells would no doubt have been very different. But there was. His name was Charles Koch. An entrepreneurial genius who had multiplied the earnings of the corporation he inherited by a factor of at least one thousand, he, too, had an unrealized dream of liberty, of a capitalism all but free of governmental interference and, at least in his mind, thus able to achieve the prosperity and peace that only this form of capitalism could produce. The puzzle that preoccupied him was how to achieve this in a democracy where most people did not want what he did.

Ordinary electoral politics would never get Koch what he wanted. Passionate about ideas to the point of obsession, Charles Koch had worked for three decades to identify and groom the most promising libertarian thinkers in hopes of somehow finding a way to break the impasse. He subsidized and at one point even ran an obscure academic outfit called the Institute for Humane Studies in that quest. “I have supported so many hundreds of scholars” over the years, he once explained, “because, to me, this is an experimental process to find the best people and strategies.”

The goal of the cause, Buchanan announced to his associates, should no longer be to influence who makes the rules, to vest hopes in one party or candidate. The focus must shift from who rules to changing the rules. For liberty to thrive, Buchanan now argued, the cause must figure out how to put legal—indeed, constitutional shackles on public officials, shackles so powerful that no matter how sympathetic these officials might be to the will of majorities, no matter how concerned they were with their own reelections, they would no longer have the ability to respond to those who used their numbers to get government to do their bidding. There was a second, more diabolical aspect to the solution Buchanan proposed, one that we can now see influenced Koch’s own thinking. Once these shackles were put in place, they had to be binding and permanent. The only way to ensure that the will of the majority could no longer influence representative government on core matters of political economy was through what he called “constitutional revolution.”

By the late 1990s, Charles Koch realized that the thinker he was looking for, the one who understood how government became so powerful in the first place and how to take it down in order to free up capitalism—the one who grasped the need for stealth because only piecemeal, yet mutually reinforcing, assaults on the system would survive the prying eyes of the media, was James Buchanan.

The Koch team’s most important stealth move, and the one that proved most critical to success, was to wrest control over the machinery of the Republican Party, beginning in the late 1990s and with sharply escalating determination after 2008. From there it was just a short step to lay claim to being the true representatives of the party, declaring all others RINOS—Republicans in name only. But while these radicals of the right operate within the Republican Party and use that party as a delivery vehicle, make no mistake about it: the cadre’s loyalty is not to the Grand Old Party or its traditions or standard-bearers. Their loyalty is to their revolutionary cause.

Our trouble in grasping what has happened comes, in part, from our inherited way of seeing the political divide. Americans have been told for so long, from so many quarters, that political debate can be broken down into conservative versus liberal, pro-market versus pro-government, Republican versus Democrat, that it is hard to recognize that something more confounding is afoot, a shrewd long game blocked from our sight by these stale classifications.

The Republican Party is now in the control of a group of true believers for whom compromise is a dirty word. Their cause, they say, is liberty. But by that they mean the insulation of private property rights from the reach of government, and the takeover of what was long public (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations, a system that would radically reduce the freedom of the many. In a nutshell, they aim to hollow out democratic resistance. And by its own lights, the cause is nearing success.

The 2016 election looked likely to bring a big presidential win with across-the-board benefits. The donor network had so much money and power at its disposal as the primary season began that every single Republican presidential front-runner was bowing to its agenda. Not a one would admit that climate change was a real problem or that guns weren’t good, and the more widely distributed, the better. Every one of them attacked public education and teachers’ unions and advocated more charter schools and even tax subsidies for religious schools. All called for radical changes in taxation and government spending. Each one claimed that Social Security and Medicare were in mortal crisis and that individual retirement and health savings accounts, presumably to be invested with Wall Street firms, were the best solution.

Although Trump himself may not fully understand what his victory signaled, it put him between two fundamentally different, and opposed, approaches to political economy, with real-life consequences for us all. One was in its heyday when Buchanan set to work. In economics, its standard-bearer was John Maynard Keynes, who believed that for a modern capitalist democracy to flourish, all must have a share in the economy’s benefits and in its governance. Markets had great virtues, Keynes knew—but also significant built-in flaws that only government had the capacity to correct.

As a historian, I know that his way of thinking, as implemented by elected officials during the Great Depression, saved liberal democracy in the United States from the rival challenges of fascism and Communism in the face of capitalism’s most cataclysmic collapse. And that it went on to shape a postwar order whose operating framework yielded ever more universal hope that, by acting together and levying taxes to support shared goals, life could be made better for all.

The most starkly opposed vision is that of Buchanan’s Virginia school. It teaches that all such talk of the common good has been a smoke screen for “takers” to exploit “makers,” in the language now current, using political coalitions to “vote themselves a living” instead of earning it by the sweat of their brows. Where Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek allowed that public officials were earnestly trying to do right by the citizenry, even as they disputed the methods, Buchanan believed that government failed because of bad faith: because activists, voters, and officials alike used talk of the public interest to mask the pursuit of their own personal self-interest at others’ expense. His was a cynicism so toxic that, if widely believed, it could eat like acid at the foundations of civic life. And he went further by the 1970s, insisting that the people and their representatives must be permanently prevented from using public power as they had for so long. Manacles, as it were, must be put on their grasping hands.

Is what we are dealing with merely a social movement of the right whose radical ideas must eventually face public scrutiny and rise or fall on their merits? Or is this the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history? Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance?

The term “fifth column” has been applied to stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest.

This cause is different. Pushed by relatively small numbers of radical-right billionaires and millionaires who have become profoundly hostile to America’s modern system of government, an apparatus decades in the making, funded by those same billionaires and millionaires, has been working to undermine the normal governance of our democracy. Indeed, one such manifesto calls for a “hostile takeover” of Washington, D.C. That hostile takeover maneuvers very much like a fifth column, operating in a highly calculated fashion, more akin to an occupying force than to an open group engaged in the usual give-and-take of politics. The size of this force is enormous. The social scientists who have led scholars in researching the Koch network write that it “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party” and employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payrolls in 2015.

For all its fine phrases, what this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few. It would like to reinstate the kind of political economy that prevailed in America at the opening of the twentieth century, when the mass disfranchisement of voters and the legal treatment of labor unions as illegitimate enabled large corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate Congress and most state governments alike, and to feel secure that the nation’s courts would not interfere with their reign. The first step toward understanding what this cause actually wants is to identify the deep lineage of its core ideas. And although its spokespersons would like you to believe they are disciples of James Madison, the leading architect of the U.S. Constitution, it is not true.

Their intellectual lodestar is John C. Calhoun. He developed his radical critique of democracy a generation after the nation’s founding, as the brutal economy of chattel slavery became entrenched in the South, and his vision horrified Madison.

***

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America 

by Nancy Maclean

Nancy K. MacLean is an American historian. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of numerous books and articles on various aspects of twentieth-century United States history.

get it from Amazon

How the Postal System and the Printing Press Transformed European Markets – Prateek Raj. 

In the sixteenth century, the Northwest European region of England and the Low Countries underwent transformational change. In this region, a bourgeois culture emerged and cities like Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London became centers of institutional and business innovation, whose accomplishments have influenced the modern world.

For example, one of the first permanent commodity bourses was established in Antwerp in 1531, the first stock exchange emerged in Amsterdam in 1602, and joint stock companies became a promising form of organizing business in London in the late sixteenth century. The sixteenth century transformation was followed by the seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age, and the eighteenth century English Industrial Revolution. What made the Northwest region of Europe so different? The question remains a central concern in social sciences, with scholars from diverse fields researching the subject.

The medieval power of merchant guilds

Markets don’t function well if they are ridden with frictions like lack of information, lack of trust, or high transaction costs. In the presence of frictions, business is often conducted via relationships.

Until the end of the fifteenth century, impartial institutions like courts and police that serve all parties generally—so ubiquitous today in the developed world—weren’t well developed in Europe. In such a world without impartial institutions, trade often was (is) heavily dependent on relationships and conducted through networks like merchant guilds. Such relationship-based trade through dense networks of merchant guilds reduced concerns of information access and reliability. Not surprisingly, because the merchant guild system was an effective system in the absence of strong formal institutions, it sustained in Europe for several centuries. In developing countries like India, lacking in developed formal institutions, networked institutions like castes still play an important role in business.

Before the fourteenth century, merchant guild networks were probably less hierarchical, more voluntary, and more inclusive. But, with time, merchant guilds started to become exclusive monopolies, placing high barriers to entry for outsiders, and they began to resemble cartels with close involvement in local politics. There were two reasons why these guilds erected such tough barriers to entry:

  • Repeated committed interaction was the key to effectiveness of merchant guilds. Uncommitted outsiders could behave opportunistically and undermine the reliability of the system. Therefore, outsiders faced restrictions.
  • Outsiders threatened the position of existing businessmen by increasing competition. So, even genuinely committed outsiders could be restricted to enter as they threatened the domination of existing members.

But, in the sixteenth century, the merchant guild system began to lose its significance as more impersonal markets, where traders could directly trade without the need of an affiliation, began to emerge and rulers stopped granting privileges to merchant guilds. The traders began to rely less on networked and collective institutions like merchant guilds, and directly initiated partnerships with traders who they may not have known well. For example, in Antwerp the domination of intermediaries (called hostellers) who would connect foreign traders declined. Instead, the foreign traders began to conduct such trades directly with each other in facilities like bourses.

Emergence of markets in the 16th century

In a new working paper, I study the emergence of impersonal markets in Europe during the sixteenth century. I survey the 50 largest European cities during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries and codify the nature of sixteenth century economic institutions in each of the cities. In the survey, I find that merchant guilds were declining in the Northwest region of Europe, while elsewhere in Europe they continued to dominate commerce until much later, although there were some reforms underway in the Milanese and Viennese regions of Italy.

What explains the observed pattern of emergence of impersonal markets in sixteenth century Europe? I focus on the interaction between the commercial and communication revolutions of the late fifteenth century Europe. In the paper, I argue that the Northwest European region uniquely benefited from both of these revolutions due to its unique geography.

Commercial revolution at the Atlantic coast

What motivated traders to seek risky opportunities beyond close networks? If traders found partnerships with unfamiliar traders beyond their business networks to be highly beneficial, that would provide good incentives for the rise of impersonal markets. The Northwest Region was close to the sea, notably the Atlantic coast, which was at the time undergoing a commercial revolution with the discovery of new sea routes to Asia and the Americas. So, the region became a hub for long distance trade, attracting unfamiliar traders who came to its coast looking for business opportunity. I find that all cities where merchant guild privileges declined were at the sea, along the Atlantic or North Sea coast. Moreover, all cities where merchant guilds underwent reform (but didn’t decline) were within 150km of a sea port.

The communication revolution of the postal system and the printing press

What made traders feel confident about the reliability of such risky impersonal partnerships? If availability of trade-related information and business practices improved, it could increase confidence traders had in such unfamiliar partnerships. In the sixteenth century, the postal system improved across Europe. The postal system made communication between distant traders easier as traders could correspond regularly with each other and gain more accurate information. This helped expand long distance trade across Europe.

While the Northwest European region didn’t have a particular advantage over other regions in postal communication, it had an advantage in early diffusion of printed books. The Northwest European region was close to Mainz, the city where Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in the mid fifteenth century showed how cities close to Mainz adopted printing sooner than many other regions of Europe in the first few decades of its introduction. So, trade-related books and new (or unknown) business practices like double-entry bookkeeping diffused early and rapidly in the region.

Such a high penetration of printed material reduced information barriers and improved business practices. I find that all cities where guild privileges declined or merchant guilds underwent reform in the sixteenth century enjoyed high penetration of printed material in the fifteenth century. Among cities within a 150km distance from a sea port, cities where merchant guilds declined or reformed had more than twice the number of diffused books per capita than cities where merchant guilds continued to dominate.

As a comparison, there were four major Atlantic port cities where merchant guilds declined: Hamburg, London, Antwerp, and Amsterdam; while there were four guild-based Atlantic cities: Lisbon, Seville, Rouen, and Bordeaux in the sixteenth century. The fifteenth century per capita printing penetration of the cities would stack as: Lisbon < Bordeaux < Hamburg < Seville < Rouen < London < Amsterdam < Antwerp.

The combination of both the commercial revolution along the sea coast, especially the Atlantic coast, and the communication revolution, especially near Mainz, uniquely benefited Northwest Europe, as it began to attract traders who favored impersonal market-based exchange over exchange conducted via guild networks. Rulers began to disfavor privileged monopolies when they realized the feasibility of impersonal exchange and that they could have superior sources of revenue from impersonal markets. In the region, trade democratised, as more people could participate in business.

Regions like Spain and Portugal that benefited only from the commercial revolution of trade through the sea to Asia and Americas had low levels of printing penetration. In contrast, regions like Germany, Italy, and France benefited from the communication and print revolution but didn’t enjoy a bustling Atlantic coast. Thus, no other region enjoyed the unique combination of both benefits of the commercial and communication revolution.

Takeaway for policy makers: democratize the market

If information access is poor (lack of transparency) or businesses don’t adopt reliable business practices (poor financial reporting or opaque quality standards), these deficiencies at the business level can make customers and investors question the reliability of new businesses. Politicians, like medieval rulers, may be more willing to enter into a nexus with dominant businesses, like medieval merchant guilds, if 1) market frictions or 2) lack of incentives make the economy dependent on such businesses.

This was the case with the taxi industry for a long time, where customers were willing to pay a high fee to get reliable taxi services as supply of drivers was low (new drivers in cities like London had to pay a high license fee and fulfill tough training requirements). But, better taxi hailing mobile apps like Lyft and Uber, by giving customers access to real time GPS tracking, have revolutionized the industry, much like the communication revolution did in late fifteenth and sixteenth century. Another area where information access has improved reliability in business is the tourism and travel industry.

While in the past the tourism sector was dominated by travel agents and their recommended offerings, now an influx of providers and travel comparison websites, such as expedia.com and AirBnB, has increased the reliability of small unknown hospitality service providers. Today, many prefer to stay at a stranger’s home over a reputed hotel chain. Such a revolution in the taxi or the travel industry is following the old historical trend where disruption in how information is made available changes how businesses are organized.

Evonomics.com

‘These problems will not be fixed by the market’ – Bruce Plested. 

Over the years I’ve had a variety of bosses. In seeking to recognise a good boss from one not so good, I asked this question: ‘Would they make a good foreman?

  • Could they ask the workers to do a difficult or unpleasant job and expect them to do it?
  • Could they do the job themselves?
  • Could they take their people with them?
  • Did they get the job done every day, week and year?

With 2017 being an election year in New Zealand it is worth asking these questions of our politicians.  Too many of them fail the test and are lost in platitudes, jokes, jibes, foxy words and sheer procrastination.

Housing

Our houses, through most parts of New Zealand, cost some ten times the net annual income of the family seeking to buy them.

These high prices (three times annual income was normal for many years prior to the early 2000s) have been progressively increasing for the past 15 years, and all governments have been aware of the problem. No government or local government has taken any meaningful action against this rising tide.

As the New Zealand Initiative has stated, “There are not enough homes being built to meet the demand.”

Why?

  • Planning restrictions make it difficult to increase population directly within the city boundaries.
  • Cities are prevented from growing outwards because of rural and urban boundaries.
  • New developments require infrastructure investment from local councils, which can only pay for such investment by rates increases.

Politicians, both local and national, must take action on this very fixable social disgrace. “The market” cannot sort out this problem. Real leadership and intestinal fortitude is needed now.

Education

Measured by some standards, our education is at satisfactory levels on a global average scale. However only 30% of children from lower decile school areas are reaching the New Zealand average for level 3 NCEA.

This low level of success continues the establishment of a permanent socio-economic group of under-achievers in education, and it is our Māori and Pacific Island people who make up most of this group.

This group of under-achievers are more displaced than ever by rising housing and rent prices. Without educational success they will continue to make a lesser contribution to society.

Business can play a bigger role in attempting to sustain and assist educational development. If businesses and schools, particularly in lower decile areas, get together in a meaningful way, benefits will evolve. The more children understand how a business (from a farm, to a fruit shop, to an engineering factory, to a quarry) works and interacts, the more they can understand the possibilities. Business people may be able to inspire children and parents to strive for success, and may be able to contribute to financing school wish lists, from computers to sports equipment, books to bus trips.

Can electorate and local politicians help make this happen?

Environment

Pollution and degradation of our environment is another area requiring strong political will.

Most cities provide bins for rubbish and bins for recycling. There is however no education, or ongoing exhortation, on how to recycle, why to recycle and whether it works. Is an unwashed bottle or can recyclable, or does it go into landfill? Should we recycle bottles with the lid left on? Should wine bottles have the lead seal removed? What happens to polystyrene, what happens to plastic bottles with pumps attached, what about empty aerosol cans? Much of this stuff is going to landfill because our local authorities don’t tell us what is required. If recycling is just a myth, let us know, otherwise teach us to recycle for the benefit of the planet.

Our lack of respect for water and water quality is an indictment of governments going back decades. Various businesses and pressure groups have been allowed to pour chemical waste, animal entrails, milk, and human and animal effluent into our streams, rivers and sea. Freshwater rights for irrigation have been given, to the extent that some rivers run dry most years. And now we are giving water rights to export freshwater in plastic bottles.

Regulators could have stood against many of these past and present excesses, but chose to do nothing and leave the problems to our children and grandchildren.

A couple of years ago I heard a European billionaire being interviewed. When the slightly irritable reporter asked “Well, how much money do you want?” the billionaire answered “Just a wee bit more.”

And it is the “wee bit more” that has done so much to damage our environment – just a few more cows per acre, just a wee bit more water for irrigation, just another water bore in case it doesn’t rain, just a wee bit more sewerage mixed with a wee bit more storm water, just a few more years hitting our already depleted fish stocks.

The problems mentioned here are not fixed by the market. They are like law and order – the local and national politicians should be dealing with them and committing to solutions before the next elections.

***

Bruce Plested, Mainfreight founder. 

The Spinoff

The Rise And Fall Of The American Middle Class – William Lazonick. 

Social Europe

William Lazonick is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he directs the Center for Industrial Competitiveness. He is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Ljubljana where he teaches a PhD course on the theory of innovative enterprise. Previously he was an Assistant and Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard University, Professor of Economics at Barnard College of Columbia University, and Visiting Scholar and then Distinguished Research Professor at INSEAD.


The ‘fountain pen of money’ – Bryan Gould. 

Steven Joyce, NZ Minister of Finance, has recommended the formal establishment of a committee to help the Governor of the Reserve Bank decide on where to take interest rates, thereby following the example of other central banks around the world.

Also Grant Robertson, Labour’s shadow Finance Minister, has made a similar recommendation concerning a Monetary Policy Committee to help the Governor, but has also followed another overseas example by supporting an extension of the Governor’s remit, so that he would, in addition to restraining inflation, be required to take account of the desirability of full employment.

Most people believe, and it is a belief assiduously promoted by the banks themselves, that the banks act as intermediaries between those wishing to save and those wishing to borrow, usually on mortgage.

In this view, the banks are benefactors, bringing together those with money to spare and to deposit with them, and those who wish to borrow, often for house purchase.

The banks make their money, so it is said, by charging a higher rate of interest to the borrowers than they pay to the depositors, the equivalent of a small fee for the administrative costs of bringing the parties together.

But this benign view of their operations is inaccurate and misleading. The banks do not lend you on mortgage money deposited with them by someone else.

They lend you money that they themselves create out of nothing, through the stroke of a pen or, today, a computer entry.

The banks make their money, in other words, by charging interest on money that they themselves create. Not surprisingly, they are keen to lend as much as possible.

But the consequences of this bizarre scenario go much further. It is the willingness, not to say keenness, of the banks to lend on mortgage that provides the virtually limitless purchasing power that is constantly bidding up the prices of homes in Auckland and, now, elsewhere.

It is the banks that are fuelling the housing unaffordability crisis, a crisis that is leaving families homeless and widening the gap between rich and poor.

So far, the government has washed its hands of this aspect of the crisis.

It is content to leave the crucial decisions on monetary policy to the Reserve Bank.  That way, it can disclaim responsibility and leave the Governor, himself a banker, to carry the can.

Leaving monetary policy (which is usually just a matter of setting interest rates) to the Reserve Bank is usually applauded as ensuring that it does not become a political football. But monetary policy should have a much greater role than simply restraining inflation and has a huge influence on so many aspects of our national life.

Why should the Government be able to hide behind the Governor of the Reserve Bank and duck responsibility for a policy of the greatest importance to so many Kiwis?  Why should ministers not be held to account in Parliament and to the country for failing to deliver outcomes they were elected to deliver?

It is no surprise a former Governor of the Reserve Bank should seek to defend the banking system from its critics. But in denying the accuracy of points I made in the Herald about how the banks operate, Don Brash accused me of “peddling nonsense”.

I made two basic points. First, I asserted the banks do not, as usually believed, simply act as intermediaries, bringing together savers (or depositors) and borrowers to their mutual benefit.

Secondly, I said the vast majority of new money in circulation is created by the banks “by the stroke of a pen”, and they then make their profits by charging interest on the money they create.

If this is “nonsense”, the “peddlers” include some very distinguished economists.

In my original piece, I referred to a Bank of England research paper, published in the bank’s first Quarterly Bulletin 2014, which describes in detail the process by which banks create money.

“One common misconception is that banks act simply as intermediaries, lending out the deposits that savers place with them. That ignores the fact that, in reality in the modern economy, commercial banks are the creators of deposit money. Rather than banks lending out deposits that are placed with them, the act of lending creates deposits – the reverse of the sequence typically described in textbooks.

Bank deposits make up the vast majority – 97 per cent of the amount of money currently in circulation. And in the modern economy, those bank deposits are mostly created by commercial banks themselves.

Another common misconception is that the central bank determines the quantity of loans and deposits in the economy by controlling the quantity of central bank money – the so-called ‘money multiplier’ approach, but that is not an accurate description of how money is created in reality.

Banks first decide how much to lend depending on the profitable lending opportunities available to them – which will, crucially, depend on the interest rate set. It is these lending decisions that determine how many bank deposits are created by the banking system.

The amount of bank deposits in turn influences how much central bank money banks want to hold in reserve (to meet withdrawals by the public, make payments to other banks, or meet regulatory liquidity requirements), which is then, in normal times, supplied on demand by the Central Bank.

Commercial banks create money, in the form of bank deposits, by making new loans. When a bank makes a loan, for example to someone taking out a mortgage to buy a house, it does not typically do so by giving them thousands of pounds worth of banknotes. Instead, it credits their bank account with a bank deposit of the size of the mortgage. At that moment, new money is created.

For this reason, some economists have referred to bank deposits as ‘fountain pen money’, created at the stroke of bankers’ pens when they approve loans.”

Commercial banks create money, in other words, by placing loans [or credits] into the bank accounts of borrowers. They then charge interest on, and demand security for and repayment of, those loans.

They have no capacity to create money in any other way or for any other purpose [though the central bank can pursue “quantitative easing” to increase the money supply if it thinks that is needed].

Is it wise to entrust such wide-ranging powers – so significant in their impact on the whole economy – to the banks, and then to arrange that the only person able to regulate that impact was himself a banker – the Governor of the Reserve Bank.

Bryan Gould