You can almost smell the frustration pouring off Paul Krugman these days, as he once again proclaims the latest in a series of victories of Keynesian economic theory over its monetarists opponents.
“Sorry, guys, but as a practical matter the Fed – while it should be doing more – can’t make up for contractionary fiscal policy in the face of a depressed economy.”
Krugman’s argument, which is a continuation and expansion on a more extensive argument by Mike Konczal can be simplified: Keynesian policies are better at generating an overworked working class than monetarist policies.
Keynesian economic policies don’t work, but fighting for these policies will?
Guglielmo Carchedi’s essay on the so-called Marxist multiplier has me bugging. He is handing out bad advice to activists in the social movements and telling them this bad advice is based on Marx’s labor theory of value. The bad advice can be summed up concisely: Keynesian policies do not work and cannot work, but the fight for these policies (as opposed to neoliberal policies) can help end capitalism:
From the Marxist perspective, the struggle for the improvement of labour’s lot and the sedimentation and accumulation of labour’s antagonistic consciousness and power through this struggle should be two sides of the same coin. This is their real importance. They cannot end the slump but they can surely improve labour’s conditions and, given the proper perspective, foster the end of capitalism.
Frankly, Carchedi’s advice is the Marxist academy’s equivalent of medical malpractice. (For the record, Michael Robert’s has his own take on the discussion raised by Carchedi’s essay.)
Based on what I have described of Bernanke’s policy failure so far, is it possible to predict anything about the future results of an open ended purchase of financial assets under QE3? I think so, and I share why in this last part of this series.
I stopped my examination of Bernanke’s approach to this crisis and the problem of deflation after looking at his 1991 paper and his speech in 2002. I now want to return to that series, examining two of his speeches this to discuss the problems confronting bourgeois monetary policy in the crisis that began in 2007-8.
The world market had been shaken by a series of financial crises, and the economy of Japan had fallen into a persistent deflationary state, When Ben Bernanke gave his 2002 speech before the National Economists Club, “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. Bernanke was going to explain to his audience filled with some of the most important economists in the nation why, despite the empirical data to the contrary, the US was not going to end up like Japan.
So I am spending a week or so trying to understand Ben Bernanke’s approach to this crisis based on three sources from his works.
In this part, the source is an essay published in 1991: “The Gold Standard, Deflation, and Financial Crisis in the Great Depression: An International Comparison”. In this 1991 paper, Bernanke tries to explain the causes of the Great Depression employing the “quantity theory of money” fallacy. So we get a chance to see this argument in an historical perspective and compare it with a real time application of Marx’s argument on the causes of capitalist crisis as understood by Henryk Grossman in his work, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown.
In the second part, the source is Bernanke’s 2002 speech before the National Economists Club: “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. In this 2002 speech, Bernanke is directly addressing the real time threat of deflation produced by the 2001 onset of the present depression. So we get to compare it with the argument made by Robert Kurz in his 1995 essay, “The Apotheosis of Money”.
In part three, the source will be Bernanke’s recent speech before the International Monetary Fund meeting in Tokyo, Japan earlier this month, “U.S. Monetary Policy and International Implications”, in which Bernanke looks back on several years of managing global capitalism through the period beginning with the financial crisis, and tries to explain his results.
To provide historical context for my examination, I am assuming Bernanke’s discussion generally coincides with the period beginning with capitalist breakdown in the 1930s until its final collapse (hopefully) in the not too distant future. We are, therefore, looking at the period of capitalism decline and collapse through the ideas of an academic. Which is to say we get the chance to see how deflation appears in the eyes of someone who sees capitalist relations of production, “in a purely economic way — i.e., from the bourgeois point of view, within the limitations of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself…”
This perspective is necessary, because the analysis Bernanke brings to this discussion exhibits all the signs of fundamental misapprehension of the way capitalism works — a quite astonishing conclusion given that he is tasked presently with managing the monetary policy of a global empire.
We have to change the terms of the debate on jobs and debt. We need to insist a job is nothing more than wage slavery and we don’t need Washington’s effort to create more of it by adding to this wage slavery even with more debt slavery. It is not like we have to argue existing jobs need to go away; why is Washington creating more of them, when existing hours can be reduced to solve the problem of unemployment rather than more debt?
2. Monetary Policy, or what happens when a hyperinflationary collapse of the dollar is NOT the worst possible outcome
The media is abuzz with speculation following the Federal reserves announcement of quantitative easing version 3.0. This version calls for the Federal Reserve to pour unlimited quantities of currency created out of nothing into the market, buying up worthless assets on a monthly basis to the tune of $40 billion per month. The result could be the printing of nearly a half trillion dollars in new, freshly produced, token money being forced into the economy every year until further notice.
The implications of this monetary insanity can be understood simply by reading the opinions of any number of economists and market watchers who are very delicately raising the spectre of a Zimbabwe style hyperinflation. Still subdued but growing talk of such an event has moved from the periphery of “financial advisers” and gold bugs into the mainstream argument of some pretty staid experienced players.
Take, for instance, a recent comment by Art Cashin, a veteran of the stock market who has probably seen every high risk moment in the market since well before Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, up to and including witnessing the market plunge 25% in a single day in 1987. Cashin oversees the management of more than $600 billion in assets and is not given to losing his head over every minor fluctuation in the S&P 500. A market crash is not Cashins concern, however — he fears hyperinflation. Cashin notes Weimar Republic hyperinflation did not burst out all at once, but was preloaded by continuous money printing that only made its way into the market over time:
“It (the inflationary spiral) was in fact delayed for a couple of years. But once it started, it could not be taken back. So here in the United States and in the European Union, there are very few, if any, signs of inflation because people are so concerned (that they are hoarding money).
“[You] will have to keep an eye on the velocity of money. Watch figures like, here in the United States, the M2 (figure), and see if it begins to grow through velocity, and get very cautious at that point. There are some potentially eerie parallels (today vs the Weimar Germany era). The United States trauma was unemployment and deflation (in the 30s), but in Germany in the 20s, it was money that ruined an entire society.”
Events are not yet to the point where Cashin is advising his clients to take their worthless fiat currency and sell it for gold, silver and other precious commodities, but he is suggesting there is such a heightened level of potential for a monetary catastrophe at present to warn people should begin to look for indicators of hyperinflation in the data:
“I think you are certainly at a ‘flashing yellow alert.’ You have in place a variety of things that could begin to react somewhat domino-like. As I said, there are measures and items that the listeners (and readers) can look for themselves. Look at, what is the growth in the money supply, M2? It comes out every week.
If [the M2 measure of the money supply] begins to grow rapidly, then the money that the Fed has created will be seen as moving through the system. That will create the high risk of accelerated inflation, and perhaps, God forbid, runaway inflation.”
Even if we discount Cashin’s argument as just another example of fringe hysteria, Zero Hedge recently explained, there are voices within the Federal Reserve’s own research department that echo Cashin’s argument:
Yes, it is ironic that the Fed is talking about “common sense”, we know. But the absolute punchline you will never hear admitted or discussed anywhere else, and the reason why the Fed can no longer even rely on its models is that…
Carlstrom et al. show that the Smets and Wouters model would predict an explosive inflation and output if the short-term interest rate were pegged at the ZLB (Zero Lower Bound) between eight and nine quarters. This is an unsettling finding given that the current horizon of forward guidance by the FOMC is of at least eight quarters.
In short: the Fed’s DSGE models fail when applied in real life, they are unable to lead to the desired outcome and can’t predict the outcome that does occur, and furthermore there is no way to test them except by enacting them in a way that consistently fails. But the kicker: the Fed’s own model predicts that if the Fed does what it is currently doing, the result would be “explosive inflation.”
You read that right: if Bernanke does what he not only intends to do but now has no choice but doing until the bitter end, the outcome is hyperinflation. Not our conclusion: that of Smets and Wouters, whoever they are.
And these are the people who are now in charge of everything.
Is there anything worse than a hyperinflation for capitalism?
The warnings by Cashin and the writers at Zero Hedge suggest Bernanke’s Federal Reserve is engaged in an extremely risky gamble on a policy that could lead to the dollar replacing Kleenex as the preferred method of catching sniffles during cold and flu season. I think it is safe to say the Fed would not be undertaking this gamble just to move unemployment a few points. A high risk gamble on this scale with the world’s reserve currency clearly hints what is at stake is likely much worse than a mere outburst of hyperinflation.
So what is worse than a hyperinflation of the dollar? What threat could there be to capitalism right now that risks reducing the dollar to a worthless piece of scrip with no purchasing power whatsoever? How about, a hyperdeflation, an inverse condition where all prices instead of going to infinity and beyond go to zero?
But there is a big problem with this argument: There is not a single recorded instance of hyperdeflation in history, we are told, and logically it cannot happen. Zero Hedge remarks on the question in a caustically titled post “The Monetary Endgame Score To Date: Hyperinflations: 56; Hyperdeflations: 0”:
We won’t waste our readers’ time with the details of all the 56 documented instances of hyperinflation in the modern, and not so modern, world. They can do so on their own by reading the attached CATO working paper by Hanke and Krus titled simply enough “World Hyperinflations.” Those who do read it will discover the details of how it happened to be that in post World War 2 Hungary the equivalent daily inflation rate of 207%, the highest ever recorded, led to a price doubling every 15 hours, certainly one upping such well-known instance of CTRL-P abandon as Zimbabwe (24.7 hours) and Weimar Germany (a tortoise-like 3.70 days). This and much more. What we will point is that at no time in recorded history did a monetary regime end in “hyperdeflation.” In fact there is not one hyperdeflationary episode of note. Although, we are quite certain, that virtually all of the 56 and counting hyperinflations in the world, were at one point borderline hyperdeflationary. All it took was central planner stupidity to get the table below, and a paper with the abovementioned title instead of “World Hyperdeflations.”
The Cato Institute’s paper presents a very powerful empirical argument against the case for deflation and hyperdeflation. Unfortunately it rests entirely on two fallacies that are hidden in its very title: First, hyperdeflation has nothing to do with the fate of any fiat currency, even the world reserve currency, the US dollar. A hyperdeflation is not the death of any particular currency nor even a series of currency collapses — it is the death of money itself.
The second fallacy in the Cato paper will take a bit longer to explain and once explained will show why it is so important to every anarchist, libertarian and Marxist.
Can there be such a thing as a hyperdeflation?
A hyperdeflation might possibly be defined as a situation where prices of commodities declined even as the supply of money increased. As the Cato Institute paper explains — there is no recorded instance of a hyper-deflation in the historical record. Of course, mild and even very severe deflations did occur several times up until the Great Depression; but history has many more examples of hyperinflations, as the Cato paper argues.
The problem with the Cato paper, however, is that its argument rests on the “quantity theory of money” fallacy — which according the Wikipedia states “that money supply has a direct, proportional relationship with the price level.” Which is to say, the Federal Reserve can force prices to increase — create inflation — if it increases the quantity of currency in circulation. In fact, this theory is wrong. The prices of commodities do not depend on the quantity of money in circulation, but on the quantity of socially necessary labor time required for their production. And here, at least theoretically, the case against hyper-deflation falls apart.
Here is the problem at the end of capitalism’s life: If the Marxist writers Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz are correct, the socially necessary labor time of commodities now have two distinct and contradictory measures: its labor time as a simple commodity and its labor time as a capitalistically produced commodity — yielding two quite different potential prices.
To put this in simpler terms, the price paid in a store for a typical commodity like an iPhone is mostly a reflection of the costs of economically wasted labor. The iPhone itself takes very little direct labor to produce, but, if its production is to be profitable, the accumulated costs of waste within the economy requires a massive mark up in the price you pay for it at the checkout counter.
What is this waste? Well, one source is the overhead created by the costly burden of government at present. Since the government doesn’t produce anything, its entire cost is borne by the rest of society. If, for instance, government accounts for about 50% of GDP, this means every product has a 100% markup just to pay for the operating expense of federal, state and local government. So about half the cost of your iPhone goes to cover things like drone attacks on Afghanistan civilians or corn subsidies to agribusiness. These cost don’t appear anywhere unless it comes directly from your wages in taxes, but even in this case the costs must be passed on in commodity circulation and will accumulate there in the costs of each commodity.
So every commodity essentially has two prices: the one that you pay at the checkout counter, which includes all the wasted economic activity in society, and the other, hidden, true price, which is the actual direct cost of producing to commodity. Surprisingly, this latter price is now only a negligible fraction of the total price of an iPhone, a pair of shoes, or even an automobile — the overwhelming bulk of the price of every product you buy consists of the hidden costs of economic waste within society that has accumulated over the past eighty years.
This is why, as I discussed in part one of this series, it now takes as much as seven dollars of debt, or even more, to create a single dollar of wages through fascist state economic policies designed to create jobs. Simply put, this internal discordance in the price of every commodity is a hyperdeflation weapon of mass destruction just waiting for a triggering event. What is making the Federal Reserve risk even the total collapse of the dollar on an insane gamble is the fact that this implosion can be triggered by the mildest hint of deflation. To prevent this event, the Federal Reserve must restart the failed system of debt accumulation that crashed in the financial meltdown of 2008.
Anarchists, libertarians and Marxists have a chance to put sand in the gears of the fascist state and bring it down along with the entire mode of production. All it requires is for us to change the debate over jobs and debt — opposing both Federal Reserve monetary and Washington fiscal policy aimed at expanding still further the system of wage slavery through policies designed to promote economic waste and debt.
But we can do this only if we are willing to take capital and the state head on by demanding an immediate reduction in hours of work until everyone who wants to work has a job, along with the elimination of all public and private debts, and abolition of all taxes.