Source: The Mises Institute, by William Anderson
Nearly four decades ago, political pundits were shocked as voters turned away President Jimmy Carter and voted in Ronald Reagan, who promised to bring fundamental change to Washington and the indwelling political establishment. At the time, unemployment was rising quickly and inflation raged in double-digits, and Reagan had promised to deal with the economic failures by cutting income tax rates, slashing government spending, and reducing the regulatory burden.
As we know, Reagan succeeded in convincing Congress to do one of those three things — cut income tax rates — but the spending and regulatory monster continued to grow. The Carter administration already had initiated most of the major deregulation initiatives, and Reagan’s role in that area was minor at best. Reagan had to deal with something else in 1982 that threatened to turn his presidency into a one-term failure: a major recession in which the nation’s unemployment rate rose to above 10 percent and the disappearance of whole swaths of the nation’s industrial sector, resulting in what has been called the “Rust Belt” of the northern United States.
Ending 1970s-Style Inflation
We know the rest of the story. The economy recovered (despite interest rates that were above 10 percent) and Reagan won re-election in 1984 in a huge electoral landslide. We also know that while the Reagan administration had many failures, capital investment nonetheless turned toward the “high-technology” sectors and telecommunications.
The one thing that was on no one’s political agenda in 1980 was on Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s mind: how to wring inflation out of the system and reestablish some balance in the monetary sector. Reagan claimed that by cutting tax rates, businesses would follow with new investments and increase the supply of goods available to consumers, thus reducing inflation on the “supply side.” This is why the Reaganites referred to their plan as “Supply-side Economics.”
Volcker understood, however, that while supply-side’s boosters might have claimed it to be a painless way to end inflation, it clearly would be doomed to failure, something Austrian economists like Murray Rothbard and others also comprehended. Inflation is first and foremost a monetary phenomenon and reducing inflation would not come about by just cutting taxes and producing more goods. Instead, Volcker and the Fed needed to stop expanding the economy’s money supply and also allow interest rates to rise — and rise they did.
Unfortunately, the pundits (along with most economists — who should have known better) employed the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, claiming that higher interest rates caused the severe recession of 1982. Instead, the higher interest rates exposed the economic malinvestments that needed to be liquidated before the economy could have a real recovery, and while Austrian economists are not necessarily satisfied with what the Fed and US government did during the 1980s, some positive things happened with the economy during the 1980s.
Will Trump Pop the Bubble?
Donald Trump faces a much different situation post-election than did Ronald Reagan, but nonetheless a recession looms, as the Federal Reserve policies of the past two decades have piled up a mountain of malinvestments, and especially since 2008, when the housing bubble finally crashed.
Since then, the economic “game plan” for the Fed and the Barack Obama administration has been to prop up the weak sectors of the economy through a combination of outright subsidies and Fed security purchases. The stunning diagram below explains in part why both interest rates are extraordinarily low and the US economy remains sluggish.
As one can readily see, Fed purchases pre-2008 meltdown consisted mostly of six-month U.S. Treasury Bills, with the dollar amount being about 5 percent of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Post-meltdown purchases, however, have skyrocketed, and the Fed, while cutting back on six-month T-bills, has engaged in two very questionable activities, including the purchase of massive numbers of mortgage securities to continue what is left of the housing bubble, and buying long-term US bonds in order to decrease the interest rate spread between short-term and long-term securities. This is something that former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke called “Operation Twist” (or what Peter Schiff more aptly said should be named “Operation Screw”).
The purchases tended to level off after 2014, but not until the Fed was propping up a quarter of U.S. GDP through its purchases. Yes, the official rate of unemployment in this country is less than 5 percent, but no one — not even Paul Krugman — is claiming that all is well. Certainly, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were able to generate a lot of political enthusiasm for saying the economy is in peril.
The Real Problems Underlying This “Expansion”
Because Keynesians are wedded to the false “theory” of aggregate demand and aggregate supply, they are incapable of understanding the real issues facing the economy, and no one should be surprised. After all, Japan’s political and business leaders have been delusional for a quarter of a century, as the government now is trying to “stimulate” the economy via negative interest rates, something that truly places the government in a war with nature. For that matter, Krugman’s recent claims that future “austerity” measures — presumably imposed by the future Trump administration — will lead to a recession actually demonstrates a terrible ignorance of what actually causes economic downturns.
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