Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

It has recently come to my attention (thank you George Warren) that the economist Steve Keen has proposed a solution to our economic woes: the government should give people money to pay off their debts. According to Keen it is the high level of private debt (about three times that of annual US GDP ) that is causing the economy to move so sluggishly. While enormous artificial debt creation did indeed foster the previous boom and our current bust, Keen has erred in both identifying the root cause of this debt explosion as well as an appropriate solution.

It is revealing that Keen does not ask the most pertinent question: he blames the banks for the debt explosion yet he does not address how is it possible banks could collectively lend out five times the amount of money in existence ($50 trillion in private debt vs a $10 trillion monetary base (M2))? He then decries “bad lending” – lending for purely financial market speculation, but again fails to ask why it would be in a lender’s interest to make such “gambling” loans – loans that more often than not would default (hint: moral hazard).  What is the answer to these unasked questions? Government. Government interference in the market (legal tender laws, legalization of fractional reserve lending, a central bank, implied bail outs, etc) resulted in the distorted outcomes Keen identifies. Being apparently unaware that government is the root cause of the problems he cites, he then unwittingly invokes that same entity as our savior: he proposes that “government created money” (through deficits) will solve the problem of too much bank created money (loans). But government is the sole reason banks can (legally) create money out of thin air to begin with! The legality of a central bank and fractional reserve lending makes phony debt possible. In a truly free, hard money economy (where the lending of demand deposits would constitute the actual theft that it is) credit expansion and unproductive loans to gamblers would cease to exist (because loan defaults will not be bailed out.) Only time deposits are eligible to be loaned out, thus naturally regulating the debt load in an economy.

Keen falls into the trap of blaming those capitalizing on the fruits of the government created circus (speculators, brokers) with causing the circus. That’s like blaming the existence of slavery on slave traders; slave traders capitalized on a situation made possible only by governmental enforcement of the legality of slavery. It’s the same old story: government creates an artificial scenario that some other group takes advantage of and then that group is subsequently piously vilified while the root cause is ignored.

As the intricacies of lending and finance are rather opaque I shall attempt to distill what has occurred and what Keen proposes to a simple narrative. Let us imagine three friends, Dave, Bob and Gary. Dave needs $800 to buy a house. Nobody has money to lend to Dave. Gary has a solution. Gary prints money ($1000) and gives it to Bob (because Gary doesn’t want Dave to know he is the source of the money). Bob loans the money ($800) to Dave and Bob keeps $200. Dave has his house built which provides builders with money. When the house is done Dave begins paying Bob back. All the builders are sad because Dave is not paying them anymore. Others are sad because Dave buys fewer goods because he has to repay Bob. When Bob gets money from Dave he gives it to Gary who promptly burns it (to hide what he has done). Because Gary is burning the money it is not being spent and so all the sad people ask Gary to print more money (so they won’t have to lower their prices) and to give it directly to Dave so Dave does not have to pay Bob anymore. So Gary prints more money and gives it to Dave to pay Bob, who then gives it to Gary who burns it. So what is the end result here? Dave got a free house and Bob got $200 for handling the money. Seems like everyone came out ahead here, right? Almost makes counterfeiting seem noble – I wonder why it is illegal? Oh, that’s right, because it is theft. It is theft from those not mentioned in the story. It is theft from every other person who holds and is paid in dollars as their dollars become worth less (because there are now more dollars) or worthless – take your pick!

When people propose “solutions” to our economic woes that involve government bailing out some group know that it is nothing more than calls to legally do what would otherwise land any one of us in jail were we to do so individually. It is theft. To have government take from unfavored groups and give to favored groups is theft. It was wrong to bail out the banks and it is wrong to bail out individuals. The only solution is to remove all authority government has over fiscal and monetary concerns. All unfairness in our current system is attributable to crony-capitalism fostered by big government colluding with big business. Dismantle big government and you’ll dismantle the inequity it fosters.