Friday, October 31, 2008

All This Has Happened Before, And Will Happen Again

Reading Murray Rothbard's, "The Mystery of Banking" Originally written in the 80s and updated over a number of editions for the present.

One theme stands out, quoting from Battlestar Galactica's 4th season: "All this has happened before, and will happen again."

Get a load of this passage from the concluding section, p. 247:

After Fed inflation led to the boom of the 1920s and the bust of 1929, well-founded public distrust of all the banks, including the Fed, led to widespread demands for redemption of bank deposits in cash, and even of Federal Reserve notes in gold. The Fed tried frantically to inflate after the 1929 crash, including massive open market purchases and heavy loans to banks. These attempts succeeded in driving interest rates down, but they foundered on the rock of massive distrust of the banks. Furthermore, bank fears of runs as well as bankruptcies by their borrowers led them to pile up excess reserves in a manner not seen before or since the 1930s.

Wow! That's eerily familiar! Greenspan low rates lead to large influx of cheap money, helped along by over-charged lending. Fear of deposit safety and bank solvency leads to some high-profile bank runs. Fed is right now trying to massively inflate by open-market purchases, loans to banks via its discount window, and now the TARP program. While the public at-large may not fear their banks as much, the banks still fear the public's solvency and won't lend (despite Fed encouragements) as they seek to build up reserves (known to us right now by the buzzworthy phrase, "deleveraging").

Watch the M2 figures (or M3, if we had them).

As we work our way through our present economic challenges, an election draws near. What I've learned so far has shown me that in our Great Depression, we took a bad, but not untenable situation and made it worse through unsound policy decisions and the meddling of two succeeding presidents who saw problems they believed only government could and only government should solve.

Then, as now remarkably, the economies of the world's nations were fairly interdependent. Our problems were not solely of our own making, and world economic circumstances shaped our government's actions. It's interesting to me, however, that while most of the rest of the developed world experienced a shock and a recovery during this time, none were quite as terrible as our own.

What I hope to learn in the reading ahead is whether we made the problem worse through more government intervention. Could the wrath and anguish and hunger of our depression been blunted if our government had done nothing, instead of trying to micromanage the economy?

Back then, after Hoover we elected a socialist in President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Much was accomplished during his tenure as President. Chances are you live in a town with a bridge built through his Civilian Conservation Corps program.

FDR believed in the government as solution for society's ills. Government was going to fix our economic problems, confer upon you the "right" to a well paying job, guarantee your financial security in old-age via Social Security, and hosts of other ideas and programs. The American Dream became under FDR, the American Promise (as in social contract, not as in vision of potential).

Our government as we live under it today, saw its genesis under his administration. FDR is recorded in crackly audio as well as in writings as believing that our Constitution was a stale and outmoded document. He wanted to modernize it, and he saw it as his duty to help spur that change; spur the change in the relationship of government to the governed. For good or ill, our nation would never be quite the same again. And it's not.

It's fascinating to me to see that these things are tending to repeat themselves in my lifetime now. We're in the beginning stages of another major economic crises. We've just experienced the first (and possibly only) major shock to our stock markets (1929's crash was similar, in that it was over rather fast, but the Depression would follow along in its aftermath). We can see the government beginning to inflate its way out and recapitalize major financial instituions with billions of dollars newly printed.

It remains to be seen if our recession will proceed as in the past few, and gradually fade, or if, like the Depression, reaction and changing government policy help to fashion it into something more ominous and lasting.

Then, as now, we're at a Presidential crossroads. We tipped toward government as a safety net and hoped for change in the bold voice of FDR. In fear of our future we accepted his socialist experiment. As we went to war for a second time, the experiment faded, but didn't ever go completely away. A nation united in the ultimate victory over absolutism in WWII repatriated vast swaths of veterans who has just been to hell and survived. They thought they could do anything, and when they came home, they set out to act decisively on their dreams.

They succeeded, transforming America into a premiere economic superpower. FDR's crutches were no longer needed. But the impact has stayed with us. Our society has come to accept and take for granted some of the government programs which were experimental in FDR's time.

Now...we again are afraid and concerned about out economic future. We're tilting in that fear back toward socialism. Once again we "hope for change" in the person of Barack Obama, whose ideas are much the same as FDR's. Government is the answer. Our Constitution is a stale document in need of retooling for a modern world. In "spread(ing) the wealth around," we look to once again subvert the American Dream into an American Promise. I am not sure why we think it will work out any differently this time, than it did in FDR's time. Our choices are shaped by our environment and experiences. Is it simply that most of us just don't know any better; haven't had those experiences which would teach us the lessons of history?

For me, I still have an innate curiosity for discovering how the world works. I desire to try to be less ignorant, even if that means what I learn might weigh heavily on my spirit. I'd rather die in knowledge than live blissfully in ignorance.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining a greater appreciation for how our economy, and our banks, Fed, and monetary policy function. You'll get an education that will illuminate the meaning behind actions the Fed takes and what's really going on behind the headlines and sound bites over major news broadcasts. It's been a real eye-opener for me during our latest banking/lending/stock market crisis.

What's more is that the Ludwig von Mises Institute has a PDF version available on their website, formatted nicely if you're one of those people lucky enough to have an e-paper reader. I've been reading on my laptop, which has been OK.

Nearly finished with "The Mystery of Banking," my next book will be Rothbard's "America's Great Depression." I'm hoping to get a little inside baseball on why our depression happened, why it was so damaging, and why it took so long to recover.

I am already learning that "progressive" policy had become the trend in the beginning of the 20th century. Such policy helped push us to participate in WWI (also helped along by J.P. Morgan & Co, who had its fingers deep into the war machine, and a war would help bail it out of failing railroad interests). Participation with Britain (through the Genoa Convention) in a faux gold bullion standard after the war led to inflationist money supply expansion throughout the 20s. It appears this heavy expansion of the money supply created the ripe conditions for the 1929 crash.

In any case, if you find financial topics interesting, these books are worth your time, as well as some time spent at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website, which represents the Austrian School of economic thought (which has a very different perspective from much of the Friedmanite and Keynesian ideas taught in most of our colleges).

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