Monday, July 27, 2015

Why we should abandon the State

Revisionism, according to Harry Elmer Barnes, is bringing history into accord with the facts.  Why would history and factual evidence be at odds?  Because governments, per Orwell, falsify the past to keep the population subservient.  If people really knew what governments had done they would want less of it than they have.

How much less is the question Lew Rockwell addresses in his book, Against the State: An Anarcho-Capitalist Manifesto, released in May, 2014.  As the title makes clear, Rockwell argues for the complete elimination of the State.

Many people otherwise favoring unfettered freedom will qualify their position with an inevitable “but” — “but we need government to provide physical security and dispute resolution, the most critical services of all.”

Really?

If the free market is the “arena of voluntary interactions between individuals” that has proven so fruitful over the past 250 years, why does it need a coercive monopoly — the State — providing its most critical services?  Monopolies, he reminds us, are characterized by higher prices and poorer service.  Furthermore, the State, because it lacks the profit and loss test for allocating resources, “has no idea what to produce, in what quantities, in what location, using what methods.”  Given the importance of physical security and dispute resolution why do we assign its provision to such a thoroughly flawed institution?

Morally, the state fails in every way we consider moral, Rockwell points out. Instead of acquiring revenue through voluntary trade it steals from us and calls it taxation; it not only steals it tells us it’s our duty to comply if we want a civilized society.  If this sounds fishy we better get with it because this is the only way we can keep barbarians outside the gates and criminals from breaking into our homes.  Instead of attempting to provide for the general public, the state greases the squeaky wheels that lobby for special favors in exchange for votes or campaign contributions.  

To paraphrase Major General Smedley Butler, the State is a racket, the oldest and easily the most profitable, and surely the most vicious.

Yet we are indoctrinated to view the State from an early age as a positive force, thanks to its control of the educational system.  We are encouraged “to consider the State’s predation morally acceptable, and the world of voluntary exchange morally suspect.”

But even if one agrees that the State is an unwanted invader in our lives, does it necessarily follow that it should be eliminated?  Isn’t it instead a strong candidate for reform?  Rockwell says reform is futile.
Governments have no interest in staying limited, when they can expand their power and wealth by instead increasing their scope.  
The next time you find yourself insisting that we need to keep government limited, ask yourself why it never, ever stays that way. Might you be chasing a unicorn? 
What about “the people”? Can’t they be trusted to keep government limited? The answer to that question is all around you.
The State’s wars

If war is the health of the state, then the U.S. state has achieved a remarkable degree of well-being.  As Rockwell argues, the State’s health does not produce a corresponding degree of health in Americans or people in other countries it is allegedly trying to help.  Quite the opposite.

In demonstrating the State’s disregard for actual human beings, he cites the 60 Minutes interview in 1996 with then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, with her infamous remark about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children being “worth” the price of UN economic sanctions.   That Albright did not dispute the statistic has been taken by sanctions opponents that it was legitimate.  At the time, the US-led sanctions were an attempt to compel Iraq “to disclose and eliminate any weapons of mass destruction.”

Estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths during the first four years of the Iraq War range from 151,000 to over one million, with Rockwell emphasizing the latter figure.  These are only estimates because the U.S. did not think it worthwhile to track Iraqi (or Afghan) deaths.  In the frank words of U.S. General Tommy Franks, “we don’t do body counts.”  

Whichever figures are closer to the truth, the so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom resulted in Operation Iraqi Death and Destruction.

Rockwell attributes American indifference to Iraqi suffering to “this mysterious thing called nationalism.”
[It] makes an ideological religion of the nation’s wars. We are god-like liberators. They are devil-like terrorists. No amount of data or contrary information seems to make a dent in this irreligious faith. So it is in every country and in all times. Here is the intellectual blindness that war generates.
And the blindness is ideological, not technological.  We are the good guys.  “Every nation believes that about itself, but freedom is well served by the few who dare to think critically.”

He continues:
Something at the heart of American culture leads us to believe that everyone in the world would be pleased to be ruled by us. We seem to have great difficulty in sympathizing with the victims of US foreign policy. In addition, the whole of modern life seems to teach us that force is the answer to all problems. This is the basis of all domestic policy as recommended by both right and left. The Iraq War is nothing but an extension of this model.  (My emphasis)
Rockwell goes on to examine other wars in our history, particularly the Civil War and World War II, and shows that the government was not fighting to defend the freedom of Americans.  In the first case, Lincoln, as he threatened to do in his first inaugural, invaded the South to force it to collect a high federal tariff, which was an attempt to force southerners to subsidize northern manufacturers.  World War II was the capstone of two previous government disasters, World War I and the Great Depression, and it took government treachery to get the Japanese to strike the first blow and change Americans' attitude about entering the fray.

Wars against Americans

The government doesn’t limit itself to wars against other states.  The War on Drugs is manifestly a war on American civilians that “needlessly puts thousands of people in jail and discriminates against blacks, for a completely illegitimate purpose.” 
Almost everybody today realizes that Prohibition was a failure: the attempt to regulate alcohol consumption didn’t work and brought crime and civil liberties violations in its wake. . .  But if most people reject the Prohibition Amendment as an undue restriction on personal freedom, shouldn’t they reject the war on drugs as well?
It’s not just astronomically high incarceration rates that this war has produced.  Quoting Laurence Vance, he writes:
The war on drugs has destroyed financial privacy. Deposit more than $10,000 in a bank account and you are a suspected drug trafficker. ... The war on drugs has provided the rationale for militarizing local police departments. ... The war on drugs has resulted in outrageous behavior by police in their quest to arrest drug dealers. ... The war on drugs has eviscerated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The State’s monopoly of legal coercion can be invaluable for groups that want to impose their agenda on the rest of us.  As the agenda produces legislation and more bureaucracy, government expands, which is another way of saying more of our liberties disappear. 

Environmentalism, the call for tyranny

The environmentalist movement regards humans as the number one threat to the survival of the planet, and today “it holds the moral high ground.”  Nature is pure and man a blight.  The great evil is capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.  If you’re burdened with a terminally-ill disease, suggests an EarthFirst! Journal article, “Don’t go out with a whimper; go out with a bang! Undertake an eco-kamikaze mission.”  Don’t jump off a bridge — blow it up.  

Yet there’s no denying we have environmental problems.  Rockwell returns to the free market for a solution: 
The answer is to privatize and deregulate everything, from trash pickup to landfills. That way, everyone pays an appropriate part of the costs. . . .  The choice is always the same: put consumers in charge through private property and a free price system, or create a fiasco through government.
But some problems are global in scope, say the environmentalists, and only a world government can solve them.  How are we going to keep the air clean and the water potable without forcing people to radically change their behavior?

In economics, if something is not owned but used by many, it is called the “tragedy of the commons,” a term popularized by Garret Hardin.  The problem, to quote Aristotle, is “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” 

Robert P. Murphy in his Mises Academy Energy Economics course explains the problem with an example of overfishing.  Government owns lakes and won’t allow people to fish there without rules.  And the rules are many: Boat size, net size, size of the fish that can be caught, etc.  If it took a laissez-faire approach instead, people would come in and clean out the lake with huge boats and sophisticated fishing equipment.  Government thus imposes rules to make fishing less efficient.

But if the lake were privatized, the owner would have an incentive to act economically responsible.  He would charge an appropriate price rather than cripple the efficiency of his customers.

As Rockwell tells us,
[If] people had property rights in the streams and rivers running through their land, they could prevent pollution just as they prevent trash-dumping in their front yard. And if fishermen and homeowners held property rights in the coasts and adjacent waters, they could prevent pollution and properly allocate fishing rights.
The State’s Creature 

He next turns his attention to the engine of State growth: the central bank, which in the U.S. is the Federal Reserve System.  

The literature on the Fed would fill an ocean, but it’s essential character is easy to describe: It has monopoly control of the nation’s money supply, which today consists of paper bills and digits in bank accounts.  The power to create money at will allows it to guarantee the solvency of the biggest banks and serve as the federal government’s ATM machine. 

If you remember only one thing about the Fed, allow me to suggest that you never forget it is a creature of government.   It is not a free market entity.  Parts of it are privately owned but without the State none of it would exist.  

It is said the Fed is a necessary appendage to make the free market run smoothly, without the Panics that once plagued it.  It is in fact the second-worst thing to happen to free markets, with the number one villain being the State itself.  

Panics were the market’s disincentive for the perennial banking practice of fractional reserve banking.  With fractional reserve banking the banker says to its depositors: Your money is safely in our care anytime you want it.  When enough depositors sense that this may not be true, they line up at the bank demanding their money, which the bank cannot provide.

In pre-Fed days the government would allow favored banks to turn depositors away.  One would think the bank would be charged with embezzlement, which is defined as “the fraudulent appropriation of funds or property entrusted to one’s care but actually owned by someone else.”  Not so.  English courts circumvented this problem by declaring the money deposited with the banker is really his, not the depositor’s, and American courts have done the same. See here for historical details. 

Without the State banks that practiced fractional reserve banking would be far more cautious with their depositors’ money, at the very least.

Today, the central bank is ready to print money at a moment’s notice to support irresponsible banks.  The central bank is also ready to print money to support the state’s military adventures and welfare schemes.  It’s a nice racket for those at the top of the food chain, but not for the rest of us.  

Rockwell is careful to point out the distinction between hard times created by central bank meddling and hard times that arise for other reasons, such as war or natural disasters.  The latter may not be avoidable but the former certainly are.  Drawing on Mises’s circulation credit theory, he explains how, when the central bank artificially lowers interest rates, entrepreneurs are fooled into believing long-term projects are sustainable when in fact the resources don’t exist for completing them. 
The public has not made available [through increased savings] the additional means of production necessary to make the array of long-term production projects profitable. The boom will therefore be abortive, and the bust becomes inevitable.
It was this “misdirection of resources into unsustainable projects” that led to the Crash in 1929.  This is crucial to understand, Rockwell points out, because the prevailing economic approach was (and still is) to consult various aggregate measures for the health of the economy, particularly wholesale prices.  By this measure all seemed well.  As Rothbard explains in America’s Great Depression, 
the stability of wholesale prices in the 1920s was the result of monetary inflation offset by increased productivity, which lowered costs of production and increased the supply of goods. But this “offset” was only statistical; it did not eliminate the boom–bust cycle, it only obscured it. The economists who emphasized the importance of a stable price level were thus especially deceived . . . [pp. 169-170]
Economist Irving Fisher was one of those deceived, Rockwell notes, and was completely blindsided by the Crash.  Rockwell:
In the 1920s as now, fashionable opinion could see no major crisis coming. Then as now, the public was assured that the experts at the Fed were smoothing out economic fluctuations and deserved credit for bringing about unprecedented prosperity. And then as now, when the bust came, the free market took the blame for what the Federal Reserve had caused.
He concludes:
The century of the Fed has been a century of depression, recession, inflation, financial bubbles, and unsound banking, and its legacy is the precipice on which our economy now precariously rests.
And I wish to add, the century of the Fed has been a century of war.  

What we are today

At this point Rockwell identifies the social and economic system we have today, and it isn’t one most people would find comforting: Fascism.  Nevertheless, the shoe fits.
Fascism is the system of government that cartelizes the private sector, centrally plans the economy to subsidize producers, exalts the police State as the source of order, denies fundamental rights and liberties to individuals, and makes the executive State the unlimited master of society.
Of all the cartels the federal reserve is the most powerful by far, since it has monopoly control of the money supply.  Cartels derive their power from the coercive monopoly of the State.  In his pathbreaking book, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Gabriel Kolko explains that cartels and regulations began with the desire of big business to protect their turf and profits from upstart competition.  Voluntary arrangements within industries weren’t working so businessmen turned to government for help.  

When bankers partnered with government to establish the Fed it wasn’t long before money itself (gold) was banished domestically (1933) then later altogether (1971).

The money we have today is a loaded deck, and the dealer is the Fed.

Rockwell cites the year 1985 as the year in which “it became more common than not for a household to have two incomes rather than one.” Women were entering the workforce to keep family incomes stable.  Why was this necessary?  Fed inflation and an outpouring of new regulations were jacking up the cost of living.  Median family incomes today are only slightly better than they were in the Nixon era.

So should we seek reforms, tweak the system here and there?  Emphatically not, says Rockwell.
The problem is more fundamental. It is the quality of the money. It is the very existence of 10,000 regulatory agencies. It is the whole assumption that you have to pay the State for the privilege to work. It is the presumption that the government must manage every aspect of the capitalist economic order. In short, it is the total State that is the problem, and the suffering and decline will continue so long as the total State exists.
Someone might reasonably claim that the Founding Fathers’ ideal of limited government is the solution, the so-called night watchman view of the State.  While this would be a vast improvement over what we have, there is no way to prevent the watchman from becoming a tyrant.  No one is watching the watchman or curbing his power.  Besides, the Founding Fathers were not strict libertarians.  American fascism got its start at the Constitutional Convention and has expanded ever since.
Well, you might say, even if the statist, fascist tradition goes very far back in American history, can’t people reverse it? Can’t we return to limited government, as the Constitution mandates?  
This solution can’t work. It suffers from a fatal flaw. The Constitution creates a government that is the judge of its own powers.
Nor will focusing on democracy limit the State.  If democracy is understood as majority rule, what safeguards will we have to protect minorities?  What safeguards exist to prevent the majority from “eating the seed corn” or from doing anything at all?

How does a stateless society work?

If we have eliminated all varieties of State rule, we are left without a state.  How then do we live without one?

Simply put, we rely on the free market for everything, though “we can’t specify in advance exactly how the free market will work.”  But we know on a fundamental level what we need.  We need rights.  We need the right to acquire and own property.  And we need to “accept a common law code that spells out these rights.”

We also have the right to self-defense.  But as most people can’t do that for themselves we need an agency that will provide it for us.  We also need some means of settling disputes.

We don’t want a monopoly securing our rights because States have not only failed to do the job, they have violated our rights at every turn.    

The anarcho-capitalist solution follows from the nature of a voluntary society: “People would purchase protection and judicial services on the market, just like other goods.”

That simple?  That simple.

Rockwell quotes Rothbard for details:
Most likely, [protection and judicial] services would be sold on an advance subscription basis, with premiums paid regularly and services to be supplied on call. . . It seems likely, also, that supplies of police and judicial service would be provided by insurance companies, because it would be to their direct advantage to reduce the amount of crime as much as possible.
Further:
The checks and balances in the stateless society consist precisely in the free market, i.e., the existence of freely competitive police and judicial agencies that could quickly be mobilized to put down any outlaw agency. . . 
Did someone mention foreign policy?  Rockwell has an answer:
There is no danger of an aggressive or imperialist foreign policy, because there is no foreign policy. Each protection agency is confined to protecting its clients. Agencies, or allied groups of agencies, would defend against an organized invasion.
Conclusion

There is much more to Lew Rockwell’s argument than I have presented here, and I encourage readers with unanswered “buts” to see what he has to say.  

Overall, Rockwell presents his case in typical Rockwellian fashion, which is concise, lively prose that pulls no punches: 
We are in the stage of late fascism. The grandeur is gone, and all we are left with is a gun pointed at our heads.
Nor does he go it alone.  He calls on experts such as Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Hans-Herman Hoppe, Tom DiLorenzo, John Flynn, Lysander Spooner, Albert Jay Nock, Robert Higgs, Glenn Greenwald, and even opens with a quote from Thomas Paine.

Perhaps an abbreviated version of this book would be enticing to those looking for a brief introduction to a market-only society.  Though his book is not long, it does take the reader through details that an introductory work could safely omit.  

Lew Rockwell deserves high praise for a work I consider a must-read not just for libertarians, but for any person looking for answers in a world where wars and economic crises have become the norm.




    













Sunday, July 26, 2015

Will Keynesians or Keynesian Economics Take the Hit?

It’s rare that I take issue with Gary North in matters of economics or history, but his article of July 25 — "'The Bucks Stop Here': Keynesian Economics Will Get Blamed for the Crash” — is one I wish to discuss.

He begins:
For as long as the present economic system lumbers along, Keynesians will control the levers of power and influence. But when at last the system goes down in a heap, and central banks cannot restore the system, there will be a quest for answers. . . . 
When people's retirement plans are smashed, they are going to look for somebody to blame. That means Keynesians. The Keynesians will not be able to transfer this responsibility to somebody else. . . 
I can see people blaming specific Keynesians, such as Yellen or Bernanke, but not Keynesianism itself.  They will not blame "Keynesian Economics" — unless it’s to update it.  Voters will demand reforms.  They’ll want heads to roll.  Those at the top of the food chain will find a way to exploit their outrage, even if it means starting a major war.  But as long as the government hasn't become a failed state Keynesianism itself will still be enthroned. 
When the Federal Reserve finally is not in a position to restore economic growth by means of inflating the currency, Keynesians are going to get blamed.
Austrian economists will blame them, as they’ve done since 2007-2008.  But who will listen, especially now that economic growth has returned according to the Fed’s Beige Book collection of anecdotal reports that reveal increased consumer spending?

Keynesians tell us the crisis was a result of lax lending standards, limited regulation of non-depository financial institutions, and a glut of savings.  Wikipedia:
The temptation offered by such readily available savings overwhelmed the policy and regulatory control mechanisms in country after country, as lenders and borrowers put these savings to use, generating bubble after bubble across the globe.
From this, laymen could easily conclude the crisis was beyond anyone's control, or at least not the fault of any economic theory.  When the next crash arrives we will be reminded once again that economics is hard, something mere mortals shouldn’t practice at home.

In 2008 Queen Elizabeth II asked Professor Luis Garicano of the London School of Economics how something as big as the financial crisis could strike without warning.  His insipid answer: ‘At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing.’  Four years later an economist at the Bank of England elaborated: We got complacent.  Regulation wasn't necessary.  You know how it is, Your Majesty.  

Of course she does.  This was the Great Moderation: Central bankers had solved the business cycle volatility problem.  No wonder they were complacent.

Austrians could have told the Queen that only by closing shop could central bankers begin to solve the business cycle problem.  Austrians could have told her sound economics requires unfettered markets.  But for most people Austrians are the devil they don't know.  Austrians are a devil they've never heard of or care to hear about. 

The Great Depression and free markets

The myth still lingers that adherence to the gold standard was a major reason for the Great Depression.  Gold was the free market's money.  Only after governments abandoned gold did recovery begin, Keynesians tell us.  A casual viewing of some charts suggests they might have a point.  Never mind that the world was running on a government-rigged gold standard, the free market was holding back recovery.  We can't trust the free market ever again.

During the Depression, one of the few defenders of the Austrian viewpoint in the English-speaking world was Lionel Robbins, who published The Great Depression in 1934.  Yet he eventually repudiated his position.  A biographical note informs us that after the war Robbins published another book in support of “Keynes’s policies of full employment through control of aggregate demand.”  To laymen his apostasy could’ve been well-founded or expedient.  In either case it didn’t help the cause for free markets.  

I certainly hope North is right, that Keynesians will get hammered.  Logically, the buck stops with them.  But if this means Keynesianism will be tried and convicted, who will do it?  Keynesians will write another Wikipedia article that eases any doubts about who or what is to blame.  They’ll go on cable shows and point fingers.  The Queen will be fed another lame excuse.  Though I wish it were otherwise, the working public will not spend their evenings studying Austrian economics or watching Austrian economists on YouTube.  They’ll vent on Facebook instead.  They’ll be as likely to champion a Bernie Sanders as a Ron Paul.  They’ll want redress, not understanding.  For understanding they’ll defer to the experts, and the experts will still be Keynesians.  

The situation reminds me of government’s checks and balances. It’s government that does the checking and balancing.  No matter what atrocities it commits it never seriously finds fault with itself.  Somehow it always finds a way to increase its power. 

Yet I'm probably at least as optimistic as Dr. North. And there’s no question he’s optimistic.  See here for details.

I think the future will be some combination of Rothbard and Kurzweil.  Keynesianism will still be around intellectually because it is far too useful to the ruling elite to be abandoned.  Yet the institutions that put it in play will be on the ropes.  Broke governments will leave us with nearly free markets, while the law of accelerating returns will continue to open up radically new economic opportunities.  




Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why central banking persists

Only a few people care whether central banking persists, and they're the ones who profit from it.  In some cases they profit enormously.  The average Joe or Jill doesn't know about central banks and doesn't care to know.  To the ones at the top of the political - economic heap, this is how they want it.

A central bank comes about through political favors -- favors to big bankers and to politicians intent on buying votes and making war.  Where you find a country with a central bank, you have laws establishing it.  It requires political force to make them work.  A central bank is not an agreement among bankers.  It is an agreement backed by the monopoly force of government between bankers and politicians.  They are not free market entities, though they usually posture as one.

Central banks are often described as inflation fighters.  As monopoly producers of money, they are instead the sole source of inflation.

Central banks are said to be responsible for making capitalism work.  By making honest price discovery impossible and raging war against savers, they are in fact anti-capitalistic.  If you want to kill capitalism and replace it with cronyism and instability turn the market over to central bankers.

Almost every textbook that discusses the history of the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, will say it came about as a solution to the various Panics of the 19th century and the Panic of 1907.  What the textbooks don't discuss is why the Panics came about: the common practice of fractional reserve banking.  In simplest terms fractional reserve banking consists of a bank giving two people equal claim to the same monetary unit at the same time.  This is standard operating procedure for banks.  Except among Austrian economists, it is noncontroversial.

As central banks were called on to play a major role in funding World War I, European belligerents suspended payment in gold -- in other words, they outlawed inflation-resistant money.   Doing so prolonged the war and resulted in casualty figures never before seen in mankind's history.  In the U.S. the public was strongly discouraged from attempting to redeem paper money for the gold it represented.  As historian Ralph Raico writes in Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal,
Had the war not occurred, the Prussian Hohenzollerns would most probably have remained heads of Germany, with their panoply of subordinate kings and nobility in charge of the lesser German states. Whatever gains Hitler might have scored in the Reichstag elections, could he have erected his totalitarian, exterminationist dictatorship in the midst of this powerful aristocratic superstructure? Highly unlikely. In Russia, Lenin’s few thousand Communist revolutionaries confronted the immense Imperial Russian Army, the largest in the world. For Lenin to have any chance to succeed, that great army had first to be pulverized, which is what the Germans did. So, a twentieth century without the Great War might well have meant a century without Nazis or Communists. Imagine that. [pp. 1-2]
No Great War, no Nazis or Communists.  No central banks, no Great War.

Central bank funding inflates the wars -- makes them bloodier and longer -- as it produces money for the belligerent governments to spend.  Central banking is very profitable for people on the receiving end of the new money.  They see to it that central banks stick around.

Central bank money today is not restricted by anything tangible.  Individuals can purchase gold or silver coins but the coins are not money proper.  Only central bank digits and paper are money in the sense of serving as a widely-accepted medium of exchange.  This was established by government fiat, not the free market.  Where you find fiat money -- whether it's gold, silver, paper, or digits -- you don't have a free market.

People don't care about monetary issues as long as their money buys things.  When it doesn't then they care, but they rarely understand it.  They know they're being cheated, but exactly how is a mystery.  They don't know about fractional reserve banking, and if they did most economists would tell them it's perfectly okay.  Even the gold-loving maestro inferred it was a legitimate practice, as he describes credit expansion under the government-controlled gold standard:
Individual owners of gold are induced, by payments of interest, to deposit their gold in a bank (against which they can draw checks). But since it is rarely the case that all depositors want to withdraw all their gold at the same time, the banker need keep only a fraction of his total deposits in gold as reserves.  This enables the banker to loan out more than the amount of his gold deposits (which means that he holds claims to gold rather than gold as security of his deposits).
Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

Central banking will persist as long as fractional reserve banking remains unchallenged.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

One more book, Mr. Stockman

On March 14 of this year Gary North published “A letter to David Stockman” in which he identified Stockman’s popular website as providing the reasons and statistical evidence for why “Keynesian economic policies are going to blow up the world.”  North goes on to say:
You are the lightning rod for all of the establishment economists and senior bureaucrats who are overseeing what is going to become the worst economic disaster of modern times. They don't like the criticism. They fully understand that, if what you're saying is true, they are going to get blamed in the media, the textbooks, and the cultural memory for a comprehensive disaster that they personally engineered, supervised, and took credit for when the going was good. 
You are likely to become the John Maynard Keynes of this century. You will be remembered as the spokesman who called attention to the fact that the emperors have no clothes. Keynes served as the chief designer of the fabrics which have clothed the emperors ever since 1936. 
North then suggests that Stockman write a short theoretical work on economic theory, in the spirit of Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, which began with an analysis of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy.  “Central bank policies will shatter a sufficient number of windows to attract the attention of the victims.”

Stockman’s magnum opus, The Great Deformation, while great for its countless historical insights and economic analysis, is a “fat book,” North says.  Hazlitt wrote his little book for the discouraged troops fighting the Keynesian onslaught.  Stockman should do the same for the free market soldiers who will need to provide answers when “the checks stop coming.”

A free-market primer for today’s libertarians

I think North has a great suggestion, David Stockman.  You should write the book. 

But I have a suggestion, too: If you do write the book, please reconsider the necessity of a central bank.

On March 20, 2014, concluding an interview with Mises Institute, you said:
I think the political realities of the situation make the most likely scenario one in which there will be some kind of real financial collapse and disorder that will require a total reconstruction of the system. It’s impossible to say how that will be done, and this may be the chance to go back to a gold standard or to a very sharply circumscribed remit for central banks.
Gold standards have always been under government control.  That’s why they were abused, suspended, and ultimately abandoned in favor of a currency that central banks could inflate at will.  Central banking has always required a close partnership with government.  As Vera Smith pointed out decades ago, central banks are not free market entities.  They always require government sponsorship.  

What would prevent a “sharply circumscribed” Fed from growing to the monstrosity that exists today?  Certainly not the politicians, who can always start another war and declare emergency measures that require an unshackled central bank.  Certainly not the people who leave it up to the politicians to do the deciding for them.

If we are to establish a monetary system that serves the best interests of all market participants, we need currency competition.  Let the best currency win.

With the Fed established as the monopoly supplier of the nation’s money, the door is open for corruption.  As you state in your book,
In spite of the Fed’s design as a passive reactor to the needs of commerce, it got into the public debt business.  The 1913 national debt of $1.2 billion “exploded to $260 billion by the end of the Second World War, and rather than 3 percent of GDP it was now 125 percent.” [p. 199]
Fractional reserve banking is the soft underbelly of central banking.  In his monetary primer, What is Money?, North writes:
It is not surprising that central banks never get shut down or disestablished, not even after they create nightmare hyperinflations. The victims do not recognize the perpetrator: fractional reserve banking.
He adds:
The complexity of fractional reserve banking is enormous. Its processes are deliberately shrouded in mystery. This is why the Federal Reserve resists an audit by an independent government agency — independent of the FED. . .  
To reform central banking is to perpetuate it. To perpetuate it is to accept the fundamental premise of modern economics: money is different. Money is not governed by the same laws of supply and demand that govern the rest of the economy. Money requires experts to administer it. Private contracts are not sufficient. . . . 
Members of Congress are confident that they can buy votes by spending newly created money. They are not confident that this could continue if the public could redeem digital money for gold. Congress buys votes with fiat money. It would find it far more expensive to buy votes with gold coins. What is true of Congress is true of every legislature on earth.
On the issue of central banking I stand with Ron Paul: Get rid of it, and let the market flourish for all participants.

Two weeks after writing his letter to you North published the preface of a book he has been busy writing, based on Hazlitt’s primer: Christian Economics in One Lesson.  Whether he is now following his own suggestion, I can’t say, but I hope it doesn’t discourage you from writing your own text.

North has likened you to the Biblical David in his confrontation with Goliath (paywall) where the role of the giant is represented by Keynes.  While there is a sense in which this is accurate, I believe it is also misleading.  The Goliath you’re confronting is a sham, a purveyor of free lunches, a counterfeiter hiding behind obscurantist jargon.  Your opponent has a glass jaw, and you make that abundantly clear in your Contra Corner columns.

But as North says, you can’t beat something with nothing, and I believe a positive, read-in-one-sitting work from you would be an invaluable resource when the next crisis hits. 

Please consider it, Mr. Stockman.








Friday, May 22, 2015

Death of Moore's Law? Don't count on it

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.Popular Mechanics, March 1949

Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers -- or at least terminals connected to a central computer -- automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. Gordon Moore, 1965

For centuries, explorers have searched the world for the fountain of youth. Today’s billionaires believe they can create it, using technology and data. -- Ariana Eunjung Cha, April 4, 2015


The phrase “hit a wall” in idiomatic English means to reach a point where progress stops or slows significantly.  Engineers don’t warm up to that phrase very easily.  For an engineer a wall is a challenge, more like a speed bump. They throw their hands up only if they’re being robbed – maybe.  They have little use for the word “impossible.”

Let’s say you’ve written a book on genetics, and as a way of getting would-be readers pumped up you decide to store every word and illustration in your book – table of contents, index, everything -- in DNA.  And not only store it, but retrieve it as well.  And to get your point across about the immenseness of DNA storage someone suggests you write 70,000,000,000 (70 billion) copies of the book in DNA.  Impossible?  Of course not.  Geneticist George Church did it three years ago. 

On April 19, 1965 an engineer named Gordon Moore published an article in which he noted something remarkable about integrated circuits and their components.  Often referred to as a chip, an integrated circuit is a microelectronic device consisting of many interconnected transistors and other components fabricated on a semiconductor wafer, usually silicon.  Without integrated circuits we would have no smartphones, tablets, PCs, Macs, and countless other electronic devices.  “For simple circuits,” Moore wrote, “the cost per component is nearly inversely proportional to the number of components.”

This was the engineering equivalent of striking gold.  With more components not only did you get increased performance (since electrons have a shorter commute), but the cost per component decreased -- at least up to a point.  At the time, chips contained only a handful of components, yet Moore predicted an exponential trend was underway, so that by 1975 “the number of components per integrated circuit for minimum cost will be 65,000.”

This was a bold extrapolation on Moore’s part.  Prior to using integrated circuits transistors and other components were wired together by hand on a circuit board.  A painstaking process, but one that, early on, was less expensive than producing integrated chips.  In 1965 only a few companies were making integrated circuits, and their customers were mostly NASA and the U.S. military.  Add to this the fact that only about 10-20 percent of the transistors actually worked, according to Moore’s recollection.

Yet by 1975 Intel, the company he co-founded in 1968, was preparing to market a memory chip with 32,000 components, leaving Moore’s original estimate off only by a factor of two. 

This progression of a doubling of transistor density every year, later revised to every two years, became known as Moore’s Law.  Higher densities meant increased performance, more useful technology.  Higher densities drove component cost down, deflating retail prices and attracting more consumers.

Bolstered by other technological innovations, 50 years of Moore’s Law has brought us the Digital Age, as Moore predicted.  More precisely, engineers, project managers, and entrepreneurs have innovated, invested and generally dedicated their lives to keep Moore’s Law going.  And consumers eagerly line up for the latest offerings.

How far have we come since Moore wrote his article?  Today’s integrated circuits contain billions of transistors and are fabricated in factories that run in the billions of dollars to build.  Yet the cost per transistor has dropped from about $30 in 1965 (in 2015 dollars) to an infinitesimal amount today.

And the world has an insatiable hunger for transistors.  As one researcher noted,

In 2014, semiconductor production facilities made some 250 billion billion (250 x 10^18) transistors. This was, literally, production on an astronomical scale. Every second of that year, on average, 8 trillion transistors were produced. That figure is about 25 times the number of stars in the Milky Way and some 75 times the number of galaxies in the known universe.

Remember, that’s 8 trillion transistors for every second of 2014.  The flood of transistors has “been the ever-rising tide that has not only lifted all boats but also enabled us to make fantastic and entirely new kinds of boats.”

Though there have been predictions in the past of the imminent demise of Moore’s Law, engineers were able to find ”ways around what we thought were going to be pretty hard stops,” as Moore stated in a recent interview.  But ultimately, there are the fundamental limits of the known world: the speed of light and the atomic nature of materials. 

As Ray Kurzweil has pointed out frequently and which a surprising number of researchers seem to forget, Moore’s Law is a computing paradigm and is the fifth such paradigm since the 1890 census.  All five paradigms have shown exponential growth.  The first four – electromechanical, relay, vacuum tube, and transistor – eventually lost steam and were superseded by a technology previously found only in niche markets, such as the military, or that languished in sparsely-funded research labs.  As a paradigm slows -- no longer progresses exponentially -- more dollars are spent on developing the most promising technologies to replace it.

Going 3D

The semiconductor industry is running out of tricks to keep shrinking silicon transistors.  Right now the smallest size is 14 nanometers, and by 2020 they will need to be five nanometers to keep pace with Moore’s Law.  Is this a wall approaching? 

Not to Samsung.  They’re already building flash memory chips using three-dimensional integrated circuits to achieve performance gains.  Instead of piling transistors side-by-side on a plane of silicon, they’re stacking them, taking up half the space of planar chips.  They’re building hi-rise condos instead of subdivisions with smaller and smaller houses.  More layers means better performance and no more shrinking.  No longer will they have to retrofit multibillion-dollar factories to produce the latest chips. 

IBM is taking a different approach, at least for now. They’re developing transistors built with carbon nanotubes instead of silicon, which they hope to have ready for mass production by 2020. At two nanometers in diameter, the nanotubes, which though seamless resemble rolled up chicken wire, could continue the pace of cramming more transistors onto a silicon substrate.  Based on simulations, the nanotube transistors are about five times as fast as ones made from silicon.

In his magnum opus Kurzweil cites the work of Peter Burke, University of California/Irvine, who demonstrated nanotube circuits operating at 2.5 gigahertz (2.5 GHz).  However, in a peer-reviewed article Burke claimed the theoretical speed limit of these nanotube transistors should be measured in terahertz, where 1 THz equals 1,000 GHz.  (What a boost that would be to my 2.66 GHz MacBook Pro!)

The biggest problem is positioning the nanotubes closely enough together on the chip.  IBM’s preferred approach is to label the substrate and nanotubes with a compound “that would cause them to self-assemble into position.”

Self-assembly of nanoscale circuits would be a world-changer.  As Kurzweil notes, citing the work of researchers at UCLA, having “potentially trillions of circuit components organize themselves, rather than be painstakingly assembled in a top-down process, would enable large-scale circuits to be created in test tubes rather than in multibillion-dollar factories, using chemistry rather than lithography.”

Creating nanocircuits in chemistry flasks “will be another important step in the decentralization of our industrial infrastructure and will maintain the law of accelerating returns through this century and beyond.”

In two decades robots will be in charge

One of the reasons for continuing the exponential development of technology is to eventually turn the task over to robots.  They will eventually graduate and take charge of R&D.  In the 2020s, working with advanced hardware and computational strategies, researchers will make major progress in emulating the human brain.  By 2029 a computer will be able to pass itself off as human under competent interrogation during a Turing Test.

Meanwhile, the inexorable march of miniaturization will make its way into our bodies, including our brains.  Nanobots the size of a red blood cell will enter our bloodstream and augment our intelligence, combining the pattern recognition power of our biological brains with the speed, capacity, and knowledge-sharing ability of our technology.  This should get underway sometime in the 2020s. 

By the 2030s the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.  Somewhere around 2045 “the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  Kurzweil calls this period the Singularity.

AI researcher Ben Goertzel thinks the Singularity could arrive much sooner – in 10 years.

Technology will continue to empower us with better and cheaper products some of which will give us the ability to make better and cheaper products. Keynesianism and its Free Lunch Institute known as the welfare state will gradually kill off banks and their governments as we've known them.  Our overlords will not go quietly but there is a better future ahead.

As a hint of that better future I offer this sampling of encouraging developments:

1.    Surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrates an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney. Using similar technology, Dr. Atala's young patient Luke Massella received an engineered bladder 10 years ago; we meet him onstage.

2.    Just like his beloved grandfather, Avi Reichental is a maker of things. The difference is, now he can use 3D printers to make almost anything, out of almost any material. Reichental tours us through the possibilities of 3D printing, for everything from printed candy to highly custom sneakers.

3.    3D printing has grown in sophistication since the late 1970s; TED Fellow Skylar Tibbits is shaping the next development, which he calls 4D printing, where the fourth dimension is time. This emerging technology will allow us to print objects that then reshape themselves or self-assemble over time. Think: a printed cube that folds before your eyes, or a printed pipe able to sense the need to expand or contract.

4.    What we think of as 3D printing, says Joseph DeSimone, is really just 2D printing over and over ... slowly. Onstage at TED2015, he unveils a bold new technique — inspired, yes, by Terminator 2 — that's 25 to 100 times faster, and creates smooth, strong parts. Could it finally help to fulfill the tremendous promise of 3D printing?









































Source: The Singularity is Near, p. 66

The chart shows the price-performance of forty-nine computational systems in the 20th century, measured by instructions per second per thousand constant dollars.  (A rising straight line on a log chart indicates exponential growth.)