Wednesday, July 29, 2009


There's No "I" in IER

Lately we've had some pretty good stuff come out at the Institute for Energy Research (IER), if I do say so myself. And such horn-tooting isn't as bad as it first seems, since the below were truly team efforts.

* In this press release we pointed out the irony of Joe Biden's recent recommendations to Ukraine. (Hint: he wants them to cut government subsidies and to increase domestic natural gas production in order to bolster their national security.)

* In this blog post we underscored the significance of Secretary of State Clinton's visit to India, where she was told that India was not going to sacrifice its economy to fighting climate change.

* Continuing the theme, in this press release the IER team collected a bunch of quotes showing that US officials seem to not be listening to Chinese and Indian officials, when they say in quite plain English (?) that they aren't going to adopt caps on their carbon dioxide emissions. This is rather awkward, since the only sliver of a rationale left for the Waxman-Markey bill (which passed the House narrowly and still has to get through the Senate) is that US leadership will provoke other major countries to follow suit.

* Finally, here is a blog post giving the low down on the CFTC's recent announcement that, "after further review," it turns out speculators caused the oil price spike in 2008 after all. I guess science advances one election at a time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


"Why won't he write?"

Excuse the paucity of posts; on Saturday I went to Dick Clark (the younger)'s wedding to Justina White and then I went straight from there to Mises University. For those who know him, let me mention that Dick's wedding was great; we had the best karaoke ever for the afterparty. I know that might sound lame but really, it was a small group in a dive bar in Decatur AL, but there were several musicians in the group and it was freakin' sweet.

In the meantime, here is my critique of a PIMCO guy talking about how awesome Bernanke is, and why paying interest on reserves will contain the inflation genie. An excerpt:
Recall that Bernanke's extreme money pumping — necessary to avoid the "mistakes of the Great Depression" — began in September 2008. That means almost two-and-a-half years will have passed, before these wonderful remedies work their magic.

Am I the only one who wants a refund? Back when Bernanke and Henry Paulson were bailing out AIG et al. with hundreds of billions of dollars, they told us it was necessary to avert a global economic catastrophe. Did everyone realize that the lesser of two evils involved two-and-a-half years (at least) of stagnation and interest rates at 0 percent?

Monday, July 27, 2009


The Wenzel Wager: A Call for Disinterested Analysis

In light of our recent wrestling match, I decided to look up the terms of the wager I had made with Robert Wenzel (see here and here). Back in January we agreed that the winner (someone who gets 2/3 or 3/3 out of the following) would get a dinner of up to $350 from the loser in the winner's city of residence. The 3 conditions were:

* Murphy says CPI (not the "core" number) will rise by at least 8% during 2009; Wenzel says it won't.

* Murphy says unemployment will be higher at end of 2009 than at start; Wenzel says no.

* Murphy says real GDP growth will be flat or negative for 2009; Wenzel says it will be positive.

I'm feeling great about the unemployment call, I'm optimistic about the CPI call, and I'm not at all confident about the real GDP call, especially because suppressed inflation numbers would artificially boost the official real GDP figures (which we have no choice but to use for our bet).

But here's the problem: If you follow the links, and especially if you read other Wenzel posts from January, you'll see that the reason he made the case for optimism (which prompted me to disagree and then our bet) was that M2 was growing at double-digit rates. Nowhere in our bet did we say "assuming Bernanke keeps up the money printing."

So what do the judicious readers of Free Advice (both of you*) think? Do I give Wenzel the opportunity to cancel the wager since the basis for his views has now collapsed?

* I mean that only two readers are judicious; I have way more than two readers.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Another Analogy for My Solution to the Mind-Body Problem

Last week, I dazzled you all with my computer analogy that I thought neatly solved the philosophical mind-body problem as well as the theological problem of God's sovereignty and free will. In the comments, KSralla argued that my approach wasn't consistent with the Christian conception of God:
Unless God violates his own rules (becoming a lawbreaker), then he must (according to his nature) allow the physical universe to expand and evolve according to these rules, and has in effect banned himself from pervading his physical creation at t=X. That might be an acceptable model if it were consistent with the image of the Judeo-Christian God portrayed in scripture. It is not.
Several Christians have recoiled from my "solution" in this fashion in the past, and so I want to spend today's post trying to defuse the hostility. (Note that to make sense of today's post, you should first read last week's, though you don't need to read any of the comments to get up to speed.)

First, let me spend a minute explaining that by definition, God can't break the laws of physics, any more than He can make 2+2=5. What are the "laws of physics"? As Richard Feynman explained in an essay called "The Character of Physical Law," they are simply the rules that describe the behavior of the objects of our natural investigations. Now because we are fallible, if we ever discover a violation of one of these "rules"--and we're sure it's a legit violation, not due to experimental error--then we must conclude, "The rules aren't what we thought they were yesterday." Einstein overturned Newtonian physics, but the universe itself didn't change because of his work.

Now the average Christian, I think, believes that scientists have come up with the "normal" laws of physics and of biology. Further, the average Christian believes that when Jesus walked on water, or raised Lazarus from the dead, that these miracles were violations of those rules. Maybe they were, and maybe they weren't (I think not--it would make God's design that much more impressive), but either way, it is nonsensical to say that the atoms in Lazarus' body broke the laws of physics that day in the tomb. Whatever behavior his atoms did display, must have been consistent with a generalized body of laws that would be the new and improved "laws of physics."

(In case this sounds too tautologous, note that unless the rules are fairly economical, the study of physics is pointless. The reason it's so helpful for us to learn "the laws of physics" is that it gives us predictive power; we really do gain insight into how nature operates. But we could imagine a world in which the laws were so broad that onlookers with our degree of mental powers would discern no obvious patterns, and the world would be a chaotic muddle. So part of God's design is that all of the wonders of the universe have their physical instantiations--apparently!--composed of a small group of elementary building blocks, which obey a fairly sparse set of rules.)

So we see that KSralla's objection doesn't make any sense. The standard Deistic image of God--against which KSralla is reacting--doesn't really work if you think that God created not only space but also time. It's wrong to think that God created Adam and Eve and everything else, then sat back and waited for His wound-up clock to spin out His design. From God's point of view, it is all simultaneous; He creates Adam and Eve just as He descends to Earth with a flaming sword in His mouth. (Note that this is also how I deal with Mises' praxelogical critique of the Western idea of God. Mises asked, why wouldn't an omnipotent and omniscient being remove all of its felt uneasiness in one action? He does.)

In my view, it's wrong to picture God as only jumping in once in a while to help out nature to fulfill His plans. "Whoa, those whiny Israelites will be in bondage forever if I don't do something. I'll temporarily make bushes impervious to fire and talk to Moses. Then I'll hang out back in heaven for a while until they need Me to swoop in again and change the charge on electrons in the Nile to turn the water into blood."

No, that's not how I picture it at all. Every instant of the history of the universe is intimately infused with God's presence and action; He is always "intervening." But in order to allow us to make sense of things, 99.999999% of the time it seems as if nature obeys its "lifeless" rules, and then once in a great while an apparent "miracle" takes place. There couldn't be apparent violations of the ordinary rules all the time, lest those "rules" would never be perceived in the first place. (Just to clarify, I am not saying that what we call the laws of physics were actually violated during the plagues and so forth. I think those were just unexpected and rare outcomes of the standard rules, given the earlier conditions of the physical universe.)

OK so on to the new analogy, to help make this point: Let's say I have a stack of blank index cards. With my pencil I start doodling shapes on the cards. Also, I don't do the first card, and then the second. Rather, I do part of the doodles on, say, the 87th card in the stack, then I do part of the doodles on the 13th card, and so forth.

Finally, when I'm all done doodling, I call my buddy over. I tell him, "I am going to show you a new world in which your body is that of a frog. Your objective is to get from one side of the street to the other, without getting hit by any of the traffic."

I start flipping through the stack of cards, on which I have drawn the scenes from a game of Frogger. But because I perfectly anticipated what my buddy would will with his mind, I have drawn the scenes such that the frog moves in exactly the way my buddy wants it to. After a few minutes, the novelty wears off and my buddy is dead certain that he is controlling his frog body with his mental desires.

Now, if I stop the demonstration and ask my buddy, "Describe how the cars move?" he will be able to do it. Some cars move really fast, others move slow. But at no time does a car that's on the top right of the xth index card suddenly teleport to the lower left of the (x+1)th index card.

I hope it is clear that in order for my buddy to be able to play the game at all, I had to build in some patterns for the objects in the alternate world to obey. Did these rules constrain me? Not really; I was free to do whatever I wanted with the pencil and the blank cards. But part of what I wanted was for my friend to be able to test his frogging skills, and he couldn't have done that if the cars appeared in and out of existence at apparently random spots on the cards. Moreover, it's clear that the "time" in the frogger world has nothing to do with me; I didn't even create the cards in order.

This is what I think the actual, physical universe must be like. It's true, the replacement of a deterministic, Newtonian universe with quantum uncertainty makes the analogy less compelling. But in any event I think it disposes of the claim that my approach somehow limits God's sovereignty, or limits His creative work to the first week of Genesis.

Friday, July 24, 2009



* Jason Clemens and I have a piece in Human Events on California's predicament. (The comments are more entertaining than our dry analysis.)

* Marlo Lewis challenges the claim that the "science is settled" regarding global warming. Does anyone know if RealClimate has addressed Watts' claims about thermometers being put next to exhaust fans, etc.? If his work is right (as Lewis summarizes in the linked post), it's pretty serious.

* Scott Sumner continues to unwittingly support my new book's thesis. After quoting Bernanke's recent WSJ op ed, in which Big Ben listed all the ways he had expertly steered the economy through this storm, Scott asks:
Isn’t this basically what Herbert Hoover’s Fed did? Didn’t they also cut rates to near zero levels? Didn’t they also massively expand the Fed’s balance sheet, causing rapid growth in the monetary base? Didn’t Hoover also bail out the banking system with taxpayer money through his Reconstruction Finance Corporation? So does that mean the Fed was also “accommodative” in the early 1930s? And if so, what’s the difference between ‘accommodative’ and ‘expansionary.’

Am I being too hard on Bernanke? After all, the Fed has done a lot. But so did Hoover’s Fed, the question is whether the Fed is doing anything effective. The only difference I can see is that the base rose even more under Bernanke than under Hoover, but that was fully neutralized by the policy of bribing banks to hoard excess reserves.

Yes Scott, that is what happened under Hoover. The government has implemented the exact policies that it implemented the last time it caused a decade-long depression. And since Bernanke was appointed before it was apparent that we were in for Depression 2.0, and since he was an academic expert on what has caused the Great Depression...that's why I got suspicious.

* In the post calling for celebrity quotes, someone posted the following video. Hilarious. (Make sure you watch the finale.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Murphy Interviewed by Karen Kwiatkowski

Here is the audio [.mp3]. (Note that that's not me singing in the beginning.)


Looking for Silly Celebrity Quotes

I am working on a project where I need to collect a bunch of economically ignorant quotes from famous people. So for example, I know Bono has pontificated about Third World debt, Leonardo DeCaprio has jumped on the global warming bandwagon, etc. In the comments I'd like any links you could provide to examples.


"I sell insurance, what do you do, Benoit?" "Oh I discovered fractals."

Von Pepe sent me this fascinating video that I just had to stop. (I can't spend an hour at the office watching it right now, and if I go for 10 minutes I won't have the willpower to turn it off.) In fact, it looks like this MIT video series has a bunch of really interesting lectures.

I had read Mandelbrot's The (Mis)Behavior of Markets when making the jump from academia to the financial sector, and it was amazing. Also, if you are curious about chaos theory but don't know where to start, James Gleick's book is awesome. (Fractals and chaos theory aren't the same thing, but Gleick discusses Mandlebrot's connection to finance.)

Now don't get all tribal on me, Austrian purists. I'm not saying Mandelbrot's "non-Gaussian" models of the stock market are right. Rather, I'm taking Rothbard's approach when he argued that the chaos theorists are showing just how baseless the neoclassical economists are when they try to play the "we're real scientists" card on Austrians.

EXTRA CREDIT: What's the special connection between the blog Free Advice and the work of Benoit Mandelbrot?


Wenzel: Market Prices Reflect Information Except About Money Supply

Every now and again it's fun to disrupt the blogospherical equilibrium by picking a fight with your allies. Hence today I will point out my serious reservations with Robert Wenzel's analysis of stock prices and his preferred monetary aggregate, non-seasonally adjusted M2.

Back on June 12 Wenzel announced (CAPS in original):
MAJOR ALERT: Another Major Switch in Fed Policy?
After unprecedented money growth, in recent weeks I have hinted that Fed money growth was slowing. The latest data now show that money supply is now in a nosedive.

The whipsaws in Fed monetary policy under Fed chairman Ben Bernanke are unprecedented.

In early 2008, money supply (M2 not seasonally-adjusted) grew at rate of around 12%. During the summer of 2008, Bernanke reversed engines and completely slammed on the breaks and slowed money supply growth to 1.2% annualized. This last money slow down is what I believe intensified the downturn.

In late September 2008, in panic, Bernanke opened the money spigot, again, For approximately 6 months we had money growth of near 15% on an annualized basis. An unprecedented amount of Fed money growth. This is what I believe is fueling the current rebound in stocks and commodities.

However, it appears that Bernanke may now be reversing policy, again. The latest numbers from the Fed show that over the last three months the money supply has actually declined. On March 9, 2009 M2 non-seasonally adjusted stood at 8363.7 billion. Yesterday, the Fed reported that as of June 1, 2009 the money supply stood at 8335.1 billion. This is an annualized decline of of 1.4% in the money supply.

Needless to say, this stock market climb is pretty much over, if Bernanke keeps this money shrinkage act up.

Just to make sure that he is still sticking to this story, yesterday Wenzel wrote:
[A]s I have warned many times, the Fed is not printing any money at the current time. Couple this with the fact that August begins the start of seasonal down trend in the market and we [could] be in for a lot of trouble.
If Bernanke keeps up his no money printing stance, there is a huge market break coming. Don't be sucked in by any short term rallies. The money isn't there to support them long term.

I have several problems with all of this. First and most serious: How can you possibly argue that stock prices respond to money supply numbers with a 3-month (or greater) lag? I understand if you want to argue that measured CPI responds only slowly to injections of new money; fair enough. But surely it shouldn't take forward-looking investors three months to digest the implications of a change in Fed policy. Imagine if oil prices crashed one day. Would anybody say, "It was because the Saudis cut production two months ago"?

Yes, there is certainly a connection between Fed policy and nominal stock prices, but it can't be backward-looking and with a lag (let alone a variable lag!). That is impossible to reconcile with any type of sensible expectations theory. I'm not claiming that the efficient markets hypothesis is correct; I'm just saying that it can't possibly take speculators months to react to unexpected changes in Fed policy.

But let's put aside all of the theoretical issues. In practice, how useful is Wenzel's approach? Mostly because of the huge upswing today, the S&P 500 right now is up more than 3% from when Wenzel first warned us (on June 12) that the market rally was kaput. That's more than a 20% annualized rate of appreciation, which isn't a bad return in the present environment.

Yes yes, of COURSE the stock market is bouncing around like crazy; for all I know it might fall 3% tomorrow. And just because it rose at 3% in less than two months, it doesn't mean it will continue to do so for the next year.

But my point is, if Wenzel's theory is driven by 3-month changes in (nsa) M2. This variable was almost perfectly flat from the week of March 23 to the week of July 6. If the market were much lower today than it was at some point in the interval, I am quite sure Wenzel would have pointed to that as vindication of his analysis.

This is the supreme problem with monetary theories that rely on "long and variable lags." They are non-falsifiable, because no matter what happens, you can always pore over the last two years of data and find some monetary trend to point to as "causing" whatever is happening today.

Of course, pure economic theory is a priori; Mises argued (and I agree with him--and so does Wenzel I believe) that you come to the table already armed with theories about how the economy works. It is precisely this antecedent framework that allows you to interpret the vast reams of data pouring in by the hour.

But on either count--theoretical or empirical--I don't see how looking at lagged changes in M2 explains stock movements.

A final note: I am sure that Wenzel is much more attuned to market movements than I am. If you had $1000 to entrust to either of our calls on market timing, you would do better to give it to Wenzel. What I am saying though is that when he steps back and tries to formalize why he thinks the market will do such-and-such, he is not accurately crystallizing his tacit knowledge. But because his theory is so open-ended, I don't think he even sees when it is being contradicted by actual events.


Does the New Health Bill Make It Illegal for Private Insurers to Add New Clients?

One of the most shocking talking points floating around right-wing talk radio goes something like this: "Obama keeps saying that if you like your insurance, you can keep it, and that his plan won't interfere with existing plans. But that's a lie! Just look at page 16 of the health care bill online. You can read for yourself that it makes it illegal for private insurers to add new clients once the bill goes into effect. From that point on, if you lose your job or otherwise drop your private health insurance, you'll have to sign up for the so-called 'public option.'"

Is that true? Not really, but it's true that the language on page 16 is ominous. (And of course in this post, I'm taking the bill's language at face value. Obviously I agree that the grand plan is to get as many people dependent on the government for their health care.)

Here's the actual text of the health care bill [.pdf]. If you turn to page 16, there is indeed some scary language about private plans needing to have been in effect before the first year in which the "reform" kicks in. So if you are already convinced that Barack Obama is devil spawn, you would look at that and say, "Yep, it's just like the guy on the radio warned me. I can't believe the mainstream media is silent on this crime!"

However, let's calm down for a second. The timing issues on page 16 are referring to those private plans that can be grandfathered in. Obviously, you can't grandfather in someone's private coverage, if the person signs up for the coverage after the start of the new regulation. (That would be soning or daughtering in the coverage.)

If you go back to page 14 and start reading from the "TITLE I" section, you'll see what's really going on. The health bill is coming up with all sorts of new requirements that any private plan must satisfy. If you agree that the government should ensure "universal coverage" (something with which I DON'T agree, of course!), then there needs to be a list of attributes the private coverage must satisfy. Otherwise, someone could set up a plan that charges $10 per month in premiums, and provides access to free aspirin whenever the person has a headache. Then that person could say, "See, I have health insurance! No need for me to sign up with the government plan." So obviously that wouldn't qualify as making sure everybody had health insurance.

Now just to allay people's (justified) fears that these new conditions would render their current health insurance plan illegal, the bill specifically exempts all previous plans from these new conditions; coverage that existed before the bill goes into effect is grandfathered in. And the conditions for which plans qualify for such an exemption are listed on page 16.

So in conclusion, it's not true that the ominous language on page 16 is saying private health insurers will be legally barred from accepting new clients after the health bill is signed into law. What is true is that many current plans may not qualify under the new regulations, and so private insurers won't be able to offer the same plan to new customers once this monstrosity kicks in.

In general, the talk radio hosts' warnings are correct; this bill will definitely hamstring the private provision of health insurance, not even counting the huge advantage the "public" plan will have because it can draw on tax revenues. But strictly speaking, the language on page 16 isn't showing that anyone born after 2015 will necessarily have to sign up for ObamaCare. (I imagine that aspect will come in through a different mechanism...)


Rizzo on Keynes vs. Hayek

Mario Rizzo has another good post:
While I am not a Keynesian, I would agree that the economics of Keynes (and Keynesian economics!) is more relevant to the present crisis than the graduate macroeconomics taught in most high-level departments today.

I’d also suggest that the business cycle analysis of F.A. Hayek is also more
relevant than today’s macro-theory.

That's definitely true. Let me commit heresy and say that Keynes' General Theory is (a) comprehensible and (b) packed full of deep insights. Of course, Keynes' policy recommendations are wrong. Rizzo goes on to say:
By “relevant” I mean, in both cases, that the issues addressed and emphasized are keys to either understanding what is going on or making progress in so understanding. Hayek asks us to consider the role of resource misallocation. Keynes asks us to consider the role of radical uncertainty. Mainstream macro is silent on these issues. In fact, much of it recognizes no connection between financial markets and the real economy.

I am not saying that there is some grand synthesis of Hayek and Keynes that will yield truth. I am saying that these economists raised the fundamental issues. They are relevant.

I actually do think a grand synthesis of Hayek and Keynes is a good approach; I was trying to lay the foundation for such an enterprise in my dissertation [.pdf]. (Now Rizzo was my dissertation chairman, meaning he presumably read it. I hope I did not sour him on the prospects for a grand synthesis.)

Rizzo and O'Driscoll had a very important and (at the time) celebrated book, The Economics of Time and Ignorance. They pushed the idea of "pattern coordination" as a way to retain some type of equilibrium construct, in the face of "radical" uncertainty. The problem was, thinkers like Shackle and Lachmann had come up with very serious objections to the typical notion of intertemporal equilibrium, in which everybody's expectations about the future are compatible. So rather than just yell, "Ah take your nihilist doubt and go hang out with Krugman!" Rizzo and O'Driscoll tried to salvage things.

I think they were on the right track, and in my dissertation I tried to apply their new equilibrium concept to money. What was amusing is that the single biggest objection I got from Austrians (who had the intrepidity to read my dissertation) was, "Isn't your theory Keynesian?"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Yglesias: "It Depends What Your Definition of 'Justify' Is"

I am getting a little impatient with all of these self-defined "progressives" who won't admit their mistakes. (Obviously there are analogs of this habit in every movement; the progressives don't have a monopoly here.) We all got a chuckle over Paul Krugman ridiculing the very IDEA that he could have called for a housing bubble, and today we get to see Matt Yglesias laugh off Alex Tabarrok's clear busting of him.

Okay so here is the progression:

* On May 30, 2009 Yglesias wrote:
This goes back to a point I was making a while ago about how dangerous it is that the public discourse is so dominated by low-quality freelance philosophy done by people with PhDs in economics. I’m fairly certain that if Mankiw were to walk over to Emerson Hall he could find some folks (possibly T.M. Scanlon who I know sometimes reads this blog) who could explain to him that there’s little grounds for the belief that a commitment to utilitarianism is the main justification for redistributive taxation.

* Then on July 20, 2009 he wrote:
...the point here is that the marginal utility of money income declines as it grows. This is also a strong argument for believing that redistributing money from wealthy or high-income individuals to the poor or to public services will be welfare-enhancing.

Tabarrok pointed out the above contradictions, in a post titled, "Yglesias vs. Yglesias." Then Yglesias says today:
Contra Alex Tabarrok’s cute post here there’s nothing contradictory between pointing out that Greg Mankiw is wrong to imply that utilitarianism-based arguments are the only (or even the primary) arguments available for redistributive taxation and also to point out that considerations related to the declining marginal utility of money do, in fact, militate in favor of redistributive taxation.

Give me a break, Yglesias. Just say, "Heh, you got me there, Alex. At least I know there was a housing bubble."

Yes, it's logically possible that one could have pointed out that Mankiw was wrong, while simultaneously arguing that utilitarian considerations "militate in favor of" redistribution. (By the way, Yglesias, you're aware that many economists--and philosophers--think it's impossible to engage in interpersonal comparisons of utility, right?)

But that's not what you did. Here is a bigger quote from your July 20 post, after you summarize some of Will Wilkinson's objections to using income inequality as a basis for tax policy:
At the same time, the point here is that the marginal utility of money income declines as it grows. This is also a strong argument for believing that redistributing money from wealthy or high-income individuals to the poor or to public services will be welfare-enhancing. The difference, in welfare terms, between a Sub-Zero refrigerator and an Ikea refrigerator is much smaller than the difference in welfare terms between having health insurance and not having health insurance. So a surtax on high earners that goes to finance expansion of health coverage to the working poor is making people better off. In that case, when we look at statistics indicating skyrocketing income inequality we’re seeing evidence of inefficiency that can be rectified through the policy process.

The crude utilitarianism you mention here is the only justification you give for redistribution, to oppose to Wilkinson's critique. And you specifically say "the point here is".

So you're saying that "the point here" is something that isn't the main justification, a main justification that you failed to mention in the post when arguing for progressive taxes?

To repeat, it's theoretically possible that you didn't contradict yourself, but c'mon, Tabarrok busted you. Just admit it and move on. We all screw up from time to time. It's hard work pontificating on everything under the sun!


Austrian Economics in Iraq, Part II

In a previous guest post, Edward Gonzales explained his experiences with government spending on an Iraqi community. In the present essay, Gonzales caters to our requests for more talk of blowing stuff up. --RPM


Fighting an Insurgency
by Edward Gonzales

While serving in Iraq I came to the conclusion that a thriving economy did more to fight the insurgency than all the weapons in my arsenal. To fully explain this I will describe the conditions in the village in which I served, the type of enemy I encountered, the change in tactics we employed, and the results I witnessed.

The Village

When I first arrived in Iraq I had a very simple view of what fighting an insurgency was going to entail. I would organize combat and reconnaissance patrols, find the insurgents, and kill them. The reality I experienced was not so simple. I very rarely saw the bad guys. Most attacks took the form of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), booby traps, snipers, and mortars. The only time the insurgents openly exposed themselves to us was during suicide attacks. It was physically and emotionally draining. Nothing would happen for weeks and then three days of attacks would come with two or three IEDs and booby traps per day and then nothing again. The anticipation of when the next attack might occur was the most draining. When the attacks came from snipers, the insurgents placed themselves in populated areas, so if the patrol returned fire and killed the sniper, the chance of killing one or more innocent villagers was highly likely. After the attacks the insurgents would disappear by blending into the local populace. The insurgents had this ability because the villagers either supported them or they were too afraid to speak out against them. I became convinced within a month that “winning” in the traditional sense against an insurgency was impossible.

The Enemy

Insurgents fell into one of two categories. In the first category were the die-hard extremists committed to jihad. There is no negotiation with this type of insurgent. They must be fought with weapons and brute force. We hear a great deal about this type of insurgent from our politicians and the media. What is not said is that they represent a very small minority of insurgents in Iraq. In my time in Iraq I captured and questioned dozens of insurgents. Only one insurgent fell into this category. The great majority of insurgents I encountered fell into a second category. They were young men who had been recruited by the extremists. They certainly had been ingrained with the usual pro jihad, anti American propaganda that I expected, but upon further questioning the reoccurring theme was no money, no hope for the future, and a promised better quality of life once the Americans were thrown out. I realized that had I gotten to these young men first, I could just have easily recruited them into the Iraqi Army or local police force. These insurgents did not care about American democracy or Al Qaeda ideals. They wanted someone to show them a way towards a better life, a life that included a job and a family they had the ability to support. Al Qaeda in Iraq had convinced these young men that America was the source of all trouble and once the Americans were destroyed Iraq would be a prosperous nation again. The realization I came to was that as long as there was no hope for a better future, I and any Marine who might replace me would be fighting insurgents forever.

A Change in Tactics

My focus therefore became about providing enough security to let the village be relatively safe but not so much that it stifled trade. Myself and the Iraqi officers and soldiers patrolled daily and on every patrol we would stop in to see as many shop owners and village elders as we had time for. I would take ten minutes to have tea with each one and ask if their neighborhood was safe and if business was growing. I repeatedly told them that our only intentions were to keep them and their families safe. The security measures that we did put in place were meant to protect and improve trade, not hinder it. After a few weeks I was on a first name basis with most of them and knew their children. Within six weeks of this type of patrolling the difference within the village was noticeable. The people would greet us and let us know if any outsiders had come to the village. They pointed out the areas and trails they thought might be unsafe and we began to find many more IEDs, booby traps, and weapons caches. The number of attacks began to drop.

The Effect

I noticed a direct and snowballing correlation between safety and economic conditions. In a dangerous area the people produced just enough for their survival. When security was provided against murder and robbery, people began to produce more for trade. As trade started the area became more safe and production and trade increased again which lead to greater safety. As production and trade increased and more people came into the village my job became easier, not harder. The local businessmen gave us all the information we needed to keep insurgents from launching heavy attacks. There were still dangers and attacks still did happen, but in a village with active trade the locals turned those who did launch attacks into the Iraqi Army or local police force, usually within hours. Many locals risked their lives on numerous occasions to stop an American or Iraqi patrol from walking into an IED or booby trap in the road. On another occasion, two men trying to emplace an IED were chased away by the local men all armed with AK-47 assault rifles. (In the Al Anbar province men were allowed one assault rifle in their homes for protection. As a Marine tasked with providing security I was much safer and my job easier with armed locals, but that is another article altogether.)

As these conditions developed young men who had been “away” began returning to their family homes. Some Americans pointed out the danger that many of these young men had probably been insurgents in the past and they were biding their time in order to attack us again at a later date. I and many of the Iraqi and American officers I worked with disagreed strongly with this assessment. These were young men who had given up fighting and were moving back in with their families and now were making a go at a peaceful life in their hometowns. A discussion that I had with an Iraqi Army officer put the situation into perspective for me. He had fought against the Americans when we first invaded Iraq. When the Iraqi Army was stood up again he decided that the best way for Iraq to be peaceful and prosperous once again was not to fight the Americans but join the Iraqi Army. As time passed he believed that more and more young men who were working with Al Qaeda would realize that the insurgent groups were not the way for a better future in Iraq and would quit those groups and return home.

I knew that the insurgency in the village that I was in was defeated when more and more people moved back into the village to go to work on the family farm or work as a fisherman on the river. There was still an occasional attack, but locals were as committed to stopping the attacks as we were. The insurgents had lost the support of the locals

Sound economics is so vitally important because young men who have jobs and hope for the future do not join insurgent groups and launch attacks against police and army units. The dangerous extremists do still exist, but without the support of the local populace these extremists have no young men to recruit and are much easier to hunt down. A thriving and growing economy does more to combat insurgents than all the weaponry in existence.


Evony's Double Dip Marketing Strategy

Folks, I do not have anything to do with the content of the Google Ads. I certainly don't sign up for the "Play now, my lord!" ads that seem to feature women with increasingly large busts as the weeks pass.

It's true, there's a way I can go into Google Ads and tinker with it, but it's comparable to my policy with hecklers: Once I start banning posters (or ads), the stuff that remains is prima facie approved.

Plausible deniability is the name of the game. Huh? What's Area 51?


Two Ironic CNBC Headlines

In case you're wondering, the only reason I torture myself by going to 5x a day is that I check the price of gold, and I continue to wait for the dollar to crash. But then when I'm there, I can't help but look at the headlines.

For example, right now I read that Bernanke says there should be no audit of the Fed, lest the venerable institution's independence is compromised by political factors.

Another headline reads: "Only Fed Fit to Do Systemic Exams."

If I were running the PR on a big investment bank, I'd take out full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal saying, "Mr. Bernanke, don't want your mission to be compromised by interference from Congress? Our shareholders know how you feel."

It wouldn't do any good, of course, since government officials are the most transparent hypocrites around (with the possible exception of televangelists). But it would be funny.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Potpourri Por Favor

* A bunch of Ron Paul fans have been griping about this WSJ article on the Fed, and I assumed they were just being touchy. But seriously just read the first three paragraphs. That might as well have titled it, "Give me a B! Give me an E! Give me an N!..."

In case you don't see the big deal, consider this excerpt:
"Rallying one charge is Ron Paul, an iconoclastic Texas Republican who wants to abolish the central bank entirely. Mr. Paul's economic ideas sometimes make him the target of ridicule -- in the new film "Bruno," shock comedian Sacha Baron Cohen tries to seduce the startled congressman in a hidden-camera scene while discussing economic theory.

Still, Mr. Paul has persuaded nearly two-thirds of the House to co-sponsor a bill requiring far-reaching congressional audits of the Fed."

So my question is, what the heck is that "Still" doing? Are these clowns really suggesting that other Congressmen shouldn't have supported Ron Paul's bill, since he suffered ridicule at the hands of a comedian? How about this, "President Barack Obama is meeting with fierce criticism, with some commentators--such as Ann Coulter--suggesting he remove his temple from his anus. Still, Obama enjoys strong support from the Congressional Black Caucus."

* Von Pepe sends me this link of Bernanke explaining that he has no idea where the Fed's $500,000,000,000 went, after he gave it to some other central bankers. And this is the guy who says he needs more oversight over the financial sector, to prevent systemic risks and such.

* At MasterResource I have another summary of the economics of climate change, and the relation to policy activism. Most of it is recycled (ha ha) but I dwell a bit more on how economic models deal with uncertainty, if you care.


Mo' Potpourri

* Hayek [sorry!!] Henry Hazlitt reviews Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State.

* Ben Bernanke's ghost writer(s) have an op ed in the Wall Street Journal today. (HT2EPJ) Pinky, are you thinking what I'm thinking?

* Bob Roddis has a Rothbard speech (in three parts) at his blog.

* We are now officially in Bizarro World. Conservatives are finally on the anti-Fed and anti-Wall-Street bandwagon, while Paul Krugman concludes: "[I]t’s crazy to cut off our future to spite Goldman Sachs’s face."

Monday, July 20, 2009



* Mario Rizzo laments the failure of macroeconomics. An interesting excerpt:
As a member of NYU’s Ph.D. admissions committee for the past fifteen years, I have even seen applicants who apologize for taking “too many” philosophy courses in college. I have seen others remind us that although they have been interested in history and literature, they are fully cognizant of the need to express their ideas in precise mathematical terms.

What of a clearly brilliant student who wants to question (or at least think about) these methodological issues? I had a colleague tell me, informally, that he would probably be a disruptive influence in the first-year classes. I guess it depends on one’s definition of “disruptive.”

I was definitely an influence, and perhaps even a disruptive one (especially when it was just the TA running the class) in my first year at NYU. But was I the clearly brilliant student? We will never know.

* Bob Higgs takes the time to blow up the silly petition about "Fed independence." Don't get me wrong, I think this audit-the-Fed movement might end up backfiring, but even so the petition is a bit like saying, "All this public scrutiny over Guantanamo is hampering the torturers' efforts to spread democracy."

* David R. Henderson somehow manages to relate Frank Zappa to Friedrich Hayek. I enjoyed both in college. (And I never inhaled while reading Hayek.)

* Speaking of college, here's an interview with Richard Ebeling, conducted one year after I graduated Hillsdale. I think during my last semester I had three Ebeling classes. The best was when the government shut down under Clinton; Ebeling literally came dancing into the classroom that day. (That wasn't my senior year, and now that I bring it up, I can't remember if I actually was in his class or if somebody just told me about it. Anyway, funny stuff.) Wow now the nostalgia train has fully pulled into the station. I also vividly remember how excited all the conservative Hillsdale students were when the Republicans took over Congress. Small government, here we come!

* This news story ran a while ago, but it was just brought to my attention. Here's the photo of the talk I gave to the Houston Property Rights Association (they supplied the signs and flag):

My favorite excerpt from the news story: "The idea that Hubert Hoover was for limited government was a “complete myth,” Murphy says." Well it was! Get off my back.


The Best Five-Minute-And-Seven-Second Argument Against Giving the Fed More Power

This is hilarious. (HT2LRC) The internet is awesome. I'm impressed that someone took the time to make this video without putting in an ad or something at the end. That's just how much people can't stand Bernanke; his public repudiation is its own reward.



* This guy emailed me to say that my Mish article went awry at the crucial point: When the creditor lends out money so that borrowers can spend more, the creditor is content to carry lower cash balances, because he's now holding a claim on future income. I had considered this at the time I wrote the article, but now I can't remember how I resolved it. I'm not going to lie to you, I sorta thought Mish himself would blow me up in a response, so that we could move this debate forward. Anyway I might write a future post to tie up these loose ends, but like I said I wish a big gun pro-deflationist would spell out what's wrong in my Mish critique.

* Today at Mises I criticize CNBC for dissing savings. I shower some love on Tyler Cowen near the end.

* Speaking of Tyler, what the @$@#$( is he talking about in this post? Seriously, did he and Scott Sumner decide to pull a prank and write a crazy post each? Here's Tyler:
I don't know the "inside scoop" on the bank books, but in purely theoretical terms a bit of chicanery may be socially optimal now. In general, bank moral hazard-induced-risk-taking may move closer to socially optimal, the closer banks are to insolvency. Let's say that banks are generating high profits now by, one way or the other, pursuing short run profits and "going short" on market volatility. In the long run this investment strategy will bite them, sooner or later but probably later. In the meantime they likely will become solvent. If insolvency has a high fixed cost this can be a good risk, even from the taxpayer or social point of view.
In the comments of Tyler's post, somebody already beat me to the punch of the gambling analogy. Really, wouldn't it make more sense to say the exact opposite? Namely, that the very worst time in the world for banks to be engaging in high-risk bets (let alone when backed up by the taxpayers), is when they are on the verge of insolvency?

Tyler seems to be saying, "It's not a bad idea to take a gamble that pays $1 million with 99% probability, but pays negative $1 billion with 1% probability, so long as you don't play it very often." I don't think that's right, and even if it were, the time to play it (a few times) would be when you were already up several billion dollars--not when that 1% outcome could ruin you.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


"Honey, Scott Sumner's Coming Over; Hide the China!"

Yesterday I sent Scott Sumner a goofy email, to the effect that he needed to blog more because he didn't realize how much angst it caused me when he skipped a day. He warned me that I wouldn't like his latest post. This is true:
I used to think that people deserved what they earned, but no longer. Now I think rich people should keep what they earn if and only if trying to take it away from them it will do more harm than good. In other words, I’ve gone from being a dogmatic libertarian who thought the Nordic model was bad, to being a pragmatic libertarian who thinks it’s worth considering. I lean towards Singapore’s slightly less egalitarian forced saving regime for many different pragmatic reasons. But if someone can convince me that Denmark’s undeniably successful social welfare system is better, I’d jump ship in a moment. As far as I am concerned the fact that “millions of individuals” have “chosen” to spend their money on Nicole Kidman films has no more normative implications than if a bag of Federal Reserve notes had fallen from an airplane into her front yard.
Seriously, does Scott really believe this? If so, then don't let him into your house or watch your kids (he might sell them into slavery if his calculation comes out that way). And what' with putting "chosen" in quotations marks, Scott? OK you don't believe people really choose; they can't help but throw money at the pretty girl, fine.

But more important, what's with putting "millions of individuals" in quotation marks?! Presumably you still believe in numbers, so I take it that you now question whether individuals really exist?


My Solution to the Mind-Body Problem, and the Reconciliation of God's Sovereignty With Free Will

Say what you will about Free Advice, but we tackle deep issues on this blog. No chatter about Joe the Plumber here (except when it's important).

In a previous post, I listed some of the major problems with materialism, which is the view that the only "real" things are atoms and energy, and everything else is subordinate to them. So for example, the materialist says that disembodied thoughts are "really" just patterns of electrical and chemical reactions in your nervous system, and one commenter (Tokyo Tom) went so far as to say that "2+2=4" is just a model we have of the physical universe, which has been falsified by the discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics.

In the present post, I want to lay out my working hypothesis for how to reconcile the apparently objective laws of physics governing the physical universe, with the equally apparently objective fact that human subjective desires influence events in this physical universe. (In other words, it seems that minds exist and affect inanimate matter, even though staring at the molecular level there doesn't seem to be mind power coming in from an alternate dimension.) At the same time, my theory will explain how God can be the ultimate Designer of the universe, in which every event happens with His permission, and yet we humans still have free will and can choose to sin or to obey Him.


Imagine a computer programmer who makes a program that simulates a ball moving around the monitor. The program is entirely deterministic; the programmer could tell you beforehand what the exact position of the ball will be on the monitor, at any future time. The ball's entire life cycle of movements are already embedded at t=0 in the software.

The programmer asks his buddy to sit down in front of the computer and watch the ball. Now here's the freaky thing: Wherever the guy moves his eyes, that's where the ball goes to on the monitor. So if the guy stares at the ball, it's motionless. But then if he slowly starts looking to the left, the ball follows his gaze. He can try to "trick" the ball and suddenly dart his eyes to the opposite corner of the monitor, and BAM the ball instantly responds to his eye movement.

The guy keeps this up for a good 10 minutes, and it never fails. So he is obviously perfectly certain that he is controlling the ball. He hypothesizes that there must be a camera in the computer that notes his eye movements and then translates them into the appropriate pixels to light up on the monitor.

But actually, the programmer tells him that's not what's going on at all. The ball's movements are completely pre-determined by the software. The trick is, the programmer predicted perfectly what his buddy's eye movements would be. This is inconceivable to the buddy, because how could the programmer have known that RIGHT NOW he would zoom his eyes to the top left of the monitor? And yet, he can call in computer experts who can look over the machine, and they assure him that there is no way his eye movements are transmitting information into the computer. The ball's movements "originate" entirely from within the hardware and software; there is no mechanism for the guy's eye movements to influence the state of the machine (in any relevant sense--of course in reality if he flicks his eyes around a lot, the room gets hotter and this influences the computer etc.).

So that's my theory of how God designed the physical universe to interact with our souls. (As C.S. Lewis said, you don't have a soul, you are a soul--you have a body.) The physical universe is completely distinct from the spirit world (I'm sorry secularists but that's an accurate term for what I'm talking about), and the quarks or other elementary particles in it, obey the laws of physics. Maybe our scientists are wrong in the exact nature of those laws, but the point is, there is a body of very economical laws governing physical matter and its behavior.

However, God designed these laws (and the initial state of the physical universe) such that it appears to us that we exercise (limited) control over the material universe. That's why I can apparently control my fingers as I now type. It's true, scientists can bore ever deeper into the processes governing the cells in my fingers, and they are never going to see injections of commands coming from my soul. But it sure seems as if my mind controls my fingers, and by the positivist's own criterion of predictive power, it is a very strong hypothesis indeed.

As far as free will goes, God designed our souls such that we really do have free choice. In principle, our wills are independent of His. Yet God is also omniscient, and so He knew beforehand what we would choose to do when we (somewhat simplistically) think we are influencing the physical universe.

In other words, God had to solve an unimaginably complex problem when designing the universe. It is akin to solving a huge economics model to find the equilibrium. God had to choose the initial state of the universe, and dictate the laws governing those physical particles, such that every human who would ever live, would be fooled into thinking his or her subjective desires influenced the unfolding events, and that things could go one way or the other, depending on the person's choice. Even though that belief was mistaken, in a sense it would still be true, since the laws of the universe (and its state at any moment) were originally designed with those choices in mind.

As a final point, "miracles" do not occur, in the sense of a violation of the laws of physics. The laws of physics are simply patterns describing how the atoms operate. If Jesus walks on water and thus violates the "laws" of physics, then they weren't really laws, were they? In my interpretation, Jesus really did walk on water, raise the dead, etc., but nothing miraculous happened at the subatomic level. Rather, God had designed the universe such that these "impossible" (from a normal everyday human viewpoint) events were the necessary unfolding of the laws of physics, preordained from the first moment of creation.


Saturday, July 18, 2009


Is "Identity Theft" Really Theft?

I am 95% persuaded by Stephan Kinsella's classic article "Against Intellectual Property" [.pdf]. However, I think if we take Kinsella's views seriously, it means that "identity theft" isn't really theft. Let's say someone fills out a credit card application claiming to be Robert Murphy, and has my date of birth, my address, my (anti)Social (in)Security number, etc. He runs up a huge tab, which ruins my credit score and prevents me from being able to charge anything again.

So long as I'm not forced to actually pay the bill for his charges, but merely have my credit score ruined, I don't think this counts as a violation of my property rights. After all, I don't have a right to borrow money from people; they are always free to refrain from lending to me. And it is standard in Rothbardian libertarian theory that blackmail defamation isn't a crime, because you don't have a right to your reputation. (How can you have a property right in what other people think of you?)

At best, I think you could only claim that the "identity thief" violated the property rights of the creditor, by extracting a loan from him/her under fraudulent pretenses. But the "thief" didn't steal anything from you.

Is that right? If so, does it pose a problem for Kinsella's approach to IP?


Ezra Klein Apparently Doesn't Think Immigrants Are Part of the Universe

I don't know what the timelines are, so maybe he didn't have access to this information when he wrote his short post. But here Ezra Klein points to how encouraging the fate of Massachusetts is for health care reform (HT2MR). Nowhere does Klein mention this:
As lawmakers on Capitol Hill battle to create a nationwide health care system to cover all, Massachusetts is struggling to keep the state's groundbreaking universal coverage program up and running.

Facing a massive budget shortfall, lawmakers are cutting roughly 30 thousand legal, taxpaying immigrants out of the state subsidized Commonwealth Care program.

Health Care for All, a Boston based advocacy group, is taking hundreds of calls on their help line from people like El Salvador native Eugenio Hernandez who is battling prostate cancer and will be among those losing coverage.

So apparently it's still "universal" coverage even when you kick out a bunch of legal immigrants who are paying the government premiums just like they're supposed to. But surely when they do it at the federal level, costs will go down (as they are wont to do with other government programs) and there will be no temptation to ration care to politically weak groups.

Besides Klein failing to mention the 30,000 immigrants getting dropped (which might not have been in the news when he posted, I don't know), his excitement over the fate of Massachusetts baffles me. As I said on MR in the comments, Is Klein even making an argument here? It sounds like he's saying, "This has to work, because otherwise it will fail." Seriously, look at his post. I really think that's a fair summary of his argument.


They Tried Easy Money Back in the 1930s

Bill R. sent me a link to this amazing site where they excerpt the news from WSJ from the corresponding day in 1930. For July 18, 1930:

Editorial: Constantly increasing taxation is a burden on "every form of enterprise". It diverts money from productive uses to government functions which "though mostly indispensable, do not always require the scale of expenditure to which our public servants have become accustomed." Total taxation (including local) has risen from under $3B in 1913 to about $9B now; recently rising about $500M/year. This aggravates the current depression.
Federal Reserve faces tough problem in how long to continue easy money policy, since in time “this has always stimulated speculation to dangerous proportions.”
Credit likely to remain easy for some time, but extremely low current rates seen unlikely to last (call money at 1.5%-2.5%). Rates for credit in the 3-6-month range have already begun to move up. This month seen as a low point for industrial activity; demand for credit anticipated to increase seasonally in August.

Now in fairness, someone like Scott Sumner would say, "Yes, those fools thought the Fed was engaging in 'easy' money, but it wasn't!"

But let me point it out again: During the 1920-21 depression, the New York Fed jacked up its discount rate to a (then) record high, while in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, the NY Fed cut its discount rate to a (then) record low. Price deflation was more severe during the 1920-21 depression than during any comparable time period in the early 1930s. And I think it's safe to say that the 1920s were a better economic experience than the 1930s.

We are truly repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. Scott Sumner's has drawn the wrong lesson, and thinks that if only we did what they did times a hundred, then things will be rosy. Just as the Keynesians think Hoover and FDR didn't run high enough deficits, the Friedmanites think that the Fed didn't print enough green pieces of paper. Even though the deficits and money printing (as far as monetary base) were much more aggressive than in previous U.S. depressions, still for some reason a moderate dose of the "right medicine" (from Krugman and Sumner's different viewpoints) led to the worst economic calamity in U.S. history.



* Here's Bryan Caplan's reply to Krugman and Drum.

* An interesting analysis of a paper (on boundary layer clouds and the effect on global warming) that clearly went into the IPCC summary, and yet had key words changed to match with the spirit of the IPCC report. (HT2 Rob Bradley)

* I have gotten a lot of negative feedback about my Mish article. Folks, before you confidently tell me that "in our system, money is debt and that's why the money supply is shrinking," please look at the below graph. M1 consists of checkable deposits, travelers checks, and currency in circulation; it is the money supply "held by the public." I don't see it crashing because of losses by lenders. That's why, in my Mish article, I dealt with credit cards; I thought people couldn't be talking about the money supply fostered by the fractional reserve banking system, since that clearly started exploding in late 2008.

Friday, July 17, 2009


DeLong on the State of Macroeconomics

A rare post in which I agree wholeheartedly with Brad DeLong (HT2 Bob Roddis):
The Economist gives us economists too much credit...

I would like to draw a distinction between economics as a way of thinking--the way good economists think, at least--and academic economics as a profession. Economics as a way of thinking is, I believe, still very valuable. But academic economics as a profession has proven itself to be not valuable at all in this financial crisis.

Yep. It would be hard to imagine a worse performance by professional economists during the last few years. Follow the link to the Economist pieces to see some examples of how badly the profession botched things.

I'll go even further, and say that I totally understand why DeLong (and Krugman) think Fama et al. are being crazy in their opposition to fiscal stimulus. They are trying to use accounting tautologies to "prove" that deficit spending can't reduce unemployment. But that doesn't work; it's not necessarily true that "every dollar the government borrows means one fewer dollar spent by the private sector."

Naturally, I oppose DeLong (and Krugman) in their call for greater fiscal stimulus; I think their recommendations are awful. But as I argued in this article, the real problem is that even if deficit spending (temporarily) reduced unemployment, it would simply delay the sectoral adjustments needed to restore the economy to a sustainable growth path.

Note that I'm not saying deficit spending will always reduce unemployment; I am rather saying that Fama et al. are wrong for claiming that it will necessarily have zero effect on it. In fact, some of the opponents of "stimulus" are trying to have it both ways. Before the plan passed, it seemed (many of them) were saying that government spending would be perfectly counterbalanced by private sector losses, and so the effect on employment should have been nil. And yet now that the stimulus passed and unemployment jumped higher than most were predicting, the critics are saying, "See? We told you this would destroy jobs!" (Of course, there was not a unified voice of criticism of the stimulus package; some people made arguments at the time saying it would "destroy jobs on net." So those critics could claim justification.)

A lot of people ask me if I think Krugman (and DeLong) are liars or just stupid. They're certainly not stupid, and I don't even think they're necessarily dishonest. After all, they each have thousands of fans who leave comments on their blogs, so presumably it's not a giant Keynesian conspiracy. Yes they will often make (in my opinion) unfair attacks on their opponents, or will conveniently overlook certain facts that hurt their cases, but there are people on "my" side who do the same thing from time to time.

The one thing that does bother me about these two guys is the ease with which they accuse their intellectual opponents of being stupid and/or evil. Ah well.


Hillary Clinton, Pod Person?

Once you start entertaining the notion that there are secret groups running world governments, you see evidence all over the place. What's really funny is that, if you want to debate a conspiracy theorist, you can't say, "You have no proof of that plan." Because the conspiracy theorist will give you actual quotes from people like David Rockefeller and other big guns saying literally what the conspiracy theorist claims is their plan for worldwide domination. So the skeptic has to fall back on, "Oh come on, you're reading too much into that," or, "Surely that must be a joke."

Case in point, take Hillary Clinton's recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. (HT2 David Kramer for all of this.) Her opening remarks:
Thank you very much, Richard, and I am delighted to be here in these new headquarters. I have been often to, I guess, the mother ship in New York City, but it’s good to have an outpost of the Council right here down the street from the State Department. We get a lot of advice from the Council, so this will mean I won’t have as far to go to be told what we should be doing and how we should think about the future.

Richard just gave what could be described as a mini-version of my remarks in talking about the issues that confront us. But I look out at this audience filled with not only many friends and colleagues, but people who have served in prior administrations. And so there is never a time when the in-box is not full.

Now I'm sure people were laughing, and that these remarks were supposed to be the opening joke before she got into the meat of her speech. You could say that just because the CFR tells her what the State Department "should do," doesn't mean Clinton will obey those instructions. And of course, I don't think she was literally saying the CFR headquarters was an alien spacecraft.

But at the same time, the part I put in bold is exactly what the conspiracy theorists say about the CFR (and other groups like the Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg Group, etc.). So if you challenge them to prove their "crazy" claims, all they need to do is point at Hillary Clinton's latest speech as an example.

I was curious to see the actual delivery of these remarks, to see just how ha-ha Clinton's tone was when she said it. Aww too bad, this MSNBC video leaves out the above two paragraphs, and starts at the third paragraph of the transcript linked above. No need to waste the viewers' time with silly jokes about the CFR running the government! We've got to leave time for the story about Michael Jackson's kids.


Last One: BLS' SA CPI as of July 17, 2009

Another post for posterity: I want to take a snapshot of the BLS' figures for actual and seasonally adjusted CPI for the first half of 2009, since I predict that they will revise those figures later on, in order to suppress the reported monthly inflation rates.

Month....CPI....SA CPI

And while we have the numbers in front of us, just note again that actual CPI has risen at a 5.3% annualized rate this year, while seasonally adjusted CPI has only risen at a 2.7% rate. In and of itself this isn't necessarily sinister, but it is surely odd that we are being told we're on the edge of a deflationary cliff, when actual prices are rising at such a rate, and even when adjusted prices are rising at a rate higher than Bernanke's "comfort zone"!

For those who are baffled, you must realize that Bernanke's "comfort zone" of 1%-2% inflation refers not to the actual CPI, nor to the seasonally adjusted CPI, but to the "core" seasonally adjusted CPI, which has had those pesky and misleading items of food and energy taken out.

So don't worry, inflation is well under control. Your government is in charge and is taking care of you.


Glenn Beck vs. Goldman Sachs

Glenn Beck does a surprisingly good job explaining all the shenanigans involving Goldman Sachs the last year. (HT2 Wenzel, who was on to Goldman a long time ago.)

I'm glad to see that this stuff is finally going mainstream. Of course, it's a bit like the Jedi Council finally realizing Palpatine is the Sith lord, after he's declared himself emperor and has an army of clones under his command. But hey, maybe the Americans will come out of this three movies from now.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


The Problems With Materialism

Hi my name's Bob and I'm a recovering materialist. I'd like to thank my sponsor Gene, who talked me down from the ledge a few years ago...

Over at Crash Landing, my frequent critic Tokyo Tom decided to throw caution to the winds and went head to head(s?) against Gene Callahan and me on materialism. Specifically, Tom labors under the belief that something doesn't "really" exist unless it's physical, or at the very least corresponds to something physical. Now you have to overlook Gene's impatience, but in my book we whupped Tom good. It wasn't even close.

However, I sympathize with Tom because several years ago I thought the exact same thing he did. Rather than write a huge essay here, let me just give some bullet points. What I'm trying to get you to see is that it is a completely baseless bias to reserve "objective existence" only for items of the physical universe. So here goes:

* Does Sherlock Holmes exist? Where is he then? Can you point to him? (And don't point to a book talking about him; that's not Sherlock Holmes himself, that's a book describing him.)

* OK so maybe he exists in our thoughts, and thoughts are "really" just a part of our brains. But why do we say that? Why aren't our brains just "really" a part of our thoughts? We know brains exist, and we know minds exist, and for some reason we attribute more objective reality-ness to the former. Why?

* This is the deep part. We know that our subjective experiences are real. We only hold a theory that there is a physical world. It is logically possible that we are in the matrix, that this is all a dream, that we are being deceived by an evil demon, etc. But as Descartes famously argued, we can't be mistaken about our own consciousness.

* Now here's an argument Gene used on me back in the day, which at the time I dismissed as flippant. But now I realize, I had to just blow it off, because it was crushing. Daniel Dennett convinced me at the time that consciousness was a "user illusion." During evolution, it became advantageous for our ancestors to learn to "talk to themselves," and so our bodies now create the illusion of consciousness. But Gene asked a simple question, "Whom are they fooling?" (Actually I bet Gene's question was less grammatical.) You can't have a "user illusion" if there really is no user!

* Is 2+2=4 an objective, true statement? Is it physical? Can you point to it? Sure, you can point to two balls, and then another two balls, and then say that all four of them are, well, four balls. But that's not the same thing as grasping the truth of the equation, and in fact, it's entirely possible that one of the balls will disappear while you're counting (maybe it's a ball of ice on a stove), or will multiply while you're counting (maybe it's a ball of Tribble fur). So when you try to "demonstrate" 2+2=4 with physical objects, it might not work. But you rule out such counterexamples, because you know a priori--without having to look at the physical universe--what the equation means. So all of mathematics seems like a pretty important thing that exists and yet is not physical.

* OK let's assume that all of reality consists entirely of atoms (or quarks or whatever). We're watching them bounce around, obeying the laws of physics. Whoa, say what? What the heck is a law of physics? Where is it? Can you point to it, weigh it, see how much bathwater it displaces? No, it's just a pattern governing the motions of the "real" stuff. But is the law itself real?

* This last point is at once incredibly obvious and yet unbelievably profound. (That's how I roll on Free Advice.) You can control matter with your mind. (!!) In fact, right now I am making the molecules in my "fingers" (just an arbitrary label we give to these group of cells) move in very specific ways, in order to influence the electric charges in my "laptop" (another label for molecular configurations). I know scientists can peer really hard at the action, and tell me that it seems to be completely due to the laws of physics with no ghostly interference from the spirit world, but I tell ya, I can really control my fingers with my mind. We can sit here all day, and my predictive powers over the motions of the molecules in my fingers will be uncanny. So by the positivist's own criterion, it seems as if there is more to existence than mere matter in motion.


China Stimulus Versus US Stimulus

In an earlier post, I remarked on Brad DeLong's failure to reflect on the (reported) fact that China has booming economic growth even as its consumer prices are falling. Instead of dealing with that problem (since it is rather inconvenient for those warning about a deflationary trap), DeLong simply titled his post, "China's Larger Stimulus Program Appears to Be Working."

At first, I thought DeLong's title meant, "China's stimulus program is bigger than the US stimulus program, and that's why its economy is booming." As we'll see below, that theory doesn't work, because the US deficit is much bigger (even as a share of the economy) than China's. Another interpretation is that DeLong simply meant, "Now that the Chinese have bumped up their spending, their economy is doing better." If that's what he means, OK, but then it's still odd that with such a punitive (by Keynesian rhetorical standards) deficit, they are having a booming economy.

I didn't research it too much, but this Reuters story (from back in February) says that the Chinese government's budget deficit was projected to be about 3% of GDP in 2009.

For comparison, the US budget deficit in FY2009 is projected to be more than 13% of GDP. And for what it's worth, the US budget deficit in FY1933--this was when the stupid Hoover foolishly tried to balance the budget, much to the chagrin of Krugman--was 4.5% of GDP. So I'm not seeing how the Chinese right now are engaging in more aggressive Keynesianism than Obama & Friends; they're not even pumping up Aggregate Demand as much as Hoover did right at the time when Krugman scolded him for dooming the economy.

(And note that DeLong can't say, "Sure China's overall budget deficit is lower, but their stimulus package is bigger." Because we all know the object of the spending is irrelevant as far as Aggregate Demand goes. That's why Keynes said burying bottles of money would work, and remember when President Obama said, in reference to his Republican critics complaining about spending, "Whaddya think a stimulus is?!")

Explain please, Prof. DeLong.


Krugman Tri-blechta

I told Jeff Tucker (editor of that I would lay off Krugman for a while, since I don't want the Austrians to be the Party of No. But I didn't make any promises about Free Advice. Today Krugman has three contiguous blog posts that really set me off.

In this one Krugman says "Matthew Yglesias marvels at the extent to which stagflation in the 1970s — which was bad, but not remotely as bad as the Depression — was used to sell the idea Keynes bad, free markets good." That's right Prof. Krugman. The old-school Keynesian model said that you can't have rising prices with excess capacity; you said it yourself earlier this year. (Update: Krugman actually didn't mention excess capacity in this piece saying we have no inflation risk right now.) So stagflation is impossible, according to classic Keynesianism. Thus the observed stagflation of the 1970s blew up the theory. QED. (I'm sure Krugman would give some story that it wasn't increased Aggregate Demand, but rather falling Aggregate Supply, causing the inflation. But then why is he blaming monetary policy in the latest post?) There was no liquidity trap in the 1970s; interest rates weren't zero. So again, how does a Keynesian explain zooming prices amidst excess capacity?

Now on to post #2, which really got me going. Krugman takes a pompous swipe at Bryan Caplan--hey, that's my job! Caplan is such a dumb economist, he actually thought raising the price of something would reduce the quantity demanded. Naturally this earned Caplan an "Um" from the laureate. And for good measure, at the end of the post Krugman said, "What’s striking here is the cynicism. Feldstein, in particular, is surely a good enough economist to know better. But he and Caplan and others are prepared to grab any argument they can to block progressive reform." So not only is Caplan an idiot, but he's such a bad economist that Krugman doesn't really expect anything better from him; hating sick people is par for the course for such a lightweight.

The funny thing is, if you click through and read the post, part of Krugman's (echoing Kevin Drum) complaint is that Capan and Feldstein are counting the negative impacts of the health care "reform" and Waxman-Markey bill, when those plans won't kick in until after the recession. That's what makes Caplan and Feldstein such liars (and/or morons); they are saying "at a time like this" we can't raise labor costs. But at the end of April, Krugman had no problem saying the climate bill would help pull us out of the recession (because it would force businesses to invest on carbon-free techniques). So I guess businesses are forward-looking when it comes to capital costs, but not to labor costs. Presumably Feldstein (the good economist) learned that at his school, but Bryan and I missed that subtlety.

Finally, in this post Krugman says that the AMA has "played a consistently nefarious role" in health care reform. He notes that the AMA has endorsed the House plan, and then proceeds to rip the WSJ. So, does that mean the House health plan is nefarious? I don't think that's what Krugman is trying to say. But if it's not nefarious, then the AMA's endorsement of it means they aren't nefarious anymore. So why then is their earlier (nefarious) history relevant? (Update #2: Upon further review, maybe Krugman is just being goofy in this post. He did rip the WSJ, but now I don't think that was the main point.)


Another Krugman Non Sequitur, This One on Health Care

Look at this:

A trivial but telling example

Example of what? Of the absurdity of the US health care system.

Today’s mail brought a letter from Princeton: all faculty members must supply copies of their marriage licenses and of their 2008 tax forms if they want to have their spouses continue to receive health benefits. I don’t know exactly what that’s about — are there a significant number of my colleagues just pretending to be married?

We’ve checked — we don’t know where our marriage certificate is. We’ve already sent to California for a copy — but given the state of that state, God knows when or whether it will actually be delivered.

I assume the university has some good reason for doing this; but from a social point of view it’s just bizarre.

Now he doesn't say it in this particular post, but obviously Krugman is telling us our health care system is screwed up, and so the government needs to fix it.

So, does Krugman seriously believe that stupid pointless form-filling-out is going to go down when the government gets more involved in health care?

And let's look at the specific reason this is such a chafe for him. The government record keepers in the most "progressive" state in the country can't be bothered to send him the form he needs.

Far from justifying bigger government in health care, Krugman's anecdote--to the extent that it has any relevance--shows the opposite.


Believing Is Seeing, Economics History Edition

Tom Woods defends his honor against what was apparently a hit piece in Liberty magazine. Bruce Ramsey was reviewing Woods' book Meltdown, as well as a book by two other authors, and wrote: "You immerse yourself in the facts, see what the connections are, and let the story itself tell you what the explanation is. This is what Muolo and Padilla try to do. It is what many libertarians ought to learn how to do." Ramsey's point was that Woods--an ideological libertarian--came on the scene already knowing "the government did it" and just found the facts that suited his preconceptions.

Tom does a good job rebutting that charge, as you can see if you click the link. Part of the response involves a point that we learned from Mises: you can't look at history and let the facts speak for themselves. (As I said in an earlier article, if you try that, your biases will end up doing the talking.) The very act of choosing the facts to inspect is guided by your theories of the subject in question. To give a silly but perfect example: If we want to explain the housing boom, why not pore over NASA records regarding Neptune's orbit from 2002-2006? Those are facts of that period. I sure hope you don't walk into this project already "knowing" that Neptune had nothing to do with it, crank!

Anyway, on Brad DeLong's blog today I spotted a good example of this. He links to this FT article on China's economic growth, and Brad excerpts the following:
China’s economy accelerated significantly in the second quarter, with gross domestic product expanding by 7.9 per cent, ahead of analysts’ consensus estimates. Li Xiaochao, a spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics, said the economy “had stabilised with increasing positive changes”, as the new data were announced on Thursday. The surge in growth was driven by the government’s aggressively loose fiscal and monetary policies, introduced late last year, with most of the funding coming from record lending by state banks.

The economy grew by 6.1 per cent in the first quarter, leading many China economists to believe that the government would not be able to meet its year-long growth target of 8 per cent. But the government’s pump-priming has turned the economy around, prompting rapid revisions by many investment bank economists, and the World Bank, to upgrade China’s outlook. Mr Li said that fixed asset investment rose strongly, up 33.5 per cent in the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2008.

Inflation, the Chinese government’s biggest policy headache until the middle of last year, remained under control, with the consumer price index falling by 1.1 per cent in the first half of the year and 1.7 per cent in June alone. Many local economists believe that the central government will not begin to rein in the stimulus programme until inflation begins to pick up, or at least turns positive...

Now just look at that last paragraph again. Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd? I thought the very very worst thing in the world, was to get caught in a deflationary spiral. The Chinese CPI reportedly fell 1.7 percent in June alone, and it's down 1.1 percent over the first two quarters of 2009. Haven't we had it beaten into our heads that Asians and deflation don't mix? And yet, real GDP reportedly grew at a 7.9% rate in the 2nd quarter. (Note that I keep saying "reportedly" because I have no idea how much credence to give these numbers. I don't trust the BLS figures for the US, so I am extremely skeptical about what nominally communist ministries tell us.)

So does DeLong come up with some convoluted story as to why deflation isn't such a big deal after all? Nope, he ignores that part of the story completely. He offers no commentary except the headline: "China's Larger Stimulus Program Appears to Be Working"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


"Hmm, the Russian president is showing the press a new global currency? That's kind of frighten--LOOK! BOOBIES!!"

Now kids, I realize some of you may think I've gone off the deep end lately. But let's suppose for the sake of argument that we really are getting close to some major financial action, and that the elite need to keep everybody distracted RIGHT NOW. So you've got the Michael Jackson stuff, which--come on--is talking up a ridiculous amount of coverage.

And oh yeah, for a few days now CNBC has been pushing pornography. (It's both the big ads and the "news" stories.) Doesn't that seem a bit odd?


Another Month, Another Big Price Spike, Another Seasonal Adjustment Downward

And the beat goes on. Two days after having a bunch of fair weather friends tell me, "Normally I love your stuff Bob, but Mish is right--we can't have inflation until the deleveraging is complete," the media tells us "Inflation Remains Tame" even though prices went up 0.7% from May to June. (Since when is an 8.7% annualized inflation rate "tame"??) Of course, the real number was 0.9%, and they seasonally adjusted away 20 bps. A few observations:

* Now the grace period is over. Every single month this year, the BLS has reported a lower inflation number than the actual increase in the CPI. Now that in and of itself isn't sinister, so long as they now overreport the numbers from July through December. (That's the whole rationale of seasonal adjustment, that prices tend to rise in the first half of the year, and so the BLS spreads it around more evenly among the months so as not to give a misleading impression in the early months when prices shoot up.) But since the desire is to keep inflation expectations low--among other things, it allows Bernanke to continue with his insane policies--I predict that they won't bump up the actual numbers in a symmetrical fashion in the coming months. Rather, they will revise the adjustments from the first half of this year, saying, "Oh, we actually did have real inflation back in the first two quarters. So now we'll book the price rises to those previous months, meaning that the price rise of 1.2 percent in September is real; we don't need to bump it up to a seasonally adjusted 1.6 percent hike."

* For those who don't know how to do exponentiation, the actual 0.9% price hike from May to June corresponds to an annualized price inflation rate of 11.4%. I'm not sure how that's possible, because everybody from Paul Krugman to the Austrians who email me, assures me you can't have inflation when there's "excess capacity" in the system. Why, just this morning even our beloved Robert Wenzel wrote in a post that hyperinflation and depression were on opposite ends of a spectrum. (I think it was a brief lapse for the great Wenzel; earlier he has been good by pointing out that Zimbabwe shows you can get big unemployment and big inflation at the same time.)

* Of course, you can't cherry pick a single month. Rather than looking at just what happened from May to June, let's go from Dec 08--when prices bottomed out--to June 09. That is half a year, kids, so surely that's a decent length of time for the trends to assert themselves. This is no mere blip. And during this six-month interval, when "right wingers" like Mankiw and left wingers like Krugman are telling us we need to fear a deflationary black hole, the actual, unadjusted CPI rose 2.6%, translating into an annualized price inflation rate of 5.3%. Can someone remind me what Bernanke's "comfort zone" is on inflation? I'm pretty sure 5.3% inflation is way way above it. At what point is he going to start sucking reserves out?

* For those who like pictures, try this:

So what's my explanation of the above? Simple. Because of the panic that began in September 2008, everybody wanted to hold more cash. Bernanke accommodated them by expanding M1 at double digit rates. However, the demand for cash outstripped even this huge growth in supply, and prices had to fall a few points to restore equilibrium. But this process ended back in December. Since then, we are back on the normal inflationary path. The kicker is, banks have an obscene amount of excess reserves. Once people besides me (and a few others who "don't get deleveraging") realize that our future portends INflation, not deflation, banks are going to get those reserves into something that yields more than 0.25% (or whatever rate Big Ben is paying them). And then you're going to wish you had more gold and silver coins under your bed.

* Last point: In fairness, the humongous 0.9% jump in prices last month was not across the board; it was focused in energy and a few other sectors. You can see the breakdown here. So someone pushing the Mishian approach could wriggle out of it, I suppose, and say that this is just due to blips in oil, and isn't representative of "the trend." Yet that picture above sure looks like a trend to me.

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