“Austrian” Business Cycle Theory – an “Easy” Explanation
By Duncan Whitmore
Compared to the simple and straightforward siren songs of “underconsumptionist” and “underspending” theories of boom and bust, “Austrian” business cycle theory (ABCT) can seem unduly complex. The former types of theory, associated with “mainstream” schools of economics, at least have the advantage of the veneer of plausibility, in spite of their falsehood. A glut of business confidence and spending will, it seems, naturally lead to an economic boom, a boom that can only come crashing down if these aspects were to disappear. For what could be worse for economic progress if people just don’t have the nerve do anything? Add in all of the usual traits of “greed” and “selfishness” with which people take pride in ascribing to bankers and businessmen (again, with demonstrable plausibility) and you have a pretty convincing cover story for why we routinely suffer from the business cycle. ABCT, on the other hand, with its long chains of deductive logic, can seem more impenetrable and confusing. Is there a way in which Austro-libertarians can overcome this problem? Read more
Economic Myths #15 – Unemployment
By Duncan Whitmore
One of the key indicators of the economic “performance” of any given country is its rate of unemployment. Low rates of unemployment are understood as a sign of prosperity while high rates are taken as a sign of recession and stagnation. Indeed, during the Great Depression, unemployment reached as high as 25% in the United States.
Politicians are particularly keen to monitor the rate of unemployment as low unemployment lends credence to the economic policies of those in power while high unemployment stocks the arsenal of those in the opposition. Given also that entire economic dogmas such as the so-called trade-off between full employment and inflation, not to mention the generation-long post-war Keynesian consensus are, at least, part rooted in the concept of unemployment, one would expect unemployment to be a unique and important category in economic theory.
This short essay will not explore in detail the state induced causes or aggravations of unemployment such as the minimum wage and excessive regulations heaped upon the shoulders of employers. Such topics have been examined countless times over by many economists, “Austrian” or otherwise. Rather, what we wish to concentrate on here is the validity of the very term “unemployment” itself and to determine whether it is really a useful concept in shaping so-called “economic policy” or whether it is really redundant and meaningless. Read more
One of the mandates that our economic lords and masters have arrogated for themselves is that of maintaining so-called price stability, a constant purchasing power of the monetary unit in our wallets.
At first blush, price stability sounds rather appealing – not only does it “bless” us with the apparition of certainty but are we not also “protected” by the potential of higher prices in the future? If so we can assure ourselves that our cost of living will be sustained and manageable, relieved of the horror that the essential consumables may some day be out of our reach.
Unfortunately this ambition is not only disastrous for a complex economy but is also antithetical to the nature of human action in the first place. The whole purpose of economising action is to attempt to achieve more for less – to direct the scarce resources available to their most highly valued ends and to gain the highest possible outputs with the lowest possible inputs. In short, economic progress means that we are gradually able to attain more and more for the same amount of labour; or, to put it another way, we could attain the same quantity of goods for a lower amount of labour. Any consistent attempt to stabilise the prices in the economy would not only target the goods that we buy with our money but also the goods that we sell – and that, for most of us, means our labour! But if we cannot sell our labour for any more and if we cannot buy our wares for any less then it means that we will simply be locked into a repetitive cycle of working, buying, consuming and working again for the same prices for the whole of our lives with no improvement in the standard of living whatsoever. Instead of economic progress bringing goods at cheaper prices to the lowest earners, the only way to improve one’s wellbeing in such a world would be to become a higher earner – i.e. by working harder or longer. Read more
During an economic malaise one of the endless reams of statistics to which pundits glue their eyes is the number of jobs that are either created or destroyed. The state makes “job creation” a central plank of its economic policy to put people back to work, and the impression that more people are being hired and fewer fired buoys their hubristic impression that we must be on the road to recovery.
In the first place, we might as well point out that, for as long as humans strive to create more wealth, there will never be a shortage of demand for productive work. Labour is the ultimate scarce commodity – however much machinery we have and whatever our state of technological progress there is no production process that does not require an input of labour (any such process which did not require labour would essentially be producing free goods). Thus, the phenomenon of involuntary unemployment is made possible only by the artificial costs and restrictions that the state places upon employers – such as minimum wages, health and safety laws, working time restrictions, taxes, compulsory national insurance contributions, etc. – which mean that employers and employees cannot work together on terms that are acceptable to them. This is on top of the distortions and upheavals of state-induced business cycles which create clusters of bankruptcies and redundancies in the first place.
That aside, however, the obsession with jobs is another example of the error of looking at an isolated aspect of economic achievement rather than at the entire picture – much like trying to boost consumption in order to further growth which we explored in myth #2. Read more
The belief that economic progress is boosted by consumption is based upon the kind of misunderstanding that could be made only by intellectuals – the product of theorising that is completely detached from the common sense that everyone else possesses.
The misunderstanding is based on a conflation of the desire to consume on the one hand with the act of consumption on the other – or, in other words, it confuses motive with cause.
All economic progress is motivated by the desire to achieve consumption – in other words, to satisfy as many of our ends as possible. Without any desire to consume or to satisfy any ends there would never be any economic activity whatsoever. Thus, the bigger our desire for consumption then the greater will be our efforts to speed up economic progress.
However, economic progress is not caused, or brought into being, by the act of consumption. Rather, the act of consumption is the result of economic progress (i.e. of increased production). Actually consuming is what we to do in order to reward ourselves once we have produced something – it is not what we do in order to start production in the first place. Indeed, as is so often the case with realities that are hidden by myths, this truth is intuitive – you cannot consume a good unless it has first been brought into existence by production. Read more
Economic Myths #1 = Rising Prices = Economic Recovery
By Duncan Whitmore
Author’s Note: This is in the first in a series of short posts which will seek to rebut popular, but wrong, economic beliefs.
One of the positive indicators of our so-called economic recovery bandied about not only in the media but also by our monetary lords and masters at the head of central banks is the idea that rising prices are a sign of economic recovery. This mistaken belief is part of a wider myth that views the economy as little more than a giant number – a number which, if going up, means things are good and getting better, and if going down means the situation is bad and getting worse.
Theoretically the market price for any good is never “good” or “bad”; it is simply a function of the supply and demand for that good. The only way in which we can say that the market price is “good” is that both parties to a transaction are satisfied with that price and, thus, both have received an increase in welfare as a result.
That aside, however, surely economic progress is marked by an increasing abundance of goods and services – that more and more stuff is being produced for each hour of work? Therefore, if goods and services are increasing in supply then shouldn’t this lead to decreasing prices rather than increasing prices? If so, then increasing prices must indicate the opposite – a decreasing supply of goods relative to the money used to buy them and, consequently, greater impoverishment. Read more