All Commentary
Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Simple Solution

There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.
—H. L. Mencken

I have devised a simple plan for improving Americans’ health by drastically reducing everyone’s weight, thereby significantly increasing longevity and reducing medical costs. All we need to do is revalue the pound. Instead of a pound being 16 ounces, it will now be 32, cutting everyone’s weight in half. We adjust our bathroom scales, our weights drop, and our health is improved.

Of course this “solution” rests on two fallacies. First, it conflates measurement with what is measured. Adjusting my bathroom scale does not change my weight, only my perception of my weight.

Second, the solution confuses cause and effect. My weight is not necessarily the cause of my health or lack thereof; in fact my weight may be caused by my ill health—an injury that keeps me from exercising or a thyroid condition, for example. More commonly, good health is the result of acting responsibly for many years: moderating calorie and alcohol intake, eating the right foods, engaging in regular exercise, getting quality dental and medical care. Such actions are likely to result in both moderate weight and good health. But I can no more make myself healthy by adjusting my bathroom scales than a doctor can cure a child’s cold by adjusting the thermometer he uses to measure her fever.

The two fallacies are so obvious that no one could possibly fall for them, right? Sadly, no. Many brilliant people have fervently believed in nearly identical fallacies for decades and are even now basing our country’s monetary policy on them.

Historian T. S. Ashton noted in his book The Industrial Revolution, 1760–1830:

If we seek—it would be wrong to do so—for a single reason why the pace of economic development quickened about the middle of the eighteenth century, it is to low interest rates we must look. The deep mines, solidly built factories, well-constructed canals, and the houses of the Industrial Revolution were the productions of relatively cheap capital.

John Maynard Keynes, making this same observation years before, concluded that simply by manipulating a country’s money supply and financial markets to artificially produce low interest rates, “deep mines, solidly built factories, well-constructed canals and houses” would spring into being. But Keynes confused “cheap capital” with easy money. Capital—inventories, pre-consumer goods, and the methods and means of production—cannot be conjured into being by manipulating interest rates. They can exist only through production and saving (deferred consumption).

Capital goods can be relatively cheap only if they are relatively plentiful. Increasing capital, all else equal, will lower interest rates. But interest rates are more than just a measure of capital availability; they also reflect lending risk. Risk in turn can be affected by such things as inflation and the reliability and efficiency of transportation, communication, and capital markets.

A lender would hardly agree to make a $100 loan unless he could reasonably expect to get at least $100 in purchasing power in return. If the government is debasing the currency, loans will be made only if interest rates are higher than the anticipated rate of inflation.

Costs and Lending Risks

Transporting goods by human or animal power is slow and costly. Sailing ships can carry far more goods far more quickly. Steam-powered ships are faster and more efficient still. Transportation costs, then, are inversely proportional to the level of technology. But costs also depend on the rule of law. When local chieftains can block mountain passes and extort steep tolls, or when highwaymen and pirates can exact their own tolls with impunity, transportation becomes risky and expensive. Conversely both transportation costs and lending risks are reduced if private property rights are respected and enforced.

Efficient capital markets foster trade by reducing transaction costs. Such markets depend on property rights and laws of exchange and on fast and reliable methods of communicating information such as prices, weather, and changing market conditions. Like transportation, communication depends on the level of technology.

Low capital costs are the result of a lot of people acting responsibly for many years: sound currency, institutions protecting private property and preserving the rule of law, inventors devising new and useful products, entrepreneurs bringing those products to market and finding ever-more-efficient ways to satisfy customers, and individuals producing more than they consume and saving for the future.

False Signals

Artificially low interest rates signal the existence of capital goods that were never actually created. While these low rates may spark investment bubbles, the bubbles must eventually burst when competition for scarcer-than-expected capital goods, services, and labor drives prices up.

Manipulating markets through monetary policy devalues a nation’s currency, destroys rather than secures property rights, and does nothing to sustain the rule of law constraining both the rulers and the ruled.

The costs of fooling ourselves can be high. By readjusting my bathroom scale I disable an indicator that might warn me when I need to change my eating and exercise habits. By overriding market money prices we similarly deny ourselves important data about the country’s fiscal health. Our weight and the real price of money are both valuable pieces of information providing vital feedback on our actions. Manipulating that feedback destroys the value of the information and, rather than giving us control, gives us only the illusion of control.

  • Richard Fulmer is a freelance writer from Humble, Texas, and the winner of the third annual Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing for his article "Cavemen and Middlemen," from the April 2012 Freeman