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Friday, June 1, 2007

Book Reviews – June 2007

Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State

by Goetz Aly

Metropolitan Books • 2007 • 431 pages • $32.50

Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling

In Hitler’s Beneficiaries, German historian Goetz Aly “focus[es] on the socialist aspect of National Socialism” so as to better understand “the Nazi regime as a kind of racist-totalitarian welfare state.”

Since the 1930s many historians on the left have tried to portray Nazism as an extreme right-wing system meant to preserve and serve the German capitalist order. The use of the word “socialist” in the full name of the Nazi movement—the National Socialist German Workers Party—has been interpreted as a ruse meant to manipulate and deceive the people of Germany.

Aly emphasizes that the ideology and practice of the Nazi regime were in fact deeply socialist. Within Germany, among the German people of “pure Aryan blood,” the ideal was an egalitarian social order in which every German would be freed from traditional class barriers so that he might have the opportunity to rise to any level of success in serving the fatherland. The welfare-state policies begun by Bismarck in late nineteenth-century imperial Germany were viewed by the Nazis as a prelude to a complete guarantee of a quality standard of living for all “real” Germans that would be paternalistically provided by the National Socialist state.

The problem was that the promises of the welfare state could not be fulfilled within Germany’s 1933 borders. If the German people were to have this material paradise on earth, someone would have to supply the manpower and the resources to provide the means for this massive redistribution of wealth.

Aly points out that before and during World War II, the German “capitalist class” was made to pay its “fair share” for the benefit of the rest of the German people. Taxes were proportionally far higher on the “rich” in Germany than the rest of the population. During the war the government established mandatory overtime pay in all industries and imposed wage increases to keep “the masses” loyal to the regime—all at the expense of German business. At the same time, German industry worked under government-commanded four-year plans from 1936 until the end of the war in 1945.

But it was only after the war started that the machine of redistributive plunder was really set into motion. Every country overrun by the German army not only had to pay the costs of the occupation, but also was systematically looted for the benefit of the German population as a whole.

Aly’s book is remarkable because, rare among histories of the period, it explains how the Germans used inflation to loot the occupied countries. After most of France was occupied in June 1940, German soldiers were issued scrip that by mandate had to be accepted by French businesses. Retailers willingly accepted the scrip because the Nazis also mandated French banks to redeem it in francs; the banks in turn could redeem it for francs it at the Bank of France. The only way for the French central bank to meet this obligation was to print more money. With some variation Germany did this in every country it conquered.

German servicemen stationed in occupied Europe were regularly given scrip bonuses at holiday times so they could buy up virtually anything and ship it to family and friends. Thus along with the soldiers, tens of millions of Germans back home benefited from the inflationary plunder of Europe.

On top of this the German government imposed taxes and surcharges on the governments in the occupied countries—their contribution to Germany’s establishment of the “new order” for the “benefit” of all the people of Europe. In many cases the redistributive tax burden was larger than the nation’s annual prewar budget.

Both within Germany and around the rest of Europe, the great “enemy” that the Nazis were determined to eliminate was the Jews. Before the war the regime had attempted to pressure German Jews to leave the country. After the war began the government was determined to expel all Jews in western and central Europe to “the East.” Finally, the “solution” to the “Jewish problem” was found in the concentration and death camps.

But beginning in 1941 and 1942 the expelling of Jews from Germany and the rest of occupied Europe was accelerated as part of the Nazi welfare state. When Britain began to bomb German cities, first thousands and then tens of thousands of Germans found themselves homeless, with all their belongings destroyed. Municipal governments, with the approval of the Nazi leadership in Berlin, began to confiscate the Jews’ houses and apartments, including the contents, to make room for racially pure Germans needing new places to live.

In every occupied country the Nazis initiated similar confiscatory policies with local accomplices with whom they shared looted Jewish property. (Only in Belgium and Denmark did large segments of the population and the bureaucracy resist participating in this plunder of the Jews.) The Nazis first nationalized Jewish property and then distributed it to those deemed worthy among the German or occupied populations.

Hundreds of trainloads of stolen Jewish property were either given away or sold at discounted prices in German cities, large and small, throughout the war. Aly estimates that because of this looted property and the goods sent back to Germany by soldiers, many, if not most, Germans enjoyed a more comfortable standard of living throughout most of the war than the civilian population in Great Britain.

What also fed a large part of this Nazi plunderland was the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In the East, Hitler wished to show none of the minimal “niceties” with which the people of western Europe were treated. The vast and rich lands of Russia and Ukraine were to become the economic Promised Land in the Nazi dreams of the future. Under the plan at least 20 million Russian peasants would be worked and starved to death in the countryside after a German victory to make room for a huge German resettlement that would provide the living room for the Aryan race. The cities of Moscow and Leningrad were to be razed, their populations left to die.

Besides the official plundering of the Soviet cities and countryside, there was a vast black market at work in the East that left those under German occupation with almost nothing.

The vast majority of German families continued to feast, even under the allied bombings, thanks to the locust-like seizure of anything and everything across occupied Europe. Aly estimates that during the five-and-a-half years of war, the Nazis plundered $2 trillion worth of property, goods, and wealth from the peoples of Europe—a large sum by any standard, but truly huge considering the much lower levels of output and income in Europe 70 years ago.

Of course, the German people finally paid dearly for their adventure into international welfare redistribution through war. When Germany finally surrendered in May 1945, millions of Germans had been killed in the conflict, all the major cities of the country were in ruins, capital accumulated over decades was destroyed, and Germany was occupied and divided by the victorious Allies for more than half a century. It was high price for pursuing the ideal of National Socialism.

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The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money

by Timothy P. Carney

Wiley • 2006 • 241 pages • $24.95

Reviewed by Sheldon Richman

Timothy Carney has written a refreshing book. There is no shortage of books critical of big business, but almost without exception their authors are hostile to free markets. Carney is an avowed fan of free markets and a critic of big business’s collusion with government—collusion that enables businessmen to gain profits they could never obtain under free, open, and unprivileged competition.

The Big Ripoff is a myth smasher. Leftists and rightists alike tend to think that business people favor laissez faire, which is well defined as the political-economic system that lacks any government-sponsored privilege. But it is a rare business person who wants the government out of the picture. Free competition is nerve-wracking. It respects no vested interests or historical market share. As Frank Sinatra sang, “You’re ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.” Those darn consumers are fickle. So business people (including agribusiness people) have lobbied for regulations, licensing, price floors, price ceilings, codes, inspection, tariffs, import quotas, subsidies, loan guarantees, taxes, tax exemptions, eminent domain, and more. It is easy to assume that no big company would want new taxes and regulations, until one realizes that those things burden smaller and yet-to-be-started companies more heavily. Government impositions are de facto subsidies and barriers to entry.

Big companies have had no trouble getting such things from Congress and the various state legislatures—because another myth is that government tends to be hostile to business. In a mercantile society such as the United States, business people are highly influential. Politicians see them as indispensable to economic stability, jobs for constituents, even labor peace, and hence want to keep them happy. Business has always had political clout in America, both nationally and locally. The period usually regarded as the most hostile to business, the Progressive Era, was nothing of the sort, as historian Gabriel Kolko documented in The Triumph of Conservatism. To his credit, Carney appreciates Kolko’s research and helps to dispose of the fairy tale that statism in the early twentieth century was the product of Marxism and other foreign left-wing imports. While “progressive” intellectuals saw opportunities for power and prestige in the rise of American-style corporatism, they were riding the coattails of the Morgans, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and others who turned to the state to tame unruly (read: competitive) markets. (This is not to overlook the relatively few true entrepreneurs described by Burton Folsom in The Myth of the Robber Barons.)

Things haven’t changed much since the Progressive Era. In our time business people are as influential as ever, perhaps more so. And the influence is rarely in the direction of more economic freedom. Carney documents the quest for corporate welfare (which, curiously, gets much less attention from the right wing than that other kind of welfare), regulation, taxes, and environmental—yes, environmental—controls.

Do you want to know why Phillip Morris joined the “war on tobacco,” why General Motors pushed for clean-air legislation, why Boeing supports the Export-Import Bank, why Archer Daniels Midland likes ethanol, and why the Chamber of Commerce often supports higher taxes? Do you think Enron was a creation of the market and supported general deregulation? Read Carney’s book to find out.

The Enron story is valuable because misunderstanding about that company has provided an abundance of ammunition against the deregulation of energy markets. “Most analysts use the term deregulation to describe the setting in which Enron thrived, deceived, and then collapsed. But in nearly every corner of the Enron tale, we can find the fingerprints of big government,” Carney writes. If Enron’s CEO, the late Ken Lay, was what a New York Times reporter called him—“an evangelical believ[er] in free markets”—then Britney Spears is up for Mother of the Year.

Would a free-marketeer have called for a government bailout when his company began to collapse? (Fortunately, Lay didn’t get it.) While running the company, would he have supported export subsidies, energy regulations and price controls that favored Enron’s interests, and the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emissions? Obviously not. So why did Lay do it? Because he had no principled objection to using government power—physical force—to advance his company’s fortunes (not to mention his own).

Carney’s reporting clarifies our understanding of political economy. Regulation and taxation are anti-competitive. Incumbent firms don’t like competition, so they like intervention. But competition is good for worker-consumers because their welfare is enhanced by unhampered bidding for their business and services. Thus they constitute the real natural constituency for the free-market movement.

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Income and Wealth

by Alan Reynolds

Greenwood Press • 2006 • 223 pages • $55.00

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Writing in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the 2006 election, Jim Webb, the victorious U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia, argued that the American economy has become a rigid class system. The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Top business executives used to earn about 20 times as much as average workers, but now they’re raking in more than 400 times as much, Webb complained. The United States, he said, was “literally a different country” from the one in which he grew up. Webb viewed his election and the Democratic takeover of Congress as proof that people want the government to do something about this horribly unfair situation.

Many other politicians and writers have repeated this economic indictment, which has political “traction” both with the envious poor and the guilt-ridden wealthy. As Alan Reynolds shows in Income and Wealth, however, the indictment should be summarily dismissed since it is based on misleading statistics and tendentious rhetoric. H. L. Mencken once wrote that politics is just about frightening people with “an endless series of hobgoblins” to keep them clamoring for politicians to protect them. After reading Income and Wealth, it’s clear that the campaign to convince Americans that we face disaster unless the government does something about “the income gap” is another of those hobgoblins.

The first point Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, makes is that the current frenzy over inequality has nothing to do with poverty. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, “liberals” worried about the poor and there was a national debate on how best to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the income scale. That changed in the early 1990s. “Starting around 1992,” Reynolds writes, “inequality began to be redefined in such a way that nearly all the attention shifted away from the troubles of the bottom quintile to the high incomes of the increasingly tiny number of people at the top.” (He doesn’t speculate on the reasons for that shift. My surmise is that the leftists knew they had gotten all the mileage they could out of the plight of the really poor—after all, the government had been running all sorts of antipoverty programs for decades without much success—so they decided to fashion a new “issue” out of the enormous wealth of a few.)

Creating this new issue called for resourcefulness to make people think that dark, momentous changes were occurring in the economy. There have always been some super-rich; the trick was to get people up in arms by suggesting that those people were profiting unconscionably at the expense of the disappearing middle class. Reynolds easily refutes that idea. The middle class isn’t disappearing, although quite a few people who used to earn “middle class” incomes now earn significantly more—scarcely a problem.

Furthermore, it’s not true that the earnings of middle-income workers have been “stagnant” since the 1970s. That illusion, Reynolds shows, is based largely on the fact that due to tax-law changes in 1986, increasing amounts of investment income common to middle-class people no longer show up in income-tax data—401(k) and college savings plans, for example. Other changes in tax law tend to have the opposite effect on the reported income of the wealthy. If instead of looking at income-tax data, you look at data on consumption spending, the whole “crisis” vanishes.

Another major component of the “income gap” mania is supposedly excessive compensation paid to business executives. Is it really the case that the average CEO now makes more than 400 times as much as the average worker? No. Reynolds handily demolishes the notion that greedy CEOs are robbing workers (or, more plausibly, stockholders) of money that should be theirs.

What’s really going on here is an elaborate cover for a host of interventionist policies desired by various special-interest groups. “Nobody who uses income distribution figures as an argument for adopting their pet government policies would advocate different policies even if they could be persuaded their statistics are wrong,” Reynolds observes. Those who are against free trade, for example, cite the “shrinking middle class” as an excuse for protectionism. For union advocates, the same myth serves to justify their desire for new pro-union laws.

Not only is there no “income gap” problem, but the remedies offered would be economically harmful. In his concluding chapter, Reynolds makes the case that laissez-faire policies to reduce the size and meddlesomeness of the government will continue the real trend in our economy: the rich get richer and the poor get richer, too. If, however, we adopt the policies of the egalitarians and interest groups, we actually will “improve” the income gap. Everyone would be poorer, but the wealthy would lose proportionally more.

Reynolds has given us an important and timely book, a refutation of the economic equivalent of the global-warming scare.

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The Sarbanes-Oxley Debacle What We’ve Learned; How to Fix It

by Henry N. Butler and Larry E. Ribstein

AEI Press • 2006 • 135 pages •
$25.00 paperback

The Joy of SOX: Why Sarbanes-Oxley and Service-Oriented Architecture May Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You

by Hugh Taylor

Wiley • 2006 • 283 pages • $50.00

Reviewed by Barbara Hunter

These two books cannot really be considered two analyses of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was signed into law in 2002 following several high-profile corporate scandals. The first book examines the law, its effects on the conduct of publicly traded businesses, and its failure to accomplish its purported purposes of preventing fraud and restoring investor confidence. The second simply adopts the thesis that Sarbanes-Oxley is a beneficent and effective law and that all that is required is to learn the best methods for compliance.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Debacle raises an issue rarely so much as mentioned in the voluminous literature on this law: the return on investment resulting from time, money, and talent expended on behalf of the law’s many requirements. This is no small matter when considering a law whose annual direct compliance costs on business run into the billions.

The cost figures bandied about in the popular financial press ignore the manner in which the law now influences the minutiae of individual corporate decision-making when the shadow of bureaucratic enforcement hangs over every decision, from internal production methods to mergers and acquisitions. This must inevitably produce a significant opportunity cost that will, to some extent, deter risk-taking in business. Professors Butler and Ribstein make that point very clearly.

Another unique point in this book, and one that has been virtually ignored by other writers, is that no combination of laws and penalties can produce total protection from fraud at every possible level within a company. Thus shareholders may understandably accept the possibility of some level of fraud if, on the one hand, its influence on the company’s bottom line is considered insignificant and, on the other hand, the cost (in time and money) of ferreting out every such conceivable instance is exorbitant.

The book further notes that Sarbanes-Oxley circumvents and in effect nullifies existing state laws that may have been more effective than the new law, and federalizes yet another field that historically has been within the purview of the states.

For such a slim volume, The Sarbanes-Oxley Debacle manages to include a startling number of significant arguments relating to the deleterious effects of this ill-considered law.

A review of The Joy of SOX needs to be tempered by the fact that its author is an officer of one of the ever-growing number of companies dealing in computer programs devoted largely to compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In light of this, it may not surprise the reader that Sarbanes-Oxley’s negatives, especially its compliance costs, are never mentioned. Even within this perspective, however, its exuberant embrace of the law occasionally borders on the absurd. The author goes so far as to dismiss those who contend that the costs of the law exceed its benefits as “whiners.”

Taylor assumes that Sarbanes-Oxley places everyone on the same compliance basis and thus is not a problem. Sadly, experience has demonstrated that the cost of compliance is far from equal; in fact, its burden on small companies, as a percent of sales, is far higher than on large companies. Regulation tilts the playing field.

On occasion, the author’s acceptance of the near-axiom that government regulation is beneficial and therefore desirable leads him to use examples that are badly at variance with the truth. In his introduction Taylor writes, “In the last century, American businesses resisted labor organizations and workplace entitlements, only to discover that modern labor practices and diversity programs created long-term loyalty among employees and helped build strong brands.” Many businesses, of course, have found just the opposite—that the effects of dictatorial federal labor regulation have been very harmful—and in any event it does not follow that Sarbanes-Oxley is beneficial just because some other federal laws allegedly are.

The structure of the book is a theoretical discussion by the department heads of an imaginary company that, on the one hand, must comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and, on the other hand, must be able to make quick decisions in order to meet customer needs and competitive pressures. The book’s pervasive themes are two: “agile compliance” and “compliant agility.” It soon becomes evident, however, that compliance comes first and the firm’s well-being comes second, as is the case with every regulatoy compliance regime.

Those who expect any insight into the effects of Sarbanes-Oxley will find this volume a disappointment, and those who have read The Sarbanes-Oxley Debacle will laugh at the idea that this law could be “the best thing that ever happened”—unless you’re in the business of selling compliance software.


  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.