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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes

Ignorance of economics is rampant. The average person believes the secret to prosperity is consumption and was often led to that fallacy by professional economists who should know better. Economic education in the universities has been as much a part of the problem as the solution, with millions of students taught Keynesian beliefs about government “stimulus” spending. We need an antidote.

How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes is Peter Schiff’s most recent effort in that regard. Bypassing the academic crowd and avoiding an eye-glazing academic approach, Schiff and his brother Andrew have tried to grab readers’ attention with an amalgam of allegorical storytelling and current events. They aim to promote real economic comprehension.

The book’s introduction starts with a lucid explication of the key elements of Keynesian economics—showing how John Maynard Keynes, by making “something simple seem hopelessly complex,” paved the way for acceptance of “some very stupid ideas about what makes economies grow.” In chapter 1 the authors shift into allegorical mode, weaving a tale about a Crusoe-type economy based on fishing. Here they introduce the reader to the rudiments of capital theory. The story progresses logically from there. The use of capital leads to both greater wealth and income inequality. Then comes a cogent discussion of the counterproductive effects of forced income redistribution.

Next they turn to the role of saving—how it serves as the source of credit and a cushion permitting people to get through emergencies and how, contra Keynes, it is the true key to economic growth. In addition the authors correct the common misinterpretation of deflation—not as the disaster depicted by Ben Bernanke and his ilk, but as a key channel through which prosperity spreads. They proceed to describe the benefits of free trade, dissecting the canard that it is a job-killer and pointing out that “it is not the aim of an economy to simply provide jobs, but to create jobs that maximize labor productivity.”

Notable in their discussion of government is an endorsement of restricting voting to those who pay taxes, an idea going back at least to John Stuart Mill. They argue that retreat from this stipulation accelerates a nation’s downward trajectory into an inflationary welfare state. The Schiffs elucidate the unaccounted-for implications of the many popular policies dragging economies down this path. Included among those are the replacement of a commodity standard with fiat money, subsidization of loans to politically favored sectors of the economy, and so-called “stimulus” spending—all central elements of Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy.

They finish their allegory with the inevitable upshot of those policies (given the lack of political will to incur the short-term pain that would stave it off): the decision of our international creditors to cease enabling our profligate ways by redeeming our dollars, unleashing massive price increases, and pushing our standard of living off a cliff.

It’s well argued, but I wonder if the book is written at the right level for its intended audience. It is clearly not aimed at academics, which is too bad because many of them could use it the most. Rather it is aimed at noneconomists. Yet for the totally uninitiated I fear that it may throw too much at them too fast, without sufficient explanation. One can only hope they will be interested enough to seek the requisite explanations from other sources rather than throwing up their hands in frustration.

Also, I found the pervasive fish metaphor tiresome—not to mention that fish are too perishable to ever be used as a monetary commodity. (On p. 159 the Schiff brothers do mention the advantages of precious metals as money.) While I realize this is an allegory in which some literary license is permitted, the cost of this aspect of the story in reader confusion and lack of credibility may be high.

On the other hand I do like the way each allegorical chapter is followed by a takeaway that uses the principles presented to shed light on real-world events. Knowing that the authors of this book wrote it to share the economic insights that enabled them to predict the onset of our current recession, I hope my misgivings are unfounded because the lessons are ones all of us need to master.