All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1969

The Failing Dynamo

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a num­ber of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.

A modern economy is a complex machine that requires for smooth and efficient operation a powerful smoothly functioning dynamo. The necessary component parts of this dynamo are private property and ownership, willingness to save and invest, wage and salary incentives adjusted for work of differing de­grees of skill, diligence, and effi­ciency and, last but by no means least, a reasonable opportunity to earn a profit. Let all those factors function and a productive, efficient economic operation is assured. Tamper with one or more of them, and trouble is in sight.

There have been many examples of this in modern times, of which the most remarkable, on the favorable constructive side, is the German recovery from the ruin and desolation of World War II. To some extent under the Nazi rule and to an increasing extent after the outbreak of war, Ger­many lived under a regimented economy. The evil consequences which this always brings to the consumer were, of course, aggra­vated by unprecedented devasta­tion of the larger cities and towns by air bombardment.

The Germany taken over by the Allies after the surrender in the spring of 1945 was a shambles, the cities in ruins, practically no motor transport except as brought in by the occupation powers, in­dustrial output at a standstill, the only functioning hotels or places of public accommodation being those requisitioned by the Allied authorities.

Most important of all, perhaps, the essential lifeblood of industry and commerce — a currency with some stability of value — had been another war casualty. Nazi finance during the war had been more and more inflationary. And the occu­piers, partly by design, partly by negligence, completed what the Nazis had begun, issuing vast quantities of irredeemable and es­sentially worthless marks.

The result was that during the first years after the end of the war German currency had become, for all practical purposes, as worthless as it was in the great inflation of 1922-23 when a dollar could buy as much as a trillion marks. Since some medium of ex­change was necessary, a lively in­formal substitute was found in cigarettes. A tip in paper marks was scorned, while a gift of a few cigarettes was gratefully received.

Fortunately, the Morgenthau Plan, with its underlying idea of destroying Germany’s mines and heavy industries, was never put into full effect. But enough of its vindictive spirit got into early prohibitions and limitations on industrial output to discourage any reasonable hope of recovery. All the elements essential to the functioning of the industrial dy­namo were destroyed; and the Germans, naturally one of the most industrious of peoples, had no real incentive to get back to peaceful labor.

The Curative Power of Freedom Is Demonstrated

It was against this dreary and desolate background that the ge­nius of one man, Ludwig Erhard, Minister of Economics in the re­viving German Government, hit on the idea that made possible Germany’s amazing advance, liter­ally, from rags to riches. The idea was to restore the missing dynamo to the stalled economy. First, there was a currency reform, harsh but necessary and inevita­ble. The substance of the reform was that the one new mark was issued for every 16 old marks. But the old marks were practically worthless and the new marks were real money, good for purchases in stores.

Next came the complete scrap­ping of rationing and controls. Self-government was being re­turned gradually and the German authorities were not permitted to change any single fixed price or fixed wage. But there was a loop­hole; the whole system could be swept away with impunity. Prob­ably it was felt that no German would venture to take such a drastic step. But Erhard was pre­pared to make this bold wager on the curative power of economic freedom.

When General Clay, military Governor of the American Zone, informed Erhard that all the American economic experts were gravely concerned about the con­sequences of throwing away such political crutches as price and wage control, Erhard replied: “So are mine.” But the economic ex­periment was allowed to stand and may be largely credited for what was often called “The Economic Miracle.”

In the first years, there were moments of touch-and-go; Erhard was obliged to set about promot­ing the reconstruction of the na­tional economy with painfully thin reserves. A sharp rise in prices seemed to threaten the experi­ment; some bureaucrats began to dust off old schemes for rationing and price control. But Erhard be­lieved that the free market carried its own cure. As prices rose, so did production. Through the 1950′s, Germany maintained one of the most stable price levels in the world. One victory for the free economy followed another. The Federal Republic began to sweep ahead of the whole of prewar Ger­many in production and exports. From a country that was virtually bankrupt when its new currency was launched, Germany became a magnet, drawing gold from all over the world because of its con­sistently favorable balance of pay­ments. The visible standard of living showed steady growth. Ger­many owes its postwar political stability, so different from the picture of left-wing and right-wing extremism under the Weimar Republic, to Erhard’s logically applied philosophy of a capitalist market economy.

Despite these accomplishments in freedom, a noisy, violent minor­ity of German students express their ingratitude and lack of un­derstanding in current exaltation of primitive communists like Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung and the denunciations of capitalism and free enterprise.

What’s Wrong with Britain?

While Germany since the war has given the most convincing practical demonstration of the im­mense creative power of the free market and of the dynamic quality of the profit motive, other coun­tries have moved in a different direction. On repeated visits to Britain since the war, with vary­ing time intervals between them, I have invariably found British economists and publicists con­cerned with the question: “What’s the matter with Britain?”

The most obvious symptom of what people on the European con­tinent sometimes call “the British disease” is the chronic inability of this country, renowned as the workshop of the world in the early phase of the Industrial Revolution, to square its international ac­counts, to equalize its balance of payments. Not only has Britain carried out a reduction in the value of the pound from $2.80 to $2.40, but there are frequent rumors that the devaluation dose will have to be repeated, in one form or another. The internationally respected weekly, The Economist, recently came out in favor of a “floating pound,” not tied to a fixed rate of exchange. It is easy to imagine the direction in which the pound, in view of its persistent weakness, would almost certainly “float.”

While London remains one of the liveliest of European capitals and Britain is a magnet for Amer­ican and other tourists, symptoms of the “British economic disease” are evident on every hand. Two of the most obvious are the slack, indifferent tempo of work and the frequency with which work is stopped or slowed down, often for the most frivolous causes. On a recent visit I met two English couples who were settling down for residence in their native coun­try after long periods of assign­ment abroad. Both had remarkably similar stories to tell of the ex­treme difficulty of obtaining reli­able service from carpenters, re­pairmen, and other workers who were needed for refurbishing houses and apartments. There is a familiar British postwar saying that seems to express the philoso­phy of these workers: “I couldn’t care less.”

An item from a British news­paper speaks for itself:

“Thieves made off one night with a pile of unwatched scaffold­ing. The police noted that the thieves completed the removal in half the time regular workers would have required for the job.”

Strike Losses

Another feature of British in­dustrial life is the frequency with which some service is interrupted by irregular or wildcat strikes, often called for such causes as how long the “tea break” should be, members of which union should be entitled to drive screws in a con­struction job, or some other local issue over which management or the proverbial innocent bystander — the public — can exercise little, if any, control. The economic loss inflicted on the national economy, including the damage to industries not directly affected, is analyzed as follows in a recent issue of The Economist:

“Over 90% of strikes in this country are of the genre known as ‘unofficial’ stoppages, which means that they are generally called without notice by whoever is at that moment the effective holder of power on any particular factory’s floor…. The great ma­jority of strikes in other countries take place at the end of a union’s one-year or two-year or three-year contract…. The industrial dis­ruption caused by such end-of contract strikes is a tiny fraction of the disruption caused in Brit­ain when suddenly — because of some row about a tea break — many motor factories have no brakes to install. That is why Britain has lost more of its na­tional income through strikes in the 1960′s than other industrial countries. The familiar figures purporting to show the opposite deliberately count only man-hours directly spent on strike and not the much more important conse­quent loss of work through inter­ruption of supplies; they are a blatant British exercise in na­tional self-delusion.”

Taxes Kill Incentives

Overshadowing and, indeed, ac­counting for many other negative aspects of the British economic scene, the low working morale, the frequent irregular interruptions of normal working hours, the slow­ness of labor and management alike to accept innovations calcu­lated to speed up productivity, is the incentive-killing system of taxation which often leads to counterproductive results.

The famous British historian, Macaulay, once observed that the Puritans objected to the cruel sport of “bear-baiting” not be­cause it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators; and some of this alleged Puritan psychology seems to have entered into the framing of British taxation. (There is no reason for Americans to feel self-righteous on this count; the trend toward skyrocketing costs of Fed­eral, state, and municipal govern­ment, unless checked, may shortly find taxes as burdensome in Amer­ica as they are in Britain today.)

Nothing is more essential to the functioning of the economic dyna­mo that drives the machine to ever-higher standards of produc­tivity than the element of incen­tive for all involved in the working process. Such incentives in Britain today have been diminished almost to the vanishing point. There have been cases when wealthy Britons have felt obliged to emigrate in their late years, because their death in Britain would leave their heirs only confiscatory inheritance taxes, or death duties, as the Brit­ish call them.

Some British films have been high earners of desired dollars and other foreign currencies. But so savage are the levies on high incomes that British film produc­ers will sometimes not go to the trouble and labor of turning out a second film. Workers in factory and mine have little interest in qualifying for more skilled jobs because this means transfer to a higher bracket in taxation. The rewards to management are too small, after taxes, to encourage the maximum effort that would vastly aid the lagging balance of payments.

Britons often express regret over the tendency of young sci­entists, doctors, and other profes­sional men who contribute so much to a country’s assets to seek greener pastures in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Taxes are not the whole story; superior research facilities and other considerations also play a part. But the lack of adequate ma­terial rewards, due largely to ex­cessive taxation, is a most im­portant factor.

Similar Problems in the U.S.

Even occasional glimpses of the sputtering British economic dyna­mo (further affected by continu­ous inflation; one British acquaint­ance remarked: “It would make as much sense to save last year’s snow as the pound sterling.”) convey the impression that a vi­cious circle has been created. The fierce incidence of taxation dis­courages the extra effort that would enormously improve nation­al productivity and encourages the “couldn’t care less” mentality, affording no help in a struggle to maintain a stable currency and an even balance of payments.

One need not look far to see a similar trend toward those twin evils — government overspending and increasing taxation — in the United States. The Federal tax rate in this country still falls short of the British, although it con­tains such features, weighted against the saver, as the capital gains tax, undue reliance on di­rect as against indirect forms of taxation, and the double taxation at the individual and corporation level of sums paid out as divi­dends.

But the United States taxpayer must reckon on additional pillage at the hands of state and munici­pal authorities. (For all practical purposes he has lost control of the right to determine the level of his own taxes, one of the primary issues of the American Revolu­tion.) Massachusetts, the state with which I am most familiar, during the last decade has set a record of financial mismanagement which would arouse the envy of the proverbial drunken sailor; and New York and other states which specialize in extravagant “welfare” programs of subsidized idleness are little, if at all, behind.

In Massachusetts, with the merry cooperation of Republican governors and Democratic legis­latures, the cost of running the state has trebled within the last ten years. The proceeds of a new tax are exhausted as soon as the levy is imposed; there have been three tax increases in the last four years.

The financial resources of the middle class are becoming exhausted; taxation increasingly re­moves incentives and discourages production. Unless American tax­payers find some means of curbing the monstrous extravagance of the Federal and state welfare pro­grams, with their false promises of something for nothing, the American economic dynamo, like the British, will sputter and fail.     

  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.