"Do You Austrians Have a Better Idea?"
A lot of people get annoyed with Austrian economists because they tend to be so dogmatic (we prefer the term consistent) and because they cloak their strictly economic claims with self-righteousness (we prefer the term morality). After a good Austrian bashing of the latest call to steal taxpayer money and waste it on something that will make a given problem worse, the stumped critics will often shout, "Oh yeah? Well do you guys have a better idea?"
Now, in truth, someone doesn't have to have a better suggestion in order to point out that a recommended strategy will exacerbate the situation. If an allergic man has been stung by a bee, I don't know what to do except rush him to the hospital and maybe scour the cupboards looking for Benadryl. But I'm pretty sure drawing blood from his leg, in order to inject it into his arm and thus "stimulate his immune system," is a bad idea on numerous accounts — not least of which, is that I'm pretty sure an allergic reaction means your immune system needs to calm down. But the point is, if a bunch of guys hold the man down — he has to be forced to endure the procedure for his own good, don't you know — I feel perfectly qualified in yelling, "Stop!"
If you grasped that analogy, you can understand my feelings about anything Paul Krugman writes.
(All joking aside, I am pretty proud of the above analogy. But to make it even more accurate, let’s stipulate that a blind heroin addict, who has been convicted of manslaughter on three separate occasions, is the one entrusted with making the transfusion. Naturally he will use one of his own needles for the procedure.)
An Austrian Recommendation for President Obama
In one sense, the critics are right when they ask, "Oh, so we should just sit back and do nothing and let the market fix itself?" Yes, that would be a perfectly good idea. The whole reason we are in a recession in the first place is that the capital structure of the economy had become unsustainable due to the Fed's massive credit expansion following the dot-com bust and 9/11 attacks. Resources — most notably, labor — are currently idle, because the economy needs to readjust. Overextended lines such as housing and finance need to shrink, while others need to expand. (And no, I don't know what those understaffed lines are; that's why we have a price system.) Because Americans lived beyond their means for so many years, they now need to live below their means, consuming less while they rebuild their checking accounts and portfolios.
Given the diagnosis, we can be sure that efforts to borrow and spend our way back into prosperity, or massive bailouts of the banks and homeowners, are only pumping air into a flat tire with a gaping hole. And Bernanke's unbelievable injections of new funny money into the credit markets will only ensure that those failed institutions remain afloat, paralyzing true recovery in the loan market, and risking very large price inflation if Bernanke does not soon reverse course.
However, even though "nothing" would be much, much better than all of the alleged remedies being bandied about, the Austrians actually do have concrete proposals for President Obama. The following list includes items that I would have endorsed even before the crisis, but inasmuch as they would definitely help things, I offer them with sincerity to the new administration.
One last caveat: I know there are many purists who read the Mises Daily, and will be aghast at my watered-down recommendations. Yes, yes, I agree that the best thing would be for Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and all my friends to say, "You know, if you look at the history of this company, it always ends up wasting money and getting innocent people killed. I think we should just quit and go volunteer at a church instead."
But, if I said that as an Austrian recommendation, it would be dismissed as "unserious," a very grave charge indeed. Thus, the following list of recommendations are not politically impossible, just exceedingly unlikely:
Eliminate the personal and corporate income tax. Don't put in a flat tax or a fair tax or a VAT or any other cute name for a very uncute process. To make sure that individuals and corporations realize you are serious, blow up the IRS building. (Have everyone vacate the premises first, of course.) Tell all of the displaced workers that they have 9 months of full pay, plus whatever pension and health-care benefits they had contractually earned to that point. If the workers get new jobs 3 days after being laid off from the IRS, that's fine; they still get their full 9 months' pay. But if they haven't found a new job after 9 months, tough.
Unfortunately, dismantling the Social Security system will have to wait. (That means some of the IRS personnel would — sigh — have to be retained. But they would move to a different building.) Getting rid of the income tax will knock out much of the federal revenues, and taking out all payroll "contributions" would take us into the realm of "unserious." Note that in 2007, even without the personal and corporate income tax, the federal government still took in more than $1 trillion in receipts.
The loss of some $1.5 trillion in annual tax receipts sounds absurd, but the actual figure would be lower, because of "supply-side" effects. That is, the true stimulus to the economy from such an enormous tax cut would cause the revenues from other sources to grow. So long as the federal budget were cut by, say, a trillion dollars, within a few years it would be in the black.
Reducing annual federal expenditures by $1 trillion sounds inconceivable, but it actually could be phased in. The government has many assets that it could auction off into private hands, so that in the first year or two, the government could take certain programs and say, "This will have its budget cut by one-third over each of the next three years." The auction receipts would fill the gap until these phased-in reductions had fully occurred. Some of the obvious auction items would be the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (current value of about $35 billion at $50/bbl oil), as well as all of the mineral deposits (both onshore and offshore) technically owned by the federal government. It is difficult to come up with an estimate of how much the latter properties would fetch in an auction, since the proposals right now are for leasing extraction rights. But since the Outer Continental Shelf is estimated to have some 86 billion barrels of oil, presumably the government could receive many hundreds of billions of dollars — and possibly trillions — from an orderly and staggered sale over a few years of the most lucrative (and environmentally noncontroversial) lands.
Eliminate the DEA and the SEC. Since the SEC failed to catch Madoff, despite nine years of warnings, I think its $950 million annual budget is obviously a waste of money. The DEA's $1.9 billion budget in 2007 also strikes me as counterproductive. Beyond the issues of violent gangs and judicial corruption, there is the fact that this is a recession and we need to cut costs. If you're afraid of your kid doing drugs, have a serious talk and then make him watch this movie. And if he's still keen on the idea, I'm not sure the DEA is going to stop him. (By the way, the DEA and SEC employees get the same deal as the laid-off IRS personnel.)
Cut the Pentagon budget in half. In FY 2008 it was (officially) some $460 billion, so that cut alone would free up $230 billion per year. This isn't an article about foreign policy, so we won't be specific about how the military could achieve such cuts. But if you're worried that the country would suddenly be overrun by Iranian tanks, the following chart should reassure you:
Eliminate the Department of Education. That would save $68.6 billion a year, based on its latest budget. Does anyone want to argue that Americans are well educated? And incidentally, I was a college professor for a few years, so I can say from personal experience that there are way too many kids going to college. If you think "everyone should get a college degree," let me ask you this: Should everyone get a PhD? If not, then why a bachelor's degree? The more kids crammed into the school, the harder it is to teach to the truly academic, and the less of a signal the diploma provides. Plus, $68.6 billion is some serious money.
Cancel all the pending "stimulus" and other bailout packages. Tell the Big Three that small is beautiful. Tell the banks, "OK your 'short-term' loan from the Fed has expired, here are your mortgage-backed securities back, and we'll be taking our reserves. Good luck to you. This is a capitalist country, where you keep your earnings if you forecast well (we just eliminated the income tax!) and where you go bust if you don't realize real estate sometimes drops. Have a nice day." Yes, this would cause some banks to immediately go bankrupt, but the big banks aren't doing anything now anyway. The dreaded liquidation would actually wipe the slate clean so recovery could begin. As it is, trillions of dollars in capital is now locked up in undead institutions that can't make new loans but won't mark their assets at true values, since they are insolvent. And with the income tax being wiped out, the toxicity of these troubled assets would come way down.
Allow unrestricted immigration so long as the incoming folks had a secure job in which the employer (a) paid three years in advance on any state and local taxes that would accrue from the employment and (b) bought at least a $100,000 house for the immigrant and his or her family. (Yes, yes, the last point is silly, but it will help sell the package.)
Abolish the minimum wage. That — coupled with the elimination of the income tax — will take care of unemployment within 6 months.
Now, where to start cutting?
The above steps are incomplete, and I'm sure many readers will email me with snags in them. Fair enough. But I am confident that the above would make a heck of a lot more sense than letting blind heroin addicts borrow an extra trillion dollars to "stimulate" the economy.