Tag: milton friedman

On the Great Inflation Canard

Charles W. Calomiris and Peter Ireland, two distinguished economists and friends, wrote an edifying piece in The Wall Street Journal on 19 February 2015. That said, their article contains a great inflation canard.

They write that “Fed officials should remind markets that monetary policy takes time to work its way through the economy—what Milton Friedman famously referred to as “long and variable lags”—and on inflation.” That’s now a canard.

For recent evidence, we have to look no further than the price changes that followed the bursting of multiple asset bubbles in 2008. The price changes that occurred in the second half of 2008 were truly breathtaking. The most important price in the world — the U.S. dollar-euro exchange rate — moved from 1.60 to 1.25. Yes, the greenback soared by 28% against the euro in three short months. During that period, gold plunged from $975/oz to $735/oz and crude oil fell from $139/bbl to $67/bbl.

What was most remarkable was the fantastic change in the inflation picture. In the U.S., for example, the year-over-year consumer price index (CPI) was increasing at an alarming 5.6% rate in July 2008. By February 2009, that rate had dropped into negative territory, and by July 2009, the CPI was contracting at a -2.1% rate. This blew a hole in a well-learned dogma: that changes in inflation follow changes in policy, with long and variable lags.

Milton Friedman was certainly correct about the period covered in the classic, which he co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz: A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Recall that the world of that era was one in which the fixed exchange rates ruled the roost. That’s not today’s world. Indeed, many important currencies now float. Since the world adopted a flexible exchange-rate “non-system”, changes in inflation can strike like a lightning bolt.

Audit the Fed: What Would Milton Friedman Say?

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill (S.264) which is popularly known as “Audit the Fed” (ATF). The bill picked up 30 initial co-sponsors. Although the Fed is already extensively audited in the accounting sense of the term, the ATF bill would expand the scope and scale of Fed auditing. Indeed, monetary policy decisions, which have been exempt from any sort of “auditing” since 1978, would see their auditing exemption lifted if the bill becomes law.

There is popular support for the idea that the Fed should be audited. More than three-quarters of registered voters would give the general idea of auditing the Fed a green light. It’s no surprise, then, that there has been bipartisan support for similar proposals in the past. However, none of these have become law because the push-back from Fed officials and other “experts” has been strong. Today is no different, with the Fed and the Obama White House all singing the same tune: “It’s Dangerous.” 

The real issue at stake is whether the Fed should be independent. The opponents of the ATF bill naturally think that the law would imperil the Fed’s autonomy and that this would be objectionable.

What would Milton Friedman say? Well, we don’t know for certain because unfortunately he is unable to read S.264. That said, Friedman weighed in on the issue of central bank independence on several occasions. Indeed, an essay he penned in 1962 was titled “Should there be an Independent Monetary Authority?” (In: In Search of a Monetary Constitution, edited by Leland B. Yeager, Harvard University Press). Friedman concluded that “The case against a fully independent central bank is strong indeed.”

Milton Friedman’s position on this issue was quite clear at the time. There is little doubt as to whether he would see the situation at hand any differently. 

Friedman and Hanke on Bitcoin

In 2008, Bitcoin was mysteriously introduced to the world in an obscure, technical paper written under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. By late 2013, the financial press was filled with reportage on Bitcoin and its dramatic price increase.

Well ahead of Satoshi Nakamoto, Nobelist Milton Friedman, champion of free market economics and noted expert on money and banking, anticipated the coming of digital currencies, and foresaw the potential impacts that they would have on finance and economics.

In a 1999 interview, Prof. Friedman concluded:

I think that the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A. The way I can take a $20 bill hand it over to you and then there’s no record of where it came from.

You may get that without knowing who I am. That kind of thing will develop on the Internet and that will make it even easier for people using the Internet. Of course, it has its negative side. It means the gangsters, the people who are engaged in illegal transactions, will also have an easier way to carry on their business.

Prof. Friedman’s anticipation of Bitcoin is truly remarkable. He even understood the concept well enough to anticipate something like the Silk Road scandal involving illegal Bitcoin transactions.

In April 2013, Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times reported on Bitcoin in an article titled “Digital Money is Gaining Champions in the Real World”. In his reportage, Popper asked me if I thought Bitcoin had the makings of a speculative mania like the 17th century Dutch tulip bulb frenzy. My response was clear and unambiguous: “To say highly speculative would be the understatement of the century.”

Subsequently, the price action in Bitcoin confirms my diagnosis (see the following chart). In January 2013, one could buy a Bitcoin for about $13. By late November, one Bitcoin would have set a buyer back over $1100. And what about Bitcoin’s price volatility? As shown in the chart, Bitcoin’s volatility is truly fantastic.

While the price currently fluctuates around $600, Bitcoin remains far from secure. Serious discrepancies in price exist even between exchanges. For example, the price of a Bitcoin on the Mt. Gox exchange has fallen by over 50% in the past week, while the price of the exact same Bitcoin on the BitStamp exchange has fallen by only 3% in the same time period.

For Europe’s Youth, Minimum Wages Mean Minimal Employment

Yesterday, in the wake of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, I poured cold water on President Obama’s claim that a hike in the minimum wage for federal contract workers would benefit the United States’ economy, pointing specifically to unemployment rates in the European Union. The data never lie: EU countries with minimum wage laws suffer higher rates of unemployment than those that do not mandate minimum wages. This point is even more pronounced when we look at rates of unemployment among the EU’s youth – defined as those younger than 25 years of age.

In the twenty-one EU countries where there are minimum wage laws, 27.7% of the youth demographic – more than one in four young adults – was unemployed in 2012. This is considerably higher than the youth unemployment rate in the seven EU countries without minimum wage laws – 19.5% in 2012 – a gap that has only widened since the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.

I will conclude yet again with a piece of wisdom from Nobelist Milton Friedman, who correctly noted that “the minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying employers must discriminate against people who have low skills. That’s what the law says.

School Choice Enrollment Reaches Record High

Just in time for National School Choice Week, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has released its annual ABCs of School Choice report, detailing every private school choice program in the nation. The number of students participating in school choice programs has reached a record high of more than 301,000 students nationwide, up from about 260,000 in 2012-13. More than half of those students are participating in scholarship tax credit programs.

The Friedman Foundation’s report is an invaluable resource for understanding the dozens of school choice programs and their various rules and regulations. A new feature in this year’s report is an infographic ranking every school choice program along two criteria: eligible population and purchasing power. The Friedman Foundation’s view is that choice programs should have universal eligibility and that the purchasing power of the vouchers or scholarships should be on par with the per student spending at government schools.

Universal access to a variety of schooling options is certainly a noble goal, essential to fostering equality of opportunity. However, it should be noted that wealthier families can already afford school choice. Universal access to school choice does not require universal access to school choice programs. Targeting support to low- and middle-income families is a more efficient way to ensure universal school choice as it directs scarce resources to those who need them most. Of course, measuring access is a lot more difficult than measuring program eligibility, so this is not a deficiency of the Friedman report.

There are other important criteria by which we should judge school choice programs, particularly the amount of regulatory interference imposed on private schools (e.g. - mandating state tests) and the amount of freedom granted to parents to tailor their child’s education (e.g. - New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarships for homeschoolers). Perhaps the Friedman Foundation will consider these and other criteria for future reports.

Milton Friedman on Business’s ‘Suicidal Impulse’

In a Wall Street Journal column titled “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse’” (Google the title if you can’t access it), Gordon Crovitz cites Milton Friedman’s speech to a Cato Institute conference in Silicon Valley in 1999:

In 1999, economist Milton Friedman issued a warning to technology executives at a Cato Institute conference: “Is it really in the self-interest of Silicon Valley to set the government on Microsoft? Your industry, the computer industry, moves so much more rapidly than the legal process that by the time this suit is over, who knows what the shape of the industry will be? Never mind the fact that the human energy and the money that will be spent in hiring my fellow economists, as well as in other ways, would be much more productively employed in improving your products. It’s a waste!”

He predicted: “You will rue the day when you called in the government. From now on, the computer industry, which has been very fortunate in that it has been relatively free of government intrusion, will experience a continuous increase in government regulation. Antitrust very quickly becomes regulation. Here again is a case that seems to me to illustrate the suicide impulse of the business community.”

You can find the full text of Friedman’s talk here.

For more on business’s suicidal impulses, see “Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations With Washington, D.C.” by entrepreneur T. J. Rodgers; “The Sad State of Cyber-Politics” by Adam Thierer; and my own “Apple: Too Big Not to Nail.”

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