The choice for the status quo made in last week’s presidential election was an uninformed one—at no fault of the voters—made in the fog of monetary distortion and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s continuous campaign of disinformation.
President Barack Obama managed to overtake Republican challenger Mitt Romney on the exit poll question “Who is better for the economy?” and a strong majority of Obama voters felt that the economy is better off than four years ago. Indeed, anyone (particularly Bernanke) would concede that without the Fed’s zero interest rate policy we would be experiencing a far worse economy—the true Obama-Keynesian economy.
The danger here, as we have seen in every other bust for a century or more, is that we can only suspend the laws of economics for so long. And in general we are only good at considering immediate consequences, while being very, very bad at considering later consequences. As 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat observed, “The bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”
In the short run (and this is what is so insidious about the Fed’s artificially low interest rates), all we are seeing is an illusion of economic progress. Specifically, the Fed has manufactured a distortion intended to trap both consumers into spending more and entrepreneurs into investing more, or lengthening their production periods (becoming more “roundabout,” as the Austrian School economists said), as if savings were more plentiful. This combination would never occur in an unhampered, noninterventionist economy for the simple fact that higher consumption would mean higher interest rates (from less savings), which would discourage longer production.
Thus, investment in this illusory economy is malinvestment, or investment that always unravels with the intervention’s inevitable end, due to either untenable credit levels (such as today’s corporate debt-to-asset ratio, still at historic highs) or a resource crunch (rising commodity prices) that eliminates any advantage from printing money; and one or both of these scenarios is unavoidable.
Economic progress requires a chain reaction from lower time preferences: foregone current consumption and a higher pool of savings lowers interest rates and triggers a natural entrepreneurial response, greater productivity, and subsequent economic growth. (The “Paradox of Thrift” that warns of the hazards of higher savings is the nonsensical stuff of the ivory tower.) By circumventing this process, as we have today, we have built but a temporary façade.
This leads to another unfortunate kind of malinvestment, of a higher order, if you will: the malinvestment of an electorate in its political class and their policies. Just as entrepreneurs cannot differentiate between real economic information and monetary illusion, so too the electorate cannot differentiate between the effects of Obama’s fiscal policy (of his historic assumption of debt) and that of Bernanke’s loose monetary policy—and without the latter the former wouldn’t have even been feasible. Both Obama and Bernanke pursue a great economic evil to come, but Bernanke keeps them both cloaked as a great present good.
As the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted, laboratory experiments cannot be performed in an economy; “We are never in a position to observe the change in one element only, all other conditions of the event remaining unchanged.”
This is our grievous position in the United States today, trapped in the status quo by first consequences, by what we can see, due to a cause that we cannot even see. And so we are left to learn from experience, an eventual tragic unfolding of our collective malinvestment. As Bastiat said, “Experience teaches effectually, but brutally.”