Originally posted at Monty Pelerin's World blog,
Whether the light at the end of the economic tunnel represents sunshine or an on-coming train depends on whom you ask. I am of the opinion that it is a train a comin’. Economic matters cannot get better until we hit bottom and rebuild from the ashes. That need not be except government policies drive us there.
Government, especially the current one, has incented people to not work by providing overly long and generous benefits. Society has an obligation to take care of its less fortunate, but it does not have an obligation to encourage people to join that group and then make it comfortable enough that they have little incentive or ability to leave. The dole should not be a safety net, not a career choice!
One political party in particular has interest in seeing dependency grow. It forms a substantial part of their support and power. The creation of more dependents is the creation of more voters and more electoral success. No society can grow or recover when government deliberately undermines the need to work. That path leads to poverty and destruction.
Printing money is no substitute for effort. It does not create things or wealth. The myth of Keynesian economics is not the answer to a society that declines in labor force participation and has fewer productive people supporting more dependents. Incentives at the individual level must be changed in order to make work more desirable and attractive than welfare.
A society whose workforce is in decline is one that can pretend to live at former levels only by consuming the wealth and capital created by previous generations. This behavior is equivalent to the man who used to make $250,000 per year in a job and now is unemployed. To save face, he continues to live as if he is still earning at his previous rate. He achieves this short-run living style only by consuming the capital that he built up from years of hard work. At some point, he runs out of capital and must live as a pauper (or the modern equivalent of one).
Our economy and government both behave like this formerly rich man. Both are consuming the seed corn in order to maintain the appearance of well-being. Politicians will continue this behavior until the music stops. Hopefully when that happens there is enough left of society and freedom to allow a rejuvenation.
Many believe that government and its partner the Federal Reserve are wise and strong enough to avoid this crash. If printing money and spending money were a solution, there would be no poverty anywhere in the world. Even the poorest country has a government and can afford a printing press.
Thus far there has been no collapse. However, that is equivalent to the man who jumps off the Empire State building and is heard to say as he flashes by the fortieth floor: “So far, so good.” His fate was sealed when he jumped. Similarly, so is our economy’s. Economics has its own gravity. It is as powerful and immutable as that of physics.
“So far so good” is not acceptable for an economy. There has been no economic recovery since one was falsely declared in June of 2009. The distortions and mis-allocations imposed on the economy for the last several decades are cumulative and have finally reached that stage where they can no longer be covered up. The myth of a recovery is getting harder to maintain.
A complete cleansing of the mal-investments, distorted incentives and regulatory burdens must occur before a true recovery can take place.
Can the economy flutter around is some kind of air pocket at the fortieth floor for a year or even several before resuming its destiny with terra firma? Perhaps, but it cannot fly without wings and these have been removed by regulatory interference and economic interventions over the course of decades. They can re-grow, but not before a complete and total cleansing.
A major crash is coming. The dot.com bubble and the housing bubble were not crashes, at least as I imagine a crash. They were the beginnings of corrections that were aborted by government economic intervention. The country survived these two major bubbles, but only at the cost of making the next one bigger. Government did not save us from these two events. They created them and by deferring their correction assured the next one would be bigger and more painful.
The video below shows a train moving down a track. It struck me as a reasonable metaphor for our economy. The train represents market forces, slow but powerful. The train does not appear threatening. But, like markets, it represents a massive force. That the video is in slow motion exaggerates the surprise and the force.
Government may believe it is in control of the economy, but it is not. It may think it is influencing and controlling outcomes. To some degree it is and has. However the forces that have built up over decades of these interventions cannot, at some point, be controlled. The mismatch between Ben Bernanke, Barack Obama, the Federal establishment and all their dollars and regulations is about to be run over by the train that represents decades of suppressed market forces.
No government is a match for hundreds of millions of citizens who are represented by markets. Suppressing markets is suppressing the will of citizens. At some point markets dig in their heals and say enough. Then government is helpless.