Linguistic Revision

The language used by economists confuses many people—including themselves. Imprecise usage of words and phrases leads to poor communication and flawed thinking. Test the meaning of everything you hear or read about economics and free markets.

I have lifted the title of this post from the title of a chapter in Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski deserves credit for establishing the discipline referred to as General Semantics. I may refer to General Semantics in future posts. General Semantics might be described as a discipline that studies the effect of language on human behavior. Korzybski talks about how changes in language can change people’s behavior and some parts of our language require change in order to stimulate new and more effective the behavior.

Korzybski refers to three important thinkers who have influenced our thinking through the ages and continue to today: Aristotle, Euclid, and Newton. The words that we use to describe the thinking of these three mental giants tend to lead us to linear, cause-and-effect, thinking. Korzybski advocates that based on the new knowledge about our world that we need to shift our language to reflect non-Aristotelian, non-Euclidean, and non-Newtonian, thinking. We now live in a world in which A is not always A, straight lines only exist in concept, and gravity no longer acts instantaneously over distance.

The language used in economics and the description of free markets still reflects the old linear, cause-and-effect, thinking. We need to learn how to use language more accurately in order to reflect the reality of the human systems we call markets.

Out of the many words used in economic lexicon I have chosen four to demonstrate how their usage can frequently confuse people’s understanding.

Value

Readers of my blog know that I make frequent references to value. I do so because it lies at the core of economic thinking.

Commonly economists refer to value as something that a person can measure, record, and calculate. The scientific use of value coincides with this meaning.

Economics, however, refers to human systems in which the word value takes on an entirely different meaning. In that context it becomes a subjective judgment limited to the mind of the individual. We cannot measure or calculate value. We can only measure human action based on value.

Demand

The word demand, in popular usage, has several different meanings. Economists make that meaning only slightly more precise, and in some cases totally confusing. In many cases they give the impression that the existence of more people creates more demand. They also described demand as something that can be plotted on a diagram to which suppliers will respond.

Demand only exists when a person brings something of value (to the other party) and offers it in exchange. Without something to exchange demand cannot exist. In addition, the notion that demand can be plotted ex-ante is almost ridiculous. Ask two people who just completed an exchange what the demand curve looked like before they made the exchange.

Aggregate

The word aggregate frequently appears in economic writing and conversation. Frequently economists refer to aggregate demand, aggregate income, or aggregate employment. The term conveys the underlying assumption that these generalized concepts can be summed in some meaningful way.

Summing individual demand, individual income, or individual employment, amounts to a mathematical or logical impossibility. The idea that we can add these things defies logic and insults the importance of individual responsibility and decision.

Inflation

If you look up the term “inflation” in an economics textbook or dictionary, you will usually find it defined as a general rise in prices. When economists start discussing the causes of these general rises in prices, they refer to things like wage inflation, consumer price inflation, or other types of price inflation.

A rise in the general price level (meaning a generalized increase in the prices of individual products) can, in fact, occur. But, the cause has only a single source: monetary expansion. Without an expansion of the money supply, when the price of one good goes up, the price of some other good or goods must go down.

Rising prices caused by monetary expansion create a distortion in the information flow transmitted by the mechanism of prices.

Interest

The concept of interest confuses a lot of people, including those involved in financial transactions. The traditional concept of interest relies on the relative productivity of capital. The productivity of capital does have an influence, but this really confuses the issue. It makes it a little hard to explain interest charged for the purchase of consumer items.

A simpler and more straightforward explanation of interest deals with time preferences. A good in the present always has more value than the very same good in the future. Thus, in order to entice a person to exchange a current good for a future good, a greater quantity of the future good must be offered. Interest consists of the difference between the amount of the current good and the amount of the future good in an exchange.

The reader should note that the amount of interest, and the interest rate, depend on the two independent variables involved in the exchange. No one can change interest rates independent of those two variables. The Fed, for example, cannot control interest rates.

Conclusion

Practitioners of the hard science have the luxury of creating new language to describe their principles and theories. After all, who do cosmologists speak to other than other cosmologists. Economists, on the other hand, do not have that luxury. They talk to other humans about human activities. Yet, they need to promote certain level of precision in the language they use.

When you listen to, or read, the words of an economist take care not to interpret what they say based on the normal meaning of those words. Do they give the same meaning to these words that you do? And, possibly more importantly, do they introduce a certain level of inconsistency into their own thinking by using the common meaning of the words?

I can’t expect to cause linguistic revision just by pointing out a few words that I call into question. But I would hope to encourage readers to question the words that people use in describing free markets. Do they really mean what you think they mean? Do they really make sense?

 

In closing, consider these two phrases:

Innocent until proven guilty.
Innocent unless proven guilty.

Which words would you use?

 

National Debt Burden

Pundits, inside and outside of government, make a big deal out of the problems of national debt. Before you understand the problem of national debt you must understand the truth behind what they say about national debt.

Having the federal government borrow money to finance its operation does not really amount to the large problem some people believe. The real problem consists of the misallocation of resources caused by government “spending.” Government borrowing simply provides another way of financing the misallocation. The real risk from government debt comes from the effect that it has on financial markets, not the impact that it has on the economy.

Who Really Pays

Many people claim that national debt creates a burden for “our children.” As long as we have a progressive tax system, “our children” will never bear a large portion of the current tax burden nor will they bear the burden of government debt.

When the time comes to pay national debt — if that ever occurs — it will be the children of rich people, or new rich people, who bear that burden. We can’t understand how big a problem national debt will cause until we understand exactly who pays it and what happens to the money in the interim.

Occasionally a person will claim that government debt does not represent a problem because we “owe the money to ourselves.” The problem, as I mentioned in my opening, does not consist of who owes money to whom but the deleterious effect of resource allocation through government “spending.”

Government finance consists of a very complex subject. A person can never achieve a real understanding of the problems and its ramifications.

Walk with me through three diagrams that I hope will give you a handle on why government debt by itself does not represent a large problem.

Government Finance Without Borrowing

The diagram below represents a very simple model of how government finance should work. In order to pay for its outlays government must collect taxes. In this example, they collect an equal amount from Taxpayers A and B, and they collect next to nothing from Taxpayers C. Those taxes represent the bulk of government receipts with which it pays its outlays. (To simplify this model, I have left out other forms of government revenue — park fees, license fees, etc.)

Also, forgive me for using the word “outlays” instead of the commonly used word “spending.” For me the word “spending” connotes exchanging something for value. Most of what government calls “spending” consists of redistribution; so, it doesn’t deserve to be described as “spending.”

Machine generated alternative text: Taxpayers A Taxpayers C Go vernm ent Taxes Taxpay ers B G overnment Outlays Outlays Beget Taxation Government Rec eipts

You can see from this very simple example that government taxes finance all government outlays. For the purpose of these examples, I make no argument about the validity or you effectiveness of the government outlays.

In the next model I will show how government uses borrowing to finance some of its outlays.

Government Finance Including Borrowing

Government must always receive enough money to equal its outlays. When it doesn’t receive enough in tax revenues, it must borrow the balance. The diagram below depicts that process in a relatively simple form.

As in the previous diagram Taxpayers A and B split nearly the entire tax burden between the two groups, and Taxpayers C contribute next to nothing. In this case, however, Taxpayers A and B play different roles. Taxpayers A, mostly entrepreneurs, invest most of their income into various investments. Taxpayers B invest most of their money in government bonds.

Thus, Taxpayers B provide all the money the government borrows. This allows Taxpayers A to delay their tax burden for an undetermined time. Because of this tax deferral, Taxpayers A have more money to reinvest than they would have if government had collected enough tax revenue from A and B to cover its outlays.

This process has the effect of temporarily transferring the liability of Taxpayers A to Taxpayers B. Does this mean that the children of Taxpayers A face an additional tax burden in the future? Yes. But, some benefits accrue to the errors of Taxpayers A. Government acts, in effect, as an intermediary for a low interest loan from B to A.

I will attempt to demonstrate this in hypothetical example below.

The Real Effects of Government Borrowing

The diagram below represents a hypothetical situation in which, instead of lending money to the government, Taxpayers be lend the same amount of money directly to Taxpayers A — with a guarantee from the government.

This diagram, of course, does not represent how government financing actually works, but it does represent the real effects of government borrowing.

Machine generated alternative text: Government D ebt repayment Outlays Taxpayers C Government Taxes Outlays beget Taxation Taxpayers A Taxpayers B Taxpayer A's Debt Taxpayers A B orrow Government Rec eipts

[I think you can see that I could’ve made a simpler diagram. I left this diagram in the same format as the previous diagram so you could see the effects of simply substituting “Taxpayers A Borrow” for “Government Borrows.”]

In this case, Taxpayers A receive what amounts to a low interest loan from the Taxpayers B, at a preferred interest rate. Of course, Taxpayers A will eventually need to repay the debt, but, in the interim, they receive a return on the money they don’t pay in taxes and can invest.

If the financing arrangement were done according to this hypothetical example, no one would complain about the burden imposed on future generations. People see a big problem, however, if when government achieves the same results by doing the borrowing itself.

Foreign Lenders

I have not discussed the influence of foreign lenders to our government. That process can become very complicated depending on how foreign banks deal with that money. If, for example, they expand their own money supply in order to acquire US dollars, that will hold down the price of US imports giving a benefit to US consumers, and causing inflation in their own country.

Investment Risk

So, why should we consider government debt a problem?

The biggest risk of massive government debt arises in the financial markets. When government debt rises to the point where investors doubt that the government can raise enough tax revenue, the price of those bonds will decline significantly causing disruption to financial markets. That disruption can feedback into the “real” economy.

Conclusion

I have attempted to explain a very complex issue with a few words and diagrams. But, above all else, I want you to comprehend that complexity.

When someone tells you that the rising federal debt represents a huge problem, and a huge burden for “our children,” remember the complexity of the process. Don’t consider the results all good, all bad, are all benign. You need to know who’s paying the taxes, who’s getting a tax deferral as a result of government borrowing, what they’re doing with that deferred tax revenue, and what effects it has outside this simple example.

The real problems arise from the redistribution resulting from government “spending.”

Healthcare Economics

Government involvement in “healthcare” provides startling example of an incredible waste of resources that no one seems to notice. It shows how a current benefit causes a long-term drag on the economy.

In my last post I pointed out how a vote for government amounts to a vote for economic inefficiency.

In this post I will point out some important questions regarding a specific intervention of government in the market — the intervention in “healthcare.”

The complexity of this subject precludes me from covering it in any detail. I would simply like to point out some of the issues that people seem to ignore when dealing with the subject.

Terminology

How can we discuss the subject intelligently without using accurate terminology?

We have for years used the euphemistic term “healthcare” to refer to what should more accurately be referred to as “sickness-care.” In common usage, people normally use the term healthcare to refer to prescription drugs, hospital stays, vaccinations, etc. These topics, however, have a great deal to do with sickness and very little to do with health.

Most people also seem to deny that this sickness-care is a product or service that should have a normal market price. Some people claim that they have a right to healthcare. By some magical activity it should be given to them with no cost. They don’t seem to understand that healthcare consists of a service like many other services—not much different from the service of a plumber or an auto mechanic. Natural law gives you the right to life. It does not give you the right to health; that’s up to you.

To prevent confusion on your part I will continue to refer to sickness-care as healthcare. I don’t want you tripping over too many new concepts all at once.

Prices-Costs

Price plays an important role in the allocation of all resources—even those used in a service like healthcare. But, what mechanism tells bureaucrats what to pay providers for medical treatment services? They have no way to effectively and efficiently allocate resources to such a valuable service because they have no price mechanism to observe. If they want a resource, they give up nothing to get it—unlike a consumer would.

The willingness of people to pay for healthcare should determine the price of medical care in the same way that people’s willingness to pay for gasoline determines its price. How much do you value your own health? What sacrifice would you make to maintain good health?

The government does not — indeed cannot — know the answers to these questions. And, providing the service free, or cheap, creates another set of problems.

Demand

Economists don’t agree on very much, but they nearly universally agree that providing a good for free, or cheap, leads to more demand.

More demand almost always leads to higher prices for the entity paying the bills. When government takes on the role of providing any service for people, the price, ultimately paid by taxpayers, tends to rise. Look at the many activities in which government intervenes e.g. schools, union wages, postal service, real estate, etc. The prices rise faster than the rest of the market. The same thing happens to the cost of healthcare.

With free healthcare people tend to have more doctor visits, more visits to the ER, and more demand for prescription drugs. Since government does not know the value of any of these services, they have no way of knowing how much to provide nor at what cost.

Allocation

Ever-growing demand with the lack of an effective pricing mechanism leads to an inefficient allocation of medical resources. As with most government activities, providing healthcare amounts to a redistribution from the healthy and productive to the sick and less productive. This redistribution causes a drag on rest of the economy that affects all consumers. Without these pricing mechanisms, how can bureaucrats know who should get what treatment and when?

This principle—mis-allocation due to lack of price signals—applies particularly to what has become a political talking point: pre-existing conditions. Who defines the meaning of pre-existing conditions and determines who has them? Then, who pays for the treatment of those pre-existing conditions. As indicated above the healthy and more productive people pay for the sick and less productive.

The resources taken involuntarily from productive activities actually create a negative feedback for the sick themselves. The long-term source of the philanthropic support of those with serious conditions gets diminished by current taxation and transfers to the ill.

Enough resources do exist to help those who really need long-term financial assistance for their medical needs. Individuals, however, not the government should decide from where those resources come. The government, by confiscating people’s resources, insult the voluntary kindness of people and their willingness to help people in need. People with pre-existing conditions would not die in the streets without government stealing on their behalf.

Conclusion

Healthcare, like any other service, should be left to the participants in the market. Consumers should decide how much they value their own health, and generous individuals can and will help who need long-term medical care.

Government intervention in healthcare leads to at least three detrimental outcomes:

  • Higher costs—paid by tax payers.
  • Misallocation of resources—robbing more productive people.
  • A general drag on the economy—costing the healthy and sick alike.

Will legislators ever have the political courage to take the right and effective action and get government entirely out of the business of providing healthcare?

 

Election Day

Your vote today supports theft, tyranny, and disaster.

When you cast your vote today, think about what you have really done. You have really abdicated your responsibility for your life, liberty, and happiness, in favor of authorizing theft, tyranny, and disaster. You probably feel like you’ve done the responsible thing. Your friends, family, the Hollywood elite, and the news media, all tell you so. But you need to use language that accurately describes the economic result of a vote in what people erroneously refer to as a democracy.

When political power overruns an economic system, voters should describe it in language that accurately describes what voters have done.

Theft

Voters have been led to believe that they do the right thing for our citizens when they vote for a system that offers healthcare, Social Security, welfare, and infrastructure. These all seem like things from which citizens can benefit. This may be true, but voters need to consider what they give up for these benefits.

Government “spending” creates a mis-allocation of precious resources. Government does not bear the cost of its “spending,” as do individual consumers. It engages in theft, which we refer to as taxation, in order to redistribute other people’s resources.

Would you steal from your neighbor in order to pay for something you want? Then why authorize politicians to steal in your name — even for a good cause?

Tyranny

Most of us want to improve public safety, assure that citizens deal with each other fairly, protect public health, and protect the environment. But, do political means implement the best processes to achieve these objectives?

What we refer to as “regulations” really amount to tyranny and oppression. Voters engage the monopoly force of government to restrict the behavior of other people. They violate the rights of citizens by restricting their use of their own property.

Disaster

Most citizens desire a healthy and growing economy — one that supports sufficient jobs and income for people to live comfortably. They have grown to believe that rising prices are a sign of a healthy and growing economy. If the banking system must expand the money supply to accomplish this objective, voters do not object.

Economists and politicians refer to monetary expansion as a form of economic stimulus. Monetary expansion, however, disrupts the market’s healthy pricing mechanism. The misinformation created causes artificial booms, which invariably lead to economic disaster. Along the way many of the rich get richer — but not in a healthy way. They don’t make more money by providing more and better products for consumers, they do so in trading with the artificially expanded money supply.

Conclusion

Whatever your political philosophy, voting supports the economics of oppression. It legitimizes the system in which the monopoly power of government intervenes in the normally efficient operation of markets.

  • Government engages in theft in order to redistribute resources according to the preferences of politicians.
  • Government engages in tyranny by influencing people’s behavior through the threat of violent force.
  • Government sets up the economy for future disaster through artificial stimulation resulting from the expansion of the money supply.

Election day provides an opportunity for you to consider the negative influences of the political means on your economic well-being. The words theft, tyranny, and disaster evoke a different emotional response than the terms spending, regulation, and stimulus. But, shouldn’t voters use words that more accurately describe for what they’re vote.

Take the opportunity to learn why markets unfettered by violent intervention—Free Markets—will always provide more effective and efficient allocation of resources.

Free markets bear a similarity to life — difficult; but rewarding.

 

Nations Cannot Win or Lose Trade Wars

Nation-states have no resources of their own. They redistribute the resources of their citizens. Nation-states can neither win nor lose when they play with other people’s resources. Tariffs and other weapons of trade wars disrupt normal trade; helping one group at the expense of another.

Illusion of Trade Deficits

The concept of trade wars begins with the illusion of trade deficits. When looking at the economy as a whole, trade deficits simply cannot exist. An economy, as a single unit, does not exist. An economy consists as a network of individual transactions. Thus, any comments about “an economy” require that we look at the nature of those individual transactions.

When a consumer acquires any good or service, by voluntary means, he always gives something in exchange — something he values less than what he gets. Thus, because the parties to an exchange leave with more value than they enter, no deficit can exist in any individual transaction. To make an hypothetical accumulation of all consumer transactions in an economic system the same logic must apply.

Buyers will always give money for the products they buy, whether from a local supplier or from a supplier in another country. Consequently, no deficit exists.

What Happens to the Money?

If a buyer always pays money for goods that he receives from overseas, what happens to that money?

One of three different things can happen to that money:

  • That money pays for products from the country of origin. Those purchases count as exports from the country of origin and thereby reduce the trade “deficit.”
  • That money acquires investments in the country of origin. Those investments, although not included in the GDP, have future benefit for that country.
  • That money buys government debt, which provides money for government giveaways. Those giveaways add to consumption and thereby the GDP. Not a bad thing from the policy-makers’ perspective.

How Do Tariffs Help Nation States Win War?

Only nation-states engage in “trade wars.” Peaceful traders have no incentive to engage in unhealthy activities.

The people involved in actual exchange do so voluntarily and peacefully. If they don’t like the terms of the exchange, they either renegotiate or abandon the transaction.

Since nation-states have no resources of their own, their actions — either through trade restrictions or tariffs — simply redistribute the resources of their own citizens. Nation-states have no weapons of their own for the conduct of trade wars; thus, they have no way of either winning or losing.

Trade Wars Cause Economic Disruption

The trade wars between nation-states disrupt the economies that they profess to help. In an effort to assist one part of the economy they always cause disruptions in other parts of the economy. The policies used in “trade wars” ignore the complexity of the markets with which they deal. For every player their policies help, multiple parties get hurt.

A couple of diagrams will give a very simple idea of the disruption caused by trade wars using tariffs.

Before Tariffs

This first diagram shows the situation before the implementation of tariffs. The consumer buys good G from supplier F (a foreign supplier) instead of buying the same good from supplier A (an American supplier) because it costs less money.

With the money the consumer saves he can buy products from other suppliers. The money earned by those other suppliers can, in turn, buy additional goods from an undetermined number of other suppliers (depicted by the cloud at the bottom).

The consumer gets more benefit and part of that benefit gets passed on to the rest of the economy.

After Tariffs

After the imposition of a tariff, which makes the price of good G from supplier F higher than the price from supplier A, the consumer will have to pay a higher price for the same product. This causes a chain reaction of negative results.

The consumer no longer has the extra money saved. He reduces his spending with other suppliers. The revenue of these other suppliers declines, and they spend less money with their suppliers. An indeterminate number of people in the economy get hurt as a result of the imposition of tariffs.

Please keep in mind the extreme complexity of international trade. A small intervention at one point in the trade process will have effects that ripple throughout the national economy and the international economy. We have no way of measuring the effect of these interventions. Because they always cause a disruption the normal trade process, these interventions will always have negative consequences.

Conclusion

Nation-states can gain only one thing by engaging in trade wars: political power. Some politicians think they are doing good things for their constituents by engaging in trade restrictions and tariffs. They base the activities of “trade war” on the false premise that trade deficits actually exist and they must be cured.

International markets, just like to domestic markets, are entirely too complex to be effectively managed. Messing with otherwise free markets only causes damage to the participants. In particular, it causes damage to those the politicians have sworn to protect.