07 Apr

Humbug: Nursing Theory

Schools of nursing at major academic institutions would seem to be unlikely places to find beliefs in the paranormal and crackpot scientific theories being taught and personality cults flourishing. The author shares his surprise and alarm.

Jef Raskin

Reality does not exist but appears to exist as expressed by human beings.-–Martha Rogers

"Read this!" my wife said when she came home from the start of a new term at nursing school. The book she handed me was Martha Rogers’ "The Science of Unitary Human Beings". The more I read, the more I thought I was the butt of an elaborate joke she had somehow put together. "You’ve got to be kidding," I said.

"I’m not. This is one of the texts for our Nursing Theory course," she replied, with a tone of voice and facial expression that showed her disapproval.

It wasn’t just the book that was suspect. My wife’s Nursing Theory course itself had a number of the hallmarks of a cult indoctrination: Any serious intellectual challenge to the basic ideas was treated as troublemaking, the leader was held in reverent awe and was regarded as having knowledge beyond the current reach of science. As I did more research into the topic, I discovered that this brand of nursing theory was widespread. For example, as an alumnus of Penn State, I was not pleased to read that Sarah H. Gueldner, Director of the School of Nursing at the Pennsylvania State University believes that "Paranormal events such as precognition and clairvoyance may hold potential as evolving communication techniques of space travel and living." (Christensen, Sowell and Gueldner, 1994).

Courses in nursing theory are taught at the University of San Francisco, Penn State, Rutgers, Wayne State University, New York University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Rochester and many other institutions. Rogerian nursing theory is also taught overseas, for example, I’ve corresponded with prominent nursing theorists and educators in England and Australia.

Martha Rogers and Her Theory

Martha Rogers (1914-1994) was dean of nursing at New York University, and published many books and articles on nursing theory. A quote from Afaf Meleis’s book, "Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress" (1997) summarizes a number of Rogers’ teachings: "To Rogers, a unitary human being is an irreducible, indivisible energy field and a unitary one… In fact, human beings and environments do not have energy fields; they are energy fields. They are open for exchange and extend to infinity. Energy fields are identifiable through dynamic-nonstatic wave patterns and organization that changes from ‘lower frequency, longer wave pattern to high frequency shorter wave pattern’ based on the principle of resonancy. Energy fields are pandimensional, transcend time and space, and therefore may have imaginary boundaries that are unique and changeable."

To better understand what Rogers was talking about, I studied the literature and had email discussions with nursing theorists, including a number of nursing PhDs and a present and past president of the Society of Rogerian Scholars. To get started in relating Rogers work to concepts with which I am familiar, I asked each of the nursing theorists these two questions (among others): Just what are the frequencies of the energy fields? Rogers says that these frequencies increase, how did she determine this? Not one of my sources was able to answer either question.

The practice of therapeutic touch is one of the techniques that, as Meleis put it, "demonstrated the [Rogerian] theory’s principles" (see Krieger 1987). Therapeutic touch consists of moving the therapist’s hands over a patient, without physical touching. "Assessing" is done by "holding the hands 2 to 6 inches away from the individual’s energy field while moving the hands from the head to the feet in a rhythmical, symmetrical manner." Later, "treatment is accomplished by moving the hands to the areas that seem to need attention" and the hand motions are effective in "facilitating the symmetrical flow of energy through the field" according to the web page of Nurse Healers – Professional Associates International, Inc. which says that it is "the recognized professional organization for the education, practice, and research of Therapeutic Touch." How you can hold your hands 2 to 6 inches from energy fields that "extend to infinity" is not explained.

In a classic and widely-reported experiment which began as a grade-school science fair project, practitioners of therapeutic touch who had stated that they could sense human energy fields (and thus the presence of a human) with their hands discovered that they could not. (Linda Rosa et al 1998). In comparing the therapeutic touch literature from before that article appeared with that published more recently, claims of the ability to detect the hypothesized energy field as well as trauma and disease through therapeutic touch have been eliminated or are couched in terms that make the ability untestable. You now read, "some practitioners may feel…" instead of "practitioners can detect…"

Why There Can Be No Theory of Nursing

The idea of a comprehensive theory of nursing is a strange one. We could not, for example, formulate a general theory of biology, though we can state biology’s essential thrust. Biology is the study of life; it is not a theory of life. Its methods range from field observation and laboratory investigations to building mathematical models. Biology includes many theories, such as the theory of natural selection and the theory of the structure and function of DNA. There is no overarching theory of biology from which we derive biological principles. Biology, in turn, is based on chemistry and, ultimately, on physics. Similarly, there is no theory of physics, but a collection of theories about the physical world. Even if the grand unified theory now being contemplated were to be completed, the various branches of physics would not disappear. There will still be surprises from the physical world, and much work would still remain to be done even in centuries-old and well-established fields such as fluid dynamics.

The range of tasks and disciplines that nursing includes are extremely broad. An effective nurse must understand both the human and the physiological aspects of illness. A nurse administers medication and performs procedures such as vaccinations, installing intravenous catheters, and attending wounds; a nurse checks on the propriety of medicines and dosages, sees to the physical needs of patients who cannot tend for themselves, observes and records their physical and emotional status, and can serve as the effector and senses of a doctor. In practice, though not officially, nurses often suggest diagnoses and therapies to doctors. Nurses also become mediators or ombudspersons for the patient with regard to other health care professionals, organizations, governmental bureaucracies, and commercial entities such as insurance companies. This list covers but a fraction of the extraordinarily varied tasks that nurses carry out. In short, a nurse must have a disparate and broad range of interpersonal, organizational, clerical, and technical skills. The knowledge and skill base is compounded from multiple disciplines, including physiology, sociology, psychology, and bookkeeping.

Nursing educators should realize that it makes no sense to claim that there is a single theory of nursing, although the overarching goal of nurses’ professional practice – to improve the wellbeing of their patients – underlies all the other activities. Trying to impose a "scientific" theory on such a wide range of skills and techniques detracts from the credibility of the profession.

 

Nursing Theory and the Philosophy of Science

The nursing theory research literature reveals the practitioners as trying to achieve the cachet of science while at the same time distancing themselves from its methods. For example, a section of Meleis’s chapter on Rogers’ work called "Theory Testing" begins "Gill and Atwood (1981) attempted to use Rogers’ theory as the basis for a study of wound healing in animals, but were legitimately criticized by Kim (1983) for reductionism, causality, and inappropriate use of the animal model." Reduction, of course, is one of the essential contributions science makes to our understanding of the world. When Newton showed that the orbiting of the planets, the trajectory of projectiles, and the falling of objects toward the ground were all described by the same equations, and due to the same cause, he achieved a remarkable reduction, and thereby an advance in our understanding of nature.

Nursing theorists often use the word "reduction" to name the unfortunate tendency of some clinicians to regard patients as a set of symptoms and subsystems rather than as a person with cultural, social, and psychological attributes. This confusion of two meanings of the same word leads some nursing theorists to disregard the beneficial aspects of reduction (in both senses). For example, it is by isolating specific causes of diseases that medicine has been able to eliminate so many of them as threats. Nursing theory should embrace reduction where it is appropriate, while at the same time resisting any tendency toward treating individual patients as less than full human beings.

To critique an experimental study for treating events as causal again takes nursing theory out of the realm of science, which is preeminently concerned with questions of cause and effect. Even where events seem to be acausal (as in the case of the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei), the phenomena are still detectable, demonstrable, measurable, repeatable, and well described by statistical laws. Nursing theorists, by contrast, are averse to causal reasoning and criteria such as repeatability because the phenomena in which they believe, including the paranormal, do not meet with these common-sense standards. Nursing theorists also tend to avoid crucial experiments which could jeopardize the theory in the rare cases where the theory is coherent enough to permit testing; or, as noted for therapeutic touch, reinterpret the theory to make it impossible to test. The experiments that do appear in the literature usually depend on subjective judgments, rely on anecdotal reports, or are purely speculative.

For the most part, nursing theory has insulated itself from logical or experimental evaluation by avoiding precision and prediction – or even meaningfulness: for example, Rogers said (1980 p.333, quoted in Meleis, 1997), "Reality does not exist but appears to exist as expressed by human beings".

The Vested Interest

Nursing theory has an academic structure that is medieval in style. Academic titles take on great significance, and most nursing theorists display at least three sets of initials after their name. For example, an article that tells us that "From the purview of Rogerian thought, VR [computer-mediated virtual reality] is not artificial as one is already everywhere since Persons are energy fields and energy fields are infinite" lists Elizabeth Ann Manhart Barrett RN; Ph.D.; FAAN as the author. Many aspects of nursing theory are far closer in style and substance to religious beliefs than to science; Martha Rogers wrote that there is a "critical need for a body of scientific knowledge specific to nursing." [1970 p. 83]. She does not explain why the knowledge must be specific to nursing, but her desire to create some special nursing science is evident, her desire for nursing to be on an academic and intellectual par with physics is clear. Starting from Glenn Seaborg’s analogy that compared scientific research to mountain climbing, Rogers said that "To reach the upper altitudes [of nursing theory] requires the knowledge and tools implicit in doctoral study of stature." [op. cit. p. 112].

Until the advent of nursing theory, which allowed nurses to write papers of apparently vast theoretical scope, there was far less of a rationale for awarding a Ph.D. in nursing. By establishing a Ph.D. in nursing, academic institutions – which usually require their faculty to have Ph.Ds – became staffed at the highest levels with nursing theorists (in accord with the use of the word "doctoral" in Rogers’ quote). These theorists have a vested interest in not having their work questioned. Additionally, because Ph.D. nursing theorists occupy many of the higher positions in academic settings, they control who obtains Ph.Ds, and they exclude any skeptical students who would challenge their hegemony. It is a closed system, which can, to its own satisfaction, reject any attack from outside by pointing out that the critics do not have Ph.Ds. in nursing, and therefore do not properly understand nursing theory. The situation is such that many nurses do not go forward to a Ph.D. in nursing because they would have had to publicly subscribe to the absurd tenets of the theory, as has been repeatedly reported to my wife (a nurse and a nursing supervisor who moved to nursing after studying for a Ph.D. in experimental pathology).

In my correspondence with nursing theorists, I have found them to be well-meaning. Like the vast majority of nurses, their principal desire is to do what is best for their patients. They believe that they are doing so. I would expect that they would want to demonstrate that their claims are objectively true. However, as a reading of many published papers, theses, and the perusal of hundreds of abstracts of other papers, has shown me, their ranks seem devoid of people who have the necessary background to create a rational critique from within, and the system is such as to exclude those whose training allows them to see the weaknesses of nursing theory.

The Status of Nursing in the Medical Professions

As any medical intern will tell you, nurses are often the most knowledgeable people, especially with regard to patient status and treatment, in the hospital. At the same time they are undervalued, underpaid, have low social status, and are institutionally subservient to MDs and hospital management. Outside the hospital setting, their situation is not much better. This creates justifiable resentment, and, I believe, helped give rise to a strong psychological impetus to create a platform for nurses where they can publish papers, do research, feel as if they are part of the cutting edge of technology, and have outward trappings comparable to that of other disciplines. Without the real possibility of a theory of nursing comparable in scope and depth to the physical sciences or mathematics, a simulacrum or the appearance of such a theory of nursing was created.

The more you study Rogers’ work, the more you see that substance is lacking. Any competent referee outside nursing would judge the overall quality of nursing research as pathetic. Nursing theory, as we have seen, is built on undefined jargon and unfalsifyable hypotheses, it is a structure of self-perpetuating myths taken on faith by its practitioners. Nursing theory has become a home for new-age fallacies, "alternative medicine", and hyperbole. Unlike science, nursing theory has no built-in mechanisms for rejecting falsehoods, tautologies, and irrelevancies.

I believe that nursing does deserve academic status, and that there is valuable and valid nursing research to be done (two obvious examples: Studies of the causes of medication errors or the effect of the frequency of dressing changes on the rapidity of wound healing). There is justification for Ph.D. level studies in nursing, but the justification does not require a fictitious theory of nursing. Academic nursing should not be satisfied with the low standard of intellectual honesty it has set out for itself, and academic institutions should not tolerate the lack of rigor in the field. Until the Ph.D. programs in nursing are revamped, universities and colleges should look to broader qualifications for instructional positions in nursing, and downplay the importance of Ph.Ds, especially those earned in Rogerian nursing theory.

Conclusions

This article has concentrated on Rogerian nursing theory because it is the most prominent and possibly the most widespread theory in the field. There are other broad theories of nursing, such as Margaret Newman’s "Health as Expanding Consciousness" or Rosemarie Parse’s "Theory of Human Becoming" that I have not discussed. On the positive side, Orem’s Self-Care Model presents a direction (rather than a theory) for nursing that does not exhibit Rogerian excess. Some of the topics taught in nursing theory are not altogether nonsensical, but that there are some reasonable topics presented under the name of nursing theory does not rescue the rest or establish that there is a general theory of nursing.

I hope that this article will help academic nursing come out of the dark ages of authoritarianism and mysticism so that it legitimately can take its rightful place in academia and in medicine.

=== SIDEBAR: ROGERS, IN HER OWN WORDS ===

Analysis of quotes from Rogers, Martha E., An introduction to the theoretical basis of nursing. Philadelphia, 1970. F.A. Davis Company.

Until you read her works, it is hard to believe how confused and vague are Rogers’ theoretical writings. Where she does get precise enough to judge the validity of her thought, she is often simply wrong. For example, Rogers’ concept of negative entropy, which she calls "negentropy", is based on her misunderstanding of thermodynamics. After claiming, without examples or citations, that, "With the rise of modern science, evidence that man did not develop according to accepted physical laws became more explicit" she found that, "The second law of thermodynamics, useful in predicting the physical world, was inconsistent with the ways in which living systems behaved" because "An increase in entropy posited a trend toward degradation to homogeneity of organization in contrast to a trend towards heterogeneity and complexity." She concludes that there is a "failure of physical laws to explain the evolution of life." [all the above quotes from p. 51]. She quotes, and summarily dismisses, the correct explanation, "Rapoport endeavors to deal with this problem by stating that ‘no living system is a closed system and so the second law does not apply to it.’ " [p. 52] There is no contradiction between the laws of thermodynamics and the behavior of living systems.

Rogers confounds Darwinian evolution, which she misunderstands, and the common use of the word "evolution" to mean change over time. "Geological evolution is written in the rocks, and cosmic change is evidenced in the processes of star formation and development. The evolution of life has been traced in fossil records, in identification of growing complexity in life forms, and in discoveries of artifacts of man’s emergence." [p.56] Of course, the earth’s geology does not evolve in the Darwinian sense, and Darwinian evolution is not identified by noting growing complexity in life forms (animals, notably some parasites and cave-dwelling animals, have evolved into less-complex life forms.) Rogers still accepts the long-abandoned evolutionary hierarchy with man at the top, "life encompasses the simplest organism to the most complex in an evolutionary hierarchy… At the top of this scale man stands triumphant." [pg. 67]. All that evolution predicts is improved adaptation, which may lead to greater or lesser complexity. In no sense does the discovery of artifacts give any evidence of the evolution of life. Early human artifacts demonstrate our progress in learned skills, but give no evidence of biological evolution. It would be hard to get much more wrong in so brief a quote.

Speciation is often associated with the isolation of a portion of a population, without such isolation or a change in the environment, species tend to be stable. Rogers gets this backwards when she opines, "Heretofore isolated societies are bypassing centuries of Western World development as they are introduced to the fruits of technology. The [human] gene pools of the planet Earth are intermingling as never before and presage further evolutionary events." [p. 59]. Intermingling makes further speciation of Homo sapiens less likely.

Rogers is as fuzzy with physics as with biology. She says (getting both the scientists’ name and usual English name of the principle wrong), "Heinsenberg’s principle of indeterminacy postulates an uncertainty in all knowing." [p. 57]. This is not true: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle casts no light at all on logical or mathematical certainty, and does not say that we cannot predict with certainty outcomes of macroscopic events. If a swiftly moving bowling ball directly strikes a bowling pin, we can predict with certainty that the pin will move, even if Heisenberg himself had launched the ball. Also, the principle was not "postulated" but derived from observation and earlier work. Rogers also tells us that "human beings are radiation bodies" [p. 113], but not what a radiation body is. "Radiation body" is not a term of art from physics or physiology, it is a phrase she has invented, and which (as is all too usual in her work) she presents without definition, leaving you to guess its meaning. Any critique you make of her conclusions can be countered by a nursing theorist saying that you have not understood the term correctly. This is coupled with a reluctance on the part of the theorist to define the term with precision.

Rogers’ theory is based on a number of what she calls "assumptions", and she is often "postulating" concepts. Assumptions and postulates are more the tools of mathematics than of science, because in science the fundamental principles are not assumed or postulated but are based on observation. Here is a typical example: "The principles of homeodynamics… are four in number, namely: principle of reciprocy, principle of synchrony, principle of helicy, and principle of resonancy. These principles postulate the way the life process is and predict the nature of its evolving." [p. 79]

Another characteristic of her writing is stating the obvious as if it is a deep insight: For example, "Man’s capacity to adapt to a wide range of environmental stresses has received considerable attention and has been proposed to be a significant factor in his survival" [p.49]. Rogers’ "second assumption on which nursing science builds may be stated thus: Man and environment are continuously exchanging matter and energy with one another." [p.54] This is no assumption, but a simple fact. She is not above window-dressing with high-sounding jargon. Her third "assumption" is: "The life process evolves irreversibly and unidirectionally along the space-time continuum." [p. 59] In plain English: "The processes of life cannot be time-reversed." When she says that "Ontogenesis and phylogenesis evidence a lengthening of conscious awareness (the waking state) through time" [p. 93], she is claiming both that during the development of an individual and during humanity’s evolutionary history, people stay awake for longer periods of time. However, some people need increasing amounts of sleep as they age, and there is no evidence at all about the sleep habits of our prehistoric ancestors.

A large part of Rogerian theory is based on the idea of an energy field. She says, without any substantiation, "An energy field is the basic unit of living things. It is this field which imposes pattern and organization on the parts." [p. 61] She mentions that the "the electrical nature of this field is well documented" [pg. 104] but gives no citations to the claimed documentation. Rogers never takes her own advice to provide the "clear unequivocal concepts" needed for "a body of scientific knowledge" [p. 81] and we are left with no guidance as to how to detect or measure this field. She does get very specific at one point and tells us that "A series of studies… were designed to investigate the relationship between electrical potential differences, as measured by the Keithley Microvoltmeter, Model 153. "[p. 104]. On what or where the potential differences were measured, a far more important piece of information, she does not report. In any case, it doesn’t matter, for she then tells us that no positive results were obtained with this device, and the matter is dropped. Why then the specific mention of the piece of apparatus used? Because, I believe, Rogers felt that it sounded impressive.

Martha Rogers was not put off by contradictions in her theory. For example, she says that "At death the human field ceases to exist." [pg. 91] and also, a few paragraphs later, that "The field projects into the future as well as into the past." She speaks of "delineating the boundary of the human field" with measuring instruments [page 113] and also that "The environment is defined as all that which is external to a given human field and is thus stated to be the environmental field." [pg. 97]. But she also has told us that the human field extends to infinity in all directions, so it has no boundary and nothing is external to it.

Mathematics and symbolic notation are not ignored. Rogers, without an explanation of what topology is likely to be able to tell us, says that "A fundamental question needing exploration concerns the topology of the human field." [p. 112]. She introduces equations such as R = f(M1 « E1) which "can be read as: ‘Reciprocy [R] is a function of the mutual interaction between the human field [M] and the environmental field [E].’ " [p. 97] The subscripts are never explained or even mentioned. No use is made of the notation except as an alternative to words: The only justification for the symbolic form that I can see is to introduce something that looks like mathematics into the book.

Lastly, Rogers accepts sources uncritically. "Further evidence of nature’s lawfulness has come about through biorhythm research, expanded recognition of the cyclical nature of physical phenomena, and significant findings pointing up interrelationships between the two." [p.62] Biorhythms were a fad at the time she was writing. She also thinks that "In recent years, scientific respectability has been granted to the study of extrasensory phenomena. The existence of paranormal occurrences is well documented." [p.72] Perhaps often discussed, but not well documented. Scientific respectability will be granted only when the phenomena can repeatably produce positive results under conditions which rule out cheating and experimenter bias, an event for which we are still waiting.

=== END OF SIDEBAR ===

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Linda S. Blum, R.N., Aza Raskin, and Julie Ososke for their suggestions, as well as the nursing theorists who have patiently responded to my questions via email.

Author Note

Jef Raskin is a writer, interface design consultant, and cognitive psychology researcher. He created and led the Macintosh project at Apple Computer Inc. He is a contributor to the new book, Information Design (1999. Jacobson, R. ed., MIT Press) and the author of the new book, The Humane Interface, published by Addison Wesley Longman and the ACM Press.

Citation

Raskin, Jef. “Rogerian Nursing Theory: A Humbug in the Halls of Higher Learning”, Skeptical Inquirer 24;5 September/October 2000 pp 30-36

References

Christensen, P., R. Sowell and S.H. Gueldner. 1994. Nursing in Space: Theoretical Foundations and Potential Practice Applications within Rogerian Science. Visions: The Journal of Rogerian Nursing Science 2.

Meleis, Afaf. 1997. Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Krieger, D. 1987. Living the Therapeutic Touch: Healing as a Lifestyle. New York, NY: Dodd Mead.

Rogers, Martha E. 1970. An Introduction to the Theoretical Basis of Nursing. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

Rosa, L., E. Rosa, L. Sarner and S. Barrett. 1998. "A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch". JAMA 1 April: 1005-1010.

20 Feb

Super Duper, Ultra Complicated Economic Topics

Okay, they’re really not. They are simply a logical progression of earlier concepts. You might want to review all the previous concepts, because a firm grasp on them will help during the next section.

Inflated egos

It is very common in today’s world to hear talk of inflation. For years we heard about inflation in the news, and we even have an entire government agency dedicated to fighting it–we hear how The Fed (Federal Reserve) raises and lowers interest rates to prevent inflation. If you asked your parents what inflation is, they probably told you how when they were young, they could buy a chocolate bar for a nickel or how gasoline used to cost 23 cents a gallon, and they used to drive around aimlessly all weekend. Then inflation struck in the 70s, caused gas shortages and long lines and general misery. You would probably have come away from the talk still not knowing what inflation was, but knowing it must be a terrible thing to have caused polyester, bell bottoms, and disco music.

In the last few months, inflation has fallen out of fashion, and the new bogey man is deflation. Because new anchors have as little knowledge of economics as most parents, they say that inflation is higher prices and usually cite one of two numbers, CPI and PPI, that are purported to measure inflation. But they don’t. The truth and history is much simpler…and more complicated. Murray Rothbard has a wonderfully short book dedicated to it called, What Has Government Done to Our Money?

Inflation is simply an increase in the money supply other than what would ordinarily be anticipated. Recall from earlier that money is simply a commodity that is valued more for its ability to facilitate trade than for its other uses, and that gold was generally the most universally accepted money for the last three thousand years. As people who hate gold are fond of pointing out, gold comes out of the ground, and nothing prevents someone from mining more of it. However, gold is quite scarce and quite valuable, and people have been looking for more of it for the last three thousand years, so the rate of discovery and mining is fairly predictable. An increase in the amount of gold through mining does not create inflation, because it is predictable, not to mention fairly slow.

Inflation can occur naturally in a country or geographical location due to circumstances. For example, when Columbus discovered the New World, no one anticipated the large amount of gold and silver that were found there. The concentrated mainly on extraction of gold and silver and experienced significant inflation as a result. Other countries that focused more on trade did not.

The major reason for the increase of gold is counterfeiting. One of the major problems with using money as gold is how can you be sure what you are getting is the real thing. Very early on, governments decided that they would take on the very important responsibility of certifying gold and other metallic moneys by making them into coins, certifying that a coin contained a fixed amount of gold or silver. They almost immediately began to cheat, clipping the edges of the coins or filling them to get scraps to make more coins; they used alloys and lied about the amount of gold in the alloy. If you ever wondered why the edges of coins are serrated, it is to make it more difficult to file the edges to prevent counterfeiting.

As the number of “gold” coins increased, the theory of marginal value reared its ugly head, and the money was valued less in relation to everything else, causing prices to rise. But notice that inflation comes first, then higher prices. The higher the inflation (rate of money increase) the faster and higher prices will tend to rise.

The process was made even easier with the advent of paper money. Paper money takes two forms: deposit slips and notes. Take your money to a bank and deposit your gold there and receive a deposit slip. That deposit slip can then be traded as though it were gold. Notes on the other hand are IOUs that come from the bank itself and can be redeemed in gold. The notes can then be traded and used for trade just like gold. Notes are inherently riskier than deposits, because how do you know if the bank is telling the truth? What if it has just been printing notes but acquiring more gold? If confidence in a bank falls, people will begin to redeem the notes for gold until a bank runs out of gold (goes bankrupt). This is called a bank run, the threat of which is the main thing that keeps banks honest.

Governments can do the same thing but on a grander scale. The main difference is that when a government goes bankrupt, it can do things like steal the populace’s gold as Roosevelt did in 1933. Executive Order 6102 made it illegal for Americans to own gold as money. Whatever was deposited in the banks already was simply turned over to the Federal Reserve. Americans were also ordered to turn in their gold coins and exchange them for Federal Reserve Notes (what today we call dollar bills). The gold was redeemed at approximately $20 per ounce of gold. A few short months later, the government sold its freshly stolen gold to Federal Reserve at the price of $35 an ounce.

There are many books that have told this story in far more detail, and I highly recommend reading them. But I will tell you the conclusion. Even though gold was illegal for Americans to own, the U.S. government was still obligated to pay gold to foreign banks in exchange for dollars. Eventually the drain of gold became so great that Richard Nixon stopped redeeming gold for dollars altogether. At this point, the dollar became what is known as fiat money. Fiat money is money that is backed by, well by, well…nothing. Because people were used to paying for goods with paper that represented gold, it was relatively simple to continue paying with paper that represented nothing so long as the government did not print too much money. Said another way, as long as governments only inflated a little bit, people did not notice too much–like the frog that is boiled slowly.

So why inflate in the first place?

Governments love to spend money, but they can only get it one of three ways. They can borrow it, they can tax (steal) it, or they can print it. The problem with borrowing it is that they have to repay it with interest. If they refuse to repay, then no one will lend to them. The problem with taxing is that it has a tendency to cause rebellions, riots, and the occasional beheading. Recall that one of the major reasons for the Declaration of Independence was dissatisfaction over taxing. Printing money, on the other hand, is insidious. It allows governments to spend money they don’t have. If a government has borrowed money, it can also repay the debts with less valuable money.

As discussed above, paper money made inflation easier. There are two other inventions that have made inflation even easier. They are fractional reserve banking and electronic banking. Fractional reserve banking occurs when a bank lends or issues more notes than it has reserves (traditionally gold). So if a bank has a million dollars and lends out two million, it is involved in fractional reserve banking. Remember that the major thing keeping banks honest is the threat of the bank run, and fractional reserve banking invites bank runs. To prevent them, the government instituted the Federal Reserve and the FDIC which insures all bank accounts up to $100,000. By law, banks can lend ten dollars for every one dollar of deposits. And that brings us to the second development. With the advent of fiat money and electronic banking, the government does not even have to print money any more. The Federal Reserve can simply add zeroes to a bank’s reserve account, and the bank can instantly lend out 10 times that amount.

The Federal Reserve also has another trick up its sleeve. Recall that increases in savings (decreased consumption) reduce interest rates, while decreases in savings (increased consumption) raises interest rates. The U.S. government has bestowed upon the Federal Reserve the power to simply change the rate at which banks loan to one another with a magic wand. Most famously, Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, lowered interest rates to less than 1%. Also famously, Paul Volcker, the chairman before Alan Greenspan, “slew inflation” in the early 80s by raising interest rates to the teens. Lowering the interest rate artificially has the de facto effect of printing money, while raising the interest rate has the opposite effect.

So what’s this about prices?

Redefining inflation as higher prices and deflation as lower prices is simply a marketing strategy used by the government. They can deny inflation by pointing to certain prices not rising or even falling. The CPI and PPI are numbers the government uses to support its claim. The CPI is the consumer price index which is a measure of things that consumers supposedly buy on a regular basis. It is the basis that the government and other businesses use to calculate cost of living adjustments. The PPI is the production price index and reflects the prices of common capital goods.

The problem with the CPI and PPI are twofold. First, the items in them change periodically, and the government sometimes changes the way it calculates them so that numbers from one year to another are not necessarily comparable. For example, if the price of steak goes up too high, the government will substitute the price of hamburger instead (although I’m pretty sure I could tell the difference). When the price of houses doubled a few years ago, the government substituted mortgage payments for rents, but who was renting when they were practically paying you to take interest only loans on a mansion?

The second problem is that they are often cited as indicators of inflation, when in fact, they are simply indicators of price. Recall that price is a reflection of value, and value is subjective. Prices rise and fall for many reasons, but the most common are a change in production or a change in society’s values. Inflation is competing with the natural tendency of prices to fall as productivity rises. If productivity is rising faster than inflation, prices will still fall, but that does not mean inflation is not occurring: if there were no inflation, the prices would fall even faster.

It is at this point when the government tries to pull a Tom Sawyer on the public. (For you illiterates, Tom Sawyer conned his friends into paying to perform his chores by pretending they were fun.) The government will then say that falling prices are deflation and bad. If prices fall, they claim that businesses will not be able to pay their bills and go bankrupt. They claim that the Fed will protect us from deflation as it delivers us from evil. But as we saw earlier, falling prices are in fact good, because they send information to both consumers and business. By inflating, the government is sending false signals to both.

The market goes up and down and around.

I hope you’re still with me, because this is where it really gets good. Almost everyone agrees with the above points, even though the government does not like to admit it. The key thing to remember is that inflation is an insidious form of stealing and as a byproduct sends false signals to consumers and businesses that cause them to do some rather strange things. One of the most important contributions of Austrian Economics is the Theory of the Business Cycle.

For years, economists and others have noticed that the economy seems to go through sudden booms where growth skyrockets and then even more sudden crashes or busts. This has is called the business cycle, the most famous of which is the Great Depression that followed the boom of the Roaring 20s. The business cycle is often blamed on the excesses of capitalism immediately followed by calls for government intervention.

Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize for explaining the true cause of these boom/bust cycles. The major cause is government monetary policy. Inflation sends false signals to businesses. An increase in the money supply results in lower interest rates making it easier for businesses to get loans. In fact, there is so much money to be loaned that crazy business ideas that will never make a profit are funded. This is usually limited to one or two areas of the economy creating what is called a bubble. Bubbles often cause people to think normal business and economic principles no longer apply. In the 90s we heard talk of the “new economy” in which profits no longer mattered.

During the boom time, the affected companies or assets may huge increases in their prices. In the 90s, it was technological stocks; in the 2000’s, it was the real estate market. As the price of these assets goes up, people begin to speculate that the prices will never go down, and pour more and more of their money into them. They feel rich and begin to spend more and more money, but the problem is that even though there is an increased amount of money, there is no increase in actual capital goods and savings for these companies to use–in fact, there is even less, because people are spending and consuming more.

Eventually, these businesses will begin to fail, and people will lose their jobs, and the capital will be liquidated and sold to companies that are viable. As people realize that the wealth was illusory, the prices of their “investments” begins to fall and people will begin to sell their holdings and the prices will plummet. As people pull their money out of the bubble, they begin to value the money more resulting in lower prices throughout the economy. The lower prices are important because they allow people who have lost money in the bubble or their jobs to buy basic necessities more cheaply.

The money shot.

To recap, the Business cycle is caused by inflation causing artificially low interest rates, driving business ventures that are doomed to fail. Freeze right there. Most people, including the government, think that the damage to the economy is done during the bust when businesses go bankrupt and people lost their jobs. In fact the damage is done during the boom. Any time money is lent to a business that cannot succeed, that capital is wasted. That capital can no longer be used for something useful. The person who saved to make it possible has wasted his temperance. The bust is foul tasting medicine that sets things right.

Think about it for a moment. If you had a skin cancer, would you admire it, saying to yourself, “Look how vigorously it grows. If only all my skin would grow like this!” That is exactly what happens when the government tries to prevent a bust. The bailout of banks and car companies in 2008 and 2009 only keeps the cancer in the economy longer. The economy was damaged years ago. The bankruptcy of those banks and car companies would have gone a long way to setting things right. The problem is that it hurts to take our medicine, and John Maynard Keynes convinced us that the medicine is poison.

The cure for the boom is a bust, and the prevention of the business cycle in general is the removal of inflation and other detrimental government policies. Unfortunately, it is hard, and we are soft.

20 Feb

More Advanced Economic Concepts

Money is the root of all good.

Now all the pieces are in place to introduce money. As we saw earlier, trade made the world go round because it allowed specialization and the division of labor, which in turn increased production, which made society richer. The simplest form of trade is barter–I’ll give you this if you give me that. The problem is that trade requires what is called the coincidence of desires. What are the chances that a candlestick maker is going to want the fletcher’s arrow? Or the blacksmith’s horseshoe? The fletcher must first trade the arrow for something the candlestick maker wants and then go trade that item for the candle. The other problem is the problem of divisibility. What happens if a cow is worth three goats, but the goatherd is only willing to trade one goat?

The answer is an intermediate commodity. The farmer can trade a whole cow for bits of silver and then use some of those bits of silver to trade for a goat. The goatherd can take some of that silver and trade it for a candle. The candlestick maker can in turn take some of that silver and buy a steak, and so on. The major requirements for the intermediate commodity are that it be readily divisible, universally accepted (valued), have relatively high value for its weight, and preferably be durable. Eventually this commodity will become more desired for its ability as an intermediary use than for its other uses. The commodity is then known as money. A society may have several commodities that serve as money–for example gold and silver. Local communities may use commodities that other neighboring communities do not. For example, in prisons, cigarettes are often used as money. In late eighteenth century Pennsylvania, whiskey was used as money.

Money is the root of all (economic) good because it facilitates trade which allows for the division of labor, which increases production, which makes society richer (better off). Gold and silver were already established as money by the time the Israelites escaped from Egypt.

Savings make increased production possible.

In our topsy turvy world influenced by a quack economist known as John Maynard Keynes (Keynesian economics), we constantly hear that debt drives the economy. President Obama himself has even said as much. But this is completely wrong. It is savings that drives the economy. Take for example, a wheat farmer who is able to pick two bushels of wheat with his hands. He eats one and sells the other and uses all of the money on other consumer goods (meats, clothes, house, etc.) One day, he has an idea. Instead of using all of the money from the second bushel on consumer goods, he’ll go without (he’ll save) so that he can buy a sickle (a capital good). Once he has enough money saved to buy a sickle, he can harvest four bushels of wheat.

Is the farmer better off? He can eat one bushel and now has three bushels to sell instead of just one. Is society better off? It now has two additional bushels of wheat available. Everyone is better off. What made it possible? Savings. The farmer didn’t have to be the one to do the savings, however. Someone else could have saved and then lent their money to the farmer to buy the sickle. The farmer would then pay the money back with the additional money from the increased wheat production. In either case, whoever does the savings takes on the risk that the capital good may not work as expected and the savings will go to waste. If the farmer does the saving himself, he takes on the risk, but also reaps the full reward. The someone else does the saving, the farmer has less risk, but has to pay back a portion of the larger harvest.

So we see the Theory of Capital Production: Someone does not consume as much (saves) and then uses those savings to buy capital goods (investment) which are used to increase production which makes both the producer, saver, and society richer. A corollary is that if someone saves and lends to someone who consumes the savings, no one is better off because the savings were not used for capital goods (opportunity cost). Thus, we have an important lesson for getting rich.

Don’t borrow money unless it helps you increase your production.

For example, if you need a car to joy ride in, save your money and purchase it. If you need a car to go to work, consider borrowing the money, but only enough to get a car that will reliably get you to work. The next time you are considering whether to purchase an item with a credit card, ask yourself whether it will help you make money or not. If not, borrowing is simply making you poorer faster…and reducing the overall

Now I’m Free. Free fallin’

There’s one last effect that we need to mention from our example above about the wheat farmer. Do you remember the Theory of marginal value? (The more of something you have, the less you value any one of the units.) Well when the farmer now has three bushels of wheat to sell instead of just one, the value of wheat will go down, and so will it’s price in relationship to other items. Is the farmer richer? Yes. Is the society richer? Yes. Did the price of wheat go down? Yes. Strange. This leads us to an important idea. Money is simply a means to trade for stuff. The more stuff that is produced, the less money it takes to buy it…and this is a good thing.

Think for a moment about almost any modern gadget that you enjoy. At one point in time, it was rare and expensive, but over time, savings allowed capital to improve their production, and as they became more plentiful, the producers and society were better off. Even though the price fell. Consider flat screen televisions: when the first plasma screens came out, a 42 inch model cost $15,000, and the companies only sold a few thousand units to big companies and to rich people. As the technology improved, eventually, the price fell so below $1000, and now, even people on welfare have flat screen televisions. Is society better off? Yes. Are the companies better off selling hundreds of thousands of units at $1000 than before? Yes. Did the price come down? Yes.

One cause of falling prices is that an item is being produced more cheaply than it used to be as we saw in the example of the flat screen televisions. Another cause of falling prices is that people don’t value an commodity as much as they used to. It might be caused by a shift in values–people who value fitness are not as likely to value or purchase donuts and pastries. People might not value a commodity as much as they used to because better items are now being produced. For example, people stopped buying as many Walkmans once MP3 players became less expensive. As it became harder to sell Walkmans because people were buying MP3 players instead, stores lowered the prices on Walkmans. The lower prices sent a signal to the companies that the public no longer needed/wanted as many Walkmans and the companies had better start producing something else. Businesses that ignore these signals and continue to produce unwanted goods will eventually go bankrupt and their capital will be sold to other businesses that will produce goods the public wants—to the benefit of society. This ensures that capital goods are not wasted on products no one wants or needs.

Either way, falling prices are good, because either they convey information. If the cause of falling prices is a reduction in consumer demand, it tells companies that they should shift capital to other products. If the falling prices are due to lowered costs of production, it signals that ordinary people can now purchase items that they could not afford previously. No matter how you cut it, falling prices are good for society.

Why am I repeating myself so much about falling prices? If you turn on the news, you will hear story after story about how falling prices are bad, how falling prices are ruining the economy. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Falling prices are good because they mean more people can afford those things. Falling prices are even better if they are the result of increased production due to capital improvements. And falling prices are also good because they tell businesses what people don’t want.

As Thomas DiLorenzo points out, even poor Americans live better than than kings and queens two hundred years ago with instant access to the entire world’s produce at their local supermarket, and the ability to keep it fresh in their refrigerators; able to hop on a commercial flight and travel thousands of miles in a few hours for about an average day’s pay; able to summon instant entertainment from all over the world with the press of a thumb. (And I will add that a ten-year-old Nintendo Gameboy has more computing power than the Space Shuttle Columbia had on its maiden voyage.) And we have falling prices to thank for it.

I can see clearly now that the rain is gone.

Now that we have established that falling prices are good, we can talk about another economic principle: Not all the results of actions are immediately seen, but people tend to act only on the obvious ones. Henry Hazlitt has an entire (short and very readable) book called Economics in One Lesson dedicated to this idea. He one lesson can boiled down to a single sentence, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” (emphasis in original) After stating the lesson, he applies it to eighteen economic situations and fallacies: The first is the broken window fallacy (first described by Bastiat). Imagine that someone passes by a shop window that was broken by a vandal. At first they begin to commiserate with the shop keeper who will now have to repair the window. But then someone points out that this will give the glass maker more business, who will then have more money to spend and so on, until the vandal becomes a hero because he has stimulated the economy by forcing the shopkeeper to spend money repairing the window.

The fallacy is that the crowd does not see the things the shopkeeper could have used the money for (opportunity cost) had the window not been broken. The shopkeeper might have been planning on expanding his line of products or taking a vacation or buying a new suit, or any number of things that would also have stimulated the economy, but now never will.

The same problem is seen with government spending. When government acts, its efforts are seen, but all of the things that could have been had the government not acted are not seen. And so we come to one of the most pervasive and insidious problem to infest society…rent seeking. Rents, economically speaking, are money or rewards above and beyond what one could get on the free market.

Let us go back to our example of the wheat farmer who has increased his production of wheat from two bushels to four and inadvertently pushed the price of wheat down. The decreased price of wheat means that the farmer will most likely make slightly less money than he anticipated, but still more than he had before. If he is a wise farmer, he will be happy with this arrangement. The lower price will cause other things to happen. Perhaps a farmer who is not as good will stop farming and do something else more productive. Perhaps families will be able to have more children and grow bigger increasing the demand (and price) of wheat. Or perhaps the farmer decides that he would prefer to work less and only produce three bushels of wheat. All of these things are perfectly legitimate, and society will work out the details quite smoothly and automatically.

But, what if the farmer has connections in the government and persuades the government not to let the price of wheat fall? In that case, the farmer will be richer than before, but society will not. In fact, society will be poorer because the artificially high price will induce the farmer and other farmers to produce excess wheat. Fields that might have been used for other crops will be plowed under for wheat. Marginal land like marshes will be used for wheat. People who are not good at farmers will begin to farm wheat. Society will have more wheat than it needs, but not enough of other goods, the environment will be damaged, and needless energy will have been expended on wheat production. Society will be unwilling or unable to purchase all of the farmers’ wheat. Then the wheat will go bad, and the farmer will make less money because not all of the wheat has sold. A disaster all round.

But our enterprising farmer is not done yet. He convinces his connections in government that the government itself should buy up the excess wheat. Now the government takes money from the people who didn’t want to buy the wheat and buys the wheat, which still goes bad. And because of government waste, corruption, and administrative costs, the wheat has now cost society even more than it did before. No matter how politically connected the farmers are, eventually such a scheme will anger the rest of society. Instead of simply scrapping the law that caused the problem in the first place, the government will do such things as putting crop limits on the farmers or even paying the farmers not to farm.

Such schemes to escape falling prices are simply insanity, yet, in the United States they have been going on for more than a hundred years. Every time you eat, you are paying a higher price for your meal because of government interference with farmers. Every time you get paid, a piece of your money is sent to those same farmers who just stole your money last meal. Unanticipated or unseen consequences are more important than the seen ones. The farmers simply wanted to keep their prices from going down, and in the end damaged themselves and society, yet are too blind to see that they are worse off for it.
Falling prices are good.

Mercury rising.

Hazlitt’s book is called Economics in One Lesson for a reason: it takes the single lesson of unseen consequences and applies it to several different scenarios. Since we took so long on falling prices, let us consider the same lesson when applied to rising prices. If falling prices are good, then rising prices must be bad also good. Just as falling prices allow consumers to purchase more of a good, rising prices tell them to purchase less, or to value it more.

Just as there are two basic causes of falling prices (increased production and consumers valuing the product less), there are two causes of rising prices: decreased production and consumers valuing the product more. The third principle of economics is that resources are scarce. Production of a product may fall because of the scarcity of the raw materials that go into its production when compared to its demand. Or production may fall because of natural disasters. For example, following hurricane Katrina, the production of gasoline fell because of damage to Texas refineries. This in turn caused higher prices, which in turn signaled consumers to value it more (i.e., not waste it).

When the price of gasoline is low, people buy bigger cars and trucks, think nothing of taking extra trips to the store, long road trips, or even joyriding. But when the price of gasoline rises because of decreased production, people begin to buy smaller cars, think more carefully about their trips, car pool, and take other gasoline-conserving measures. At the same time, the higher prices send a signal to businesses that they should increase production to take advantage of the opportunity for higher revenues.

Another effect of high prices is that they signal consumers and businesses to look for lower priced alternatives. A classic example is that sugar is more expensive because of the misguided government policies (some of which were) described above. As result, businesses that sold products containing sugar began to look for lower priced substitutes and found high fructose corn syrup. Interestingly, recently, the government has further meddled in the market for corn, causing high fructose corn syrup’s prices to rise, causing some businesses to switch back to sugar.
Another cause of higher prices is a shift in consumers’ values. The day president Obama was elected, the price of ammunition jumped. Prices almost doubled from the day before the election. Some people in the gun community have suggested a government conspiracy, but what actually happened is that people simply valued the ammunition more and were willing to pay a higher price.

The increased prices serve a useful market function. They prevent some people from buying up and hoarding all the ammo. They also discourage frivolous uses such as plinking by telling gun owners to save it for important things like self defense or serious training.

The higher prices also provide businesses with a profit opportunity, signaling them to increase production. The profit opportunity will eventually lower prices by encouraging more businesses to enter the market and for existing ones to scale up their operations.

To recap, higher prices are good because they signal companies to increase production and consumers to reduce consumption and conserve valuable resources. Just as businesses do not like falling prices and sometimes persuade the government to intervene, consumers do not like rising prices and sometimes get government to intervene. Just as there are unintended consequences with preventing falling prices, there are unintended consequences when government prevents rising prices.

When government sets a maximum price (price ceiling) on a good, it reduces the signal to businesses to produce that good resulting in decreased production. Conversely, the artificially low price signals consumers to purchase more of the good. The result is shortages. The lower the price ceiling, the more severe the shortage. A classic example of this was seen in the 1970s when the price of gasoline began rising. Congress implemented a price ceiling on gasoline, and although you probably were not around to have witnessed it, your parents probably had to wait in long lines to get gasoline. Eventually, economists convinced Congress to remove the price ceiling and within a week, the lines were gone and there were no shortages.

A similar example is seen with “anti-gouging” laws which prevent companies from raising rates “too quickly” especially in response to a localized reduction of production. For example, before a hurricane, people anticipate interruptions in gas and food supplies, so they begin to value those items more. But businesses are prevented from raising prices. The result is that everyone goes to the gas station and buys as much gasoline as they can, whether they need it or not, causing long lines and sucking the gas stations dry. They also strip the grocery stores of all their goods. People who heard the news late or had to work later are out of luck. If businesses were allowed to raise prices, people would be more selective in their purchases, leaving gas and groceries available for latecomers.

In a classic example, after Hurricanes Hugo ice went to $10 per bag because power outages made refrigerators useless. This was seen as price gouging, and laws were quickly enacted to prevent it, so naturally ice sold out immediately. Because the price was artificially low (for the situation) ice was not used efficiently. The first few customers bought enough ice to preserve not only their perishable groceries but also non-perishables like beer. Meanwhile, everyone else got nothing. When it had cost $10 a bag, people bought just enough to preserve their perishable groceries leaving enough for later customers. Moreover, because the profit incentive was also artificially low, companies had no reason to ramp up the production of ice nor was ice diverted from areas not affected by the hurricane. In the end, a few early purchasers benefited greatly, and everyone else suffered.

So, one last time: rising prices are good, and falling prices are good. The reason they are good is that they reflect relative production, scarcity, and consumer values. If not interfered with, high prices encourage businesses to enter markets, correctly allocate capital, and increase production to the benefit of society. Low prices signal businesses to shift capital to other goods. From the consumer’s side, low prices enable more consumption, and high prices signal consumers to conserve.

Fight the Machine

At this point, we need to talk about one of the most pervasive economic fallacies–that technology and machines cause unemployment. As seen before, technology and machines allow increased production which enriches society. The case was quite clear in our example of the farmer who bought a sickle. But what happens if instead of a self-employed farmer, we apply a dose of technology to a business with employees?
Imagine for a moment that the owner of an oil field has four employees who can produce eight barrels of oil per day using outdated pumps. The owner saves up (or borrows) and buys newer, faster pumps and can now produce twice as much oil but only needs two employees to run it. Oil production has doubled, so society and the owner are both better off and so are the two employees whose production has increased and will most likely be compensated accordingly. But what about the two employees who are no longer needed? There are three possibilities.

As increased production drives the price of oil down, new customers who could not afford oil before will begin to buy it driving the price up again giving the owner of the oil field incentive to drill a new well reemploying the workers who had previously been unemployed. A second possibility is that the unemployed workers are now free to pursue more pleasant work. A third possibility is that as society as a whole becomes richer and more productive, the oil field owner will have to reduce the work week to keep good employees and will have to hire additional workers to maintain production. In fact, because of this very reason, in the United States the average work week fell from more than sixty hours in the late 1900s to close to forty hours even before unions were able to convince the government to enact legislation requiring employers to pay a premium for work performed after forty hours.

Sometimes the industry that loses jobs is not the same as the one that has increased production due to technology. For example, once it was discovered that kerosene could be refined from oil, the whaling business saw a dramatic decrease in employment. Before kerosene, whale oil was the major source of lighting at night, and only relatively wealthy people could afford it–everyone else went to bed soon after sundown. Kerosene allowed more people to use lighting oil and enjor evenings reading or playing with family. Meanwhile, the whales were saved, and the whalers no longer had to risk all of the horrors you didn’t read about in Moby Dick. And yet, somewhere, there was most likely a whaler’s guild lobbying to outlaw kerosene.

To be sure, some people will lose jobs due to advances in technology, but the losses are temporary, and because of the increased production, the unemployed workers’ money will go farther while they are seeking new employment. This fallacy is a favorite of the “concerned for the downtrodden” crowd. I was first introduced to this fallacy in elementary school when I was told that a single tractor could put 100 farm workers out of work in India. Even then, something seemed wrong with this argument; it seemed to me that picking cotton was not fun work (it is partly why slave labor was used in the United States), and a chance to do something else would be welcome. Yet my social studies teacher would have deprived them of the chance to do less backbreaking labor and deprived the Indian people of the benefits of increased production for the sake of “saving jobs.” Henry Hazlitt dedicates an entire chapter to this fallacy in Economics in One Lesson.

Capital Markets

As discussed earlier, capital makes increased production possible, thereby improving society as a whole. In order to get the capital in the first place, someone or someones must first save. A business can rely on the savings of the owners (who would then be known as capitalists) or they can rely on the savings of someone else by borrowing. Capital markets are where capital is bought and sold. Capital markets make it easier for businesses to find someone willing to take the risk of losing their savings by lending or investing (owning a piece of) someone else’s business. The cost of borrowing capital is interest.

When society consumes more, it saves less, and the relative scarcity of savings is reflected by a higher interest rate. The higher interest rate signals consumers that they should devote more of their productivity to savings, and also sends a signal to businesses that consumers want to consume right now, discouraging borrowing. The converse situation is equally intuitive. When society consumes less, it saves more, and there will be more resources available to loan. As the theory of marginal utility reminds, the more of something there is, the less valuable any given unit will be. This is reflected in a lower interest rate. The lower interest rate sends a signal to businesses that consumers do not want more goods to consume right now, but are planning on consuming them in the future. The lower interest rate also allows businesses to borrow more capital to develop their businesses so as to increase future productivity.

As with prices, interest rates are simply a reflection of the supply and demand of resources available in society for use as captial in improving production. High and low interest rates are neither good nor bad; they simply convey information to consumers and businesses.

20 Feb

Basic Principles of Economics

These principles are generally agreed upon by most contemporary schools of economic thought, but they are presented here as elaborated by the Austrian School of Economics.

People are rational.

The first principle is that people are rational. By rational, we don’t necessarily mean logical, but purposeful–there is a reason for the things they do, no matter how smart or stupid seeming. For example, a drowning person will often desperately grab onto a would-be rescuer, thereby drowning both of them. The drowning person’s actions are completely rational; the rescuer floats, so holding onto them must help the drowner float as well. Unfortunately, their actions lead to their doom instead of salvation. Continuing with our example, being rational, professional lifeguards and rescue swimmers are taught this and how to escape from drowning victims. (See Kevin Costner’s The Guardian for a visual.)
People are imperfect and have desires. These desires are infinite.

Every person has desires and wants…even if it is simply to take another breath or scratch an itch. As long as we live, we will require food, water, and shelter. But even having these, we will want better and more. When you combine the first principle with the second, you get: People are rational (purposeful) in their actions to satisfy their desires. (Note that just because they are rational does not mean they will be successful in any particular degree, and even if they do meet with success, their will always be more desires.)

Resources are scarce.

Even though demands are infinite, the resources to satisfy those demands are not. This concept of scarcity does not mean that there are only a few resources available, simply that they are finite. If you eat an apple, that means you cannot also use it to decorate your table. If you throw an egg at your neighbor’s cat, you cannot also eat it (the egg that is). This is called opportunity cost. Your time and effort are also finite and subject to opportunity cost. If you spend your time in school studying, you will have less for partying. The time and effort it took to write this booklet is time that I was not working on a tan or learning how to kite surf. Economics is about learning the consequences (opportunity costs) of our actions.

Production is king.

Wealth in a society is based on its production. There are only two kinds of goods that can be produced: consumer goods and capital goods. Consumer goods are consumed (used up). Despite the name, a consumer good can be quite durable. For example, a tennis raquet is a consumer good, but a person can get several years of enjoyment out of it. Capital goods are any goods that are used to produce consumer goods (or other capital goods). For example, fire wood is a consumer good. An axe or saw would be a capital good that is used to produce the fire wood. The key aspect to economics is that capital goods allow more consumer goods to be produced, making society richer, because Production is King. Hail to the King, Baby!

What’s Labor Got To Do With It?

In order to produce goods, resources are mixed with labor and sometimes capital goods. For example, fallen wood can be gathered (labor) without the use of any capital goods, but its collection (production) can be increased with a wheelbarrow (capital good), and its quality may be enhanced by splitting it with an axe (capital good). Capital goods are usually technological but can also be information or knowledge.

Specialization is the key.

In primitive societies…so primitive that we don’t really know of any…everyone had to do everything for themselves (produce food, clothing, shelter, protection, and entertainment). Very quickly, people figured out that people with big pudgy hands weren’t as good at sewing; people with big muscles were better at protection; etc. Thus specialization was born. People who specialized in one or two things were more productive than someone who had to do everything for themselves. Economists call this division of labor. The division of labor can happen on any scale, from families, to cities, to entire countries.

Trade makes the world go round.

Once people began to specialize, they had to begin to trade. The sewer had to trade the weaver for cloth. Both had to trade with farmers or hunters for food. The hunter had to trade with the fletcher for arrows. And so on. When two people trade, they both become richer because they both have something they want more. We call this a win-win trade or a positive-sum gain. The weaver has more cloth than she could ever wear. When she trades it for food, the hunter now has clothes and food, and the weaver now has food and clothes. They are both better off…as long as they enter into the trade willingly and knowingly.

This introduces us to one of our first crimes: fraud. Fraud is simply misrepresenting oneself or one’s goods. The misrepresentation can be about the quantity of the good, the quality of the good, the ability to deliver the good, or one’s ownership of the good.

Value is marginally subjective.

Everyone has different desires, and different ideas about how to satisfy them. This is called the subjective theory of value. Think about what you would like for dessert tonight. Some of you thought about fruit, while others cake or ice cream, and others cheese. Think about how much you would be willing to pay for that dessert. Some of you would be willing to pay more than others.

This brings us to our next concept: The marginal theory of value. This simply means that more of something that someone has, the less he values any one of them. For example, someone who has 2 Chocolate Sin Cakes is more likely to share than someone who has one. Someone who has a bag of marbles is more likely not to care if one marble is lost than someone who only has one. Someone who has a wallet full of cash is less likely to notice when their son steals a bill than someone with only a few dollars. This concept is extremely important.

  1. Other things being equal, it’s better to have more of something than less of something.
  2. The more of whatever you have, the less valuable any one of them is.
  3. The lower the value, the lower the price.

Which bring us to THE LAW OF DEMAND: The greater the quantity, the lower the price someone is willing to pay, and conversely, the higher the price, the lower the quantity demanded (all other things being equal).

And what if things aren’t equal? Then you can increase (or decrease) price and quantity simultaneously. For example, during the New York power outage a few years ago, all the dollar stores sold out of candles, and people were reselling them for $5 on the sidewalk. People suddenly valued the candles more highly because of the blackout, leading to an increase in both price and the quantity demanded. Under ordinary circumstances, a rise in the price of candles would result in fewer candles being sold.