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Gold and the Great Depression with James Caton

In this episode, James Caton discusses the classical and inter-war gold standards. James is an economics PhD student at George Mason University.

Gold has many qualities that make it an ideal money: It is valuable, scarce, divisible, and easy to transport. It is also easy to verify the value of a given amount of gold: The Old Testament references weights and scales being used to measure gold. Ancient people could verify the purity of the gold by observing its water displacement.

Before 1870, only Great Britain was on a gold standard, while gold, silver, and other metals would circulate freely alongside one another throughout the rest of Europe. The classical gold standard began in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, when the victorious Germany demonetized silver in favour of gold and the rest of Western Europe followed suit (see Caton on the deflation that resulted from the demonetization of silver). America converted to the gold standard in 1879 upon redeeming the Civil War greenbacks for gold. Continue reading Gold and the Great Depression with James Caton

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Simple Keynesianism

XKCD Comic about simple English Wikipedia
Source: http://xkcd.com/547/

Simple English Wikipedia is an edition of the open-source encyclopedia designed to be intelligible to small children, adults with learning disabilities, and people who are learning English.  It is also an entertaining read, because the simple language often makes things silly. I found the article on Keynesian economics to be particularly silly and entertaining:

Keynesian economics (also called Keynesianism) describes the economics theories of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes wrote about his theories in his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. The book was published in 1936.

Keynes said capitalism was a good economic system. In a capitalism system, people earn money from their work. Businesses employ and pay people to work. Then people can spend their money on things they want. Other people work and make things to buy. Sometimes the capitalism system has problems. People lose their work. Businesses close. People cannot work and cannot spend money. Keynes said the government should step in and help people who do not have work.

This idea is called “demand-side policy”. If people are working, the economy is good. If people are not working, the economy is bad.

Keynes said when the economy is bad, people want to save their money. That is, they do not spend their money on things they want. As a result there is less economic activity.

Keynes said the government should spend more money when people do not have work. The government can borrow money and give people jobs (work). Then people can spend money again and buy things. This helps other people find work.

Some people, such as conservatives, libertarians, and people who believe in Austrian economics, do not like Keynes’ ideas. They say government work does not help capitalism. They say when the government borrows money, it takes money away from businesses. They do not like Keynesian economics because they say the economy can get better without government help.

During the late 1970s Keynesian economics became less popular because inflation was high.

When a big recession happened in 2007, Keynesian economics became more popular. Leaders around the world (including Barack Obama) created stimulus packages which would allow their government to spend a lot of money to create jobs.


Radicalism and the Political Landscape

Last night I had a nice conversation with some other Queen’s economics alumni. When the conversation turned to politics, I said that I didn’t want to follow the next election and that I had promised myself I wouldn’t support the lesser evil. I may have come off as apathetic about politics, but that was not my intention.

The way I see it, there is a tradeoff between having a small (i.e. negligible) influence on present politics, by volunteering for political parties, talking (or blogging) about current political issues, and of course voting, and having a potentially larger influence on future politics. Here is the opening paragraph of Hayek’s essay, The Intellectuals and Socialism:

In all democratic countries, in the United States even more than elsewhere, a strong belief prevails that the influence of the intellectuals on politics is negligible. This is no doubt true of the power of intellectuals to make their peculiar opinions of the
moment influence decisions, of the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses. Yet over somewhat longer periods they have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today in those countries. This power they wield by shaping public opinion.

Hayek’s view, which I share, is that there is a fundamentally different mechanism at play in short-run politics and in long-run politics: The short run turns on popular opinion, while the long run turns on the forces that shape popular opinion. Continue reading Radicalism and the Political Landscape

American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

The American Apparel board of directors has ousted the company’s founder. The company stock jumped up nearly 20% on the announcement. Contrary to what we see in the movies, being a successful founder of a big company does not entitle one to kick back, smoke cigars, and let the profits roll in. Dov Charney had some innovative ideas about clothing and about turning a small enterprise into a global chain, but his personal failings became damaging, so he had to go.

An interesting question to ask is “who works for whom?” A week ago we might have thought that American Apparel worked for Charney, and not the other way around, but we would have been wrong. The board that fired him is itself beholden to the shareholders; the old share price (before the 20% jump) was the result of investors restricting their investments in the company because its bad CEO made it less appealing than some alternative investments. And who are the shareholders beholden to? Continue reading American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme

Today I will be dispensing life advice. There’s a certain type of person who will tell you that you should follow your passion regardless of money concerns; to do otherwise would be “selling out.” This is pretty terrible advice. If eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom are not my passions, should I never do these things?  What is it about money (or rather, all the things that exchange for money) that makes it unacceptable to include among one’s goals?

The big problem with this advice is that it is often given to young people. Young people have passions, but they can only be passionate about the things they have experienced at their young age. When I was young, I was passionate about painting. Now I am passionate about economics. If I had taken the oft-repeated advice to “follow my passion,” I would be struggling to make a living as an oil painter. Only by not following my passion was I able to discover a different (and much more remunerative) passion.

Not bad, huh?
Not bad, huh?

Continue reading My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme

How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Airplane Takeoff
One thousand internet points to the commenter who can correctly identify this image!

Here’s a conversation between a reporter and one of the alleged beneficiaries of Seattle airport’s $15/hour minimum wage:

“Are you happy with the $15 wage?” I asked the full-time cleaning lady.

“It sounds good, but it’s not good,” the woman said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation,” she responded. “No more free food,” she added.

The hotel used to feed her. Now, she has to bring her own food. Also, no overtime, she said. She used to work extra hours and received overtime pay.

What else? I asked.

“I have to pay for parking,” she said.

This may have come as a surprise to some, but not to those of us who are familiar with economic theory. The minimum wage hike here was large and sudden, so the impact was dramatic and visible. Continue reading How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Significance Tests as Leading Questions

Under the common law, lawyers are not allowed to ask witnesses “leading questions,” as witnesses can be influenced by the way questions are asked. A leading question is one that suggests a particular answer, for instance, “Were you at the country club on Saturday night?” is a leading question, while, “Where were you on Saturday night?” is not.

Econometricians should be as careful as lawyers when questioning the most unreliable of all witnesses: economic data. Most statistical software will automatically spit out t-tests for whether the coefficients in regression models equal zero. This is equivalent to asking the data, “Data, given these modelling assumptions, can you deny with 95% certainty that this coefficient equals zero?” That’s a leading question, and the econometrician shouldn’t ask it unless he has special reason to suspect that the coefficient is zero. Continue reading Significance Tests as Leading Questions

Louis XIV Lives On

When calico printed cloth was introduced to Europe, the French government banned it. They employed gestapo-style tactics to stamp out the new innovation. Here’s Murray Rothbard’s summary of the fiasco, from his excellent An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (vol. 1, p. 219):

The new cloth, printed calicoes, began to be imported from India in the 1660s, and became highly popular, useful for an inexpensive mass market, as well as for high fashion. As a result, calico printing was launched in France. By the 1680s, the indignant woollen, cloth, silk and linen industries all complained to the state of ‘unfair competition’ by the highly popular upstart. The printed colours were readily outcompeting the older cloths. And so the French state responded in 1686 by total prohibition of printed calicoes: their import or their domestic production. In 1700, the French government went all the way: an absolute ban on every aspect of calicoes including their use in consumption. Government spies had a hysterical field day: ‘peering into coaches and private houses and reporting that the governess of the Marquis de Cormoy had been seen at her window clothed in calico of a white background with big red flowers, almost new, or that the wife of a lemonade-seller had been seen in her shop in a casquin of calico’. Literally thousands of Frenchmen died in the calico struggles, either being executed for wearing calicoes or in armed raids against calico-users.

Continue reading Louis XIV Lives On

Mises, Probability, and the Two Envelopes Problem

In Human Action, Mises distinguishes between what he calls “class probability” and “case probability.” He defines class probability as such:

Class probability means: We know or assume to know, with regard to the problem concerned, everything about the behavior of a whole class of events or phenomena; but about the actual singular events or phenomena we know nothing but that they are elements of this class.

This is the ordinary sort of probability. We reach into an urn containing seven red balls and two white balls, so the probability of choosing a red ball is 7:2. We can say this because we have knowledge about the class of balls in the urn. Mises distinguishes this from case probability:

Case probability means: We know, with regard to a particular event, some of the factors which determine its outcome; but there are other determining factors about which we know nothing.

Continue reading Mises, Probability, and the Two Envelopes Problem