The Mythology of Modern America

You’d have to live in a cave to not know that Barack Obama became President today. (Well, actually, the people in caves probably know this, too.) From the flood of random text messages to the stories in the media, America seems swept up in “Obamamania”. I started pondering why this was.

It seems to me that many Americans believe in the power of democracy — that there is no problem beyond the ability of the collective wisdom of the whole to solve. That the common men and women of this country can work together to, not only make this country better, but put us back on the right course. In essence, that “We The People” can recapture our past glory. Underpinning all of these beliefs, is the idea that a properly-functioning democracy will naturally construct a society for the betterment of all, and that democracies only fail in these regards when they are corrupted by special interests and large corporations.

It’s not overtly stated, but the idea almost seems to be that the common man is good, and the big corporation is evil. If we have a government of the common man and free of the big corporation, then peace will reign and justice will prevail.

To me, this seems the modern American myth, and who better to represent the fulfillment of this myth than Barack Obama.

Being born the black son of a single, white woman — who had no wealth to speak of — certainly fits the criteria for being an “Everyman”. That he made the unlikely climb in politics to the highest office in the land bears all the hallmarks of the unlikely rise of the champion from obscurity to fame. That he’s intelligent and well-spoken serves to help the story even more because it shows that merit and talent do not come from “breeding” but rather from hard work. That he does not come from privilege suggests that he is in touch with the struggles we all face; that he is charismatic suggests that he can set about fixing the things about America that are broken. And, so, Obama seems the perfect candidate to fulfill the promise of democracy. Hence, why there is such a messianic aura about him: he is the one who has been foretold that will fulfill the promise of democracy.

It’s no wonder a lot of Democrats try to lower the expectations America has for Obama down to the range of the practical. No one can live up to fulfilling the expectations that came from a generation weaned on Hollywood magic and fairy tale endings. Unfortunately, I’m even more pessimistic. I feel that this administration will leave everyone disappointed except the cynics who were predicting it to fail from the get go.

It’s not that I doubt Obama’s character, but that I believe that the entire mythology is just that- a myth.

There is nothing divine about a representative democracy. The Bible does not say that, “on the 8th day, God created the House and Senate”. In terms of incarceration and capital punishment, our society is far less free than the police states of the world. Furthermore, to think that the US Government is going to somehow right the wrongs of our economy misunderstands what a government is or actually can do.

A government does not make anything. Any wealth the government has must first be taken from someone else. A government can not create wealth; it can merely distribute it. This being the case, the best that a government can do is, as Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations, to give “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

I would hope that Mr. Obama will be better than his predecessor in terms of the administration of justice. For that matter, I would hope that Mr. Obama can do better in the peace department as well, but we’ll have to see. As for easy taxes, I don’t think Mr. Obama is going to do well in that regard. He wants the Government to stimulate us out of this recession, and we’re either going to have to pay for that with taxes or the printing press. Each exacts its toll in its own way.

I try to remain optimistic, but Mr. Obama scares me. Not because I believe ill of the man, but because I believe him to be a honorable person who feels a deeply-held responsibility to fulfill this prophecy that the rest of America has set up for him. It’s a prophecy that can’t be realized, and to attempt to do so is a fool’s errand. What’s worse, the most dramatic and frightening changes in the policies of the United States seem to have come from men who sincerely believed they were fulfilling their mandate to do the right thing by taking decisive action:

Woodrow Wilson gave us income tax, the Fed, and the first World War.

FDR gave us the end of the gold standard, a number of laws that were unconstitutional (that included gems such as making it illegal for Americans to own gold, social security, the longest and most severe depression in America’s history) and the second World War.

George Bush believed that his country needed him to guide them through the dark times of 9/11 and gave us the “War on Terror” — complete with the Patriot Act, an invasion in Iraq, another war in Afghanistan, and the largest deficits this country has ever seen.

Contrast any of these Presidencies with that of Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush, and it seems clear to me that the greatest damage is done to our country not by Presidents who are corrupt or ineffectual, but by Presidents who believe they must give the people action.

And here we are at the dawning of a Obama’s administration and we seem to have the same horrible combination: a well meaning man of conviction facing a crisis and a nation that wants a quick fix.

This isn’t going to end well.

Obama, Keynes, and the Perpetual Motion Machine

Obama is calling for government deficits over the next couple of years to avoid a “deep recession.” I’m not sure if he said it explicitly, but conversations with Democratic friends has shown me that it appears to be a widely held belief that the money can all be made up from tax revenue off of the booming economy that should result after a couple of years or deficit spending. It harks back to what I’ve heard many a Keynesian say; the government needs to run deficits in the down years and surpluses in the up years. “It would only work,” they say, “except that politicians can never bring themselves to reign in their spending.”

Just as markets work towards the betterment of all involved if they perform rationally and with good information, governments would be the perfect guardians of our welfare if only they were somehow free of corruption and not run by power-hungry politicians. Except that we don’t live in an ideal world, so we must make do with the best that we have. However, even if perfection were somehow available, Keynesianism would still be nothing but an intellectual fraud because it’s basically promising the economic equivalent of the perpetual motion machine.

For those of you who don’t know, the perpetual motion machine was a mythical device that, once set in motion, would continue to run forever without requiring any additional energy inputs. There were many attempts in the Middle Ages to create such a device, but they all failed. You can’t get something for nothing, you see. If a machine is to be in motion, then it will require energy. One can not derive more energy from the machine’s motion than it requires to set it in motion and run it. This was not understood at the time, because no one had yet devised the First Law of Thermodynamics which stated that “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” 

Similarly, Keynes promises similar benefits to the perpetual motion machine by theorizing that economic downturns are caused by a lack of demand and that the government can step in to become the prime demander, and thereby set in motion a chain of events by which the economy will start booming again. Keynes figured that money put into the system to get the demand humming again could later be taken back out. There’s a reason why Keynes’s system has never worked, and it doesn’t just have to do with greedy politicians. Just as in thermodynamics, you can not prime the pump of commerce and magically create a fountain of wealth from which you can withdraw far more than you put in. As my momma used to tell me growing up, “There ain’t no free lunch.”

Even if the government did exactly as Keynes said, it still wouldn’t work, because Keynes was wrong. Pure and simple. Economic downturns are not caused by “insufficient demand.” Indeed, insufficient demand is impossible, as Jean Baptist Say had started over a century earlier (and I’m paraphrasing), “There is not a supply, which is not also a demand.” That is to say that in order to make a product such as as car, I will demand inputs from labor as well as raw materials of all kinds. If the demand where not there for the car, then the demand would also not be there for the labor for the car or the raw materials. Keynes looked at this situation and said that we needed to stimulate demand for the car in order to employ the autoworkers, but what he didn’t seem to understand was that it is impossible, as a whole, for society to have inadequate demand for anything. Keynes attacked Says law as not being able to explain economic downturns, but Say himself actually clearly states that economic downturns are possible but will be hastened towards ending if the government and people are quickly willing to allow the market to find market clearing prices. (For a clearer understanding of Say’s Law, and the failures of Keynesianism, I’d refer readers to Rehabilitation of Say’s Law.

Try to picture it for a minute. How is inadequate demand possible? If people stopped demanding cars, it must be because they were demanding something else other than cars with the money they were spending the buy the cars. Thus demand lost in one arena is picked up in another. “But what if the consumer simply stopped demanding altogether?” you might ask. In that case, they will be looking for an excellent vehicle with which to park their savings gained by not consuming. As savings accumulates across society, interest rates are lowered because of all the money available to lend. Cheap money, as Keynes could tell you, leads to economic boom times as entrepreneurs can now go out and borrow the savings of the others and demand both labor and raw materials for their new venture. 

What, you still don’t believe me? What if no one ever, ever consumed enough to justify investing? Outside of being nonsense, let’s take a look at that scenario for a minute. Let’s simply it down so we can understand it easily, and let’s look at the economy of Robinson Crusoe who, incidentally, has been the target of so many economics texts that I’ve been tempted to pick up the book. One man alone one a desert island demand food and water, and so he must use his labor to create his the objects he demands. To do otherwise, is to starve and die. Now Crusoe demands other things as well as food and water: shelter, clothing, a boat namely. But to acquire those things, he must also build them himself. So in our economy of one, time spent is the only medium of exchange. Crusoe is free to do what he will with the time he has, but he will starve unless he uses at least some of the time to fish and gather water just as he will be without shelter if he does not spend the necessary time to make a house for himself. Even in our economy of one, Crusoe’s demands are far more than his ability to actually consume given the time he has, and so it is with all of humanity. Our wants are limitless. The idea of insufficient demand, is just a Keynesian fairy tale. 

Keynes wanted to explain the business cycle by saying that consumers weren’t demanding enough, but people always have wants for more than their ability to satisfy. As long as people have money, they will want to spend it and it is only interest rates offering us even more goods in the future if we would but forgo present consumption that incentives us to save at all. An across the board reduction in the demand for all goods is only possible when there has been an expansion of the money supply because then people go from having access to lots of credit in order to buy things to suddenly having less access to credit as they have taken on more and more debt. And so it is not the lack of demand that causes economic downturns, but rather the natural after effect of a previous credit expansion. Where the previous credit expansion to never have happened, then there would have been a far more even flow of demand across time instead of people demanding more than they could afford at one time and demand less in the future when the bill came due from past excesses. 

The reason I go into this is so that we could now understand just how ridiculous Keynesianism is. Credit expansions cause a surge in demand that must later be “corrected” when that source of credit is exhausted. Keynes proposed that the government could expand credit to gain great multiples of extra demand and revenue in the future, but that’s clearly impossible. The demand will naturally fall back to its natural level after the credit runs out, and if the government were to ever withdraw some of the credit in the future in order to try to follow Keynes’s advice to run surpluses in boom times, then the system would crash even harder. And so the source of continual budget deficits is not due to the greed or incompetence of politicians, but rather because credit expansions, once started, must continually be supplied with additional credit lest they collapse in on themselves. 

Some economists understood this. In his book, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics Ludwig von Mises wrote that, “The wavelike movement effecting the economic system, the recurrence of periods of boom which are followed by periods of depression is the unavoidable outcome of the attempts, repeated again and again, to lower the gross market rate of interest by means of credit expansion.” Yet here we are, decades after Keynesianism failed to bring us out of the Great Depression or Japan out of it’s “lost decade”, still seeing the same ideas spouted by politicians. Neurosis is the tendency to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. It would seem we are a very neurotic people.