The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

JOURNAL ARCHIVE
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Warren Harding and the Forgotten Depression of 1920
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (from IR 44:2, Fall 2009) - 10/20/09

We describe R&D as belonging to a “higher-order” stage of production than a retail establishment selling hats, for example, since the hats are immediately available to consumers while the commercial results of R&D will not be available for a relatively long time. The closer a stage of production is to the finished consumer good to which it contributes, the lower a stage we describe it as occupying.

On the free market, interest rates coordinate production across time. They ensure that the production structure is configured in a way that conforms to consumer preferences. If consumers want more of existing goods right now, the lower-order stages of production expand. If, on the other hand, they are willing to postpone consumption in the present, interest rates encourage entrepreneurs to use this opportunity to devote factors of production to projects not geared toward satisfying immediate consumer wants, but which, once they come to fruition, will yield a greater supply of consumer goods in the future.

Had the lower interest rates in our example been the result of voluntary saving by the public instead of central-bank intervention, the relative decrease in consumption spending that is a correlate of such saving would have released resources for use in the higher-order stages of production. In other words, in the case of genuine saving, demand for consumer goods undergoes a relative decline; people are saving more and spending less than they used to. Consumer-goods industries, in turn, undergo a relative contraction in response to the decrease in demand for consumer goods. Factors of production that these industries once used—trucking services, for instance—are now released for use in more remote stages of the structure of production. Likewise for labor, steel, and other nonspecific inputs.

When the market’s freely established structure of interest rates is tampered with, this coordinating function is disrupted. Increased investment in higher order stages of production is undertaken at a time when demand for consumer goods has not slackened. The time structure of production is distorted such that it no longer corresponds to the time pattern of consumer demand. Consumers are demanding goods in the present at a time when investment in future production is being disproportionately undertaken.

Thus, when lower interest rates are the result of central bank policy rather than genuine saving, no letup in consumer demand has taken place. (If anything, the lower rates make people even more likely to spend than before.) In this case, resources have not been released for us in the higher-order stages. The economy instead finds itself in a tug-of-war over resources between the higher- and lower order stages of production. With resources unexpectedly scarce, the resulting rise in costs threatens the profitability of the higher-order projects. The central bank can artificially expand credit still further in order to bolster the higher-order stages’ position in the tug of war, but it merely postpones the inevitable. If the public’s freely expressed pattern of saving and consumption will not support the diversion of resources to the higher-order stages, but, in fact, pulls those resources back to those firms dealing directly in finished consumer goods, then the central bank is in a war against reality. It will eventually have to decide whether, in order to validate all the higher-order expansion, it is prepared to expand credit at a galloping rate and risk destroying the currency altogether, or whether instead it must slow or abandon its expansion and let the economy adjust itself to real conditions.

It is important to notice that the problem is not a deficiency of consumption spending, as the popular view would have it. If anything, the trouble comes from too much consumption spending, and as a result too little channeling of funds to other kinds of spending—namely, the expansion of higher-order stages of production that cannot be profitably completed because the necessary resources are being pulled away precisely by the relatively (and unexpectedly) stronger demand for consumer goods. Stimulating consumption spending can only make things worse, by intensifying the strain on the already collapsing profitability of investment in higher-order stages.

Note also that the precipitating factor of the business cycle is not some phenomenon inherent in the free market. It is intervention into the market that brings about the cycle of unsustainable boom and inevitable bust.10 As business-cycle theorist Roger Garrison succinctly puts it, “Savings gets us genuine growth; credit expansion gets us boom and bust.”11

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