Here’s a list of my favorite articles that I’ve written over the years. I hope you enjoy them, too!
11. Me and Bill Buckley: A True Story (okay, make it 11!)
Here’s a list of my favorite articles that I’ve written over the years. I hope you enjoy them, too!
11. Me and Bill Buckley: A True Story (okay, make it 11!)
Dr. Mark Skousen’s Five Questions for President Obama and How Free-Market Thinking Can Build a Better Future
The Daily Bell is pleased to publish an exclusive interview with the distinguished free-market scholar and economist Dr. Mark Skousen
Introduction: Dr. Skousen taught economics at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business in 2004. In 2001- 02, he was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York. Since 1980, Dr. Skousen has been editor in chief of Forecasts & Strategies, a popular award-winning investment newsletter published by Eagle Publishing in Washington, D.C.
Mark Skousen: He is also editor of his own website, www.mskousen.com, and editor of three trading services, Skousen Hedge Fund Trader, Skousen High Income Alert and Skousen Turnaround Trader. He earned his Ph.D. in economics and monetary history from George Washington University in 1977. Since then he has written over 20 books, including Economics on Trial (McGraw Hill, 1991), Puzzles and Paradoxes in Economics (Edward Elgar Publishers, 1997), and The Making of Modern Economics (M. E. Sharpe, 2001). Dr. Skousen is the creator and producer of Freedom Fest, an annual gathering of the freedom movement from around the world, held every July in Las Vegas (www.freedomfest.com). Mark Skousen was interviewed on Board the Ship Veendam, in Port Montt, Chile. This is his second interview with the Bell. The first can be seen here.
Daily Bell: Thanks for joining us again.
Mark Skousen: Happy to be here.
Daily Bell: You wanted to interview President Obama. Here’s you chance, before we move into more general questions.
Mark Skousen: I came up with five questions. They are what I call hardball questions. If he does not answer, I will answer for him.
Daily Bell: Sounds like you may have to.
Mark Skousen: Mr. President, do you support the repeal of the invasive requirement that all business report a 1099 of all sales of goods, services or assets of $600 or more during the calendar year?
President Obama does not answer …
Mark Skousen: All right, then. You say all the time that you are pro business, pro-small business, but how could you possibly support this part. It was added on at the last minute to what is now called the ObamaCare bill. It’s another example of pushing through legislation that nobody has read. It’s going to have a terribly retardant effect on the economy.
Daily Bell: Maybe you will have more luck with number two.
Mark Skousen: Another government agency that has run amuck is the TSA. Do you support their decision to install full body scanners and full pat downs for travelers that refuse to subject themselves to nude photographs of their body?
President Obama does not answer …
Mark Skousen: Has America come to the point where the US government is officially sanctioning sexual harassment? That question has been asked in a softball way….”well what do you think President Obama, what do you think of these scanners?” You defended it by saying that this was the only way they could capture somebody like the Christmas day bomber who had a bomb in his underpants and so now we have to subject ourselves to this kind of indignity. At what point is this going to end.
Another point is the aggressive nature of the TSA. There must be something like Murphy’s Law when it comes to government agencies that inevitably they go over board and no longer fulfill their basic function. I really feel that this is a travesty of the worst kind. I am really glad to see there is a group that’s forming a kind of Tea Party protest for this decision. It is on the web called, www.wewontfly.com, and I recommend that everybody go to that, wewontfly.com.
This is an egregious example of government run amuck and it reminds me of in the 80s when the Federal transportation agency, in order to encourage seat belt wearing, actually required a new device to be attached to the ignition of all new cars. You had to have your seat belt on before the car would start. Americans were so incensed by this, there were protests and they stopped buying cars and they started finding ways around the device and eventually the government backed off.
I am very hopeful that this will be the case but as Doug Casey says, American’s today are spineless, they are whipped dogs as he says and there are only a small minority of libertarians protesting this. I think it’s a sad. Apparently 80% of Americans supported full body scanners, it’s just a total invasion of privacy. Of course, I have been at the forefront of this battle all my life having written a book called; The Complete Guide to Financial Privacy in the early 80s.
It was a bestseller and sold over half a million copies, kind of an underground best seller. It wouldn’t make sense that it would make the New York Times list considering the topic is privacy but I feel this is very sad. We never lose our freedoms all at once, we lose them gradually. It’s like the frog in the warm water – we turn the heat up and eventually he croaks.
Daily Bell: Onto number three.
Mark Skousen: Given that you are deeply concerned about the high level of unemployment, would you favor elimination or at least reduction of the minimum wage law in order to boost employment among black male and teenagers in general?
President Obama does not answer …
Mark Skousen: Many economists believe there is a strong correlation between the rise in the federal minimum wage and teenage and minority unemployment rate in the United States. Are you aware that when the new minimum wage was imposed in the summer of 2009 during the first year of your administration, there was a significant increase of joblessness among teenage male blacks. Do you think there is any correlation? Can you deny it?
Daily Bell: The silence is deafening.
Mark Skousen: Was it really necessary to take 2,000 government employees on your recent trip to India and around the world costing tax payers millions of dollars? Is this appropriate at a time when there are record deficits and Americans suffering financial stress? Isn’t this an example of the Imperial Presidency?
President Obama does not answer …
Mark Skousen: This is how you get an image problem. You begin to be perceived as an imperial president, like one of these famous dictators, a Caesar type of person. What we need right now – in terms of attitude anyway – is a Jimmy Carter type. Carter may have been a failed president, but he understood something about humility. That seems totally lacking in your administration. It’s like the First Lady going on that expensive trip to Spain, going to all these ritzy places. It would be nice to see a president who maintained a low profile. It’s just a question of sending the wrong message at a time when Americans in general are struggling.
Daily Bell: Your points seem to be falling on the proverbial deaf ears.
Mark Skousen: We’ll give him another chance. Is it really necessary Mr. President to run a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit and threaten the bankruptcy of the United States and our AAA rating? Can’t you admit all this “stimulating” is ending up in bankruptcy rather than a healthy economy?
President Obama does not answer …
Mark Skousen: Since you went to the Chicago law school, certainly you were exposed to the great Chicago School of Economics and the free market economic perspectives of Milton Friedman, George Stigler and so forth. Are you aware Mr. President, that Friedman’s study of the Keynesian spending multiplier, in other words, the positive impact of federal deficit spending, is bound to have a multiplier of zero, in other words, no positive impact what so ever? The trillion or so you have spent on “stimulus” has been wasted. There are no shovel-ready projects, and if there were, they wouldn’t add net jobs.
Daily Bell: He’s ignoring you. Good to remind him about the Friedman study, though.
Mark Skousen: Last one. If Europe recovers with their low deficits and an expansionary monetary policy, will this not disprove the Keynesian model?
President Obama does not answer …
Mark Skousen: Europe is cutting back on government spending while engaged in monetary expansion. Here we will have a perfect natural test to see if the Friedman results will be reconfirmed. Of course, libertarians do not believe in managing the economy through central banking, but we are stuck with the system we have. Within the parameters of this system, monetary expansion is likely to be more effective than government spending, which just aggravates the problem. Don’t you understand that now after two years of failed economic policies?
Daily Bell: You were obviously over-optimistic in expecting responses.
Mark Skousen: (laughing). Somehow even if he were here, I don’t think we would have gotten any straight answers. But those are the questions he should be asked, among many others. Maybe one day at a town meeting, someone will get to ask them.
Daily Bell: OK, we’ve had our President Obama interview. Let’s turn the tables and ask you a few general questions. Quite a lot has happened since our last interview with you over a year ago. One of the most puzzling occurrences is the return in the US of discredited Keynesian economic policy – and with a vengeance. How did that happen?
Mark Skousen: Somehow President Obama chose the same policies that didn’t work in the 1930s and didn’t work in the 1970s. The United States has decided to spend its way out of recession and has adopted this typical Keynesian policy of running huge deficits. Europe is rejecting this sort of policy outright. Germany, and even the UK in its post-Brown recovery, are rejecting this notion and cutting back. My best example is Canada. In 1995, Canada had a fiscal crisis, runaway government spending of 53% of the economy and the Canadian dollar was collapsing. The Liberal Party of Canada, which got them into trouble in the first place, said enough is enough. There was a general consensus that Canada was moving in the wrong direction.
They fired a bunch of federal workers, and in two years eliminated the deficit, so the Canadian debt started declining. Then, even better, they had 11 straight years of surpluses. They also started cutting taxes; and they’ve had some pretty good success with their economy, even during a tough time worldwide. They still have some problems with their medical, single payer system but, overall, a supply side approach has proven successful in Canada. I would like to think that there are countries that are rejecting the standard Keynesian model. It’s hasn’t happened in the US, but I am hopeful that we will learn examples abroad.
Daily Bell: Let’s move to central banking and fiat money. Do you think we will ever return to a gold standard?
Mark Skousen: I have written a book called The Economics of a Pure Gold Standard. It was actually my dissertation of my PhD at George Washington University in 1977 and I was heavily under the influence of Murray Rothbard who favored a return to the gold standard.
Since then, I have argued that once you have gone off the gold standard it is very difficult to go back on it because it would cause a major redistribution of wealth to the gold holders who tend to be speculators and wealthier individuals. So there would be this redistribution problem that could be pretty serious, especially if gold has to go to $20,000 an ounce in order to really cover that.
I have often said the only way to return to a gold standard is with a major financial crisis, so you we are basically forced to do it. We may be headed in that direction but I think if we automatically did it that would create problems in itself. I like the idea of using gold as a tool. Supply-siders like using gold as an indicator of inflation; if we can control inflation and stabilize our inflation, the price of gold will come back down and that will be the best indicator that we can use. It is interesting that central bankers are net buyers of gold now rather than net sellers like they were. They are holding on because they know it’s the only asset that has any real value.
Daily Bell: What about the EU? Is it going to survive?
Mark Skousen: Robert Mundell, the free market economist, the father of the Euro, has made the case for its survival. I know there are a lot of skeptics out there but who wants to go back to all these individual currencies. It was madness and extremely inefficient when you moved from one country to another, losing money on every currency exchange. The euro has two great benefits: It encourages the free movement of goods and services and it increases competition. You can price everything in the euro and you can see what’s expensive and what’s not; that makes competition much more effective. You also have labour mobility you did not have before; you don’t require work permits, so you can work anywhere inside the EU.
England now has much better restaurants, as the French and Germans have moved there and brought palatable cuisine. You can move investments around as well. So I like the one currency, a United States of Europe concept if you like and from an economic point of view I think it is very good. It also, eventually, acts as a brake on these profligate governments. Yes, there are some problems with it right now but it’s basically sending a very strong message, you’ve got to get your act together because you are going to pay a heavy price. You can’t simply default; you are part of the European system so you can’t engage in these irresponsible spending, tax policies.
Daily Bell: Do you foresee a 3rd party in the United States ever?
Mark Skousen: A third party has never been effective in the United States. I think it is much smarter to work within the Democratic or the Republican Party to make change. All the laws favor the two party systems in the United States. They make it much more difficult for third parties to get on the ballot and really have any influence. Traditionally, third-parties have only been beneficial as a protest and forcing the major parties to make changes. If you go back to the Civil War era, the South was all Democratic because they hated the Republicans so much. Later on, that totally reversed itself; the electorate is fungible. Times change and so do opinions. I think Libertarians should infiltrate both political parties, not just the Republicans or the Tea Party.
Daily Bell: Do you think the US’s police and military will ever be turned against the people? In the current environment that is being suggested as a possibility.
Mark Skousen: It’s already happening. You have the FBI, a federal police force, virtually everywhere. It is just a monstrous agency and I speak for having been the son of an FBI Agent and the nephew of an FBI Agent; both my father and uncle were top FBI people. My father shot one of the top-ten most wanted men back in 1950. But that was back when the FBI had extremely limited roles to play. The FBI is involved with bank fraud and with almost everything else. You name it; it’s classic mission creep. It amazes me. It’s not just kidnapping and stuff like that.
And of course there is the army and now the army can come in whenever there is a natural disaster. The National Guard is called in as well. There’s so much power available, and the powers-that-be are increasingly showing a willingness to use it. It’s definitely something to be concerned about. Just take a look at the vast power the TSA has over travel. It’s beyond belief! The other thing I fear is the movement away from the fourth amendment of unreasonable searches. They have these roadblocks that they keep justifying. Every car that goes by, they can stop at these random checkpoints. They can literally just pull you over for no good reason. National ID cards are constantly being pushed as well. There are many examples of “real time” threats to the freedoms of American citizens these days.
Daily Bell: What about the US and China? Military issues in the future?
Mark Skousen: The Chinese are currently building up a huge military complex; I think they have 3 million troops or something. It’s a huge number; we’ll never know the exact number. But, certainly, they are increasing their technology capability and they are going to flex their muscles, much more so than North Korea or Iran. I think China is the elephant in the room as far as the military is concerned. They haven’t really gone after Taiwan, yet. It’s all saber rattling but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn into something more.
Have you ever seen the picture of how much water is surrounding the China sea and how much they consider is theirs? It’s not 200 miles – it just keeps going and going. I think there is some imperialism there. I think, in fact, it’s a very dangerous situation. The industrial sector has grown and it’s allowing them to spend more and more on their military objectives. There’s the potential for real conflict there.
Daily Bell: Strange times. What advice would you offer for the people to protect themselves financially?
Mark Skousen: I do think we should play the trends and when the market recovers we should take full advantage of that, I certainly have. In my newsletter I have taken advantage of the good times, the recovery that you see from time to time. A lot of the doomsday, gold bugs completely missed their recovery in the stock market. I like to play that because a lot of investors feel more comfortable with stocks I don’t recommend investing too much in commodities, which is a non-traditional investment area.
So my subscribers tend to be more traditional investors. What I try to do is introduce to them investing in commodities, gold and silver and so on, but only a 10% position, it’s an insurance policy against bad times, so that includes gold and silver. So I am always educating people that way. I encourage them to buy gold and silver coins and to aware of the bad news that can come down the road. But the majority of my investments are in foreign markets or in US markets and in dividend paying stocks and income producing investments and so forth.
We have had a very good track record the last few years with beating the market and doing well for them. But the tide can change and right now we are seeing a lot of problems developing. It’s funny how everybody feared that September and October which are traditionally tough months in the market and those did really well and now we are heading into December and now seeing all kinds of problems surface – the Irish debt situation, China raising interest rates, the North Koreans fighting the South Koreans; there’s a lot of geo-political events which are keeping the markets from going higher, despite the Federal Reserve’s efforts to inject all this liquidity.
So, I have always believed in that old biblical refrain: know the signs of the times. I’ve tried to follow that advice in my newsletter called “Forecasts and Strategies.” My philosophy basically is that problems come and go, but I have always been more of an optimist rather than not. There is an old saying on Wall Street: “bears make headlines and bulls make money.” The majority of time Americans are problem solvers; the sun eventually comes out again. Traditional bond and stock markets perform better. It would be sad commentary if we didn’t have that kind of situation. It would be like being a millionaire on a sinking ship. Who wants to be a millionaire on the Titanic? So, I am optimistic that we will get new leadership, reasonable policies and sound economics. It has happened in the past, as I mentioned. Canada is the most recent example and I would hope that it can happen again.
Daily Bell: That sounds like your book Econopower, do you want to talk about it?
Mark Skousen: Yes, the Korean edition. They paid me $100,000 in advance for Econopower. That book was about solving problems. Whatever problems are out there, economists can add to the solution. The South Koreans are very strong on economics and how to use them to their advantage. I have a chapter in the back that Robert Shiller of Yale University really liked and it’s called “Is US Economy Depression Proof?” I wrote this right before the financial crisis of 2008, in which I argued that it’s not depression proof and that we are vulnerable. We have a monetary system that is broken and it’s not really a good one and it needs to be fixed. Sure enough we had a financial crisis and the whole system came close to collapsing. The only thing that kept it from total collapse was massive government intervention again. The establishment had always argued that we were depression proof; that the system was the best of all worlds. Doesn’t seem to be the case, obviously.
Daily Bell: What else have you written lately?
Mark Skousen: I’ve written a textbook called Economic Logic. It’s always my hope that the US will get leaders with an understanding of real economics. President Obama needs a course on free market economics. Economic Logic takes a logical approach; it mixes business with economics. It starts with an income statement, a profit and loss statement, and then develops into supply and demand analysis.
I use the best of Austrian and Chicago economics and now it’s being used in a number of colleges and universities around the country. It’s encouraging. You will not change the politicians until you educate the people who elect them. It’s kind of my anti-Samuelson textbook. Samuelson was this Keynesian economist at MIT, who at the end of WWII wrote his economic text book that introduced Keynesian economics and this anti-savings mentality – this pro big government, welfare state, pro-progressive taxation kind of zeitgeist from which we still suffer. So we need a new textbook for the 21st century to reverse that trend and get us back to sound economics. The reality is free-market economics is not taught to children or even to older students. We need to start somewhere.
Daily Bell: What is out there for students who want to get a general idea about economics besides college text books?
Mark Skousen: There is a website run by Steve Marriotti called Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). They teach entrepreneurship and how to create your own businesses and business models. They have a text book that’s geared toward minorities. It’s a great program. I am hoping this can be another area where we can spread the word to students.
Daily Bell: Closing words?
Mark Skousen: Do not despair. Do not think that our current mess is irreversible, that our economy is headed for total destruction, which is a constant message from gold bugs and doomsayers. I am trying to counter that view and I am trying to do something through education. As you know, we have created FreedomFest and it’s not my conference alone, though I created it. It’s the “movement’s” conference. You bring together all the best and the brightest in Las Vegas, the world’s greatest libertarian city. We have this great celebration and learn from each other; we celebrate liberty; we warn each other about the dangers to liberty and we do business and make deals and walk away and say WOW, we can make a difference. So, come on down! It’s an open forum. We like new people and new speakers. We have Steve Forbes (Forbes Magazine) and John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods) who both work tirelessly to spread the word. It’s a great opportunity to meet and greet and there are others out there who feel the same. So, go to www.FreedomFest.com and learn more. Hope to see you there.
Daily Bell: On that note, now would be an appropriate time to announce our first conference, scheduled for the last weekend in April in the Appenzell region of Switzerland. The conference is the being hosted by The Foundation for the Advancement of Free-Market Thinking and has several Platinum level sponsors, of which Appenzeller Business Press AG (publisher of the Daily Bell) is one. It will be a great European-based opportunity to provide similar opportunities for like-minded folks to gather with a view to seeking private solutions to the more egregious public problems facing us all. To date, several top thinkers have committed to speaking and we would like to include you in that group. Can we count on your support with our conference efforts and would you travel to Switzerland to share your views at the event?
Mark Skousen: I would be pleased to support your efforts and you can pencil me in to speak at your conference. Thank you for considering me.
Daily Bell: Thank you Mark, it has been a pleasure as always and we look forward to seeing you in April.
Mark Skousen: Thanks, same here.
(See this article in its original publication here)
The Naked Truth About “Porno” Scanners
“Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
There must be a law like Murphy’s Law that states that government agencies with excessive authority inevitably go overboard in their regulations. Remember the year in the 1980s when the Federal Transportation Agency imposed an ignition device on new cars so that the engine wouldn’t start unless the driver wore his seat belt?
Citizens objected so vociferously that the government quickly reversed itself.
Let’s hope the same thing occurs with the Obama administration’s decision to install invasive “full body” scanners at airports in the United States, and to impose invasive pat-downs for those who uphold their Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches.” Americans need to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.”
As long-time subscribers know, I’ve been in the forefront of defending the right to personal and financial privacy, having written “The Complete Guide to Financial Privacy” in the early 1980s.
I find it appalling that the government, after pushing through numerous laws against sexual harassment, has adopted an official policy of sexual harassment against its citizens with the introduction of “full body” scanners and pat-downs that are patently offensive. The whole process is now appropriately referred to the use of “porno” scanners.
Sadly, the majority of Americans seem to support this new attack on privacy. A recent poll found that 80% of citizens go along with the “full body” searches, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment (no matter what the courts decide). In this regard, I’m reminded of Doug Casey’s reference to today’s spineless Americans: “You’re all a bunch of whipped dogs.” Ben Franklin’s warning could apply here: “Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
I salute the freedom fighters who recognized that this latest action is just one more example in the gradual loss of our freedoms. ”Freedom is never lost all at once,” stated Edmund Burke. Indeed. If we don’t stand up now, when will we?
To see how you can help protest this attack on liberty, go to www.wewontfly.com. Tea partiers, unite!
Finally, it is a sad commentary that TSA agents and government officials are supportive in this attack on fellow citizens. I was shocked to read that a federal security director instructed his agents as follows: “I want them to think Abdulmutallab [the Christmas Day bomber who was thwarted from blowing up a Detroit-bound airplane] with every pat-down.” Tell that to the elderly and kids getting pat-downs.
For those TSA agents who say, “It’s my job,” remind them of these words from the great libertarian film “Cool Hand Luke”: “Just because it’s your job doesn’t make it right.”
Next up: TSA is now pushing for the random “secondary screening,” in which you are taken to “the cage” and subjected to even further invasions of privacy. When will this idiocy end?
Foundation for Economic Education
May 17, 2010
“Consumer spending makes up more than 70 percent of the economy, and it usually drives growth during economic recoveries.” –“Consumers Give Boost to Economy,” New York Times, May 1
Every quarter, when the government releases its latest GDP figures, we hear the familiar refrain:
“What the consumer does is vital for economic growth.”
“If the consumer starts saving and stops spending, we’re in big trouble.”
“Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy.”
The latter “fact” is repeated regularly in the news reports from the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.
The truth is that consumer spending does not account for 70 percent of economic activity and is not the mainstay of the U. S. economy. Investment is! Business spending on capital goods, new technology, entrepreneurship, and productivity are more significant than consumer spending in sustaining the economy and a higher standard of living. In the business cycle, production and investment lead the economy into and out of a recession; retail demand is the most stable component of economic activity.
Granted, personal consumption expenditures represent 70 percent of gross domestic product, but journalists should know from Econ 101 that GDP only measures the value of final output. It deliberately leaves out a big chunk of the economy — intermediate production or goods-in-process at the commodity, manufacturing, and wholesale stages — to avoid double counting. I calculated total spending (sales or receipts) in the economy at all stages to be more than double GDP (using gross business receipts compiled annually by the IRS). By this measure — which I have dubbed gross domestic expenditures, or GDE — consumption represents only about 30 percent of the economy, while business investment (including intermediate output) represents over 50 percent.
Thus the truth is just the opposite: Consumer spending is the effect, not the cause, of a productive healthy economy.
The Importance of Say’s Law
This truth prevails in the marketplace: It’s supply — not demand — that drives the economy. Savings, productivity, and technological advances are the keys to economic growth. This principle was discovered and developed by the brilliant French economist Jean-Baptiste Say in the early nineteenth century and is known as Say’s law. In fact, he invented the word “entrepreneur” to describe the primary catalyst of economic performance.
Is retail sales a leading economic indicator? Each month the Conference Board releases its Leading Economic Indicators for the United States and nine other countries. The ten U.S. leading indicators are:
As you can see, almost all of the indicators are linked to the early stages of production and business activity.
Misleading Consumer Confidence Index
What about the Consumer Confidence Index that the media highlights every month? It turns out that the title is misleading. The questions asked consumers are more about business conditions than spending attitudes. Here are the questions consumers are asked to determine their “expectations”:
In other words, the much-touted “consumer” confidence index is more a forecast by consumers for business, employment, and durable goods than “retail sales” and consumer spending. It does not ask any questions about food, clothing, entertainment, and other short-term buying, because these expenditures seldom change from month to month.
The reality is that business and investment spending are the true leading indicators of the economy and the stock market. If you want to know where the stock market is headed, forget about consumer spending and retail sales figures. Look to manufacturing, capital expenditures, corporate profits, and productivity gains.
Beware of Keynes’s Law
The reason we hear so much about the consumer is because the media and political pundits still live under the spell of Keynesian economics, which teaches that demand creates supply. Keynes’s law is just the opposite of Say’s law (supply creates demand). According to Keynesians, consumer spending drives the economy and saving is bad when the economy is in a short-term contraction.
In reality, increased savings can actually stimulate the economy, even if consumer spending is anemic. A recent study by the St. Louis Fed concluded that in the short run, “a higher saving rate in the current quarter is associated with faster (not slower) economic growth in the current and next few quarters” (Daniel L. Thornton, “Personal Saving and Economic Growth,” Economic Synopses, St. Louis Fed, December 17, 2009).
How is this possible? When people save more, interest rates fall and business can afford to replace their old equipment with new tools, spend more on research and development, or develop new production processes. So while consumer spending may stay low, business spending can pick up the slack. Remember, in a dynamic economy the decision by businesses to spend more investment funds and hire more workers is a function of both current consumer demand and future consumer demand. And don’t forget, during a recession corporate profits often recover first, without an increase in customer demand, because companies can boost profits by cutting costs and downsizing.
In the long run new business strategies and spending patterns increase productivity and lower prices to consumers, which in turns means the consumers’ purchasing power increases. As the St. Louis Fed concludes, “A higher saving rate does mean less consumption [in the short run], but it could also result in more capital investment and, ultimately, a higher rate of economic growth…. [T]he growth rate of real GDP has been higher on average when the personal saving rate is rising than when it is falling.”
Granted, the ultimate function of business activity and entrepreneurship is to fulfill the needs of consumers, and the most successful firms are those that satisfy their customers. But more important, who discovers the new, improved products that consumers desire? Who is the catalyst that determines the quantity, quality, and variety of goods and services? Did the consumer come up with the idea of personal computers, SUVs, fax machines, cell phones, the Internet, and the iPhone? No, these technological breakthroughs came from the genius of creative entrepreneurs and the savers/capitalists who funded their inventions.
The Rational, The Relentless – Liberty Magazine – September 2007
by Mark Skousen
“To keep the fish that they carried on long journeys lively and fresh, sea captains used to introduce an eel into the barrel. In the economics profession, Milton Friedman is that eel.”— Paul A. Samuelson
Milton Friedman, the intellectual architect of the free-market reforms of the post-World War II era, was a dear but prickly friend. We constantly argued over a variety of issues, but remained friends throughout. I was probably the last person to go out to lunch with him before he died of a heart attack on Nov. 16, 2006.
It was a privilege to know him, despite our policy differences. The triumph of free-market reforms introduced by Thatcher, Reagan, and other leaders in the post-Berlin Wall era (reforms such as lower taxes, deregulation, and privatization that showed the collapse of the Keynesian and Marxist paradigm) can be laid at the feet of a single giant figure: Milton Friedman. Other free-market economists made their mark, but Friedman was the most influential.
Founder of the modern-day Chicago school of economics, Milton Friedman was the force behind many new and exciting ideas: policies such as monetarism, privatization of Social Security, school choice, and futures markets in currencies, and also scholarly pursuits that transformed the economics profession from the “dismal science” to the “imperial science” of today. He was the first economist to counter effectively the Keynesian monolith and its myths: that capitalism is inherently unstable, that money does not matter, that there is a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Friedman debunked them all. He demonstrated that money mattered a lot: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”
His most important work is his 1963 magnum opus, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960, with co-author Anna J. Schwartz. This book carefully demonstrates a close correlation between monetary policy and economic activity. Friedman and Schwartz demonstrated beyond doubt that ineptitude by a government body, not free-enterprise capitalism, caused the Great Depression, when the Fed allowed the money supply to contract by over a third. This book marked the beginning of a counterrevolution, away from the Keynesian view that big government and the welfare state were beneficial. Now government was seen as the cause of our problems, not the cure, as Reagan used to say. Textbooks replaced market failure with government failure. And Friedman made it happen.
He was able to succeed where other free-market economists failed because he had impeccable credentials within the economics profession — earning his Ph.D. from Columbia University, becoming president of the American Economic Association, being published by Princeton University Press, teaching at the University of Chicago, and winning the Nobel Prize in Economics (in 1976, appropriately on the 200th anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence).
After establishing himself as a top-ranked economist, he wrote for the general public, especially in Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Free to Choose (1980), co-authored by his wife and fellow economist, Rose Friedman. (Rose was his beloved companion in life — they traveled and worked together, reared two children, and wrote the memoir “Two Lucky People.”) Milton told me that he always regarded Capitalism and Freedom as his best book for the intelligent layman. I recommend it as an ideal libertarian document.
On a personal level, Milton was unique. He had an “open door” policy toward people of all walks of life. Always intelligent and demanding of evidence, he kept his secretary busy with a huge correspondence with friends and strangers. When I met him in the early 1980s, he didn’t know me from Adam, but he was willing to talk with me and answered my questions seriously. I kept up our friendship by letters, emails, telephone calls, dinners, and lunches over the past dozen years. In 1988, he invited me to my first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, and through his influence, I became a member in 2002. He generously wrote blurbs for my recent books and was a big fan of FreedomFest, my annual gathering of freedom lovers. When I had the opportunity to teach at Columbia Business School, he wrote a favorable letter to the dean, which helped me win the position.
Friedman loved to debate, and took on all comers. Unlike many erudite libertarians, he suffered fools gladly and, to my knowledge, never excommunicated anyone over intellectual disagreements. He disagreed sharply with Keynesian economists such as Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, yet he remained friends with both. At times, my own disputes with him were so intense that I thought our relationship was threatened, but my friendship with this happy warrior continued to the end.
Friedman and I were friend and foe on many issues, to the point where I was criticized for being both too sympathetic and too critical. In 2001, at my first board meeting as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, I was approached privately by Bettina Greaves, a long-time FEE employee and devotee of Misesian (“Austrian”) economics. She said, “Mark, I support you in every way as the new president of FEE, but please be more critical of Milton Friedman.” I thanked her for the suggestion. Then, half an hour later, another board member, Muso Ayau, past president of the Mont Pelerin Society and founder of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala, pulled me aside to give me some advice. He whispered, “I support you in every way, but could you do me a favor? Please stop being so critical of Milton Friedman!” When I told Milton this story, he had a belly laugh.
I first met Milton Friedman at the San Francisco Money Show. I approached him with a question about Murray Rothbard’s book, America’s Great Depression, and he willingly engaged me. At the time, I was quite enamored with Rothbard’s Austrian-school explanation of the depression — his argument that it was caused by an inflationary boom in the 1920s that had to collapse, and that the 1930s was actually a good cleaning for a defective financial system. Friedman quickly disparaged Rothbard’s scholarly work, saying that the Fed’s policies during the 1920s were not the problem and that Rothbard had artificially inflated the money supply figures to justify his Austrian position. “The Great Depression was caused by inept Fed policy in the 1930s, not the 1920s,” he told me.
Afterwards, we continued our correspondence by mail, arguing largely about Austrian vs. Chicago economics. This correspondence eventually culminated in my book, Vienna and Chicago, Friends or Foes? (2005). When I asked Milton about the title of this book, he answered, “We’re both friends and foes!” Once I made the mistake of referring to Anna Schwartz, co-author of Monetary History, as his “researcher,” and he blew up. He accused me of being “narrow-minded” and “intolerant” in a way he termed “typical of Austrian economists.” He urged me to look at the background papers and letters dealing with Monetary History at the Hoover Institution, where I would quickly realize that Schwartz was clearly a bona fide “co-author” and not just a “researcher.” This letter is still burning in my files. Funnily enough, a month later, I saw a picture of Anna Schwartz in the American Economic Review, and the short summary of her professional career listed the terms “researcher” and “research” seven times! But I dared not write him back with this comment for fear of retaliation.
A few years after the Money Show I was back in California for a meeting of political conservatives where Friedman was a speaker. I called his hotel room and invited him to lunch, just the two of us. He agreed, and we had a delightful two-hour luncheon overlooking the California coastline. I showed him a chart of M1, the narrowly defined money supply, noting that it had declined sharply in the mid-1980s. I interpreted this to mean that another economic collapse was imminent. He disputed my interpretation. “You can’t rely on M1 anymore — it’s out of date due to the deregulation of the banking system. If you look at M2, which includes money market funds, the money supply is growing. There isn’t going to be any collapse.” He was right. The Reagan era was booming.
When the lunch was over, the bill came and I insisted on paying. As I was signing the credit card bill, I turned to him and said, “Dr. Friedman, one of your favorite sayings is ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ Well, I’m here to disprove it today because I’m paying for yours.” Quick as a flash, he retorted, “Oh, no, no, Mark, that wasn’t a free lunch. I had to listen to you for two hours!”
When my book Economics on Trial (1991) was published, I prepared an advertisement with the headline: “Japan and Germany Win World War III,” followed by these words: “Their formula multiplies wealth so rapidly that they will achieve their goal of world domination by the year 2000.” In the ad, I referenced the sound economic model that had transformed war-torn Germany and Japan into economic powerhouses and strengthened their stock markets in one generation. The principles were high savings rates, low taxes on capital and investment, low inflation, balanced budgets, and free markets.
I sent a copy of my ad to Friedman, and he took no time debunking it. “This prediction is a bunch of nonsense,” he scribbled over the ad copy. “I will not live long enough to see it falsified, but you will. In the year 2000, the U.S. standard of living will be higher than the Japanese.” He was, of course, proven right.
Friedman’s anger flared again in the late 1990s, when we gathered in Vancouver for a Mont Pelerin Society meeting. Milton and Rose Friedman were in charge of the conference program. Its title was “Can Creeping Socialism Be Stopped?” In one of the breakout sessions I asked Friedman about his easy-money solution to Japan’s economic problems. I held up an article he published in The Wall Street Journal, “Rx for Japan,” in which he advocated a massive printing of yen to jumpstart the Japanese economy, while ignoring such free-market solutions as cutting taxes, deregulating, or opening up the Japanese economy. “Isn’t printing more money another example of creeping socialism?” I asked. He was not amused, and noted that, historically, increasing the money supply has stimulated economic recovery, and that fast monetary growth was necessary, given Japan’s fragile condition. I countered, “Ah, so there is a free lunch, after all, Dr. Friedman?” “A free disaster!” he interjected with high emotion. Afterward, Professor Jim Gwartney came up to me and said, “You attacked God today!” Indeed. Yet even free-market icons can make mistakes.
A year later, Milton and Rose were invited to speak at the New Orleans Gold Conference, an annual gathering of hard-money investors. After Milton spoke, he took questions from the audience. I tempted him with the question, “Who’s the better economist, Ludwig von Mises or John Maynard Keynes?” I knew Milton would answer straight; he didn’t care what gold bugs thought. “Keynes,” he proclaimed to a shocked audience. When asked who was the greatest economist ever, he didn’t say Adam Smith, but settled on Alfred Marshall, the British economist who invented supply and demand curves.
Rose dissented. I had never seen her disagree with her husband in public, but she stood up and said that Marshall was infamous for treating his wife poorly and refusing to support her professional career as an economist. In all my private meetings with the Friedmans, Rose was always graciously reserved and seldom if ever argued with her husband. I had heard a rumor that she differed with Milton on Austrian capital theory, and one time I asked her if this was true. She simply smiled and winked.
My most embarrassing moment with the Friedmans came later that evening when I invited them to dinner at the best restaurant in New Orleans, Commander’s Palace, along with two friends, Gary North and Van Simmons. After we ordered and exchanged greetings, Milton turned to me and asked in a serious tone, “Mark, why are gold bugs so passionate about gold?” It was a perfect opportunity to talk about the importance of “honest money,” a theme that Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and other Austrian economists have taught for years. I pulled out of my jacket pocket a large oversized $20 banknote, a “gold certificate” issued in the 1920s. Together we read the words spelled out on it: “This certifies that there has been deposited in the Treasury of the United States of America TWENTY DOLLARS IN GOLD COIN payable to the bearer on demand.” I then explained, “Milton, we’re passionate about gold because under the gold standard, there’s a contract between the government and its citizens. For every gold certificate issued, the government had to back it up with a $20 gold coin. Under a genuine gold standard, the Treasury can’t just print up money to pay their bills. It’s honest money.”
All along, I felt that Friedman was simply playing along, since after all, he was the world’s foremost monetary historian. I went on, “So, what kind of contract exists today between the government and its citizens? Milton, do you have a $20 bill?” He reached into his pocket and handed over a $20 bill. “See, the contract has completely disappeared. Now it only says ‘Federal Reserve Note.’ And the Fed doesn’t even pay interest!” I paused and said, “Milton, this $20 bill isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” And I tore it up! I ripped Milton Friedman’s $20 Federal Reserve Note into a half-dozen pieces.
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. He turned to me and said angrily, “Mark, you had no right to destroy my property!” Rose chimed in, “Yes, Mark, you shouldn’t have done that. That was Milton’s private property.” Gary North and Van Simmons stared in horror and didn’t say a word. Milton’s voice rose, and other dinner guests looked over at us and could see emotions rising. At this point, I was worried. My relationship with the Friedmans seemed to be ending that very night. Finally, I said, “Well, I suppose you want your money back?”
They assented heartily. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $20 St. Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin, handed it to Milton, and said, “Okay, here’s your $20!”
He looked startled and stared at the coin. I thought he would be pleased, but I was wrong. Suddenly, he handed it back to me. “I don’t want it!”
I gulped, struggling for words. “But Milton, it’s a gift. Here, take it. It’s a $20 gold coin, worth a lot more than a $20 Federal Reserve Note.”
“No,” he repeated emphatically. “I don’t want it.”
After an agonizingly pregnant pause, I finally figured out a solution. Setting the coin aside, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a fresh new $20 paper note, and handed it to him. “There, okay, will this help?”
He calmed down and took the $20 bill. Gathering up some courage, I brought out the gold coin again. “Look,” I said, as I handed it over to him, “look at the date.” He examined the coin again. “Oh, 1912 — my birth year!” He laughed haltingly. Rose looked on and smiled.
I explained that the entire evening was a set-up, an opportunity for me to give him a St. Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin minted in the year he was born. The coin was in a PCGS certificated plastic container with the words, “To the Golden Milton Friedman.” I told Milton and Rose that my friend across the table, Van Simmons, was a coin dealer and had gone to great lengths to find a 1912 Double Eagle, which was rare. Van added that it had been shipped overnight from Switzerland and had arrived only an hour before dinner. I think that only then did the Friedmans recognize what was going on. The next morning they came up and thanked me for the coin and my gesture of appreciation.
Throughout the evening Gary North — a well-known economic historian and gold bug — said nothing. But in the morning, he came up to me at the conference and said something profound. “Mark, I’ve thought all night about what happened at dinner at Commander’s Palace. You and I have an ideology of gold. And Milton has an ideology of paper money. Mark, last night you attacked his ideology!”
Milton and I never discussed the coin incident again. (I keep his torn-up $20 bill in my wallet as a keepsake.) We met on many other occasions, but I shall never forget our last lunch together in San Francisco. There for the Money Show, I took the opportunity to call him. We met at his favorite Italian restaurant, the North Beach. For the past few years he had walked with a cane and traveled only on cruises or in private jets. At age 94, he had weak legs, a serious heart condition (after two open heart surgeries in the 1980s), and was losing his eyesight. Yet his mind was still sharp.
We discussed the latest Nobel laureates in economics. “We’re running out of good names,” he said. I showed him a Photoshopped picture I had created of him standing next to the 6 foot 10 inch John Kenneth Galbraith, the premier Keynesian and welfare statist of the 20th century. Galbraith towered over the diminutive Friedman. Beneath the picture* was a funny line from economist George Stigler: “All great economists are tall. There are two exceptions: John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman.” Milton was so pleased with the photo and caption that he sent it to all his friends.
As we left, I asked him, “Do you think you’ll live to be 100?” He answered quickly, “I hope not!” But he was almost always upbeat about life, even to the end. He was not a religious man, but he expressed interest in religious topics near the end of his life. His favorite poem was Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which ends, “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” He discovered both in a full and complete life. I consider it a privilege and honor that I knew him.
Friedman’s Less Familiar Quotations
Milton Friedman was not only a great economist, but a memorable quotesmith. Besides the standard-bearers, such as “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” and “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” (which he popularized), here are some others less well known:
“If a tax cut increases government revenues, you haven’t cut taxes enough.”
“I favor tax reductions under any circumstances, for any excuse, for any reason, at any time.”
“A society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.”
“Competition is a tough weed” (George Stigler). “Freedom is a rare and delicate flower” (Milton Friedman).
“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
“Inflation is taxation without legislation.”
“The economy and the stock market are two different things.”
“If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington.”
“The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or in literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.”
“The minimum wage law is one of the most, if not the most, anti-black laws on the statute books.”
“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”
“The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.”
by Mark Skousen
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Would you do me a favor? Find an easy chair, or better yet, go outside to a secluded spot and read this essay at your leisure.
Ever since my family and I lived in the Bahamas for two years,1 I’ve had an interest in leisure, the lure of breaking away from business and just relaxing, wandering, and letting my mind go. It seems like a very libertarian thing to do. Along with a photo of my family in the Bahamas, I have on my bookshelf a whole list of titles to remind me to walk away from work: The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow; Leisure: The Basis of Culture; and Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness.
But before I go on, would you mind indulging me? As I write this, it’s a beautiful sunny day here in New York, and my wife has just beckoned me to join her at the swimming pool along the Hudson River. I’ll be back in a not-so New York minute . . . (While you wait, go ahead and read the rest of this issue of Liberty, or just listen to the birds sing.) There’s nothing like an opportunity to think, meditate, and relax with friends on a balmy summer day.
In my travels, I make a point of wandering aimlessly around the city or neighborhood I’m visiting, and usually end up at some used-book store. In the mid-’80s, I happened to be in Durango, Colo., a small college town, and came across a first edition of a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. I’d tried to read Chinese philosophers before, but never found them appealing until this book came along. What makes Lin Yutang so different from Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu? He lived in both the East and the West, and consequently does an extraordinary job of contrasting the cultures. His book was so refreshing and shocking, so charming and witty, that I found myself underlining something on practically every page. And though Lin wrote in 1937, he sounds very modern.
Lin was a 20th-century Taoist known for his philosophy of leisure and “letting go.” He was also a libertarian who despised all forms of government control, especially Marxism-Leninism and Maoism in Red China. Born in southeastern China in 1895 to Christian missionaries, he learned English at St. John’s University in Shanghai and pursued a doctoral degree at Harvard University. He left Harvard early and went to France and then Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig. After 1928, he lived most of his life in New York, where he translated Chinese texts and wrote prolifically. His objective was to bridge the gap between East and West, teaching Westerners about the old Chinese culture in such bestsellers as My Country and My People (1935) and The Importance of Living (1937). Refused permission to return to China by the Communists, Lin moved to Taipei, Taiwan, where he died in 1976.
The Age of Busy-ness
To understand Lin’s Chinese philosophy, I begin by quoting his most famous line, a line that mystifies workaholic Americans: “Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.”
I made the mistake of writing this statement on the blackboard on my first day of class as a professor at Columbia Business School. A third of the students immediately left, and dropped the class. (Fortunately, the majority had an open mind about pursuing interests other than a 24/7 lifestyle, and later rated my class highly.)
Yet there is wisdom in Lin’s statement. If you are too busy in your work, you don’t have time to learn new ideas, to discover new truths, to enjoy life’s little pleasures, or perhaps to pick a winning stock! Beating the market requires you to look down untrodden paths, and you need the free time to do it.
Lin Yutang criticizes most Americans for being too busy, and therefore slaves to the business culture and the old ways. They worry themselves to death. In another startling statement, Lin writes, “The three American vices seem to be efficiency, punctuality and the desire for achievement and success. They are the things that make the Americans so unhappy and so nervous.”2 Gee, I thought they were American virtues!
Life in the West, according to Lin, is “too complex, too serious, too somber, and too involved.” He would agree with Henry David Thoreau: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” Following Taoist philosophy, Lin warned against “over doing, over achieving, over action . . . of being too prominent, too useful, and too serviceable.” The “perfectly square” house, the “perfectly clean” room, and the “perfectly straight” road rankle in him. He goes on to say, “O wise humanity, terribly wise humanity! How inscrutable is the civilization where men toil and work and worry their hair gray to get a living and forget to play!”
The Art of Loafing
Lin says not to worry: “The Chinese philosoph[er] . . . is seldom disillusioned because he has no illusions, and seldom disappointed because he never had extravagant hopes. In this way his spirit is emancipated.”
Culture, says Lin, is essentially a product of leisure. “The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing. From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man.” He likes a messy room, a crooked road, and a leaky faucet!
Lin offers the secret to success for the businessman (busy man?) in this statement: “Actually, many business men who pride themselves on rushing about in the morning and afternoon and keeping three desk telephones busy all the time on their desk, never realize that they could make twice the amount of money, if they would give themselves one hour’s solitude awake in bed, at one o’clock in the morning or even at seven. There, comfortably free, the real business head can think, he can ponder over his achievements and his mistakes of yesterday and single out the important from the trivial in the day’s program ahead of him.”
But the West won the cultural war. Today, 70 years after Lin’s critique of the three American vices, it is the Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Indians who dress in Western business suits and spout the Western philosophy of efficiency, punctuality, and goal-setting, and who work 14-hour days and forget to play. In the new China, the roads are straight, the houses are perfect, and everything works. I suspect Lin Yutang would not like the new Asia, especially the regimented Singapore. It’s a paradise lost.
The Individual and the State
Lin Yutang is a champion of the individual and “its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability.” But in today’s society, warns Lin, the individual free thinker is being replaced by the soldier as the ideal. “Instead of wayward, incalculable, unpredictable free individuals, we are going to have rationalized, disciplined, regimented and uniformed, patriotic coolies, so efficiently controlled and organized that a nation of fifty or sixty millions can believe in the same creed, think the same thoughts, and like the same food.” Lin goes on to warn, “Clearly two opposite views of human dignity are possible: the one believing that a person who retains his freedom and individuality is the noblest type, and the other believing that a person who has completely lost independent judgment and surrendered all rights to private beliefs and opinions to the ruler or the state is the best and noblest being.”
I daresay which of the two applies to Liberty readers! Lin dislikes the popular trend of sorting people into groups and classes. “We no longer think of a man as a man, but as a cog in a wheel, a member of a union or a class, a ‘capitalist’ to be denounced, or a ‘worker’ to be regarded as a comrade. . . . We are no longer individuals, no longer men, but only classes.”
Lin Yutang experienced the brutality of Chinese communism and the heavy-handed bureaucracy of Washington durng the New Deal era. Needless to say, he had a low opinion of government: “I hate censors and all agencies and forms of government that try to control our thoughts.”
Favoring persuasion over force, Lin distrusts laws and law enforcement. Quoting Lao Tzu, Lin says government regulation “represents a symptom of weakness.” Lin adds, “the great art of government is to leave the people alone.” Quoting Confucius, Lin suggests that if you regulate people by law, “people will try to keep out of jail, but will have no sense of honor.” But if you regulate the people by moral teaching, “the people will have a sense of honor and will reach out toward the good.” War is never ideal, even when your side is right. Again Lin quotes Lao Tzu: “Where armies are, thorns and brambles grow.”
Lin opposed Mao and the Communists because they placed society above the individual. The Soviet model was “disastrous” and Maoism “the worst and most terroristic regime.” Lin favored a “silent revolution, of social reform based on individual reform and on education, of self-cultivation.”3
He also questioned the establishment economist and forecaster:
“Perhaps I don’t understand economics, but economics does not understand me, either. The sad thing about economics is that it is no science if it stops at commodities and does not go beyond human motives . . . It remains true that the stock exchange cannot, with the best assemblage of world economic data, scientifically predict the rise and fall of gold or silver or commodities, as the weather bureau can forecast the weather. The reason clearly lies in the fact that there is a human element in it, and when too many people are selling out, some will start buying in. . . . This is merely an illustration of the incalculableness and waywardness of human behavior, which is true not only in the hard and matter-of-fact dealings of business, but also in the shape of the course of history.”
He was probably unfamiliar with the one school of economics that does take into account human behavior: the Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Undoubtedly Lin would like the title of Mises’ magnum opus Human Action.
Lin Yutang has many more things to say about our culture and how to live a happy and fulfilling life: about growing old gracefully (“The East and West take exactly opposite points of view. In China, the first question they ask is, ‘What is your glorious age?’ ”); the need for women at dinner (“the soul of conversation”); the evils of Western wear (“inhuman”); the only way to travel (“buy a one-way ticket”); and his controversial views on smoking (“one of the greatest pleasures of mankind”). I’ve only scratched the surface of this brilliant Chinese philosopher.
On Buddhism and Christianity
For Lin, Buddhism’s outlook (“life is suffering”) was too pessimistic and its path to happiness (“suppress one’s desires”) too austere. In a chapter called “Why I am a Pagan” in “The Importance of Living,” Lin renounced his parents’ Christianity, which in his age forbade enjoying sex, dancing, food, smoking, drinking, and the good life, in favor of an ascetic lifestyle that suppressed all sinful pleasures to obtain salvation.
Although Lin approved of the Christian emphasis on technology and education, and its banishment of foot binding and drug use in China, he rejected the austerity and social isolationism. “Chinese Christians virtually excommunicated themselves from the Chinese community,” he wrote. While at college, Lin discovered “the vast world of pagan wisdom.” His personal philosophy: “If I had to make a choice between contemplating sin exclusively in some dark, cavernous corner of my soul, and eating bananas with a half-naked girl in Tahiti, entirely unconscious of sin, I would choose the latter.”
Yet in the 1950s, he returned to his Christian roots, although it was a liberal, tolerant, forgiving Christianity. What reconverted him? Not the catechism, but Christian charity, the showing of love, kindness, and good works toward his fellow man as Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. “Once this original emphasis is restored and Christians ‘bear fruit’ in their lives, nothing can withstand the power of Christianity.”4
But for now, it is Lin Yutang and his works that are bearing fruit. There is a growing hunger for leisure in a speedy world and for individualism in a conformist globalization. As if speaking today, Lin states, “I am quite sure that amidst the hustle and bustle of American life, there is a great deal of wistfulness, of the divine desire to lie in a plot of grass under tall beautiful trees of an idle afternoon and just do nothing.”
While enjoying that idle afternoon, may I suggest you take along a copy of Lin Yutang’s “The Importance of Living”? In the United States, a Little, Brown edition came out in 2003, although I’m disappointed that it is without Chinese art on the cover or running heads inside the book. Lin would not approve of such an austere edition! A Singapore edition by Cultured Lotus recaptures the beauty of the original and is far superior. Yet I personally prefer the 1937 edition by John Day Company, available by wandering through any dusty, dank, disorganized bookstore.
1. See “Easy Living: My Two Years in the Bahamas” (Liberty, December 1987).
2. Lin Yutang, “The Importance of Living” (John Day and Company, 1937), p. 150.
3. Lin Yutang, “From Pagan to Christian” (World Publishing, 1959), p. 78.
4. “From Pagan to Christian,” p. 236.
by Mark Skousen
Is the sun setting on the world’s oldest freedom organization?
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is often called “America’s oldest freedom organization.” It predates the Institute for Humane Studies, the Cato Institute, and the Libertarian Party; its monthly magazine The Freeman (now Ideas on Liberty), was published for years before Reason or Liberty began publication. FEE was founded in 1946 by Leonard Read, a libertarian businessman and prolific writer most famous for his book Anything That’s Peaceful and his essay “I, Pencil.” For almost 60 years, the Foundation has been located in a 35-room mansion on a five-acre estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, just 20 miles north of Manhattan. Through its books, student seminars, and The Freeman, FEE has been associated with some of the biggest names in the freedom movement: Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Milton Friedman, among others. Even Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and Lawrence Welk wrote letters of support to Read. (Go to www.FEE.org for a delightful color photograph of Ronald Reagan reading The Freeman, while his wife, Nancy, rests on his shoulder.)
Yet since the passing of its founder in 1983, FEE has fallen into obscurity while the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Hillsdale College have become household names. It has struggled to survive financially and The Freeman has dropped to only 5,000 paid subscribers. A series of presidents, including Hans Sennholz and Donald Boudreaux (now chairman of the economics department at George Mason University), worked hard to resurrect the glory years of FEE. Their efforts were valiant. But despite these valiant efforts, when I became president of FEE in August, 2001, many of my friends in politics and finance had never heard of it.
So now it was my turn to take on the challenge of resurrecting FEE. I thought my background had prepared me well. I hold a Ph.D. in economics from George Washington University. I’ve been a professor of economics and finance at Rollins College for 16 years. I’ve edited a very successful investment newsletter and spoken on economics and liberty to a wide variety of audiences. Having written over a dozen books, including three textbooks, The Structure of Production, Economic Logic, and The Making of Modern Economics, I felt it was time to focus my efforts on spreading the word.
And I had a long experience with FEE. I have been an avid reader of The Freeman since the 60s, a columnist since 1994, and a financial supporter of FEE. I knew Leonard Read and have lectured at the FEE mansion many times over the past two decades. FEE published my Ph.D. dissertation, Economics of a Pure Gold Standard, in 1988 and a pamphlet, What Every Investor Should Know About Austrian Economics and the Hard Money Movement, in 1995. For many years, I have recommended FEE in my investment newsletter, Forecasts & Strategies as the one organization worthy of a tax-deductible contribution. Most importantly, economic education has always been as much my passion as the world of investing.
So when Gary North, a longtime FEE supporter, urged me to apply for the job as president in early 2001, I jumped at the opportunity. When the FEE board approved my name, our family suddenly dropped our easygoing lifestyle in Florida and moved to New York, with less than a month’s notice.
FEE has fallen into obscurity while the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Hillsdale College have become household names.
I immediately went to work to restore the glory days of FEE, telling the board that my plan was to think big and make FEE a household name. I read everything I could about FEE, including Leonard Read’s private diaries and essays. My wife, Jo Ann, and I worked twelve-hour days, including weekends, to turn a candlestick (Leonard Read’s favorite symbol of liberty) into a lighthouse. I paid my respects to Andrew Carnegie, the legendary financier buried a few miles away in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, by following his advice to “attract attention.” The first thing I did upon arriving was to replace the 50-year-old sign at the Broadway entrance with an impressive new sign. Here are some of the other FEE accomplishments in my first year:
• We acquired Laissez Faire Books, the largest distributor of books on liberty in the world.
• We created the annual Leonard E. Read Book Award for Excellence in Economic Education.
• We publicized FEE by obtaining complimentary exhibit booths at the Money Shows and other major investment conferences around the country.
• We created the James U. Blanchard III Memorial Scholarship Fund to finance scholarships for needy international students to attend FEE seminars. We raised over $60,000 in our first year and eight international students were recipients of the Blanchard scholarships this summer.
• We updated our primary website, www.FEE.org, and created a daily news service, www.FEEnews.org, with Ron Holland as editor. He did a terrific job and FEE won an award for this new daily news service. This past summer, FEE.org was averaging 30,000 new visitors each month — not “hits,” visitors.
• We dramatically expanded our high school and college outreach program, with Dinesh D’Souza serving as our spokesman on college campuses, and Greg Rehmke expanding his debate program into the homeschool arena.
• We invited Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman to write an article for Ideas on Liberty (a first).
The FEE National Convention: First Time on Nationwide TV
Perhaps our greatest achievement was the FEE National Convention (“FEE Fest”) at Las Vegas in early May. It put FEE on the map and people are still talking about it. We attracted nearly 900 paid attendees, 100 exhibitors, and 80 speakers (including Ben Stein, Charles Murray, Ron Paul, Nathaniel Branden, and Dinesh D’Souza). FEE Fest was co-sponsored by Reason Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Young America’s Foundation, Institute for Humane Studies, Leadership Institute, Goldwater Institute, Liberty magazine, and dozens of other freedom organizations. Our seminar director, Tami Holland, put together this program in only four months and Kim Githler, president of the Money Show, was able to negotiate a contract with Bally’s/Paris Resort Hotels without requiring a minimum deposit (thus minimizing our risk). We made some money — $14,000 — on the convention, but more importantly, we made FEE visible for the first time in decades, and introduced hundreds of people to free-market economics in the course of three wonderful days. “I feel an electricity that I have not felt in many years among libertarian gatherings,” commented Nathaniel Branden. We received extremely favorable comments from attendees, and even today people write us to ask when the next FEE convention will be.
As a result of the convention, FEE appeared on nationwide television for the first time when C-SPAN Book TV taped speeches by Dinesh D’Souza, Harry Browne, Michael Ledeen, Charles Murray, Tom DiLorenzo, and me. C-SPAN Book TV broadcast these speeches from the FEE convention repeatedly from May until November. C-SPAN was so impressed with the FEE convention that they wanted to bring two crews to the next one.
As an added benefit of the convention, FEE acquired two new prestigious toll-free numbers, 1-800-USA-1776 and 1-888-USA-1776. These numbers — previously owned by the U.S. Bicentennial Commission — were valued by an independent media consultant conservatively at $400,000. The toll-free numbers were donated by Terry Easton, a telecommunications expert who attended the FEE convention and was so impressed with the “new” FEE that he offered to help FEE financially in many other ways.
FEE Summer Seminars: “You Changed My Life”
The FEE convention also led to the doubling of student/teacher seminars. We sold out all of our student seminars this past summer and even had to add an additional seminar because of higher demand. Over 175 students attended. One major supporter who attended the FEE convention was so pleased that he more than doubled the number of scholarships he awarded to FEE summer seminars.
In addition, we made money on all our seminars this summer (a first). We cut costs by using staffers and trustees to teach. My wife, Jo Ann, and the staff prepared 3,200 meals in the FEE kitchen, thus saving thousands of dollars. But the best part was the response of the students. (One student wrote me, “I will be forever grateful to FEE for making this life-changing event possible. It was one of the most enjoyable and productive weeks in my life.”) Of all the things we did in 2002, the student seminars were the most rewarding.
My Most Controversial Decision: Inviting Rudy Giuliani to Speak
Every year FEE plans a fall dinner in October for trustees and supporters. My goal was to put FEE on a national pedestal, so I invited the #1 speaker in America, former mayor Rudy Giuliani, to be the keynote speaker. I didn’t think this choice would be out of character, since past speakers have included Lady Margaret Thatcher, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Gigot (new editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal). Although not a libertarian, Giuliani had almost singlehandedly transformed the world’s most powerful city from a stifling, dirty, dangerous metropolis into a thriving, safe, and clean city. Giuliani proudly points to the recommendations of the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank, as having influenced his decision to cut taxes, privatize, and deregulate the city’s economy. And few questioned his leadership during the terrible days after the terrorist attacks in September, 2001. I probably would not have moved to New York if Giuliani hadn’t been mayor, because the New York of ten years ago simply wasn’t safe or inviting.
In my mind, the biggest risk was financial — Giuliani gets a high honorarium and we had reserved the big ballroom at the New York Hilton. My goal was to attract the largest gathering of freedom lovers in New York history and to let them know that FEE was the place to learn more. Kim Githler again came to our aid by co-sponsoring the event and negotiating excellent terms with the Hilton. The chances of getting Giuliani were slim, however, since he turns down nine out of every ten requests. But everything fell into place when Giuliani accepted my invitation. And John Stossel of ABC News graciously agreed to be Master of Ceremonies for the event. Talk about a one-two punch! I quickly arranged pledges from supporters to buy patron tables to cover the cost of Giuliani’s honorarium, and Tami Holland went to work selling tickets. Everything was set for a spectacular extravaganza that would elevate FEE to national prominence.
However, I failed to take into account one thing — the extreme reaction of some libertarians around the country to my choice of Rudy Giuliani as a speaker at a FEE event. Many were outraged that I would select a “fascist” and a “thug” who “represents everything inimical to what FEE stands for,” to quote some of the more colorful lines from libertarians on the Internet. I was attracting attention, all right, but not the kind I was expecting. I countered by explaining that the Liberty Banquet was not an endorsement of Giuliani’s political record, but an outreach program. We wanted the general public to become familiar with FEE as the best source of sound economics, and what better way to attract the public than to invite America’s hero after Sept.11? Thousands of investors and business people didn’t know FEE from Adam, but they knew Giuliani, and by coming to a banquet with America’s mayor as speaker, they would be introduced to a powerful new organization that could change their lives forever.
The only way we are going to make a difference in this world is if we reach out to people who don’t yet agree with us. Sound economics is too important to leave only to libertarians! Henry Grady Weaver wrote in a FEE pamphlet: “I [already] believe in free enterprise. Explain it to those who don’t, not to me.” Amen!
I didn’t think choosing Rudy Giuliani to speak would be out of character, since past speakers have included Lady Margaret Thatcher, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Gigot.
It didn’t seem to matter that John Stossel, a true libertarian hero, was willing to appear on stage with Giuliani, or that Giuliani had done wonders to restore the value of life, liberty, and property (the libertarian trinity) in the city of New York. I was amazed how closed-minded my libertarian friends were to Giuliani’s positive contributions. “It’s like inviting the devil to church,” accused John Pugsley. My response: “I already did that when I invited Doug Casey to speak at the FEE National Convention on Sunday, May 5.” Many Christian libertarians, including me, were offended by Doug’s attack on Christianity, but I was willing to listen to his opinions. I wish libertarians could be more tolerant and open-minded, more willing to have a dialogue with those whose views differ from their own. As Ben Stein, our keynote speaker at the FEE convention, said, “It’s funny how libertarians are so controlling.” (I was criticized for inviting Ben Stein, too, because he wasn’t a pure libertarian.)
Ironically, another organization, Washington Policy Center, dedicated to “advancing limited government and free markets,” promoted their own banquet in Seattle two weeks before ours. The keynote speaker? Rudy Giuliani. They had over 850 attendees in a very successful outreach program.
It was during this ongoing debate over Giuliani that I received a startling telephone call from the chairman of the FEE board. He said the executive committee had met and decided to ask for my resignation. He did not go into details, aside from saying the board did not share my grand vision for FEE. He cancelled the Liberty Banquet and all future FEE national conventions.
I must admit that this move was the most shocking and disappointing event I’ve ever experienced in the freedom movement, and it came at a time when FEE was on the verge of once again making a real impact. Over the past ten years my wife and I had put our hearts and souls, as well as a good deal of money and reputation, into FEE and then it ended like this! It seemed unfair to us and destructive to FEE’s future. I have no doubt that the board members are good people and well-intentioned supporters of liberty. They volunteer their time, donate funds, and attend board meetings without compensation. Several board members were quite supportive of my presidency and wrote letters on my behalf. But I did not want to cause further controversy by fighting a divided board, so I agreed to resign. I still feel a great sadness about this.
Looking back, I made lots of mistakes as president, things I would do differently if I had the benefit of hind-sight. I would have worked more closely with the board and spent more time raising money. I probably tried to do too much too soon. But I think we did some things right and, in large measure, fulfilled the mandate I was given.
When I became FEE’s president, the organization was coming off a difficult year financially and charitable giving was plummeting across the country. I am pleased that in the six months before I was asked to resign, FEE’s revenues were up 30% and contributions were up 20%. And I am proud of the FEE convention and the student seminars.
When I was asked for my resignation, it was the most shocking and disappointing event I’ve ever experienced in the freedom movement, and it came at a time when FEE was on the verge of once again making a real impact.
After the executive committee cancelled the fall dinner, I was worried about the financial burden the cancellation of the Liberty Banquet would put on FEE, since it would still have the expense of honoring Giuliani’s contract while returning the patron table donations. So with the help of my publisher, Tom Phillips, and Kim Githler of the Money Show, we resurrected the Liberty Banquet and it went off on schedule Oct. 25 at the New York Hilton. It had lost momentum after the initial cancellation and a three-week delay in sending out the major promotions, but we still managed to attract 250 paid attendees. Rudy Giuliani was the perfect gentleman and quite a few libertarians gave him a standing ovation.
Jo Ann and I have appreciated the many letters and emails of support we have received during this difficult period. I continue to teach on college campuses, write my investment letter, speak at conferences, and author books. Instead of writing a column for Ideas on Liberty, I am now a contributor to Liberty magazine. I have my free time back but, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, I’d rather be the slave of some great cause.
Jo Ann and I will persevere, but what about America’s oldest freedom organization? An aggressive new FEE is unlikely under the current board. The new toll-free numbers have been returned to Terry Easton (upon his request), the daily news service is dormant, and the Blanchard Scholarship Fund is looking for a new home. There’s talk among a few board members of selling the FEE mansion and distributing the assets of FEE to other freedom organizations. Such an action would be most unfortunate. As one FEE supporter wrote, “it would be a crime to discontinue FEE since it was the first free-market foundation preaching in the wilderness to the business community which was then plagued with Keynes’ dogmas.”
FEE deserves to survive and prosper. Many organizations do a fine job of lobbying in Washington, researching public policies, supporting important libertarian scholarship, and fighting the enemies of freedom. But only one organization is dedicated solely to educating students, teachers, businesspeople, and citizens on the principles of free markets and sound money. And, if there’s anything the world needs desperately, it’s a strong dose of sound economics and an enthusiastic FEE. Jo Ann and I sincerely hope FEE can regain its influence.
When the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution of the United States in 1787, Benjamin Franklin, looking toward the half-sun carved on the back of the president’s chair, observed, “I have often in the course of the session, looked at that [chair] behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
In a similar vein, as I was leaving FEE at the end of my presidency, I stood before the large portrait of Leonard E. Read located above the mantel in the living room of the FEE mansion and wondered whether Len was smiling or sad. I think that, for a year at least, he was smiling.
Forecasts & Strategies
“The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.”
— Tom Paine, Common Sense (1776)
A Year of Miracles
Like most Americans, I’ve always been fascinated by the events of 1776. It was a year of earth-shattering events that transformed forever the Western world.
It is, of course, the year the American colonies broke off relations with the Mother Country, declared political independence from monarchy, and established the words of Thomas Jefferson that “all men are born equal” and endowed with certain “inalienable rights.”
It is the year that Adam Smith’s monumental Wealth of Nations was published, a powerful declaration of economic independence. Smith proclaimed the establishment of a “system of natural liberty” and the “invisible hand” doctrine that private enterprise would benefit the public wealth.
It is the year the eminent British historian Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his classic history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was considered a scandalous book because it blamed the decline and fall of Rome after it adopted Christianity as its state religion. Through his review of the Roman world, Gibbon emphasized the principles of “liberty, virtue and courage.”
Last but not least, 1776 is the year Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was printed, and Paine, more than any other revolutionary figure, symbolized the Age of Enlightenment. Paine’s philosophy encompassed the entire compass of liberty. He was a radical who advanced democratic emancipation, individual rights, religious tolerance and competitive capitalism.
Just as Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Edward Gibbon and Tom Paine were radicals of their day, so the Foundation for Economic Education and its supporters are the radicals of our day, supporting maximum political, economic and religious freedom.
Forecasts & Strategies
“Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anyone see what I see?”
— George Washington, 1776
The 21-gun salute is considered the highest expression of honor and respect, given to recognize the presence or the passing of a great military hero or political leader. What is the origin of the 21-gun salute? In ancient times, warships fired seven-gun salutes based on the lucky number seven. Seven is also an important biblical number — e.g., God rested on the seventh day.
In 1810, the War Department of the United States defined the “national salute” as equal to the number of states in the Union, at the time 17. This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations at 1 p.m. (later at noon) on Independence Day. Today 50 guns are fired when the president visits a military installation, or when a president or ex-president dies.
In 1842, the presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns. Why 21? Some say it is a multiple of three based on another significant biblical number. At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, tour guides report that the 21-gun salute reflects the founding of our country. Independence was declared on July 4, 1776. If you add up the numbers 1 + 7 + 7 + 6, what do you get? 21! In Las Vegas, “21” is a lucky number. Not only does it represent winning at Blackjack, but if you add the 1 and the 6 in 1776, you get 777, the lucky winning combination in slot machines. And my friend Bert Dohmen, a financial technical analyst, noted that “21” is a Fibonacci number, a number that is found often in nature (the numbers in a Fibonacci sequence are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, … where you add the previous number to get the next Fibonacci number). Fibonacci numbers are used frequently by mathematicians and technical analysts on Wall Street.
What Is the 1776 Club?
To honor our Founding Fathers and the Spirit of 1776, I’ve created the new 1776 Club. The purpose of the 1776 Club is to help deserving students learn the principles of free-market economics and the freedom philosophy in several ways: by attending seminars at FEE headquarters and other centers of liberty around the world; by attending on-campus lectures, regional seminars and international conferences; and taking accredited Internet classes in sound economics. (I’m working right now with Grantham University — www.grantham.org — to create courses in investments, economics and finance, to be announced soon.)
We chose the 1776 Club as the name of this Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) program in honor of our Founding Fathers who declared economic, political and religious independence, and thus created the freest, most prosperous nation in the world.
At the FEE Fest 2002 in Las Vegas in May, we encouraged attendees to donate any amount of money using the numbers “76” or “1776” in them, from 76 cents to $1,776. So far we have raised nearly $15,000 in the 1776 Club. Please feel free to donate any amount, such as $76, $760 or $1,776, to this good cause. If you donate $1,776 or more, you become a Founding Member of the 1776 Club. Some of the first to become Founding Members are: Andrew Westhem, president of Westhem Grant Group of La Jolla, California; Mel Adams, president of Adams Bank in Nebraska; Bert Dohmen of Dohmen Capital Management of Hawaii; Conrad Denke, president of American Production Services of Hollywood, California; and our new FEE chairman, Ed Barr.
What are the benefits of being a Founding Member of the 1776 Club? First, you receive a lifetime subscription to our monthly publication, Ideas on Liberty. Second, you receive a complimentary copy of Leonard E. Read’s classic work, Government — An Ideal Concept. And third, you receive special discounts for our annual FEE Fest and other FEE seminars throughout the year. Most importantly, you share in the joy of helping young people learn the principles of sound economics.
Throughout the month of July, we are planning to ring FEE’s Liberty Bell in honor of all those who send in donations to the 1776 Club. If you send in a donation, we will ring the bell once. If you donate $1,776 or more, we will ring the Liberty Bell 21 times in your name as a way of showing our appreciation for your patriotism and support. Send your donation to the Foundation for Economic Education, 30 South Broadway, Irvington, New York 10533, call 800/960-4FEE, ext. 209, or go to www.FEE.org.
From The President’s Desk
Published in Ideas on Liberty
by Mark Skousen
“The problem of making poor countries rich was much more difficult than we thought.”
—William Easterly, World Bank1
“If there is one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better.”
—Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister, Singapore2
William Easterly has spent his entire adult life working for the World Bank, living in the Third World, and helping poor countries develop into rich countries. You would think he would severely lecture the World Bank and his fellow economists about the dumb policies governments have pursued.
Instead, Easterly throws his hands in the air and offers no clues to the “elusive” quest for growth. He confirms a few economic truths, such as “incentives matter” and “government can kill growth,” but ultimately he thinks luck has as much to do with it as anything. “There are no magic elixirs,” he sighs. The almighty empirical evidence solemnly declares it. Foreign aid doesn’t work. Foreign investment doesn’t work. High savings don’t work. Investment in machinery doesn’t work. Education doesn’t work. Technology doesn’t work. Tax cuts don’t work. All have failed to live up to expectations. It’s time for the economist to be humbled: “It’s very, very hard to predict success in sports, music, and politics—as well as in economics.”3
Over the years I have witnessed a split in the economics profession. Some adhere to the view that we live in an Age of Ignorance; that we know very little about how the world economy really operates and what government policies should be pursued. They are in large measure armchair critics and doubting Thomases.4 Others believe we live in an Age of Enlightenment; that despite maddening uncertainties about the marketplace, we do know with some assurance how a freely competitive market economy works and we have learned a great deal about what governments should and should not do. It is sad commentary to see that despite his honesty, Easterly, a seasoned veteran in the war on world poverty, tends to fall into the former category. He certainly lost an opportunity to clear the air and reveal the root causes and cures of poverty.
Singapore’s Economic Miracle
Perhaps one reason Easterly’s story ends in tragedy is that he apparently spent too much time in failed economies and not enough time in successful ones. I notice that his book says almost nothing about Chile, the economic model of Latin America, or the Four Tigers—Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Contrast Easterly’s confused story with Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiographical account of Singapore. Lee became president of the tiny, poverty-stricken British colony after it was granted independence in 1965. In one generation, he oversaw its transformation into an Asian giant with the world’s number-one airline, best airport, busiest port of trade, and the world’s fourth-largest per capita real income.
How did this economic miracle happen?
First, Lee offered real leadership. He was a seminal figure in Asia who accomplished extraordinary things. He built an army from scratch, won over the unions, and destroyed the communists after the British left a vacuum. Despite strong opposition, he insisted on making English one of four official spoken languages, knowing it was fast becoming the language of international business. Singapore, like other Southeast Asian countries, was known for its nepotism, favoritism, and covert corruption; Lee cleaned up the courts, police, and immigration and customs offices. Today Singapore is ranked as the least corrupt country in Asia. Singapore was also dirty, so Lee began a “clean and green” campaign. Rivers, canals, and drains were cleaned up and millions of trees, palms, and shrubs were planted.
The Lee government tore down dilapidated shacks and replaced them with high-rise apartments. He imposed law and order by demanding severe sentences for murder and other crimes. Today Singapore ranks no. 1 in the world for security. To reduce traffic congestion, a huge problem in Asian cities, Singapore built an underground subway system, and imposed an electronic road-pricing program. Every vehicle has a “smart card” on its windshield, and the toll amount varies with the road used and the time of day. During rush hour, the price goes up. “Since the amount people pay now depends upon how much they use the roads, the optimum number of cars can be owned with the minimum of congestion.”5 A sound economic principle!
Lee rejected Soviet-style central planning and domestic heavy industry, although he did target certain industries for development. He focused on a two-pronged plan to advance Singapore: First, his government encouraged domestic industry to leap over their neighbors and link up with the developed world of America, Europe, and Japan, and tried to attract their manufacturers to produce in Singapore. Second, Lee wished to create a First World oasis in the Third World by establishing top standards in security, health, education, communications, and transportation, and a government offering a stable currency, low taxes, and free trade. Singapore would become a “base camp” for multinational corporations from around the world. And, after years of effort, it worked.
Under Lee’s brilliant leadership, Singapore has advanced far beyond anyone’s dreams. Yet we cannot ignore his mistakes—his paternalistic strong-arm tactics, his interventionist targeting of industries, his forced saving programs, his denial of a free press, and his excessive punishments for certain crimes. It will be interesting to see how Singapore performs, both as a people and economy, after Lee Kuan Yew is gone. We can only hope that economic freedom will lead to political liberty.
1. William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), p. 291.
2. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000 (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), p. 687.
3. Easterly, p. 208. Despite Easterly’s failure to come to any clear conclusions, his book offers an honest and often entertaining appraisal of development literature.
4. See my columns, “Is This the Age of Ignorance—or Enlightenment?,” June 1994; “European Unemployment: The Age of Ignorance, Part II,” January 1995; and “The Age of Confusion,” August 1995.
5. Lee, p. 206.
Mark Skousen is president of FEE.
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