Having Their Cake

Economics on Trial
Ideas on Liberty
October 2000

Having Their Cake
by Mark Skousen

“The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion.” -JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES (1)

In his 1920 bestseller, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes made a profound observation about the success of capitalism before the Great War. He lauded “the immense accumulations of fixed capital” built up by the “new rich” during the half century before the war and compared the huge capital investment of this golden era to a “cake,” noting how “vital” it was that the cake “never be consumed;” but continue to “grow.”

Keynes was intensely optimistic about the prospects of humanity, “if only the cake were not cut but was allowed to grow in the geometrical proportion predicted by Malthus for population.” Rapid capital accumulation would result in the elimination of “overwork, overcrowding, and underfeeding,” and workingmen “could proceed to the nobler exercises of their faculties.”

Alas, it was not to be. The First World War destroyed Keynes’s dream of universal progress. The cake was consumed. “The war has disclosed the possibility of consumption to all and the vanity of abstinence to many.” (2)

War isn’t the only enemy of capital accumulation. Since World War II, the greatest threat to capital formation (the growth of the cake) has been the direct and indirect taxation of capital.

Take, for example, the federal estate tax. The estate tax is often viewed as an “inheritance” tax and even a “death” tax. But it’s much worse than that. It’s also a tax on capital. An estate’s taxable property includes stocks, bonds, business assets, real estate, coins and collectibles-all after-tax, afterconsumption investments.

If your net worth exceeds $675,000, your heirs will be forced to pay at least 18 percent to the IRS. The tax rate hits a confiscatory 55 percent at a mere taxable estate of $3 million.

Capital is the lifeblood of the economy. Capital investment finances new technology, new production processes, quality improvements, jobs, and economic growth in general. When those investment funds are taxed-$28 billion in 1998-the funds are removed from the investment pool and transferred to Washington, where they are consumed. For the most part the funds are consumed through government expenditures and “transfer payments” (welfare, salaries of government workers, and so on).

The estate tax also creates economic distortions. It encourages individuals to engage in “estate planning,” expensive legal exercises to avoid the death tax. It forces individuals to buy insurance policies they would not otherwise buy and create tax-exempt trusts and foundations that they would not ordinarily create. Undoubtedly, millions of fiends are transferred every year into foundations and charities just to avoid estate taxes. Charitable giving and public foundations have become big business, but what is the price? Mismanagement and waste are common features in these nonbusiness organizations.

Another Inefficient Tax: Capital Gains Taxes

Perhaps an even more sinister tax is the capital gains tax. If you sell an asset (stock, bond, commodity, real estate, or collectible), the profits are taxed between 20 and 40 percent, depending on how long you held the asset. (If you hold for more than a year, the maximum rate is 20 percent.) This is a terrible penalty on capital. It means that every time a stock or other asset is traded outside a taxexempt vehicle, 20 to 40 percent of the profits are removed from the private economy and sent to Washington, never to be invested again. With the recent bull market on Wall Street, annual capital gains taxes have exceeded $100 billion. What a terrible drain on the economy.

Capital gains taxes also result in economic inefficiency. Because of the high tax on capital gains, many investors refuse to sell their assets. They may prefer to switch into a potentially more profitable investment, but they stay with their original investment because they hate the idea of paying Uncle Sam. Clearly, capital would be more efficiently allocated to its more productive use without this burdensome profits tax.

The United States can learn a lot from foreign nations. Hong Kong has a flat 15 percent personal income tax, a 16.5 percent corporate income tax, and no tax at all on capital gains. In fact, most of the New Industrial Countries in Southeast Asia do not tax capital gains.

Thus capital can move freely throughout Hong Kong and around the world without distortion. And the cake has grown rapidly because of capital’s tax-free status. Hong Kong does have an estate tax on values exceeding HK$7 million, but the maximum rate is only 18 percent. (3)

Fortunately, the U.S. government has recently recognized the negative drain these taxes have on the economy. It has reduced long-term capital gains, and Congress has even entertained a bill to abolish federal estate taxes altogether.

Eliminating taxes on estates and capital gains has been criticized as a break for the rich. Moreover, critics say, estate taxes should be kept in order to establish a level playing field. They argue, “Children and grandchildren of wealthy people didn’t earn inherited money. They should have to work for it, just as their parents did. Inheritances create disincentives to work.”

But these critics fail to understand the broader implications of a large tax-free estate and tax-free capital gains. Everyone-not just the rich-benefits from eliminating these taxes because wealthy people’s capital would be left intact, invested in the stock market, businesses, farms, banks, insurance companies, real estate, and other capital assets, thus insuring strong economic growth and a high standard of living for everyone. As Ludwig von Mises once stated, “Do they realize that every measure leading to capital decumulation jeopardizes their prosperity?” (4)

As an investment adviser, I share the concern that unrestricted inheritances to children or grandchildren can be morally corrupting, but there are other solutions besides a confiscatory tax. For example, a will can limit the use of inherited funds until a certain age of responsibility is reached, or a trust can offer matching funds as a way to encourage work and responsibility.

1. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1920), p. 20.
2. Ibid., pp. 20-21.
3. For an excellent summary of tax policies throughout the world, see International Tax Summaries, published annually by Coopers & Lybrand (New York: John Wiley & Sons).
4. Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom, 4th ed. (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1980), p. 208.

An Enemy Hath Done This

Economics on Trial – Ideas on Liberty – SEPTEMBER 2000

by Mark Skousen

“Government measures . . . give individuals an incentive to misuse and misdirect resources and distort the investment of new savings.”

Several months ago, I had the opportunity of speaking before a Miami chapter of Legatus, a group of Catholic business leaders organized originally by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. The topic was the outlook for the stock market, which had reached sky-high levels and by any traditional measurement appeared extremely overvalued. Even many experienced Wall Street analysts recognized that a bear-market correction or crash was inevitable and necessary. As the old Wall Street saying goes, “Trees don’t grow to the sky.” Indeed, in the spring the stock market took a well-deserved tumble. What is the cause of this boom-bust cycle in the stock market? Does capitalism inherently create unsustainable growth? Is the bull market on Wall Street real or a bubble?

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

To answer these questions, I applied Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30) to today’s financial situation.

Jesus tells the story of a wheat farmer whose crop comes under attack by an unknown assailant. In the middle of the night this enemy sows tares (weeds) in his wheat fields. Soon the farmer’s servants discover that the farmer’s crop appears to be twice the normal size. Yet the master realizes that half the crop is fake-weeds instead of wheat. But he warns his servants not to tear out the weeds for fear of uprooting the good shoots; they must wait and let the wheat and the tares grow up together until harvest time. Months later, the wheat produces good grain, while the tares are merely weeds and provide no fruit. The servants pull out the weeds and burn them, and store the grain in the barn.

The parable is imminently applicable to the recent wild ride on Wall Street. In today’s robust global economy, the wheat represents genuine prosperity-the new products, technologies, and productivity generated by capitalists and entrepreneurs. It represents real economic growth and when harvested, reflects a true higher standard of living for everyone. Under such conditions, stock prices are likely to rise.

On the other hand, the tares represent artificial prosperity that bears no fruit in the end and must be burned at harvest time. Where does this artificial growth come from? The central bank’s “easy money” policies! The Fed artificially lowers interest rates and creates new money out of thin air (through openmarket operations). This new money, like regular savings, is invested in the economy and stimulates more growth and higher stock prices-higher than sustainable over the long run.

Who is the enemy who sows artificial prosperity? Alan Greenspan! (Or, to be more accurate, central bankers.) The money supply-which is controlled by the Fed-has been growing by leaps and bounds, especially since the 1997 Asian crisis.

But there is no free lunch, as sound economists have warned repeatedly. At some point, the harvest time comes and the wheat must be separated from the tares. This is the crisis stage, where the boom turns into the bust. Harvest time in wheat is fairly easy to predict, but not so in the economy. Clearly economic conditions are heating up, as measured by asset inflation, real estate prices, the art mar ket, and recently the Consumer Price Index. At some point, a “burning” of excessive asset values in the financial markets must occur. As Ludwig von Mises stated long ago, “if a brake is thus put on the boom, it will quickly be seen that the false impression of `profitability’ created by the credit expansion has led to unjustified investments..”2

Lesson: Globalization and supply-side freemarket policies have justified genuine economic growth and higher stock prices over the past two decades, but “easy money” policies have at the same time created an artificial boom and “irrational exuberance” on Wall Street. Ignore this lesson at your own peril. Remember the parable of the wheat and the tares!

1. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago, 1962), p. 38.
2. Ludwig von Mises, “The `Austrian’ Theory of the Trade Cycle,” in The Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle and Other Essays, compiled by Richard M. Ebeling (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1996), p. 30.

The Rise and Fall of an American Icon

Forecasts & Strategies
Personal Snapshots
August 2000

by Mark Skousen

“The Chief didn’t believe in the Protestant ethic or trust in Poor Richard’s aphorisms. A penny saved might be a penny earned, but a penny borrowed was worth even more.”
– David Nasaw, author The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

In the past year, I’ve had the chance of visiting the two biggest mansions in the United States, the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, erected by the Vanderbilts, and the Hearst Castle, built by William Randolph Hearst. Both are monuments of capitalist extravagance, and both bankrupted the owners. The Vanderbilts never recovered and not a single Vanderbilt appears on today’s list of the Forbes 400 Richest People in America. The Hearst family was luckier and somehow survived the excesses of the Chief. Several of the Hearst sons are listed today as billionaires on the Forbes list.

In reading his latest biography, The Chief (Houghton Mifflin), I was surprised to learn that William Randolph’s father, George Hearst, started out as a forty-niner prospector who made a fortune in Homestake Mining and Anaconda Copper. He bought the San Francisco Examiner to advance his political career as a U.S. Senator. His only son, William, was trained by his ambitious mother, Phoebe, who took him overseas and sent him to private schools, where he learned Greek, Latin, French and German. Learning business and finance at a course in “political economy” at Harvard, he took over the Examiner and made it profitable. He had the patience to wait on his investments, which paid off handsomely in the future after heavy initial outlays. He was an incurable optimist, a necessary characteristic to succeed in business. Gradually, Hearst built his media dynasty throughout the nation, and wielded influence like no other publisher in American politics. He was the baron of publishing, just as Carnegie was in steel, Rockefeller in oil, and Morgan in banking.

But, sadly, Hearst omitted a cardinal principle of finance: Live within your means! His newspapers were mostly profitable, but he could never retain the earnings. He was a man of insatiable appetites-in politics, high society and personal possessions. He spent all his profits and borrowed to the hilt to make movies, live the high life with his actress-mistress, and build his dream homes (at his peak, he held over 40 homes, beach houses, castles and other kinds of real estate around the world). During the Great Depression of the 1930s, it all came crashing down, and in many ways he died a broken and friendless man.

William Randolph Hearst was bigger than life, but he could have learned from Poor Richard’s Almanac: “Beware of little expenses, a small leak will sink a great ship.”

If You Build It – Privately – They Will Come

Ideas on Liberty
Economics on Trial
August 2000

by Mark Skousen

“Government provides certain indispensable public services without which community life would be unthinkable and which by their nature cannot appropriately be left to private enterprise.” – PAUL A. SAMUELSON

If you take a course in public finance, you will invariably encounter the “public goods” argument for government: Some services simply can’t be produced sufficiently by the private sector, such as schools, courts, prisons, roads, welfare, and lighthouses.

The lighthouse example has been highlighted as a classic public good in Paul Samuelson’s famous textbook since 1964. “Its beam helps everyone in sight. A businessman could not build it for a profit, since he cannot claim a price for each user.” 1

Really? Chicago economist Ronald H. Coase revealed that numerous lighthouses in England were built and owned by private individuals and companies prior to the nineteenth century. They earned profits by charging tolls on ships docking at nearby ports. The Trinity House was a prime example of a privately owned operation granted a charter in 1514 to operate lighthouses and charge ships a toll for their use.

Samuelson went on to recommend that lighthouses be financed out of general revenues. According to Coase, such a financing system has never been tried in Britain: “the service [at Trinity House] continued to be financed by tolls levied on ships.”2

What’s even more amazing, Coase wrote his trailblazing article in 1974, but Samuelson continued to use the lighthouse as an ideal public good only the government could supply. After I publicly chided Samuelson for his failure to acknowledge Coase’s revelation,3 Samuelson finally admitted the existence of private lighthouses “in an earlier age,” in a footnote in the 16th edition of his textbook, but insisted that private lighthouses still encountered a “free rider” problem.4

Private Solutions for Public Services

The lighthouse isn’t the only example of a public good that can be provided for by private enterprise. A privately run toll road operates in southern California. Wackenhut Corrections manages state prisons. Catholic schools provide a better education than public schools. The Mormon Church offers a better welfare plan than the USDA food stamp program. Habitat for Humanity builds houses for responsible poor people.

And now, for the first time in 38 years, there is a privately built major league baseball stadium-Pacific Bell Park, new home of the San Francisco Giants. After Bay area voters rejected four separate ballot initiatives to raise government funds to replace the windy and poorly attended Candlestick Park, Peter Magowan, a Safeway and Merrill Lynch heir, teamed with local investors, to buy the club and, with the help of a $155 million Chase Securities loan, built the new stadium for $345 million. The owners also got huge sponsorships from Pacific Bell, Safeway, CocaCola, and Charles Schwab.

So far the private ballpark has been a super success, selling a league-leading 30,000 season tickets for the 41,000seat stadium. The team’s 81 home games are nearly sold out. Other team owners, whose stadiums are heavily subsidized, were skeptical, but a dozen team owners have visited the new operation to study what they’ve done. They include George Steinbrenner, who is considering a $1 billion new Yankee stadium.5

Economists Attack Public Financing

Perhaps private funding of major league sports facilities has been influenced by two recent in-depth studies by professional economists attacking publicly subsidized sports arenas. In Major League Losers, Mark Rosentraub of Indiana University (and a big sports fan) studied stadium financing in five cities and meticulously demonstrated that pro sports produce very few jobs with little ripple effects in the community, take away business for suburban entertainment and food venues, and often leave municipalities with huge losses.6

A Brookings Institution study came to similar conclusions. After reviewing major sports facilities in seven cities, Roger G. Noll (Stanford) and Andrew Zimbalist (Smith College) found they were not a source of local economic growth and employment, and the net subsidy exceeded the financial benefit to the community.7

These empirical studies confirm a longstanding sound principle of public finance: Beneficiaries should pay for the services they use. In my free-market textbook I call this “The Principle of Accountability,” also known as the “benefit principle.” It’s amazing how often politicians violate this basic concept. For example, John Henry, a commodities trader worth $300 million and owner of the Marlins baseball team, is pushing through the Florida state legislature a bill to tax cruiseship passengers to help fund a new Miami ballpark. (Fortunately, Governor Jeb Bush just vetoed the bill.)

Please, will someone send Mr. Henry a copy of my free-market textbook, Economic Logic?

1. Paul A. Samuelson, Economics, 6th ed. (New York; McGraw Hill, 1964), p. 159.
2. Ronald H. Coase, “The Lighthouse in Economics” in The Firm, the Market, and the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 213. Coase’s article originally appeared in The Journal of Law and Economics, October 1974.
3. Mark Skousen, “The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson’s Economics,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 1997, p. 145.
4. Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus, Economics, 16th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1998), p. 36n.
5. Peter Waldman, “If You Build It Without Public Cash, They’ll Still Come,” Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2000, p. 1.
6. Mark S. Rosentraub, Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who’s Paying for It (New York: Basic Hooks, 1997).
7. Roger G. Noll and Andrew Zimbalist, Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums (Washington, D.C.., Brookings Institution, 1997).

What It Takes to Be an Objective Scholar

Economics on Trial
April 2000

What It Takes to Be an Objective Scholar
by Mark Skousen

“It was the facts that changed my mind.” -Julian Simon (1)

During the 1990s we watched the Dow Jones Industrial Average increase fourfold and Nasdaq stocks tenfold. Yet there were well-known investment advisers-some of them my friends-who were bearish during the entire period, missing out on the greatest bull market in history. (2)

How is this possible? What kind of prejudices would keep an intelligent analyst from missing an overwhelming trend? In the financial business the key to success is a willingness to change your mind when you’re wrong. Stubbornness can be financially ruinous. When a market goes against you, you should always ask, “What am I missing?”

Over the years, I’ve encountered three kinds of investment analysts: those who are always bullish; those who are always bearish; and those whose outlook depends on market conditions. I’ve found that the third type, the most flexible, are the most successful on Wall Street.

Confessions of a Gold-Bug Technician

A good friend of mine is a technical analyst who searches the movement of prices, volume, and other technical indicators to determine the direction of stocks and commodities. Most financial technicians are free of prejudices and will invest their money wherever they see a positive upward trend, and avoid (or sell short) markets that are seen in a downward trend. But my friend is a gold bug and no matter what the charts show, he somehow interprets them to suggest that gold is ready to reverse its downward trend and head back up. Equally, he always seems to think the stock market has peaked and is headed south. As a result, throughout the entire 1990s he missed out on the great bull market on Wall Street and lost his shirt chasing gold stocks.

I also see this type of prejudice in the academic world. Some analysts are anti-market no matter what. Take, for example, Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., who puts out the annual State of the World and other alarmist surveys and data. He gathers together all kinds of statistics and graphs showing a decline in our standard of living and the growing threat of population growth, environmental degradation, the spread of the AIDS virus, and so on. For example, despite clear evidence of sharply lower fertility rates in most nations, Brown concludes, “stabilizing population may be the most difficult challenge of all.” (3)

Too bad Julian Simon, the late professor of economics at the University of Maryland, is no longer around to dispute Brown and the environmental doomsdayers. Simon was as optimistic about the world as Brown is pessimistic. Simon’s last survey of world economic conditions, The State of Humanity, was published in 1995. That book, along with his The Ultimate Resource (and its second edition), came to the exact opposite of Brown’s conclusions. “Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way.” (4)

Yet Julian Simon was not simply a Pollyanna optimist. He let the facts affect his thinking. In the 1960s, Simon was deeply worried about population and nuclear war, just like Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and their colleagues. But Simon changed his mind after investigating and discovering that “the available empirical data did not support that theory.” (5)

Scholars Who See the Light

The best scholars are those willing to change their minds after looking at the data or discovering a new principle. They admit their mistakes when they have been proven wrong. You don’t see it happen often, though. Once a scholar has built a reputation around a certain point of view and has published books and articles on his pet theory, it’s almost impossible to recant. This propensity applies to scholars across the political spectrum.

We admire those rare intellectuals who are honest enough to admit that their past views were wrong. For example, when New York historian Richard Gid Powers began his history of the anticommunist movement, his attitude was pejorative. He had previously written a highly negative book on J. Edgar Hoover, Secrecy and Power. Yet after several years of painstaking research, he changed his mind: “Writing this book radically altered my view of American anticommunism. I began with the idea that anticommunism displayed America at its worst, but I came to see in anticommunism America at its best.” (6) That’s my kind of scholar.

1. Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), preface.
2. See the revealing article, “Down and Out on Wall Street,” New York Times, Money & Business Section, Sunday, December 26, 1999.
3. Lester R. Brown, Gary Gardner, and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 30.
4. Julian L. Simon, The State of Humanity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995), p. 1.
5. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, preface.
6. Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (Free Press, 1996), p. 503.

Greed Is Good — NOT!

Personal Snapshots

Forecasts & Strategies, February 2000

Greed is Good — NOT!

“Unbridled avarice is not in the least the equivalent of capitalism, still less its ‘spirit.'” — Max Weber

Recently I heard free-market economist Walter Williams speak at a local college about capitalism. He quoted approvingly from Gordon Gekko, the fictional character of the film Wall Street, “Greed is good.”

I normally agree with most everything Walter Williams says, but not this statement. Too often, defenders of capitalism go overboard in defending pejorative phrases, such as “greed is good” or, in the case of Ayn Rand, her book title The Virtue of Selfishness. But selfishness is not a virtue, nor is greed, whether in business or finance. Selfishness leads to unethical behavior — deceptive advertising, fraud, and even theft. It often means taking advantage of another person. Greed and selfishness could land you in jail.

Adam Smith’s Model of Enlightened Self-Interest

Adam Smith, the father of free-market capitalism, did not write approvingly of selfishness or greed. He favored enlightened self-interest and industriousness. He believed that his “system of natural liberty,” his phrase for capitalism, would actually reduce greed, selfishness and fraud. Commercial society, he said, encourages people to be educated and industrious. It “cultivates patience, industry, fortitude and application of thought.” The fear of losing customers “restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence,” Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. In contrast to political societies, which depend on flattery, favoritism and deceit, capitalist societies foster self-control, cooperation, punctuality, benevolence and deferred gratification.

Financial Advice: Don’t Get Greedy!

In the financial field, we know that the two greatest enemies to profits are fear and greed. Contrarians take advantage of inexperienced investors who panic when prices are dropping and often sell out in desperation at the bottom. Unseasoned investors also tend to buy heavily at the top, only to see their investments disappear. In short, greed is a disaster for investors. This is a vital lesson given the high-wire act Wall Street is following these days, especially with regard to Internet stocks.

The Real Significance of the Millennium

A friend of mine wrote me saying that the year 2000 was no big deal, and this new millennium was nothing unusual in terms of other calendars: For Moslems, it was 1420, for Jews it was 5760, for Buddhists it was 5119, etc. Well, he’s wrong. There is no universal celebration of the Moslem, Jewish or Buddhist calendar, yet on New Year’s Eve, what did we witness on television? Magnificent celebrations across the globe even in China, Israel, Africa and other places that are not Christian. Why? Western capitalism, which uses the Christian calendar, has captured the world — in business, in dress, in culture.