Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Real Crash -- Postponed

Crash books are fun. One gets to gloat over the losses of dopes who invested in Tech stocks, social media, read estate or whatever it is that's going to crash and leave you in the position to cash your "physical gold" and buy up cool real estate, yachts, whatever, for pennies on the dollar.

Peter Schiff's latest, The Real Crash, America's Coming Bankruptcy---How to Save Yourself and Your Country, follows up on his Crashproof. How to Profit from the Coming Collapse. The "coming collapse," being, we learn from The Real Crash, yet to come. That's the great thing about writing crash books, if events prove you wrong, just advance the crash date and rewrite, as Batra did with his The Crash of the Millenium, Surviving the Inflationary Depression, an update on The Great Depression of 1990. Who knows? One day you might get it right.

Which is not to say that these books are worthless. Batra is no mean economist and well worth a read. Schiff's latest is of some interest. The crash yet to happen does not loom large. Instead, the book consists mainly of chapters setting forth a libertarian position on diverse topics including: why the US income tax is (a) a bad thing, and (b) unconstitutional; why college education is (a) absurdly overpriced, and (b) a bad bargain for most students; and why social security is a scam.

As for the crash, Schiff, like most crashologists, anticipates a hyperinflationary destruction of savings and the disruption of trade and industry as the result of incontinent government deficit spending financed by money printing. In short, Schiff predicts that the US Government, in collaboration with the US Federal Reserve, is about trash the dollar.

But trashing the national currency overnight is not a thing to be done lightly. The destruction of savings violently antagonizes a large part of the population, thus creating a potentially revolutionary situation. The case of Wiemar Germany illustrates the point. Middle class resentment over the destruction of all savings during the hyperinflation of 1920-23 created an environment in which a nationalistic "savior" was bound to thrive. Adolph Hitler made full use of the opportunity.

Wiemar Germany is also instructive of the conditions that may cause a democratic government to destroy the currency. Germany financed its participation in WW1 largely through borrowing. After the war, Germany was obliged by the Versailles Treaty to pay gigantic war reparations to the victors, payments to be made in gold. These bills were unpayable, so the government did what may have seemed the only thing possible: it printed money.

The results of the consequent inflation were threefold. First, it freed the government of its obligation to holders of government bonds, the people who had financed the war: they were left holding bonds redeemable by the government with worthless paper. Second, it freed industry, which needed to retool for export rather than war, to slough off their creditors with worthless paper. Third, it effectively cut wages to the subsistence level.Workers received a barrow-load of paper money, which by the time it was wheeled to the store, barely sufficed to purchase a basket of groceries.

Thus Germany's great inflation was not the result of irrational or irresponsible government action. It was a necessary result of the terms imposed on Germany by the victors of World War 1. The consequences, Hitler and World War 2, can be blamed on the stupidity and vindictiveness of the Allies, whose view was well expressed by Eric Campbell-Geddes, Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, 1917-1919, when he said "We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak."

Other hyperinflations have had different causes. For example, in Zimbabwe, the Government of the tyrant Robert Mugabe engineered a hyperinflation with the sole apparent objective of impoverishing the middle class, whose wealth was transferred to Robert Mugabe and his cronies. The project was a success because Mugabe was and remains an absolute dictator.

America's position is very different from that of either Wiemar Germany or Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and if anyone wishes to convince the world that the US is about to embark on a dollar-destroying hyperinflation, they need to explain why. That reckless money printing will be undertaken by the US Government out of, well, recklessness, seems highly unlikely.

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