Getting Something for Nothing

“Make your money work for you: invest it!” That’s what we’re all told. Too bad we need so much of our money in the here and now, rather than a distant future that may never come, since much of that invested money might just vaporize as it did for millions of us in 2008. What if money became more valuable over time, without having to be invested? Or, rather than getting an extra job, what if you could get richer just laying on the couch? It would be as if you could put a hundred dollars under the cushion and two seasons of Arrested Development later, pull out $110; every time you went shopping you could afford a little more.

The idea seems to defy a law of nature. We’re even told to fear increasingly valuable money! If prices generally fall, experts tell us, it will lead to an economic catastrophe: the dreaded spiral of deflation where the economy goes into a prolonged shrinking phase. But is that really so? Except for during The Great Depression, no one living during the current or previous centuries has ever experienced generally falling prices. But if you asked 19th century Americans, they would have told a different story. For decades they benefited from generally falling prices and during that time the economy grew.

What we do experience is called inflation. I remember my introduction to the concept of inflation well. Back in my home town, there was an old fashioned burger and milk shake shop called Kreem Kup, where you could still get a real hamburger pressed with a wide spatula on a flat top grill. Once a year, on its anniversary, Kreem Kup sold everything for 1950s prices, which meant that I could buy a hamburger for 25¢ and a Coke to wash it down for only 5¢.

Folks like my dad, who lived through WWII and the post-war years, all understood inflation well and they had a pretty convincing explanation for it: We are all just a bit greedy and naturally always try to hike up prices when we sell things, which in turn results in other prices rising to compensate; wages rise in order that people can afford to keep spending more. An alternative view had it the other way around: High wages start the process and the prices of other things rise to make up for the increased labor costs. It really sounded plausible that our natural tendency to want more would inextricably lead us to getting less. That’s just the sort of depressing fact you must come to accept as you grow up and learn to shed your naïve optimism. Thankfully, it isn’t the slightest bit true. Really, it’s just an example of blaming the victim. And it’s circular reasoning, since it tries to explain rising prices by means of other rising prices. So what is the real explanation? That will become clear when you understand what counterfeiting is and what’s wrong with it.

Counterfeiting, legal and illegal

If you’ve paid attention you know that, in recent years, the so-called greenback has been gradually changing color. As of this writing, The Federal Reserve is hard at work on a dramatically overhauled 100 dollar bill. It utilizes color and sophisticated design elements in order to thwart counterfeiters. Why? Because with the advent of desktop scanners and printers, the potential for unlimited spending power came into the reach of all of us. It used to require a master craftsman and a printing press, but now it is child’s play to print knockoffs of old-style bills which can easily pass as beer money in a dimly lit bar. But why does the Federal Reserve care so much about keeping people from printing their own tender? Is it merely due to a cultural disdain for unearned gain?

To see, let’s imagine a counterfeiter has printed himself ten dollars in new money and spent it. He actually gets something for nothing (minus the cost of printing and the time and effort taken to create the bills). The shop owner, who exchanges goods for the new money, then deposits the new money in the bank. He is now $10 richer (minus the cost of the goods he traded) and he has not been harmed in any way, so long as the fake bills are not detected. But with each new transaction, the prices of products and services is bid up a little more, until the purchasing power of the newly introduced money is completely counterbalanced by the rising prices.

Eventually, the new dollars make their way to your grandmother in the rest home who spends it again. She has a fixed income, and by now her cost of living has risen at least ten dollars but her income has not increased at all. So what made the counterfeiter and the first ones who got his fake ten bucks a little richer, has made grandma poorer. In effect, the ten dollars was stolen from grandma to pay the counterfeiter! As for those who get wages, their salaries will eventually rise along with other prices, but wages always lag so we all feel the pinch of the counterfeiter’s actions. Grandma feels it much more though.

Counterfeiting is a very bad thing indeed, and it’s good for the government to go out of its way to discourage it, except for one thing: the biggest counterfeiter of all, is actually the Federal Reserve itself! As Ron Paul likes to point out, the actions of the Federal Reserve, create inflation and the effect of these actions is indistinguishable from those of counterfeiting, except far worse!

The Federal Reserve is able to control the supply of money; it can use this power to hold the supply where it is, or even withdraw money from circulation to slow the economy. It can also fan the fires of the economy by pumping money into the system to encourage spending and rev the economy up. And this has been shown by Austrian economists to be the source of the boom and busts that have been so disastrous for many people throughout the last two centuries. It seems there is rarely ever any need to tighten the money supply, and endless reasons to keep it growing. Among the many rationales for continual inflation, is the bugaboo of its opposite: deflation.

Your friend, deflation

The idea of deflation, with its effect of shrinking prices, sounds like something we should wish for. In bad times like The Great Depression, it was a blessing to folks who were out of work. Today, it would be a boon to the “underemployed” and to all of us. Nevertheless, some economists claim that it is a bad thing.

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, now the Director of Engineering for Google, complains that some economists have repeatedly dismissed his predictions of continued technological progress siting deflation as the reason. Since technological progress results in falling prices and falling prices ultimately result in a shrinking economy, innovation would no doubt fizzle. Computer chips may keep getting better and cheaper, but eventually people just won’t need yet faster machines and will quit buying them so often.

However, Kurzweil rightly retorts that the economists are not considering that faster computers can do different things than slower ones can. So people will buy tomorrow’s computers to help them do different things than they bought yesterday’s to do. Far from slowing, technological progress is actually increasing exponentially. Peoples’ needs and desires are infinite; as soon as a solution becomes feasible and economical, what were once mere wishes become demands. Shrinking prices will result in more economic demand, not less.

Demand deflation now!

Inflation is not our fault. We don’t create rising prices by spending too much or wanting higher wages. The continual pumping of money into the system is to blame, not us. This has an even darker effect than a devalued dollar and rising prices. The booms and busts which have repeatedly punctuated my lifetime, are caused by the increase of money which has the effect of diverting funds toward the production of capital goods at a time when consumer goods should be made in greater abundance. In this way, a bust, as in 2008, must eventually happen. Despite such dangers, we must invest our hard earned savings in a risky stock market just to earn a return grater than the rate of inflation.

Without the Fed and its monetary policies, prices could generally fall, as they did during the Industrial Revolution—and as they are doing in certain segments of the economy, like computers. Our standard of living could improve while we exert no more effort than before. Wouldn’t that be great?

The money printers are using the phony specter of deflation as an excuse for a policy of continual inflation, which is nothing really but counterfeiting by another name. They are stealing form the poor to give to the rich and robbing us all of some much needed relaxation!

Additional reading: What You Should Know About Inflation by Henry Hazlitt

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