Turning Argentine...

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Here in Argentina, most things were closed on Monday for the Easter holidays… and are closed again today, too.

What do these Argentines think they are? French?

We wandered the streets. Here in the Palermo Soho neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where we are staying, there were thousands of people window-shopping, eating in restaurants and drinking in outdoor cafes.

Inflation is running about 30% per year. The government is proposing to use citizens’ pension funds to pay off its creditors. You get 50% more for your money if you trade your dollars for pesos on the black market. And experts are predicting another big devaluation of the peso after the October elections.

“The Argentine economy has been supported by strong farm sector prices,” reports the local paper. “High agricultural prices should help support the peso and the Kirchner government.”

Eager to Spend

People on the streets seem to have money to spend. And they are eager to spend it.

“Are you kidding?” said an Argentine friend. “Nobody wants to save pesos. You get them. You spend them.”

“I’ve seen this show before,” said another friend. “I was here in Argentina in the 1980s, when we had inflation of 1,000% per month. And I was in Moscow when the Soviet Union fell apart. Inflation hit about 800% there in 1993. I see signs of a big takeoff in inflation again. Watch out.”

But for well-to-do Argentines, the quality of life here must be among the highest in the world. There are dozens of restaurants within a five-minute walk. You can sit outside. The weather is nice. And prices are cheap, if you convert your money on the black market.

But the quality of life is more than just sitting in outdoor cafes sipping a café con leche. Being able to work is important too… and so is being able to keep your money. You need to be able to save money… and then you’ll have enough money to be able to hang out in outdoor cafes!

The world is a rich place. It is so rich that it can afford more and more people who don’t have to work and more and more people – such as Ben Bernanke – whose work reduces standards of living for practically everyone.

The waiter who brings your morning coffee is providing a valuable service. The plumber who makes sure your water flows is also giving you something of value. So is the autoworker who welded together your automobile.

All increase the real wealth of the planet.

But Bernanke? Is there any evidence that any central banker from the dawn of time until April 2, 2013, added a centime or a farthing to the wealth of the world?

Not that we know of!

Instead, Bernanke fiddles with the monetary base… jiggles interest rates… and generally diddles the economy.

You might say, if it weren’t for his jiggling and diddling and so on, that the “crisis would be worse” or even that “we would have had a depression.” But you might also say that if he hadn’t been diddling and fiddling with it, we wouldn’t have had a financial crisis in the first place!

Subtracting Value

How about Nancy Pelosi or Lindsey Graham? Do they provide a useful service? Do they make the world richer… or better… in any way at all? Are they productive members of society or bloodsucking parasites?

It seems obvious here: Argentine politicians do not add value. They subtract it. They spend money that is not theirs and sap wealth they never created. They drain away the real wealth of the world by transferring money from those who earn it to those who consume it. Then it is gone.

Is it any different in North America?

“You get what you pay for,” said Milton Friedman. You pay for zombies, you get all you want – and then some.

What about tax lawyers? People on disability? Defense contractors?

Aha! You will say that defense contractors provide a useful service. Without their work, the U.S. would be attacked and invaded.

In the 1930s, major industrial nations were on the march… and there was at least some remote danger that they could march against the USA. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, but it never posed much of a threat to the continental U.S. And Nazi Germany couldn’t even conquer Britain, let alone America.

Back then, the U.S. spent 1% of GDP on defense, which was probably more than enough.

Today, the Pentagon consumes nearly five times as much. There are no hostile, aggressive nations endangering the peace of the world – as far as we know. So, for our purposes, we assume that the Pentagon wastes an amount equivalent to about 4% of GDP.

That is to say, it takes wealth from the productive sector and destroys it. Maybe worse. By overspending on “security,” the U.S. armed forces may make Americans less secure.

But wait – we’re not going to spend our time complaining about the zombies. Instead, we’re going to come to the point…

Which is, no matter how rich a place is, it can always be impoverished by careful government planning!

Argentina is a rich country. It has boomed in spite of itself. Thanks to a productive agricultural sector, it earns enough revenue to keep the economy functioning and the government supplied with payoff loot.

But as revenues rise, so does the number of people who want to be paid off: unions, the poor, the rich.

No matter how much they get, the authorities will find ways to spend more. This is how they caused a disaster in the 1980s… and again at the end of the 1990s.

Is Argentina ripe for another financial crisis? Maybe.

The U.S. is an even richer country, but not so rich that a determined government cannot ruin it. Maybe it already has.

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