Sushi and the Economic Crisis


As I have read countless analysts, including professional economists, offer "solutions" to the financial crisis, I have become more convinced of the importance of capital theory. You see this with the dichotomy people keep drawing between the financial markets and the "real economy," a distinction that is useful for some purposes but which in this context often reinforces the idea that the stock market is really just a casino.

When the Paulson Plan was first being debated, even sharp, free-market thinkers who are otherwise very solid were recommending instead that "bank recapitalization" was the way to fix things. But if our troubles stem from a diversion of real resources into the housing sector — if too many and too big homes were built at the expense of other possible uses for those inputs — then government financial transfers per se won’t do anything except redistribute the losses.

Once we understand how our present problems are due to a Fed-induced distortion in the capital structure, it becomes clear that the worst recommendation is for the Fed to cut interest rates and pump in ever more "liquidity." It was artificially cheap credit that fueled the housing boom in the first place. Greenspan brought the federal funds target rate down to a ridiculous 1 percent — meaning the interest rate was actually negative, once we adjust for price inflation — and held it there for a year. He did this in order to (apparently) obviate the need for a harsh recession in the "real economy" after the dot-com crash. But in fact he sowed the seeds for our present crisis. If Bernanke continues shoveling in hundreds of billions to needy bankers, five years from now Americans (and the rest of the world) may look back fondly on the present the way the 2001 downturn now seems like a minor inconvenience.

Krugman and Cowen Ridicule the Austrian "Hangover" Theory

Rather than start from scratch, in this article I will illustrate the importance of a solid theory of capital by showing how very intelligent economists — one of whom is now a Nobel laureate — make elementary mistakes in their critique of Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT). For the sake of brevity, I won’t recapitulate the theory here; in the links above you can see my own watered-down expositions, or go here for Roger Garrison’s amazing PowerPoint presentation, or here for a more comprehensive introduction. Now then, assuming the reader understands the basic Austrian story, let us quote Tyler Cowen’s recent discussion of Paul Krugman’s Slate critique of ABCT:

[Paul Krugman:] Here’s the problem: As a matter of simple arithmetic, total spending in the economy is necessarily equal to total income (every sale is also a purchase, and vice versa). So if people decide to spend less on investment goods, doesn’t that mean that they must be deciding to spend more on consumption goods — implying that an investment slump should always be accompanied by a corresponding consumption boom? And if so why should there be a rise in unemployment?

[Tyler Cowen commenting on the above quote:] But I think the point is more effective in reverse. Why should the boom be a boom in the first place? The shift toward investment goods, and thus away from consumption goods production, should mean falling real wages, not rising real wages. In other words, the Austrian theory doesn’t generate the very high degree of comovement found in the data.

These are actually two separate points; i.e., Cowen did more than simply "reverse" the argument, he slightly changed the point. To help the reader understand my response, let me paraphrase (what I take to be) Krugman’s and Cowen’s similar (but distinct) objections to the Mises-Hayek theory.

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