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The end of Prohibition and two great monetary thinkers

Today it is 80 years ago that US alcohol prohibition was ended. Interestingly enough two of my favorite monetary thinkers of the time – Irving Fisher and Clark Warburton – had strong views on prohibition.

Hence, Irving Fisher was a strong advocate of prohibition, while Clark Warburton was strongly against prohibition.

I would especially encourage everybody to have a look at Clark Warburton’s empirical work on prohibition in his Ph.D. dissertation, which was published as The Economic Results of Prohibition in 1932 – one year ahead of the end of prohibition

Fisher and Warburton had very similar – monetarist – views on monetary policy and theory, but they certainly did not agree on prohibition.

Later an other monetarist – Milton Friedman – picked up on a similar theme and he was very outspoken against the US War on Drugs.

As I noted in my previous post I believe that an end to the War on Drugs would be a quite positive supply shock to the US economy and would improve US public finances. The end of prohibition in 1933 likely had a similar positive effect on the US economy, but unfortunately other regulations such are the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) had much more negative supply effects. Said in another way Roosevelt was right on alcohol and money, but wrong on nearly everything else.

Prohibition Dec 5 1933I

I stole this picture from Cato Institute. Here is what Cato’s David Boaz has to say about the day to day.

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Leland Yeager wrote the best monetarist (text)book

In my recent post about Keynes’ “A Tract on Monetary Reform” I quoted Brad Delong for saying that Tract is the best monetarist book ever written. I also wrote that I disagreed with Brad on this.

That led Brad to respond to me by asking: “What do you think is a better monetarist book than the Tract?”

I think that is a very fair question, which I tried to answer in the comment section of my post, but I want to repeat the answer here. So here we go (the answer has been slightly edited):

One could of course think I would pick something by Friedman and I certainly would recommend reading anything he wrote on monetary matters, but in fact my pick for the best monetarist book would probably be Leland Yeager’s “Fluttering Veil”.

In terms of something that is very readable I would clearly choose Friedman’s “Money Mischief”, but that is of course a collection of articles and not a textbook style book. Come to think of it – we miss a textbook style monetarist book.

I actually think that one of the most important things about a monetarist (text)book should be a description of the monetary transmission mechanism. The description of the transmission mechanism is very good in Tract, but Yeager is even better on this point.

Friedman on the other hand had a bit of a problem explaining the monetary transmission mechanism. I think his problem was that he tried to explain things basically within a IS/LM style framework and that he was so focused on empirical work. One would have expected him to do that in “Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with His Critics”, but I think he failed to do that. In fact that book is is probably the worst of all of Friedman’s books. It generally comes across as being rather unconvincing.

Finally I would also mention Clark Warburton’s “Depression, Inflation, and Monetary Policy; Selected Papers, 1945-1953″. Again a collection of articles, but it is very good and explains the monetary transmission mechanism very well. I believe Warburton was a much bigger inspiration for Friedman than he ever fully recognized – even though Warburton is mentioned in the introduction to “Monetary History”.

So there you go. I recommend to anybody who wants to understand monetarist thinking to read Yeager and Warburton. Yeager and Warburton’s books mentioned above will particularly make you understand three topic. 1) The monetary transmission (and why interest rates is not at the core of it), 2) The crucial difference between money and credit and finally 3) Why both inflation and recessions are always and everywhere monetary phenomena.

I will surely return to these books when I continue the reporting on my survey of monetary thinkers’ book recommendations in the coming days and weeks.

PS Leland Yeager’s “Fluttering Veil” is a collection of articles edited by George Selgin. George deserves a lot of credit (if not money!) for putting it together. It is a massively impressive book, which unfortunately have been read by far too few economists and even fewer policy makers.

From the Christensen book collection: Yeager and Warburton:

Yeager Warburton 2

Clark Warburton: A much overlooked monetarist pioneer

When I started this blog it was my plan to write a lot about Clark Warburton. I must admit I have failed to do this, but I still hope to be able to give Clark Warburton the attention he deserves.

Nearly no economists know of Clark Warburton and everybody knows about Milton Friedman. However, the fact is that a lot of what Milton Friedman said about monetary policy had been said by Clark Warburton 10-20 years earlier. Unfortunately nobody wanted to listen to Warburton.

In the introduction to Milton Friedman’s and Anna Schwartz’s “Monetary History” they wrote:

“We owe especially heavy debt to Clark Warburton. His detailed and valuable comments on several drafts have importantly affected the final version. In addition, time and again, as we came to some conclusion that seemed to us novel and original, we found he had been there before.”

Said in another way – Warburton might has well have written “Monetary History” – and to some extent he did.

In the articles “The Volume of Money and The Price Level Between the World Wars” (1944) and “Monetary Theory, Full Production and the Great Depression” (1945) Warburton basically presented the monetarist explanation of the Great Depression – almost 20 years before Friedman and Schwartz (1963).

Scott Sumner has recently tried to argue why the fiscal multiplier is zero if the central bank is targeting any nominal target. For those interested in this discussion should read Warburton’s 1945 article on “The Monetary Theory of Deficit Spending”. Read it and you should pretty fast become convinced that Scott is right – of course Warburton knew that in 1945. My own view that there is no such thing as fiscal policy (and everything is monetary policy) is also clearly inspired by Warburton.

Warburton’s main contribution to American monetary history and theory are collected in the book “Depression, Inflation and Monetary Policy” (including the above mentioned articles). Anyone who wants to understand monetary theory should read this book. The book, along with Leland Yeagers “The Fluttering Veil” are the two most important books in relation to the understanding of the monetarist branch, we could call disequilibrium monetarism (DM). DM is in many ways between the Austrian school and more traditional monetarists like Milton Friedman, Karl Brunner and Allan Meltzer. DM has undoubtedly had a major influence on Free Banking theorist such as George Selgin, but also on modern Austrian economists like Steven Horwitz. As such DM pioneers like Leland Yeager and Clark Warburton are also important from Market Monetarist perspective.

I hope to write more on Warburton in the future. He work surely deserves a lot more attention.

For a good introduction to Warburton’s work see Michael Bordo’s and Anna Schwartz’s article “Clark Warburton: Pioneer Monetarist”

I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block

I have promised to write an article about monetary explanations for the Great Depression for the Danish libertarian magazine Libertas (in Danish). The deadline was yesterday. It should be easy to write it because it is about stuff that I am very familiar with. Friedman’s and Schwartz’s “Monetary History”, Clark Warburton’s early monetarist writings on the Great Depression. Cassel’s and Hawtrey’s account of the (insane) French central bank’s excessive gold demand and how that caused gold prices to spike and effective lead to an tigthening of global monetary conditions. This explanation has of course been picked up by my Market Monetarists friends – Scott Sumner (in his excellent, but unpublished book on the Great Depression), Clark Johnson’s fantastic account of French monetary history in his book “Gold, France and the Great Depression, 1919-1932” and super star economic historian Douglas Irwin.

But I didn’t finnish the paper yet. I simply have a writer’s block. Well, that is not entirely true as I have no problem writing these lines. But I have a problem writing about the Austrian school’s explanation for the Great Depression and I particularly have a problem writing about Murray Rothbard’s account of the Great Depression. I have been rereading his famous book “America’s Great Depression” and frankly speaking – it is not too impressive. And that is what gives me the problem – I do not want to be too hard on the Austrian explanation of the Great Depression, but dear friends the Austrians are deadly wrong about the Great Depression – maybe even more wrong than Keynes! Yes, even more wrong than Keynes – and he was certainly very wrong.

So what is the problem? Well, Rothbard is arguing that US money supply growth was excessive during the 1920s. Rothbard’s own measure of the money supply  apparently grew by 7% y/y on average from 1921 to 1929. That according to Rothbard was insanely loose monetary policy. But was it? First of all, money supply growth was the strongest in the early years following the near-Depression of 1920-21. Hence, most of the “excessive” growth in the money supply was simply filling the gap created by the Federal Reserve’s excessive tightening in 1920-21. Furthermore, in the second half of the 1920s money supply started to slow relatively fast. I therefore find it very hard to argue as Rothbard do that US monetary policy in anyway can be described as being very loose during the 1920s. Yes, monetary conditions probably became too loose around 1925-7, but that in no way can explain the kind of collapse in economic activity that the world and particularly the US saw from 1929 to 1933 – Roosevelt finally did the right thing and gave up the gold standard in 1933 and monetary easing pulled the US out of the crisis (later to return again in 1937). Yes dear Austrians, FDR might have been a quasi-socialist, but giving up the gold standard was the right thing to do and no we don’t want it back!

But why did the money supply grow during the 1920s? Rothbard – the libertarian freedom-loving anarchist blame the private banks! The banks were to blame as they were engaging in “pure evil” – fractional reserve banking. It is interesting to read Rothbard’s account of the behaviour of banks. One nearly gets reminded of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Lending is seen as evil – in fact fractional reserve banking is fraud according to Rothbard. How a clever man like Rothbard came to that conclusion continues to puzzle me, but the fact is that the words “prohibit” and “ban” fill the pages of Rothbard’s account of the Great Depression. The anarchist libertarian Rothbard blame the Great Depression on the fact that US policy makers did not BAN fractional reserve banking. Can’t anybody see the the irony here?

Austrians like Rothbard claim that fractional reserve banking is fraud. So the practice of private banks in a free market is fraud even if the bank’s depositors are well aware of the fact that banks do not hold 100% reserve? Rothbard normally assumes that individuals are rational and it must follow from simple deduction that if you get paid interest rates on your deposits then that must mean that the bank is not holding 100% reserves otherwise the bank would be asking you for a fee for keeping your money safe. But apparently Rothbard do not think that individuals can figure that out. I could go on and on about how none-economic Rothbard’s arguments are – dare I say how anti-praxeological Rothbard’s fraud ideas are. Of course fractional reserve banking is not fraud. It is a free market phenomenon. However, don’t take my word for it. You better read George Selgin’s and Larry White’s 1996 article on the topic “In Defense of Fiduciary Media – or, We are Not Devo(lutionists), We are Misesians”. George and Larry in that article also brilliantly shows that Rothbard’s view on fractional reserve banking is in conflict with his own property right’s theory:

“Fractional-reserve banking arrangements cannot then be inherently or inescapably fraudulent. Whether a particular bank is committing a fraud by holding fractional reserves must depend on the terms of the title-transfer agreements between the bank and its customers.

Rothbard (1983a, p. 142) in The Ethics of Liberty gives two examples of fraud, both involving blatant misrepresentations (in one, “A sells B a package which A says contains a radio, and it contains only a pile of scrap metal”). He concludes that “if the entity is not as the seller describes, then fraud and hence implicit theft has taken place.” The consistent application of this view to banking would find that it is fraudulent for a bank to hold fractional reserves if and only if the bank misrepresents itself as holding 100percent reserves, or if the contract expressly calls for the holding of 100 percent reserves.’ If a bank does not represent or expressly oblige itself to hold 100 percent reserves, then fractional reserves do not violate the contractual agreement between the bank and its customer (White 1989, pp. 156-57). (Failure in practice to satisfy a redemption request that the bank is contractually obligated to satisfy does of course constitute a breach of contract.) Outlawing voluntary contractual arrangements that permit fractional reserve-holding is thus an intervention into the market, a restriction on the freedom of contract which is an essential aspect of private property rights.”

Another thing that really is upsetting to me is Rothbard’s claim that Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) is a general theory. That is a ludicrous claim in my view. Rothbard style ABCT is no way a general theory. First of all it basically describes a closed economy as it is said that monetary policy easing will push down interest rates below the “natural” interest rates (sorry Bill, Scott and David but I think the idea of a natural interest rates is more less useless). But what determines the interest rates in a small open economy like Denmark or Sweden? And why the hell do Austrians keep on talking about the interest rate? By the way interest rates is not the price of money so what do interest rates and monetary easing have to do with each other? Anyway, another thing that mean that ABCT certainly not is a general theory is the explicit assumption in ABCT – particularly in the Rothbardian version – that money enters the economy via the banking sector. I wonder what Rothbard would have said about the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. I certainly don’t think we can blame fractional reserve banking for the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.

Anyway, I just needed to get this out so I can get on with writing the article that I promised would be done yesterday!

PS Dear GMU style Austrians – you know I am not talking about you. Clever Austrians like Steve Horwitz would of course not argue against fractional reserve banking and I am sure that he thinks that Friedman’s and Schwartz’s account of the Great Depression makes more sense than “America’s Great Depression”.

PPS not everything Rothbard claims in “America’s Great Depression” is wrong – only his monetary theory and its application to the Great Depression. To quote Selgin again: “To add to the record, I had the privilege of getting to know both Murray and Milton. Like most people who encountered him while in their “Austrian” phase, I found Murray a blast, not the least because of his contempt for non-Misesians of all kinds. Milton, though, was exceedingly gracious and generous to me even back when I really was a self-styled Austrian. For that reason Milton will always seem to me the bigger man, as well as the better monetary economist.”

PPPS David Glasner also have a post discussing the Austrian school’s view of the Great Depression.

Update: Steve Horwitz has a excellent comment on this post over at Coordination Problem and Peter Boettke – also at CP – raises some interesting institutional questions concerning monetary policy and is asking the question whether Market Monetarists have been thinking about these issues (We have!).

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