Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Bitcoins and El Salvador

I haven't written about bitcoin in a long while, in part because it is somewhat irrelevant, like all notions of a future dominance of private currencies (another of Hayek's incredible blunders; more problems with Hayek here and here). Note that nation states are fine and well, and not going anywhere, and hence national currencies will remain dominant. Only a weak state without its own currency (El Salvador is dollarized; on that see here and here) would make bitcoins legal tender. But more on that later.

Even though it's discussed in my old post, let me first explain why bitcoin makes little sense as a currency. The first thing to note about bitcoiners is that they think that the state management of the currency is prone to abuse, and that the value of money, and, hence the price level (or its change, i.e. inflation) suffers as a result. The slow and persistent mining of bitcoins, in this view, is what leads to a stable price level. The value of money depends on its scarcity, according to some version of the Quantity Theory of Money (or if they were more sophisticated some notion of a natural rate, and that would work at full employment). Of course, that notion breaks down pretty fast, since inflation is seldom related to excess printing of money by the central bank.

Note that the value of bitcoins has recently collapsed from about 60,000 to around 33,000. It's closer to 34,000 or so now. At any rate, to make things simpler, and rounding things up, the price has been halved, in dollars. In other words, if you bought with one bitcoin something that costed US$60,000 now you need approximately 2 bitcoins rather than one to buy the same thing. Prices doubled in bitcoins in just a few days. That's a doubling of the price level, an increase of 100%, or very high inflation in bitcoins. So inflation in bitcoins (and in any currency really) has little relation with the amount of money. Exchange rate depreciation is crucial, as well as other costs (on alternative theories of inflation see here).

In other words, bitcoin is simply an asset, as gold since it was demonetized almost 50 years ago by Nixon, with the closing of the gold window (or 1968, if you take the link to Fed notes). It is something that is purely relevant for speculation, contrary to some other financial assets that might be relevant for other uses, even industrial uses like gold. Don't get me wrong, block chain technology and digital currencies might become relevant, but that would be once national governments and central banks, which are moving slowly in that direction, decide to adopt them.

I haven't read much on Bukele's decision to make bitcoin legal tender. But the notion that this would be good for the population is crazy. Notice that if you send one bitcoin, and the value collapses before its collected and changed back to dollars, in a period in which the price is reduced by half, then the person receives half the amount of dollars. The fluctuations of asset prices could be wild, and the losses staggering. And El Salvador depends heavily on remittances from the US; something around 20 percent of GDP. The only possible relevant use for bitcoins is for illegal transactions, other than speculation in which someone can win huge amounts, while many lose their pants. Other than that, this is a decision that compounds other terrible decisions taken by previous administrations, like dollarization and entering the free trade agreement with the US.

Monday, June 28, 2021

From developmental to failed state

The talk I gave for Rethinking Economics Peru (in Spanish). Go check their website and materials here or if you don't speak Spanish there's a lot of interesting material in the general (in many languages) Rethinking Economics here. An older post, in English, that discusses essentially the same thing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The end of Friedmanomics?

Friedman's advisees

Zachary Carter, of Price of Peace fame (a good book that I recommend, btw), wrote an interesting piece on Milton Friedman's legacy, which I think is, as Hyman Minsky said of Joan Robinson's work, wrong in incisive ways. But even before we get to his main point, that the era of Friedmanomics is gone, it is worth thinking a bit about the way he approaches the history of ideas. This is clearly a moral tale for Carter, with good guys and bad guys. Gunfight at high noon. It is more about vision than analysis, in the terminology of Schumpeter.

He starts, like Nancy MacLean in her Democracy in Chains -- I discussed only tangentially
the issue here -- with Brown v. Board of Education, and Friedman's, rather than Buchanan's, insidious behavior favoring policies that allowed the persistence of segregation. He tells us that: "it is hard to believe Friedman was merely naïve and not breathtakingly cynical about these political judgments, particularly given the extreme rhetoric he used to attack anti-discrimination efforts." Yet, as he continues he seems to change his mind and argue that: "yet he appears to have genuinely believed what he said about markets eliminating racism." So it seems he was naïve after all, according to Carter.

Of course, to determine whether Friedman was cynical or naïve is a thankless task and somewhat besides the point. Friedman was analytically wrong. There is a reason Schumpeter's monumental book is A History of Economic Analysis, and not of economic ideology. And Carter argument is built on moral, ideological grounds. Friedman is the bad guy. He tells us that: "[t]he chief political disputes of the 1950s and 1960s, as today, really were about moral values, not technical predictions." Don't get me wrong, vision matters, and it's hard to disentangle from analysis, but it is clear that Friedman's views differed analytically from the ones discussed by the Keynesian disciples at Cambridge (less so in the case of some of the Neoclassical Synthesis Keynesians that came to accept Friedman's notion of a natural rate of unemployment by the late 1960s). But it is hard to say that Friedman was for segregation, when he explicitly says he was against, and Carter himself thinks that he might have been sincere about that. Other than finding archival material that shows that Friedman knew better we are left with conjecture and guess work.

The key analytical differences between Friedman and the more heterodox Keynesians I alluded above, were not so much in his classic book on monetary history with Anna Schwartz, cited by Carter, but in his AEA presidential address from 1968. The return of the natural rate was the foundation that allowed, once the political circumstances were ripe for the demise of the Golden Age, for the return of marginalist analysis. In a sense, the notion of a natural rate of unemployment went full circle and added to the Neoclassical Synthesis notion that Keynes was fundamentally about wage rigidities or other imperfections. Note that this happened after the capital debates, when the logical foundations of the neoclassical theory was in shambles. In favor of Friedman, I might add, he did write the analytical model down in the debate with his critics, in contrast with Hayek, that after abandoning economics in the 1940s dedicated himself to ideological discussions without any analysis. Vision without analysis as my good friend Fabio Freitas poignantly says.

Carter is on firmer ground when he argues that Friedman was not a classical liberal, and had little in common with Adam Smith, although Friedman himself might have thought so; understanding of history of ideas is sadly vey uncommon among economists. Carter tells us that: "Friedman preferred to be identified as either a 'neoliberal' or a 'classical liberal,' invoking the prestige of the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economists—while conveniently gliding past their often profound differences with his political project. (John Stuart Mill, for instance, identified as a 'socialist,' while Adam Smith supported a variety of incursions against laissez-faire in the name of the public interest)." The differences with Smith were not fundamentally political though, but analytical (Stuart Mill is a more complicated transition author). Markets did not produce efficient allocation of resources or full employment of labor for Smith, as in the Marshallian world of Friedman and the Chicago School.

At any rate, the notion that Friedmanomics (or Neoliberalism for that matter; on that here) is dead is at best an exaggeration. In part, the misdiagnosis results from Carter's view according to which: "Friedman’s major theoretical contribution to economics—the belief that prices rose or fell depending on the money supply— simply fell apart during the crash of 2008." That's definitely not the main lesson from Friedmanomics. The quantity theory was never particularly dominant. It was a return to the simple notions of marginalism, of the theory of value, that suggests that supply and demand produce optimal outcomes, that lead to full employment, and that can fix all sort of social maladies (including racism, as Carter notes correctly) that was central to Friedmanomics, and neoliberalism.

In other words, his main legacy was the idea that the market society is a panacea. That free markets are prerequisite for a democratic society (Hayek was more forceful in that argument, without even trying to provide the analytical foundations). Something used cynically to favor the interests of a narrow group by the politicians Friedman advised (the three on top, for example). And while it is true that the last financial crisis (the 2008 one) has led to a reassessment of the role of government, and more so with the pandemic, as I discussed here, the notion that Friedmanomics is gone is wishful thinking.

Even though the profession has abandoned Friedman's Marshallian version of marginalism, his notion that markets do produce optimal outcomes has received no serious challenge within academia, and, in policy circles, interventions follow a pragmatic notion that market imperfections are worse than government imperfections. But that could change rapidly, like Larry Summers support for expansionary fiscal policies. Friedmanomics will certainly make a come back.

The End of Bretton Woods

    End of Bretton Woods with Barry Eichengreen, myself and Lilia Costabile, organized by L-P. Rochon and the Review of Political Economy.