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Oct 27, 2009

The Stimulus Resort Town

Politicians like the idea of stimulus spending because it justifies taxing, borrowing, and spending. Spending is always pleasant and gains friends and support. They claim that stimulus spending will make us prosperous because it multiplies wealth in the economy.

The Obama team claimsEasyOpinions: Let's counterfeit our way to wealth that each $100 of government spending creates $150 in new wealth, so everyone wins, and it doesn't matter on what it is spent.

Craig C's comment at Mises.org gives an analogy commonly used to illustrate how stimulus loans or spending multiplies production and trade. I repeat it here, revised.

People start in gridlock. A stimulus loan breaks the gridlock. They resume working and trading, and end up happy. The money involved is a true stimulus; it unlocks the local economy and is paid back. This is a vivid and amazing example. But, it is contrived and unreal, like finding five dominoes ready to fall by pushing just the first one.

Stimulus Story

It is rainy and quiet in a small resort town. It is a tough time. Everyone is in debt and lives on credit.

A government official enters a restaurant, lays a $100 bill on the counter, and tells the owner Frank that it is a stimulus loan.

  • Frank takes the $100 and runs to pay his debt to the butcher.
  • The butcher pays his debt to the farmer.
  • The farmer pays his debt to the supply store.
  • The supply store pays its debt for newspaper advertising.
  • The newspaper pays its debt to Frank at the restaurant.
  • Frank lays the $100 bill back on the counter.

The official smiles at all of the good he has done. He remarks that this is the Keynesian Multiplier in action; $100 in new money promoted $500 in production and trade. He takes back his $100 and leaves town. The town is now without debt and looks optimistically to the future.

That is supposedly how the Stimulus Plan works.


I like that story because it sets up a beautiful situation, just so. The government provides a "stimulus", the money flows around, everyone is happy, and it didn't cost anything, like a fairytale.

I like another version even more. Frank writes a bad check for $100. The check goes around the town and comes back to Frank, who tears it up. The check is illegal, but the government stimulus isn't needed. This version supports counterfeiting.

The less amazing, more realistic version of the story goes like this.

Restaurant owner Frank, impractical and desperate, owes everyone in town. He spent his last borrowed dollar rather than sell the restaurant to someone who could run it at a profit. He waits behind the counter for his creditors to call. He doesn't have $100 in the bank to pay the butcher.

Meanwhile, the butcher takes $100 out of his bank account to pay the farmer, and that $100 goes around the town. The newspaper pays Frank $100, and he pays the butcher.

We don't know why the butcher would extend credit to a restaurant with no money in the bank. Soon, Frank declares bankruptcy and sells the restaurant.

The Stimulus Story proposes a group of businesses all doing useful work for each other. They have already produced things and have traded among themselves. They only need to pay their bills. Any one of them can take $100 from his bank account to settle the chain of obligations. Usually, they all take $100 from their accounts to pay their bills.

In reality, a whole town is not caught in the trap of having no cash to exchange while selling to others on credit. A stimulus loan has little or no effect on current business transactions.

The flurry of payments settles $500 in past transactions, which makes it seem like the $100 has multiplied 5 times. It is a distraction from what the stimulus loan actually accomplishes.

The Real Stimulus Effect

The true value of a $100 loan is just the value given to restaurant owner Frank. Frank can buy an extra $100 of goods, pay debts, or save. (Paying debts or saving isn't so bad.)Click/Return to see below why this is not a burden on the economy.

If Frank is going bankrupt, he probably spends his loan, hoping for a miracle. If Frank is not desperate, he pays down his debts or saves the money. He is not going to risk the loan by expanding his business in a poor economy.

Say the money is a grant instead of a loan. Frank is even happier, but this doesn't lead to risky investment. It is his money now, and he doesn't want to lose it.

Government Spending

In a bad economy, people have debt and jobs are uncertain. It is natural for them to pay off their debts. What can a government do to "pump" money into the economy to buy goods for consumption? The government spends the money. (Note) If you must ruin an economy by artificially increasing spending on consumer goods, then government spending is about the only way to do it.
 Government claims this helps the economy. Instead, it pays politicians and supporters, and builds voting support. The claim of helping the economy is a cover story.
 The government must collect more tax from productive people to support these schemes.

It is true that a specific $100 in production may occur from an extra $100 in government spending. But, for every Frank who gets extra business, there is a Jim who has the money taxed from him. Jim buys $100 less of something, removing $100 of production which would have happened anyway.

The total effect of the stimulus spending is that Frank gets $100 more business, and Jim buys or saves $100 less. That fails to "jumpstart" an economy, no matter how big the amount which is taxed and spent by the government.

Government Borrowing

The government can borrow the $100 that it spends at Frank's restaurant. Frank is happy, and Jim doesn't seem to be affected, at first glance.

Frank is happy with the extra business. But, this is not a sustained flow of money, and Frank does not install more tables. He hires only temporarily or part-time, if he hires at all.

Business owners read the newsEconomists Surprised That People Read the Paper
06/08/09 - Easy Opinions
  Leftist economists don't consider that people react to policy. People see the coming wave of taxes, regulation, and inflation, and they alter their behavior immediately. They stop investing and prepare for hard times.
. They know the government is temporarily increasing purchases. They can't know what part of their sales is from stimulus and what part is from an improving economy, so they delay expanding and hiring. Worse, they don't know how increased taxes will affect sales in the future.

Business owners are being rational. It is better to miss some business by expanding later, than to expand early and risk bigger losses if sales drop. Ironically, the stimulus interferes with the sales signals and market stability that would encourage businesses to expand. This slows expansion and reduces employment.

The current stimulus is being distributed over a period of years, so it will interfere with business decisions for years.

•  Jim prepares to pay

Jim knows that he will soon have to pay higher taxes to pay off what the government is borrowing. So, he lowers his spending and saves for that future expense. He overestimates; it is better to spend too little than too much. The government creates uncertainty by proposing many, confusing, new and increased taxes.

The result is that Frank gets an extra $100 in business. Jiim reduces his consumption spending by $100 or more, and instead buys safe investments. This does not improve the overall economy, but it does produce a different demand for goods, helping some businesses and hurting others. Unemployment rises as people must change jobs between businesses, and people must take jobs at lower salaries while they learn new skills.

Politicians arrange photo-opportunities with businesses that have government contracts. They don't advertise the many businesses that shrink or close because their sales have declined in a disrupted economy.

Politicians point to improved businesses and call for increased stimulus spending to stop layoffs at other businesses. This is clueless.

Creating Money

The government can "create the moneyClick/Return for detail below. All money is created by the Federal Reserve Bank. The government usually gets to spend it first." and seem to take value magically out of the air. The government first raises taxes and borrows, but that doesn't satisfy its desire to spend.

Creating more money causes all money to lose some value through "inflation". Prices go up as store owners notice they are selling all of their goods on hand. They raise prices following price increases by their suppliers. They wonder where the extra demand (money) is coming from, and why supplies do not increase to meet that demand. The answer is that government is increasing demand without producing much to increase available supplies.

This steals value silently from everyone with a job or a bank account, and it falls more heavily on the lower and middle classes. Their wages fall behind inflation and their savings are more in cash, bank certificates of deposit, and bonds, which lose value as prices go up.

So, Frank happily spends or saves an extra $100, and $100 is silently skimmed from the value of all money. The transfer of value is like a tax, but the result is more negative due to business uncertainties and dislocations.

Some business owners see increasing sales, and wonder if they are from a better economy (more production all around) or from inflation. Other businesses suffer as their customers buy different goods. Some people save more as they see prices going up, or possibly spend more to beat future price increases. Business becomes less predictable.

Notice that the government properly considers counterfeiting to be a serious crime. But, politicians call it "fiscal policy" when they create money out of thin air and spend it to promote projects for their supporters.


People are productive because they have knowledge and tools, personally or through their employer. A person needs a hammer to build a house, and a power-nailer builds faster and at lower cost. A small shop can make a few hammers. It takes a large factory to make many hammers and power-nailers, and much effort to work out ways to make them better, safer, more durable, and cost less over time.

There is a big risk in building a factory, and many lose money. Sometimes, the owners become rich through knowledge, planning, management, and some luck. It is fascinating that these people become despised as "the rich", when their wealth comes mostly from practical achievements that help others to a productive and comfortable life.

Progressive tax rates04/2009 - Easy Opinions
  A comparison of the 2006 tax rates and total tax contributions by adjusted gross income.
take more money from high earners as a percentage of their income. The idea of a stimulus extends the idea that the rich should pay more of their lazy money to others who will spend it and create a growing economy.

Here is the problem. The rich are the major investors in companies, and so in factories. Money taken from them does not get to those investments. Instead, it goes to Frank, who buys more consumer goods or invests more conservatively in bank accounts. Investment that would create jobs is drained away to create some overtime for current workers.

"Soak the rich" is bad policy.

  • High productivity produces most high incomes. There is no moral basis for taking a higher percentage of that money from the people who have earned it; they aren't bank robbers. The government is acting like a bank robber, taking money from those who have it, as pure politics and power.
  • Taking that money removes it from the people who have the most judgment and ability to bear the risk of building new companies. The government is much worse at this.
  • "Soak the rich" puts the non-rich out of work or reduces their incomes. That isn't a good tradeoff.

Large Incomes, Skill, and Luck

You may think the rich are partly lucky, so they shouldn't keep all of their money. Do you also think that lottery winners should split their winnings? They are 100% lucky, and do much less to produce a productive society.

Successful actors and athletes are admired because their abilities are on direct display. We like watching them, and we understand the basis for their incomes, even if there is some luck involved. We don't yell at them to take less money, because we understand that they are worth it. They would not have put in long years of training and sacrifice if they didn't have a chance to make it big.

The skills of successful businessmen/women are not directly on display. But, we can see that they produce products and they create jobs to make those products. Products and jobs provide for better lives. Yet, people are easily angered by the large incomes of some businessmen. We should understand that, like athletes, they are worth it. They would not have put in long years of training and personal risk if they didn't have a chance to make it big.


Spending, Paying Debts, and Saving

We hear that 70% of the economy is consumer spending. The quick reaction is to 03/2009 - EasyOpinions: Cargo Cult Economics
 Government sees that people spend more during prosperous times, and wrongly concludes that higher spending causes prosperity
 I get it. People use umbrellas when it rains, so using umbrellas causes it to rain.
do something, anything, to increase this spending
. Government tells us that spending is good and saving is bad.

This has now moved to the strange idea that if the public won't spend enough, then the government will do it for them. This is the idea that the government can spend its way to our prosperity, taxing along the way.

Actually, paying debts, saving, and investing are all types of spending.

  • Paying debts is the completion of past spending. If spending is good for the economy, the debtor has already done his part. Paying off the debt prepares for future spending. Not paying the debt would cause economic disruption.
  • Saving lends money to a bank, which supports spending by other people. Credit card debt supports consumer spending. Housing and car loans support buying those durable goods. Loans to businesses help them produce more.
  • Investing is a high-powered use of resources at a higher risk. Investing directly supports new businesses, major business expansion, and the creation of jobs.

The amount spent on each of these is a personal decision. The "economy" is there to serve the individual, not the reverse. People should acquire the goods, savings, and investments that they understand and can support with their earnings.

Would it help the "economy" if the government forced you to take 10% of your savings and spend it on something? Only in the sense that "consumer spending" would go up. It would hurt you personally because it would disrupt your plans.

If you are saving money rather than buying a new car or a vacation trip, it is because you want the option of buying something more important in the future, maybe food and rent.

Go back

Creating Money

Is Money Worth Anything?

All U.S. dollars are printed or electronically distributed by the Fed, the United States Federal Reserve Banks. The Fed runs the U.S. Mint to print currency and stamp coins. It creates electronic money by sending authorizations to its member banks. Paper dollars are Federal Reserve Notes, literally small obligations of the Fed.

Each dollar is an obligation of the Fed to pay you a dollar. You are allowed to laugh at this. What does it mean to present a dollar to the government and be paid back that same dollar bill? Before 1935, the government would give you a definite amount of gold or silver, if you presented the dollar bill for payment. Since then, there is no obligation of the Government to give you anything for your dollar.

All dollars are created out of thin air, so why do they have any value?

  • There is an established market and price for trillions of dollars of real goods and services.
  • Dollars are defined by law as "legal tender". Any transaction can be valued in dollars for disposition by a court or for the collection of taxes.
  • The Federal Government levies taxes and you can use dollars to pay taxes.
  • The Federal Reserve has assets that are supposedly worth the dollars created.

There are trillions of dollars in private loans secured by tangible things, such as commodities, automobiles, and buildings. Some loans are secured only by future income, like credit card balances. All loans are obligations between people, and the supply of money represents these obligations, giving value to the money.


The Federal Reserve Banks can abuse their power to create money, so that all money loses some value.

Inflation results when the Fed loans money to the US Treasury, creating money, which the government spends, without a resulting increase in tax revenues that can pay back these loans. Inflation is the loss of value in the money supply from bad loans made to the US Treasury.

The longer explanation of inflation requires knowing how a good bank can create trustworthy, electronic or paper money. This will wait for another post.

Go back


The Federal Reserve
An overview of the structure and duties of the Federal Reserve.

Money Created Out of Thin Air
07/30/04 - Richard Benson, President Specialty Finance Group

[edited] Money is created in two ways. First, money creation comes from borrowing it and spending it. Second, it is simply printed up "out of thin air" by a central bank and used to buy something.

The Record of the Federal Reserve
07/24/09 - LewRockwell.com by Erik Voorhees

[edited] The Federal Reserve System is fraudulent. Its effective purpose is to create a mechanism of deficit spending by politicians, through invisible taxation by monetary inflation. The Government buys services for its voters with created money at current prices. The voter's money buys less the following year, as the new money raises prices, and they are none the wiser.

From 1776 to 1912 (136 years):

  • A dollar would buy 11% more consumer goods in 1912 than in 1776.
  • $1,110 in 1776 bought the same bundle of consumer goods as did $1,000 in 1912, for comparable goods.
  • The dollar was a stable and slightly increasing store of value. You gained a little if you put it under your mattress.

The United States Federal Reserve (the Fed) was created in 1913 to "conduct the nation's monetary policy in pursuit of full employment and stable prices". "Stable prices" means that a dollar should buy about the same amount of consumer goods over time.

From 1913 to 2008 (95 years):

  • A dollar would buy 95% less consumer goods in 2008 than in 1913.
  • $50 in 1913 bought the same bundle of consumer goods as $1,000 in 2008, for comparable goods.
  • The dollar slowly sank in value. You retained only 5% of its value if you put dollars under your mattress during that time.

Americans should feel outrage about this. Yet, they are not very upset, and the vast majority has no clue. Americans are educated in Government schools, which barely teach basic accounting, let alone monetary theory. In public school, I was forced to memorize the names of every African country. There was no discussion of the nature of money or the economic principles which caused political turmoil in Africa.

Keynes, Upside Down
02/02/09 - Richard Benson, President Specialty Finance Group

[edited] Too much borrowed money has left the private sector riddled with bankruptcy. Far too many loans were made on the probability of being refinanced, not on the ability to be repaid!

Bad loans could be refinanced into bigger bad loans while liquidity (willingness to lend) was flowing. Now, the refinancing has stopped. Millions of Americans and business owners are suffering and can't face the music.

Too many loans (liquidity) were made to people who could not pay them back. This caused mass insolvency. How can more loans and public borrowing be sold as the cure? It is government double talk. They are calling this insolvency a "liquidity trap" so they can print fresh money without guilt.

Recipe for Economic Stagnation
07/21/09 - American Thinker by Andrew Foy and Brenton Stransky

[edited] John Maynard Keynes recommended government intervention. Milton Friedman recommended free markets and a predictable, boring economic policy.

The government followed Keynesian principles in response to the Great Depression. It created 15 agencies, increased spending by 220%, increased taxes by 68%, and increased the deficit to $24 billion.

Friedman proposed that government intervention prolonged the depression. His view has been validated over time. "Far from the depression being a failure of the free-enterprise system, it was a tragic failure of the government."

Cargo Cult Economics
03/2009 - EasyOpinions

Government economists see that people spend more during prosperous times, and wrongly conclude that higher spending causes prosperity.

I get it. People use umbrellas when it rains, so using umbrellas causes it to rain.

Let's Counterfeit Our Way to Wealth
02/2009 - EasyOpinions

The Obama team follows Keynesian economic principles. They claim that every dollar in government "stimulus" spending creates $1.50 in wealth.

The 1.5 wealth multiplier is part of the Keynesian myth that distributing money promotes a recovery. But, every dollar spent by government has to be collected as tax, sooner or later. Any money borrowed now takes resources now from some other, valuable use.

If the multiplier were true, then the government could license counterfeiting and we would all become rich. Actually, the government attitude toward printing money is very close to counterfeiting.

Banks Create Money
08/09/09 - Ingri Mayne - CyberEconomics

[edited] For several centuries now most money has been in the form of bank debt. A checking account is merely money that the bank owes you, and paper money represents something that the Federal Reserve System owes you. (Try to collect this debt from the Federal Reserve, though, and see what you get.)

The creation and destruction of money is the creation and destruction of bank debt.

Federal Reserve Ready To Buy Assets
07/29/09 - Telegraph Co UK - by James Quinn

[edited] The Fed may buy back U.S. Treasuries, support lending to small businesses, and support credit card and car loans. The Fed continues to buy large amounts of government-backed mortgage securities.

The Fed creates more money by buying assets. Usually, it limits itself to buying government debt, Treasury bonds. It is now directly buying other debt, such as bonds representing bundles of home loans (Mortgage Backed Securities).

If these debts are paid off, then the money created will not cause inflation. If not paid off, the losses show up as inflation, the decreased value of all money.

Google Search: Money Creation Inflation

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