Saturday, June 28, 2008

The anti-captalistic mentality 

After a week of debate where it appeared the saner members of Congress would keep their colleagues from looking like fools, the House passed HR 6377 just before leaving on Fourth of July recess last night, instructing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to "curb immediately the role of excessive speculation" in energy futures or swaps and
(2) eliminate excessive speculation, price distortion, sudden or unreasonable fluctuations or unwarranted changes in prices, or other unlawful activity that is causing major market disturbances that prevent the market from accurately reflecting the forces of supply and demand for energy commodities.
The bill, introduced by Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson, passed overwhelmingly, with only 19 nays. I've already written this week about speculation, but some further comments seem justified.

Congress has heard lots of testimony from 'experts' contending that the price of gas would fall to $2 if we could just get those nasty speculators out of the market. The testimony most have focused on is that at the top of the article, by Michael Masters. Here that is. The focus is on index speculators, who are now buying futures contracts almost equal to the entire increase in demand for oil from China. This however does not reduce the supply of oil unless someone takes delivery of the contract. Krugman hints at this very same point; see also Craig Jones. Most futures contracts are going to be closed out by writing the opposite contract as one reaches expiration. (Futures basics.) You might keep your long position by buying another future, but that does not remove oil from supply.

Now that doesn't mean that the price isn't influenced by what is going on in futures markets. Prices have been rising in part by expectations of the future, but it was ever thus since the beginning of asset trading. The key question is, at what point does speculation become excessive? And the reaction of politicians and everyday people, in my view, is emotional rather than economic. Excessive speculation occurs, in the mind of the non-economist or Congressperson, when the price of X is driven beyond the point where he or she can afford to own it. To take just one example: A St. Cloud resident is a Green Bay Packers fan. He owns season tickets to Packer home games. He does not use these often, instead selling them for above face value. Is he a speculator? When I ask him why he still gets the tickets, he hopes some day to return to the Land of the Cheese and attend all the games when he retires. He thinks the price will be higher for him to go to games when he returns than it is now, so he is hoarding his spot in the season ticket queue.

He is preventing others from holding that ticket, and therefore is helping drive up prices now. Unlike the index speculators, he actually HAS THE TICKET. But is his speculation excessive, or is it rational? You don't know, I don't know, and the government regulators don't know.

This does not prevent, unfortunately, government from acting as if they did. Sometimes arrogance is a disguise for ignorance, and as a good example this week consider Tim Walz' antipathy to markets, as Andy Aplikowski documents. He quotes a Rochester Post-Bulletin article in which Walz denies the market.
This idea � this red herring � that all of a sudden you�re going to drill and everything is going to be better, as if the market fundamentals are at work here � that�s not happening... These are the same people that are (getting) $40 billion in profit.
"As if" Walz believes profits do NOT motivate drilling. What do you think they do it for, to drop the rocks they drill in the ocean to watch the ripples? There is, in the Walz mentality, a suspicion that people who earned a profit got this from someone, that it's undeserved. For many years we've understood profits as the return to risk born by the residual claimant, the entrepreneur. But instead we get people who believe corporations are reprobates less worthy of our trust than a government that has a monopoly on force.

But that's not the point either. There's no need to believe the government is more immoral than corporations. There's little argument from either side of this debate that corporations are quite willing to co-opt or corrupt government to do their bidding, or that it's easier for them to do so than the hordes of consumers. It is that Walz and the others in Congress do not comprehend how the wealth we live in today came from. In the book with the title that I made this post, Ludwig von Mises stated this well:

Economics is so different from the natural sciences and technology on the one hand, and history and jurisprudence on the other hand, that it seems strange and repulsive to the beginner. Its heuristic singularity is viewed with suspicion by those whose research work is performed in laboratories or in archives and libraries. Its epistemological singularity appears nonsensical to the narrow-minded fanatics of posi�tivism. People would like to find in an economics book knowledge that perfectly fits into their preconceived image of what economics ought to be, viz., a discipline shaped according to the logical structure of physics or of biology. They are bewildered and desist from seriously grappling with problems the analysis of which requires an unwonted mental exertion.

The result of this ignorance is that people ascribe all improvements in economic conditions to the progress of the natural sciences and technology. As they see it, there prevails in the course of human history a self-acting tendency toward progressing advancement of the experimental natural sciences and their application to the solution of technological problems. This tendency is irresistible, it is inherent in the destiny of mankind, and its operation takes effect whatever the political and economic organization of society may be. As they see it, the unprecedented technological improvements of the last two hundred years were not caused or furthered by the economic policies of the age. They were not an achievement of classical liberalism, free trade, laissez faire and capitalism. They will therefore go on under any other system of society�s economic organization.

And thus there is no check on the ability of people to vilify speculators, because of course the oil can be brought to market in any number of ways! It occurs to me that people do not know what the world was like before the Industrial Revolution (or perhaps they want to go back to those halcyon days?) and how recent our gains against disease and starvation and the Malthusian world. Anthony de Jasay writes about how the modern progressive glorifies envy by its ignorance of these gains on the subsistence level:
Most of us react to the decency or otherwise of large incomes and quickly made fortunes by moral reflexes that evolved under the capitalism of a generation or two ago. They have not yet been adjusted to the changes capitalism has since undergone. One such change is the flood tide of pension funds in the Anglo-American type of capitalism which, after all, sets the mode of operation the rest of the world is beginning to imitate. The needs of pension funds and the competition between their managers sets the maximisation of asset values as the primary goal, and the more classic goal of profit maximisation by corporate enterprise tends to become a mere instrument of the primary goal. Socialists whose rejection of the "system" is visceral rather than intellectual, call this "Casino capitalism," run by and for "speculators".
It is that same visceral reaction that lead 402 Congresspersons yesterday to cast aside the gains that result from finding more ways to spread risk in the world to those willing to bear them, gains that allow pensions, homeownership, life insurance, and the development of new technologies -- the very ones the modern progressive says we should trust instead to give us energy rather than tapping the oil deposits we already know exist. Ignorance of that history is a peril to us all.

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