Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Murray N. Rothbard on forecasters and the Kondratieff Cycle (1984 article)

At the end of Sprott’s latest commentary, they mentioned the Kondratieff Cycles, which I had never heard of. When I searched for more information, I came across a 1984 article from Murray Rothbard that discussed the topic and that I thought was interesting, although I enjoyed his comments about forecasters - in which he uses one of Munger's favorite words, "twaddle" - more than the comments about the Kondratieff Cycle. Some excerpts and a link to the article are below.


In the same way, the astrologers fudge on their predictions. If you are a Pisces, they will proclaim that you are a mystic, who loves water. If you say, "You're right," they will smile triumphantly upon this confirmation of their analysis. But if you say, "Wrong. I'm a skeptic who hates water," they'll say, "Ahh, that's because your Jupiter is rising, and you're fighting your stars," or some such twaddle. The key point is that, with any guru worth his salt, there is no way ever to prove him wrong. He will always come up with the fudge factor. And, it should be clear to the wise that a prediction that somehow can never be proved wrong is worth far less than the paper it is printed on.

Furthermore, when anyone spends a lot of time predicting, on whatever grounds, once in a while some of these forecasts are bound to be proved right, just by chance. And so, in the world of economic as well as astrological forecasting, the soothsayers trumpet any successes they may have ("I predicted . . . !") while quietly burying their mistakes.


It should be recognized that most business-cycle theories – Keynesian, Marxist, Friedmanite, or whatever – and remedies are grounded in the assumption that the cycle stems from some deep flaw in the free-market economy. But if micro-theory is correct, then it must apply to the "macro" sphere as well. The economy is not some entity split between a micro and macro half; it is a seamless web, inextricably linked together by the use of money and the price system. Therefore, whatever applies to one part of it must apply to all. The explanation for business cycles must somehow be integrated with the explanation of the micro-economy.

The Cycles Multiply

One of the worst things about the "business cycle" is its name. For somehow the name "cycle" caught on, with its implication that the wave-like movement of business is strictly periodic, like the cycles of astronomy or biology. An enormous amount of error would have been avoided if economists had simply used the term "business fluctuations." For man is all too prone to leap to the belief that economic fluctuations are strictly periodic and can therefore be predicted with pinpoint accuracy. The fact is, however, that these waves are in no sense periodic; they last for few years, and the "'few" can stretch or contract from one wave to the next. The periodic notion was unfortunately fed by the fact that the early panics seemed to be ten years apart: 1837, 1847, 1857, but pretty soon that periodicity broke down.

At that point, those who had made their reputations as forecasters of the cycle had two options: they could have simply given up the idea of periodicity. But that would have detracted from their aura of omniscience. And so, many of them introduced the first big fudge factor: the idea that cycles, despite appearances, are still strictly periodic, except that there are several mystical cycles all occurring simultaneously beneath the data, and that if you manipulated the data long enough, you could find these simultaneous, parallel, strictly periodic cycles, all going on at the same time. The apparently non-periodic data are only the random result of the interactions of the strictly periodic cycles.

This doctrine is mystic for two basic reasons. In the first place, very much like the "epicycles" of the Ptolemaic astronomers who fought against the Copernican Revolution, there is no way ever to prove the cycles wrong. If the cycles don't fit the facts, you can always conjure up one or two more "cycles" so as to make a perfect fit. Note that the fit has to keep changing in order to adapt to the new data that are always coming in. More epicycles get folded into the data. Secondly, as we noted above, the market is a seamless web. All facets of the market are interconnected through the price system, and the profit-and-loss motive. Booms and busts spread throughout the system; that is precisely why they are important. It is absurd to think that one part of the economy can peg along on a nine-year cycle, another on a three-year cycle, and still another on a 25-year cycle, with each of these cycles barreling along on a hermetically sealed track, not influencing and modifying each other. In fact, there can only be one real cycle going on in the economy at any one time.


Why Business Cycles?

If "the Kondratieff cycle" is a myth and a chimera, why are there business cycles at all? There is no space here to present a positive solution to the business-cycle phenomenon. But we have already seen (1) that since the market is interrelated and a seamless web, there can be no multiple "underlying" and interacting cycles; there is only one business cycle. And (2) the real business cycle is in no sense periodic, but is a continuing, wave-like motion that varies considerably in length and intensity.

We can only sum up the correct answer to the problem of the business cycle. We have already seen a hint of the solution: that inflation and the inflationary boom are caused by bank credit expansion generated by governments. In fact, government's central banking system provides the key causal element for all business cycles, a cause exogenous to the market economy. Continuing government intervention sets in motion business cycles by generating inflationary booms. Because these booms distort the signals of the market place in interest rates and in relative prices they bring about grave distortions of production and prices, which must be corrected by recessions and depressions.

In short, government intervention cripples the market economy, and recession or depression is the painful but necessary adjustment by which the market reasserts itself, and liquidates the distortions committed by the government's inflationary boom. After each depression, the government generates inflation once again, because it is the government's natural tendency to inflate. Why? Quite simply, whoever is granted a monopoly of printing money (e.g., the Fed, the Bank of England) will use that monopoly and print – to finance government deficits, or to subsidize favored economic groups. Power will tend to be used, and the power to create money out of thin air is no exception to the rule.

And so we see – and this is the great insight of the "Austrian" theory of the trade cycle – that micro and macro economics are in harmony after all. The free market does tend to adjust harmoniously without boom and bust, without incurring clusters of severe business losses. It is government intervention in the market that creates the business cycle, and unfortunately makes the corrective adjustment of recessions necessary. The cause of the boom-bust cycle is not some mystical periodic Force to which man must bend his will; the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Link to Article


Related previous post: Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure - by Murray N. Rothbard