Politics & Policy

Signs of the Times

There is no free lunch -- and the biggest price of all is paid by the unemployed.

If you could spend vast amounts of other people’s money just by saying a few magic words, wouldn’t you be tempted to do it? Barack Obama has spent hundreds of billions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money just by using the magic words “stimulus” and “jobs.”

It doesn’t matter politically that the stimulus is not actually stimulating and that the unemployment rate remains up near double-digit levels, despite all the spending and all the rhetoric about jobs. And of course nothing negative will ever matter to those who are part of the Obama cult, including many in the media.

#ad#But, for the rest of us, there is a lot to think about in the economic disaster that we are in.

Not only has all the runaway spending and rapid escalation of the deficit to record levels failed to make any real headway in reducing unemployment, but all this money pumped into the economy has also failed to produce inflation. The latter is a good thing in itself, but its implications are sobering.

How can you pour trillions of dollars into the economy and not even see the price level go up significantly? Economists have long known that it is not just the amount of money, but also the speed with which it circulates, that affects the price level.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the velocity of circulation of money in the American economy had plummeted to its lowest level in half a century. Money that people don’t spend does not cause inflation. It also does not stimulate the economy.

The current issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a feature article about businesses that are just holding onto huge sums of money. They say, for example, that the pharmaceutical company Pfizer is holding on to $26 billion. If so, there should not be any great mystery as to why Pfizer doesn’t invest it.

With the Obama administration being on an anti-business kick, boasting of putting its foot on some business’s neck, and the president talking about putting his foot on another part of the anatomy — and with Congress coming up with more and more red tape, more mandates, and more heavy-handed interventions in businesses — would you risk $26 billion that you might not even be able to get back, much less make any money on the deal?

Pfizer is not unique. Banks have cut back on lending, despite all the billions of dollars that were dumped into them in the name of “stimulus.” Consumers have also cut back on spending.

For the first time, more gold is being bought as an investment to be held as a hedge against a currently non-existent inflation than is being bought by the makers of jewelry. There may not be any inflation now, but eventually that money is going to start moving, and so will the price level.

Despite a big decline in the amount of gold used to make jewelry, the demand for gold as an investment has risen so steeply as to more than make up for the reduced demand for gold jewelry, and has in fact pushed the price of gold to record high levels.

What does all this say? That businesses don’t know what to expect next from this administration, which seldom lets a month go by without some new anti-business law, policy, or rhetoric.

When you hire people in this environment, you know what you have agreed to pay them and what additional costs there may be for their health insurance or other benefits. But you have no way of knowing what additional costs the politicians in Washington are going to impose, when they are constantly coming up with new, bright ideas for imposing more mandates on business.

One of the little-noticed signs of what is going on has been the increase in the employment of temporary workers. Businesses have been increasingly meeting their need for labor by hiring temporary workers and working their existing employees overtime, instead of hiring new people.

Why? Because temporary workers usually don’t get health insurance or other benefits, and working existing employees overtime doesn’t add to the cost of their benefits.

There is no free lunch — and the biggest price of all is paid by people who are unemployed because politicians cannot leave the economy alone to recover, as the American economy has repeatedly recovered faster when left alone than when politicians decided that they have to “do something.”

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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