Before engaging in political debate, it’s good to have a knowledge base built up to help your arguments. It is also helpful to challenge your presuppositions and make sure that you have a good foundation from which to build your positions. One of the issues that throws off both sides of the aisle is a basic lack of understanding when it comes to economic cycles. For example, without a good understanding of cycles someone would look at the Clinton economy and Bush economy and think that Bush had bad economic policy while Clinton had good economic policy. That is a simplistic understanding if you don’t factor in the cycles that played into their success and the difficulties they overcame.
To understand economic cycles, let’s start with a brief discussion of supply, demand, and equilibrium. Equilibrium is the price at which those who sell and those who buy come to agreement to the point where every product produced is sold and every buyer is satisfied. As you can imagine, equilibrium is more theoretical than practical. Whenever the market is not at equilibrium, there is a vacuum that drives economic decisions to produce more, seek alternatives, etc. For example, if you have five people buying and four bananas for sale, the price of bananas will go up until only the people who want the bananas enough to pay more will buy them.
In a free market society, producers will produce what consumers want and need at a price they are willing to pay. While the market finds it’s way towards this ideal, there is a vacuum between equilibrium price and surplus on one side or shortage on the other.
Economic growth and retraction occurs in this vacuum. When there is an oversupply, producers will cut back production to stabilize the price and bring it up. When there is a shortage, producers will find ways to produce more to take advantage of higher prices, which will drive the price down. This means economic growth or retraction. On the flip side, when prices are too high buyers will seek alternatives. When prices are too low, buyers will increase consumption. These also lead to economic growth, enrichment, and opportunity. When a pricey product is replaced by a better or lower cost product, this leads to the enrichment of the innovator and losses by those who previously had control over the market. This idea of self correction was the idea behind Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
Forces exterior to the free market can also have an effect. For example, if the government lowers taxes, that puts more money in the pocket of consumers and shifts the demand curve. That means they can buy more because they can afford higher prices. Equilibrium price goes up and producers produce more. When the government takes money out of the economy, the opposite happens. If there is a discovery of new sources of a product or commodity, for example the innovation of the shale industry, the supply curve shifts and prices go down.
Economic cycles happen as the vacuum in the supply and demand system flips from prices being too high to prices being too low, or when we go from shortages to surpluses in the market. We saw this with the housing market in 2006. Supply could not keep up with demand, so prices of real estate went up. There were winners, those who sold high, and losers, those who had to buy less house for their money. Then in 2008 we saw a reversal of fortunes. The winners were those picking up foreclosures and cheap houses off an oversupplied market, while the losers were those stuck in a house they couldn’t afford in the first place.
John Maynard Keynes believed the government could play a role in efficiently managing economic cycles. For example, he understood that deficit spending by the government artificially grew the economy. Higher taxes and less spending would slow down an overheating economy and soften the blow of a future crash. When Clinton left office, we were heading for a severe market correction caused by the tech bubble crash and 9/11. Bush, a Keynesian, cut taxes and increased spending to turn the economy around.
Some take it too far. Obama believed he could eliminate economic cycles through massive government stimulus and regulation. His theory actually worked. For nearly 8 years the natural economic cycle was suppressed. Unfortunately this was while we were due a recovery. Once Trump cut taxes and lifted thousands of burdensome regulations, the economy resumed it’s normal cycle by overcoming years of repressed growth.
Socialists, the most extreme of which are the Communists, believed that government could effectively control equilibrium prices by controlling supply. As a most egregious example, Communism determined exactly what a person needed and attempted to provide it. Unfortunately the government could not provide what it did not have, and without a free economic cycle there was no impetus outside of government force to cause people to produce. Eventually as resources run out and incentives are withheld, Communist systems beyond the tiniest scales will collapse.
More moderate Socialist systems such as Liberalism rely on marginal incentive by only seeking to control certain aspects of the economy. However, even in these modules of the economy, the loss of incentive to produce or value of the product is devastating. For example, in the education system Liberalism creates artificial demand. They do this by hiding the true cost of education from the consumer. As a result, the increase in demand produces a higher price point. The higher price point draws more suppliers into the market, but there is no economic impetus to produce a superior good. As a result, we have high cost education with a reduction in quality.
Every economic decision should be considered in light of how it affects the supply and demand dynamic. For example, allowing bankruptcy for student loans sounds great on paper. But when you do that, it means there will be an artificial increase in demand. The artificial increase causes the price of student loans, or the interest rate, to go up. Government control over interest rates causes suppliers to be artificially repressed which also puts pressure on prices to go up. When the government runs out of suppliers for a regulated product like student loans, the government must become the supplier in order to maintain the product. But government can’t just print student loan dollars without devaluing the dollar and crashing the economy. Someone has to pay. Now suddenly bankruptcy on student loans means taxpayers are being forced to subsidize a product regardless of demand. Consumers no longer have the freedom to choose whether or not to buy student loans; they are compelled to through taxes.
Libertarians tend to hold to Adam Smith’s view of the economy. Give consumers choice and liberty, and the economy will correct itself. If the government doesn’t build roads, consumers will demand roads and suppliers will build them. Bridges to nowhere won’t exist because there will be no demand for them. Those who cannot afford roads will invent alternatives.
Republicans and some of the most moderate Democrats hold to Keynesian economic models. Republicans tend to see tax cuts as the way to spur economic growth, while leaving the consumer with freedom to buy what they demand. Democrats look to spending increases to spur the economy. Stimulus and government programs inject dollars into the economy. The consumer buys what the government compels them to, such as healthcare, failed solar companies, and someone’s old “clunker” car.
In the extreme of Marxism, the government under the false guise of representing the “people”, seizes the means of production and controls supply and price regardless of consumer demand. In these models, most recently touted by Democratic Socialists, the government gives you what the government believes you need. Much like a slave, you receive food, shelter, government approved education, and government guaranteed income. And like a slave, you are required by the government to do your duty to the people by working, buying and supplying as the government sees fit. Those who do not fit within the system are eliminated from the system because there is no other way. This is why every Communist regime devolves into intense human rights abuse, and often genocide. In lesser extremes we see penalty taxes for refusing to buy and vilification of those who have untaxed means.
Every political question of economics should be viewed through the lens of supply and demand, and the validation of good policy should take into account where we sit in an economic cycle. Generally, the freer the market, the faster the growth, retraction, recovery cycle will go. But in the end, the most important thing is economic liberty for the consumer and the supplier. Liberty for the consumer creates an efficient market where people can choose to buy what they want and need. Liberty for the producer allows them to freely produce what consumers desire or create new products for lower prices that exceed consumer expectations. This is what creates wealth and consumer satisfaction throughout an entire economic system.