Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Plutonium Standard.

Free Exchange, one of the Economist's bloggers, speculates today on the value of the U.S. Government as a venture capitalist, and comes down in favor, with significant caveats.  The one that grabbed my interest was:
"... it might make sense for America's government to ... support innovation while also being a very bad idea for [nations like] Belgium or ... Mexico. Why? Well the "extraordinary privilege/burden" afforded America by its control of the world's favourite currency and safe asset means that the dollar is always going to be a bit too strong and foreigners are always going to be lending American money a bit too cheaply. That status places American exporters at a slight disadvantage (except in knowledge industries where trade costs are negligible) and means that in the absence of government borrowing cheap loans may flow to less productive investments in stuff like empty exurban homes. It makes sense, then, for America to plow a lot of money into research activities that may boost long-run growth, helping to keep it attractive as controller of the currency/safe-asset of first resort."
This is a less perceptive point than it first appears to be -- the salutary effects of national debt are many, as Alexander Hamilton argued.  Rather than liquidate the national debt, Hamilton recommended bonds be issued and repaid to promote their exchange as legal tender, equivalent in value to hard currency, which allowed the government to increase the money supply and stimulate investment, which in turn increased revenue. Alexander Hamilton didn't argue that such government borrowing can also reduce speculative or inflationary economic activity through upward pressure on interest rates, which is what this blogger's arguing for here. The unstated assumption is that the government allocation of capital might be more efficient at the margin than privately directed investment, a point one or two people might argue with.

But the columnist does finish well, at least analytically speaking:
...  the unique role of America's military as chief guarantor of the public good that is international peace also shines a (generally) more favourable light on investment in technologies ..."
This is the "plutonium standard" argument. America's near-overwhelming military power means that investors have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. Government, and that power has been built on technological innovation.  Instead of an economy based on a gold standard, it is ideas and innovation that the dollar (and ultimately, the American economy) is built upon, which inclines me to agree with the blogger, who argues it is "hard to regret big government investments in technology despite the frequent emergence of waste and failure."