When Mainstream Economics Was Wrong, Mark Thornton Was Right

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[Foreword to Mark Thornton’s new book The Skyscraper Curse: And How Austrian Economists Predicted Every Major Economic Crisis of the Last Century (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2018).]

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, the economics profession suffered a blow to what reputation it had. But unlike most of his colleagues, Mark Thornton was vindicated by 2008. Mark has been a voice of sanity at times when the wild interventions of the Federal Reserve have caused otherwise sensible people to lose their minds.

One rule of thumb I’ve adopted is: whenever the idea that the business cycle may have been tamed forever starts to become mainstream, the bust is around the corner.

After reading this book, you’ll see why. Mark discusses the very different records of Irving Fisher and Ludwig von Mises in the 1920s, with the former saying (in late 1929!) that stock prices had reached a “permanently high plateau” and Mises warning that all the artificial credit creation of the world’s central banks meant a reckoning was coming.

At the end of the 1960s, presidential economic adviser Arthur Okun announced that wise fiscal and monetary policy was making boom and bust a thing of the past. One month after his book on the subject was released, the United States was officially in recession.

The dot-com bubble of the 1990s continued the pattern. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan even speculated that we had entered an age in which booms no longer necessarily had to be followed by busts.

I trust you know what happened next.

The most recent financial crisis, which was connected to an especially destructive housing bubble, yielded the same kind of crazy commentary: why, real estate prices never fall!

I trust you know what happened next.

In fact, Mark Thornton was one of a handful of economists to warn — as early as 2004 — of a housing bubble and its inevitable consequence. That was a lonely position to adopt in those days. Nobody wanted to hear the words “unsustainable” or “bubble” when buying multiple properties and sitting on them seemed to be a path to certain riches. Of course, Mark was the voice that would have done them the most good had they bothered to listen, because they might thereby have limited their exposure to the bust that was surely coming.

But when all so-called respectable voices are assuring everyone that all is well, it is the wise man who appears to be the crank.

Now had Mark been known for nothing more than being a conscientious historian of these earlier business cycles and an accurate prognosticator of the housing bust and financial crisis, that would be ample reason to respect him as a scholar worthy of our attention and respect.

But of course Mark has done much more than this. In this book, for instance, you will encounter Mark’s work on the so-called “skyscraper curse.” I shall not here disclose Mark’s thesis on the matter; the author of a foreword ought to know his place, and stealing the author’s thunder is rather unbecoming.

For now, I can say this: although a correlation between the setting of new skyscraper records on the one hand and plunges into recession on the other had been noted by certain writers, the connection had been generally dismissed as little more than a curious coincidence. Mark, on the other hand, has shown how the two phenomena are connected — not that tall skyscrapers cause the business cycle, of course, but rather that they embody numerous features of the boom period described by Austrian business cycle theory.

Austrian business cycle theory, in turn, is probably the most important piece of economic information and understanding for Americans and indeed the world to understand right now. Again I shall leave the full exposition to Mark. For now, what matters is that according to economists of the Austrian school, the familiar pattern of economic boom and bust is not an inherent feature of the market economy, but instead the product of intervention into the economy by the monetary authority. When the central bank lowers interest rates below what they would have reached on the market, it sets in motion a series of responses by investors and consumers that will prove to be incompatible. The result is the recession, which is the economy’s return to health: the economy’s unsustainable configuration is unwound, and resources (including labor) are reallocated to lines of production that make sense in terms of resource availability and consumer preferences.

In the pages that follow, Mark explains the theory, applies it to various historical (and present) cases, and rebuts the most common objections.

In short, this collection serves the valuable purpose of defending the market economy against the conventional view that freedom has failed us and we need still more controls. We had plenty of rules and bureaucrats on the eve of the financial crisis. A lot of good that did us. Pretty much none of them saw any problems on the horizon, and the sheafs of rules and regulations were aimed in the wrong direction: while the private sector operated in the equivalent of a Kafka novel, the Federal Reserve was able to carry out its mischief unimpeded.

Here’s a crazy thought: maybe this time we might consider a real free market, with sound money and market interest rates, and abolish the giant bubble machine once and for all. Read Mark Thornton and you’ll entertain this and other forbidden thoughts.

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