The problem isn’t overproduction; it’s malinvestment

Mr. Max Ehrendfreund, writing in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, believes that he has discovered something new: that the world is producing too much and doesn’t know what to do with it. His solution, of course, is to confiscate the overproduced products, such as oil and cotton, from its rightful owners and give it to the people who need it. This phony problem and its statist solution goes back at least as far at the 1930’s socialist calls for “production for use” vs. the hated capitalist concept of “production for profit“.


Mr. Ehrenfreund commiserates that a “surplus…challenges some basic principles of conventional economics…”. Ah, now we see why Mr. Ehrenfreund has a problem; he understands only “conventional economics”. Austrians have no such problem understanding why many commodities are currently in surplus. Our understanding of Austrian business cycle theory tells us that years of interest rate suppression by monetary authorities worldwide has disrupted the time structure of production; i.e., that artificially low interest rates have led entrepreneurs and their business partners to believe that sufficient resources exist for the profitable completion of longer term projects, such as increasing investment in oil and cotton production. Austrians do not contend that there cannot be a surplus of some goods. Of course, there can! But we know that a surplus of some goods means that there is a scarcity of others. Resources were “malinvested” in some projects instead of those more urgently desired by the public.


Here’s a rather humorous example.  A good friend was teaching in West Germany during the age of Tito, when he and his wife decided to vacation along Yugoslavia’s beautiful Adriatic coast. While there they tried in vain to find swimming accessories, like fins and masks, but shop after shop sold only one product. That one product? Panama hats! True story. So here is a good example of zero demand for Panama hats and a scarcity of swimming accessories in one of the most beautiful seaside vacation spots in the world. But these surpluses and scarcities are not always so obviously related. A surplus of oil and cotton may mean that there is a scarcity of millions of other goods that could otherwise have been produced.


The socialist dogma, to which Mr. Ehrenfeund seems to be enamored, blinds him to the concept that a successful economy does not need centralized control. In fact a successful economy needs no guidance at all, except the rational decisions of the owners of the means of production to put their resources to the most desired use. How do they know what that “most desired use” is? The price system tells them! A dynamic economy is controlled by millions upon millions of people making billions upon billions of decisions that are in constant flux. Manipulating the price of any factor of production, such as cotton prices, will cause disruptions. But our governments have done much worse than manipulate the price of a few major factors o f production; they have manipulated the price of money itself, the medium of exchange that is the lubricating and knowledge transmission device for ALL economic decisions.


So, Mr. Ehrendreund, brush up on your Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, Habeler, and Garrison. Your confusion will disappear to be replaced, no doubt, by exasperation that you ever could have harbored such silly notions as those you espouse in your article.

Patrick Barron

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