Betting everything that the casino will burn down

Harold Camping’s Family Radio warned its listeners to expect some unusually dramatic spring events:

By God’s grace and tremendous mercy, He is giving us advanced warning as to what He is about to do. On Judgment Day, May 21st, 2011, this 5-month period of horrible torment will begin for all the inhabitants of the earth. It will be on May 21st that God will raise up all the dead that have ever died from their graves. Earthquakes will ravage the whole world as the earth will no longer conceal its dead (Isaiah 26:21). People who died as saved individuals will experience the resurrection of their bodies and immediately leave this world to forever be with the Lord. Those who died unsaved will be raised up as well, but only to have their lifeless bodies scattered about the face of all the earth. Death will be everywhere.

Clearly, prediction can be a perilous business.

Yet, as Karl Popper noted with respect to scientific theories, falsifiable predictions also serve a valuable – even indispensable – purpose. Any model of reality that is able to make specific forecasts earns a credibility that vaguer ‘world-views’ are not entitled to, although at the price of radical vulnerability to devaluation, should its anticipations prove unfounded.

Much like Marxism, the Libertarianism of Austrian School economic theory combines historical expectations (of greater or lesser exactitude) with a core of philosophical, political, and even emotional commitment that is comparatively immunized against empirical refutation. Both Marxism and Austrolibertarianism are large, highly variegated ideologies, with complicated histories, expressing profound discontent with the dominant order of the modern world, and prone to utopian temptations. Both are (often indignant) moral-political doctrines extrapolated in very different ways from Lockean natural-law property rights (to one’s own body and its productive activity). Both attract a wide spectrum of followers, from sober scholars to wild-eyed revolutionary advocates, who see in the unfolding drama of history the possibility of definitive vindication (much as the faithful of millenarian theologies have always done, and – as the Camping case demonstrates – continue to do).

The Western roots of both Marxism and Austrolibertarianism reach down into Jewish redemptive eschatology and Greek tragedy (it is perhaps noteworthy that Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises shared intriguing biographical features, including highly-assimilated German-Jewish backgrounds, steeped in European high-culture). Statist-Capitalism is portrayed as the Satanic-Promethean antihero of an epic narrative, describing a sustained violation of justice that finds itself held accountable in a final apocalyptic moment giving meaning to history, and a seemingly unconstrained hubris that meets its eventual nemesis. The high is brought low, through a crisis whose mere prospect offers overwhelming psychological satisfaction, and thus extraordinary emotional attachment.

Since the 1980s, Marxism has tended to retreat from the predictive mode. Its enthusiasts no doubt remain committed to the prospect of a terminal crisis of capitalism, perhaps even an imminent one, but Marxist prophecy seems timorous and uncertain today, even under conditions of unusual global economic dislocation. The Austrolibertarians, on the other hand, are being drawn out onto a prophetic branch – possibly despite themselves – with incalculable consequences for their future credibility. Their fundamental assumption, that governments are by essence incompetent and unqualified to run the monetary systems required by advanced economies, leads them to an almost inescapable conclusion: hyperinflation.

Hyperinflation might be the sole economic example of a true singularity: a hyperbolic approach to infinity (in finite time), producing a punctual discontinuity. When hyperinflation strikes, it escalates rapidly towards a hard limit, where money dies. In the economic sphere, it is the unsurpassable example of regime incompetence. How could Austrolibertarians – whose apocalyptic inclinations are matched only by their disdain for political authority – not be irresistibly attracted to it?

John Williams’ Shadow Government Statistics blog is not easily characterized as hardcore Austrolibertarian site (Williams describes himself as a “conservative Republican with a libertarian bent”), but the prognosis outlined carefully in its Hyperinflation Special Report (2011) exemplifies the tendency to predict imminent nemesis for command-control monetary policy. Williams subscribes wholeheartedly to the Austrian certitude that ‘kicking the can’ (up the road) – the central feature of Keynesian macroeconomic policy – guarantees eventual catastrophe, and ‘eventual’ just got a whole lot closer. Nemesis is coming due.

Both the federal government and the Federal Reserve have demonstrated that they will not tolerate a systemic collapse and a great deflation, as seen during the Great Depression. … those risks are being fought, and will be fought, at any cost that can be covered by the unlimited creation of new money. It was a devil’s choice, but the choice has been made. Extreme systemic interventions, and formal measures to debase the U.S. dollar through the effective unlimited creation of money to cover systemic needs and the government’s obligations, pushed the timing of a systemic collapse — threatened in September 2008 — several years into the future. The cost of instant salvation, though, was inflation. Eventual systemic collapse is unavoidable at this point, but it will be in a hyperinflationary great depression, instead of a deflationary one.

Williams isn’t afraid to lock down some dates, with 2014 proposed as the outer limit of possibility – and sooner is likelier:

At present, it is the Obama Administration that has to look at abandoning the debt standard (hyperinflation) and starting fresh. Yet, the Administration and many in Congress have taken recent actions suggestive of hoping only to push off the day of reckoning for the economic and systemic solvency crises until after the 2012 presidential election. They do not have that time.

As he elaborates:

Actions already taken to contain the systemic solvency crisis and to stimulate the economy (which have not worked), plus what should be renewed devastating impact of unexpected ongoing economic contraction on tax revenues, have set the stage for a much earlier crisis. Risks are high for the hyperinflation beginning to break in the months ahead; it likely cannot be avoided beyond 2014; it already may be beginning to unfold.

It is in this environment of rapid fiscal deterioration and related massive funding needs that the U.S. dollar remains open to a rapid and massive decline, along with a dumping of domestic- and foreign-held U.S. Treasuries. The Federal Reserve would be forced to monetize further significant sums of Treasury debt, triggering the early phases of a monetary inflation.

Under such circumstances, current multi-trillion dollar deficits would feed rapidly into a vicious, self-feeding cycle of currency debasement and hyperinflation. With the economy already in depression, hyperinflation kicking in quickly would push the economy into a great depression, since disruptions from uncontained inflation are likely to bring normal commercial activity to a halt.

What happens next is anyone’s speculation.

The hyperinflationary destruction of the world’s reserve currency would be a decisive event. The mere possibility of such an occurrence divides the set of potential futures between two tracks. On one, in which the US Dollar (FRN) survives, Austrolibertarian alarmism is humiliated, the economic competence of the US government is – broadly speaking – confirmed, and the principles of fiat currency production and central banking are reinforced, along with their natural supporters among neo-Keynesian anti-deflationary macroeconomists. On the other, the Austrolibertarians dance in the ashes of the dollar, precious metals replace fiat paper, central banks come under withering political attack, and the economic role of government in general is subjected to a major onslaught by energized free-marketeers. At least, that’s what a just universe, or a fair bet, would look like.

Betting on a just universe could be the big mistake, however – and that’s a temptation the morally-charged Austrolibertarian grand narrative finds hard to avoid. In a morally indifferent universe, Nemesis is non-redemptive, and the entire bet is an inverse Pascal’s wager, with downside on every side. Make a brave prediction of hyperinflation, and you either lose, or you lose – gloating neo-Keynesians, greater indebtedness, and fatter government on the one hand, or some yet unconsolidated species of neo-totalitarian horror on the other. (It’s noteworthy that a tour through the history of post-hyperinflationary regimes doesn’t pass through many examples of laissez-faire commercial republics.)

So is the dollar going to die? — Quite possibly. Then things could really turn nasty – more Harold Camping than Ludwig von Mises: “lifeless bodies scattered about the face of all the earth. Death will be everywhere.”


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