Almost anyone who follows social media is familiar with the latest tweets by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has pronounced her verdict on higher food and gasoline prices: they are nothing less than the result of corporate greed. In fact, according to Warren, there is no inflation, only corporations arbitrarily raising prices in their relentless pursuit of … profits.
In a November 21 interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Warren declared (later placed on Twitter):
Prices have gone up. Why? Because giant oil companies like Chevon and ExxonMobil enjoy doubling their profits. This isn’t about inflation. This is about price gouging for these guys and we need to call them out.
Three days later, she outdid herself, declaring:
Wondering why your Thanksgiving groceries cost more this year? It’s because greedy corporations are charging Americans extra just to keep their stock prices high. This is outrageous.
To those familiar with Warren and her previous economic pronouncements, none of this is surprising. A decade ago, she declared that entrepreneurial successes are due to the government, not any decisions that entrepreneurs might have made, and her record in the US Senate speaks volumes to her economic illiteracy. That she should claim that all businesses have to do to increase profits is to raise prices is proof to her intellectual bankruptcy.
Despite the title, however, this article is not about Elizabeth Warren’s economic viewpoints. However, in her declaration that no doubt plays well with progressives, she makes a specific claim: firms that wish to increase their profits and stock values simply need to raise the prices of whatever they sell.
Warren’s claim raises an obvious question: If higher prices always lead to greater profits, why would any business owner pass up the chance for greater profitability? In fact, if high profits are tied directly to higher prices, then one would expect a cottage industry to spring up of class action law firms suing corporations for lowering their prices, since any firm is free to increase its profits at will. Doing anything less is dereliction of duty to shareholders.
Not that I regularly follow Warren’s Twitter decrees, but I doubt seriously that she ever has praised any businesses when they lower their prices (oil companies often lower prices, not to mention technology firms). Since lower prices do not fit into Warren’s progressive narratives, it is doubtful that she even notices when that happens, and if we are to take her latest statements seriously, then we would have to believe that such an event could not happen because no profit-maximizing firm ever would impose losses upon itself when they are fully aware of a profitable alternative strategy.
There are a number of fallacies in Warren’s antimarket missives, and I shall examine them from the Austrian viewpoint, specifically using Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State as the standard. I first look at her view of profits themselves.
Like many American progressives, Warren seems to interpret business profits as an extraction of wealth from the community at large. Rothbard wrote about what he called the “altruists” as condemning profits:
It is also peculiar that critics generally concentrate their fire on profits (“the profit motive”), and not on other market incomes such as wages. It is difficult to see any sense whatever in moral distinctions between these incomes.
Indeed, progressives like Warren see markets in a starkly different way than do Austrians such as Rothbard. To Warren, markets are violent, predatory entities with no more moral standing than the Roman arenas. Rothbard, not surprisingly, differs:
[C]ritics overlook the fact that the operation of the free market is vastly different from governmental action. When a government acts, individual critics are powerless to change the result. They can do so only if they can finally convince the rulers that their decision should be changed; this may take a long time or be totally impossible. On the free market, however, there is no final decision imposed by force; everyone is free to shape his own decisions and thereby significantly change the results of “the market.” In short, whoever feels that the market has been too cruel to certain entrepreneurs or to any other income receivers is perfectly free to set up an aid fund for him for depriving his fellowman of needed benefits. For the consistent altruist must face the fact that monetary income on the market reflects services to others, whereas psychic income is a purely personal, or “selfish,” gain.
Entrepreneurial profits, Rothbard notes, do not come about because of nefarious behavior on part of the producers, but rather the good judgment successful entrepreneurs make regarding the present price of key factors of production and the predicted value of final products these factors help create. Writes Rothbard:
What gave rise to this realized profit, this ex post profit fulfilling the producer’s ex ante expectations? The fact that the factors of production in this process were underpriced and undercapitalized—underpriced in so far as their unit services were bought, undercapitalized in so far as the factors were bought as wholes.
One can imagine Warren and other progressives replying: “Maybe that is true in a theoretically competitive market, but oil companies and big food companies are not entrepreneurs, but rather are monopolies that regularly manipulate the market to their advantage. Their markets are not competitive, so they are free to set whatever prices they want and name their own profits.”
While accusations of “market manipulation” by rapacious monopolies are common among progressives, identifying such actions of “manipulation” is difficult. The standard accusation is that these companies manage to keep supplies off the market, thus forcing up the prices of goods. The problem, of course, is identifying specific instances and also properly identifying scenarios in which such “manipulation” actually is possible.
Take fuel prices, for example. If oil and gas companies were to hold back supplies in order to gain temporary price increases, they quickly would have to release those confiscated supplies back into the market (forcing down prices), as there are no secret storage areas that these companies possess that would enable them to set aside the massive quantities of fuel needed to accomplish what Warren and other progressives accuse oil and gas firms of doing.
The only way fuel companies can make the kinds of windfall profits that Warren claims they are making is for them to experience either unanticipated surges in demand that overwhelm current supplies or for there to be external events that threaten future supplies and quickly increase the value of those present supplies. As I recently pointed out, the Joe Biden administration is attempting to cripple the oil and gas industries in the future in pursuit of its ill-advised green agenda, and one of the obvious effects of throwing down regulatory roadblocks and dangling criminal charges against fuel company executives for allegedly warming the earth is to ensure that future fuel supplies will be diminished. The upshot of such actions will be to force up the current prices of fuels. As I wrote in that article:
While some have called this “regulatory overreach,” there is nothing surprising or shocking about this. The Biden administration response to anything it can tie to “climate change” is going to be heavy-handed and expansive, especially since regulators now believe they have been near-divinely appointed to bring better weather to planet Earth.
The Biden administration’s actions have the effect of forcing up present prices because buyers know that the government’s attempts to cripple these industries will mean severely diminished supplies in the future. Such actions cause the value of current inventories to increase, which in the short term will boost industry profits. Since Warren openly supports the Green New Deal and other such measures, she is partly to blame for higher fuel prices even if she refused to admit she is part of the problem.
To further emphasize this point, I use Rothbard’s examples to compare the government’s attempts to reduce production of oil and gas with the actions of coffee firms in Latin America to burn part of the year’s harvest to enjoy higher present prices. He writes:
But is not monopolizing action a restriction of production, and is not this restriction a demonstrably antisocial act? Let us first take what would seem to be the worst possible case of such action: the actual destruction of part of a product by a cartel. This is done to take advantage of an inelastic demand curve and to raise the price to gain a greater monetary income for the whole group. We can visualize, for example, the case of a coffee cartel burning great quantities of coffee.
In the first place, such actions will surely occur very seldom. Actual destruction of its product is clearly a highly wasteful act, even for the cartel; it is obvious that the factors of production which the growers had expended in producing the coffee have been spent in vain. Clearly, the production of the total quantity of coffee itself has proved to be an error, and the burning of coffee is only the aftermath and reflection of the error. Yet, because of the uncertainty of the future, errors are often made. Man could labor and invest for years in the production of a good which, it may turn out, consumers hardly want at all. If, for example, consumers’ tastes had changed so that coffee would not be demanded by anyone, regardless of price, it would again have to be destroyed, with or without a cartel.
In the case of fuels, the oil and gas companies are not destroying present supplies or even hiding them in imaginary vaults. Instead, we have a government that does what it can to ensure that future supplies of these fuels will be less available and that firms are on notice that this particular president believes those companies should not even exist. And yet Warren and her colleagues are shocked, SHOCKED, that government-directed reduction of oil and gas supplies means higher present prices for consumers.
Furthermore, contra Warren, we should expect fuel and commodity prices to rise substantially during periods of deliberate government monetary debasement (better known as inflation), as commodities historically have had wider price swings during periods of inflation and deflation and are very sensitive to changes in the value of the dollar. The markets for commodities like oil and crops are some of the most competitive markets to be found anywhere.
Unfortunately, those that are most responsible for this current upswing in fuel and food prices are the same ones pointing blame elsewhere. Jacob Hornberger in his blog has noted that the Biden administration is taking a page from the Jimmy Carter administration more than forty years ago, which blamed higher prices on private enterprise. Hornberger writes:
According to an article in the Washington Post, Biden is “considering whether to escalate an attack on parts of corporate America over rising prices…. The administration would amplify criticisms of large firms in heavily concentrated industries for passing higher prices on to consumers as they benefit from high profits”
According to the article, “The White House took a step in this direction earlier this week, with Biden urging the Federal Trade Commission to escalate its investigation of anti-competitive behavior in the oil and gas industry, which the president alleged was leading to higher prices for drivers at the pump.”
Readers like me who were adults during that time might remember that many in Congress and the media were calling for full nationalization of the oil industry, and that progressives of that era claimed (as they do now) that oil markets were not subject to ordinary laws of economics. That we have seen these things disproven over the past four decades means little to political, media, and academic elites who spew the same economic nonsense as they did in the 1970s.
The explanations given by Austrians at that time, such as Murray Rothbard, still hold true today. We are seeing the natural results of massive monetary manipulation that dwarfs anything the Federal Reserve System and its government allies saw in the late 1970s and a new generation of progressives such as Elizabeth Warren are dusting off the old playbook and, with the help of elites of the mainstream media and academe, are spreading the old economic nonsense all the while destroying the fundamentals of a market economy. One likens them to the Bourbons of early nineteenth-century France after they were restored to power after the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleon years. The French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand wrote of them, “Ils n’ont rien appris, ni rien oublié.” They have learnt nothing, and forgotten nothing.
Author: William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Reprinted with permission of Mises Institute.