State Capitalism vs. The Free Market

A few days ago, Barry Ritholz published the results of a poll at the Big Picture detailing the public's support of the 'free market' in various countries as originally reported by The Economist.  You might ask why we have put the term free market into quotes. We do that because in our opinion, a great many people all over the world have acquired a warped conception about its meaning. Today, a form of fascism, which we often refer to as State Capitalism and which is also very well described by the term David Stockman prefers, crony capitalism, is unfortunately associated by many people with capitalism as such. This is highly deplorable, because free market capitalism is an entirely different form of economic organization. Modern-day state capitalism, which bestows privileges on certain groups by means of coercion and force exerted by the government is not to be confused with the free market, even though vestiges of the free market continue to exist alongside it (if that were not the case, the creation of wealth would have ceased altogether by now).

We should note as an aside here that there is nothing inherently bad about big business per se. After all, it is an undeniable fact that economies of scale allow for the production of numberless consumer goods at extremely affordable prices. Without big business organizations such economies of scale could not be realized. The production of affordable consumer goods for the masses is a major factor differentiating the living standard of modern civilization from the destitute conditions of the pre-industrial past. Many people that are nowadays considered 'poor' would in many ways have been deemed richer than kings in the eyes of observers from feudal pre-industrial revolution societies.

The problem is that once a business becomes big and entrenched, it immediately looks for ways to protect itself from the vicissitudes of the market – and the best method of curtailing the potential competition from upstarts is to make use of the apparatus of coercion provided by the State. One would normally think that the jungle of regulations, taxes and red tape that today smothers entrepreneurial initiative all over the so-called nominally 'capitalist' societies would be rejected by all businessmen. This is not the case. On the contrary, in the eyes of big business, the more stifling the regulatory strait-jacket, the better, as it keeps the 'barriers to entry' for upstarts impossibly high.

If one looks closely at so-called 'deregulation' – which was blamed by the mainstream media for the financial crisis with great, albeit undeserved, success  – it is almost never worth even calling it that. Somehow we are supposed to have gone through a period of 'deregulation', while concurrently the growth in the number of regulations and administrative laws issued by every single administrative body on the planet continued unmitigated, year-in, year-out. Has the sheer volume of regulations decreased anywhere, at any point in time over the past few decades? No, the exact opposite was the case. Now that this faux 'deregulation' has allegedly 'failed', the effort to issue enormous additional tracts of regulations has been redoubled everywhere. Not only is this a typical case of attempting to close the barn door long after the horse has escaped – something the Frank-Dodds monstrosity has in common with Sarbanes-Oxley, its costly and useless predecessor spurred into being by the previous 'emergency' and alleged 'market failure' – it is also a predictable extension of the state-capitalistic model, in that it simply adds even more market-stifling rules atop the huge mountain of existing ones. The result will not be a 'protection of consumers' but rather even less competition and hence higher prices for everyone. We would also note in this context, after wailing for nearly three years about how 'unfortunate' the concept of 'too big to fail' in the context of large and privileged banks was and is, the 'regulators' have left us with a bunch of banks  – bailed out at huge cost to tax payers, i.e. bailed out by people who had absolutely nothing to do with their failure – that are now even bigger than they were before.

The big banks are of course the quintessential state-capitalistic institutions, as they enjoy complete immunity from market forces, while being endowed with a privilege the profitability of which wildly exceeds that of any other such advantage granted by the modern State – namely the privilege of fractional reserve banking. They are the only market participants that can be absolutely certain of garnering obscene profits in boom times, while being able to fully socialize their losses when the inevitable bust strikes.

The fact is however that the media have sold the public on the idea that the crisis these institutions have been so intimately involved with is somehow representative of a 'free market failure'. The absurdity of this proposition should become immediately clear if one considers only a single point: the crisis was centered on mortgage finance. Mortgage finance in turn was and remains the most regulated and subsidized market sector. In other words, if the pro-interventionist camp were correct in its assertion that 'a lack of regulations' was the culprit to be fingered for producing the crisis, then this market sector should have been the least likely to lead to a crisis.

The fact that politicians, bureaucrats, the big business organizations in bed with them and the media have so successfully campaigned to blame the non-existent 'free market' for the failure of their interventionist state-capitalistic model has predictably led to growing disdain for the free market among the public – especially in nations where the bust has had the most severe effects.

Below is the chart published originally by the Economist magazine – click chart for higher resolution:





Here is another, more detailed chart, showing a bit more differentiation and the poll results from a greater number of countries:





What is perhaps the most surprising result of this poll is that support for the free market system is currently greatest in Germany. In part this can be explained by the fact that Germany is currently experiencing a boom that has brought unemployment to its lowest level since German reunification. It is in the nature of the public's warped perception of what the term 'free market economy' actually means that upswings are associated with its success, while busts are  associated with its failure. Politicians and the public intellectuals in support of statism will of course always blame economic busts on the free market – if they did not do that, they would have to question their entire raison d'etre. As we have noted on previous occasions, the market value of professional intellectuals is fairly low. Before the State began using them in support of its propaganda efforts, only the very best thinkers could hope to find someone willing to materially support them and thus give them the freedom to concentrate on their work. A radical supporter of individual liberty and the free market such as Ludwig von Mises, to whom countless people owe an enormous intellectual debt, could certainly not hope to be supported by the State when he came to the US in the early 1940's. Although he was a visiting professor at New York University from 1945 to 1969, he did not receive a salary. Instead, his work was supported by the businessman Lawrence Fertig, who recognized its immense value. 

Today, a plethora of mediocre intellectuals are in the state's employ. They will never bite the hand that feeds them. Instead they are furnishing the intellectual justifications for statism, which keeps them in bread and allows them to bask in the reflected glory of the ruling class. As an example, the Federal Reserve employs hundreds of economists churning out research papers that are mainly designed to keep the central bank blameless for the results of  its boom-bust cycle producing policies. Would they have a job if there were no central bank? The market economy sure doesn't need a central bank to function smoothly – the exact opposite is the case. However, similar to other bureaucracies, central banks use every opportunity that presents itself to enlarge themselves and amass more power.

The first economist to hop aboard this gravy train was J.M. Keynes, whose economic policy recommendations, as he himself admitted in the foreword to the German edition of the 'General Theory', can be best implemented 'under the conditions of a totalitarian State'. This should surely tell us something about the situation we find ourselves in today, as Keynesian policy prescriptions are nowadays implemented everywhere in the world – with the expected result of creating illusory recoveries that collapse in a heap as soon as deficit spending and money printing slow down again.  Of course we must expect that the failure of these policies will once again be ascribed to the mythical 'free market' by a sycophantic media and the State's courtier intellectuals.

Still, it is astounding that today, support for the free market is apparently the highest in Germany of all places. As a matter of fact, Germany is not exactly a haven of classical liberal thought. The degree of economic freedom in Germany is rather disconcertingly low. In elections, the authoritarian Left in the form of the Green Party has recently been extremely successful  – in some provinces and municipalities it is already the strongest political party. When watching debates on economic matters aired by German TV stations, we are often struck by the degree of economic illiteracy on display. Not only that, it appears that the basic tenets of the so-called 'third way' of the 'social market economy' are today mostly interpreted to mean that as much socialism as possible should be implemented. This is in marked contrast to how the father of Germany's social market economy, Ludwig Erhard, interpreted the term. Erhard, a member of the Mont Pelerin society,  was a proponent of economic liberalism and is rightly deemed to have been largely responsible for creating the conditions enabling the German post-war 'Wirtschaftswunder'. In today's Germany, social debate is generally not concerned with the merits of the free market at all – a lot of time and effort is however expended on discussing its alleged evils and how to best combat them. The fact that this is today the country in which support for the free market is deemed to be the highest in the world may therefore not really be cause for celebration, but rather cause for trepidation. It tells us something about the support the free market enjoys elsewhere in the world.

The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality Of The French

One poll result that certainly didn't surprise us was the lack of support for the free market in France. Although France was home to such eminent economic thinkers as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Jean-Babtiste Say and Frederic Bastiat, the France of today harbors a vicious anti-capitalistic mentality, even as the population is enjoying the fruits of capitalism as in every other modern industrialized nation. What the source of this mentality is we can not say, but we suspect it is only skin-deep, as no flood of French refugees has as of yet turned up at the borders of Stalinist North Korea.

A great many French intellectuals have been in support of Marxism in the past, and generally a large part of the French intelligentsia has been enamored with leftists and statist ideas, which may explain their popularity in France today. France has a vast bureaucracy and the power of the State is hardly questioned by anyone. Economic interventionism is held in high esteem and the French economy has consequently become sclerotic and is barely growing. As this example of France imposing price controls on e-books shows, state intervention in the economy down to even the micro-level is par for the course in France.

Economic illiteracy has apparently become so pervasive that it has even infected the nominally 'conservative' (and thus supposedly in support, at least lip service-wise, of free market ideals) government.

The French government is at the forefront of the current vilification campaign and witch hunt against 'evil commodity speculators' who are allegedly to be blamed for the rise of commodity prices. It is astonishing that a nominally capitalist country of the industrialized West recently needed to be lectured on the merits of price controls by Brazil and Argentina (Argentina itself  suffered from catastrophic shortages of basic commodities when ex-president Fernando Kirchner introduced price controls. The policy has since been abandoned). As we have noted previously, it is widely accepted by economists regardless of which economic theory they support that price controls can only lead to shortages. This can not only be irrefutably shown by sound economic theory, it is also a well established empirical fact. Price controls always fail. Price controls brought the economy of the Roman Empire to its knees when emperor Diocletian used them in an attempt  to mask the effects of his inflationary policy. And yet, politicians have implemented price control policies over and over again, in spite of the mountains of evidence documenting their failure.

As the 'China Post' reported in February:


“Brazil and Argentina came out Friday against a French proposal to be put to the G-20 to regulate commodity prices whose recent rises are blamed for a spike in food costs. “We have similar positions” on that and other issues, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said in a joint media conference with his Argentine counterpart, Amado Boudou, in Sao Paulo.

“If there's one thing that has to be done, it's encourage growth and production and not hinder it,” he said. Boudou said the two countries, both major commodity exporters, would present the united front in a G-20 finance meeting in Paris next Friday and Saturday.

France has said it plans to use its chair of the G-20 group of big developed and developing nations to push for commodity price regulation in a bid to block what it saw a speculation in the market of food crops such as grain and cereals.



(our emphasis)

It needs to be noted to this that one of the major reasons why the prices of grains have been exploding is the idiotic subsidization of ethanol production in Western nations. Using food to make petrol for cars has to be one of the most moronic policy initiatives yet to be implemented as a result of the phony 'global warming' scare (the world is cooling since 1998, and not a single one of the dire predictions the 'warmers' have made over the past 30 years has come to pass. None ever will).

Anyway, if the French proposal to limit speculative activity in grain markets were to be implemented, the world would likely soon face famines. There would be no surer way of creating food shortages.


Oil Market 'Manipulation'

With the exception of a handful of politicians in the US, foremost among them Ron Paul, we know of no politician who is squarely putting the blame for rising commodity prices where it belongs: namely the vast monetary expansion orchestrated by the world's central banks.

Instead of stopping the inflationary policy, politicians from US president Obama to French president Sarkozy instead prefer to blame 'speculators' and either devise trumped up charges against them or attempt to institute price controls as noted above. The recently filed suit against two traders for alleged 'oil price manipulation' seems laughable on its face.  86 million barrels of crude oil are used globally every single day. A much larger number of barrels changes hand in trading every single day. And we are supposed to believe that two single private traders were able to 'manipulate' this market? Note that the suit alleges that these traders bought both physical crude oil in storage as well as oil futures contracts. Later they sold oil futures contracts short and also sold the oil they held in storage. Their 'crime' seems to have been the success of this strategy. Where exactly does it say that any of these activities are illegal? This nonsense simply boggles the mind. As the SF Gate reports:


“In its lawsuit, the CFTC said the traders, who had no commercial need for crude oil, made the "economically irrational" move of holding their physical position to lull the market into believing that the oil had been stored or put to commercial use, with "the secret intent to surprise the market later" by dumping their position and driving prices back down.”



Really? It was an 'economically irrational move'? How are the bureaucrats to know what is and what isn't 'economically irrational'? As far as we recall, the market was very worried in late 2007/early 2008 that OPEC's dwindling spare capacity could lead to a shortage. We would note in this context that OPEC controls 40% of the global oil supply and is a cartel that has been formed with the explicit intention of manipulating the price of crude oil. It has consistently and utterly failed to do so  – but two private traders are supposedly able to do what OPEC hasn't been able to accomplish in decades?

We distinctly recall a conference call we held with an investment officer of an insurance company in early 2008. The IO asked us of our opinion of the crude oil market, specifically whether we had a price target in mind. Our reply was that while we were certainly not specialists on crude oil, we would argue for a 'technical target in the 140 region', and then added that even the extreme case of a fibonacci extension into the 160's could not be entirely ruled out. This assessment didn't require us to rely on two oil traders engaging in what the bureaucracy now alleges were 'economically irrational' trades. It only required us looking at a chart. Perhaps these oil traders did the same.

In fact, one of the accused is apparently quite perplexed over the charges and suggests that the US administration may have an ulterior motive for them. While this can not be proved, it certainly sounds more credible than the allegation that two traders managed to single-handedly 'manipulate' the biggest commodity market on the planet. As Reuters reports:


“A shipping magnate said a U.S. government lawsuit against his trading companies might be a bid to take revenge for oil major BP's oil spill last year by targeting former BP traders who now work for him.

John Fredriksen told Reuters his oil trading firms being sued by the U.S. government for suspected oil price manipulation, had done nothing illegal and their practices were no different from those of other major traders.

"Maybe the problem is that these guys (the traders) worked for BP and they made a lot of money for BP before," Fredriksen, looking relaxed but perplexed by the media attention directed at him in the past two days, told Reuters.

"Maybe they (U.S. authorities) are trying to get some revenge," said Fredriksen, referring to BP's deepwater accident in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

U.S. regulators on Tuesday launched one of the biggest ever crackdowns on oil price manipulation, suing two well-known traders and two trading firms owned by Fredriksen for allegedly making $50 million by squeezing markets.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission said traders James Dyer of Oklahoma's Parnon Energy and Nick Wildgoose of Europe-based Arcadia Energy, amassed large physical positions at a key U.S. trading hub to create the impression of tight supplies that would boost oil prices. Later they dumped those barrels back onto the market, causing prices to crash and racking up profits from short positions they had accrued in futures markets, the suit said.

Fredriksen said that what the traders had done was quite normal practice among oil traders.

"It is quite normal. It is the same for Glencore, and Vitol, and these other guys… It is nothing," he said adding he was "shocked" when he heard about the CFTC investigation.

"I did not know a thing about it — I have about 50 companies, how can I follow everything?," said Fredriksen, a self-made billionaire who started out as a messenger boy.

"Oil traders, they are supposed to buy and sell," Fredriksen said. "I don't think it is illegal but I am not an expert on oil trading, so I don't see the problem."

"It is a normal situation for oil traders… They are buying and selling oil. That's what it is all about," he said.



(our emphasis)

Indeed, buying and selling is what it's all about. Presumably if Fredriksen's traders had made losses, they would be left alone now. Their chief mistake was evidently to make a profit.

Meanwhile another well-known protectionist and socialist, senator Charles Schumer, has trained his eye on refineries, championing the populist cause that they are to be held responsible for high gasoline prices.  Once again, their main crime appears to be their profitability.


“United States Senator Charles Schumer was in Cheektowaga Tuesday to announce two of his recent efforts to bolster the Western New York economy.

Schumer stood near the gas pumps at a Cheektowaga gas station to announce he is demanding a probe by the Federal Trade Commission into stubbornly high gas prices.

Customers could be seen nearby scowling at the pumps as the numbers rolled up and up. Oil prices world-wide have dropped recently. But gas prices have not fallen as fast.  Nicole Howatt pumps $50 worth of gas into the red Camry she is driving. Howatt said she has no choice.

"You have to drive places, you have to get to work to make the money to buy the gas," said Howatt. "So, you gotta go with the times, I guess."

Schumer said oil refiners are to blame, cutting production to artificially keep gas prices high. According to Schumer, refiners have seen a nearly 100 percent increase in profits in just the past six months.

A 2008 FTC investigation recently brought indictments against speculators. But Schumer said he is looking for immediate action on gas prices.

"It's of little concern if these guys are put in jail…we want them put in jail of course if they violated the law…but we're more concerned with getting the price down, and getting it down now," said Schumer.

Schumer said if the FTC agrees to investigate it could have an immediate, positive impact on gas prices merely because of the negative spotlight. But he said breaking up the big five refiners is the only long-term solution. “



(our emphasis)

This is all populist political theater of course. Schumer somehow completely forgot to mention that no permit for building a new refinery has been issued in the US for over 30 years. 'Breaking up' the existing refiners would accomplish absolutely nothing. On the contrary, it would likely mean even higher prices, as  economies of scale would become more difficult to attain. If Schumer really wanted a long term solution to ensure a more plentiful supply of gasoline, he would push for simplifying the regulatory process and red tape that stands in the way of permitting of new refineries. This process has apparently become so costly and time-intensive as to make the endeavor completely uneconomical.

Naturally, consumers don't like high gas prices. It is no surprise that the political class seizes the opportunity to blame speculators and other market participants for high prices. It is a cheap trick that always works – identify something people are unhappy with and then go forth and find someone to pin the blame on, whether they deserve it or not – preferably a minority that can be easily bludgeoned into submission.

Meanwhile, as related in an article recently published at Forbes, fittingly entitled 'Oil Speculators Are Your Friends', there exist plenty of studies showing that the influence of speculators on energy prices is benign. These empirical studies only confirm what we know must be true by applying economic theory to the issue. Alas, we shouldn't expect politicians angling for votes to let reality get in the way of a good story.

As the article concludes:


“Questions of cause and effect aside, economists Robert Kolb and James Overdahl reviewed the literature to ascertain whether physical prices exhibited more or less volatility after futures markets were introduced. They found 26 published studies examining various agricultural, energy, and financial markets but noted that only two of those studies (pertaining to cattle and mortgages) found that prices were more volatile after futures markets were established. Fourteen studies, on the other hand, found that cash market volatility decreased after futures markets were introduced (the remainder found no effect).

The upshot is that futures markets–and the speculation that occurs therein–provide a public service. Regulating, restricting, or eliminating those markets would not bring prices down or make them more predictable. All it would do is prevent these agents for social good from doing their job, which is to tell us the truth–as best they see–about the future cost of crude and to offer a means by which we can insure ourselves against the impact of increasing or declining crude oil prices.”



(our emphasis)

As we have noted before, speculators are an indispensable feature of the market economy. Their activities aid in the price discovery process that helps guide investment to the areas where it is needed most. The current witch hunt against commodity speculators is not going to accomplish any of its intended goals. An effort to halt monetary inflation would no doubt prove more fruitful in this regard, but this topic remains 'off limit', even while the engines of inflation, the central banks, continue to present themselves in Orwellian fashion as 'inflation fighters'. 




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8 Responses to “Support For The Free Market Dwindles”

  • I think the idea that some very minor fraction of a percent composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would make the temperature of the earth go up to border on absurd. It is more a political class tax grab. The sun is what heats the earth. If we were talking about going from 40% CO2 to 60%, i could buy the science, but we are talking going from some fraction of a percent to a little larger fraction of a percent.

    I do believe there are speculations in the commodities markets that border on financed corners. If you think Goldman and company can’t garner a massive long position in oil companies, finance with credit the withdrawal of oil from the markets, run robots into the electronic markets with the purpose of driving the market a particular direction and after the market has reacted, dump their inflated stock. Remember, speculators on the other side of the trade have to close their positions. I have traded a little myself and I have concluded there are systems that are meant to drive the market price up in times of low volume. It is the intent of normal buyers to buy at as low a price as possible and sellers to sell as high as possible. Corners have been part of history, but rarely have the traders had the means to use one factor to make money in another.

    Modern banking may be the biggest scourge on capitalism. Pater hit the nail on the head, a privilege or title of nobility, bestowing the creation of money at interest on a few while issuing social guarantees for their activities. When you combine this part of the system with speculation, you not only get bubbles, but suffer massive consequences. The bank isn’t speculating with its own money.

    • I agree market corners have happened in the past and will be tried again in the future. In fact, there have recently been reports alleging that control of LME warehouses by investment banks such as Goldman and JPM has been misused to drive up the prices of certain base metals (I can not really comment on whether these complaints have merit, but it seems at least possible). Alas, most market corners have ultimately failed. Such manipulation attempts may well work in the very short term, but in the long term the market always proves bigger than any particular individual participant or even a group of participants. I plan on occasion to post something on Mises’ and Rothbard’s work on monopolies, which is a closely related subject.
      As to anthropogenic global warming theories, I confess I am very skeptical of them as well. I’m obviously not a climatologist, but it is certainly possible for a layman to weigh the claims made by scientists on both side of the debate, and to me the critics sound a great deal more convincing than the supporters. It really appears that governments are mainly misusing climate science to impose more control over citizens’ lives as well as higher taxes. In addition, the respective legislation once again opens the way for bestowing privileges and creating profits for selected groups – iow., it opens the door for corruption on a vast scale. The ‘climate change’ gravy train has become such a huge financial scam already that AGW has so far refused to die even in the face of a decade of falling temperatures and not a single prediction of the fearmongers coming true to date. That alone speaks volumes imo.

  • Floyd:

    Strongly agree with the critique of state capitalism.
    The trend is extremely worrisome! (I fear for the future quality of life of my kids).
    I often reflect on the book 1984.

    Corn ethanol could not possibly exist without massive subsidy and regulation (coercion). It is EROI negative! (It would be funny if it wasn’t real).

    I may differ about climate change.
    The body of evidence that the climate is changing seems quite solid.
    It is unclear to me whether it is global warming or just temporal and local fluctuations.
    But, it is difficult to argue with the observation that generally glaciers are shrinking as of late. Isn’t that an indication?

    For the past 15000 years there is a trend of glaciers receding, sea level going up, and desertification (surely the Sahara has been growing).
    The case can be made that glaciers has been receding in the past century.
    What isn’t proven is whether human activity is “the cause”, “a mere contributor”, or “unrelated” to this trend.
    However, it is difficult to refute the “greenhouse gases” arguments, or “human effect on the ozone”.

    Lastly, I’m well aware that the “global warming” meme is infested with manipulations and distortions. For instance *interested* researchers, cynical political and business interests, and mathematical whims related to the evolution and propagation of memes.
    Still all that does not refute the notion of global warming related to human activity. (Nor does it prove it).

    • The “body” of evidence shows that the Mediterranean sea is clearly receding…. I should know… in the 70s I used to live in a house on the beach just outside of Rome in Italy. Today, there is a new row of houses between my old house and the sea shore and the shore is farther away from this new row of houses than it used to be from my house…

      Glaciers in the Antartic seem to be steady if not expanding… B

      • Floyd:

        The beach line moving in any particular location is no evidence as it is subject to multiple factors.
        Consider accumulation of sand or erosion, tectonic forces raising or sinking the whole area.

        Global changes in sea water levels are harder to excuse other than glaciation or de-glaciation related.

        Recall that the Bering strait was once covered by Ice.
        The Persian gulf being a flood plain.

        However, the most notable evidence of climate change is de-glaciation and desertification along the past millennia, and the past generation as well.
        It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove that these process are related to mankind.
        But, it is believable that greenhouse gases have a role. Another hypothesis is pollution related soot is involved as well. It may be of greater import than CO2, btw.

    • I will on occasion write a more extensive post on the topic of AGW to
      explain precisely how I have arrived at my own conclusions. Suffice to say for now that I view some of the claims made by AGW supporters with great skeptcism. The earth’s climate is of course changing all the time – it is a highly dynamic system that is subject to both short and long term cycles. One can also not deny that there has been warming from about 1977 to 1998, just as there has been a period of cooling from roughly 1940 to 1976. What is clearly debatable is the extent to which human activity is to be held responsible for climate change and whether it is possible to influence this via higher taxes and regulations and whether such an attempt at influencing human greenhouse gas emissions makes any sense.

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