No Free Lunches Be Damned, by MN Gordon

From MN Gordon at

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” is one of the essential axioms of economics. No doubt about it, there’s no getting around this simple truth. Everything has a price.

For example, even if someone buys you lunch the lunch still isn’t free. The opportunity cost, your time to eat the lunch when you could’ve been doing something else, has a price. In addition, even if you don’t consider your time a cost, there’s no denying the fact that someone paid for the lunch. Hence, it wasn’t free.

Nonetheless, despite this simple fact, politicians promise free lunches for the many at the expense of the few. This offense is especially on display during a presidential primary election. Free college. Free drugs. Free housing. Free food.

You name it, there’s hardly a lunch out there this season’s crop of presidential candidates haven’t already laid claim to. This is what they must do to get elected. This is how presidential politics works in a democracy.

We don’t like it. We don’t agree with it. But what we think really doesn’t matter. The facts are lucidly clear. On the national level, the populace has shown for the last 80 years – or more – that they’ll vote for whatever candidate promises the most stuff for free.

Nothing for Something

The politicians know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But they also know that modern day economic policy is predicated on financing government programs through ever expanding debt. This means someone else, perhaps you, will have to pick the tab.

The Federal Reserve makes it all possible by creating enormous amounts of central bank credit, which is then loaned to the government. This also has the secondary effect of debasing the currency. Obviously, the Treasury welcomes this ongoing dilution of value. Over time it lightens the debt burden and allows them to make good on yesterday’s promises with a currency of diminishing value.

For extended periods this may seem to work remarkably well, on the surface. Spendthrift politicians get elected. The populace collects their ‘entitlements.’ Lunches appear to be free.

When an economy’s demographics are young, and growth is strong, the price of lunches looks minimal. The miracle of getting something for nothing seems possible. But as the economy ages, and growth peters out, debt levels become unsustainable.

Eventually, the bill comes due. The lunches must be paid for. Instead of something for nothing, the populace now gets nothing for something.

In other words, the credit expansion reaches its natural limits when the economy can no longer service the debt. That’s when a breakdown, government default, and depression, must occur to purge the debt – the rot – from the system. Prices, assets, and wages are readjusted so they are in line with the economy. Unproductive activities vanish. New, useful, undertakings rise from the ashes.

To continue reading: No Free Lunches Be Damned


One response to “No Free Lunches Be Damned, by MN Gordon

  1. What is most troubling is that a boom based on a credit bubble has two interesting, related effects:
    1. It allows people to “have their cake” (create an asset in the form of an IOU) and eat it too (consume the value of that asset in real time.)

    2. This has the paradoxical effect of over-consuming the present while dreaming of imaginary wealth to come in the future, with the “dream” being deemed 100% good-as-gold.

    People are thus happier (presumably, consuming that which others produced) yet simultaneously feel richer in the aggregate, by holding the IOU’s for future wealth (not yet produced) to be delivered.

    It is not possible to hold title to something that does not yet exist. It is also not possible to consume that which has not yet been produced. Therefore the entire charade is nothing but a rationalization for gluttony, akin to saying “I can eat two dinners now because I promise to exercise really, really hard tomorrow” while imagining how buff you’ll be after that exercise.

    This also warps the structure of production away from producing and maintaining capital goods (those necessary to producing the goods and services of tomorrow) in favor of production of straight commodities for consumption now.

    I once wrote a column using an imaginary town with a dominant industry, swimming pool installation, to illustrate this dynamic.

    My point is that after 46 years (give or take) of false economic signals, tens of millions of people are undoubtedly engaged in occupations and industries for which demand is largely artificial. The poster child for this is medical services (and associated 3rd party payment systems), for which I estimate 75% or more of demand is split between hypochondria and Munchhausen’s Syndrome while the cost of the remaining 25% is at least 1000% higher than a market would tolerate.

    Yet here we are, still waiting for the sky to fall.

    This Chicken Little is phenomenally, existentially tired of running around without his head.


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