Free Money Doesn’t Fix Broken Processes

(Originally published March 26, 2020.)

Massive monetary bailouts have been ordered and more are promised to follow. A first and completely valid response goes something like this:

So, you’re printing up six trillion dollars, giving 7/8ths to banks and corporations and 1/8th back to us… which we’ll be taxed on… plus, all that money creates a monster deficit that our children be expected to pay back anyway? The honest answer, if it were ever given, would be “yes.” And for this we’re expected to thank them!

So, angry responses are understandable. That said, I want to go deeper, down to the things that cannot be fixed with ever-more money.

Business is a massive coordination of people, materials, information, tools and machines. Money is just something we use to exchange these things efficiently; it doesn’t directly fix any of them when they break.

If a business process is broken, money allows you to thrown more tools and people at it. But if the break in the process doesn’t respond to those things, more money won’t fix it. Here’s an example:

  1. A business finds that they can’t send their goods by cargo ship as usual. The manufacturing of some part was deemed “non-essential” and the boats won’t be sailing for weeks at least.

  2. The business can consider shipping by air, but they’ll also be guaranteed to lose money on the order, since that option is much more expensive.

  3. The new money available to them is a loan, not a gift. If the company takes the free money and sends their goods by air, they’ll be unable to repay the loan, ending their business.

So, free money doesn’t fix this kind of broken process, of which there will be many. (And the longer things are locked down, the more there will be.)

And consider what happens if the manufacturer of the critical part goes bankrupt. No one automatically picks up the slack, and if there’s a file cabinet full of regulations to be conquered before making the missing part, will anyone want to attack that obstacle? Better off to start a new robot company.

So, we’re in for a lot of shortages. Eventually things will limp back to functionality – Europe recovered from World War II, after all – but only after a lot of pain and loss. Politicians don’t let go of regulations until lots of people suffer and/or die. And the corporations who paid for those regulations are likely to fight the whole way.

Politicians understand nothing about business. An economy, to them, is a big, magic box that spits things out. They’ll be the last to understand what’s happening, and they’ll knee-jerk to more and more centralized responses… until they can’t.


Paul Rosenberg