Archive for the ‘Capitalism & Libertarian Philospohy’ Category.

Can the Majority Vote to Have A Minority Send Them Money?

Barack Obama argues that the last election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on the rich.  Put another way, he is arguing that 52% of the people voted to raise taxes on 2%.  Did they?

Well, they certainly did something like this in California.  Let's take a look at two propositions:

  • Prop 30, which propose to raise taxes on on the rich to help close the deficit (there was a token 0.25% sales tax increase for cover, but everyone knew it to be a tax on the rich).
  • Prop 39, which was a broad-based income tax increase which raised taxes on most everyone (or at least on the 50% or so who pay income taxes).

So, let's look at the results:

  • Raise taxes on only the very rich:  PASS
  • Raise taxes on everyone (including me):  FAIL

The California election was a crystal clear mandate:  People want more taxes as long as they are on somebody else.  By targeting the richest few percent, we can get a lot of money but make sure the people taxed don't have any hope of fighting the increase, even if they vote as a block.

So I think Obama clearly has a mandate to raise taxes on not-me.  The question is, do we think we have, or do we want, a government where this is possible?  Where majority votes can do anything they wish to minorities?

I should hope not.  I will remind you of a famous quote, from a different context, but entirely relevant:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.*

 

* there seem to be many variations on this out there, you may have heard other similar versions.

The Wasted Vote Fallacy

Republicans before the election worked to convince Libertarians that a vote for Gary Johnson (or any other third party) was a wasted vote -- that Libertarians needed to be voting against Obama and therefore for Republicans.  Some libertarians have argued that the only way to change the Republican Party is from within.  Libertarians need to join the party and then work to make the party less statist.

I thought this was a crock at the time and think so even more now.  Here is the key thought:  Republicans are not going to change their platform and their candidates and their positions to woo voters they are already getting.  After the election, no one in the Republican leadership was talking about what a mistake it was to run a big government Republican like Romney -- the ex-governor of Massachusetts for God sakes -- who authored the predecessor to Obamacare.  No one was wondering about Gary Johnson as a 2016 candidate.

What the GOP did do is panic at the shellacking they got among Hispanic voters.  The ink was not even dry on the ballots before Republican leadership was considering abandoning their anti-immigrant stance in order to win more Hispanic voters.  I am not sure that will get them Hispanic voters, but whether they are right or not, that is the conversation they were having.  They were asking, "How do we attract voters WE DID NOT GET" -- not, "how do we attract voters we are already getting".

The turn of the century Progressive Party (William Jennings Bryant, free silver, etc) never won a Presidential election but both the Republicans and Democrats co-opted many of their platform positions because they sought to attract voters they were losing to the Progressives.

I don't see how Libertarians can look at a party that has fielded John McCain (author of speech restrictions) and Mitt Romeny (author of the proto-Obamacare) as any sort of long-term home.  Heck, the Republicans more seriously considered Rick Santorum and Donald Trump than Gary Johnson or Ron Paul.  I respect what Mr. Paul has done in bringing libertarian issues to the debate, but as long as he keeps reliably delivering his voters to whatever lame statist candidate the party fields, the GOP is never going to seriously address libertarian concerns.

False Assumption of Statists

Mike Rizzo raises a point that is a common theme here at Coyote Blog.  People often propose a statist solution because they distrust some private actor (e.g. large corporations) and want someone with power over the top of them.  However, to create such a regulatory structure, one has to give even more power to the state's regulator than the corporation has.  At least one has the choice of whether or not to deal with a private entity (unless of course it is a government-enforced monopoly, but that just takes us back to statism).  We give private actors power only to the extent that we choose to transact with them.   When we give government power, there is no longer this sort of opt-out.  Rizzo observes:

Just ask the person a question. “I can respect why you think this. But can you do me a favor? Can you imagine getting your ideal world in place, and then rather than “your guys” being in charge, how would you feel if the person/people running it were people you completely mistrusted, despised and disagreed with? Would you feel good about your system? Why or why not?”

I tell folks all the time - I don't trust private actors any more than the people in government.  What I trust more are their incentives and the tools I have for enforcing accountability on them.

Schizophrenic Trust in the Government

Matt Curran has spot-on comments about the death penalty in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times

Robyn Blumner's column highlighting the wrongful executions of Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham was a very compelling argument against the death penalty. I am a Republican who rarely agrees with Blumner, but in this case she was spot on. While I believe that there are individuals who certainly deserve to lose their lives for the crimes they commit (John Couey comes to mind), I simply do not trust the government to administer such a process fairly or accurately. This is because the government is run by human beings, who like the rest of us are motivated by narrow self-interest and restrained by limited knowledge. Because those in government rarely face the consequences of their decisions, they often make the wrong ones, even if their intent is pure.

What I find puzzling is how Blumner can so effectively articulate these failings of government when it comes to civil liberties in one column, and in the next champion its abilities and competence in economic matters. A criminal trial is a grueling and exacting process that seeks to administer justice in a very narrow, specific instance. If government doesn't deserve our faith in doing that correctly, how can we trust it to control and coordinate the countless decisions that hundreds of millions of Americans make each day in our economic lives?

For more from Matt, his blog is here.

Corporations and People

Those who argue that corporations should not have the same rights as individuals (e.g due process, speech, search and seizure) are essentially arguing that individuals should lose all their rights the moment they start cooperating.  This is a seemingly odd position for the Left to take, given their commitment to group and community action.  The only way to reconcile it is to assume that the Left wants all cooperation to occur only via the state.

Thanks to the U. of Rochester Hamilton [sic] Society

I want to thank Professor Mike Rizzo and members of the University of Rochester Alexander Hamilton [sic] Society for having me up to speak last week.  I had an awesome time touring campus, some quality pub time with some of the students, some really good donuts, and then a speaking engagement followed by literally hours of questions and discussions.  Here are some of us out the next day hiking the waterfront (Professor Rizzo is fourth from the right).  This is at a "lighthouse" which I had expected to be some sexy Maine-type thing but turned out to be a 3-foot wide steel column with a blinking red light on top.  We are on one of the breakwaters at the mouth of the Genessee River as it pours into Lake Ontario.

Professor Rizzo teaches four economics courses, including a couple of the introductory survey courses, and many students go out of their way to take all four, even if they are not even in the department.  The group had an incredible vibe, the kind of student-professor learning group we all thought would be typical of college but most of us seldom actually encountered.  It reminded me of Dead Poet's Society, except with economics rather than poetry and without the suicides.

In addition to being a popular professor, Rizzo also is a vastly outnumbered campus defender of individual liberty and economic sanity.  I can't tell me how many kids told me they had been converted to the cause of free market economics by Professor Rizzo.

Professor Rizzo is also a constant campus gadfly on cost-benefit sensibility.  Featured in an upcoming post will be a U of R solar charging station that was one of Rizzo's favorite targets.  Which brings us to the issue of the group's name and why I keep writing [sic].  Apparently creating a new campus organization and 501c3 was way too costly, so they just piggy-backed on an existing group, despite the incongruity of the "Alexander Hamilton" name on a group generally dedicated to exploring small government.

I seem to be having some odd problem subscribing to his feed in Google Reader (all I get is Viagra Spam) but his blog is here:  The Unbroken Window.  Update:  I could never get his feed to work for me so I burned a new one on my feedburner account.  http://feeds.feedburner.com/UnbrokenWindow

Danger of the Mono-Culture

The problem with the media is not outright bias, but an intellectual mono-culture that fails to exercise the most basic skepticism when stories fit their narrative.

By the way, I find it likely that there are factories in China making products with household names for western markets that have practices from wildly unsafe to outright slavery that deserve shaming and boycotts, as a minimum, when discovered.

But I often find the discourse around "sweatshops" to be colored by weterners' middle class notions of what our own personal alternatives are.  "I would never work for a $1 a day..."  Sure, but your alternative is not 15 hours a day in a rice paddy with the constant threat of outright death and starvation for your entire family if one years' crops fail.

Regulation By Market

Best Buy is apparently increasing its customer return window from 14 days to 30 days.

Why?  This certainly costs them money, not just from lost revenue but from the cost of restocking and returning to the manufacture (not to mention fraud).

Are they doing this because they are good guys?  Hah.  Do you really expect goodwill out of an electronic retailer?

They did it because they felt they had to.  As the top dog in dedicated electronics stores, they are constantly under competitive assault.  They are the reference point competitors start from.  Wal-mart attacks them on price.  Amazon.com attacks them on price and convenience.  Smaller retailers attack them on knowledge and integration services.  Everyone attacks them on the niche details like return policies.

Best Buy did this not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to under competitive pressure.  The accountability enforced by the market works faster, on more relevant variables, and far more powerfully than government regulation.

When the government does regulate variables such as this, such regulation often actually blunts the full accountability of the market.  Retail laws in many European countries set maximum hours and discount levels, protecting large retailers like Best Buy from upstarts trying to provide a better of different service.

Money Does Not Corrupt Politics, State Power Corrupts Politics

Kevin Drum asks whether money corrupts politics, and comes to the conclusion that it does.  I disagree.

Money does not corrupt politics, the expansion of state power corrupts politics.  Every time the state gains a new power to take money from person A and give it to person B, or to throttle company A's business in favor of company B, private individuals start to scheme how they might access that power to their own benefit.

Think back to the much smaller US government of the 19th century.  Don't you long for the day when political corruption mainly meant packing the Post Office with one's kin?  It is absolutely no coincidence that the largest political scandal of that century (the Crédit Mobilier) accompanied the largest expansion of Federal power in that century (the Federally-funded construction of the Transcontinental Railroad).

Political corruption follows the power.  Sure, this power is often bought in dollars, but if we were to entirely ban money from the political process, the corruptions would remain.  And it would shift payment from money to other goods, like quid pro quo's, barter, and access to grass roots labor supplies.  Anyone remember machine politics?

Here is an example from an Administration schooled from an early age in Chicago machine politics

The Heritage Foundation has issued a new report that charges the Obama administration sent presidential earmarks, taxpayer dollars, to Democratic lawmakers to help convince them to vote for controversial proposals such as cap and trade and the health care bill.

“When you examine the recipients of those grants, there were at least 32 vulnerable house Democrats who received significant federal grant money during the run-up or directly after the votes on those pieces of legislation,” says Lachlan Markay, one of the authors of the report.

The amount of earmarks spiked around the time of difficult votes such as cap and trade, then dropped, only to spike again around controversial financial regulations known as Dodd/Frank, and spiked the most just before the vote on the health care bill....

On their websites, lawmakers didn’t advertise their votes, but did tout at length the money they’d gotten for various local projects.

“As a way to counteract the negative voter sentiment that would come from voting for unpopular legislation,” says Markay. “These were attempts to make sure that constituents knew they were bringing money home to their district.”...

Numbers from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service show that the value of administration earmarks under President Obama increased by a 126 percent in his first two years in office and the actual number of administrative earmarks increased by 54 percent.

Those are dramatic increases that are 11 times more than Congress itself increased earmarks, which the White House did not explain today.

By the way, of all the ways that access to political power can be bought, political spending under our current rules is by far the most transparent.   Just as in narcotics or prostitution, a ban wouldn't eliminate it, it would simply drive it further underground and into other forms of currency.

Keep Your Law Off My Body, err, or Maybe Not

Massachusetts liberals up the penalties for women (and men) using their bodies in ways the government does not like.   Proving once again that the women's groups' motto, "keep your laws off my body," was in fact a fake libertarianism, aimed at exactly one thing -- abortion -- and nothing else.  Those on the Left who mouthed this slogan seem to be A-OK with regulating consensual sex, salt and soda pop consumption, access to medical procedures, health care choices, etc.

Also, this seems to be yet another law that purports to promote women's rights by treating them like they are ignorant rubes unable to make the smallest decisions for themselves.  The implicit assumption in the law is that all prostitutes are in the profession solely due to male compulsion.  This is consistent with a certain philosophy among feminists that all behaviors of women with which they don't agree are not due to a normal excercise of free will by people who simply have different preferences, but are due to some sort of enslavement by the patrimony.

But one high-priced online hooker said she’s no victim — and she doesn’t know any women who are.

“If you are an escort, you go into it of your own free will,” she said. “Absolutely no one is forced into doing this. You don’t have to be affiliated with any agency. I’m not forced to do anything I don’t want.”

What’s more, the new law’s focus on johns, she said, will hurt her lucrative-though-lawless trade.

“If that’s the law that’s been written, then yes, it’s going to impact business,” she said when read the new penalties.

There is no doubt that some women get into situations where they are abused or forced into work or have a large portion of their earnings taken.  But this tends to be a result of the profession being underground, giving women no legal recourse when they are abused and defrauded.  If one really is worried about women's working conditions, the best thing to do is legalize prostitution, instantly giving them access to the legal system to redress wrongs.

Chinese Declaration of Independence

This is a story I don't know enough about

Farmers from 18 households in Xiaogang signed a secret life-and-death agreement ending collective farming with their thumbprints. (From Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics)

The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward – agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over.  In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting.  The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep.  The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be killed or jailed the others would raise his or her children until the age of 18. [The actual agreement is shown at right.]

The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased.  “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.

Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides.  But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property. In Beijing, Mao Zedong was dead and a new set of rulers, seeing the productivity improvements, decided to let the experiment proceed.

I Wonder

We would all like to think we would bravely stand up for what we believe in against any tyranny, but I wonder.  It takes a lot of guts not to just go along, especially when your life is on the line.  This man, refusing to give the Nazi salute, apparently died in captivity or was killed in 1944.

Real Rights vs. Fake Rights

Good stuff from Roger Pilon at Cato:

It’s true that our Framers, unlike many others, especially more recently, did not focus their attention on rights. Instead, they focused on powers— and for good reason. Because we have an infinite number of rights, depending on how they’re defined, the Framers knew that they couldn’t possibly enumerate all of them. But they could enumerate the government’s powers, which they did. Thus, given that they wanted to create a limitedgovernment, leaving most of life to be lived freely in the private sector rather than through public programs of the kind we have today, the theory of the Constitution was simple and straightforward: where there is no power there is a right, belonging either to the states or to the people. The Tenth Amendment makes that crystal clear. Rights were thus implicit in the very idea of a government of limited powers. That’s the idea that’s altogether absent from the modern approach to constitutionalism—with its push for far reaching “active” government—about which more in a moment.

During the ratification debates in the states, however, opponents of the new Constitution, fearing that it gave the national government too much power, insisted that, as a condition of ratification, a bill of rights be added—for extra caution. But that raised a problem: by ordinary principles of legal reasoning, the failure to enumerate all of our rights, which again was impossible to do, would be construed as meaning that only those that were enumerated were meant to be protected. To address that problem, therefore, the Ninth Amendment was written, which reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Over the years, unfortunately, that amendment has been misunderstood  and largely ignored; but it was meant to make clear that the people “retained” a vast number of rights beyond those expressly enumerated in the document....

The idea, then, that our Constitution is terse and old and guarantees relatively few rights—a point Liptak draws from the authors of the article and the people he interviews—does not explain the decline in the document’s heuristic power abroad. Nor does “the commitment of some members of the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning in the 18th century” explain its fall from favor. Rather, it’s the kindof rights our Constitution protects, and its strategy for protecting them, that distinguishes it from the constitutional trends of recent years. First, as Liptak notes, “we are an outlier in prohibiting government establishment of religion,” and we recognize the right to a speedy and public trial and the right to keep and bear arms. But second, and far more fundamentally, our Constitution is out of step in its failure to protect “entitlements” to governmentally “guaranteed” goods and services like education, housing, health care, and “periodic holidays with pay” (Article 24 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And right there, of course, is the great divide, and the heart of the matter.

Public vs. Private Privacy Threats

I am always fascinated by folks who fear private power but support continuing increases in public / government power.  For me there is no contest - public power is far more threatening.  This is not because I necesarily trust private corporations like Goldman Sachs or Exxon or Google more than I do public officials.  Its because I have much more avenues of redress to escape the clutches of private companies and/or to enforce accountability on them.  I trust the incentives faced by private actors and the accountability mechanisms in the marketplace far more than I trust those that apply to government.

Here is a good example.  First, Kevin Drum laments the end of privacy because Google has proposed a more intrusive privacy policy.  I am not particularly happy about the changes, but at the end of the day, I am comforted by two things.  One:  I can stop using Google services.  Sure, I use them a lot now, but I don't have to.  After all, I used to be a customer or user of AOL, Compuserve, the Source, Earthlink, and Netscape and managed to move on from those guys.  Second:  At the end of the day, the worst they are tying to do to me is sell me stuff.  You mean, instead of being bombarded by irrelevant ads I will be bombarded by slightly more relevant ads?  Short of attempts of outright fraud like identity theft, the legal uses of this data are limited.

Kevin Drum, who consistently has more faith in the state than in private actors, actually gets at the real problem in passing (my emphasis added)

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

The last part is key.  Because the worst P&G will do is try to sell you some Charmin.  The government, however, can throw you and jail and take all your property.  Time and again I see people complaining about private power, but at its core their argument really depends on the power of the state to inspire fear.  Michael Moore criticizes private enterprise in Capitalism:  A Love Story, but most of his vignettes actually boil down to private individuals manipulating state power.  In true free market capitalism, his negative examples couldn't occur.  Crony capitalism isn't a problem of private enterprise, its a problem of the increasingly powerful state.  Ditto with Google:  Sure I don't like having my data get sold to marketers, and at some point I may leave Google over it.  But the point is that I can leave Google .... try leaving your government-enforced monopoly utility provider.  Or go find an alternative to the DMV.

A great example of this contrast comes to us from Hawaii:

There may be some trouble brewing in paradise, thanks to a seemingly draconian law currently under consideration in Hawaii's state legislature. If passed, H.B. 2288 would require all ISPs within the state to track and store information on their customers, including details on every website they visit, as well as their own names and addresses. The measure, introduced on Friday, also calls for this information to be recorded on each customer's digital file and stored for a full two years. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that the bill includes virtually no restrictions on how ISPs can use (read: "sell") this information, nor does it specify whether law enforcement authorities would need a court order to obtain a user's dossier from an ISP. And, because it applies to any firm that "provides access to the Internet," the law could conceivably be expanded to include not just service providers, but internet cafes, hotels or other businesses.

Americans fed up with Google's nosiness can simply switch email providers.  But if they live in Hawaii, they will have no escape from the government's intrusiveness.

All-Purpose Libertarian Cartoon

via

Crony Capitalism? Blame the Progressives

That is the purposely inflammatory title of my article this week at Forbes.com, finding the roots of crony capitalism not in capitalism itself, but in progressive legislation.  An excerpt:

The core of capitalism has nothing to do with, and is in fact inherently corrupted by, the exercise of state power.  At its heart, capitalism is one simple proposition -- free exchange between individuals based on mutual self-interest.  There is no room in this definition for subsidies or special government preferences or bailouts.  The meat and potatoes activities of crony capitalism are corruptions rather than features of free markets.  Where state power to intervene in economic activity does not exist, neither does cronyism.

Believe it or not, the Occupy movement reminds me of nothing so much as 1832.  Flash back to that year, and you will find Federal officials with almost no power to help or hinder commerce... with one exception: the Second Bank of the United States, a powerful quasi-public institution that used its monopoly on government deposits as a source of funds for private lending.  The bank was accused of using its immense reserves of government cash to influence elections, enrich the favored, and lend based on political rather than economic formulae (any of this sound familiar?).  Andrew Jackson and his supporters, the raucous occupiers of their day, came into office campaigning against the fraud and cronyism at the Bank.

Jackson, much like the current OWS folks, was a strange blend of sometimes frontier anarchist and sometimes tyrannical authoritarian.  But in the case of the Second Bank, the OWS movement could well learn from Jackson.  He didn't propose new and greater powers for government officials to help check abuses of the existing powers -- he proposed to kill the Bank entirely.  Eliminate the source of power, and men can no longer tap it for their own enrichment.

Unfortunately, the progressive Left which makes up most of the OWS movement has taken exactly the opposite approach over the last century or so, expanding government powers and economic institutions (such that today the scope of the second bank seems quaintly limited) and thus the opportunity for cronyism.   In fact, most of the interventions that make crony capitalism possible are facilitated and enabled by the very progressive legislation that the progressive Left and the OWS protesters tend to favor.  Consider some examples...

Blaming the Phone Book

Local Conservative Greg Patterson blames the death of several sex workers in Detroit on the Backpage, because the killer may have targeted them based on their ads in that periodical.

The killers are the ones who should be held responsible, but what about parties whose negligent actions facilitate the killing?  How about the example of a school with poor lighting, or the business with lots of bushes in which bad guys can hide?  There are plenty of cases that show the property owner would be liable for the intentional torts of others.

So New Times knows that Adult ads are used by bad guys...even to the point of murder.  Craigslist stopped accepting these ads after a similar incident and New Times picked up the business...at a considrable profit.  So can they be held accountable for the deaths in Detroit?  I would argue that they can be.  What about future deaths?  What happens if New Times continues to accept adult advertising and someone else gets killed?  Actionable?  I would say yes.

This is exactly the sort of spurious liability logic Conservatives tend to mock, except of course when it involves a target it does not like.  In this case free market Conservatives really hate Backpage for accepting freely placed ads for free exchange involving consensual sex.  I responded in the comments:

Why do you cast so far afield for an analogy in your third to last paragraph [the one above about schools with poor lighting]? Why not take a directly parallel example - what if some killer were stalking Starbucks barristas whose work places he identified through ads in the Republic or via Google Maps? Would you really run around in circles blaming Google? This is like saying that a serial killer is facilitated by the phone companies because they publish the phone book the killer used.

We are talking about ads placed via free exchange for consensual sex. Yes, in our bizarre society, Conservatives who nominally support all other types of free exchange have had this one sort banned. But it is ironically the very fact that this sort of consensual commerce is illegal that makes this work so dangerous. Escorts/hookers are vulnerable to abuse, crime, fraud etc. precisely because they have less ability to access the legal system for redress.

If you want to discuss who facilitated the death of these women, let's talk about those who drove their profession underground.

David Henderson Talks to the Occupy Folks

David Henderson has a wonderful 4-part series of a talk he had with an Occupy-type crowd in Monterrey.  He does a good job of showing how the roots of many of the problems the Occupy folks fret about lie with government power rather than free markets.

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

 

Here is a point he makes in part 3 that I have made before

"Or consider this," I said, "Who was the wealthiest man in America early in the 20th century?" "John D. Rockefeller," said someone. "Right," I said, "and at its peak, John D. Rockefeller's net worth was, in today's $, about $200 billion, which would make him richer than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined."

"But think what you have that he didn't. He couldn't watch TV, play video games, surf the Internet, or send e-mail. During the summer, he didn't have air conditioning. For most of his life, he couldn't travel by airplane. He didn't even have [and here I picked up my cell phone] a 1G. And here's the big one: If he got sick, he couldn't use many medicines, including penicillin. Calvin Coolidge's son, after playing tennis on the White House lawn and getting a blister, died. He didn't have antibiotics."

"So you could say that you're richer than Rockefeller. Isn't there a song about that?Here's the test. Who here would trade places with Rockefeller?" I asked. About 5 people stuck up their hands. "Then you're not," I said. "Who wouldn't trade places with Rockefeller?" I asked. About 15 people stuck up their hands. "You are," I said.

I wrote something similar of San Francisco 19th-century millionaire Mark Hopkins

Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people’s access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin’s business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

The only mistake in this I would correct was to say Mark Hopkins was old at 64.  The average lifespan was in the forties, but this was mainly because of childhood death.  Once someone made it into their thirties, they had a pretty good chance of living into their sixties.

Final Indicator, if You Needed One, of a Looming China Crash

Here is what I remember from the late 1980's - just about every technocratic pundit of the leftish bent, and a number on the right, all hailed Japan as the government economic planning model the US should follow.  One fawning essay after another lauded Japan's MITI and its top-down approach to economic investment.

Practically within hours of when these editorials peaked, the Japanese economy began to crumble.  We know now that MITI and other Japanese officials were creating gross distortions and misallocations in the economy, and inflating an economic bubble with gobs of cheap credit.  These distortions have still not been entirely cleared from the Japanese economy 20 years later, and the country experienced what was called "the lost decade" which may become the lost two decades.

For over a year, it has appeared to me (and many other observers more knowledgeable than I) that China was headed for a crash for many of the same reasons as Japan.  I am now sure this is true, as today Andy Stern (formerly of the SEIU) writes an essay lauding the Chinese top-down state-planned economic model.

The current debates about China's currency, the trade imbalance, our debt and China's excessive use of pirated American intellectual property are evidence that the Global Revolution—coupled with Deng Xiaoping's government-led, growth-oriented reforms—has created the planet's second-largest economy. It's on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025....

There is no doubt that China will pass the US in total economic size -- it has three times more people than we do.  But their success is clearly due to the small dollops of free enterprise that are allowed in a statist society, and advances are made in spite of, not because of, the meddling state.

Exactly how much economic progress had China made before its leaders brought in the very free market ideas Stern says are dead?  None, of course.  To read China as a triumph of statism and as the death nell of capitalism, when in fact it is one of the greatest examples in history of the power of capitalist ideas and how fast they can turn around a starving and poverty-stricken country, is just willful blindness.

I will include just one other excerpt

While we debate, Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China's people-oriented development in Chongqing, a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government can boast that it has established in Western China an economic zone for cloud computing and automotive and aerospace production resulting in 12.5% annual growth and 49% growth in annual tax revenue, with wages rising more than 10% a year.

My first thought on reading this was that Houston used to look exactly like this, with cranes all over the place building things, until we had an Administration that actively opposed expansion of domestic oil production.  My second thought is that this reads so much like the enthusiast essays written by leftists when they used to visit the Soviet Union and came back telling us Russia was so much superior to the US -- just look at the Moscow subway!

The emergence of hundreds of millions of people in China and India from poverty is exciting as hell, and at some level I don't blame Stern for his excitement.  But I fear that what he is seeing is the US housing bubble on steroids, a gross misallocation of capital and resources driven by a few technocrats who think they can manage a billion person economy from their office in Beijing.

Disclosure:  I seldom do anything but invest in generic bond funds and US stock funds, but right now I am out of US equities and I have a number of shorts on Chinese manufacturing and real estate.

I AM Doing Good

I accidentally watched a few minutes of a morning show today, something I try really hard to avoid.  Matt whats-his-name was interviewing Richard Branson, and they were talking about the importance of corporations "doing good".  Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what?  If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good.  I can't make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me.  Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me (and if they are not better off, I will never see them again and I will find lots of nasty stuff chasing future customers away on the Internet.)  I am tired of this notion that a succesful business person's value can only be judged by what he or she does with their money and time outside of business.  I understand the frustration with a few Wall Street and GE-type executives who are living like fat ticks on their connections with government, but most of us only are succesful if we do something useful.

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines.  He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things

Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That's a pittance."

Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling  a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money.  The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a  few politician's friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.

Postscript:  I have no problem with doing charitable work outside of work.  Both my company and I do, by choice, though unlike Richard Branson I don't need to have a crew of paid PR agents making sure everyone knows it.

Anarchists Protest Small Government Conference

Lol

I do not think that word "anarchist" means what they think it means.

This has from the beginning been the almost charming oddity of the OWS movement - we are anarchists that want more government.  We oppose "the man" but want him to pay our college tuition.  We hate capitalism but can't go anywhere without our iPods.

China Bubble Bursting

I don't have time today to link all the evidence, but the combination of crashing real estate markets and the Chinese government jamming liquidity into its banks tells me the China bubble is bursting as we speak.

This is an interesting test of the Austrian view of depressions vs. the Keynesian / Krugman / Thomas Friedman / MITI view of government-orchestrated prosperity.  If the latter are right, then China is doing more right to keep their economy going than any country in history and you should go invest all your money in Chinese real estate.

However, if one believes the Austrian model about government-enforced mis-allocation of capital and labor leading to bubbles and crashes; if one believes that the technocrat-beloved MITI was largely responsible for the Japanese lost decade; if one believes that the US govenrment through articially low interest rates and government-directed reductions in underwriting quality helped create the housing bubble -- then the mother of all crashes is looming in China.  Because no country has done more to reallocate resources and capital based on the whims of a few technocrats  and well-connected industrialists than has China.  After all, this is why Thomas Friedman loves China, that it does not rely on the judgement of millions of individuals to allocate capital, but instead on the finger pointing of a few at the top.

Emergent Disorder

This is a fascinating tale, from Occupy Wall Street, demonstrating how a group with assumptions including

  1. Its OK for one group to exercise power over another group
  2. Its OK to redistribute money on some basis other than earning it through voluntary commerce
can quickly devolve into emergent disorder.
There is no great brotherhood once you adopt the assumption that people may use coercion to achieve their goals - there is only victory by those most capable in the raw exercise of power.

Politicians and Entrepeneurship

Don Boudreaux asks:

Here’s a quick question for anyone who takes seriously politicians’ pronouncements about what particular industries are “vital” or are “of the future” or are “crucial to meeting consumers’ needs”: Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms? Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms – firms that specialize neither in granting clients access to incumbent politicians nor in projects that depend upon getting subsidies or other favors from those same politicians?

This question occurred to me a few days ago upon hearing that former president Bill Clinton was off somewhere talking about something to some group concerned about some issue.  His career now is to make lots of money as a sort of high-brow social healer – to emit platitudes, attend state funerals, and (pardon my switch of imagery) be a show-pony for politically correct causes.  The post-Oval Office careers of every other recent president – to the extent that they haven’t simply retired to the golf course or the study – have been largely the same, with the groups and causes served by their attentions differing only as one former president’s political affiliations differ from those of another former president.

One guy comes to mind who had a sniff of the White House and then went on to run his own business:  George McGovern.  And though its just a small Inn that will never be even a blip on the economic radar screen, it has driven McGovern dangerously close to being a libertarian.  Actually, that might be a misnomer.  He probably is still a liberal, but from the days when liberals actually cared about individual freedom and saw aggregations of power in the government to be at least as scary as those in the private world.  Take this for example:

Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior. Much paternalist scrutiny has recently centered on personal economics...

Since leaving office I've written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I've come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don't take away cars because we don't like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don't operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

The only other place I have heard this recently on the Left was, perhaps not coincidentally, from that other child of 60's liberal politics, Jerry Brown

To the Members of the California State Senate:

I am returning Senate Bill 105 without my signature.

This measure would impose criminal penalties on a child under the age of 18 and his or her parents if the child skis or snowboards without a helmet.

While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law.

I believe parents have the ability and responsibility to make good choices for their children.

Sincerely,
Edmund J. Brown

Postscript:  The answer to Don's question is one of two.  Either a)  They are not up to it.  And/or b) There is a hell of a lot more wealth that can be captured through the exercise of government power than through private enterprise.

Penn Jillette Awesomeness

Most of those who read the online libertarian rags have seen this, but its awesome enough to require repitition

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

President Obama sure looks and acts way smarter than me, but no one is 2 to the 300 millionth power times smarter than me. No one is even 2 to the 300 millionth times smarter than a squirrel. I sure don't know what to do about an AA+ rating and if we should live beyond our means and about compromise and sacrifice. I have no idea. I'm scared to death of being in debt. I was a street juggler and carny trash -- I couldn't get my debt limit raised, I couldn't even get a debt limit -- my only choice was to live within my means. That's all I understand from my experience, and that's not much.

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

Who is at the other end of the spectrum?  Well, how about Brad Delong arguing for a return to technocratic rule by our betters

America's best hope for sane technocratic governance required the elimination of the Republican Party from our political system as rapidly as possible.

Technocratic utopia is of course a mirage, a supreme act of hubris, that any group of people could have the incentives or information required to manage the world top-down for us.  If I told an environmentalists that I wanted ten of the smartest biologists in the world to manage the Amazon top-down and start changing the ratios of species and courses of rivers and such in order to better optimize the rain forest, they would say I was mad.   Any such attempt would lead to disaster (just see what smart management has done for our US forests).  But the same folks will blithely advocate for top-down control of human economic activity.  The same folks who reject top-down creationism in favor of the emergent order of evolution reject the emergent order of markets and human uncoerced interaction in favor of top-down command and control.

More on technocrats here and here