Posts tagged ‘zero sum’

Liberal Douchebag vs. Liberal Douchebag: Google Employees Invade San Francisco

This is an article a reader described as being from the "screw them all" category, and I am inclined to agree.  There are many funny bits in the piece, but I particularly liked the San Francisco lefties arguing that these new Google millionaires should act more like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.  LOL for sure.

Incredibly, no one asks the obvious question -- why is home supply in San Francisco treated as zero sum, such that a Google millionaire moving in by necessity kicks some  poor people out.  The reason is that no place in the country does more than San Francisco and the Bay Area to make it impossible to build new housing.  San Francisco has some unique geographic constraints but you don't hear people complaining about this in Houston (which is in fact a much larger city).  In fact, I am trying to imagine Houston complaining about too many rich people moving in.  I just can't seem to focus that image in my head.

Actually, the article does very briefly consider the supply side of the equation, but of course no one mentions government development and zoning restrictions -- its the fault of capitalist speculators!  My reader highlights this paragraph:

Though he doesn’t much care for the start-up douchebags, Redmond blames not individual tech workers for the current crisis, but property speculators and the lawmakers who have let them take advantage of their precious commodity: space. “If we had a major earthquake in San Francisco, the water mains all broke, and some guy showed up with a water truck and started selling water for $10 a gallon, people would be pissed,” he says. “That guy would be ridden out of town; he’d be attacked with sticks and pitchforks. But that’s what the real estate people are doing right now – and they’re getting away with it.”

Memo to speculators:  If I have lost all access to water and am dying of thirst, you are welcome to come to my house and sell water to me for $100 a gallon.  I promise no pitchforks at my house.

PS-  One thing I did not know is that tech companies seem to be running large private bus systems

The Google buses, which often stop in spaces supposedly reserved for public transport, are a particular point of contention. This growing fleet of unmarked luxury coaches carries some 14,000 people on their 35-mile trip from the city to Silicon Valley and back. Since the search giant introduced the buses a decade ago, Facebook, Apple, eBay and almost 40 other companies have followed suit. Each new route quickly becomes a corridor of hip clothing stores and restaurants.

This is an interesting exercise in privatization.  For riders, it certainly would be nice to have routes custom designed to match your needs (ie exactly from your origin to your destination without changing trains or busses), something that is often an issue with public transport networks.  Als0- and this is going to sound awful but it is from many public surveys and not my own point of view - these private bus networks get around the social mixing issue that turns a lot of middle class riders off on bus systems.

This is obviously expensive but I understand why some companies do it.  As someone wrote a while back, no one in their right mind would put Silicon Valley in California today if it were not already there.  It is absurdly expensive to do business in CA and it is expensive to live there as an employee.  However, tech companies have found that  a certain good called "access to San Francisco" is quite valuable to the types of young smart employees they want to hire and can overcome these negatives.  So the bus system is a way for companies to better provide this good.  The irony of the article is that as so many tech companies are selling this good (ie access to San Francisco) they may be changing the character of San Francisco in a way that makes the good less valuable over time.

OWS and Philip Rearden

I have been reading a lot of the data flying around of late about income inequality and mobility.  And it struck me that income mobility may be a large part of what is driving many OWS protesters.

Despite assumptions to the contrary on the Left, wealth is not a zero-sum game.  Steven Jobs got richer by making me better off.  But the one thing that is zero-sum is presence in the top 1%.  When someone joins the club, someone, by operation of basic math, drops out.

That does not mean that the other person who drops out is poorer, it just means that they are no longer as rich relative to their peers.  This same effect works int he top 10% and 20%, etc.

Looking at OWS protectors, they seem to be disproportionately children of the upper middle class or even of the rich.  They have expensive college educations, live in nice homes, and have gobs of stuff (OWS must be the most iPhoned event in history).  My guess is that they are of the upper two quintiles, or at least their parents were.

I am wondering if the problem is not income inequality but too much income mobility.  After all, a third of the top two quartiles in 2001 had dropped into the bottom three in 2007 (while an equal number moved up). Are these the angry proletariat, or are they children of the well-off who are upset their college degree in puppetteering did not automatically keep them up with the Joneses?   Are they, in other words, Philip Rearden?

 

Wal-Mart and Income Inequality

First, I have not doubt that income inequality--  in whatever way the folks who care about such things measure it -- has increased.  The analysis that has been making the rounds of liberal blogs show the rich "capturing a higher share" of total output.  The very terminology here reveals their faulty core assumption, treating wealth as a zero-sum that must be grabbed and fought for and can only be gained to someone else's disadvantage.  They always write about incomes as if GDP is a sort of natural fountain in the desert, and the piggy rich crowd in too close to get more than their fair share of water from the fountain.

This is silly.  Wealth is created from the minds of human beings, and there are human minds that create far more wealth than others, and are able to keep some of that wealth for themselves as a reward.  I say "some" because even the richest people tend to keep only a small percentage of the wealth they create.  Sum up the benefits we all get from our iPods and iPhones and iPads, and the total number dwarfs what Apple shareholders have made from these devices.

Anyway, the actual point of this post was to revisit the notion that there are different inflation rates for the rich and poor (via Carpe Diem) that may be skewing income inequality numbers

Using scanner data on household consumption of non-durable goods between 1994 and 2005, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income households were falling over this period. This implies that non-durable inflation for the 10th percentile of the income distribution has only been 4.3 percent between 1994 and 2005 (0.4 percent per annum), while the non-durable inflation for the 90th percentile has been 11.9 percent (1.0 percent annually), and 13.4 percent (1.2 percent annually) for the richest 5 percent of households in the sample (see chart above)."...

"A large literature has focused on the rising inequality observed in official statistics, but have mostly abstracted from the fact that these official measures are based on a single price index for a representative consumer. This assumption is not crucial in a world with a stationary relative price distribution or where an identical basket of goods is consumed by different income groups. However, using household data on non-durable consumption, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income consumers have been falling over this period.

This fact implies that measured against the prices of products that poorer consumers actually buy, their "real" incomes have been rising steadily. As a consequence, we find that around half of the increase in conventional inequality measures during 1994"“2005 is the result of using the same price index for non-durable goods across different income groups. Moreover, given that the increase in price dispersion does not seem to be specific to our sample or time period, the overstatement in the increases in inequality from official measures can be even more significant, changing our view of how progress has been distributed in recent decades substantially."

The price of a night at the Four Seasons has gone up more than the price of a shirt at Wal-Mart.

False Dichotomy

False dichotomy, via Mother Jones:

Faced with a world that can support either a lot of us consuming a lot less or far fewer of us consuming more, we're deadlocked: individuals, governments, the media, scientists, environmentalists, economists, human rights workers, liberals, conservatives, business and religious leaders. On the supremely divisive question of the ideal size of the human family, we're amazingly united in a pact of silence.

My guess is that the authoritarians at Mother Jones don't particularly care which is the outcome, so long as they get to wield the coercive power to make the choice for us.  Thank God these guys didn't run things in 1900.  Or 1800.  Or 1700.  Or 1600.  Or 1500.  Given their belief in zero sum choices and their complete lack of confidence in the power of the human mind to innovate, who knows what kind of sub-optimal world we would have been locked into?

The Narrow-Mindedness of Zero-Sum Thinking

An excellent anti-Malthusian essay by Brendan O'Neill.  It is hard to do it justice with an excerpt:

What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.

The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people's living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement "“ not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.

Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: "˜This time it's definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!'

There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn't because they're stupid"¦ well, it might be a little bit because they're stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind's ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.

The language used to justify population scaremongering has changed dramatically over the centuries. In the time of Malthus in the eighteenth century the main concern was with the fecundity of poor people. In the early twentieth century there was a racial and eugenic streak to population-reduction arguments. Today they have adopted environmentalist language to justify their demands for population reduction.

The fact that the presentational arguments can change so fundamentally over time, while the core belief in "˜too many people' remains the same, really shows that this is a prejudicial outlook in search of a social or scientific justification; it is prejudice looking around for the latest trendy ideas to clothe itself in. And that is why the population scaremongers have been wrong over and over again: because behind the new language they adopt every few decades, they are really driven by narrow-mindedness, by disdain for mankind's breakthroughs, by wilful ignorance of humanity's ability to shape its surroundings and its future.

I have written about zero-sum thinking a lot, but here is one example.

What "Progressives" Are Really After, Part 2

Climate activist Adam Sacks at Grist:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the hardest collective task we've ever faced.  It has given us the intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years"”but none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora's Box tightly shut.  We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life.  It is past time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally and sustainably.  Living locally means we are able get everything we need within walking (or animal riding) distance. We may eventually figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to bring things home, but our track record isn't good and we'd better think it through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic.  We have much re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand.

Yep, let's all return to that sustainable world of 8000BC, scrap the worldwide division of labor and all our technology, and go back to subsistance farming and travelling by horse.  Gee, what a happy time that was...

Interestingly, this guy is making an incredibly common failure among physical scientists -- the attempt to apply conservation of mass/energy physical models or bacteriological growth models to economic growth:

Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always"”but always"”ending in overshot and collapse.  Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most likely both.  We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.Because of this civilization's obsession with growth, its demise is 100 percent predictable.  We simply cannot go on living this way. Our version of life on earth has come to an end.

Here is what I wrote, in a post titled "Physics, Wealth Creation, and Zero Sum Economics"

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics.  Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its all still there somewhere.

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of there work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing.  They see human society driven by entropic decline....

[But] the world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth.  There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old.  The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.

Lester Brown is at it Again

I guess it is not surprising that Lester Brown continues to scream "famine" despite being wrong about global food shortages and agricultural collapse for forty years running.  What is amazing to me is that respectable journals like Scientific American still give the guy the time of day.  But here they are this month, giving Brown plenty of print space to repeat his warmed-over apocalyptic visions and manipulated data.  Ronald Bailey has the whole story.

One of Brown's problems is that he looks at food capacity  way too narrowly.   For example, a large amount of food growing capacity are currently used for fuel.  Farmers receive billions of dollars to divert huge portions of the world's crops from the food supply to motor fuel.  Should the world ever face a real food emergency, this capacity could quickly be freed up (as it should have been already) by elimination of ethanol and other biofuel mandates and subsidies.

Further, what Brown always seems to ignore is the fact that every year, the amount of farmland dedicated to growing crops is actually shrinking around the world.   Just as he doesn't look at the capacity that is diverted to the fuel supply as an effective food inventory that can be tapped, the same is true for millions of acres of farmland that, while by definition more marginal than current acreage, could again be pressed into service should the need arise.

Repeating the Same Mistake, Over and Over

Flowing Data draws my attention to this nutty chart in the New Scientist  (I have never read the New Scientist, but my experience is that in periodicals one can generally substitute "Socialist" for the word "New").  Click to enlarge.

minerals-running-out-lol

Will the world really run out of Indium in 5 years?  Of course not.  New sources will be found.  If they are not, then prices will rise and a) demand with be reduced and b) efforts to find new sources will be redoubled.  Push come to shove, as prices rise too much, substitutes will be found (which is why John D. Rockefeller probably saved the whales).  Uranium is a great example -- sure, proved reserves are low right now, but companies that mine the stuff know that there is tons out there.  That is why they are going out of business, there is too much supply for the demand.  Any spike in price would immediately generate tons of new developed resources.  And even if we run out, there are enormous quantities of thorium which is a potential substitute in reactors.

Absolutely no one who was old enough to be paying attention to the news in the 1970s could have missed charts very similar to this.  I remember very clearly mainstream articles that we would run out of oil, titanium, tungsten, etc. by the early 1990's.  Seriously, name one commodity we have plain run out of (*cough* Julian Simon *cough*).

People say, well, the resources have to be finite and I would answer, "I suppose, but given that we have explored and mined about 0.000001% of the Earth's crust and none of the floating mineral reservoirs in space (called asteroids), I think we are a long, long way from running out."

You would think that the guys running this analysis would get tired of being so wrong so consistently for so many decades, but in fact their real point is not about resources but about the US and capitalism.  The point of the chart is not really to say that the world will credibly run out of tungsten, but to tell the world that it is time to get out their pitchforks because the US is stealing all their wealth and resources.  It is an age-old zero-sum wealth fallacy that has never held any water, but remains a powerful talking point among socialists none-the-less.

For socialists, wealth is not created by man's mind and his effort -- it is a spring in the desert with a fixed flow rate.  It just exists to be taken or fought over.  The wealthy, by this theory, have not earned their wealth, they are just the piggy ones who crowd to the front of the line and take more than their share from the spring.  Unfortunately, socialists have never been able to explain why the spring, which flowed so constantly (and so slowly) for thousands of years, suddenly burst forth with a veritable torrent in lockstep with the growth of capitalism in the west.  And why it seems to dry up in countries that adopt socialism.

Postscript: A while back I posted on the New Economics Foundation  (remember what I said about "New") and their claim the world had just gone into ecological debt.

Not The Best of Times Because, Why?

Kevin Drum posts this chart as a one-picture refutation of McCain's statement that we are living in the best of times.

Um, OK.  We all got wealthier.  And the problem is, what?  That someone else got even wealthier than I did?  So what.  Do we really have to keep refuting this zero-sum economics-of-envy argument?

I won't get into the whole zero-sum thing, because the chart itself proves that the world can't be zero-sum, since everyone got richer on average.  But here is a full refutation of zero-sum wealth arguments.  Also, a zero-sum wealth quiz here.

Looking at changes in income brackets is
always misleading. In the US, most folks are migrating up the brackets
as they age and gain experience. So most folks benefit not just from
the increase in their bracket but a migration to the next bracket.

To this last point, the bottom end of the bracket is being flooded
with new immigrants (legal or not) with poor skills and often no
English. They drag down the averages, again understating how well the
typical person is doing.  Lifetime surveys of individuals rather than percentile brackets always demonstrate that individuals gain wealth over time much fast than this type of analysis demonstrates.  And even the new immigrants at the bottom are presumably gaining vs. their previous circumstances, or else why else would they have immigrated in the first place.

Here is an alternate response to whether we are in the best of times.

By the way, here is an interesting article on why using a single inflation rate for the poor and the rich to get real income growth may be incorrect.  There is an argument to be made that the poor have a lower inflation rate than the rich, thanks to Wal-Mart.

The Worst Thing I have Seen From a Major Media Company in Quite a While

The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) web site has an absolutely horrible kid's game called "Planet Slayer."  In this game, kids answer lifestyle questions and the program tells them when they should die because they have used up their "fair share" of the world's resources.  The less politically correct kids are, or the wealthier they are, the sooner they are told they should die.  Accepting the default, average choices in the games tells kids they should die when they are 9 years old.

Yeah, I know you think I am exaggerating.  Because this is likely to get pulled down soon, I will show you a series of screenshots from it.  Whether it gets pulled down or not, a major media company (with all of its famed multiple levels of editorial control) thought this was a good game for kids.  I actually delayed publishing this, because I wanted to make sure this was not some kind of hack or joke site.  But you can get there right from the ABC home page by clicking "science" in the top menu and clicking on the planet slayer game icon at the bottom of the science page.  I still wonder whether it's a put on - it's that bad.

Here is the landing page (click on any page to increase the size):

One

Yep, that little sign does indeed say "find out when you should die."  Here the game is explained:

Two

Here is the first question:

Three

With each question, if you choose any answer that might not indicate that you are a subsistence farmer in Africa living on a $1 a day, your pig gets fatter.  I really encourage you to check out the whole thing.  It is one politically correct litmus test after another.  My pig got slightly fatter, until I got to this one:

Four

Answering that you spend any more than $10,000 AUS (about a 1:1 conversion with US dollars), your pig will get really fat.  The wealthier you are, the more evil you are in a direct relationship.  It is a point I have made for a while:  global warming alarmists consider their preferred solution to environmental issues to be universal poverty. 

Five

There is me, really evil, because I earn a good living.  And, as we can see with this question, since I spend my money on ordinary stuff that I actually want, rather than where the authors would like me to spend it, I really suck.  When you hit the final button, you pig is actually exploded in a bloody mess  (yes, the red is blood).  As it turns out, I should have been strangled at birth:

Six

Hat tip to Watts Up With That.  Really, in some ways this is an awesome game.   Never have I seen such a pure combination of Marxist-style zero-sum economics with science-challenged warming alarmism.

I don't think I need to bother refuting any of this.  If you are new to the site, you can find a basic refutation of zero-sum economics here and a series of resources on global warming, from a book to free Youtube videos, here.

Environmentalists Want Us To Celebrate Squalor

I really want to thank Michael Tobis at environmentalist hang-out Grist.   For years people have accused me of over-reading  the intentions of climate catastrophists, so I am thankful that Tobis has finally stated what climate catastrophists are after (emphasis in the original, but it is the exact phrase I would have highlighted as well)

Is infinite growth of some meaningful
  quantity possible in a finite space? No scientist is inclined to think
  so, but economists habitually make this
  claim without bothering to defend it with anything but, "I'm, an
  economist and I say so", or perhaps more thoughtfully, "hey, it's
  worked until now".

Such ideas were good approximations in the past. Once the finite
  nature of our world comes into play they become very bad approximations. You know, the gods of Easter Island
smiled on its people "until now" for a long time, until they didn't.
The presumption of growth is so pervasive that great swaths of economic
theory simply fail to make any sense if a negative growth rate occurs.
What, for instance, does a negative discount rate portend? ...

The
  whole growth thing becomes a toxic addiction. The only path to a soft
  landing is down
; we in the overheated economies need to learn not just
  to cope with decline but to celebrate it. We need not just an ideology
  but a formal theory that can not only cope with reduced per capita
  impact but can target it.

Decline isn't bad news in an airplane. Decline is about reaching
your destination. Perhaps there is some level of economic activity
beyond which life gets worse? Perhaps in some countries we have already
passed that point? Could the time where we'd all be better off with a
gradual decline have arrived? How much attention should we pay to the
folks who say we should keep climbing, that there's no way we can run
out of fuel, that we'll think of something?

So there it is, in the third paragraph, with no danger of misinterpretation.  These folks want economic decline.  That's a fancy way of saying "We want you poorer."

I could spend weeks writing about the fallacies and anti-human philosophy embedded in these four paragraphs, but here are just a few reactions.

The Zero Sum Fallacy

Every generation has people, like Mr. Tobis, who scream that we are all living in a petri dish and this is the generation we run out of Agar.  Of course they are always wrong.  Why? 

Well, first, the prime driver of economic growth is not resources but the human mind.  And the world of ideas has no capacity limits.   This is an  issue that Julian Simon wrote about so clearly.   Tobis is trying to apply physical models to wealth creation, and they just don't apply.  (and by the way, ask the passengers of TWA flight 800 if decline isn't bad news in an airplane).

Further, if we talk about the world of resources, we currently use a trivial fraction of the world's resources.  By a conservative estimate, we have employed at most (including the soil we till for agriculture, extracted minerals, etc) less than 0.0001% of the earth's mass.  In terms of energy, all energy (except nuclear) comes ultimately from the sun  (fossil fuels, hydropower reservoirs, etc are just convenient storage repositories of the sun's energy).  We currently use an infinitesimal percentage of the sun's energy. I wrote much more on the zero-sum wealth fallacy here.  And here is my ancestor blogger in Coyote Broadsheet making the same fallacy as Mr. Tobis back in the 19th century, writing on the Peak Whale Theory.

Wealth Benefits the Environment

Just like actual 20th century data tends to undermine catastrophic climate forecasts, experience over the last century tends to contradict the notion that growth is devastating to the environment. 

We can find the best example right here in the environmental Satan called the USA.  The US has cleaner air and water today than in any time in decades.  Because of technology and growth, we can produce more food on less land than ever -- in fact the amount of land dedicated to agriculture has shrunk for years, allowing forests to steadily expand in the US for over eighty years (that is, until the environmentalists got the government to subsidize ethanol).   No one in Brazil would be burning huge tracts of the Amazon if they enjoyed the agricultural productivity we do in the US.  Sure, we have done some things that turn out to be environmentally bad (e.g. lead in gasoline) but our wealth has allowed us to fairly painlessly fix these mistakes, even if the fixes have not come as fast as environmentalists have desired. 

I will confess that the Chinese seem hell bent on messing up their air and water as much as possible, but, just like the United States, it will be the wealthy middle and upper class of China that will finally demand that things get cleaned up, and it will be their wealth, not their poverty, that allows them to do so.   Similarly, I don't think CO2 reduction will do much of anything to improve our climate, but if we find it necessary, it will be through application of wealth, not squalor, that we overcome the problems. 

Here is a simple test:  Which countries of the world have the worst environmental problems?  Its is the poorest countries, not the wealthiest.

Growth / Climate Tradeoffs

For the sake of argument, let's assume that man-made global warming increases severed storm frequency by 20%, or by 3 or 4 extra hurricanes a year (why this probably is not happening).  Even a point or two knocked off worldwide economic growth means hundreds of trillions of dollars in lost annual GDP a century from now (2% growth yields a world economy of $450 trillion in a century.  3% growth yields a world economy $1,150 trillion in a hundred years.)  So, using these figures, would the world be better off with the current level of hurricanes, or would it be better off with four more hurricanes but $700 trillion a year more to deal with them.  Hmmm.  Remember, life lost in a hurricane correlates much higher with poverty in the area the hurricane hit rather than with storm strength, as demonstrated by recent cyclones in Asia.  This general line of reasoning is usually described as warmer and richer vs. cooler and poorer

I cannot speak for Mr. Tobis, but many environmentalists find this kind of reasoning offensive.  They believe that it is a sin for man to modify the earth at all, and that changing the climate in any way is wrong, even if man is not hurt substantially by this change.  Of course, in climate, we have only been observing climate for 30-100 years, while climate goes through decadal, millennial, and even million-year cycles.  So it is a bit hard to tell exactly what is natural for Gaia and what is not, but that does stop environmentalists from declaring that they know what is unnatural.  I grew up in the deep South, and their position sounds exactly like a good fiery Baptist minister preaching on the sins of humanity.

More from Jerry Taylor, who got Tobis started on his rant in the first place.

Postscript:  Here is an interesting chicken or the egg problem:  Do you think Mr. Tobias learned about man-made global warming first, and then came to the conclusion that growth is bad?  Or did Mr. Tobis previously believe that man needed to be fewer and poorer, and become enthusiastic about global warming theory as a clever packaging for ideas most of the world's population would reject?  The answer to this question is a window on why 1)  the socialists and anti-globalization folks have been so quiet lately (the have all jumped onto global warming); 2)  no one in the global warming movement wants to debate the science any longer  (because the point is not the science but the license to smack down the world economy)  and 3)  why so much of the Bali conference seems to be about wealth transfers than environmentalism.

Environmentalists Want Us To Celebrate Squalor

I really want to thank Michael Tobis at environmentalist hang-out Grist.   For years people have accused me of over-reading  the intentions of climate catastrophists, so I am thankful that Tobis has finally stated what climate catastrophists are after (emphasis in the original, but it is the exact phrase I would have highlighted as well)

Is infinite growth of some meaningful
  quantity possible in a finite space? No scientist is inclined to think
  so, but economists habitually make this
  claim without bothering to defend it with anything but, "I'm, an
  economist and I say so", or perhaps more thoughtfully, "hey, it's
  worked until now".

Such ideas were good approximations in the past. Once the finite
  nature of our world comes into play they become very bad approximations. You know, the gods of Easter Island
smiled on its people "until now" for a long time, until they didn't.
The presumption of growth is so pervasive that great swaths of economic
theory simply fail to make any sense if a negative growth rate occurs.
What, for instance, does a negative discount rate portend? ...

The
  whole growth thing becomes a toxic addiction. The only path to a soft
  landing is down
; we in the overheated economies need to learn not just
  to cope with decline but to celebrate it. We need not just an ideology
  but a formal theory that can not only cope with reduced per capita
  impact but can target it.

Decline isn't bad news in an airplane. Decline is about reaching
your destination. Perhaps there is some level of economic activity
beyond which life gets worse? Perhaps in some countries we have already
passed that point? Could the time where we'd all be better off with a
gradual decline have arrived? How much attention should we pay to the
folks who say we should keep climbing, that there's no way we can run
out of fuel, that we'll think of something?

So there it is, in the third paragraph, with no danger of misinterpretation.  These folks want economic decline.  That's a fancy way of saying "We want you poorer."

I could spend weeks writing about the fallacies and anti-human philosophy embedded in these four paragraphs, but here are just a few reactions.

The Zero Sum Fallacy

Every generation has people, like Mr. Tobis, who scream that we are all living in a petri dish and this is the generation we run out of Agar.  Of course they are always wrong.  Why? 

Well, first, the prime driver of economic growth is not resources but the human mind.  And the world of ideas has no capacity limits.   This is an  issue that Julian Simon wrote about so clearly.   Tobis is trying to apply physical models to wealth creation, and they just don't apply.  (and by the way, ask the passengers of TWA flight 800 if decline isn't bad news in an airplane).

Further, if we talk about the world of resources, we currently use a trivial fraction of the world's resources.  By a conservative estimate, we have employed at most (including the soil we till for agriculture, extracted minerals, etc) less than 0.0001% of the earth's mass.  In terms of energy, all energy (except nuclear) comes ultimately from the sun  (fossil fuels, hydropower reservoirs, etc are just convenient storage repositories of the sun's energy).  We currently use an infinitesimal percentage of the sun's energy. I wrote much more on the zero-sum wealth fallacy here.  And here is my ancestor blogger in Coyote Broadsheet making the same fallacy as Mr. Tobis back in the 19th century, writing on the Peak Whale Theory.

Wealth Benefits the Environment

Just like actual 20th century data tends to undermine catastrophic climate forecasts, experience over the last century tends to contradict the notion that growth is devastating to the environment. 

We can find the best example right here in the environmental Satan called the USA.  The US has cleaner air and water today than in any time in decades.  Because of technology and growth, we can produce more food on less land than ever -- in fact the amount of land dedicated to agriculture has shrunk for years, allowing forests to steadily expand in the US for over eighty years (that is, until the environmentalists got the government to subsidize ethanol).   No one in Brazil would be burning huge tracts of the Amazon if they enjoyed the agricultural productivity we do in the US.  Sure, we have done some things that turn out to be environmentally bad (e.g. lead in gasoline) but our wealth has allowed us to fairly painlessly fix these mistakes, even if the fixes have not come as fast as environmentalists have desired. 

I will confess that the Chinese seem hell bent on messing up their air and water as much as possible, but, just like the United States, it will be the wealthy middle and upper class of China that will finally demand that things get cleaned up, and it will be their wealth, not their poverty, that allows them to do so.   Similarly, I don't think CO2 reduction will do much of anything to improve our climate, but if we find it necessary, it will be through application of wealth, not squalor, that we overcome the problems. 

Here is a simple test:  Which countries of the world have the worst environmental problems?  Its is the poorest countries, not the wealthiest.

Growth / Climate Tradeoffs

For the sake of argument, let's assume that man-made global warming increases severed storm frequency by 20%, or by 3 or 4 extra hurricanes a year (why this probably is not happening).  Even a point or two knocked off worldwide economic growth means hundreds of trillions of dollars in lost annual GDP a century from now (2% growth yields a world economy of $450 trillion in a century.  3% growth yields a world economy $1,150 trillion in a hundred years.)  So, using these figures, would the world be better off with the current level of hurricanes, or would it be better off with four more hurricanes but $700 trillion a year more to deal with them.  Hmmm.  Remember, life lost in a hurricane correlates much higher with poverty in the area the hurricane hit rather than with storm strength, as demonstrated by recent cyclones in Asia.  This general line of reasoning is usually described as warmer and richer vs. cooler and poorer

I cannot speak for Mr. Tobis, but many environmentalists find this kind of reasoning offensive.  They believe that it is a sin for man to modify the earth at all, and that changing the climate in any way is wrong, even if man is not hurt substantially by this change.  Of course, in climate, we have only been observing climate for 30-100 years, while climate goes through decadal, millennial, and even million-year cycles.  So it is a bit hard to tell exactly what is natural for Gaia and what is not, but that does stop environmentalists from declaring that they know what is unnatural.  I grew up in the deep South, and their position sounds exactly like a good fiery Baptist minister preaching on the sins of humanity.

More from Jerry Taylor, who got Tobis started on his rant in the first place.

Postscript:  Here is an interesting chicken or the egg problem:  Do you think Mr. Tobias learned about man-made global warming first, and then came to the conclusion that growth is bad?  Or did Mr. Tobis previously believe that man needed to be fewer and poorer, and become enthusiastic about global warming theory as a clever packaging for ideas most of the world's population would reject?  The answer to this question is a window on why 1)  the socialists and anti-globalization folks have been so quiet lately (the have all jumped onto global warming); 2)  no one in the global warming movement wants to debate the science any longer  (because the point is not the science but the license to smack down the world economy)  and 3)  why so much of the Bali conference seems to be about wealth transfers than environmentalism.

Environmentalists Want Us To Celebrate Squalor

I really want to thank Michael Tobis at environmentalist hang-out Grist.   For years people have accused me of over-reading  the intentions of climate catastrophists, so I am thankful that Tobis has finally stated what climate catastrophists are after (emphasis in the original, but it is the exact phrase I would have highlighted as well)

Is infinite growth of some meaningful
  quantity possible in a finite space? No scientist is inclined to think
  so, but economists habitually make this
  claim without bothering to defend it with anything but, "I'm, an
  economist and I say so", or perhaps more thoughtfully, "hey, it's
  worked until now".

Such ideas were good approximations in the past. Once the finite
  nature of our world comes into play they become very bad approximations. You know, the gods of Easter Island
smiled on its people "until now" for a long time, until they didn't.
The presumption of growth is so pervasive that great swaths of economic
theory simply fail to make any sense if a negative growth rate occurs.
What, for instance, does a negative discount rate portend? ...

The
  whole growth thing becomes a toxic addiction. The only path to a soft
  landing is down
; we in the overheated economies need to learn not just
  to cope with decline but to celebrate it. We need not just an ideology
  but a formal theory that can not only cope with reduced per capita
  impact but can target it.

Decline isn't bad news in an airplane. Decline is about reaching
your destination. Perhaps there is some level of economic activity
beyond which life gets worse? Perhaps in some countries we have already
passed that point? Could the time where we'd all be better off with a
gradual decline have arrived? How much attention should we pay to the
folks who say we should keep climbing, that there's no way we can run
out of fuel, that we'll think of something?

So there it is, in the third paragraph, with no danger of misinterpretation.  These folks want economic decline.  That's a fancy way of saying "We want you poorer."

I could spend weeks writing about the fallacies and anti-human philosophy embedded in these four paragraphs, but here are just a few reactions.

The Zero Sum Fallacy

Every generation has people, like Mr. Tobis, who scream that we are all living in a petri dish and this is the generation we run out of Agar.  Of course they are always wrong.  Why? 

Well, first, the prime driver of economic growth is not resources but the human mind.  And the world of ideas has no capacity limits.   This is an  issue that Julian Simon wrote about so clearly.   Tobis is trying to apply physical models to wealth creation, and they just don't apply.  (and by the way, ask the passengers of TWA flight 800 if decline isn't bad news in an airplane).

Further, if we talk about the world of resources, we currently use a trivial fraction of the world's resources.  By a conservative estimate, we have employed at most (including the soil we till for agriculture, extracted minerals, etc) less than 0.0001% of the earth's mass.  In terms of energy, all energy (except nuclear) comes ultimately from the sun  (fossil fuels, hydropower reservoirs, etc are just convenient storage repositories of the sun's energy).  We currently use an infinitesimal percentage of the sun's energy. I wrote much more on the zero-sum wealth fallacy here.  And here is my ancestor blogger in Coyote Broadsheet making the same fallacy as Mr. Tobis back in the 19th century, writing on the Peak Whale Theory.

Wealth Benefits the Environment

Just like actual 20th century data tends to undermine catastrophic climate forecasts, experience over the last century tends to contradict the notion that growth is devastating to the environment. 

We can find the best example right here in the environmental Satan called the USA.  The US has cleaner air and water today than in any time in decades.  Because of technology and growth, we can produce more food on less land than ever -- in fact the amount of land dedicated to agriculture has shrunk for years, allowing forests to steadily expand in the US for over eighty years (that is, until the environmentalists got the government to subsidize ethanol).   No one in Brazil would be burning huge tracts of the Amazon if they enjoyed the agricultural productivity we do in the US.  Sure, we have done some things that turn out to be environmentally bad (e.g. lead in gasoline) but our wealth has allowed us to fairly painlessly fix these mistakes, even if the fixes have not come as fast as environmentalists have desired. 

I will confess that the Chinese seem hell bent on messing up their air and water as much as possible, but, just like the United States, it will be the wealthy middle and upper class of China that will finally demand that things get cleaned up, and it will be their wealth, not their poverty, that allows them to do so.   Similarly, I don't think CO2 reduction will do much of anything to improve our climate, but if we find it necessary, it will be through application of wealth, not squalor, that we overcome the problems. 

Here is a simple test:  Which countries of the world have the worst environmental problems?  Its is the poorest countries, not the wealthiest.

Growth / Climate Tradeoffs

For the sake of argument, let's assume that man-made global warming increases severed storm frequency by 20%, or by 3 or 4 extra hurricanes a year (why this probably is not happening).  Even a point or two knocked off worldwide economic growth means hundreds of trillions of dollars in lost annual GDP a century from now (2% growth yields a world economy of $450 trillion in a century.  3% growth yields a world economy $1,150 trillion in a hundred years.)  So, using these figures, would the world be better off with the current level of hurricanes, or would it be better off with four more hurricanes but $700 trillion a year more to deal with them.  Hmmm.  Remember, life lost in a hurricane correlates much higher with poverty in the area the hurricane hit rather than with storm strength, as demonstrated by recent cyclones in Asia.  This general line of reasoning is usually described as warmer and richer vs. cooler and poorer

I cannot speak for Mr. Tobis, but many environmentalists find this kind of reasoning offensive.  They believe that it is a sin for man to modify the earth at all, and that changing the climate in any way is wrong, even if man is not hurt substantially by this change.  Of course, in climate, we have only been observing climate for 30-100 years, while climate goes through decadal, millennial, and even million-year cycles.  So it is a bit hard to tell exactly what is natural for Gaia and what is not, but that does stop environmentalists from declaring that they know what is unnatural.  I grew up in the deep South, and their position sounds exactly like a good fiery Baptist minister preaching on the sins of humanity.

More from Jerry Taylor, who got Tobis started on his rant in the first place.

Postscript:  Here is an interesting chicken or the egg problem:  Do you think Mr. Tobias learned about man-made global warming first, and then came to the conclusion that growth is bad?  Or did Mr. Tobis previously believe that man needed to be fewer and poorer, and become enthusiastic about global warming theory as a clever packaging for ideas most of the world's population would reject?  The answer to this question is a window on why 1)  the socialists and anti-globalization folks have been so quiet lately (the have all jumped onto global warming); 2)  no one in the global warming movement wants to debate the science any longer  (because the point is not the science but the license to smack down the world economy)  and 3)  why so much of the Bali conference seems to be about wealth transfers than environmentalism.

Poverty Ain't What it Used to Be

The Heritage Foundation has an interesting study out on the population that lives below the poverty line.  While we typically get lots of headlines like "A million more people in poverty,"  the real headline should be "Poverty ain't what it used to be."  Create a mental image for yourself about poverty then read the first part of the article.

I won't repeat the studies points -- you can read them at the link or you have probably seen the study already linked around the blogosphere (e.g. Captains Quarters, Cato-at-Liberty, Reason, Maggie's Farm).  Reading the descriptions, its clear that most of our visual images and assumptions about US "poverty" don't line up well with this list.   This is by design.  Progressives who want more transfer payments and more government interventionism work hard to create a stark mental image of poverty through anecdotes, and then try to apply that mental image to a much larger population based on a very different definition of poverty than in this mental image. 

However, this approach may be set to backfire.  By defining poverty broadly to try to pump up the numbers, they are at risk of people losing sympathy for the poor.  I can see the progressive reaction now -- they are going to say (correctly) that buried in these numbers are a hard core of people who are really destitute.  And they are correct.  But they only have themselves to blame for burying these folks in a larger group whose lives don't match our mental picture of poverty.  And the poverty numbers aren't the only place where this approach is taken. 

I am sure you have heard the commercials that say something like one in six kids in America are hungry.  It's a crock.  There are at most perhaps 2-3 million people in this country who are really destitute.  The Census department found that only 6% of the people below the poverty line, about 2 million people, reported they sometimes did not have enough food to eat.  Sure, that sucks.  Which is why I volunteer with my kids at the local food bank.  But it's way, way short of the numbers activists try to use to justify huge new government programs and transfers.

Other thoughts

One issue not discussed, but covered in other studies, is the transience of people in the bottom quintile of income.  Most of us imagine the same people in poverty survey after survey, and again that is probably true for the hard core of 2-3 million.  But many of the rest move out of poverty over time.  In particular, we have had a huge influx of immigrants (legal and illegal) over the last several decades.  These folks are all counted in the poverty numbers.  Many immigrants arrive below the poverty line, and then work their way out of it. 

In a related post, Brad DeLong looks at what life was like even for the well off in 1900, and one can easily come to the conclusion that being poor today might be better than well off in 1900.  I made a similar point in this post, when I compared the life of the very rich in 1850 to the middle class today.  All of this is empirical proof that wealth is not zero-sum, as assumed by progressives, but is created and expends.  My post of the zero-sum wealth fallacy is here.

I've made the point for a long time that our poor are better off than the middle class in most countries of the world.  This living space comparison is an example - our poor typically have more living space in their homes than the middle class in Europe, or the well-to-do in many other countries.  But there is always that issue of income inequality that is raised, to which I typically answer "so what?"  If the poor are better off in the US, does it matter if the rich are really, really better off?  Note sometime the language that is always used in income inequality discussions.  You will hear folks talking about the "share of total income" as if income is a spring bubbling up in the desert, spewing a fixed amount of wealth, and the rich are the piggy folks up front getting more than their fair share of this limited resource. 

Leftish studies love to show how the US economic model is so much more heartless than those wonderful Europeans.   Below is a typical chart they use, and it will bring us full circle to our original point about measuring poverty.

Study1

Wow, those heartless damn Americans!  Letting those children suffer.  But wait, we talked earlier about definitions of poverty - how do they define poverty here?  It turns out that poverty is defined as income 50% or less of the median income in that country.  Yes, you heard that right -- the standard for poverty changes country to country.  So the US has the worst results here because in large part, since it has the highest median income of any country in this survey, it has been given the highest poverty line.  Of COURSE we will have higher poverty numbers if you give us a higher poverty bar.  The honest way to do this study would be to set an absolute poverty line and apply it to each country on a purchasing power parity basis.  But of course, the progressives would not like the results of such an honest study.

BUT, someone in this study made a mistake -- they should lose their socialist decoder card for this.  Because in a fit of honesty, they actually restated one of their charts on a relatively fair basis.  Here is the original income equality chart:
Study3

You get the point, the US sucks as always -- our poor are the poorest.  But are they?  Again, the standard in each line is the median income of that country, so it is a changing standard in each case.  But what if we restated it all to a common dollar amount.  This is where the progressives fell into a fit of honesty.  They restated this chart so that every bar is a percentage of the US median income.

Study2

Now we see the real story - except for Norway and Switzerland, our poorest folks are about on par with those in other western countries, and this is WITHOUT the crushing burden of welfare state regulation and taxation.  Further, the poor in the US are much more mobile than those in other country -- the ranks of our poor will have turned over much more than any of these other countries in 10 years.  Finally, my bet is that if you did this chart without recent immigrants, the US poor would best most every country in Europe in terms of income -- US has a lot of immigration and it is disproportionately poor vs. immigration into other European countries (note that most poverty numbers include illegal immigrants, but most official immigration numbers do not include illegal immigrants).

So, if our poor are doing just as well, then I leave it as an exercise to give any rational reason why the fact that our rich are doing much better matters one damn bit.

Mutual Self-Interest

One of the most fundamental premises of economics is that in a free society, an exchange or transaction only takes place when it benefits both the parties.  Unfortunately, given how simple this axiom is and how easy it is to prove, it is either not accepted or not understood by a huge number of Americans.  Thus we get any number of variations of the zero-sum wealth fallacy, and we get this, from Overlawyered:

A reader writes: "Am I wrong to believe that businesses and
consumers are natural enemies in that their economic interests are
diametrically opposed?"

Yes, you're wrong. Transactions don't occur unless both parties are
better off. Businesses thus only profit if they can create consumer
surplus"”the ability to sell a product at a price that is less than what
a consumer values the good or service. Businesses' interests are thus
aligned with consumers who seek consumer surplus. Businesses more often
prosper by creating satisfied consumers who become repeat customers who
promote the business's reputation rather than trying to extract every
last ounce of wealth from them in a single transaction. This is why
brand names and advertising are so important, because they are market
signals of long-term commitment to customer satisfaction. It's not
profitable to invest in creating a brand name if one intends on having
a bad reputation. (Note the key word "intends" there; no doubt one can
intend to have good customer service and fail to achieve it, and I'm
looking at you, Comcast.) And one will note that businesses that tend
not to have repeat customers or rely on word of mouth are more likely
businesses that have reputations of indifference about customer
satisfaction: tourist traps, traveling carnivals, etc.

A while back a made a purchase of a number of modular cabins for one of the campgrounds we operate.  After the delivery, the sales person called me to thank me for my business.  My reaction was "Thank me?  I should be thanking you."  The cabins are a huge boost to my business -- already I am getting great customer feedback -- and the modular technology saved me a ton of money on construction.  See?  Both the buyer and the seller were thrilled, because we were both better off.

Introducing Obama to Capitalism

Via TJIC:

In his commencement speech at Southern New Hampshire University
this morning, Obama - like most commencement speakers - delivered a
call to public service; unlike many, however, he also warned against
the charms of doing what most college graduates set out to do: Make
money.

"In a few minutes, you can take your diploma, walk off this
stage and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the
nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you
should buy.

"But I hope you don't. Focusing your life solely on making a
buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. And
it will leave you unfulfilled," he told the crowd.

This statement would certainly be true in 18th century European monarchies, in Soviet Russia, in third world Kleptocracies, in Cuba, and in Chavez's Venezuela.  Because making money in these environments is a zero-sum game, and the only way to get rich is to loot it from some poor schmuck who is actually creating the value.

But here in America, we (mostly) have this cool system called capitalism.  In capitalism, all interactions are based on the voluntary self-interest of the parties involved.  This means that one only can "make a buck" by doing something or making something that is of value to another person.  And only by successfully serving the needs of a LOT of people does one get really rich. 

TJIC's conclusion is wonderful:

Far better that they spend their life

  • majoring in political "science"
  • working for a meaningless non-profit
  • trying to register more people to vote so that the negative-sum game of politics can have more credibility
  • helping political partisans redrawn electoral district boundaries in the same negative-sum game of politics
  • being a senator, pushing for more regulations and tax increases

That, clearly, is a fulfilling life.

Let the suckers create value.

The best and brightest should just steal it, and move it around
(while taking some portion of it for themselves, and destroying another
portion of it).

Beware of people who try to demonstrate how much they "care" using other peoples' money.

Wealth Creation and the Zero-Sum Fallacy

This is an update of an article I post every year or two around tax day.  I was going to skip this year, but tomorrow is the premiere of a show (which I have not seen yet) called the Ultimate Resource which seems to be named after Julian Simon's great book, and looks to be focused on many of the same issues I address in this post.

One of the worst ideas that affect public policy around the world is that wealth is somehow zero sum - that it can be stolen or taken or moved or looted but not created.  G8 protesters who claim that poor nations are poor because wealthy nations have made them that way;  the NY Times, which for years has flogged the idea that the fact of the rich getting richer in this country somehow is a threat to the rest of us; Paul Krugman, who fears that economic advances in China will make the US poorer:  All of these positions rest on the notion that wealth is fixed, so that increases in one area must be accompanied by decreases in others.  Mercantilism, Marxism, protectionism, and many other destructive -isms have all rested on zero-sum economic thinking.

The (Incorrect) Physics Analogy

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics. Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its
all still there somewhere.

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of their work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing. They see human society driven by entropic decline.

Wealth Is Demonstrably Not Zero-Sum

So are they wrong?  Are economics and society driven by something similar to the first and second laws of thermodynamics?  I will answer this in a couple of ways.

First, lets ask the related question:  Is wealth zero sum and is society, or at least the material portions of society, always in decline?  The answer is so obviously no to both that it is hard to believe that these concepts are still believed by anyone, much less by a large number of people.  However, since so many people do cling to these false notions, we will spend a moment or two with it.

The following analysis relies on data gathered by Julian Simon and Stephen Moore in Its Getting Better all the Time:  100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years. In fact, there is probably little in this post that Julian Simon has not said more articulately, but if all we bloggers waited for a new and fresh idea before we blogged, well, there would not be much blogging going on.

Lets compare the life of an average American in 1900 and today.  On every dimension you can think of, we all are orders of magnitude wealthier today (by wealth, I mean the term broadly.  I mean not just cash, like Scrooge McDuck's big vault, but also lifespan, healthiness, leisure time, quality of life, etc).

  • Life expectancy has increase from 47 to 77 years
  • Infant mortality rates have fallen from one in ten to one in 150.
  • Average income - in real dollars - has risen from $4,748 to $32,444

In 1900, the average person started their working life at 13, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with no real vacation right up to the day they died in their mid-forties.  Today, the average person works 8 hours a day for five days a week and gets 2-3 weeks of vacation.  They work from the age of 18, and sometimes start work as late as 25, and typically take at least 10 years of retirement before they die.

But what about the poor?  Well, the poor are certainly wealthier today than the poor were in 1900.  But in many ways, the poor are wealthier even than the "robber barons" of the 19th century:  Just check out this comparison!  Today, even people below the poverty line have a good chance to live past 70.  99% of those below the poverty line in the US have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator.  95% have a TV, 88% have a phone, 71% have a car, and 70%have air conditioning.  Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these, and his children only got running water and electricity later in life.

To anticipate the zero-summer's response, I presume they would argue that the US somehow did this by "exploiting" other countries.  Its hard to imagine the mechanism for this, especially since the US did not have a colonial empire like France or Britain, and in fact the US net gave away more wealth to other nations in the last century (in the form of outright grants as well as money and lives spent in their defense) than every other nation on earth combined.  I won't go into the detailed proof here, but you can do the same analysis we did for the US for every country in the world:  Virtually no one has gotten worse, and 99.9% of the people of the world are at least as wealthy (again in the broad sense) or wealthier than in 1900.  Yes, some have slipped in relative terms vs. the richest nations, but everyone is up on an absolute basis.

The (Correct) Physics Analogy

Which leads to the obvious conclusion, that I shouldn't have had to take so much time to prove:  The world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth. There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old. The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

The Human Mind Has Huge Potential Energy

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.

But you might say - that can't be right.  What about gold, that's wealth isn't it, and it just comes out of the ground.  Yes, it comes out of the ground, but how?  And where?   If you have ever traveled around the western US, say in Colorado, you will have seen certain hills covered in old mines.  It has always fascinated me, how those hills riddled with shafts looked, to me, exactly the same as the 20 other hills around it that were untouched.  How did miners know to look in that one hill?  Don Boudroux at Cafe Hayek expounded on this theme:

I seldom use the term "natural resource." With the possible exception of water, no resource is natural. Usefulness is not an objective and timeless feature ordained by nature for those scarce things that we regard as resources. That is, all things that are resources become resources only after individual human beings creatively figure out how these things can be used in worthwhile ways for human betterment.

Consider, for example, crude oil. A natural resource? Not at all. I suspect that to the pre-Columbian peoples who lived in what is now Pennsylvania, the inky, smelly, black matter that oozed into creeks and streams was a nuisance. To them, oil certainly was no resource.

Petroleum's usefulness to humans "“ hence, its value to humans "“ is built upon a series of countless creative human insights about how oil can be used and how it can be cost-effectively extracted from the earth. Without this human creativity, oil would objectively exist but it would be either useless or a nuisance.

A while back, I published this anecdote which I think applies here:

Hanging out at the beach one day with a distant family member, we got into a discussion about capitalism and socialism.  In particular, we were arguing about whether brute labor, as socialism teaches, is the source of all wealth (which, socialism further argues, is in turn stolen by the capitalist masters).  The young woman, as were most people her age, was taught mainly by the socialists who dominate college academia nowadays.  I was trying to find a way to connect with her, to get her to question her assumptions, but was struggling because she really had not been taught many of the fundamental building blocks of either philosophy or economics, but rather a mish-mash of politically correct points of view that seem to substitute nowadays for both.

I picked up a handful of sand, and said "this is almost pure silicon, virtually identical to what powers a computer.  Take as much labor as you want, and build me a computer with it -- the only limitation is you can only have true manual laborers - no engineers or  managers or other capitalist lackeys".

She replied that my request was BS, that it took a lot of money to build an electronics plant, and her group of laborers didn't have any and bankers would never lend them any.

I told her - assume for our discussion that I have tons of money, and I will give you and your laborers as much as you need.  The only restriction I put on it is that you may only buy raw materials - steel, land, silicon - in their crudest forms.  It is up to you to assemble these raw materials, with your laborers, to build the factory and make me my computer.

She thought for a few seconds, and responded "but I can't - I don't know how.  I need someone to tell me how to do it"

The only real difference between beach sand, worth $0, and a microchip, worth thousands of dollars a gram, is what the human mind has added.

The economist Julian Simon is famous for his rebuttals of the zero summers and the pessimists and doom sayers, arguing that the human mind has unlimited ability to bring plenty our of scarcity.

"The ultimate resource is people - especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty- who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well."

A Framework For Wealth Creation

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that the world still has only harnessed a fraction of this potential.  To understand this, it is useful to look back at history.

From the year 1000 to the year 1700, the world's wealth, measured as GDP per capita, was virtually unchanged. Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth, created by the human mind.  And it was unleashed because the world began to change in some fundamental ways around 1700 that allowed the human mind to truly flourish.  Among these changes, I will focus on two:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs.  In this formulation, I use "beliefs" in its broadest possible meaning, encompassing everything from the belief that the earth is the center of the universe to the belief that music has to be sold in stores on physical media There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth without the encumbrance of artificial state-imposed class limits or mind-numbing regulatory barriers.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom.
  2. So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

The problem (and the ultimate potential) comes from the fact that in many, many nations of the world, these two changes have not yet been allowed to occur.  Look around the world - for any country, ask yourself if the average person in that country has the open intellectual climate that encourages people to think for themselves, and the open political and economic climate that allows people to act on the insights their minds provide and to keep the fruits of their effort.  Where you can answer yes to both, you will find wealth and growth.  Where you answer no to both, you will find poverty and misery.

Even in the US, regulation and the inherent conservatism of the bureaucracy slow our potential improvement.  Republicans block stem cell research, Democrats block genetically modified foods, protectionists block free trade, the FDA slows drug innovation, regulatory bodies of all stripes try to block new business models.

All over the world, governments shackle the human mind and limit the potential of humanity.

Postscript: From the press release for the Ultimate Resource, showing why the show has me interested:

Free Market incentives are spectacularly changing lives over much of the world. In the last 25 years, hundreds of millions of people-- 400 million in China alone-- have climbed out of the dire poverty of living on less than $1 per day. It is the largest movement out of poverty in human history.

Yet, two thirds of the world's population-- four billion people-- still does not have the tools to thrive in free markets. Forced to operate outside the rule of law, they have little education, no legal identity, no fungible property, no credit, no capital, and thus few ways to prosper.

This documentary is the story of what can happen when ordinary people around the world are given the tools to help themselves. "The Ultimate Resource" is people-- skilled, spirited and hopeful people, who are using their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and, inevitably, they will benefit the rest of the world, as well.

The Stagnating Wage Myth

Prior to the election, folks on the left were pushing the idea that US wages had been stagnating.  Often this argument was a subset of a zero-sum class warfare rant, complaining that though the economy has grown, the "rich" have taken all the gains.

There were always two problems with the hypothesis that real wages were stagnating:

  1. "Wages" are only a part of total compensation.  In fact, I don't think anyone denies that real compensation (wages plus benefits) has been growing, and it would not surprise me that non-wage compensation, like health care, has grown much faster than wages.  A discussion about only one component of total compensation is nearly irrelevant.
  2. Even if the average is stagnating, that does not mean that the wages for individuals is stagnating.  What is actually going on is that everyone's real wages are improving, but new low-skill low-wage immigrants and teenagers move in behind them and bring the average down.  If you showed real wages for people who were in the work force in 1980 without any entrants after that, average wages would be way up.  The average is less important, from a general well-being standpoint, than what is happening to individuals.

The New York Sun (Hat tip: Most all the libertarian blogosphere) that also takes on these issues.  The author makes the further distinction between individual and family income, and argues you also need to correct for changing family sizes.

The American family has
shrunk due to changes in society, such as more divorces, longer
life-expectancy for women, and fewer children. So family income in 2004
cannot correctly be compared to family income in 1964 "” today's family
income is spread around fewer people.

Adjusting for decreasing family size, real median family income is
13% higher than in 1994, 22% higher than in 1984, 37% higher than in
1974, and 88% higher than in 1964. That's a significant increase.

Will Democrats Be Neanderthals on Trade?

I was wondering this morning if I could turn public opinion against penicillin.   After all, hundreds of people die every year from taking penicillin.  If I ran a newspaper, every day I could feature another heart-rending story about a small child or a single mother with four kids dieing from a penicillin allergy.  Sure, some heartless fools who don't understand these poor people's suffering will say that penicillin is a net benefit.  But that will be easy to counter - I'd ask them to show me who was saved.  Sure, lots of people take it, but how can you prove they would have been worse off without it?  How can you prove how many people would have died without it?  I would have an easy time, because the victims of penicillin are specific and very visible, and the beneficiaries are dispersed.

I thought of this analogy while I was reading Jon Talton's column on the front page of the Arizona Republic business section celebrating the Democratic victory in Congress because we may finally be able to get rid of this awful free trade stuff.  As an aside, Talton has always been an interesting choice as the primary business columnist int he Republic, given that he doesn't really feel bound by the teachings of economics and he really does not like business.   His socialist-progressive formulations may be appropriate somewhere in the paper, but seem an odd choice for lead business columnist, sort of like finding a fundamentalist evolution denier, who still accepts Archbishop Usher's age of the earth, as lead science columnist.

I would fisk Talton's column in depth, but he doesn't really say anything except throwing together a hodge-podge of progressive rants against globalization (CEO pay, China, decimation of manufacturing -- he's got everything in there).   Like most progressives, he extrapolates flatness (not even declines, but flatness!) from 2001-2004 and declares that the world economy has changed and he has seen a major macro-economic trend (no mention of how the business cycle and recession we had in the same period might have affected things).

I will just take on one piece, where he says:

Americans were assured that new trade accords and China's membership in
the World Trade Organization would mean better living standards for
American workers. That's because China and other countries supposedly
would buy American exports.

Economists, what grade does Mr. Talton get?  F!  Because he demonstrates that he does not understand the economic argument for trade.  Because the argument does not actually require that foreign countries buy our exports for us to be better off with trade.   Comparative advantage says that even imports alone help our economy, allowing us to purchase inputs more inexpensively and refocus our domestic labor on tasks which we do comparatively better. 

The second fallacy with his statement is that export numbers grossly understate the amount of goods and services that foreigners buy from us.  Exports are only the goods they buy from us and take back to their country.  But foreigners buy many goods from us and use them in the US (say to build a factory or as an investment or financial instrument) and these foreign purchases of American goods don't show up as exports.  As long as the US is the safest and most stable country in the world, we will probably always run a trade deficit, as foreigners will continue to want to keep the goods and financial instruments they buy from us in the US where these assets are safer.  I wrote a lot more about this topic, and the recycling of dollars from China, here.

Finally, implicit in this anti-globalization view of trade is an assumption that the economy is zero-sum -- ie, there is sort of a global fixed pool of jobs, and if China gains steel market share and employment, the US net loses employment.  I have taken on this zero-sum mentality before, but it is particularly wrong-headed in this case.  Historically, the argument makes no sense.  For example, the automation of the farm sector wiped out 80 or 90% of the farm jobs in the US over the last century.  By the zero-summers logic, we should be impoverished.  Instead, these people were redeployed to manufacturing and service jobs that create far more wealth than the old 19th century farm employment.  But while people can sort of accept this historically, they can never accept this in real-time.  But the fact is that when we lose, say, a textile job to foreign competition, we not only gain because everyone pays less for textiles and thus has more money to spend on other things, but that worker gets redeployed over time to higher-value functions.  Look at the old textile belt in North Carolina - what's there now?  Electronics and Bio-tech.

The problem with trade is very like the one in the penicillin analogy -- it is all-to-easy to identify the few short term losers, who lost their job in American industries that can't compete with foreigners, but all-too-hard to find the huge dispersed benefits from lower prices and the continuing creative destruction that comes with strong competition.  This doesn't mean that individuals lives aren't disrupted, but it does mean that it's short-sighted to the point of being a Neanderthal to use these disruptions as an excuse to throttle free trade, just as it would be short-sided to ban penicillin because some people have allergic reactions.

It will be interesting to see if the Lou Dobbs populists rule the day on this issue.  If so, they it will be ironic that it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who take the first major steps to dismantling the work of Bill Clinton  (because it sure as heck hasn't been GWB supporting free trade).

My prior posts on why you should stop worrying and learn to love the trade deficit are here and here and here and here.  I also looked at trade with China from the other side, and found it is China that should be mad about their government's trade policies and currency manipulation, not us:

It is important to note that each and every one of these
government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the
expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese
products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for
Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy
of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting
foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted
as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government,
saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1
trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to
promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese
citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports
and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and
eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers
in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers
had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that
Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.
Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously
outdated retail sector that were all protected by government
regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses
they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US,
and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars)
in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession,
from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy
happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions,
seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

Shifting Nature of Income

Kevin Drum takes the following statistic:

As a result, wages and salaries no longer make up the smallest share of
the gross domestic product since World War II. They accounted for 46.1
percent of all economic output in the second quarter, down from a high
of 53.6 percent in 1970 but up from 45.4 percent in the spring of 2005.

And declares it to be a bad thing.  He doesn't really explain, but as a frequent reader of his site I can guess his issue is that he interprets this statement as a sign of the weakening fortunes of the American wage earner.

Isn't it really dangerous to leap to such a conclusion?  I can think of a number of perfectly innocuous, even positive trends that would cause such a shift:

  • Aging of population means more people retirement age who take their income in form of dividends, investment returns, pensions, social security, etc., none of which are included in "wages"
  • Ownership of investment assets, and thus income from these assets, has spread from just the rich to the middle class, meaning most people get more of a share of their personal income from investments and asset (e.g. house) appreciation
  • Entrepreneurship rates are way up since 1970.  This means many more people, particularly in the middle class, have given up working for someone else for a wage and now work for themselves for a business profit.

I know Drum wants to interpret it as a "the poor are poor because the rich take all the money" zero sum game.  Anyone know what is really going on behind these numbers?

More Zero Sum Economics (Sigh)

I have tried many times to combat the absurdity of zero-sum economic thinking.  Unfortunately, Democrats seem to be testing income-inequality messages as their lead horse to ride in the upcoming elections, so we are going to hear a lot more of it.  It bothers me even more when smart liberals like Kevin Drum buy into the zero sum thinking.  To his credit, he doesn't totally buy into this mess from Paul Krugman:

The concern [is] that, through mechanisms we're not entirely sure of, the very richest are siphoning off the economic growth before it flows through the middle and lower classes. The worry is about the distribution of growth, but the suspicion is that the distribution is being warped by the sheer level of inequality.

But then he goes onto say nearly the same thing:

I'm not sure this gets the mechanism quite right, though.  There are two basic ways that unequal growth can happen:

  1. The rich suck up vast amounts of income growth, and this leaves very little money for the middle class. Thus, wages for the middle class are stagnant or, at best, rising slowly.

  2. Middle class wages are kept stagnant, and this frees up vast amounts of money from economic growth. The money has to go somewhere, and it goes to the rich.

Now, obviously, it doesn't have to be one or the other. It could be both. But I suspect there's a lot more analytic power in #2 than in #1.

And finally, this stupendously ridiculous statement:

After all, the income from economic growth has to go somewhere, and if it's not going to the middle class it's going to end up going to the rich. Where else can it go?

What's bizarre about all of these statements is it treats wealth, and in this case specifically income growth, like a phenomena that is independent of individuals and their actions.  They treat income growth like it is a natural spring bubbling up from the ground, and a few piggy people have staked out places by the well and take all the water before the rest of us can get any.

Wealth and income growth comes from individual action.  Most rich people are getting more rich because they are intelligently investing and taking risks with their capital, applying the output of their mind to create new wealth.  There is no (none, zero, 0) economic correlation that says that if the rich get really rich, then there is less left over for the poor. 

Here is his solution:

Now, there's certainly no reason to reduce marginal tax rates on the hyper rich in an effort to make inequality even worse than it otherwise would be. But as unjustified as this is, tax cuts aren't the main issue. Median wages are. Focus government policy like a laser on improving the wages of the middle class, and reductions in income inequality will follow.

And how the hell does he suggest the government do that?  Seriously.  Can anyone tell me one single thing the government can do to improve middle class wages that does not involve tax policy?  Well, we can back into his solution from this paragraph where he lists things the government can do that are bad for the middle class:

Appoint members to the Federal Reserve who are obsessed with inflation and act to cool down the economy at the least sign that average hourly wages are rising. Make it harder to form unions in new industries, thus reducing the bargaining power of the working class. Support free trade agreements that put downward wage pressure on low-income workers. Support tax and deregulation policies that make middle class jobs less secure.

So presumably, his solution to increasing middle class wages is: 1) allow inflation to run at a higher rate 2) encourage unionization  3) adopt protectionist measures for uncompetitive industries and stifle free trade  4) increase regulation on businesses and reverse deregulation in industries (presumably like airlines and telecoms).

I'm no Julian Simon, but if we could structure a bet as to whether these policies would help real middle class wages, I would sure take the opposite side from Mr. Drum.

Here is my theory for what is going on, if you even accept that middle class income stagnation is real and not a symptom of our difficulty measuring the benefit of improving products and technologies.  I think much like technological advances from time to time in the past have caused restructurings in the labor market for blue collar workers, we are going through the same thing, really for the first time, with white collar middle class workers.  Technology and globalization offer all sorts of opportunities for companies, and the result is a real restructuring of how many types of white collar workers are used.  Until this restructuring is complete, wages may stagnate, since any wage pressure will just lead to companies implementing changes from their backlog of streamlining opportunities.

At some point we will work through this, and wages will rise again.  If anything, I think the government does damage by slowing this process down.  Note that nearly every one of Drum's suggestions would slow or stop this restructuring.  This is one of the ironies of progressives -- despite their name, what they don't like about capitalism is the change.   They want safety and predictability from the inherently unpredictable.  So protectionism slows global outsourcing, and also reduces the pressure for cost improvement.  Regulation tends to lock in current practices and make changes harder.  Ditto strong unions.

One of the reasons I like some of what Bill Clinton did was that in the early 90's, he faced tremendous pressure to take many of these same steps, trying to halt the economic restructuring that was occurring due to competition from Asia.  He didn't have the government step in, though, and he supported free trade, and the country thrived.  His fellow Democrats (including his wife) should learn from that.

update:  A real economist (unlike me and probably Paul Krugman) discusses inequality and unionization

update #2:  More real economists, this time the awsome guys at Cafe Hayek, pile on.

Great Example of Zero-Sum Thinking

In perhaps the best example I have seen since Paul Ehrlich of zero-sum thinking, junkscience.com links to this article at the BBC:

A study by the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and the
Open University says 16 April is the day when the nation goes into
"ecological debt" this year.

It warns if annual global consumption levels matched the UK's, it would take 3.1 Earths to meet the demand.

How many times does this sort of stuff have to be wrong before it stops getting printed by "science writers" in the media.  Malthus made the same argument over a century ago, and Ehrlich has been making one bad prediction after another along these lines since the late 60's  The report relies on this concept:

The findings are based on the concept of "ecological
footprints", a system of measuring how much land and water a human
population needs to produce the resources it consumes and absorb the
resulting waste.

Of course, no one mentions that this "ecological footprint" number has changed dramatically with technology, not only in the last 200 years but even in the last 30.  For example, total US Farm acreage has fallen for the last fifty years, while agricultural production has grown between two and five times in the same period.   Its a stupid, meaningless analysis that says that if nothing else changed, and suddenly consumption went up, there would be a crisis.  It relies on the lack of imagination of both the authors (and to an extent, the audience), arguing that since they can't think of any way to grow production any further, it must not be possible.  I can just picture these guys as prehistoric man sitting in a cave making the same pronouncements of disaster for the species, all while their peers are busy outside playing with bone tools under the big black monolith.

More on the zero-sum fallacy here.

 

Great Moments in Muddled Thinking: I

I was excited this week to find a copy of the original 1968 version of Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb."  I have been itching to find such a copy so I can demonstrate just how wrong and wrong-headed his zero-sum limits-to-growth thinking is. 

Now, one may ask, why even bother?  You could argue that thoughtful folks have dismissed Paul Ehrlich and his ilk for years, particularly after Julian Simon owned him in their famous bet.  However, I find two compelling reasons to take the time to fisk a forty-year-old book:

  • Paul Ehrlich and his brethren actually have not been disowned by much of the intelligentsia.  The media still breathlessly reprints Ehrlich's and his cohorts' predictions of disaster, despite the fact that all their past predictions have utterly failed to come true.
  • The fundamental mistakes he makes in his analysis are constantly repeated today.  These mistakes include:
    • Static analysis - blind projection of trendlines without any allowance for individuals actually doing something to alter those trends, particularly in response to pricing signals.  This leads not only to predictions of disaster, but to the consistent conclusion that only governments coercing individuals on a massive scale can avert dire consequences for humanity
    • Zero confidence in humanity - every analysis implicitly contains the assumption that we will never know how to do more than we know how to do today.  Kind of an anti-Kurzweil mentality
    • Zero-sum economics - the common misconception that wealth can only come at the expense of poverty elsewhere.

I have not had a chance to dig into it, but I will leave you with this tasty teaser from the back cover:

MANKIND'S INALIENABLE RIGHTS

  1. The right to eat well
  2. The right to drink pure water
  3. The right to breathe clean air
  4. The right to decent, uncrowded shelter
  5. The right to enjoy natural beauty
  6. The right to avoid regimentation
  7. The right to avoid pesticide poisoning
  8. The right to freedom from thermonuclear war
  9. The right to limit families
  10. The right to educate our children
  11. The right to have grandchildren

Well, that seems to cover it.  Anyone want to bet I don't find anything about property rights in this book?  Gotta go read the book now, since I have so many questions now:  Is it OK if someone kills me with a conventional bomb rather than a nuclear one?  Can I sue McDonald's on the basis that yesterday's lunch was a violation of my right to eat well?  And just how do I force my kids to have sex and procreate?  I can't wait to find out.

A Trade Deficit is Not a Debt (Nor is it Bad)

After you finish this post, I have an updated post on the same topic here.

Well, the US trade deficit is up again, and you can be sure the news was accompanied by a lot of moaning and groaning and soul-searching.  The main reason that all the media and the majority of Americans freak out over large trade deficit numbers is that they look at the American economy as a large bank vault with a fixed supply of money on the shelves.  They reason that if more money is going out of the vault to buy things than is going back in from sales, then eventually the vault will go empty and we will be bankrupt.  Either implicitly or explicitly, those who fear trade deficits perceive the trade imbalance to be red ink, something bleeding out of a fixed supply.

This view of the trade deficit as a being a growing and unsustainable debt is wrong.  I will try to explain in a couple of ways.

The micro view

Lets first look at it from the perspective on one individual.  Lets say Fred made $50,000 this year, and lives in a US where, before he makes his spending decisions, trade is exactly in balance with China.  Fred spends some of his income on rent, and invests some in some nice US equities.  And he takes $1000 of what he just made that he might have saved and buys himself a nice Chinese-made plasma TV so he can really enjoy the Superbowl next year.

So, where's the debt?  One can argue that net savings is lower (perhaps - we haven't gotten yet to where the Chinese are spending their extra US dollars), but Fred seems to have increased the trade deficit without incurring any debt.  In fact, Fred is actually better off, since in a free society no one engages in a transaction that doesn't return more value than one spends.  In this case, the plasma TV provides more than $1000 of value back to Fred, or else he would not have engaged in the transaction. 

Yes, many people are buying Chinese TV's with consumer debt, but these same people are buying much more American stuff with consumer debt as well.  To the extent that there is or is not a "problem" with people taking on too much consumer debt, this problem is absolutely unrelated to the country of origin of the goods they are buying.  You can max out your Visa card on American stuff just as easily as on Chinese stuff.

But wait, you say.  The reason the debt is not obvious is from the way I structured the problem.  I assumed the rest of the economy was static while Fred was making his decision.  But if Fred had bought American, somewhere in the US economy there must have been less debt.  So we will tackle this next.

The Economy is Not Zero Sum

Repeat please:  The economy is not zero-sum.  Never has it been so hard to convince people of a concept that should be so obvious.  I used up bushels of electrons explaining why the economy is not zero sum here, but the short proof is easy:  Look at the world in 1900.  Look at it today.  The world as a whole and most every individual is far richer.  The fact is that economies create wealth every day, and free economies create a LOT of wealth.

At the heart of every argument that the trade deficit is bad is the mercantilist notion that the US economy is a bank vault leaking funds.  But this analogy that seems to be in everyone's head is flawed.  The supply of money or wealth in the US, in the vault, is constantly growing.  If you really have to think of it as a vault, then think of what's inside as rabbits rather than gold bars.  Does anyone doubt that if you start with a hundred rabbits and every year sent a few to China that you might still have more rabbits than you started with in the vault?  A free economy is like a group of rabbits on Viagra.  Even if the Chinese took billions of dollars they got from selling goods to the US each year and burned the money in a big bonfire, the US still would be growing in wealth.

Of course, the vault analogy sucks for a larger reason, that the US economy is deeply integrated with that of the rest of the world.  In fact, much of the wealth creation comes from this very integration, providing a more robust division of labor and a deeper well of creativity and entrepreneurship than any one country could achieve on its own.  And the dollars we send overseas don't stay there, they come back.  But we will address this next.

So What do the Chinese do with Those Dollars?

OK, so we are all short-sitedly (at least according the the "progressive" intelligentsia) sending dollars to China to satisfy our consumerism.  So what do those Chinese do with those dollars?  They can't spend them domestically, because stores and vendors in China don't accept dollars any more than the Wal-mart down the street from me accepts Yuan.

Most all the dollars have to come back to the US, or the person in China holding them gets no value.  You could say, well that person can take them to the bank and exchange them for Yuan, and that is true.  But that bank would not accept the dollars for exchange unless it knew it could get them back to the US, or had another client that needed them to make a purchase in the US.  So, the dollars will have to come back to the US to purchase something.

Some of the dollars come back to purchase US goods and raw materials, but of course this is less than the total dollars the Chinese have to spend, or else there would be no trade deficit.  In fact, this all that the words "trade deficit" really means.  It means that of the dollars the Chinese receive from sales to the US, only a portion is used to buy American goods that are shipped back to China.  The rest goes to buy American .. something else.

What?

Well, some of it goes to purchase American goods that stay in the US.  Lets shamelessly steal an analogy from Don Beadreaux and Jack Wenders.  If Chinese companies buy American steel and lumber and ship it to China, it shows up in the trade balance.  If they buy the same products and build a factory in the US, it does not.  The Chinese use a lot of their dollars to invest in buildings, real estate, capital assets, factories, production facilities, etc. in the US.  And this is bad, how?  I know that since the Japanese investment boom of the eighties, there are lots of folks who call themselves "liberal" who suddenly got very upset about foreigners owning US-based assets.  It is impossible for me to see this concern as anything but xenophobia and racism, since hundreds of years of Dutch, Canadian, and British investment never worried a soul but Japanese and Chinese investment has everyone in a lather

By the way, if you worry about China as a security threat, wouldn't you rather see them invested in the US economy, and therefore have a strong interest in our continued prosperity?  One could easily wonder why Saudi Arabia does not use their power over oil reserves to screw with the US like they tried to do in the early 70's.  The reason is that all of their wealth is invested in dollar and euro-denomitated assets.   People worry about the power the Saudis may have to mess with our economy, but their reinvestment of dollars back in our economy has made this a game of mutual assured destruction.  The same thing is occuring with China.

The other thing the Chinese do with the money is invest in dollar-denominated financial assets, which in many ways is just an indirect way of investing in the same capital assets listed above.  They will invest dollars in equities and, yes, debt securities.  But the fact that the Chinese choose to spend their dollars on debt securities does not mean that the trade deficit is causing the debt.  If the Chinese had a predilection for debt securities, more so than say an American holder of dollars, one might argue that this predilection drives down interest rates a bit and therefore might increase total debt, but this is a fairly tenuous chain of causation and not, I think, what seems to be bothering folks who panic over the trade deficit.  In fact, one can argue that the causation runs more strongly the other direction, that the large US budget deficit keeps the dollar higher than it might otherwise be, increasing the trade deficit.

So when people lament that "we now consume much more than we produce", they are making a meaningless statement because the we in the first part are not the same as the we in the second part.  The US and the Chinese are sending equal amounts of money back and forth - its has to be, over the medium to long term, or exchange rates would crash.  All the trade deficit means is that there is a difference in WHERE Chinese and Americans consume the goods.  Americans consume Chinese goods in the US.  The Chinese consume some of the US goods it buys in China, and then consumes the rest in the US.  The trade deficit represents the net amount of American goods and services the Chinese buy in the US and choose not to haul back to China.  Instead, they take ownership of the American goods here, in the form of capital assets or financial securities that represent ownership or calls on the cash flow of these capital assets. 

Anyway, you can find more here at Cafe Hayek.

Postscript:  By the way, the US has run a trade deficit of a magnitude that panics people for over two decades.  If this is bad, surely we would be able to find the damage somewhere.  But the US over the last two decades has had the strongest economy in the world.  I suspect that a lot of people would answer "we have run up a huge debt".  But any increase in total debt in the US is not relevant to the trade deficit, or only tangentially related as discussed above.  The Federal debt is run up because the politicians are all spending whores who support their reelection with "good works" paid for with our money.  Consumer debt, which may or may not be "too high", is based on individual spending and saving choices, and is unaffected by whether a person buys an American or Chinese TV.

ATM Cards More Expensive to Process than Credit?

Does this make any sense:  It costs us a lot more, for small transactions, to process an ATM / debit card with the pin pad than a credit card.  Bank of America charges a flat 60 cents per ATM card / PIN pad transaction in our stores but charges 10 cents plus 2% on credit cards.  So, on a typical $5 convenience store purchase, BofA charges $0.60 or 12% to process a ATM / debit card but $0.20 or 4% for the credit card.

I understand the difference between value- and cost-based pricing, but in an economy of scale transaction processing business with a lot of competitors, I would think debit would be cheaper to process, even without the credit risk issues. 

Customers give me feedback that I am a neanderthal for not accepting ATM cards with a pin pad at the registers.  This is the reason.  Its cheaper for me to provide an ATM and then have them pay cash - that way they pay the fee, not me.  Also, their fee is lower.  Even if they only take out $20 and pay a $1.50 fee, they are still only paying 7.5% vs. the 12% typical I would be paying.  If anyone knows a company that offers a better deal, the comment section is wide open!

Update:  A couple of notes based on the comments.  First, I do indeed understand that prices are not cost-based.  The notion that pricing should be cost-based is one of the worst economic misconceptions held by the average person (behind the commerce is zero-sum myth).  When prices don't make sense to me, I don't run to the government asking for Senate hearings so corporations can "justify" their pricing, I just don't buy from them. 

Second, to another commenter's point, most card processing agreements and some state laws prevent merchants from passing card processing fees onto consumers in a discriminatory way - ie they can be built into the general pricing but you can't charge one person one price and another a different price for the same item based on what kind of payment they use.