Posts tagged ‘zero sum’

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.

Julian Simon Would Have Loved This

When I read this article on waste disposal, via Instapundit, all I could think of was Julian Simon.  For those who may be too young to remember, back in the 80's, after the panic that we were running out of oil was over, but before the current panic that we are producing too much carbon dioxide, there was a panic that we were running out of garbage dump space.  Uh, never mind:

Simply put, operators of garbage dumps are stuffing more waste than
anyone expected into the giant plastic-lined holes, keeping disposal
prices down and making the construction of new landfills largely
unnecessary....

The
productivity leap is the second major economic surprise from the trash
business in the last 20 years. First, it became clear in the early
1990's that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed
shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980's. Although many town
dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones.
That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990's and
led to a long slump in the waste industry.

Since then, the
industry and its followers have been relying on time - about 330
million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last
year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication - to
fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices
skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly,
even as only a few new dumps were built.

Shortages seldom persist where the human mind is left free to attack the problem, and economic incentives are allowed to operate freely.  I wrote my own post attacking the zero-sum mentality that causes certain people to jump from one shortage-panic to the next. 

My prediction:  Five years from now, we will be seeing the same article on oil and natural gas.  "This oil field in west Texas is over 80 years old, and was thought to be depleted, until $60 oil prices and some new technology...."   You get the idea.

Physics, Wealth Creation, and Zero Sum Economics

You will have to forgive this post if it gets a little long or theoretical.  Yesterday I made the mistake of going jogging when it was still 114 degrees outside, and I guess I discovered why biblical prophets seem to always get their visions out in the desert.

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 a number of weeks actively 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.

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.

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 a large number of people.  However, since so many people do cling to it, 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.  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.

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.

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 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 they 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."

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
  2. 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.  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. 

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 potnetial of humanity.

Anyone Remember the Eighties?

One of the worst parts about living through the eighties was listening to all the angst about Japanese companies "buying America".  I never really understood the issue that people had with foreigners buying American assets (beyond pure xenophobia).  It was all especially puzzling because most of the wailing came from people who are today wailing about American outsourcing.  So its bad when American companies buy productive assets in other countries AND its bad when foreigners buy productive assets in this country?

Anyway, I missed it the first time around, but apparently Paul Krugman is upset that a Chinese company might buy Unocal.  Here are his reasons for concern:

Yet there are two reasons that Chinese investment in America seems different
from Japanese investment 15 years ago.

One difference is that, judging from early indications, the Chinese won't
squander their money as badly as the Japanese did....

The more important difference from Japan's investment is that China, unlike
Japan, really does seem to be emerging as America's strategic rival and a
competitor for scarce resources - which makes last week's other big Chinese
offer more than just a business proposition.

His first is just laugh out loud funny.  We actually have an economist claiming that the world was better in the 1980's because there was a huge market inefficiency (ie, the Japanese overpaid for unproductive assets). 

His second argument seems to be that US supplies of oil are more secure if American companies own them.  This is stupid.  If he means that it is more secure economically, then he should have his economist merit badge taken away for life.  Even he must know that oil is a fungible commodity, and as such trades world wide at a price set by supply and demand.  If more of Unocal's oil goes to China, this replaces other oil coming from somewhere else that is now available on the market.  And, if he means it is safer politically, he forgot to study the last 50 years of history.  Every major oil producer of the world - Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, etc are pumping oil that used to belong to American oil companies, but was nationalized and taken from them.  Does Mr. Krugman's statement mean that the left and the NY Times are suddenly more ready to support the property rights of American oil companies overseas? I doubt it.  It is actually an improvement over history that a totalitarian state like China is actually buying American oil assets rather than just expropriating them.

By the way, I call Mr. Krugman's view of national economic success the "monopoly board" view of the world.  In his mind, America and China are playing monopoly, and once China gets St. James Place, America can never own all the oranges.  This is not the way the world works.  When America grew economically in the last century, it did not mean that all the other countries had less opportunity to grow.  In fact, we pulled many countries along with us.  His zero-sum view is just the macroscopic counterpart to the zero-sum based worry about rich people getting richer in this country.

Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek both have good analyses of Paul Krugman's neo-mercantilism.

Postscript:  Gee, I hate to play the race card, but why is it we always get a national panic when it is China or Japan buying US assets and not when it is the Dutch, the English or the Canadians (who are far larger investors in US assets and companies than the Chinese)?

Why Income Distribution Doesn't Matter in This Country

The NY Times has somehow decided that one of America's real problems is widening income distribution, or more specifically, the exponentially increasing wealth of the top tenth of one percent of US earners.  The series seems to be running to about 47 episodes (actually 10), but a key article is here, entitled "Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind,"  There are a number of ways to attack this article.  One is to fisk their really abused and misused numbers, which George Reisman does here on the Mises Economics Blog

Lets accept that the very very rich are getting richer.  So lets move from there to the question of...

"so what?"

The Times is a little weak on the "so what".  I presume that in their intellectual-statist readership,  it is an axiom that rich people suck and rich people getting richer sucks more.  However, it is possible to pull out four things the Times extended editorial-masquerading-as-a-news-story finds bad about increasing income inequality:

  • As the rich get richer, there is less money left for the rest of us
  • The process of the rich getting richer reduces opportunities for the rest of us
  • Having very rich people around make the rest of us feel bad
  • The rich are only getting richer because the rest of us are subsidizing them through tax policy

It has been a while since I have really gotten carried away writing about a topic (at least three or four days) so I will now proceed to address each of these in turn and in some detail.

As the rich get richer, there is less money left for the rest of us.  At the end of the day - this is what is in most people's minds when they decry aggregations of wealth.  There are many, many people in the world, even in this country, who think of wealth as a fixed pie, as a zero sum game where one person's victory requires another persons loss.

If we were living in 17th century France, where the rich nobility got that way by taxing the crap out of the working peasantry, this would probably be an adequate view of reality.  Wealth came from the land and its products, whose supply, given no technology improvements for decades, were both relatively fixed.  This zero sum view of commerce led to a mercantilist view of the world economy, where it was thought that wealth was fixed, and that the only thing that could be done to it was to move it around, or tax it, or steal it, or loot it.

But we don't live in 17th century France.  We live in a modern, dynamic capitalist society where wealth is created.  One proof of this is so obvious that it amazes me anyone clings to the implicit zero sum economy assumption:  Compare the US in 2000 to the US in 1900.  We are so much wealthier top to bottom in our society than in 1900 its not even worth spending much time on the proof.  This is not just in real dollar terms, but in things that affect ones life, from average life span to leisure time to entertainment to technology.  People who live in the poorest 20 percentile today have things -- such as a lifespan over 70, access to cancer cures, cars, computers, VCRs -- that not even the richest one half of one percent had in 1900.  The poorest 20 percentile in this country would be the upper middle class or even the rich in many countries of the world today.

Michael Dell and Bill Gates are both in that evil 1/10 of 1% of richest people.  But how did they get that way?  They made their fortunes by providing me with this incredible tool on my desk that was unimaginable when I was born 40+ years ago, but now is pedestrian.  Right now I am typing on a Dell computer using Microsoft Windows, which I bought from the suppliers for a mutually agreeable price in a totally uncoerced manner.  My computer provides me with thousands of dollars of value - in productivity, in entertainment, in the ability to do new things that could never be done before (e.g. blog).  Most of this value I keep for myself; some, about $1200 in this case, went to the suppliers of labor and materials to build and program this thing.  And a small portion, less than $100, went towards the fortunes of Mr. Dell and Mr. Gates who had the vision to build the businesses they did.  The PC I have creates new value all around:  Thousands of dollars of new value for me the user and  hundreds of dollars in the form of jobs and new markets for suppliers.  Mr. Dell and Mr. Gates keep just a small portion of all that value created.  At some level, they are working cheap. And any one of us, had we had the vision, could have piggy-backed on Mr Gate's or Mr. Dell's wealth creation by buying stock in their firms.

The process of the rich getting richer reduces opportunities for the rest of us.  Since the "zero sum" argument is so easy to disprove, proponents of rich=bad have morphed their argument to this one.  This accusation comes up several times in the NY Times series, but is hard to refute mainly because the authors never explain the mechanism that they think is at work here or show any shred of proof.  The articles cite folks such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Ted Turner.  But how has their fortune-making reduced my personal opportunities one iota? 

Do I have less opportunity because Warren Buffet has made good investing decisions?  Heck, one can argue that any American has always had the opportunity to gain wealth in direct proportion to Buffet at any time, merely by buying Berkshire Hathaway stock.

How about Ted Turner.  Do I have less opportunities to improve myself because Ted Turner got rich creating CNN?  I guess I could facetiosly argue that by his creating CNN, others can no longer create a 24-hour cable news service because he has locked up the market, but Fox has disproved even this narrow argument.

What about George Soros?  I guess you could argue that from time to time my Sony Walkman was a buck or two more or less expensive because of some currency game he was playing in the markets, but I don't see how my opportunity has been reduced.  A better argument is that Soros's being wealthy might really threaten my opportunity if only because he funds so many statist-socialist causes with his billions.

In fact, this is one of those black-is-white arguments.  The reality is exactly the opposite.  When most rich people get rich (with the exception maybe of Peter Angelos and other tort lawyers) they do so by creating new value and thereby opportunity.  While all these folks may be really wealthy, in reality the wealth they have amassed is but a small percentage of the wealth and value that they created.  Where did the rest go?  To all of us, of course, in the form of jobs, and tools, and longer lifespans, and better entertainment.

Having very rich people around make the rest of us feel bad.  OK, this sounds like a problem for group therapy, but you see it in print all the time.  The disparity of incomes is "troubling" and could lead to "resentment".  If one were living in Venezuela or Nigeria or some country where, like 17th century France, wealth came from looting rather than the free exchange of goods, then I would agree that the income disparity would be troubling.  Shoot, if people were much wealthier than I because they were using the legal system to loot the rest of us, I would be pissed off (ironically, this is the case with the billionaire tort lawyers, but this is the last group that the Times will ever challenge). 

However, in this country, where most of the very rich got that way through hard work and better ideas, the result of free and uncoerced commerce, why be resentful?  Sure, I would love to have a G-V aircraft and hot Swedish wife [ed note:  oops, my wife might read this] like Tiger Woods, but lacking these, I have zero desire to deny them to Tiger.  I don't even begrudge super-tramp Paris Hilton her millions (but she did inspire me to change my will so my kids don't inherit from me until they are well past their majority).  Heck, I have spent whole vacations touring the discarded toys of the super-rich (e.g. mansions in Newport, RI).  What fun would there be without a moving target to aspire to?

So why do the Times and some many intellectualls legitimize this envy?  This type of envy has driven anti-semitism and in fact all sorts of racism through the ages.

The rich are only getting richer because the rest of us are subsidizing them through tax policy.  Around my house, I joke that everything, at least in my family's opinion, turns out to be my fault.  The equivilent at the NY Times is that everything is Bush's fault, and in particular, the fault of Bush's tax cuts.  The Mises article cited above does a pretty good job of fisking the argument that the tax system post-cuts favors the rich.  I took on took this notion here and here.  The Times "analysis" makes two major mistakes:

  • Social Security Tax hide and seek:  The NY Times article shows the very wealthy paying lower marginal rates than lower level earners.  As I pointed out here, this is entirely because they are including social security taxes in their analysis and that the taxes are capped at $90,000.  If you look at only income taxes, then marginal rates do not drop at higher incomes.

The left's argument here is highly contradictory.  When wanting to make the "rich are not paying enough" argument, they include Social Security taxes, knowing that since those taxes are regressive, they make it look like the rich are somehow getting off easy.  However, when discussing Social Security, the don't want to think of them as taxes - because they want Social Security to be insurance with premiums rather than a transfer program with taxes

  • Bracket Creep: The TImes points out that the income tax rate for the super rich is no higher than the rate for the merely rich or even $100,000 earners.  The implication is that the super rich are somehow getting a better deal.  But in fact, the problem is that the definition of rich, vis a vis taxes, has been lowered through the years.  The whole history of the income tax is to sell a tax as applying only to the very very rich, and then broadening the applicability over time.  The federal income tax followed this path, as has the AMT.  More recently, the top rate on California income taxes is seeing the same creep.  The statist trick is to apply a rate to the super rich, then creep it down so eventually it applies to everyone.  Then, they cry that - hey, the super rich aren't paying more than the middle class, so they institute a new higher super rich rate.  Rinse and repeat.

Conclusion.  I will leave you with the lyrics from Rush's The Trees:

There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas

The trouble with the maples
(and they're quite convinced they're right)
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can't help their feelings
If they like the way they're made
And they wonder why the maples
Can't be happy in their shade?

There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream `oppression!`
And the oaks, just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
'the oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light'
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet,
Axe,
And saw ...

Update:  Several people said I missed the point about mobility, rather than just the rich getting richer.  I respond to this here.

Trade Deficit? Don't Panic!

I have never been bothered by the trade deficit.  Concern over the trade deficit always seems to be a holdover of 18th century mercantile thinking.  The key failure seems to be thinking of wealth as static or zero sum.  In a zero sum world, running a consistent trade deficit might indeed pour all of a countries wealth overseas like a tank springing a leak.

Wealth, of course, is not zero sum.  New ideas, productivity, technology create wealth.  Ever year, the US creates tremendous amounts of new wealth.  If we spend some of it overseas, so what?   

Often, problems like the deficit that seem problematic at a macro level fall apart when studied as part of individual behavior.  Cafe Hayek takes this approach in a nice post on why not to panic about the deficit:

If my paying my Virginia neighbor $10 to mow my lawn creates neither
debt nor other economic problems, how would my paying a Canadian $10US
to mow my lawn create debt or other economic problems? What conceivable
economic difference can the latitude or longitude of the seller's
residence make?

UPDATE: I always felt this same way, from Steve Landsburg:

I hold this truth
to be self-evident: It is just plain ugly to care more about total
strangers in Detroit than about total strangers in Juarez. Of course we
care most about the people closest to us-our families more than our
friends and our friends more than our acquaintances. But once you start
talking about total strangers, they all ought to be on pretty much the
same footing. You could say you care more about white strangers than
black strangers because you've got more in common with whites. Does
that make it okay to punish firms for hiring blacks?....

Stealing assets is wrong, and so is stealing the right to earn a living, no matter where the victim was born.

60 Second Refutation of Socialism, While Sitting at the Beach

Last week, there were several comments in Carnival of the Capitalists that people would like to see more articles highlighting the benefits of capitalism.  This got me thinking about a conversation I had years ago at the beach:

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.

One of the reasons I took up writing a blog is that I have never been as snappy or witty in real-time discussions as I would like to be, and I generally think of the perfect comeback or argument minutes or hours too late.  I have always done better with writing, where I have time to think.  However, on this day, I had inspiration from a half-remembered story I had heard before.  I am sure I stole the following argument from someone, but to this day I still can't remember from whom.

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".

Yeah, I know what you're thinking - beach sand is not pure silicon - it is actually silicon dioxide, SiO2, but if she didn't take any economics she certainly didn't take any chemistry or geology.

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.

All too many defenders of capitalism would have stopped here, and said aha!  So you admit you need more than labor - you need capital too.  But Marx would not have disagreed - he would have said it was the separation of labor and capital that was bad - only when laborers owned the capital, rather than being slaves to the ruling class that now controls the capital, would the world reach nirvana.  So I offered her just that:

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"

And that is the heart of socialism's failure.  For the true source of wealth is not brute labor, or even what you might call brute capital, but the mind.  The mind creates new technologies, new products, new business models, new productivity enhancements, in short, everything that creates wealth.  Labor or capital without a mind behind it is useless.

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 - it is not money stolen or looted or exploited.  Wealthy nations like the US didn't "take" the wealth from somewhere else - it never even existed before.  It was created by the minds of human beings.

How?  What changed?  Historians who really study this stuff would probably point to a jillion things, but in my mind two are important:

  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
  2. 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.  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. 

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.

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. 

UPDATE

While it is not exactly a direct follow-on to this article, see my post Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism for an analysis of some of capitalism's detractors.  For yet another way to explain capitalism, at least libertarian philosophy, here is a new-agy approach that is actually pretty good.  Finally, Spontaneous Order has an interesting post comparing religious creationism in the physical world with progressives' statism in the economic/social realms.

Update #2:  Here is my more recent statement covering similar ground, focusing on the mistaken assumption that economics are all zero-sum.