Tag Archives: Economics

Eat Once, Don’t Die?

      People so regularly like to spout off about the evils of capitalism and the depravity of the profit motive. Perhaps we should take a moment to gain some perspective on the matter. Human history has been dominated with periods of anti-capitalistic activities and economic structures. From the feudalist periods to the monarchies to just plain subversion to an eminent leader supposedly “ordained by God” (all three exhibit stunning similarities) and finally to an aristocracy (today we call this socialism or communism) there has been a constant throughout history when the rights of property were not identified and the profit motive was denied to the average individual.

     This constant in a world without property rights and capitalism was the motivating factor of human daily activities—eat once, don’t die. This could have been the daily motto for much of humankind throughout history—eat once, don’t die.

      Imagine this world without capitalism as people seem to fantasize about so regularly. Just imagine losing your car, your microwave, your smart phone, your internet, your air conditioning, your refrigerator, your television, your house, your job, running water, your toilet, the medicine you take to feel better (or, worse yet, the one you take to stay alive)…imagine losing your clothing and shoes in favor of animal hides to stay warm and more animal hides for your feet…imagine losing loved ones in their late twenties or early thirties, if you or them are lucky enough to live that long…imagine every day when you wake up your goal is not to merely be a pretentious ass that wishes a lack of luxury for others to make yourself feel equal, but instead you must struggle just to scrounge enough food for one meal for your family…imagine portioning that food out to your family not on the basis of fulfilling hunger, but on the basis of which family members would be more beneficial to survival if they have energy…imagine laying your head down at night being glad if nobody in your family died or not being surprised if one had.

      Imagine your daily motto was eat once, don’t die. This is the reality of the world before capitalism (and exists today outside of capitalisms reach); the human condition was that of strife, struggle, and immense physical and emotional pain. Is capitalism perfect? If by perfect you mean we all get to have what everyone else has regardless of effort, talent, or sacrifice…then no, it certainly is not. However, it is unambiguously clear throughout history that no economic system has ever brought more (or, I would argue any) people out of true poverty and complete squalor than capitalism.

P.S. By the way, capitalism and cronyism are in no way similar and the terms should not be used together, it makes people sound absurd to those of us who know better.

 

Trump is clearly no economist.

       There are a lot of Republicans these days embracing the anti-trade rhetoric of Donald Trump and, simultaneously, screaming about the ineffectiveness and unfairness of wealth redistribution through the welfare state. Interestingly enough, these two positions are equivalent to one another. You cannot be for trade protection (such as tariffs) and against wealth redistribution; they are fundamentally the same thing. Let me illustrate how.

   Wealth redistribution operates under the principal that government takes (forcibly, mind you) money from Susan and gives it to Tom. Susan is guilty of no crime besides being in an electoral minority, but nevertheless she incurs the wrath of Tom’s jealousy and greed of her accomplishments and higher earnings. Tom’s greedy vengeance is carried out by elected officials who are able to send men with guns to Susan’s house (if she doesn’t pay) to do what would be illegal for Tom to do himself, which is to steal from Susan.

     Now, this redistribution is all based on the premise that Tom should be allowed to do as he wishes (i.e. work less hours, invest less effort in his own skill set, and engage in more recreation) and still be provided with all the basic needs that life requires (including many that life does not require like cell phones, etc).   In effect, the welfare state makes inefficiency a right, one that can be subsidized. Productive capability is discounted in favor of lifestyle choice.

       This brings us now to trade protection and why the two things are indifferent. Let us imagine that Susan is now a consumer and Tom is a worker at an auto plant. We are told that tariff’s on foreign auto makers will “help” our economy (incidentally, zero of this claim is backed up by well-established economic principals or any evidence) so that Tom can keep his job and manufacturing will not be “shipped” overseas. Instead our government will place a 10% tariff on those evil foreign automakers that, for some reason or another, can supply us vehicles at a fraction of the price of Tom’s employer. If the foreign car is $20,000 and Tom’s car is $22,000 before the tariff, this new 10% tax (tariffs are taxes on consumers, by the way) will make them essentially the same price[i].

      So, now Susan (and everyone else) must pay $2,000 more per vehicle for Tom to remain employed (not to mention increased sales taxes, etc.) in his current occupation. If Susan chooses to purchase the foreign car, the government will profit after placing no value into the production of said vehicle much like the mobster running a protection racket. If Susan chooses to purchase the car Tom makes, she will pay a greater price to subsidize Tom’s relative inefficiency; because, if Tom were as efficient as the competition, his autos would be priced accordingly. Tom gets to keep his job that he is not as good at as the competitor is while everyone that purchases a car pays more to ensure this. The government has then taken money from every consumer (a tax) and given it to Tom to subsidize his inefficiency (we could just as easily call this welfare…see paragraph 3, sentence 2).

       If 50,000 people buy a car in a given year, the result is $100M that cannot be spent elsewhere or saved for the future (either choice is an investment in economic growth). Incidentally, this most adversely affects those families making relatively less money—that is right, the much maligned middle class and poor; rich people are not concerned with trivial little tariffs and will buy the foreign car anyway if they want to.

       If you think (rightly) that a redistributive tax hurts the economy by reducing consumption, which in turns reduces the amount of production required, and thus lowers employment you cannot simultaneously think a tariff—which accomplishes the same thing at an even greater cost—will not hurt the economy. Well, you can…but it is no less fantasy than unicorns or Bigfoot. Holding this belief would have led the government to ban the car to protect the wagon builder or ban the light bulb to protect the candle maker. Mass production of food through technological advances would have been outlawed so we could maintain the same volume of farmers, plow makers, and ox breeders (a decision which would have increased the likelihood of starvation due to poor conditions, a concern we no longer carry as humans in the U.S.).

       We must resist the urge to fall into emotional, unsupported arguments—such as those being made by Donald Trump—that tariffs will help the American worker and engaging in trade is bad. I know what you may be thinking now: “we want trade, but fair trade.” Did I get that right? That is hogwash, too. In no way, does us buying goods at a cheaper price—enabling us to consume more and thus produce a wider array of products ourselves—ever, never , never, ever hurt us. If this principle is true, why not only buy things from within your town, or county, or state and really help your local economy boom? If you think unemployed people in your town just need a chance, quit buying things from the mall, Walmart, or Amazon. The reason you do not do this is that you know deep down it is malarkey. Politicians like Trump can use nationalistic hubris to motivate an adverse response that goes against your own best interest. History has known another politician who was effectively able to do this…Adolf Hitler.

Unreasonable expectations: why government constantly fails us.

    The extent of government’s ability to act effectively is rather limited. It is not that government as a concept is inherently flawed or unable to function at any level. Instead, it is the expectations of its constituents that are the drivers of its inevitable failure in many of the tasks it endeavors upon.

     For example, government can effectively reduce the opportunity cost of a choice for its citizens, but it cannot cure social problems stemming from the choices people make. An opportunity cost is a concept from economics which basically states that for every task a person engages in there is something else they cannot be doing with their time. For example, if you mow grass for an hour, the opportunity cost of that choice might be an hour writing the great American novel (assuming you are capable of such a accomplishment). Let us estimate that your novel would take 100 hours to produce, then for each hour you mow grass you effectively “pay” 1/100th of the value of your novel. If said novel would net you $500,000 in profits, then your cost to mow grass (outside of fuel and equipment) would be $5,000. So, you would be much better off paying the little kid down the street $25 to mow your grass.

      Now, let’s apply this concept to regulatory government action. I will concede that, from a theoretical standpoint, it is much less costly to society if we “hire” an agency of people to check, for example, the solvency of financial companies. This agency could compile and publish information as to their effectiveness. They can be specialists that understand the industry and have an aptitude in their selected field. This agency would relieve us of the opportunity cost of having to learn the “ins and outs” of finance and researching every company when making any financial choice. Overall productivity rises because people can more easily determine which companies and products are relatively “better” and thus spend more time maximizing their own output based on their individual aptitudes.

     The problem with this is that humans hardly apply things within the constraints of theoretical effectiveness. Where government fails is that people want government to solve societal “problems,” instead of merely making information more accessible. They want government to keep companies from compensating certain employees too much or selling products that they (voters) think are too risky. Of course, they like the return while the products are on the upside; they just deplore the downside risk that affects them on the backend of the transaction.

     Additionally, there is a selection problem where people who wish to be politicians or government officials can often fancy themselves equalizers. Exacting what they deem to be justice from one entity for the “benefit” of the consumers or voters. Whether it is the voters or the employees of agencies driving these irrational expectations of government makes no real difference. Government is simply not up to the task without eliminating the human component of every decision. They cannot control the supply side of these transactions they deem dangerous or too risky, they must also impact the demand side of the equation. In essence, they must attempt to stop people from “hurting themselves.” Human desires and the balancing of risk and safety vary greatly from one person to the next and it is this which causes government to be ineffective. And, be certain, it is America’s risk tolerance mixed with liberty which has enabled us to be as prosperous as we are.

      Government cannot protect people from themselves or eliminate every risk inherent in life. Government can be a conduit of information, but can never (nor should it) eliminate the desire of people to make choices or engage in risk. We benefit much more from the risk tolerance of humans than we suffer from it. If risk aversion was the default human position, humans would have starved long ago in caves; paralyzed from the fear of predators.

       Over time, government becomes a haven for the risk adverse; both in employment and in voting. Those people on both sides of the proverbial aisle are driven by risk aversion and politicians motivate their voters by highlighting risk and danger. If you are on the right, the risk that someone may do something you do not think is “right” engenders the fear that society will suffer because your moral code was deviated from. On the left, if people are not nannied continuously throughout life, they will be unable to find happiness or will inevitably become victims. Incidentally, both situations are premised on adherence to some subjective moral code.

       Essentially, many people vote on the premise that government will not merely be an efficiency enhancer; instead, government will be an enactor of some “justice” where the only thing they can be sure of is they will be the beneficiary and society will somehow be improved because people are constrained in the fashion they know is best. People have often restated the phrase that government is a “necessary evil,” but lack perspective of why this was originally said. Government is a necessary evil because of the principle of the opportunity cost. Anytime we assume government can solve our individual or societal problems, we set it up for failure and us up for disappointment. Not to mention we yield to it the essential liberty that has enabled us to improve the overall human condition through technological and economic progress.

 

Inefficiency…the real beneficiary of trade protection

      While politicians—particularly Donald Trump—are busy promoting how protectionist trade measures will help our economy, the reality is that all of us lose when we turn our backs on free trade. Well, not all of us. There is one group that benefits…the inefficient (not to mention those politicians). And they win at the expense of everyone else.

    Inefficiency is the primary beneficiary of trade protection. [Inefficiency is defined in two ways according to dictionary.com: 1. not efficient; unable to effect or achieve the desired result with reasonable economy of means; and 2. lacking in ability, incompetent.] However, so many of us get caught up in nationalistic sentiment to realize what is abundantly clear. The popular mantras include Americans “losing” their jobs to sweat shops and foreigners; companies “outsourcing” phone centers; or auto manufacturers shipping those poor union member’s jobs south of the border. All bunk. Let me give you an example that might help clear things up because the emotion has been removed.

     Let’s say in your town you have an intersection with two gas stations. At the QuickUp—yeah, I made that up all by myself—the employees are friendly, the facilities clean, the beer extra cold, and the pumps always give you a receipt instead of having to “see cashier” (I hate that…if I wanted to “see cashier” I would not have swiped my card!). Across the way, at the Sucks2B-N the store lives up to its namesake; the facility is filthy, the bathrooms are always closed, and the employees view you as an inconvenience to their normal texting routine.

      Now, not surprisingly, the QuickUp sells more gas and has better profits than the Sucks2B-N which is clearly unfair…right? So, to keep Joe the crackhead, Rebecca the part time meth-cooker, and Jim (the owner with a gambling problem) from losing their jobs, the local government institutes some “trade protection.” Basically, if you want to stop by the QuickUp, you have to pay a tax of 5%; that way we do not lose valuable jobs in the community, because if the Sucks2B-N closes, those three people will be unemployed, right?   After 6 months people are still going to the QuickUp—because that’s how bad the Sucks2B-N sucks to be in—prompting local government to increase it to 35% to ensure success.

     As expected, people are largely unable to afford to go to the QuickUp and a significant portion shifts to the cheaper Sucks2B-N.   Joe, Rebecca, and Jim are all better off now and have secure jobs. While the QuickUp, with a staff previously at 20, now has only 8 employees left (that means we are down 11, by the way). But, on the bright side, we get 4 jobs “back” with the addition of new employees which have been hired at the Sucks2B-N (it is easier to provide crappy service as it turns out…who knew).

      Here is the bonus though. In economics, it has been empirically proven that in the light of high tariffs (trade protection) the domestic producers raise their pricing to be more in line with foreign producers’ new pricing which includes the tax. Because Sucks2B-N follows predictably with what economics has long known, the people of your town can afford less ice cream for their families and two more jobs are lost at the parlor (11-4+2=9 jobs lost to save 3…hmmm). And that example could potentially apply to any type of good. In fact, other employers have to buy fuel at the more expensive price therefore they have less money for raises and increased benefits. In the light of reduced sales in other market segments, the local government takes in less tax revenue. In short, everybody in town has essentially paid a tax—in the form of higher prices and reduced future wages—to ensure that Joe, Rebecca, and Jim stay employed…still feeling warm and tingly inside? The “Inefficient 3” (catchy, I know) has been relieved of the consequences of inefficiently operating a gas station and you have received the bill. Both trade protection and the gas station example are, for all intents and purposes, wealth redistribution; a very costly form of redistribution at that. This kind of redistribution has much higher transaction costs than simple welfare leading to an increased magnitude in the future through the compounding effect.

       We must always keep in mind that if production of a good goes elsewhere, there is a reason and we, the consumers, have made that choice. Consumers make choices based on cost and quality that drives producers (i.e. businesses and corporations) to change their production methods and sources. And this is okay. Does this mean some people lose their jobs…certainly; but people lose their jobs all the time for inefficiency, we only seem to mind when it is to someone that is not an American citizen. Additionally, the amount of future production (read as consumption and the ability to have “stuff”) goes down making us all relatively poorer to subsidize—or benefit—a few. In fact, anyone that truly favors trade protection should thank the next fast food employee that screws up their food, or the next server that brings the appetizer after the entrée. Or the next car salesman that sells them a lemon…so on and so on. At least be consistent and support inefficiency directly in all its forms.

Welfare Recipients: Moochers or Rational Actors?

      Often, people who accept and stay on welfare are accused of being mere moochers. To some extent, they do exhibit the primary characteristic of greed: the desire for something that belongs to someone else by compulsion or collusion instead of a trade of value. However, to leave it as simply as that fuels the lack of understanding as to how to remedy the welfare state problem that exists in America today.

      First, let me state it rather directly: people who seek out and stay on welfare for seemingly indefinite periods are rational actors. This may shock some people, baffle others, and even irritate a few; however, that does not diminish the fact it is true. A rational actor is someone who is concerned about their own prosperity and makes choices with the goal of maximizing this objective. In fact, all people are rational actors; we just do not always quantify what prosperity means in the same way as others do.

    The hazard at this point is to be side-tracked by a lengthy discussion that dispels the idea that humans are altruistic (which is the alternative to rational choice), but I will (mostly) avoid that for the time being. Instead, I will use a commonly cited example of altruism and explain briefly why it is incorrect. Fire fighters are often used as examples of altruistic actors; however, they get paid (rather well in many cases), have excellent work schedules, girls tend to like them, and society often idolizes them. Is there risk involved? Of course, but they face great risk—as we all do—by getting in their cars to drive to work. This idea that fear is a primary factor in all people’s decision-making is driven by those who place increased value on personal safety. To a person that is a natural thrill seeker or one that loves accomplishing things others may not dare, being a fire fighter is not altogether frightening or discouragingly risky. It is, instead, a rather rational choice.

       How does this relate to the welfare state? In a very important way, it highlights how people value things differently, some place great value on safety, some on personal “glory,” and others place increased value on wealth accumulation. People who accept being on welfare for extended—or indefinite—periods of time clearly have a high value on security. Additionally, it is likely they place a high value on rest or recreation. When we value recreation over wealth the ability to be free of the burden of work is much more important than having things or money. Conversely, those who value wealth are happy to trade hours of the day for success.

      Here is a scenario to illustrate why welfare recipients are rational actors. Let’s imagine a man named Jim—and his family—are on a myriad of assistance programs that net him the cash equivalent of $26,000/yr and he is offered a job making $32,000/yr. Will he take it? Let us look at the considerations that enter into this decision. First, Jim will have to take 40 hours of his week and trade it for $6,000/yr (that is $500/mth or $2.88/hr). On top of that Jim will have to pay payroll taxes and possibly (unlikely at that income level) income taxes. Would you do that? Ahhh, I can hear the ethical argument now…an argument that I fully sympathize with. So, let’s put it in different terms, if you made $30,000/yr working part time and got offered a full time job for $36,000/yr and this job entailed increased costs, would you take it? It is highly unlikely that you would, unless other considerations enter into your decision such as entry into the job of your dreams.

      People stay on welfare perpetually because they literally cannot afford to get off of it. Things like poor education, increasing minimum wages for entry level occupations, and an increasing menu of programs make this problem worse all the time. Individuals make choices based on individual circumstances, as they well should. What we must do is avoid continuing to lash out at people making a perfectly rational choice; instead, we would be much better served by actually trying to remedy the circumstances which drive these choices. Expanding the welfare state perpetuates the (relative) poverty it intends to cure and reduces the alternatives people have to staying mired in the muck of our burgeoning welfare state. And to completely answer the title question, they do qualify as moochers as well.

Is government absolution?

It has often been said that government is required to help the poor and disabled; however the evidence consistently shows that government’s involvement has not reduced poverty levels. Seeing that government has never (to my knowledge) cured a societal ill like poverty, why then does there remain so much confidence in it for future success? Could it be that support for government welfare programs stems not only from those who directly benefit from being on it, but also as a path to absolution by those who advocate for it?

So, what do I mean by absolution? First, let us discuss the idea that our government has a responsibility to the poor. Milton Friedman wisely pointed out that governments cannot have a responsibility to people…instead, only individuals can have responsibility. We often hear advocates of government welfare say that we are “our brother’s keeper,” a clear reference to the book of Genesis in the Bible; however, the verse is talking about an individual’s (Cain’s) responsibility to his own brother (Abel) and not society’s responsibility to a person or people. This is a blatant misuse of a Bible verse with the intent of misleading people who, by faith, feel an obligation to fulfill Biblical mandates (at least to some extent).

The question then is how does the brother’s keeper example contrast with government welfare and where does the concept of absolution come in? Let us assume that people do feel an innate obligation to help others; which is arguable, but for the sake of this discussion we must accept it generally. What is the easiest way for people to meet that obligation to others? One could work harder and produce more so that they may transfer (via donation) some of that excess production for the consumption of others. Or, one could spend a few minutes every couple of years voting for a group of people who will give money (that is largely not theirs) to others. Both seems to meet the goal of “helping others” yet one of the two options entails significantly less hardship on the individual choosing to vote instead of donate. It is certainly much easier to vote charity to others than it is to actually provide it. Particularly when a good segment of society pays nothing to fund these programs; the estimated percentage of people in America who file tax returns and owe $0 (or less) is 43% (as of 2013).

In the case of this group of people, a vote for welfare is not only costless and potentially beneficial, but also absolves them totally of any further responsibility to be their “brother’s keeper.” In fact, an IRS analysis of the 2012 tax year showed that the most generous states (by percentage of their income donated) were “red states” that voted for Mitt Romney. This implies that those people that believe government should not engage in coerced charity (to as great of an extent) are much more likely to give of their own money while people who see government as a reasonable and righteous source of charity (albeit at the point of a gun, a fact they often ignore) sees little reason to give of their own money when they can instead vote for “charitable” actions.

Therefore, a vote for government welfare represents a much cheaper way (for the voter) to donate largely because others pay the bill. Individuals can then fulfill their sense of obligation from the pockets of others and still gain the sense of giving that usually motivates people to actually give. This leaves people who preach an obligation to the poor and disabled from actually having any responsibility for meeting that obligation personally. Thus, the individuals that choose the voting method over the donating method have effectively been absolved of their responsibility to others. Effectively, those people do not practice what they preach; instead they demand others serve as their brother’s keeper, while they hold the moral high ground through their mere demanding of action by force.  This reminds me of the brilliant words of Ayn Rand who said:

“It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”

Interestingly, the people most hurt are the ones who do, most significantly, need the help. For the real crime is not that everyone does not have access to “assistance”; instead, the real crime lay in the reality that those who truly cannot do for themselves are left in poverty so as to satiate the majority who wishes to forgo their own personal responsibility for their own monetary gain. Simply put the absolution through government costs the absolved little, while that release from obligations is paid for dearly by those they claim to be helping. This is the danger of idealism rooted in greater good terms; for the actual good is left subjected to the eye of the beholder while the intent of actions is weighted far greater than actual outcomes. I close with the definition of absolution: “the formal release of guilt, obligation, or punishment.”

The nature of black markets: why making commodities illegal is ineffective.

I think it is important to characterize the commodity in very a generalized manner—at least for now—therefore we will refer to our commodity in question as a widget. Now, it is of no consequence what a widget is because, when analyzing the effects of a black market, the only relevant factor is that widgets were made illegal by lawmakers. It is important to begin with a basic definition of a black market:

“A black market or underground economy is the market in which goods or services are traded illegally. The key distinction of a black market trade is that the transaction itself is illegal. The goods or services may or may not themselves be illegal to own, or to trade through other, legal channels.”

It is important to note that the definition also identifies that the goods (in our example widgets) need not be illegal to own. This refers to situations where taxation or regulations are used to limit, control, or inhibit the trade of a good or service (i.e. high cigarette taxes). However valid this discussion is, it will not be the focus of this conversation as we are assuming our commodity has been made illegal for the sake of simplicity.

Black markets develop because making a product illegal does not cause people to stop using it; instead, it merely marginalizes consumption, the production, and the distribution to those who are willing to accept and operate under greater degrees of risk. I know this may sound a little confusing which is why I created a graphic that illustrates the levels of acceptable risk for different groups of society:

Risk flow chart

In this graphic we can observe that the lower two segments (5 & 6) are those people who enjoy or are comfortable with greater risk levels; next (segments 3&4) we can observe the greatest amount of people as the average level of risk takers which would be generally averse to great risk, but partaking in some low/moderate risk; finally, in our upper two segments (1 & 2) we can see a portion of the population who range from mostly risk averse to almost exclusively averse to risk. This understanding of risk tolerance is important in the realization that making commodities illegal only serves to focus use and production on the risk loving segments which are most likely to partake in other risky behaviors (e.g. crime, violence, etc.) regardless of their use of a certain commodity. This reality is why the argument of illegality for the purpose of public safety is largely invalid.

Let us return to our concept of widgets again. If widgets are made illegal then we have some serious problems: 1) people are still demanding this product (although demand is now almost exclusively coming from groups 5&6 and a small part of group 4) so new producers will enter the market to meet this demand and receive the greater profits now offered by an illegal trade operating at monopoly pricing. 2) By compressing consumption to the risk loving segments we create a self-fulfilling prophesy – that the people using the widget will also be breaking other laws [don’t believe me?…look at why prohibition did not work for alcohol].

We can see a new and growing market segment dominated by those who are more predisposed to risky (read: criminal) behavior. Also, we have reduced competition in the production of widgets which would generally (particularly in a highly criminalized black market) lead to the production of “crappier” products at higher prices. Therefore, the risk factors of our widgets become even greater due to the lower quality. Additionally, in this market with limited competition, lower quality requirements, and huge profit margins we will observe more criminal (mob-like) activities in the production and distribution of our widget. In essence, criminal producers compete with force instead of with price or quality (or both) to gain customers; this has many negative effects on the communities in which these suppliers operate.

We are also presented with a consumption level distortion. The new consumer group—which is also isolated to higher risk tolerances—engages in the same activities they would have likely done anyway; however, now our widgets are given the credit (blame) for these activities. This creates somewhat of a paradox in that the results of prohibition become the best argument for prohibition because the correlation between widget use and other risky/criminal behavior increases due to us arbitrarily slicing segments 1, 2, 3, and most of 4 off of the consumer base. We have not eliminated any undesirable by-products of consuming widgets; we have merely magnified the (rudimentary) perception of the widgets’ effect on producing these negative by-products.

Why is this important? First, there are little to no positive effects of making products illegal beyond people making themselves feel better that they may have coerced others into not engaging in an activity this other person condemns [think Michael Bloomberg and soft drink sizes]. Second, by isolating supply to risk loving individuals we fuel illegitimate activities and isolate supply into the hands of people willing to exercise the most risk. Not only have we criminalized users, we have laid the foundation to launch a whole new and highly profitable enterprise that relies on criminal activity and violence as the primary means to restricting market entry. This incorporation excludes traditional competitive means (product differentiation and price) in favor of force, violence, intimidation, and a new criminal recruitment system resulting in social problems in these communities as well as losses in property values, tax revenues, and legitimate employment opportunities.

Gun rights advocates make this argument quite accurately and succinctly when they state that: “making guns illegal would only keep them out of the hands of the law abiding population who do not commit crimes anyhow.” This is a very astute observation. Unfortunately, this same group often fails to realize that the same is true for our widget example, or drugs, or prostitution, and was found empirically to be true with alcohol. Making any of those things illegal did not eliminate the use of them; it merely marginalized use and created a criminal enterprise where one did not previously exist. Does prohibition result in decreased use?…only a little because, if the product is inherently risky, a vast majority of the population will avoid it anyway. Does prohibition make society safer? No, in fact the evidence would indicate the opposite.

So, why does our society struggle with this idea? Because liberty is scary to so many people! Of course, liberty—like so many other things—is really only a good idea for ourselves, not for others. The false premise that one group of people has the responsibility or authority to try and save others is preposterous and, I would argue, excludes the people who hold that idea from having any real profound understanding of the concept of Natural Rights or the ideas that our founders held so dear in creating this greatest of countries. The land of the free has become the land of the busybodies, intent on utilizing their votes to gain access to the force that government wields to make individuals “mind” them. I do not wish to have a nanny state economically nor do I wish to have one for individual choices. Incidentally, one thing everyone should keep in mind, you do not get one of those without the other.

Unions are cartels that should be subject to anti-trust laws

        Most people are familiar with the general idea of anti-trust laws and proceedings; but, as with many things the devil is in the details. A major problem that underscores this greater issue is a lack of understanding of the exact nature of labor. People often think of labor and capital as having a protagonist/antagonist relationship and this misconception is quite profitable to labor leaders and their political allies. However, the pervasiveness of this misconception does great harm to those who directly control labor—individuals; particularly those individuals who have the lowest skill levels which are most often the poor, minorities, and young people. People see laborers as having no leverage in the business relationship and thus assign laborers a more limited value.

        First of all, there are two primary factors of production: labor and capital. Labor is the efforts of people in producing goods and services for trade. Capital describes the accumulation of machinery and tools (often thought of monetarily) that are used in the production process. Neither factor holds a distinctive advantage over the other as a general rule, but differing circumstances can tip the scales of control to one or the other.

        This can be seen throughout history and even today. For example, there was a period in time when labor was so highly demanded (thus, labor held the advantage) that employers would wait outside of prisons to hire people as they were released. In the modern day, people who hold strong skills in computer programming or web design (etc.) can command significant salaries and benefits. These are not the instances that the media and politicians focus on; instead they choose to highlight the false narrative of the minimum wage and the “plight” of entry-level, low wage workers. This misses the reality of the damage done by labor unions by creating a sleight of hand, parlor trick.

         We—rightly—prosecute the collusion (cartelization) of business (owners of capital) if they join together to fix prices or production levels in a manner to extract much higher profits from the market than the competitive (more often the monopolistically competitive) value of their outputs. However, when it comes to labor unions, who collude openly on a national scale and across industry sectors (e.g. SEIU and AFL-CIO), we see that not as being an extortion of the consumer as we do in the capital example. Instead, we see labor unions—simply groups of individuals colluding to monopolize and thus increase their market power artificially—as merely protecting their members from an otherwise predatory institution. This is not the reality when it comes to mega-unions. The reality is that they are utilizing their control of one of the two primary factors of production in the same way businesses do when they collude; therefore consumers pay significantly higher prices which would resemble monopoly level pricing.

     Furthermore, just as other monopolies who do not enjoy regulatory protection by government which controls market entry, they induce others to enter the market and capture their market share by offering superior products at lower prices [note: natural monopolies that do not rely on regulatory control of market entry do exist; however, they are quite rare]. The effects of the monopoly, outside of government intervention, are often limited in their scope. We can see the results of this in the automobile market where, as trade restrictions relaxed (which is good for the US consumer), the foreign car producers began to rapidly grow against the domestic ones which were plagued by higher than natural equilibrium labor costs and diminishing relative quality (as a way to fight costs) versus the competition. The eventual result was that all those people who owned and controlled the labor factor of production in the car market and enjoyed higher than appropriate levels of profits (pay and benefits) ended up dropping their long run incomes to zero as new competitors entered and captured market share. From a labor perspective, these new market participants would include southern state workers who drew in production facilities as well as foreign workers (via outsourcing).

      Additionally, areas densely populated with people who enjoyed this monopoly level pricing for their labors collapsed as the monopoly structure of their labor force declined. Their government, bloated on the excess of extracting unrealistic levels of profits in their labor force from other areas in the country, could not sustain the drop in tax revenues and have essentially become ghost towns (Detroit’s population in 1950 was 1.8 million and is approximately 700,000 today). Also, the greater than equilibrium labor cost overall in markets like Detroit due to unionization of the auto industry crowded out other industries making Detroit perilously dependent on one industry.

        The real long-run winners in the equation have been the labor unions themselves (not their members) and the politicians who have enjoyed control of their votes and contributions for many years. The losers in the short run were workers that did not gain entry into those industries and, in the long run, all the people of areas once dominated by big labor production. People often say that unions were once a good thing and that somehow is supposed to justify the existence of mega union entities; however, I find that logic to be severely flawed. Instead, I argue that unions are still positive things when they are constrained to plant (or perhaps firm) level entities. This reduces large scale collusion while granting the owners of labor a more even position in the negotiating process without giving them unfettered control of the production of certain markets completely. Owners of a particular firm control all of the capital for that firm, but no single laborer controls all of the labor for a firm; therefore, an alliance of firm level labor can be positive without being punitive to consumers or damaging to the industry sector. Also, compulsory inclusion in unions should not exist because this removes the competitive nature of markets which allow a fair blend of profits to capital and labor simultaneously, while ensuring maximum marginal value to the consumers.

Regulation Is Not Our Salvation

        There is much talk of regulation and the need for it in every aspect of our “dangerous capitalistic” society; however, there is seldom talk of what regulation is and of what precisely it accomplishes. Ironically, the very people who exhibit the greatest disdain for “big business” are often the most ardent supporters of regulation (besides the big businesses themselves, of course). Democrats, and statists of all parties, are particularly interested in imposing regulations for the stated purpose of controlling the “animal instincts” of the free market. These are the same people who often deride big business publicly for taking advantage of consumers and keeping the “little man” down. And this is where it becomes interesting.

          What if I were to tell you that regulation is largely designed to do that very thing and that the politicians who both advocate and introduce regulation understand very clearly that it will remove competition by restricting new market participants? I know, I know–many people out there will be shaking their heads in outright refusal of this assertion. I can just hear it now: “we need government to protect us from big corporations”; or “that’s not what the news said”; or “Obama said we deregulated too much.” Food for thought, though: big opponents of airline deregulation were the (big) airlines and the big opponents of trucking deregulation?…you guessed it, the (big) trucking companies. That, by the way, is not an isolated situation.

          Now, before people start into the irrational argument that I hate all regulation or that I am an anarchist; try to refrain from acting arbitrarily dramatic, ‘cause it just ain’t true! Here is an example of the real world scenario and why most regulation is not only supported by “big business,” but also why they (and their lobbyists) write a significant amount of the legislation.

          Let us assume that I am a builder of houses in a small economy with a relatively static population (a miniature US, for example). I am the only builder of houses as I have been an innovator in early house building technology. Let us also assume I hired you to work for me as my helper and you worked your way up to foreman over some amount of time. At this point you realize that you know everything you would need to provide the same service that I do, but feel you can do it more cheaply (because I am operating as a monopolist and thus my pricing is artificially high). So, you strike out on your own and begin competing with me. This does not please me for obvious reasons.

          So, I go see the executive (president/governor) of this “state” we live and work in and I convince him that we should, for the safety of all consumers, get control of the house building market and pass some regulations so that amateur and dangerous new builders do not hurt anyone financially or physically. The executive, not wanting his constituents hurt or angry sees great value in regulation that will control the evil capitalists (besides me, of course as I will be grandfathered in…) and will make one of his major campaign contributors happy. He goes to the legislative branch and convinces them to draft a law; however, how can these lawmakers draft regulations about housing that will safeguard their citizens when they themselves have never built houses? Hmmmm…Wait, they have an idea—they should approach the local expert for help in constructing these regulations. My phone rings and I gladly accept my civic duty of drawing up regulations for housing standards so that I am guaranteed customers…I mean, so that the citizens are safe!

          Now, back to you, my only competitor; if am lucky I can build in professional fees and licensing, insurance, or even capital requirements that create a great enough obstacle to you not being able to continue in the market. If not, I have almost guaranteed that neither of our employees will likely ever be able to afford to compete with us.   Here is the best part, though. Having seen how well the appeal to citizens to safeguard them from “greedy profit-driven” capitalists worked out for his polling numbers; the executive decides to move on to another market segment. Once again, this executive finds great public support (who doesn’t want to be safer) and also finds he has more campaign contributions rolling in from companies which no longer have to fear any significant competition in their field.

     Here is the reality and the bad side of this equation. First, capitalism in this example no longer exists (incidentally, there has not been true capitalism in the U.S. for many decades except perhaps in some isolated market segments). The little man has been effectively “held down” and kept out of the marketplace. Skill, pricing, or a combination of the two is no longer that which is primarily supplied by market participants; instead, the ability to navigate the political waters and afford to pay for these regulatory burdens is what determines market participation.

          Second, the government has created a moral hazard in which the citizenry no longer feels responsible for ensuring quality in the products and services they purchase; additionally, government takes on no liability that the work they attest to (through regulatory obstacles) is of high or even good quality. For example, if you have a house built, it will have to be approved by government inspectors on many occasions for different purposes. However, if that house burns down later from faulty wiring that was inspected; the government that essentially told you it was safe carries no liability. This begs a tangential question: what is the point, exactly?

          Third, in fields that are “regulated” it has been made essentially illegal for people to work. To license something is defined as: the ability to grant a license to (someone or something) to permit the use of something or to allow an activity to take place. If something requires a license, it is otherwise illegal—ergo, it is illegal to work and earn a living if the government does not permit you to do so. Yet another disincentive towards working, just what we need!

          The rise in corporations over the last century is not due to not enough government. Inversely, it is due to too much government. I understand there is a long held belief in most people that government is there to help us, but we must get beyond misconceptions and use logic to approach questions. Whether a politician is well-intentioned or not, regulation still results in the same thing. Also, do not believe the hype that the Bush administration marked the biggest rollback of regulations in modern history—that could not be further from the truth. In fact, if you are a fan of regulation, you should have a picture of “W” over your mantle right next to your picture of Obama.

          If people actually understand what the true effects of regulation are, it is likely that we will tolerate less of it. However, I understand there is a draw in believing in wholesale regulation; the comfort of feeling like someone evil and rich is being halted on their wicked quest for world domination is probably great. But, perception a reality does not make. Regulation is the pet of “big business” that does not wish to compete and colorful plumage which politicians display to prove how “caring” and “egalitarian” they are; both, instead, use it largely as a tool to monopolize market segments and line their own pockets; perverting capitalism into cronyism.

          When you consider the effectiveness of government in solving all our problems you should truly ponder why all of governments “wars” of morality such as the one on drugs and the one on poverty have only resulted in more of both. Certainly, in the thousands of years of human history it is unlikely that humans have only recently gone bad; perhaps, we should realize that government has the anti-Midas effect of turning everything it touches into crap instead of gold.

 

Liberty is the Root of Our Prosperity

     Without liberty, we lose that which makes America unique among the nations of the world, in both the past and the present.  It can hardly be said to be a coincidence that the most free people in the history of humanity have also become the most wealthy and powerful; but there are those who would wish to convince people that it was not our liberties which opened the door to prosperity…no, they would offer that prosperity was attained despite these freedoms.  What a lucky break it has been, then, that the nation where its people are free to imagine something greater and free to expect a return for their labors are the people who have exercised tremendous ingenuity and an incredible work ethic…go figure.  Imagine how many Steve Jobs, Henry Fords, or Nikola Teslas may have been lost to history in communal nations where it was the government’s job to determine people’s aptitudes or their worth to society and thus assign them their tasks?

    A common argument (read: excuse) of the collectivists is that we are a product of our resources; and yes, we do have those in abundance relative to some nations.  However, I would argue that our resources did not define us as a people; instead, we defined our resources.  Upon the ratification of the Constitution, the framers did not find a map to resources with a multi-lingual set of instructions for how to develop machines and methods to utilize them.  It was the liberty to develop, to invent, to discover, and ultimately to earn a reward for our labors that drove generations of Americans to develop those resources which would eventually increase the living standards of much of the entire planet.  That is not inconsequential, nor is it coincidental; that is a staggering feat for the ultimate benefit of all of humanity.

      I often ponder as to why our economic progress and achievements, due greatly to our level of freedom, is something to be ashamed of; particularly when we wonder why kids do not try to excel at school.  Is there not a link between denigrating success and a dwindling amount of it?  Perhaps instead of hiding from our prosperity, we should embrace the fact that we are the engine of advancement for the entire globe; then, just maybe the children of this generation and the next may return to aspiring for more and settling for nothing less than whatever it is their individual dreams may conjure.  The true “arrogance” of America is to enjoy the fruits of labor and the results of our capitalist, free-market society (at least it used to be) while simultaneously acting as if those were not significant accomplishments.