Teaching Economics: Age of Empires and Central Planning

When I was young, I played a lot of Age of Empires. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, they are games where the player must direct a tiny civilization’s development. He begins with one building and only a few villagers. By right clicking on a villager, then left clicking on a tree, stone mine, gold mine, or animal, the player can direct the villager to gather wood, stone, gold, or meat. He can also direct villagers to make buildings. And with buildings, he can recruit more villagers or soldiers.

By directing every action of every person in his civilization, the player can eventually turn his tiny village into a sprawling city, clashing militarily with other players’ civilizations.

I think a game economy like that one could be a good teaching tool for young people. In the early stages of the game, centrally managing a few villagers works well. But as the civilization grows, the player’s attention becomes more stretched. It is common, in the game economy, for the player to discover a group of villagers clustered around a (now exhausted) mine or forest. The growing economy becomes ever more difficult to manage, and it becomes more difficult to coordinate the growing numbers of workers and soldiers.

In the game, the complexity cannot grow without limit. The computing limits of the day meant the game had to cap the population at about one hundred tiny people. Furthermore, the production processes allowed anything to be created from wood, food, gold, stone, and villager labour. In a real economy, these would expand into ever more complex and roundabout processes as the economy continued to grow.

Nonetheless, a game like Age of Empires is a good demonstration of how the difficulties of central planning compound as an economy grows in size and complexity. What remains is an explanation of the alternative: an economy where each of those villagers decides for himself whether he will chop wood, mine stone, mine gold, or hunt deer. Sadly, I don’t know of too many games that show how private property and prices can coordinate the actions of disparate individuals. There are plenty of business simulators, but these only show the activities of a single businessman, the player, and sometimes his competitors.

But maybe games aren’t the right place to look for examples of spontaneous order. The place to look for spontaneous order is the real world. Ask young people who have played Age of Empires (or similar games) what the difference is between the game economy and the real economy. They told each person in the game economy whether to be builders or miners or hunters; who in real life directs each person into an occupation? Nobody, at least under capitalism, performs this role. Each person decides for himself what job to apply for given the wage he thinks he can earn. Point to one of those clusters of workers around a long-since-exhausted resource. Ask the young people what the owner of that resource would pay to have people work there, even after it has been exhausted. Clearly he wouldn’t pay anything, so those workers would look for other jobs. Thus, if those workers had the free will to decide what to do for themselves, they would not be wasted waiting for the central planner (i.e. the player) to tell them what to do.

In my education, I was never told about the way people coordinate through prices until I saw someone draw supply and demand curves in an undergraduate classroom. But ultimately, these concepts are not too difficult for people to grasp at young ages. You don’t have to get into difficult, technical debates to show that prices reflect scarcity and people respond to prices, so people respond to scarcity through prices. Age of Empires demonstrates a world without prices, so it might be a good place to start.

Jane Jacobs as Spontaneous Order Theorist with Pierre Desrochers

This episode of Economics Detective Radio features Pierre Desrochers discussing the life and work of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs, born Jane Butzner, was a thinker and activist who wrote about cities. She spent her early career as a business journalist. When she started writing about urban renewal, she recognized the policy for the disaster it was. Jacobs became a voice for the general dissatisfaction with a policy that would bulldoze whole neighbourhoods, relocating the inhabitants into new buildings preferred by urban planning reformers and political elites.

The editors of Fortune Magazine invited Jacobs to write a piece about downtowns. Her piece, “Downtown is for People” became the magazine’s most-discussed article. She developed the ideas in that article into her first and most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book launched her as a minor celebrity.

In New York City, she successfully opposed initiatives to “renew” Greenwich Village. She also opposed a plan that would have cut a highway through SoHo, Chinatown, and Little Italy. Eventually she found herself opposing the Vietnam War, and, fearing that one of her sons would be drafted, moved to Toronto.

Jacobs’ most important contributions to economics came in her second book, The Economy of Cities. Jacobs is essentially a spontaneous order theorist, though she never used that term. Her concept of entrepreneurship is particularly rich and dynamic. Unlike most economists (even Austrians) she has no urge to talk about how entrepreneurship leads us closer to equilibrium.

Her largest influence on the mainstream economics literature is the so-called “Jacobs externality.” Jacobs suggested that innovation would often come from outsiders to a given industry, so having many diverse industries clustered in a small geographic area would lead to innovation. The alternative thesis, associated with Alfred Marshall and later Paul Romer, holds that when a region specializes in a particular industry it allows knowledge spillovers to occur between similar firms. There has been significant empirical research to try to resolve these two opposing views, with Jacobs often coming out the winner.

You can read Pierre’s work on Jane Jacobs at his academic website.

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On the Political Economy of Native Tribes

My latest Mises Canada post is all about Native tribes:

Ludwig von Mises wrote that, “[d]emocratic control is budgetary control. The government has but one source of revenue—taxes. … But if the government has other sources of income it can free itself from this control.”[1] This principle is particularly important for understanding the internal politics of Canadian Native tribes, whose governments are the recipients of large transfers from the Canadian federal government.

A recent scandal involving the Squamish Nation, a Vancouver-area tribe with a population of about 4,000, is a case in point. Two political officials of the band spent $1.5 million from an emergency fund for their personal ends. According to the investigation that eventually exposed them, “it was clear they handed out funds to develop political support from members.” [2] The scandal derives from the fact that funds earmarked for one purpose, emergencies, were used for a different purpose. But the interesting economic story would nonetheless hold if the funds had been used only for their intended purposes.

According to its most recent financial statements,[3] the Squamish Nation earned $11.3 million from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, i.e. the Canadian Federal Government, and only $8.4 million from taxation in 2014. As Mises suggests in the quote above, a government with alternative sources of income besides taxation can use this income to free itself from democratic control. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is a favourite activity of all governments, but when the robbery occurs through taxation, it is at least limited by Paul’s awareness that he is being robbed.

Go read the rest at Mises Canada.

Economics is a Philosophy of Tolerance

My latest Mises Canada article deals with the economist’s response to snobbery:

The world is full of snobs. There are music snobs who complain that most people prefer Lady Gaga to Stravinsky, film snobs who complain that most people prefer action movies to art films, and food snobs who complain that most people prefer pizza to fine sashimi. Whatever one’s area of interest, it is tempting to pass judgement on others’ preferences.

In learning economics, and in absorbing its lessons, one learns to be less of a snob. Economic analysis always begins by taking people’s preferences as given. The economist sees someone choosing pizza over sashimi and sees only a person acting towards the highest attainment of his ends. The economist trains himself to leave his personal biases and any inclination towards snobbery behind so that he can keep his analysis value free.

Even common terms like “responsible” and “irresponsible” are value-laden. Activities we recognize as responsible, such as saving for retirement, avoiding risks to life and limb, and living a healthy lifestyle are consistent with a specific set of preferences. Someone who values future experience highly against present experience (i.e. someone with a low rate of time preference) will favour all of these behaviours. Activities we recognize as irresponsible, such as profligate spending, risk-taking, and indulging in junk food, alcohol, or illicit drugs are consistent with a different set of preferences. Valuing present experience highly over future experience (i.e. having a high rate of time preference) makes all these activities more appealing. Economics permits us to understand these different preferences but it never permits us to judge one set of preferences to be superior to another.

Read the whole article at Mises Canada.

TruthCoin, Prediction Markets, and Anarchy with Zack Hess

This episode of Economics Detective Radio features Zack Hess. Zack is working on a project called “TruthCoin,” a decentralized prediction market based on the technology behind bitcoin.

Prediction markets are a highly effective way to bring together dispersed information and insight into prices that reflect the likelihood of any future event. However, recent attempts to create centralized prediction markets have been thwarted by governments under antiquarian anti-gambling laws.

Enter TruthCoin. TruthCoin is a prediction market (currently in beta) that will not depend on any central server or organization. This online market will be dispersed among all the participants and thus more difficult to shut down.

Furthermore, TruthCoin will not depend on a central arbiter. The main difficulty faced by the creators of TruthCoin is in creating incentives for human arbiters to judge the outcomes of bets correctly. The solution is for judges to be set against one another, for each judge to get a higher payoff when other judges are wrong. Then any attempted collusion between arbiters falls apart.

Zack is an anarchist, and he sees a proliferation of prediction markets as a potential end run around the political class. Prediction markets where people could bet on the outcomes of given policies could force politicians to do what the prediction markets indicate is best. If, for example, a politician proposing a war claims it will have few casualties, a prediction market in “the number of casualties given that war is declared” could contradict the politician’s claim and make the war politically impossible.

You can find Zack on github, as well as the TruthCoin project itself. There is also a TruthCoin forum.

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About Those Monotonic Transformations…

Well, this is awkward. You told us that utility was strictly ordinal, that utility functions were unique up to a monotonic transformation. But whenever there’s a problem that requires them to be cardinal in some sense, you just revert right back to cardinality, don’t you? Remember how interpersonal comparisons of utility were supposed to be impossible? You made them anyways. You were never committed to the idea of ordinal utility. You just told us that to make us think we were safe. You lied to us.

In my newest post on Mises Canada, I critique expected utility theory on the grounds that it depends on cardinal utilities. Go read it and report back.

Vampires, Zombies, and the Dismal Science with Glen Whitman

In this episode, Glen Whitman discusses Economics of the Undead: Vampires, Zombies, and the Dismal Science, a book he co-edited with James Dow. Glen is an economics professor at California State University and, unlike most academic economists, he moonlights as a TV writer. He first wrote for the TV show Fringe and now writes for the soccer spy drama, Matador.

The book’s website provides the following description:

“Whether preparing us for economic recovery after the zombie apocalypse, analyzing vampire investment strategies, or illuminating the market forces that affect vampire-human romances, Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science gives both seasoned economists and layman readers something to sink their teeth into.

Undead creatures have terrified villagers and popular audiences for centuries, but when analyzed closely, their behaviors and stories—however farfetched—mirror our own in surprising ways. The essays collected in this book are as humorous as they are thoughtful, as culturally relevant as they are economically sound, and provide an accessible link between a popular culture phenomenon and the key concepts necessary to building one’s understanding of economic systems large and small. It is the first book to combine economics with our society’s fascination with the undead, and is an invaluable resource for those looking to learn economic fundamentals in a fun and innovative way.”

Among the topics covered in the discussion are helpful hints such as how to meet the vampire man of your dreams, to choose what to bring on your trek across the zombie-infested wastelands you once called home, and to rebuild civilization after the undead apocalypse.

Human capital will be particularly helpful in the zombie apocalypse; it has immense value and goes wherever you go. Doctors are often depicted among the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, possibly because survivor groups would rather recruit a doctor than kill him. There’s an analogy to pirates, who would press valuable seamen like surgeons or carpenters into service rather than killing them (for more pirate economics, check out Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook).

Among the more unexpected chapters of the book is “Killing Time: Dracula and Social Discoordination,” by Hollis Robbins. Robbins connects the infamous Transylvanian villain’s ability to distort his victims’ senses of time to date- and time-keeping standards that some nations had adopted while others had not at the time the book was written.

You can find Glen online at econundead.com where he posts about the latest in undead economics news or on twitter as @glenwhitman.

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Migration and Open Borders with Nathan Smith

In this episode, Nathan Smith discusses the economics and history of migration and migration restrictions. Nathan is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration: Finance and Economics at Fresno Pacific University and regular blogger at Open Borders: The Case.

We start the episode by discussing the economic impacts of Nathan’s own migration to Fresno. Students gain, as he adds to the supply of economics professors, other economists might lose from his competition in labour markets, people looking for parking near the University might lose, as he slightly reduces the supply of available parking spaces, and property owners gain from his demand for housing. In general, anyone Nathan transacts with gains from the transaction, while those who he competes with may suffer some slight loss.

The big slogan among open borders advocates is that a significant reduction in migration restrictions could “double world GDP.” Nathan’s own most recent estimates show about a 91% increase world GDP, mainly because people would move from places where they can earn very little (e.g. places with dysfunctional institutions) to places where they can earn quite a bit more (e.g. places with well-functioning  institutions, complementary factors of production, highly developed networks of specialization and exchange, etc.). There are complementarities between human capital and unskilled labour. For instance, great managers are more productive when there are many workers to manage, and the workers are more productive where there are great managers.

Nathan’s estimates indicate that as much as 44% of the world’s population could migrate under open borders. This may seem high, but even conservative estimates would put the number of migrants in the billions. While migration would be hard for the first few migrants, diaspora effects would start to make the process smoother and more desirable. In the 19th century, when international migration was less restricted and more common, migrants would form communities within their new countries: there would be a Polish neighbourhood, an Irish neighbourhood, an Italian neighbourhood, etc. These diaspora communities would function as gateways to the new culture, giving people a place to settle while they adjusted to the language and culture of their new country.

Today, with the exception of migration within the EU, there are no countries with open borders. While migration is somewhat easier for high-skilled workers, there are still many barriers. People call high-skilled migration “brain drain,” but that is really a perverse way of characterizing it. Are workers’ “brains” their countries’ property? Are they to be kept as forced labourers for their countries’ benefit? In addition, the idea of brain drain is empirically questionable. If getting high skills is a ticket to a better life in a different country, the possibility of migrating increases the incentive to gain high skills, thus offsetting the loss of those who eventually emigrate.

When people can migrate, or “vote with their feet,” this puts competitive pressure on governments. For instance, governments’ ability to institute very progressive taxation is curtailed by high earners’ ability to move elsewhere. That the Soviets had to build a Berlin Wall to keep their citizens from leaving shows that the possibility of exit was threatening to the Soviet government.

Some restrictionists compare immigrants to the Visigoths in the Western Roman Empire. That is a poor analogy to modern migration, as the Visigoths migrated as a complete political entity.

Not only do immigrants assimilate into the existing industries, they are disproportionately entrepreneurial, founding new industries wherever they go. Nikola Tesla, Andrew Carnegie, Sergey Brin, and Elon Musk were all immigrants. During the era of open borders, many of the innovations (such as Henry Ford’s assembly line) were designed to be complementary with all the low-skilled labour made available by migrants. Much of our modern technological development is focused on economizing on low-skilled labour, but low-skilled labour is only artificially scarce in wealthy countries. Many basic tasks that high earners do for themselves could be contracted out to low-skilled migrants. Childcare, for instance, could be very inexpensive under open borders; skilled parents would not need to leave the workforce to raise their children.

Nathan sees hope for more open borders in the future. Migration restrictions are contrary to people’s consciences, which makes them difficult to enforce. This may slowly erode the restrictions. Furthermore, Christian churches are essentially supportive of open borders. There is hope for the world in moving towards open borders, but it will require moral will.

Nathan Smith can be found online at Open Borders: The Case.

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Price Theory and the Minimum Wage

The minimum wage is a contentious issue among economists, and yet it enjoys near-universal support among the public. In my view, public views of the minimum wage are simply the result of a lack of careful thought by most people. Daniel Kahneman’s theory that people, when faced with a difficult question, substitute a simpler question that they can easily answer, applies particularly well in this case. People answer the question of whether they would like people to earn more when the real question is whether government should mandate higher wages (I first heard this argument from Bryan Caplan on EconLog).

A purely empirical argument for or against the minimum wage is methodologically wrong-headed because empirics do not speak for themselves. Sound theory must be the economist’s first tool in understanding the effect of a policy such as the minimum wage.

Before we can understand something like the minimum wage, we must understand the role of prices in allocating factors of production to their various uses. The price of a factor signals to entrepreneurs that that factor is scarce, that it is needed elsewhere in the economy, and that the entrepreneur who can reduce his usage of relatively more scarce factors in favour of relatively less scarce ones can earn profits, while entrepreneurs who fail to do so earn losses. I give the example of a sandwich shop during an oil boom; the high price of labour caused by the oil boom leads the sandwich shop to substitute away from labour in various ways.

The oil boom in my illustration is irrelevant to the story. The sandwich shop would adapt to an increased price of labour no matter what caused it. If the cause is a minimum wage law, the people no longer employed making sandwiches are involuntarily unemployed rather than finding employment in some other industry.

Minimum wage opponents sometimes get into trouble when they draw supply and demand curves to illustrate the impact of the price floor. The problem with this is that supply and demand diagrams come with built-in assumptions that do not hold true in the case of labour markets. Low-skilled labour is not a homogeneous quantity being sold in a centralized market. The simple supply-and-demand story does not capture all the effects of the minimum wage. For instance, firms substitute between different sorts of workers affected by the minimum wage. In addition, the other terms of employment contracts can change in response to a minimum wage law, such as training and benefits.

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Virginia Political Economy and Entrepreneurship with Diana Thomas

In this episode, Diana Thomas discusses the relationship between the Virginia School of Political Economy and the Austrian School of Economics. Diana is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University.

The Virginia School is a branch of public choice, the application of the tools and techniques of economics to the study of political actors. The Virginia School’s founders, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were the first to systematically apply a rational choice framework to the study of politics in The Calculus of Consent.

Two assumptions commonly made by neoclassical economists are the “benevolence assumption” and the “omniscience assumption.” The benevolence assumption is implicit in normative analysis of what governments “ought” to do, as this assumes that political actors are motivated to maximize the common good rather than pursuing their self-interest. This assumption is challenged by public choice economists. The omniscience assumption is at play in economic models that depict the economy as being in equilibrium, whereby nobody is misinformed of or surprised by economic reality. This assumption is challenged by Austrian economists.

The omniscience assumption implies that the economy should be possible to rationally plan, an idea that Mises and Hayek debunked in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s and 30s.

As Diana states in her paper, Entrepreneurship: Catallactic and Constitutional Perspectives, “both Buchanan and Tullock reference Mises’ Human Action as the central reference for their understanding of methodological individualism.” The Virginia and Austrian schools also share common understandings of rationality and of self-interest.

Diana draws a parallel between Israel Kirzner’s distinction between calculative and entrepreneurial action and Buchanan’s distinction between reactive and creative action. While calculative or reactive action consists in simply responding to known incentives and constraints, entrepreneurial or creative action consists in envisioning a future that is different from the present and in acting on that expectation. Kirzner applies the concept of entrepreneurship to businessmen seizing anticipated arbitrage opportunities in the market. Buchanan applies the concept of creative action to political actors attempting to reform constitutional rules.

Buchanan conceives of constitutional rules as being made behind a “veil of uncertainty” since it is beyond political actors’ ability to predict in precisely what situations the rule will be applied, and whether their own self-interest will be served or hurt in those situations.

Diana believes that political action is more entrepreneurial than most economists recognize.  But while market entrepreneurship is guided by profit and loss towards those processes that best serve consumers, political entrepreneurship has no such guiding principle. Political entrepreneurs may innovate in ways that actually harm their constituents, but these innovations may nonetheless thrive and endure.

Poll numbers and bad press can motivate political actors, but these signals may not conform to the actual impacts of the policy. Good policies are often derided as evil, while bad policies are often popular. A US President can boost his popularity by declaring war, but US military ventures have a terrible track record in terms of their ultimate consequences (see Chris Coyne’s After War). Market innovations such as Lyft and Uber clearly benefit consumers, and yet there has been a political backlash against these popular businesses.

Public choice economists recognize that voters are “rationally ignorant,” since becoming informed about issues is costly, while the benefit is only manifested in better policy if the specific voter happens to be the swing vote in an otherwise tied election. Given these incentives, it would be irrational to be informed about policy, so it’s surprising that so many people vote at all. Diana explains it in terms of “expressive voting.” Voters vote because they want to express their views, not because their vote is particularly potent in shaping political outcomes.

Diana argues that policies aren’t particularly strongly affected by who is elected to office, rather they stem from institutional incentives. The median voter theorem demonstrates how, under plausible conditions, politicians attempt to please the most people by converging to a centrist policy. Another theory says that policy is not directed primarily by elections but by the lobbying efforts of special interest groups (see Olson). Since these groups get concentrated benefits from preferential policies, they have a strong incentive to agitate for them. Those who pay the costs of these policies (usually consumers) have only a small incentive to agitate against them, as the costs are dispersed among a great number of individuals.

Specific examples of policies made for the benefit of concentrated special interests are the US sugar quota, and Canadian customs duties charged for the importation of dairy products (leading to absurd cases of cheese smuggling).

You can read more from Diana Thomas at her professional website.

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Garrett M. Petersen's blog about markets, institutions, and ideas.