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Radicalism and the Political Landscape

Last night I had a nice conversation with some other Queen’s economics alumni. When the conversation turned to politics, I said that I didn’t want to follow the next election and that I had promised myself I wouldn’t support the lesser evil. I may have come off as apathetic about politics, but that was not my intention.

The way I see it, there is a tradeoff between having a small (i.e. negligible) influence on present politics, by volunteering for political parties, talking (or blogging) about current political issues, and of course voting, and having a potentially larger influence on future politics. Here is the opening paragraph of Hayek’s essay, The Intellectuals and Socialism:

In all democratic countries, in the United States even more than elsewhere, a strong belief prevails that the influence of the intellectuals on politics is negligible. This is no doubt true of the power of intellectuals to make their peculiar opinions of the
moment influence decisions, of the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses. Yet over somewhat longer periods they have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today in those countries. This power they wield by shaping public opinion.

Hayek’s view, which I share, is that there is a fundamentally different mechanism at play in short-run politics and in long-run politics: The short run turns on popular opinion, while the long run turns on the forces that shape popular opinion. Continue reading Radicalism and the Political Landscape

American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

The American Apparel board of directors has ousted the company’s founder. The company stock jumped up nearly 20% on the announcement. Contrary to what we see in the movies, being a successful founder of a big company does not entitle one to kick back, smoke cigars, and let the profits roll in. Dov Charney had some innovative ideas about clothing and about turning a small enterprise into a global chain, but his personal failings became damaging, so he had to go.

An interesting question to ask is “who works for whom?” A week ago we might have thought that American Apparel worked for Charney, and not the other way around, but we would have been wrong. The board that fired him is itself beholden to the shareholders; the old share price (before the 20% jump) was the result of investors restricting their investments in the company because its bad CEO made it less appealing than some alternative investments. And who are the shareholders beholden to? Continue reading American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme

Today I will be dispensing life advice. There’s a certain type of person who will tell you that you should follow your passion regardless of money concerns; to do otherwise would be “selling out.” This is pretty terrible advice. If eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom are not my passions, should I never do these things?  What is it about money (or rather, all the things that exchange for money) that makes it unacceptable to include among one’s goals?

The big problem with this advice is that it is often given to young people. Young people have passions, but they can only be passionate about the things they have experienced at their young age. When I was young, I was passionate about painting. Now I am passionate about economics. If I had taken the oft-repeated advice to “follow my passion,” I would be struggling to make a living as an oil painter. Only by not following my passion was I able to discover a different (and much more remunerative) passion.

Not bad, huh?
Not bad, huh?

Continue reading My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme

How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Airplane Takeoff
One thousand internet points to the commenter who can correctly identify this image!

Here’s a conversation between a reporter and one of the alleged beneficiaries of Seattle airport’s $15/hour minimum wage:

“Are you happy with the $15 wage?” I asked the full-time cleaning lady.

“It sounds good, but it’s not good,” the woman said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation,” she responded. “No more free food,” she added.

The hotel used to feed her. Now, she has to bring her own food. Also, no overtime, she said. She used to work extra hours and received overtime pay.

What else? I asked.

“I have to pay for parking,” she said.

This may have come as a surprise to some, but not to those of us who are familiar with economic theory. The minimum wage hike here was large and sudden, so the impact was dramatic and visible. Continue reading How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Significance Tests as Leading Questions

Under the common law, lawyers are not allowed to ask witnesses “leading questions,” as witnesses can be influenced by the way questions are asked. A leading question is one that suggests a particular answer, for instance, “Were you at the country club on Saturday night?” is a leading question, while, “Where were you on Saturday night?” is not.

Econometricians should be as careful as lawyers when questioning the most unreliable of all witnesses: economic data. Most statistical software will automatically spit out t-tests for whether the coefficients in regression models equal zero. This is equivalent to asking the data, “Data, given these modelling assumptions, can you deny with 95% certainty that this coefficient equals zero?” That’s a leading question, and the econometrician shouldn’t ask it unless he has special reason to suspect that the coefficient is zero. Continue reading Significance Tests as Leading Questions

Louis XIV Lives On

When calico printed cloth was introduced to Europe, the French government banned it. They employed gestapo-style tactics to stamp out the new innovation. Here’s Murray Rothbard’s summary of the fiasco, from his excellent An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (vol. 1, p. 219):

The new cloth, printed calicoes, began to be imported from India in the 1660s, and became highly popular, useful for an inexpensive mass market, as well as for high fashion. As a result, calico printing was launched in France. By the 1680s, the indignant woollen, cloth, silk and linen industries all complained to the state of ‘unfair competition’ by the highly popular upstart. The printed colours were readily outcompeting the older cloths. And so the French state responded in 1686 by total prohibition of printed calicoes: their import or their domestic production. In 1700, the French government went all the way: an absolute ban on every aspect of calicoes including their use in consumption. Government spies had a hysterical field day: ‘peering into coaches and private houses and reporting that the governess of the Marquis de Cormoy had been seen at her window clothed in calico of a white background with big red flowers, almost new, or that the wife of a lemonade-seller had been seen in her shop in a casquin of calico’. Literally thousands of Frenchmen died in the calico struggles, either being executed for wearing calicoes or in armed raids against calico-users.

Continue reading Louis XIV Lives On

Mises, Probability, and the Two Envelopes Problem

In Human Action, Mises distinguishes between what he calls “class probability” and “case probability.” He defines class probability as such:

Class probability means: We know or assume to know, with regard to the problem concerned, everything about the behavior of a whole class of events or phenomena; but about the actual singular events or phenomena we know nothing but that they are elements of this class.

This is the ordinary sort of probability. We reach into an urn containing seven red balls and two white balls, so the probability of choosing a red ball is 7:2. We can say this because we have knowledge about the class of balls in the urn. Mises distinguishes this from case probability:

Case probability means: We know, with regard to a particular event, some of the factors which determine its outcome; but there are other determining factors about which we know nothing.

Continue reading Mises, Probability, and the Two Envelopes Problem

Mainstream Economics has a PR Problem

I was reading the comments on another blog, where I found someone complaining about Austrian (and Austrian-sympathizing) economists. This person’s undergraduate institution had a few Austrian (and Austrian-sympathizing) economists who would closely watch bright students (like vultures!), befriend them (how creepy!), help them to get TA-ships (oh no!), and invite them to private seminars where there would be uncritical readings of Hayek (the horror!). There were no similar opportunities offered by mainstream professors.

This person’s distaste for Austrians seems to have clouded his thinking. He thinks the Austrians were doing a bad thing, inducting people into some kind of cult. Really, all these Austrian economists were doing was mentoring students and being passionate about their field. The real complaint should be against every professor who doesn’t do these things! Continue reading Mainstream Economics has a PR Problem

Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization, by Ludwig von Mises

Coins of the Roman EmpireHere’s a passage from Human Action that I just found so interesting that I had to post it in its entirety (pp. 767-69 of the Scholar’s Edition):

Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.

It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.

What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval.

The freedom that Rome granted to commerce and trade had always been restricted. With regard to the marketing of cereals and other vital necessities it was even more restricted than with regard to other commodities. It was deemed unfair and immoral to ask for grain, oil, and wine, the staples of these ages, more than the customary prices, and the municipal authorities were quick to check what they considered profiteering. Thus the evolution of an efficient wholesale trade in these commodities was prevented. The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade, aimed at filling the gaps. But its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing.* The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand.

The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses–the villae–the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord’s estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.

The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government’s interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who “relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit.”** The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities’ supply of agricultural products.

The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Fuhrer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.

 

*Cf. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1926), p. 187.

**Corpus Juris Civilis, 1. un. C. X. 37.

Continue reading Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization, by Ludwig von Mises