Dec 092011
 

The Third Way

Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966) is credited by many as one of the architects of the post-WWII German Economic Miracle, driven by the implementation of the Social Market Economy that is advocated by adherents of ORDO Liberalism, and associated with the Freiburg School of political economy.

(The term ORDO refers to an academic journal established in 1948 by the founders of the Social Market Economy movement in Europe following WWII.)

ORDO Liberals see a distinction between laissez-faire and Classical Liberalism that is very similar to what Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) describes in his book, The Great Transformation.

Essentially, laissez-faire is about means and Classical Liberalism is about ends, and there is no guarantee that laissez-faire will lead to Classical Liberalism. Evidence includes cartels, ‘old boy’ networks, cronyism, Unconscionable Contract, etc., all of which can exist under laissez-faire, but are very different from the ends that Classical Liberals advocate.

Some of the most repressive societies are those that have evolved in remote tribal villages, so far removed from formal government that it essentially does not exist.

On the other hand, the opposite of laissez-faire, statism, has led to unfathomable horrors including the twin extremes of National (‘right-wing’) Socialism and International (‘left-wing’) Socialism, the Khmer Rouge, and numerous Middle Eastern dictatorships, along with watered-down versions of in Cuba, Myanmar (Burma), Venezuela, Zimbabwe, et al., ad nauseam.

Statists see this not so much as a distinction between laissez-faire and Classical Liberalism, but as an inevitable consequence of laissez-faire, and they argue that government regulators and enforcers should achieve desired ends by whatever means are deemed acceptable.

In post-WWII Germany, the heavy hand of government was used to create a social safety net for the socioeconomic bottom-most while allowing market participants to allocate resources. So long as individuals employed means and achieved ends that were acceptable to government regulators, they were left to do as they wished. When someone in power determined that either the means or the ends were unacceptable, government agents stepped in to redirect the resources.

For the decade after the War, politicians and regulators steered the German economy down this middle way with some success, avoiding the excesses of command-&-control socialism at one extreme and the kind of anarchic chaos seen later in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union at the other extreme. China’s rulers appear to be attempting to follow a similar path today.

If politicians and regulators are united in their belief that Classical Liberalism is the ultimate end, and that the constrained laissez-faire of the market is the most efficient means to achieve that end, with occasional intervention, then an ORDO Liberal policy regime can work.

There is, of course, no guarantee that subsequent generations of politicians and regulators will not err on the side of command-&-control, as happened in Germany in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Where individuals wield power, the danger always exists that they will use it in pursuit of personal agendas, even at the expense of the community as a whole.

Sovereignty without Sovereigns

Today, as we transition from capital/labor national economies to an integrated knowledge/service global economy, we face an altogether different set of challenges. The question today is not, “Will statutes and regulations be overly burdensome?” but “How can transnational firms and networks be hindered in forming cartels in the absence of a global statutory and regulatory authority?

In other words, the danger today is not that the agents of a national government might tax or regulate a firm or industry out of existence, but that the executives of transnational firms and networks will enter into contractual arrangements that create artificial monopolies or otherwise exploit their positions to the detriment of consumers.

Granted, Dominium is less of a concern than Imperium, but it is a concern, when it results in higher costs for those least able to afford them. At the extreme, executives gain a kind of sovereignty by being beyond the reach of any particular government other than the ones that they happen to be standing in.

An example of this is illustrated in a recent Bloomberg story, “U.S. Studies Derivatives That ‘Game’ Tax Rules” that describes some of the difficulties that US legislators and regulators are facing in their quest to control the executives of financial firms and the participants in derivatives markets.

A major part of the problem is the fact that all financial assets are either contracts or titles that derive their existence from individual agreements and social institutions. They can be transferred quasi-instantaneously; encoded, shredded, and stored transnationally; and accessed, reassembled, and decoded from any jurisdiction.

The only things preventing the establishment of a peer-to-peer asset exchange that exists purely on the Internet are inertia and convenience. The tools and designs have existed for more than a decade. As long as the cost of the status quo remains less than the benefit, individuals will resort to status quo organizations, but if legislators and regulators raise the cost of doing business conventionally much more, then transitioning to something else becomes a viable alternative.

Even in the absence of overt blundering, the relative benefits of technological innovations are growing at exponential rates, and the tipping over into a new order that is out of the reach of any national government probably will come no matter what politicians do in any particular jurisdiction.

In such a world, the idea of a Third Way becomes untenable, as no national regulator or enforcer will be strong enough to compel laissez-faire to lead to Classical Liberalism.

Where things will lead, like all else in the future, is unknowable, but it is not unimaginable. I will explore some possibilities in Part 2 of this essay.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Dec 072011
 

Röpke on Imperium & Dominium

In addition to advocating the Social Market Economy, for which he is most famous, Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966) distinguished between two types of colonialism that are of immense relevance to understanding the world today, as we transition from multiple capital/labor national economies to an integrated knowledge/service global economy.

Röpke referred to these as Imperium and Dominium. [warning: PDF] Imperium refers to political sovereignty, and it is projected at the point of a gun. Dominium refers to economic sovereignty, and it is projected at the point of a pen used to sign a contract.

Röpke recognized that both Imperium and Dominium are forms of domination, and that Imperium is by far the more violent of the two. In other words, if one were going to be dominated by a foreign power, one would be better off if that power were Nike and not the CIA. Still, one would be dominated, and one might be expected to chafe at that.

Historically, Imperium has been more potent than Dominium, e.g. the Roman, Ottoman, Spanish, British, etc. Empires. It was not until the 20th Century and the birth of the multinational corporation that Dominium began to emerge as a potent political force. As borders become increasingly meaningless today, corporate Dominium is supplanting government Imperium as the predominant means for projecting influence and power worldwide.

While agents of the US military drop bombs, executives of Chinese firms are buying controlling interests in the Panama Canal, Freeport (Bahamas), and other Western Hemisphere commercial infrastructure. In the long run, US taxpayers will tire of paying for adventures in nation building on their behalf, while one expects that the demand for global transportation will continue for the foreseeable future.

(And, make no mistake of it, the Americans might be flat-footed and incompetent imperialists, but they are master dominialists!)

As we have seen in the Middle East in 2011, when enough individuals realize that the real power is in transnational commerce, and that politicians and regulators govern at the pleasure of the people, their relationships with their rulers can change radically.

Colonialism

This is not to say that that future will be all roses, ice cream, and singing unicorns. Quite the contrary, colonialism and other forms of domination will persist, but in different forms from before.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a colony is that it is a jurisdiction that exports raw materials and imports finished goods from the jurisdiction to which the raw materials were exported.

For example, historically, British weavers imported cotton and silk from India and exported finished cloth and apparel to India. In this way, the weavers were able to acquire raw materials at commodity prices and sell their output at significantly higher monopoly (one producer) or oligopoly (a small number of producers) prices.

Independence from British weavers was such an issue for Gandhi that he wove his own cloth as a sign of protest, and the spinning wheel became such an important symbol of Indian independence that it adorns the national flag of India.

Over the past century, the economic center of gravity has shifted away from agriculture to manufacturing to knowledge, and the nature of colonialism has changed.

Today, China, India, and Russia export large numbers of students and entrepreneurs — the raw materials of a knowledge economy — to North America and Western Europe, where they conduct research and produce commercial goods that find their way into textbooks, software, and other information goods that are then exported back to their homelands.

From this perspective, one can argue that colonialism never went away; it just changed industries. The raw material today is not fiber, grain, or rubber, but human capital.

As Röpke pointed out, today’s colonialism is not based on the imperialism of the past, which was imposed at the point of a gun in the employ of an East India Company; it is based on ‘dominialism’, which originates in commercial transactions.

While such distinctions have merit, and they appeal to academics and public intellectuals, from the perspective of the student in Shanghai, Bangalore, or Lahore… or São Paulo, or St. Petersburg, or Kiev, or La Paz, or pretty much anywhere outside of the G7 countries, such distinctions might ring hollow. Technically, it is true that one chooses to engage in transactions, but when those transactions relate to food, shelter, clothing, textbooks, and entertainment, the balance of economic power is tilted toward the supplier of the finished goods and away from the individual consumer.

Fading Power

The seat of global power is shifting from parliaments to boardrooms as corporations supplant governments, and today’s colonial masters of the people of the middle-income countries of the world are not France, the UK, or the USA, but Microsoft, Sony, and Wiley & Sons.

Whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is irrelevant. The fact is that the individuals in the middle-income countries outnumber the individuals in the G7 countries nearly 10:1, and they bear the brunt of Dominium. There was a time in India, when the British Empire seemed impervious… till Gandhi came along.

Today, Microsoft, Sony, and Wiley & Sons might seem impervious, but they enjoy their monopoly positions only so long as the people in the Middle Income countries do not realize that nothing stops them from being home to BookBoon, Khan Academy, or any of a multitude of other information services that requires effectively no capital investment.

As there is a cost for every benefit, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there is a benefit lurking with every cost, and chaos equals opportunity. The real game is not political but commercial. Currently, is being played in Silicon Valley, Manhattan, Mexico City, Miami, Shanghai, Singapore, and Bangalore.

Nothing stops it from being played in Accra, Addis Ababa, Dhaka, Kingston, Jakarta, Lahore, Montevideo, Tegucigalpa, or anywhere else.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Dec 022011
 

MSNBC is running an article entitled “Nine Jobs That Humans May Lose to Robots” that lists nine professions that are becoming increasingly automated:

  • Astronauts
  • Babysitters
  • Drivers
  • Journalists
  • Lawyers and Paralegals
  • Pharmacists
  • Rescuers
  • Soldiers
  • Store Clerks

We can expect to see more articles like this as we continue the transition that began in the final decades of the 20th Century, from an economic order driven by capital and labor to one that is driven by knowledge and service, in which the capitalist no longer can be caricatured by a Dickensian factory owner, but instead by Scott Adams’s Dilbert, a highly talented employee with specialized skills, as Peter Drucker explains in his 1993 Post-Capitalist Society.

Today, nearly a quarter-century on, we can look back to see how accurate Drucker’s predictions were, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, do in their 2011 Race against the Machine, and except for the specific technologies that Drucker cites, he was spot-on.

If you can do your job from your sofa, then that sofa can be within walking distance of your employer’s headquarters, across town, or in Jakarta. If a robot, a piece of software, or someone in Jakarta can do your job, and you are in the Global North/West, then this would be a very good time to start thinking about a career change.

In general, you have two options:

Innovation and Entrepreneurship

There is no silver bullet here. All you can do is follow your heart and heed no one’s counsel but your own. The first few times out, you probably will fall flat on your face, but console yourself with the knowledge that 95% of science is wrong, meaning that most hypotheses are rejected during the experimentation phase. However, that 5% that works is where the frontiers of knowledge and experience are expanded.

Some platitudes might be useful, but feel free to replace them with your own:

  • Follow your heart, and the money will take care of itself.
  • Set aside 20% of what you spend on equipment, and six months’ rent, so that you can cover your bills during slow periods.
  • If you create texts, music, videos, software, etc., give your work away for free.
  • Network as if your life depended on it, and remember that it is a sad dog that wag its own tail.
  • Always be learning, and be prepared to change product lines or career tracks about once every five years.

If you won the lottery, what would you do with your day? You undoubtedly are not the only human alive who is driven by whatever your answer is. There is your business plan. Don’t draft revenue projections until you’ve made several sales; you cannot predict your cash flows, if you’ve never had any. And remember that innovation is what has not been done before. If the people around you think that your idea is ludicrous, then you’re probably onto something good; if others think that your plan makes sense, then the idea is already past its expiration date, and it is already part of the background noise.

You will make mistakes and have regrets. You’ll get knocked down; get up again, and don’t let anything keep you down.

Crafts

By ‘crafts’ I mean anything that must be done locally, including landscaping, plumbing, home repair, nursing, firefighting, automotive maintenance, etc. If the idea of an activity’s being outsourced overseas is absurd, then it is a craft.

You don’t have to be a hairdresser or manicurist; you can own the shop and hire hairdressers and manicurists. John D. Rockefeller famously said that he would prefer to have 1% of the money earned by 100 others than 100% that he had to earn himself.


Whichever route you choose, do not let yourself get lulled into the false security of a ‘job’. No such thing as a job exists, as is easy to see, if one considers that, if one normally works 40 hours per week, and then starts pulling ten hours of overtime per week, one does not report that one has 1.25 jobs; similarly, if one’s schedule were cut from 40 to 30 hours per week, one would not complain that one had 3/4ths of a job.

If you measure the value of your time in dollars per hour (or euros, or pesos, or yen, or yuan, or shekels, or lira, or dinar, or whatever), then you are saying that each hour of your time is as valuable as every other hour, which means that whatever you do to earn that money is ripe for automation.

If you earn $10 or $20 per hour driving a cash register, keep an eye open for self-checkout stations to be installed where you work. Ditto paralegals and bookkeepers, secretaries and executive assistants, etc.

The global economy is increasingly integrated, and borders are fading fictions. There is a cost for every benefit, and an opportunity hiding within every cost.

And… the machines are lurking… watching… biding their time… Make your peace with them.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Nov 042011
 

http://blogs.indystar.com/varvelblog/files/2011/11/110411.jpg

It is unclear what the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon is really all about. On the one hand the claim is that it is about corruption, but on the other hand it is couched in terms of ‘the 99%’ versus ‘the 1%’, which looks like moth-eaten class hatred that has never worked in the past.

For example, when Occupy Wall Street protestors call for ‘The Government’ to rein in ‘corporate greed’, they invoke an amorphous collective, and it is only fitting that the key individuals within that collective be treated as that collective; viz., the Treasury Secretary, the former Treasury Secretary, and the president of the New York Fed, are all former Goldman Sachs executives.

It would not be surprising in the least, if they returned to their former employer after their terms of government service ended.

Do the Occupy Wall Street protestors seriously Hope™ that Wall Street executives currently on sabbatical in Washington, DC, will Change™ anything significant? It is muddle-headed to turn to Wall Street bankers to rein in Wall Street bankers… unless one is calling for self-regulation, as libertarians do.

Perhaps, Occupy Wall Street protestors expect agents of the SEC to rein in corporate greed. But if agents of the SEC were going to rein in corporate greed, then they should have done so by now. It is, after all, right there in their job descriptions to ensure transparency and the smooth operation of markets in the USA. And yet, toxic waste (an actual financial term) was sold as AAA-rated debt right under their noses.

It is as if a kid stole a piece of candy from a shop, and the security guard did nothing. Emboldened, the kid went back and grabbed a fistful of candy, and the security guard did nothing. Later, the kid went back and filled a bag with candy, and the security guard did nothing. Finally, the kid returned with his gang and emptied the candy shop, which went out of business, and the crowds directed all of their anger at the kid and effectively none at the firm that hired the security guard, or the fact that the security guard is a former member of the kid’s gang.

If the Occupy Wall Street protestors Hope™ that Congress will effect Change™, then they should Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue. Although, in this post-9/11 world, they should avoid even the appearance of unrest in their ranks, lest they be declared domestic terrorists by someone in charge.

When the Occupy Wall Street protestors storm the offices of the SEC chanting, “Do! Your! Jobs!” we’ll know that they are sincere about corruption, and that they are not just a loose band of individuals who are envious of those who have more than they do.

Instead, whoever is tacitly leading this movement has rigged it so that residents of the wealthiest society in all of human history can flatter themselves that they are downtrodden, even though the poorest 5% of US residents are wealthier on average than more than 2/3rds of the more than 7 billion humans alive today, and 75% of US residents are wealthier than more than 90%.

Seen globally, something like one-quarter of US residents are in the top 1% of humanity. If this is about redistributing the wealth of the top 1% to the bottom 99%, take care to note how many are standing behind you, ready to pounce.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement is about corruption, then it is about corruption, and the proper targets are at both ends of the money trail. If the Occupy Wall Street movement is about redistribution, then it is socialism, and if the redistribution is to be contained within US borders, then it is national socialism.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Oct 232011
 

An interesting pattern emerges, when we line up market structure from economics and finance with theories of developmental psychology and pedagogy, as in the table below. For more details than I describe here, click on the links at the head of each column to see the Wikipedia articles on these topics.

Admittedly, the alignment undoubtedly is not as precise as implied below, but the exercise is fruitful, at least in broad brushstrokes. The point here is to seek insights that might lead to testable hypotheses, rather than to present established conclusions concerning a detailed theory of society.

Brief Introduction of Each Column

Starting at the bottom, Maslow argued that the primary motive of all individuals is survival; where this is not assured, nothing else will occupy an individual’s mind. Once survival is assured, the individual will focus on safety. Only after survival and safety are fulfilled, can individuals focus on social needs. When survival, safety, and social needs are fulfilled, the individual can focus on self-esteem, which is a fundamental topic in itself, especially among those who grow up in dangerous or abusive environments. Finally, once all of these needs have been fulfilled, the individual can focus on self-actualization — ‘realizing one’s full potential’ or ‘going beyond oneself’ — which might manifest itself in the creation of works of art, volunteering, or any other activity that one feels compelled to do for its own sake

Kohlberg‘s focus was on morality. He argued that how an individual decides ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ starts at a primitive level and becomes more sophisticated as one matures. At the lowest level, the test is pain vs pleasure; if it hurts, it is wrong, and if it feels good, it is good. In time, this develops into egoism, in which the orientation is toward oneself to the exclusion of all others, often associated with young toddlers and their tantrums. As one develops — and corresponding to Maslow’s Social stage — one’s moral orientation becomes outward; first as ‘be nice’, and later as a law & order adherence to the rules. For a minority of the population, contradictions and other failings of the status quo lead to an moral orientation based on questioning authority and reconciling inconsistencies. Finally, some very few adopt a universal ethic, which manifests itself as a single principle that guides the individual’s sense of right and wrong. For some, this ethic might be non-aggression; for others, the superiority of one’s tribe; etc.

An individual can move up or down either hierarchy, but will tend to be grounded in a specific one at any particular time. Individuals generally can imagine the next developmental level up, but not beyond. Those operating at a very primitive level, for example, will be unable to distinguish a universal ethic from egoism. This, also, is not to say that a universal ethic will be viewed by others as ‘good’, as when one who has embraced non-aggression evaluates the morality of a tribalist who believes in the collective ‘superiority’ of his or her people.

Bloom‘s Taxonomy deals with pedagogy and the appropriate method of education. With very young children and those who are new to a subject, the first step is identification, which essentially is being able to point a thing when named. The next step is definition, which is when the learner is able to explain what something is without naming it. Next is application, which is using a tool, concept, or anything else in a prescribed fashion. Higher-order learning begins with analysis, which is breaking complex puzzles, concepts, or objects into simpler constituent units. There is some debate concerning the order of the last two steps: evaluation, which is judging a thing based on some standard, and synthesis, which is constructing something new from existing components, whether it is a structure, a work of art, story, etc.

Market structure is the relationship between the number of buyers and the number of sellers in a market. Here, we focus on the number of sellers and assume that the number of potential buyers is very large. The most restrictive market structure is the command economy, in which a central authority rations goods and services, and secondary trading is generally difficult if not forbidden outright. Next is monopoly, in which only one supplier exists. One of the hallmarks of monopoly markets is price discrimination which occurs when two buyers pay different prices for the same good or service; in any other market structure, buyers can shop among sellers and buy from the one with the lowest price. A market with a small number of sellers, each of whom represents a significant portion of the overall market is called an oligopoly. Oligopolies are distinguished by ‘interdependence’, in which a sale made by one oligopolist is a sale lost by each of the others; oligopolists often have very large advertising budgets. A market with imperfect competition has a large number of sellers — each of whom might have some amount of monopoly power based, most commonly, on geography — none of whom represents a significant fraction of the total market. Most of the sellers that each of us deals with in the real world are imperfect competitors, who might be able to price discriminate through coupons, early bird specials, happy hours, etc., but who do not have the market power of an electric, sewage, or water utility. A commodity market is one in which the good or service sold by one seller is economically identical to the others’. This includes things like wheat, gold, and financial assets that are sold on formal exchanges. At the furthest extreme are public goods*, which exist in such abundance that one’s consumption does not diminish anyone else’s ability to consume them, and one is unable to meter their consumption or stop others from consuming them. Common examples are breathable air at sea level, seawater, and anything else that one can consume in unlimited quantities for free.


Market Structure and Developmental Psychology
Maslow’s
Hierarchy
Kohlberg’s
Stages
Bloom’s
Taxonomy
Market
Structure
Self-Actualization Universal Ethic Synthesis Public Good
Self-Esteem “Question Authority” Evaluation Commodity
Social Law & Order Analysis Imperfect Competition
“Be Nice” Application Oligopoly
Safety Egoism Definition Monopoly
Survival Pain/Pleasure Identification Command


The Table Row-by-Row.

In general — and bearing in mind that the real world is much subtler than implied here — life in a command economy is brutish and mean. Individuals in such a society likely have little time for reflection on higher ideals, and instead focus their attention on survival and avoiding punishment.

In a society dominated by monopoly, the focus is on personal benefit to the exclusion of virtually all else. Corruption is a common feature in a society that has one provider for each category of goods and services, and innovation and entrepreneurship are essentially unknown — except, perhaps in the oligopolistic or imperfectly competitive underground economy — and daily life is highly bureaucratized.

A society dominated by imperfect competition — “a nation of shopkeepers” as Karl Marx sneeringly described 19th Century England — is organized along the principles of ‘getting along’, ‘not rocking the boat’, and ‘observing established customs’. Perhaps, regulations exist to ensure that the peace is kept. At a personal level, social needs are the primary focus, along with ‘knowing one’s place’. Marginal improvements in techniques are tolerated, so long as they are not disruptive.

A society dominated by commodification — ‘McCulture’, if you will — will be one in which individuals’ social needs are fulfilled in general, and the quest for self-esteem is the primary focus. Rules are broken, norms are evaluated, old ways are cast aside by each new generation. Seen from the outside, such a culture might look superficial, made of plastic, and chaotic, but it operates by its own internal logic of creative destruction and disruptive innovation.

Finally, a society dominated by public goods is a society in which individuals seek self-actualization through the synthesis of what has never existed before, based on some universal ethic. For those locked into the habits of thought of lower stages of development, a public goods society is indistinguishable from a command or monopoly society (i.e., ‘communism’). But, whereas command and monopoly societies suffer from chronic shortage, public goods societies have so must stuff that they just give it away.

The Way Ahead

The wealthy parts of the world today are dominated by commodification, self-esteem, and social change. However, a small but growing subculture of open source, free culture, and ubiquitous charity already has had an impact on modern life. The move is away from command and monopoly in the form of patent and copyright. Granted, those with a vested interest in the status quo will not go quietly, but go they will.

This is not a ‘good’ thing or a ‘bad’ thing, as all value is subjective. It simply is. Some will love the change, others will hate the change, and the great majority will just roll with the tide.

We are in the latter stages of an epochal transition from the capital/labor dichotomy to the knowledge/service dichotomy in an increasingly integrated global community, where borders are largely meaningless, anything that can be encoded as information — whether software, music, texts, videos, title, or even money — flows freely, and emerging institutions are supplanting traditional forms of social coordination.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans


*Note: The term ‘public good’ should not be confused with ‘government-provided good’. If the ability of an individual to consume a good or service is reduced by others’ consumption, or if it is possible to restrict access, then it is a private good, regardless of whether it is provided by government or no direct fee is charged for it. Thus, ‘public schools’, ‘public beaches’, ‘public roads’, etc. are government-provided private goods.

Oct 182011
 

(Orig.: 01 Feb 2009; updated)

Some myths refuse to die. The Overpopulation™ Myth is one of the more pernicious, as it leads inevitably and inexorably to calls for what is the functional equivalent of genocide. And, that’s just bad for business.

Granted, Overpopulation™ advocates tend not to come right out and actually say it, but it is there, as it has been all along.

For example, according to The Sunday Times (1 Feb. 2009), “Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the [UK] government’s Sustainable Development Commission, says curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming.”

Never mind that life expectancies and incomes — worldwide — are higher today than they were a half-century ago. Back then, our parents told us to eat all of our vegetables, because children were starving in China and India, and South Korea and Japan were Third World countries. Today, we tell our children to earn graduate degrees, so that they do not lose their jobs to the Chinese and the Indians, and obesity (i.e., too much food) has become a major health hazard worldwide.

Never mind that women spontaneously bear fewer children as incomes rise, as shown in Figure 1 below. In many countries today — mostly in Europe and Northern Asia — the population is decreasing due in large measure to very low fertility rates.

Figure 1

Buried near the bottom of the Sunday Times article linked above is the real issue that the Overpopulation™ Myth was cooked up to obscure: “The fertility rate for women born outside Britain is estimated to be 2.5, compared with 1.7 for those born here [in the UK].” [emphasis added] The code phrase is “born outside Britain.” It is fairly obvious whom Mr. Porritt is referring to here; it isn’t the Poles, the French, or even the Irish.

After a half-century of the same discredited fear-mongering, it has become incontrovertible that the Overpopulation™ Myth is very thinly veiled racism. As unpleasant as race supremecists of all colors, religious radicals, and neo-fascists are, at least they have the conviction to come right out and say it. Overpopulation™ advocates exploit baby fur seals, the victims of political oppression, and obscure species as shields for their real agenda.

A bit of arithmetic is instructive here.

Today, the world population is approximately 7 billion humans. The population densities of Hong Kong and Singapore are approximately 6,500 individuals per square kilometer. These are wealthy, modern cities, proving that a lot of people can live well in a tight space. If all of the individual humans in the world were contained within an area that were a bit larger than 1 million square kilometers, that would result in a population density comparable to those of Hong Kong and Singapore, and it would leave the entire rest of the surface of the earth available for energy and food production, manufacturing, and waste processing.

Egypt (1 million sq. km.) or Bolivia (1.1 million sq. km.) would do. The US Southeast (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee) would do. 1/2 of Argentina would do. 1/7th of Australia would do.

That would leave all of the Sahara Desert available for solar energy production, the unoccupied land in the Subtropical and Temperate Zones available for food production, and the uninhabitable bits for waste removal.

“Ah, HA!!!,” comes the Overpopulation™ activist’s predictable rejoinder, “How’re y’gonna feed ‘em all?!?”

Let us do the math. 7 billion individuals, each of whom consumes 2,500 calories per day (being a bit generous here), would require approximately 6.4×1015 calories per year.

Assuming that one were able to grow only one crop per year on a given piece of land, and depending on the staple in question, Table 1 shows the number of square kilometers (sq. km.) needed to grow enough of each crop listed to feed the world, assuming that only that particular crop were grown.

Table 1
crop calories
per sq. km.
(millions)
sq. km. needed
to feed the world
(millions)
potato 2,270 2.82
corn/maize 1,850 3.75
rice 1,825 3.78
wheat 741 9.37
soybean 690 10.07
Source: Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia, Volume 1 by Audrey H. Ensminger


Basically, we could relocate everyone to Argentina, turn the USA into a giant farm, and have the rest of the Americas and all of the Eastern Hemisphere left over for energy production, manufacturing, and waste disposal.

Granted, the likelihood that this kind of reorganization would ever take place is nil. The point of the exercise is to show that advocating for political transparency, more efficient urbanization, and market reforms is less unsettling than calling for mass forced abortions among those “born outside Britain”. (If the abortions that Mr. Porritt, et al., call for were voluntary, the women would be getting them already, and there would be no need to advocate for them; ergo, it is a logical necessity that they must be involuntary.)

The calculations above show that the earth’s carrying capacity is more than sufficient to feed and house humanity, and Hans Rosling’s presentations show that individuals are making the right decisions on their own. Rather than perpetuate discredited Malthusian myths, one would do much better to approach those “born outside Britain” as potential friends and business partners than as outsiders who are unfit to decide for themselves whether or not they should be permitted by those ‘born inside Britain’ to raise families… in order to “fight global warming.”

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans


Update, February 2013: Someone else had a similar idea, and put together a very nice illustration:

Oct 172011
 

Based on a post from 14 March 2009

In early 2009 independent economic policy analyst, Geoff Gitlen, modestly proposed an intriguing solution for future banking crises that Occupy Wall Street activists would do well to embrace: reorganize all banks as non-profit organizations.

[Note: The following is my interpretation of the Gitlen Plan. If it isn't in quotation marks, Mr. Gitlen didn't say it.]

The rationale for the Gitlen Plan is straightforward and unexceptional. Already, credit unions in the USA operate as non-profit organizations, and it would be a small step to expand this to include all institutions that are regulated by the Fed or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Commercial banks already are among the most heavily regulated firms in the economically developed parts of the world. Bank managers are encumbered by all manner of restrictions on how they can conduct their businesses, and they are burdened by social requirements, e.g., ethnic, gender, racial, and socioeconomic preferences in lending that favor individuals who are members of politically favored groups. Meanwhile, depositors are insured against loss, which removes one source of critical oversight.

Reorganizing banks as non-profit organizations would be much less radical than having the central government buy controlling interests in them, as we saw in 2008/2009.

For starters, non-profit status would remove the perverse incentives that lead the managers of insured banks to engage in highly risky and politically motivated — or mandated — practices. If banks operated so as to cover their expenses, but not to seek excessive profits, the same way that the Red Cross, the United Way, and other large charities operate, bank executives still could earn salaries that are many times the national average, work in prestigious and comfortable offices, and jet around the world to exotic places and hobnob with power brokers and washed-up pop stars.

However, they would not be under pressure from shareholders to take on the kinds of risks that led to the S&L Crisis and the recent housing/subprime mess.

Gitlen argues, given that banks do not operate as normal commercial enterprises, why take half-measures? Rather than perpetuate one-foot-on-the-brake-one-foot-on-the-gas [accelerator] policies, where regulators compel banks to pursue social goals on the one hand, and banks have coopted regulators* on the other hand, Gitlen argues that we should heave this syncretic mess overboard to the sharks and crabs and embrace an institutional structure that could be more harmonious with the realities of modern banking.

The Gitlen Plan is in stark contrast to libertarian calls for deregulation, free banking, and market discipline, which have no hope of gaining political traction in today’s climate, where otherwise intelligent individuals can decry the current crisis — with utterly straight faces and in the sincerest tones — as a failure of unbridled capitalism, even though the firms at the center of the crisis are among the most heavily regulated in the world, outside of healthcare. With this kind of doublethink passing as conventional wisdom from the corner pub to the halls of Congress, we must choose among viable options and put away our dog-eared copies of Atlas Shrugged, Human Action, and Das Kapital for now.

Gitlen has identified one such option:

Reorganize banks as non-profit organizations, and let those individuals who work for banks and chafe at the notion of working for a charitable organization seek employment in private equity funds and offshore finance centers, like Bermuda, Grand Cayman, Hong Kong, Nassau, and Singapore.

As in all things in life, there is a cost for every benefit, and the Gitlen Plan is not cost-free, but the choice is not between utopia and the status quo, but between available options. Given the worldwide movement for change loosely organized under the Occupy Wall Street banner, the Gitlen Plan could be the most viable option.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans


* For more on regulatory capture and the current crisis, see Buiter (2008) (Warning: PDF).

Oct 162011
 

In business, economies of scale means that it is less expensive, per unit of output, to produce goods, if one produces a lot rather than a few. For example, one would not build a factory, buy raw materials, and hire workers to make only one car. Similarly, one would not set up a restaurant to make only one meal.

Once the oven is hot, the freezer cold, and the employees on-site, the additional cost (what economists call the ‘marginal cost’) of producing a second meal is substantially less than the cost of going from zero to one meal. Likewise, the cost of producing the third, fourth, and subsequent meals can fall even further, as the employees get into the rhythm of the job, several items bake in the oven at a time, and the freezer is cooling more than air and empty shelves.

The larger the operation, the greater the output relative to the costto a point.

However, as with plants, animals, and essentially everything else, there is a limit to how much a firm can grow, before costs begin to rise faster than income.

Sticking with the restaurant example, let us assume that a good day’s gross income is $10,000, and that the pre-tax profit is about 15% of that, after paying for groceries, utilities, maintenance, payroll, insurance, etc. [Feel free to substitute an appropriate amount of your local currency, if you reuse this text.]

Now, imagine that the owners have hired a new general manager — we’ll call him Skippy [Feel free to substitute a culturally appropriate derogatory name here.] — who wants to double the gross revenue to $20,000 per day, even on historically slow days.

Skippy holds ‘motivational’ meetings and exhorts the employees to “work smarter” and to be “dedicated” to the “mission” and “vision” of the organization. He wants to run three eight-hour shifts per day, seven days per week including holidays, and to minimize costs.

One young man at a meeting asked, “Um… If we wanted to minimize costs, shouldn’t we just shut down? That way, costs would be reduced to zero.”

Skippy replied, “You have a bad attitude. Ask not what this firm can do for you; ask, rather, what you can do for this firm.”

One problem with selling more meals than is optimal is that one has to provide incentives for potential customers to become actual customers. One option is to offer larger servings, but customers typically eat only so much at each meal. Another option is to reduce prices, either across the board, during times that the restaurant is usually closed or business is slow, for individuals who are members of a favored category — females, a particular ethnicity, a profession, etc. — or some other form of discrimination against those who are not members of the favored category.

By doing so, the restaurant operator reduces the income from each meal sold, even though the costs of producing those meals do not fall. Quite the contrary, by running the equipment without break, one is unable to clean, maintain, or repair it, and by working one’s employees harder, they get tired, make mistakes, and become resentful; beyond the optimal scale, costs per unit of output rise.

It does not matter if it is a restaurant, factory, bank, or whatever, each firm has its optimal size, and anything larger or smaller than that optimal size is less efficient than it would be if it were operating at the optimal scale.

If Goldilocks were a management consultant, one might hear her say, “This firm is tooo small. This firm is tooo big. And, this firm…? This firm is juuust right.”

In general, two things systematically prevent firms from operating at their optimal scales: hubris and regulation.  Things that unsystematically prevent firms from operating at their optimal scales stem from the unknowability of the future: uncertainty, surprise changes in market conditions, natural disaster, and other things that one cannot foresee.

Hubris is the kind of overconfidence that leads one to believe that one knows more than one knows, and thus can do more than one can do. It is one of the qualities of the kind of narcissist that is expert at climbing to the top of an organization, in spite of a lack of actual knowledge, talent, or skill.  Such individuals often conflate speculative hypotheses with proven conclusions, confuse ‘could’ with ‘must’, and are loath to admit when they are in error.  They speak with great bombast, demean those who ask for clarification, and typically refer to their track records when pressed for details.

In positions of power, hubris can lead to doublethink, especially a desire to minimize costs and to maximize gross sales simultaneously, in spite of the fact that there is a cost for every benefit.

Granted, one can try to minimize fraud, abuse, and waste, but any more than this implies fewer raw materials, fewer fixed assets, and less available labor, and thus reduced output; decrease costs, decrease revenue.  Similarly, if one wants to increase output, this implies more raw materials, fixed assets, and available labor, and thus increased cost; increase revenue, increase costs.

Hubris tends to result in firms that operate above their optimal scales, based on the notion that bigger is better.

Regulation leads to inefficiency most commonly through the misapplication of the observation that price tends to approximate the marginal cost of production in a competitive market.  Only in a monopolistic market can one charge a price higher than the marginal cost of production, because in a competitive market – i.e., a market that has a very large number of relatively small suppliers – if one tried to charge a higher price, a competitor would undercut the price.  This process would continue, until no one were willing to charge a lower price.

In monopoly markets with only one supplier or in oligopoly markets with a small number of relatively large suppliers, sellers can charge prices that are substantially above marginal cost, because buyers have nowhere else to go.  The choice is between paying the high price or going without.

This reasoning underlies antitrust statutes.  The idea is that, since perfectly competitive markets have the lowest profit margins, and thus the lowest prices to consumers, a small number of large suppliers is de facto bad.

This ignores economies of scale.

Some productive processes have very high barriers to entry, typically in the form of expensive equipment, as is the case with airlines, cruise ships, railroads, electrical utilities, etc.  If it makes economic sense for suppliers in these industries to be large and highly concentrated, then the tendency will be for the successful to acquire the unsuccessful.

Some suppliers operate in a ‘winner-take-all’ environment, as is the case with search engines, social network websites, operating systems, etc.  If consumers tend to favor a particular supplier to the exclusion of essentially all other competitors, then the optimal supplier will tend to be a monopoly.

Regulations that hinder concentration where it results from economies of scale serve only to force suppliers to be inefficient.

The main thing to bear in mind is that hubris is ultimately its own undoing, and, in an increasingly integrated global community, regulation at the national level is increasingly anachronistic.

BEARING THE DISCLAIMER AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE IN MIND, a contrarian speculative strategy might be to sell short assets that are darlings in the popular media (i.e., subject to hubris) and buy long assets that are under intense government scrutiny (i.e., likely to migrate from unfriendly jurisdictions to friendly jurisdictions).

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Oct 072011
 

The graph above depicts the supply of US dollars from January 1975 through September 2011. The gray bars represent periods recognized by US government statisticians as recessions. Note the swell in the 1990s, during the Clinton Administration, when the supply of US dollars fell. Ah… the good ol’ days!

Now, come over to 2008 or so, and hold onto your hat!

In general, and all other things held constant (or, as we say in the business, ceteris paribus), prices can rise for three reasons: demand increases (e.g., an auction or a popular restaurant), supply decreases (e.g., lower efficiency, war, or natural disaster), or the number of units of currency increases faster than the rate of increase of goods and services (inflation).

Today, we are witnessing a lack of consumer confidence bordering on panic (demand down; prices down), increasing efficiency (supply up; prices down), and a massive increase of the currency base (inflation; prices up). In other words, sagging consumer confidence and increasing productive efficiency are putting a lid on inflationary price increases.

However, efficiency can increase at a high rate for only so long before leveling off (supply stops increasing), and eventually people will go shopping again (demand stops decreasing). When that happens, the downward pressure on prices will weaken. Use your favorite analogy here: a pressure cooker, a plunger, a spring, whatever.

It is reasonable to expect that the downward pressure eventually will be released. Coupled with the inflation depicted in the graph above, this could lead to a period of large and swift price increases.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans