Jun 282013
 

Much talk about Bitcoin centers on the claim that it represents some kind of existential threat to the US dollar (USD) specifically, fiat currency generally, and maybe even the nation-state as a social institution and organizational structure. Considering that the total value of Bitcoin in circulation today, in June 2013, is approximately USD 1.25 billion, or 2% of Carlos Slim’s personal portfolio, one might easily conclude that Bitcoin fanboys are drunk on their own fumes and perhaps getting just a little bit ahead of themselves.

Deflating Inflation Fears

As I have pointed out before:

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).”

If it fulfills even some of its potential, then Bitcoin could mitigate USD inflation, by increasing the economically relevant supply of available goods and services via the reduction of transactional friction, especially across borders and among the unbanked.

As things stand, a consumer in Suburbia is restricted to local merchants who will accept fiat cash and equivalents, stored-value cards, or cards tied to the banking system, on the one hand, and to online merchants who will accept stored-value cards, or cards and online derivative services tied to the banking system, on the other hand. That’s pretty much it.

Many of the payment systems that are tied to the banking system are either expensive or impossible to use across borders. This means that the supply of goods and services available to the Suburbian consumer is constrained by legacy and political inefficiencies in the international banking system.

The World’s Second-Largest Economy

With virtual currencies generally and Bitcoin specifically, consumers in Suburbia can buy goods and services from suppliers in Outland that hitherto have been out of reach, meaning that they effectively do not exist from the Suburbian perspective. While this might seem trivial to a Suburbian whose entire economic life is spent, as it were, in Suburbia, it is a daily headache for Outlandish suppliers and consumers, who comprise a rather significant economic force.


G’won… Click on the video!

For example, it is very difficult for local hotel operators in much of Latin America and the Caribbean to accept credit card payments directly from foreign guests as deposits prior to travel. This means that the foreign guests will tend to stay at hotels run by large international chains, putting the local hotels at a severe disadvantage. If a hotel operator in Latin America or the Caribbean accepted Bitcoin, even if only for the initial deposit, then anyone in the world could make reservations easily, and the effective worldwide supply of hotel rooms would increase.

This same story can be told for as many goods and services as one can imagine: coffee from small-scale roasters in Central America, small-label hot sauces from sub-Saharan Africa, local distilled spirits from the Caribbean, textiles from Southeast Asia, crafts from pretty much everywhere, personal services, software development, graphic design, world music, etc.

Before one dismisses the total value of small-scale global trade, one should consider that during the 2012 presidential campaign, Pres. Obama raised tens of millions of dollars in small-sized contributions, and that 83% of the world’s population lives outside the OECD. This same e pluribus magnum power of large quantities of small transactions is the driving force behind crowdfunding, which also can be facilitated globally much more easily with Bitcoin than with legacy options.

In the video above, Robert Neuwirth refers to the worldwide informal economy as the world’s second-largest economy. And, they don’t have bank accounts, credit cards, or access to capital markets, but they do have mobile phones, many of which can run Kipochi, even if they do not have smartphones that can run a Bitcoin wallet.

Ponder that for a moment, before reading further.

Somewhere in Nairobi, some street vendors are carrying more powerful financial technology in their pockets than 90% of the Suburbians reading this have in their whole houses.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Bitcoin could essentially conjure into existence for Suburbians the goods and services produced by 5.75 billion potential trading partners in Outland that currently might as well be in some parallel universe. In so doing, the USD/stuff ratio (i.e., price level) could fall, even if the numerator (USD money supply) continued to grow at historically unprecedented rates, so long as the denominator (cool stuff from Outland) were allowed to grow even faster.

That’s right, widespread Bitcoin adoption could mitigate inflation! Those who claim the opposite assume that Bitcoin will supplant the USD for existing transactions, and that the two payment media will vie for shares of a fixed-sized pie, like two dogs fighting over a bone, which is silly. Chinese refinery operators are not going to buy Saudi Arabian oil with Bitcoin any time soon, as the percentage savings would be less than trivial. The USD will continue to function where legacy systems work well, and Bitcoin could open markets that have never existed before, if allowed to.

One concern that one comes across with distressing frequency is that tax collection might be made more difficult, if large numbers of Suburbians started transacting in Bitcoin, but there are alternatives to income taxes that can be as progressive as policy makers want them to be, including a national land tax based on assessed value, luxury goods taxes, automobile taxes based on sale price, etc., and tax collectors still can demand that all taxes be paid in local fiat and charge a conversion tax on Bitcion exchanges into the local currency. These suggestions should not be mistaken for a paean to the social welfare state, but merely as evidence that the taxation critique of virtual currencies is a red herring. Similarly, concerns about money laundering and terrorist financing are overblown, especially given the existence of Bitcoin’s publicly available blockchain, which records every Bitcoin transaction that has every been cleared and every Bitcoin user—including law enforcement and taxation agents— has access to.

Setting aside the red herrings, straw men, and other knee-jerk overreactions from luddites, the real issue is how Bitcoin can grease the wheels of small-scale global commerce, thereby removing the vast amount of friction from transactions across borders… which could ease inflationary pressure on the USD.

There’s Nothing to Fear but Fear, Itself

Should bankers be afraid of Bitcoin? Absolutely not! They can earn from the exchange into and out of Bitcoin, serve as escrow agents for Bitcoin users who prefer not to keep their holdings under a proverbial mattress, they can facilitate Bitcoin loans, use Bitcoin as a reserve asset, etc.

Should regulators be afraid of Bitcoin? No more so than any other commodity. In fact, perhaps even less so, seeing as how commodity markets are largely unregulated; it is the commodity derivatives markets that are regulated, and Bitcoin is a commodity, like gold, oil, or wheat, and not a derivative, like an option or a future. Now, if people start issuing options and futures contracts on Bitcoin, the of course regulators will have quite a lot to say.

Should law enforcement agents be afraid of Bitcoin? Hardly! The blockchain that memorializes every Bitcoin transaction for posterity can be read into a database and sifted every way imaginable using Big Data techniques. Also, it is remarkably easy to set up a sting operation with Bitcoin, which already seems to be happening.

Should tax collectors be afraid of Bitcoin? Perhaps, if their goal is to tax Bitcoin-denominated transactions that do not intersect with the banking system. However, anything that touches the banking system directly is recorded in accordance with banking regulations, and anything that touches the banking system indirectly is likely to drag the tax evader’s fingerprints through the blockchain, which is available to all without a subpoena.

Welcome to the 21st Century

Bitcoin is part of a larger transition away from the capital/labor economy to the service/knowledge economy. Welcome to the Age of Decadence, where disruptive innovations in engineering, entrepreneurship, and entertainment are announced with mind-boggling frequency. If government legislators and regulators clamp down on the work of frighteningly intelligent and disobedient young men and women, then that work will go to where it is tolerated, even if not embraced, per se, thereby impoverishing the populations that the governments are supposed to serve, protect, and represent.

Skype and Twitter are making a joke of national telephone monopolies. Remote collaboration tools are making a joke of immigration restrictions, and thus labor regulations. Free and open source software and hardware development tools are making a joke of patent and copyright regimes. The only way to stop or even slow this process would be to disconnect your country from the Internet, and, seriously, do you really want to do that?

Some legislators and regulators will try to shovel back the tide, and their people will be held back, as were the people of the USSR, Ghaddafi’s Libya, the military dictatorships that once reigned in Latin America, and Burma, Cuba, and North Korea today. Other legislators and regulators either will embrace or at least tolerate the inevitable change, and their people should fare well. Yet others will strike some middle path, with varying results.

What US officials in the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service, etc. do is anyone’s guess. It is obvious from my comments here what my hope is, and I continue to live in the USA.

If there are any Hortons in Congress… yop.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Dec 192012
 

17 December 2012, the San Francisco Chronicle had a story—”Solar Power Adds to Non-Users’ Costs“—that provides background for a very good Microeconomics test question:

Q: Under what circumstances can the combination of a decrease in demand and an increase in supply lead to an increase in prices?

The short answer, of course, is, “When government interferes with the market process.”

If you are required to show your work, here’s what you do:

First, note that the own-price demand elasticity for electricity tends to be low for most consumers, meaning that one tends to consume the same quantity, seemingly regardless of the price. For example, one would not expect someone to throw open the windows in the middle of summer, with the air conditioner turned to its lowest setting, if the price of electricity fell substantially. More likely one would continue to consume electricity at approximately the same rate and use the cost savings on something that had a higher own-price elasticity of demand, like those things that collect in one’s shopping cart at Amazon.com, but one rarely gets around to ordering for delivery.

You can illustrate it this way:

Vertical Demand Curve in Equilibrium

Fig. 1 : Vertical Demand Curve in Equilibrium

This is very similar to the textbook Supply & Demand graph, but with the Demand curve at the same quantity demanded for every price. (Of course, this is not realistic for all prices, and the real world is not so well-behaved. Such is the nature of economic models.)

As indicated in the article above, the increase in solar panels being installed on the roofs of residential and commercial buildings in California is causing a decrease in overall demand for conventional electricity.

In an unregulated market, we might illustrate it this way:

Vertical Demand Curve with Shift in Demand

Fig. 2 : Vertical Demand Curve with Shift in Demand

As the demand decreases, due to the existence of solar-powered substitutes, price tends to fall.  In an unregulated market, executives and shareholders in waning industries receive signals in the form of accumulating inventories—unsold output—that they either should reduce their prices, reduce their output, or both.  If the trend continues—as happened with sailing ships, tools for making whale oil, steam locomotives, buggy whips, etc. in earlier generations—the executives and shareholders receive signals that they should consider whether liquidating and reallocating their existing resources might be more profitable than clinging to a dying firm or industry.  (Schumpeter referred to this as ‘creative destruction‘.)

However, in a regulated market, suppliers and regulators agree on a price and fix it ex ante.  Typically, the price is below the equilibrium, at least in the first iteration, so that consumers will be happy and express their gratitude to the politicians who oversee the regulators.  (This sometimes is referred to as ‘the iron triangle‘ of regulation, and it is related to the concept of ‘regulatory capture‘.)

We can illustrate it this way:

Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price

Fig. 3 : Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price

Here, the regulated price (Pr) is below the equilibrium price that would clear the market, but is at least as high as is needed to generate sufficient revenues to cover the costs of production.  The executives and shareholders of regulated firms generally are rewarded for their cooperation with monopoly rights in the form of franchises that grant them the exclusive right to serve a particular geographic region.

The firm’s total revenue is illustrated as area of the pink rectangle below, which is price * quantity.  It is possible that a firm’s executives and shareholders might want to increase output, so that the firm could sell the excess into neighboring markets, but the jurisdictions of most regulated industries do not adjoin jurisdictions where competitors are unregulated.  Most likely, every neighboring territory is served by a different monopolist franchisee.

Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price / Total Revenue

Fig. 4 : Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price / Total Revenue

Returning to Fig. 2, as solar panels reduce demand for conventional electricity, the demand curve shifts to the left.

Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price and Demand Shift

Fig. 5 : Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price and Demand Shift

Because the electricity providers’ prices are fixed by regulation, and they have very high fixed costs, they are loath to lower their prices.  In fact, the fixed costs of maintaining a capital base that consists of indivisible centralized facilities, power lines, poles and waterproof underground conduits, substations, and other large and expensive infrastructure can vastly exceed the variable costs of fuel and peak-time labor, and these large fixed costs are the primary drivers of the price that suppliers and regulators agreed to previously.

Now, with a smaller consumer base, the utility operators have fewer customers to divide their fixed costs among.  In order to arrive at a rectangle with the same area as the pink one in Fig. 4, given that the utility operators not only cannot force consumers to buy conventional electricity, but are required to buy the excess electricity produced by the owners of the solar panels.  In other words, the suppliers are doubly pinched, and their only savings are in the form of electricity purchased at full retail from their customers, accompanied by a relatively slight decrease in variable fuel costs.

The only viable alternative in this situation is for the operators of the regulated conventional electricity utilities to petition the regulators for a price increase to be passed along to the remaining conventional electricity consumers.

Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price / Price Increase

Fig. 6 : Vertical Demand Curve with Regulated Price / Price Increase

Considering that solar energy becomes more economically viable, when its primary competitor—conventional electricity—becomes more expensive, the rising prices in this scenario create an incentive for even more consumers to adopt solar energy, thereby shifting the demand curve even further leftward toward zero… creating yet more upward price pressure.

And, in this way, regulation creates an environment, in which a decrease in demand can lead to an increase in price.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Nov 152012
 

3 November 2012, Clayton Christensen, whose earlier works I have found inspirational and illuminating, published an article in the New York Times—”A Capitalist’s Dilemma, Whoever Wins on Tuesday“—that starts with a reasonable premise, and veers hopelessly off course.

To Wit: “Whatever happens on Election Day, Americans will keep asking the same question: When will this economy get better?”

Fair enough. That is a very reasonable question, and it is a very reasonable expectation that Americans will keep asking it.

So far, so good.

Then, we get this:

“The Fed has been injecting more and more capital into the economy…”

<facepalm>

The Fed has been pumping more and more money into the economy. The value of money is measured by the ratio of units in circulation to the value of stuff. If the number of units in circulation increases faster than the quantity, value, or both of stuff, then prices rise.

Capital is the long-term means of production: drill presses, trucks, robots, etc.. The Fed doesn’t have any of that, and Fed governors are not in a position to command others to make such things available.

The Fed lends money to the US Treasury, buys toxic assets from commercial banks, and regulates banks. It isn’t a hardware store.

Now, if one is sitting on a lot of money that one can convert into capital assets, then one might adopt the financier’s habit of referring to that money as capital, but one should avoid conflating fiat inflation with the means of production.

“And yet cash hoards in the billions are sitting unused on the pristine balance sheets of Fortune 500 corporations.”

Firms are supposed to keep pools of cash as a kind of self-insurance policy against slow economic times. We call this ‘working capital’. When the future is even scarier than normal, the prudent thing to do is to hold more cash. The ‘Fiscal Cliff’, Pres. Obama’s political rhetoric expressing open disdain for those who are wealthier than he, the unknowable effects of Obamacare, the ongoing transition away from a capital/labor economy toward a service/knowledge economy, and the specter of another decade of ‘Bush’s war’ are enough to render all expectations of the future little more than random bets and wild guesses.

And, no one gets fired for playing it safe. So, until things settle down, executives play it safe.

“Billions in capital is also sitting inert and uninvested at private equity funds.”

Does Prof. Christensen believe that fund managers have piles of big, canvas sacks with dollar signs on them, filled with cash… like Scrooge McDuck or the dapper little fellow from the Monopoly™ game?!?

The money is invested somewhere, most likely US Treasury debt, because the US Treasury has a reputation of always paying its debts… even if it has to print more money to do so. In these highly uncertain times, the safest bet is the safest bet.

“Empowering innovations create jobs, because they require more and more people who can build, distribute, sell[,] and service these products.”

Sadly… no, no, no, and no.

Build: Factories are increasingly automated, and when meat-that-talks is needed, one hires labor where it is cheap; i.e. Latin America, Southeast Asia, and increasingly Sub-Saharan Africa.

Distribute: DHL, FedEx, UPS, already have that pretty well covered.

Sell: Amazon.com.

Service: What is that? Throw it away and buy a new one.

“[T]he Toyota Prius hybrid is a marvelous product.”

Except that [o]nly 35 percent of hybrid car owners bought a hybrid again when they purchased a new vehicle in 2011.

“‘[E]fficiency’ innovations… almost always reduce the net number of jobs…”

This one is spot-on. It is unfortunate that Christensen did not make it the centerpiece of his analysis.

“The economic machine is out of balance and losing its horsepower. But why?”

Peter Drucker answered this question in Post-Capitalist Society, which was written nearly twenty years ago, and reads today like a play-by-play account of what happened in the 1990s and 2000s.

[Reread the sentence above, click on the link, and buy the book. You can thank me later.]

Also, the total value of goods manufactured in the USA continues to exceed the value of goods manufactured in China.

The scorpion’s sting is in the tail. Toward the end of the article, Christensen states, “We can use capital with abandon now, because it’s abundant and cheap. But we can no longer waste education, subsidizing it in fields that offer few jobs.”

No one knows where the ‘jobs’ of the future will be. Social engineering always fails. In the 1960s, it was plastics; in the 1980s, software development; in the 1990s, Dot.Com… No one knows what it will be next decade.

“[T]he [capital gains tax] rate should be reduced the longer the investment is held — so that, for example, tax rates on investments held for five years might be zero — and rates on investments held for eight years might be negative.”

It might have made sense a century ago, when technology changed slowly, to make it costly to change plans quickly in response to new information, but Christensen’s advice in a highly dynamic—even chaotic—integrated global economy would create an incentive to keep sub-optimal plans running beyond their use-by dates.

“Federal tax receipts from capital gains comprise only a tiny percentage of all United States tax revenue.”

This suffers from two fatal flaws. 1) The universe does not end at the US border. 2) If capital gains represent a trivial portion of the federal budget, then eliminate the cost of collecting and enforcing them and call for their repeal. Leave the money in the owners’ hands, rather than seize it at gunpoint, if it is hardly worth collecting.

“It’s true that some of the richest Americans have been making money with money — investing in efficiency innovations rather than investing to create jobs. They are doing what their professors taught them to do, but times have changed.”

Indeed, times have changed, but that does not mean that this time is different, as Christensen seems to assume. We are in the latter stages of a transition as profound as the 18th Century Industrial Revolution, from a capital/labor division—in which semi-literate proletarians drive industrial machines—to a knowledge/service division, in which skilled workers are the ‘capital’ and are not interchangeable.

However, the wealthy will invest where they expect the greatest opportunities are, as has been the case since the Renaissance a half millennium ago. When princes, presidents, and parliamentarians create uncertainty, the wealthy will hunker down and wait until circumstances stabilize.

Christensen started with the premise that the president and the Fed do not have the power to fix things, and then concluded that the IRS does have such power.

This conclusion is counterintuitive. An alternative would be for presidents, princes, and parliamentarians to enforce transparency, and otherwise to mind their knitting, rather than concern themselves with affairs that are beyond their abilities.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

Jan 032012
 

While responding to a Facebook post, about these final stages of the transition from a hodge-podge of nation-based Capital vs Labor economies to an integrated global Knowledge vs Service economy, it occurred to me that lovers of classical liberalism might be dismayed to see capitalism actually end up being its own undoing, as leftists have predicted… but not as leftists have predicted.

That is, not for economic reasons, but for political reasons.

In other words, the one perfect jewel that classical liberals hold so dear might perform precisely as advertised, but be surrounded by unappreciative drones who are two paychecks from reverting to savagery and outnumber the enlightened 99:1 by many accounts.

I exaggerate, but only for effect.

Imagine for a moment that an economy is going through a massive transition, such that:

  • A century ago, about 40% of the US workforce was engaged in agriculture. Today, it is a bit less than 2%.
  • A half-century ago, about 40-50% of the US workforce was engaged in manufacturing and distribution. Today, it is somewhere around 10% and falling.
  • A lot of white collar occupations are being taken over by software, including bookkeeping, accounting, paralegal, inventory control, etc.
  • Throw in about 10% working in various levels of government, and that leaves around 75-80% looking for something useful to do. In general, the choice is between a) high-end knowledge work, like entrepreneurship, industrial design, etc., and b) locally delivered personal services like pepper spraying peaceful protestors, automobile maintenance, etc.

That leaves a lot of idle hands.

Now, imagine that those hands get to vote.

All the eloquent arguments, apodictic truths, and hermetic logic in the world will not sway an electorate in thrall to populist demagogues, be their shirts red, brown, or black.

If my one, tiny voice mattered, I’d do what I could to get the humanitarians to stop hanging out with left-wing populists, and to get the classical liberals to stop hanging out with right-wing populists.

The false dichotomy of Eat the Rich vs Eat the Poor is a loser’s game.

The most charitable act that one can undertake to help the poor is to start a business and hire them. The most selfish act that one can undertake to keep the poor from storming the Bastille is to make sure that they have enough bread and circuses.

Invest accordingly.

Prof. Evans

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.