Forget income, the greatest outcome of capitalism is healthier lives!

Yesterday, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute posted, in response to Bernie Sanders’ skepticism towards free market, that capitalism has made human “fantastically better”.

I do not disagree – quite the contrary. However, Pethokoukis makes his case by citing the fact that material quality of life has increased for everyone on earth since the early 19th century. I believe that this is not the strongest case for capitalism.  The strongest case relies on health. This is because it addresses an element that skeptics are more concerned about.

Indeed, skeptics of capitalism tend to underline that “there is more to life than material consumption”. And they are right! They merely misunderstand that the “material standard of living” is strongly related to the “stuff of life”. For them, income is of little value as an indicator. Thus, we need to look at the “quality of human life”. And what could be better than our “health”?

The substantial improvement in the material living standard of mankind has been accompanied by substantial improvements in health-related outcomes! Life expectancy, infant mortality, pregnancy-related deaths, malnutrition, risks of dying from contagious diseases, occupational fatalities, heights, the types of diseases we die from, quality of life during old age, the physical requirements of work and the risks related to famines have all gone in directions indicating substantial improvements!

My favorite is the case of height. Human stature is strongly correlated with income and other health outcomes (net nutrition, risks of disease, life expectancy, pregnancy-related variables). Thus it is an incredible indicator of the improvement in the “stuff of life”. And throughout the globe since the industrial revolution, heights have increased (not equally though).  Over at OurWorldInData.org, Max Roser shows this increase since the 1800s (in centimeters)

height-development-by-world-regions-interpolation-baten-blum-2012-0-579x500

However, the true magnitude of the increase in human heights is best seen in the data from Gregory Clark who used skeletal remains found in archaeological sites for ancient societies. The magnitude of the improvement is even clearer through this graph.

male-heights-from-skeletons-in-europe-1-2000-clark-645x403.png

The ability of “capitalism” to generate improvement in material living standards did leak into broader measures of human well-being. By far, this is the greatest outcome from capitalism.

Free Trade and Labor Market Displacement

A few days ago, I saw Noah Smith’s piece on free trade and why opening up with China may have yielded some undesirable results. In essence, his argument is that labor market adjustments have been slow. It created a small storm in the economics blogosphere. I wanted to reply earlier. I did not and I regret that. However, better late than never. So here are my three key reactions to the piece written by Smith (see his blog here).

  1. Slow labor market adjustments are not a cause of free trade: If anything, they are the results of a series of government intervention. Countries like Denmark, which may have large governments combined with fewer regulations on businesses, are very well able to adapt to free trade. The ability to start businesses is basically the ability to properly channel inputs towards more valued output. If you prevent an entrepreneur from doing just that while you open your borders to more efficient producers, it is quite obvious that free trade could be “less” beneficial. This point can be well seen in the role of states with “right to work (RTW) laws”. Although there is a debate as to whether or not RTW laws increase wages (James Sherk at Heritage says yes, the good people at the Employment Policy Institute say no and I say that both don’t get it, we should care about regionally adjusted real wage growth), it does seem that it helps industrial activity while boosting employment levels (see here too).  Unions would hinder adjustments to changes in trade patterns. In fact, its worth pointing out that of the 11 states that had RTW laws before 1948 – in only three of those states did the income share of the top 10% exceed that on the whole United States (see the data here) in 2013. While the entire country has seen an increase in income inequality, the RTW states have seen the share of all income of the top 10% increase by only 26% (1947 to 2013) compared to 42% nationwide. This suggests that RTW laws are probably helping workers adjusts to changes caused by free trade (otherwise, there would be a state-level increase in inequality). This finding seems to conform to large section of the literature on the links between RTW and inequality (here and here).  I am sure that if the Autor, Dorn and Hanson study (on which Noah Smith relies) was to be redone with attempts to control for right to work laws, the effect would be concentrated in non-RTW states. Thus, if the problem is labor laws, don’t blame free trade for the poor adjustments!
  2. Nobody said that free trade was “costless” to adapt to. I do economic history. I see cases of industries being protected for decades. Protectionism not only raise prices, but it changes relative prices between different inputs. It incites the adoption of an artificially profitable production method. It is profitable to do so, but it is by no means the most efficient approach. It was made profitable only by the artifice of regulation and duties. Once you eliminate that artifice by removing the barriers, you still have “time to build” problem and a need to change production methods. That takes time. However, governments are very good at making sure this takes more time than needed (see point 1)
  3. Trade agreements with China are not free trade agreements: this is the point I keep repeating (and the point that actually make Paul Krugman interesting), free trade agreements should normally fit on a napkin. If it takes 10,000 pages, it is free trade with 10,000 exceptions. Noah Smith should realize that he may be looking at a case of such “managed trade”.

That’s all folks!

Undergraduate degrees are a stamp of participation

Here’s an article I wrote for my college newspaper ( = designed for a different audience). I’m mostly interested in the direction college “worthwhileness” is going alongside more opportunities for starting small businesses, entrepreneurship, etc.

Getting a degree is a stamp that says you participated in the established educational conduct. Wisdom, implementation and experience can all be achieved elsewhere. The worst misuse of this stamp is when administrations arbitrarily select it as their sole judgment of criterion, namely, other teaching facilities.

I’m interested in opinions and disagreements anyone might posit – particularly from any professors or postgraduate writers.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Dank Federalism
  2. What About Capitalism? Jürgen Habermas’s Project of a European Democracy
  3. The IDF gets leaner as its enemies evolve (the US should do the same, by the way)
  4. A moderate defense of extremism in defense of liberty
  5. Why I lean libertarian
  6. Backlash grows to Schengen backlash

Go Broncos

I wish I could just list every idea I’ve encountered then never cite anything…

Steve Horwitz has a great piece in the Freeman that I wish I’d written. The tl;dr: Voting isn’t all there is to political participation. This is an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head as I’m constantly remound that I’m now an American citizen (sorry everyone else in the world…) and that this November I’ll be eligible to vote for who I think should foster anti-American sentiments internationally (Republicans) or  domestically (Democrats).

The other day I said I’d consider voting but I couldn’t recall whose name I’d write in (turns out it’s Willie Nelson*). But my usual response to any question about whether I’ll vote is “No, it just encourages the bastards.” When that’s countered with “blah blah blah civic engagement blah blah” I retort with,essentially, Horwitz’s point: My vote is not going to change the outcome**, but I can contribute value by trying to convince my students that economics matters and that a vote for third party candidate (even a Green Party vote) does more good than a vote for the big two.

I don’t know where I picked up that idea, but if I’d remembered, I would have posted his piece here before he did. Even better would be if I could just list a repository of everything I’ve ever read (or heard) in some public place and just write and write without worrying about citing anything.

Continue reading

New issues of Econ Journal Watch, Reason Papers out

Many of you already know that two of NOL‘s Senior Editors are associated with Econ Journal Watch, thus making its publication a family affair. Fred is on the editorial board and Warren is its math reader. Here are some of the highlights I found worth noting in the latest issue:

Eli Heckscher’s Ideological Migration Toward Market Liberalism: Benny Carlson explores the intellectual evolution of a great Swedish economist.

Symposium:
Classical Liberalism in Econ, by Country: Authors from around the world tell us about their country’s culture of political economy, in particular the vitality of liberalism in the original political sense, historically and currently, with special attention to professional economics as practiced in academia, think tanks, and intellectual networks.

New contributions:

Young Back Choi and Yong Yoon: Liberalism in Korea

Pavel Kuchař: Liberalism in Mexican Economic Thought, Past and Present

(All of the papers from this symposium, which has carried across multiple issues of EJW, are collected at this page.)

You can download the whole issue here (pdf).

Dr Khawaja, an Editor-at-Large for Reason Papersreports (2/2/16) on the latest issue over at Policy of Truth:

The latest issue of Reason Papers, vol. 37, number 2 is now out; officially, it’s the Fall 2015 issue, but we only just managed to put it up on the website last night. This link will take you to a monster-size PDF to the whole issue (almost 250 pages). This link will take you to the journal’s Archive page, where you can access individual articles for this or any past issue (you have to scroll down a bit). Finally, this link will take you to three (time sensitive) Calls for Papers issued by the journal’s editors: one on “the philosophy of play” (March 1, 2016); one a fifteen-year retrospective on 9/11 (July 1, 2016); and one an Authors-Meet-Critics symposium on Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen’s forthcoming book The Perfectionist Turn: From Meta-Norms to Meta-Ethics (February 1, 2017).

My own small contribution to Reason Papers can be found here (pdf).

The High Wage Economy: the Stephenson critic

A recent trend has emerged in economics. The claim is that high wages can have a dynamic positive effect on market economies.  The intuition is that high wages increase productivity because they incite management to find new techniques of production. In essence, its an argument about efficiency wages: efficiency wages increase incentives to innovate on the part of managers, they can also incite workers to acquire more human capital and work harder and more diligently.

In economic history, this claim has been taken up by scholars like Robert Allen (see his work here for the general public) who argues that the Industrial Revolution took place in England because of high wages. The high-wages of England in the 17th and 18th centuries (relative to all other areas in Europe), together with cheap energy, created an incentive for capital-intensive methods of production (i.e. the industrial revolution). In fact, a great share of the literature on the desirability of high wages for economic development has emanated from the field of economic history.

I have always been skeptical of this argument for two reasons. The first is that efficiency wages is a strange theory that relies on debatable assumptions about labor (strangely, I have been convinced of this point by Austrian scholars like Don Bellante and Pavel Ryksa). The second is that numerous scholars have advanced large criticisms of the underlying data. Robert Allen – the figurehead proponent of the high wage argument – has been constantly criticized by historians like Jane Humphries (see here) for the quality of the data and assumptions used. Allen defends himself on numerous occasions and many of his replies (mainly those on the role of family size in living standards) show that his initial case might have been too conservative (i.e. he is more “correct” than he claims).

Until a year or two ago, I was agnostic on the issue even though I was skeptical. That was until I met Judy Stephenson – a colleague at the London School of Economics. Judy did what I really like to do – dig for data (yes, I am weird like that). She went to the original sources of data used by Allen and others and she looked at what any Law-and-Economics buffs like me like to look at – transaction costs and contracting models.

She recently published her work as a working paper at the LSE and what she found is crucial! Labor was not hired directly, it was hired through contractors who charged costs on the basis of days worked. But this did not translate into wages actually paid to workers. The costs included risks and overheads for contractors. Somewhere between 20% and 30% of the daily costs were not given to workers as wages. Thus, the wage series used to claim that England (Stephenson concentrates on London though) had high wages are actually 20% to 30% below the level often reported. They are also substantially close to those in western Europe.

Thus, the high wage story for England seems weaker. This little piece of historical evidence brought about by Judy is something to think about carefully when one makes the argument that high wages are conducive to growth. Since most of the argument brought to the public was informed largely by this argument in economic history, it makes sense to be cautious when thinking about it in the future.