On granting the Nobel to Kirzner

In a little over a week, the Nobel Prize in economics will be unveiled. A part of me wishes that Robert Barro wins or maybe Dale Jorgenson or even William Baumol. However, I would be thrilled if Israel Kirzner won. Back in 2014, he was mentioned for the prize and it was the year that Jean Tirole, deservedly, won the prize. Since then, I have been dreaming of it as it would cement into the mainstream the best that the Austrian school of economics can offer.

Unlike many of colleagues, I have always had sympathies for numerous points made by the Austrians. Throughout my training, the Austrian school of economics was largely derided as cranks. Initially, I jumped on the bandwagon and I believed the Austrians to be crazy. However, I became exposed to many of their key points and like Edmund Phelps, I felt that the “best of the Austrians” could not be rejected so easily. True, there is some wheat to sort from the chaff, but the same applies for every school of thought.  I realized that most of their inputs in macroeconomics were largely incorporated in models like Lucas’ Islands Model or in Prescott’s Time to Build. However, what most intrigued me was how they used general equilibrium as a teaching tool, but not as a research tool. General equilibrium is useful for understanding key axiomatic assertions, but when you have an “applied economics” question, it is a hard tool to use – especially for an economic historian like me.

Kirzner is the perfect representation of the best that the Austrian school has to offer. In a way, his entire work can be summarized as such: it is the process leading to (new) equilibrium(s) that is the most interesting aspect of economics.

It is when I understood that insight that I finally grasped the deeper meaning of Hayek’s claim that “competition is a discovery process”. Entrepreneurs are people who look for the $100 bill on the sidewalk by innovating, by exploiting arbitrage opportunities and by discovering what consumers really want. They are constantly heading towards an equilibrium point. But as they try to do so, they shift the ability to produce and consume to greater levels and, in doing so, they generate a new equilibrium. And the process continues as long as human beings are humans.

For someone who studies economic history like I do, this is the most fruitful way of looking at social interactions. After all, the industrial revolution is everything except an equilibrium and the industrial revolution is most momentous structural break in history. The search for equilibrium and the creation of new equilibriums are by far more useful tools for questions like the end of “Malthusian pressures” or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, I am veering into excessive simplification of Kirzner’s contribution. But consider his book, Competition and Entrepreneurship. Alone, it has 7,362 citations (according to google scholar).  This is half the citations obtained by the most cited article in the American Economic Review (Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz’s Production, Information Costs and Economic Organization). It’s close to 3,000 more citations that Deaton and Muellbauer’s “Almost Ideal Demand System” (4,775 citations). And Deaton won the Nobel last year!

By virtue of being affiliated with the Austrians, mainstream economists could have relegated him to obscurity. However, for such a citation count to be achieved, he must have been to showcase the best that the Austrian school has to offer. Just for that, maybe his contribution should be recognized.

O capitalismo explora os trabalhadores?

Um dos argumentos contra o liberalismo econômico que tenho ouvido recentemente (ou contra a liberdade de mercado, com pouca ou nenhuma intervenção do estado) é que as relações entre patrões e trabalhadores são desiguais, e logo então desfavoráveis para os trabalhadores; cabe ao estado intervir a favor dos trabalhadores; o liberalismo econômico não é bom para os trabalhadores. Tenho dificuldade com este argumento, pois ele passa a ideia de que os patrões não trabalham. Seja como for, acredito que posso aceitar parte do que está sendo dito: é lógico que alguns patrões irão tentar pagar o pior salário possível aos trabalhadores para conseguir os maiores lucros possíveis. É lógico que muitos patrões irão ver qualquer investimento em segurança, bem estar, saúde e outros “direitos” como gastos incômodos, e irão tentar evitar estes gastos. É lógico que o trabalhador está pleiteando a vaga, e neste sentido está à mercê do patrão que a oferece. Tudo isto é não apenas lógico, mas empírico. Pessoalmente já vi estas coisas acontecendo “com estes olhos que a terra há de comer”. Há patrões que irão tentar fazer todas estas coisas e outras ainda, aproveitando-se da situação vulnerável dos trabalhadores. Irão tentar. Mas irão conseguir?

Segundo me parece, uma forma de evitar que patrões se aproveitem da situação vulnerável dos trabalhadores é apelar para a caridade dos patrões. Embora eu suspeite que esta abordagem possa soar romântica para muitos, o fato é que empiricamente ela funciona com alguma frequência. Historicamente, foi o cristianismo de muitos empresários que possibilitou a melhora das condições de trabalho na Europa e Estados Unidos durante o primeiro século de Revolução Industrial. Portanto, esta é uma abordagem que, acredito, não deve ser desconsiderada.

Uma segunda forma de evitar que patrões se aproveitem da situação vulnerável dos trabalhadores é criar leis trabalhistas. Ao invés de esperarmos que os patrões sejam voluntariamente bons, podemos usar a violência legítima do estado para força-los a serem bons. Esta abordagem possui efeitos positivos, mas também muitas consequências inesperadas. Basicamente o objetivo de qualquer lei é tornar os relacionamentos humanos mais padronizados. Uma maneira mais negativa de dizer a mesma coisa é falar que leis engessam a sociedade. Leis trabalhistas criam “direitos”, mas também impedem que trabalhadores e empregadores negociem voluntariamente outras possibilidades de relacionamento. Um exemplo bastante conhecido é o salário mínimo, que contra intuitivamente prejudica os trabalhadores mais do que os ajuda. Finalmente, leis só fazem sentido caso sejam amparadas por um estado. E com mais leis, mais estado. Nossa relação com o estado já é por definição desigual: o estado possui o monopólio do uso legitimo da violência; nós não. Aumentar o tamanho do estado é aumentar nossa vulnerabilidade dentro de uma relação desigual, o que vai contra exatamente o que está sendo discutido aqui.

Uma terceira forma de evitar que patrões se aproveitem da situação vulnerável dos trabalhadores é a liberdade econômica. Sim, como eu comecei dizendo, é lógico e empírico que alguns patrões irão tentar se aproveitar de situações de vulnerabilidade dos empregados. Mas irão conseguir? Numa sociedade orientada pela liberdade de mercado, é mais provável que não. Com liberdade de mercado, a tendência é o surgimento de concorrência, além de uma maior diversidade de atividades econômicas. Neste cenário, patrões que procurem abusar dos trabalhadores correm o rico de perder os trabalhadores para outros patrões. Mesmo no cenário improvável de todos os patrões serem abusivos, tratar bem os trabalhadores torna-se um imperativo para manter os lucros. A alternativa seria um acordo geral dos patrões abusivos, mas isto tornasse empiricamente infactível numa sociedade progressivamente marcada por liberdade de escolha. Uma última observação nesta lista muito longe de exaustiva de benefícios do livre mercado para o trabalhador é que no livre mercado a tendência é de aumento da produtividade. E nada está mais ligado a aumentos de salários do que aumento de produtividade. De fato, onde há liberdade de mercado os salários aumentam, assim como o poder de compra.

Em resumo, sim, há patrões que se aproveitam das relações desiguais com trabalhadores para exercer poder sobre estes mesmos trabalhadores. Isto é não apenas lógico, mas empírico. Mas qual é a melhor solução para este problema? Apelar para a boa vontade dos patrões? Criar leis que deem aos trabalhadores mais direitos? Favorecer uma maior liberdade de mercado? Minha resposta é: criar leis que favoreçam maior liberdade de mercado, e ao mesmo tempo apelar para a boa vontade dos patrões, até porque num cenário de maior liberdade econômica, patrões abusivos estão indo contra seus próprios interesses.

 

Referências:

O capitalismo explora os trabalhadores?

The Great Blessings of Cash

Paper money offers the benefits of anonymity, immediate payment, no identity theft, and no transaction charges. Government also benefits by printing notes with much greater value than the cost of the paper. However, some economists argue that cash has social costs that outweigh these blessings, and advocate the reduction and eventual elimination of paper cash. Several countries are planning to discontinue their largest currency notes. The European Central Bank is phasing out its 500-euro note; it will stop issuing new ones in 2018. The Scandinavian countries are reducing their paper cash.

Kenneth Rogoff, professor at Harvard University, has written a book, The Curse of Cash, in which he argues that the elimination of large-denominations of paper money would be good for society. Cash is a curse, he says, because criminals use the large bills, and because it limits the ability of central banks to have negative interest rates.

The use of cash by the underground economy is a symptom of bad policy, and the elimination of cash treats the effects rather than the causes. The reason economic activity goes underground is that governments have prohibited economic transactions.

Although some U.S. states have decriminalized medical marijuana, the substance remains illegal in federal law, which prevents the sellers from using the normal banking system. Therefore they use paper money. The prohibition of drugs generally drives the industry towards the use of large denominations, especially “Benjamins,” the US $100 bill depicting Benjamin Franklin. The elimination of Benjamins would make it less convenient to sell illegal drugs. The higher cost would raise the price of illegal drugs, but since the quantity demanded by addicts is not very responsive to a change in price, the drug dealers would find ways to do their transactions.

The legalization of drugs would eliminate the cause of the high demand for paper cash. Just as with alcohol, producers would then use the normal banking system.

The underground economy uses cash also for activities that are legal if taxes are paid on the income and sales. Again, the elimination of cash would make tax evasion less convenient, but not eliminate the incentives to evade having substantial amounts of gains taxed away. Rogoff thinks that if the government prohibits the legal use of Benjamins, the remaining notes would lose value, as they would no longer be legally convertible into small denominations and not be legally payable for goods. But large notes could circulate as a medium of exchange within the underground economy as an alternative currency. Moreover, there are underground currency traders in all countries that impose artificial currency exchange rates.

The problem originates in evadable taxation. The remedy that eliminates the cause is to make taxation unevadable. The main resource that cannot hide is land. The taxation of land value, based on its best possible use regardless of current use, cannot be evaded. The elimination of all other taxes would bring production, trade, and consumption above ground and eliminate the current high demand for paper cash.

Another “curse of cash” argued by Rogoff is that paper money prevents central banks from lowering the transaction rate of “interest” much below zero. Suppose a bank has a negative 5 percent charge on deposits, so that the depositor has to pay $5 per year per $100 deposited. Many people would withdraw the money and hold it in paper cash. Companies would offer to securely store your cash in insured vaults. If all notes above $10 were made illegal, the storage and insurance costs would rise substantially, and the banking system would be better able to have the negative rates.

The alleged benefit of negative rates is that, because the banks also pay negative rates on their deposits with central banks, financial institutions would scramble to loan out the money to investors who would pay a positive rate, or become partners in ventures.

It is bad enough now that savers, especially retired folks, are getting close to a zero return on their retirement savings. Negative returns on, say, large certificates of deposit would further ruin those who depend on income from savings. Again, the artificial device of pushing the nominal rate of interest below zero is an attempt to treat the symptoms rather than cure the causes.

Some blame a glut of global savings for the low rates of interest. But technology is marching forward, to artificial intelligence, robots, medical advances, better batteries, and many other frontiers. There is no shortage of possible investment projects. But governments world-wide stifle investment with taxes and restrictions. The USA, for example, has choked investment since 2008 with tighter banking restrictions and higher costs such as medical mandates.

What is needed is the ultimate supply-side policy, cutting marginal tax rates on labor and investment yields to zero, with a prosperity tax shift, replacing all other taxes with a single tax on land value. The land-value tax would also push land to its most productive use, stimulating productive investment and employment.

As to money, attempts to skew markets almost always fail, so it would be best to eliminate central banks and their manipulations of nominal interest rates. Let markets set the money supply and restore the positive natural rate of interest based on the human-nature tendency to prefer to have goods sooner rather than later.

Controlled market manipulations are failing, and so statist advocates propose even more artificial controls such as eliminating paper money and pushing interest rates below zero. But the further we get from economic freedom, the worse the outcome. Interest rates and money evolved in markets; let them return to their natural base.

Note: this article is also in http://www.progress.org under the title The Blessings of Cash.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Racism in Brazil, and American academic imperialism
  2. A quick lesson on race and class in Brazil
  3. Unlike Their Parents, Black Millennials Aren’t A Lock For Clinton
  4. The Rise of the Libertarian Technocrats
  5. Property versus Democracy
  6. Our Friendly Visitors

Another Race Riot

Note: This is written for my overseas readers mainly. If you live in the US, you will probably find that you already know most of what I am writing about.

A couple of days ago, a police officer shot to death a black man in full daylight in Charlotte, North Carolina, very much the Old South, former home of abject slavery.

This is happening in the last months of the second administration of the first black American president, after more than seven years of his being in charge. “Being in charge” is an exaggeration of sorts though. The President of the United States exercises no constitutional authority over local police forces (or state police forces). His federal Department of Justice only has jurisdiction when a violation of civil rights is at stake and only over that specific putative violation. Homicide is not in itself a civil rights violation. It’s true that Pres. Obama cannot pick up the phone and tell the Charlotte police what to do or how. Yet, Mr Obama is responsible to some extent although indirectly for the violence, an idea I will develop below.

Cop kills black man: familiar story, right?

I forgot to give you important information. The police officer who did the shooting is black and a woman. She answers to a black police chief. He is squarely in charge of training officers and making rules for their behavior, including their use of firearms. The Chief of Police is appointed and answers to the mayor of Charlotte. The mayor is a white woman and a prominent Democrat. She is assisted by a city council of eleven, four or whom are black. As far as I can tell, there are zero, or one, or two Republican city councilors. The rest are Democrats.

The police says the victim had a gun. His family says in was sitting in his car reading a book while waiting for his child to come out of school. Disturbingly different stories, for sure.

There have been three nights or protests in Charlotte, that quickly became riots, with demonstrators throwing heavy objects at police officers and much destruction of property. One demonstrator was shot, apparently not by a police officer. And, of course, there was much looting of stores. It’s nearly always like this: One young black man dies, fifteen young black men acquire brand new mountain bikes.

Watching the riots on TV, I notice something that television channels and printed press journalist don’t comment on: Some of the most aggressive rioters are young white men who seem to me to know what they are doing and who are not distracted by broken store windows. I should use the word cautiously but they seem to me almost professional in their approach to rioting. The white young rioters are not mentioned I think because they cannot be fitted in the prevailing liberal narrative: It’s a race riot, it’s a demonstration against racial injustice by black people who have just had enough. How about the young white guys? Irrelevant, they are just lovers of justice who happen to be there. Yet, I can’t claim that I recognize any of them on TV but there are young white men just like them in every race riot I have watched in the past two years. If they are absent the first day, they are plainly present the second day and the next few days.

The show on my TV looks a bit like a movie because it’s not well connected to reality, the reality that everyone knows: On the whole, young black men don’t die because cops shoot them, they die because other young black men kill them. They also kill the occasional child and lately, even a young mother pushing her baby carriage. The percentage of violent deaths of black men at police hands that are legally unjustified, must be minuscule. No one in Chicago demonstrates against this continuing mass killing by African-Americans. I think blacks and whites alike don’t because it would contradict the main, tired old liberal narrative: Injustice and racial oppression are the source of all evils in American society.

Young black men kill one another in gang wars for turf (for possession of a piece of ground.) The turf, the ground, is an important asset in the retail sale of illegal drugs. I would be curious of what would happen if Congress decriminalized all drug sales to adults and if a rational president signed the bill into law. I would bet that young black men’s death rate would plummet by 90% in a few weeks. I have no explanation as to why this is not done. It’s not as if the 40-year old so-called “War on Drugs” were working in reducing drug use!

After seven+ years of Obama, the economic gap between whites and blacks – however you measure it – has increased. African-Americans are worse off in relative terms than they were under Pres. Bush. This is no surprise to me. It’s a Democratic administration. The worst place for a black man to live in America is in Democratic-ruled big cities. It begins with Chicago, a Democratic city for 85 years. And then, there is Detroit, a war zone with no war. All this being said, we must not forget that most African-Americans lead lives that are both normal and peaceful, in crying contradiction to the narrative of continued racial oppression. There is a large minority of young black men however who have never had a job, who don’t look for one, who may have never known a person with a job except teachers and cops.

Democratic politicians have been promising salvation in the form of “social programs” paid for by those who do work. They have done so for fifty years. They have not implemented them, or the programs have done little good, or even worse. It’s time for a revolutionary new idea, one that’s very old, in fact. When there is rapid economic growth, employers compete for labor, even for the labor of the inexperienced, even for the labor of those usually seen as unemployable. Black Americans in ghettos need the same thing that all Americans need: vigorous and fast economic growth. This may be hard to believe but the United States has few problems that could not be solved by ten years of 3.5% annual GDP growth.

There is no sign of a search for economic development in the Democratic presidential candidate’s program. Donald Trump, by contrast, promises to reduce taxes and to rid business of many regulations. Historically, it’s usually enough to produce growth. Black Americans need less abstract “justice” and more of a fair chance. The left wing of the Democratic Party hates the very idea.

Inherited wealth and size of government

In the debate over inequality, I have long argued that governments are much better at creating inequality than at reducing them (see my paper here with Steve Horwitz). Through rent-seeking and regulatory capture, interest groups manage to redistribute wealth in the “wrong” direction. There are a great many cases of large fortunes amassed thanks to government favors (think of the Bombardier family in Canada or Carlos Slim in Mexico).

Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, large fortunes can be rapidly consumed by squabbling heirs and poor investments (see this paper here notably). Thus, the fortunes gathered by parents who earned government favors can melt away over time. Nonetheless, governments do protect the fortunes of the heirs if they continue in business. For example, the heirs of the Bombardier family in Canada continued their ancestor’s work and remained relatively well-off. This is in part because governments continue to rescue that firm from its misfortunes. In a way, government may act to limit the erosion of fortunes. We can phrase this differently by asking whether or not the size of government is correlated with the share of wealth from the “ultra-rich” that is gained through inheritance.

Using a working paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics titled The Origins of the Superrich: The Billionaire Characteristics Database authored by Caroline Freund and Sarah Oliver and the Economic Freedom Index of the World produced by the Fraser Institute (released this week), we can check for the existence of this correlation. The paper by Freund and Oliver documents the share of the total wealth of billionaires that was earned through inheritance.

Unsurprisingly (for me), the lower the index for the size of government, the greater the share of wealth earned through inheritance. Using all OECD and European countries, we can very well see that the size of government is negatively correlated with the share of wealth from inheritance. untitled

Maybe, just maybe, those who believe that the solution to rising inequality is more government redistribution should be willing to reconsider their proposed cure. This is, I believe, an additional cause for skepticism regarding remedies.

Some afterthoughts on Rio Paralympics

Paralympics are over, and with them the cycle of Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Once again the city was able to put up a good show, and thankfully all went well in the Cidade Maravilhosa. But not everything is alright in Rio: even more than the Olympics, the Paralympics were able to show the contradictions between the city where we live everyday and the city of the event: Rio is not welcoming for people with disabilities.

At least in Brazilian Portuguese, political correctness has done a mess with vocabulary concerning the kind of people who compete in Paralympics. We are not supposed to say they are disabled (don’t even think about saying they are crippled!). I think the correct vocabulary today is, as I used, “people with disabilities.” But even that is under political correct scrutiny, so it seems. All this discussion about words springs from cultural Marxism, postmodernism, relativism and the belief that there’s nothing objective beyond our vocabulary. But words can’t hide the reality: Rio is unequal. The way it treats the blind, the lame, and even the elderly or the young, is completely different from the way it treats people in middle-age and more able to walk. And all that despite strong legislation in this area.

One of the greatest debates in political philosophy in the 20th century happened between American philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Trying to build on classical liberal foundations (but moving to egalitarian liberalism), Rawls pointed out that “equality was supposed to be the moral benchmark for social and political institutions, and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified.” Nozick answer was that liberty upsets patterns. Even if we have a starting point in society where we have a perfectly equal distribution of goods or assets, the moment that we allow people to be free to make their own choices (as liberalism prescribes) they are going to make choices we cannot possibly predict, and these choices are going to upset any kind of pattern we established in the first place. That happens because each one of us is unique in its own right: each one of us have a specific set of values, preferences and circumstances that upsets any would-be planner. So, if you want to respect human liberty to make choices, you have to give up on any plan for material equality.

Nozick’s answer to Rawls has a lot of Adam Smith in it. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (preceding the more famous Wealth of Nations both in time and argument) Smith presented a character called “man of system.” This person sees society as an architect sees a blueprint for a construction. Smith says such person is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal plan of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” The problem is that humans have free will, the ability to make choices. And as such, they will upset any blueprint prepared for them. In other words, “individual people are not chess pieces you can move on a board with their dreams and desires ignored.” To the eyes of the would-be planner, “society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

So, material equality of outcomes (or at least of opportunities) is totally out of reach? Should we disregard it completely? Should the “invisible hand” prevail in spite of the weakest in our society? I don’t think so. Just the opposite! One of the very reasons I find classical liberalism morally appealing is the fact that no economic or political system ever conceived helps the weakest as it does. In other words, contrary to (what seems to me is) the popular belief, classical liberalism defends social justice more than any of its intellectuals alternatives. Answering John Rawls’s famous claim that “a just society will be one whose rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes,” Friedrich Hayek pointed out exactly this. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek agreed with Rawls about the end at which social institutions should aim: the welfare of the least advantaged. He simply disagreed about the means Rawls thought would get us there.

Instead of thinking of us as chess pieces on a board, when can use the analogy of a soccer game (or football, or basketball – suit yourself). The outcome of the game is the result of the player’s individual abilities, but it is also the outcome of the rules. In other words, in a free society, where people are free to choose, the outcomes are not just the result of the innumerable decisions of countless individuals. They are also the result of the rules enforcing property rights, contracts, taxation, and so on. So, it’s important to think about the justice of these rules, as well as the outcomes they might have. The point is that we can embrace a theory of social justice, but that just tells us the end we are heading to, not the means to get there.

Contrary to egalitarians, progressivists and socialists claims, no theory “tends to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes” as classical liberalism does. And that’s a great reason I support it. As I said in the beginning, Rio is very unequal, despite decades of egalitarian policies in the city and in Brazil as a whole. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence that classical liberal policies tend to help the very people others accuse it of ignoring. When it comes to doing social justice, it’s important to have not just the heart, but also the mind in the right place. And I believe classical liberal policies are this place.

References:
What’s Right about Social Justice?
Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality
Adam Smith and the Follies of Central Planning
Fight of the Century