Davies’ “Extreme Economies” – Part 2: Failure

In the previous part of this three-part review, I looked at Davies’ first subsection (“Survival”) where he ventured to some of the most secluded and extreme places of the world – a maximum security prison, a refugee camp, a tsunami disaster – and found thriving markets. Not in that pejorative and predatory way markets are usually denounced by their opponents, but in a cooperative, resilient and fascinating way.

In this second part, subtitled “The Economics of Lost Potential”, Davies brings us on a journey of extreme places where markets did not deliver this desirable escape from exceptionally restrictive circumstances.

There might be many reasons for why Extreme Economies has become a widely read and praised book. Beyond the vivid characters and fascinating environments described by Davies, this swinging between opposing perspectives is certainly one. Whether your priors are to oppose markets or to favour them, there is something here for you. Davies isn’t “judgy” or “preachy” and the story comes off as more balanced because of it.

If the previous section showed how markets flourish and solve problems even under the most strained conditions, this section shows how they don’t.

Darien, Panama

We first venture to the Darien Gap, the 160-kilometre dense rainforest that separates the northern and southern sections of the Pan-American Highway – an otherwise unbroken road from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.

To a student of financial history, “Darien” brings up William Paterson’s miserable Company of Scotland scheme in the 1690s; trying to make Scotland great (again?), the scheme raised a large share of scarce Scottish capital and spectacularly squandered it on trying to build a colony halfway around the world. In the first chapter of subsection ‘Failure’, Davies skilfully recounts the Darien Disaster, “Scotland’s greatest economic catastrophe” (p. 114).

Judging from Davies’ ventures into the jungle bordering Panama and Colombia, it wouldn’t be a far cry to call the present state of affairs a similar economic catastrophe. Rather than failed colonies, the failed potential of Darien lies elsewhere: its environmental challenges coupled with the trade and markets that failed to emerge despite readily available mutual gains for trade.

A stunning landscape of mile after mile filled with rainforests and rivers and the occasional lush farmland, the people of the Gap make a living through extracting what the land provides. If you’re deep into environmentalism, you might even say unsustainably so. Davies’ point is to illustrate a more well-known economic problem: when unowned or communally owned resources suffer from the tragedy of the commons – the tendency is for such resources to be overexploited and ultimately destroyed.

Whether through logging companies exceeding their quotas or locals chopping trees out of desperation to survive, the story in Darien is altogether conventional. At the edge of the Gap, “the people of Yaviza do what they can. [T]he environment is an asset, and for many people living in Yaviza getting by is only possible by chipping a bit off a selling it” (p. 120).

What’s striking here is that in times of need (as Davies himself showed in the chapter on Aceh) that’s exactly what we want assets to do! We can show this in down-to-earth, real-world examples like Acehnese women drawing on their jewellery as emergency savings, or in formal economic models such as the C-CAPM, the Consumption Capital Asset Pricing Model, familiar to every business and finance student.

On a much cruder level: if the mere survival of some of the poorest people on earth depend on chopping down precious trees – well, precious to far-away Westerners, anyway – accusing those people of destroying our shared environment is mind-blowingly daft. To rationalise that equation, you have to put a very large value on turtles and trees, and a very small value on human life.

Elinor Ostrom, whose Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to her work on common pool resources, emphasised three ways to solve tragedies of the commons: clear boundaries (i.e. individual property rights); regular communal meetings such that members can voice opinions and amicably resolve conflicts; a stable population so that reputation matters and we can socially police deviant behaviour (p. 125).

The Darien Gap has none of those. Property rights are routinely ignored; the forest includes many different populations (indigenous tribes, farmers, ex-FARC fugitives, illegal immigrants); and those populations fluctuate a lot, meaning that most interactions are one-shot games where reputation becomes useless. End result: extensive, illegal, unsustainable logging mixed with armed strangers.

What I can’t quite wrap my head around is that almost all (market and non-market) interactions that all of us have daily are with strangers: the barista, the people we walk past on the street, the new client you just met or the customer support agent you just talked to. All of them are strangers. A large share of interactions with other humans in the last few centuries of human societies have been one-offs, yet very few of them have spiral into the lawlessness that Davies describes in Darien. Be it the Leviathan, secure property rights, the doux commerce thesis or some wider institutional or cultural reason, but the failure of Darien to establish well-functioning formal and informal markets of the kind we saw in the book’s first part are intriguing.

While a fascinating chapter, it might also be Davies’ worst chapter, factually speaking. He claims, mistakenly, that “globally, deforestation continues apace with 2016 the worst year on record for tree loss”. On the contrary, we’re approaching global zero net deforestation. More specifically, Davies claims that Colombia and Panama are particularly at risk here, with rates deforestation “increased sharply”. A quick look through UN’s Global Forest Resource Assessment report (latest figures from 2015), these two countries are indeed chopping down their forests – but by less than any other time period on record.  Moreover, the Colombian net deforestation rate of 0.05% per year is easily exceeded by a number of countries; not even Panama’s dismal 0.3%/year (worse than the Brazilian Amazon) is particularly high in a global or historical perspective.

To make matters worse, the figure on p. 158 titled “The World’s Disappearing Tropics” might win an award for the most misleading graph of the year: by making the bars cumulative and downplaying the annual deforestation, it suggests that the forests are rapidly disappearing. The only comparison to relevant numbers (remember, Rosling teaches us to Always Be Comparing Our Numbers) is the tired “football pitches”. That’s hugely misleading. A vast amount of football pitches cleared in the Amazon this year still only amounted to 0.2% of the Brazilian Amazon; in other words, Brazilians could keep chopping down trees for a few good decades without making much of a dent to that vast rainforest.

davies

Moreover, the only reference point we’re given is that over a period of almost twenty years, an area the size of France has been deforested – but that’s equivalent to no more than one-tenth of only the Amazon forest, and the tropics have many more forested areas than that. The graph aims to intimidate us with ever-rising bars signalling the loss of forests; with some proper numbers and further examination it doesn’t seem very bad at all. On the contrary, locals (and yes, international logging companies) use the assets that nature has endowed them with – what’s so wrong with that?

Finally, the “missing market” that Davies observes in the Gap involves countless of illegal immigrants from around the world that trek through the jungles in search of a better life in the U.S. We have cash-rich Indians, willing to pay people to guide them through unknown and dangerous terrain, and local tribes and farmers and ex-FARC members with such knowledge looking for income; setting up a trade between them ought to be elementary.

Instead, it’s not: “in this place of flux,” writes Davies, “reputation does not matter, interactions are one-offs” (p. 137). Overturning the market quip that “trading is cheaper than raiding”, in the Darien Gap raiding is cheaper than trading. One might of course object that the failures of rich countries to offer more liberal immigration rules for people willing to go this far to get there illegally is hardly a market failure – but a failure of government regulation and incompetent bureaucracies.

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

A 12-million people city sprawled on the banks of the Congo river, so unknown to Westerners that most of us couldn’t place it on a map. Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with more people in extreme poverty than any other, is frequently described as “rich”. Or, with Davies’ euphemism “unrivalled potential” (p. 143).

Congo, the argument goes, has “diamonds, tin and other rare metals, the world’s second-largest rainforest and a river whose flow is second only to the Amazon. [it] shares a time zone with Paris [and the] population is young and growing”. It is one of the poorest countries but “should be one of the richest” (p. 143).

No, no and no. Before any other consideration of the remarkable day-to-day trading and corruption that Davies’ interview subjects describe, this mistaken idea about wealth must be straightened out. Wealth isn’t what could be if this or that major obstacle wasn’t in the way (Am I secretly a great singer, if I could only overcome the pesky fact that I have a voice unsuited for singing and lack practice?). This is almost tautological; what we mean by a country being poor is that it cannot overcome obstacles to wealth.

All wealth has to be created; humanity’s default position is extreme poverty.

And natural resources do not equate to wealth – there is even more support suggesting the opposite – in which case Japan and Singapore ought to be poor and Venezuela and DRC rich. My own sassy musings are still largely correct:

As Mises taught us half a century ago – and Julian Simon more recently – wealth (or even ‘goods’ or ‘commodities’ or ‘services’) are not the physical existence of those objects somewhere in the ground, but the satisfaction and valuation derived by the human mind. The object itself is only a means to whatever end the actor has in mind. Therefore, a “resource” is not the physical oil in the ground or the tons of iron ore in the Australian outback, but the ability of Human Imagination and Ingenuity to use those for his or her goals. After all, before humans learned to harnish the beautiful power of oil into heat, combustion engines and industrial production, it was nothing but a slimy, goe-y liquid in the ground, annoying our farmers. Nothing about its physical appearance changed over the centuries, but the mental abilities and industrial knowledge of human beings to use it for our purposes did.

Still, “modern Kinshasa is a disaster everyone should know about” (p. 172). No country has done worse in terms of GDP/capita since the 1960s. And we don’t have to go far to figure out at least part of the reason: the first rule of Kinshasa, says one of Davies’ interviewees, is corruption (p. 145). Everyone “steals a little for themselves as the funds pass through their hands, and if you pay in at the bottom of the pyramid there are hundreds of low-level tax officials competing to claim your cash.” (p. 185). Mobutu, the country’s long-time dictator, apparently said “if you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way” (p. 159).

Whether small stallholders at gigantic market or supermarket-owning tycoons, workers or university professors, pop-up sellers or police officers, everyone in Kinshasa uses every opportunity they can to extract a little rent for themselves – out of desperation more than malice. And everyone hates it: “The Kinoise”, writes Davies, “understand that these things should not happen, but recognize that their city’s economy demands a more flexible moral code.” (p. 168).

Interestingly enough, DMC is not a country whose state capacity is insufficient; it’s not a “failed state”, an “absent or passive” government whose cities are filled with “decaying official buildings and unfilled civil-service positions.” (p. 148). On the contrary:

The government thrives, with boulevards lined with the offices of countless ministries thronged by thousands of functionaries at knocking-off time. The Congolese state is active but parasitic, a corruption superstructure that often works directly against the interests of its people.

Poorly-paid police officers set up arbitrary roadblocks and extract bribes. Teachers demand a little something before allowing their pupils to pass. Restaurant owners serve their best food to their civil service regulators, free of charge, to even stay in business. Consequently, despite an incredibly resilient and innovative populace, “these innovative strategies are ultimately economic distortion reflecting time spent inventing ways to avoid tax collectors, rather than driving passengers or selling to customers” (p. 162).

But, like the ingenious monetary system of Louisiana prisons, the most fascinating aspect of Kinshasa’s economy is its use of money. Arbitrage traders head across the river to Brazaville in neighbouring Republic of the Congo equipped with dollars which they swap for CFAthe currency of six central African countries, successfully pegged to the euro. With ‘cefa’ they buy goods at Brazaville prices, goods they bring back over the river and undercut exorbitant Kinshasa prices. Selling in volatile and unstable Congolese francs carries risk, so Kinshasa’s streets are littered with currency traders offering dollars – at bid-ask spreads of less than 2%, comparing favourably with well-established Western currency markets. Before most transactions, Kinoise stop by an exchange trader sitting outside restaurants or malls, to acquire some Congolese francs with which to pay. Almost, almost dollarisation.

In Kinshasa, people rely on illegal trading as a safety net when personal disaster strikes or the state’s required bribes become too extortionary. Davies’ point is a convincing one, that “a town, city or country can get stuck in a rut and stay there” (p. 174).

Judging from his venture into Kinshasa, it’s difficult to blame markets for that. I don’t believe I’m invoking a No True Scotsman fallacies by saying that a market whose participants spent half their time avoiding public officials and the other half bribing them to avoid arbitrarily made-up rules, is pretty far from a free market.

Believing the opposite is also silly – that markets and mutual gains from trade can overcome any obstacles placed before them. Governments, culture or institutions have power to completely eradicate the beneficial outcomes of markets – Kinshasa’s extreme poverty attests to that.

Glasgow, the last part of ‘Failure’, is discussed in a separate post.

Rethinking the Yellowbelt: Report Release

After a full year of research, the largest, most comprehensive report on the economics, politics, history, and policies of zoning in Toronto is available for download.

The full report is available both on the Housing Matters website, and quickly downloadable here: Rethinking the Yellowbelt

The “Yellowbelt” refers to the portion of the city that’s zoned exclusively for detached homes. The report goes into detail explaining when and why such a zone came into existence, where it spreads in the city, who is hurt by the existence of this zone and how; and what it will take to change the system.

A summary of the report follows. Of course, the report itself goes into much more detail.

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Romance Econometrics

I had a mentor at BYU, Prof. James McDonald, who tried to convince us that

  • Econometrics is Fun.
  • Econometrics is Easy.
  • Econometrics is Your Friend.

One of his classes made a bronze plaque out of it for him. He also tried to convince us that Economics is Romantic because this one guy took a girl to his class on a date and she married him anyway. Because he was one of the economists I’ve tried to model my life after, I’ve always been on the lookout for ways to convince people that econometrics is, in fact, fun, friendly, easy, and romantic.

A while back, Bill Easterly blogged about how marriage search is like development, and in the process talking about how unromantic economists can be:

I recently helped one of my single male graduate students in his search for a spouse.

First, I suggested he conduct a randomized controlled trial of potential mates to identify the one with the best benefit/cost ratio. Unfortunately, all the women randomly selected for the study refused assignment to either the treatment or control groups, using language that does not usually enter academic discourse.

With the “gold standard” methods unavailable, I next recommended an econometric regression approach. He looked for data on a large sample of married women on various inputs (intelligence, beauty, education, family background, did they take a bath every day), as well as on output: marital happiness. Then he ran an econometric regression of output on inputs. Finally, he gathered data on available single women on all the characteristics in the econometric study. He made an out-of-sample prediction of predicted marital happiness. He visited the lucky woman who had the best predicted value in the entire singles sample, explained to her how he calculated her nuptial fitness, and suggested they get married. She called the police.

He goes on from there to describe how he eventually did find a mate and makes a comparison with development and over-reliance on econometric methods. As popular as it is in Libertarian circles to bash on econometrics, I’d like to defend empirics by pointing out that his regression advice was not sound:

1 – The suitor’s regressions ignored the self-selection bias. Regressions only tell us what the ‘average’ effects are, that is the effect for the ‘average’ person. Making the average guy happy is only relevant if he is the average guy. Economists being the strange lot we are, it is likely that it takes a special kind of person to marry one of us. He ought to have found a bunch of guys very similar to himself and examine the qualities that made a difference from among (and this is key) the population of women willing to marry guys like him – the women who self-select themselves into our group. If he then approached a women who was not in that group, no wonder he was rejected! I knew I had my work cut out for me since I was in junior high: a Latter-day Saint economist-in-embryo who read Shakespeare “in the original Klingon”, and who carried a briefcase to school? Small sample sizes indeed!

2 – He ignored endogeneity. Instead of trying to convince her that research showed she would make him happy, he needed to present research that demonstrated he would make her happy, and that’s the other half of the regression: male qualities on marital happiness. No wonder she rejected him: his regressions didn’t answer her question!

Personally, I took more of a Bayesian approach. Bayesians believe that a lot of things in life (like regression coefficients) are random and over time we get better and better signals about where the truth is, but we only ever approach it by degrees. First, by trying to become a friend, I identified if a woman was in the group of people who might marry someone like me. Each interaction gave me more information about the error term and the regression coefficients about fostering a happy, loving friendship that could endure. After any failed relationship, I had a new variable or two to add to my equations and I understood the ‘relationships’ between relationship variables better. That might be about finding out different things I needed (hunh, so her political affiliation isn’t as important as I thought and her willingness to smile at me is vital) or about learning more and better policies over time that I could enact to make her happier (tips for being a better listener or learn to identify her love languages and feed them to her regularly).

One of the most important regression-related romance tips I learned was to control the variables I could control, and leave the residual in God’s hands. I recall a graduate labor economics research seminar where the presenter claimed that the marriage market always cleared. I complained that I was willing to supply a great deal more marriage than had ever been demanded at prevailing prices. I was reassured that the marriage market clears in equilibrium, and I might not have found my equilibrium yet. The presenter’s prediction was, thankfully, prescient: I found a buyer a year later, and last week we celebrated 5250 days of married bliss.

Wiener Moderne and Austrian Economics – A product of times of turmoil

There are some certain incredibly rare constellations of time and space which result in one of a kind decades. The peak of Greek civilization from 5th to 4th century BC, the Californian Gold Rush from 1848–1855 and the Fin de Siecle from 1890-1920. The latter one is of specific interest to me for a long time. Some of the most worlds most famous painters (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka), philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl) or authors (Georg Trakl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler) coined the decade. Even more intriguing for me is that the Viennese intellectual live happened in very close circles. All intellectuals being witnesses of the downfall of one of the greatest empires of the 19th century, each discipline coped with this fate in their very own way. Especially if one compares the movements of that time in literature and economics, it becomes clear that the self-imposed demands of the authors and scientists on their science differ considerably.

The Wiener Moderne:  Flight into the irrational

Driven by the predictable crumbling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the anticipated increasing tensions in the multi-ethnic empire and the threating of financial recession, the civil society was teetering on an abyssal edge. Furthermore, the Halleyscher comet was predicted to “destroy” the world in 1910, the titanic sunk in 1912, a European war was lingering just around the corner. Concerning the breakdown of stable order, people sought a way out of ruins of what once has been a stable authoritarian order. When existential threats become more and more realistic, one would expect cultural life to totally drain or at least decrease sufficiently. However, the complete opposite was the case.

At first, art merely revolted against the prevailing naturalism. Why would anybody need a detailed, accurate depiction of reality if reality itself is flawed with incomprehension, irrationality and impenetrability? Missing a stable external framework, many writers turned the back against their environment and focused on the Ego. To express the inner tensions of most contemporary people, many authors sought to dive deep into the human consciousness. Inspired by the psychoanalytical insights provided by Sigmund Freund, who had vivid relationships with many important authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, human behaviour and especially human decision making became a topic of increasing interest. Therefore, news ways of narrating such as interior monologue were founded.

Many writers such as Albert Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Georg Trakl found in transcendence a necessary counterbalance to supra-rational society. Reality and dream blurred into a foggy haze; rational preferences gave way to impulsive needs; time horizons shortened, emotions overcame facts. The individual was portrayed without any responsibility towards society, their family or other institutions. In the Dream Story (By far my favourite book) by Arthur Schnitzler, the successful doctor Ferdinand risks his marriage and his family to pursue subconscious, mysterious sexual needs. If you have the time, check out the movie based on the novel “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick, truly a cinematic masterpiece.

Karl Kraus, on the other hand, founded the satirical newspaper “The Torch” in 1899 and offered often frequented point of contact for aspiring young talented writers. The content was mostly dominated by craggy, harsh satirical observations of the everyday life which sought to convince the public of the predictable mayhem caused by currents politics. Franz Wedekind, Adolf Loos and Else Lasker-Schüler could use the torch as a stepping stone for their further careers.

What they have in common is their understanding of their craftmanship: It is not of the concern of art to save civilization or to convince us to be better humans, but to describe, document and in a way aestheticize human behaviour. This does by no way means that the Viennese authors of the early 20th century were not politically or socially involved: Antisemitism (Karl Kraus & Arthur Schnitzler), Free Press (Karl Kraus), Sexuality (Franz Wedekind and Arthur Schnitzler) were, for example, reoccurring themes. However, in most works, the protagonist struggles with these problems on an individual level, without addressing the problem as a social problem. Also, the authors seemed to lack the entire puzzle picture: Although many individual pieces were criticized, the obvious final picture was rarely recognized (Especially Schnitzler).

Economics – Role of the scientist in society

Meanwhile in economics another exciting clash of ideas took place: The second wave of the Historical School economist, mainly Gustav Schmoller, Karl Büchner and Adolph Wagner, were waging a war against Austrian School of Economics, mainly Carl Menger. The Historical School sought to identify the patterns in history through which one could deduce certain principles of economics. Individual preferences are not the result of personal desires, but rather the sum of social forces acting on the individual depending on space and time, they asserted. Thus, instead of methodological individualism, methodological collectivism must be used to conduct economic research. To determine the historical-temporal circumstances, one must first collect an enormous amount of empirical material, based on which one could formulate a theory. Austrian Economists, in turn, claim that individual preferences stem from personal desires. Although the Austrian emphasize the constraints emerging from interpersonal interactions, they rejected the idea, that free individuals are confined in their will through culture and norms. Thus, economics is a science of aggregated individual preferences and must be studied through the lens of methodological individualism.

As Erwin Dekker (Dekker 2016) has argued, the works of Austrian Economists must be seen as an endeavour to understand society and civilization in the first place. One must carefully study human interaction and acknowledge the ridiculously small amount of knowledge we actually possess about the mechanism of a complex society before one can “cure” the many ills of humankind. With the socialist calculation debate, Austrian Economist tried to convince other academics of the impossibility of economic calculation in the absence of prices.

Apart from their academic debates, they were very much concerned with the development of common society: Authoritarian proposal, the constant erosion of norms as a foundation for civil society, the increasing overall hostility lead them to the decision to leave the ivory tower of economics and argue for their ideas in public discourse. “The road to serfdom” is THE peak of this development. Hayek impressively explains to the general public the fragility of liberal democratic order and how far-reaching even well-intended governmental interferences can eventually be. Joined by Karl Popper’s masterpiece “The open society and its enemies”, Austrian Economist were now defending the achievements of liberal democracy more vigorously than ever.

Conclusion

It would be exaggerated to claim that the literary-historical “flight into the irrational” had excessive influence on the economic debate between the historical school and the Austrian school. Nevertheless, it has already been proven that intellectual Viennese life took place in a few closely networked interdisciplinary circles. There is no direct connection between the Viennese literary circles and famous contemporary economic circles such as the Mises-Kreis. However, the intellectual breadth of contributions and the interwoven relationships of many contributors became an important point of study in recent years (See: Dekker 2014). Especially Sigmund Freud could have been a “middle man” between Austrians (especially Hayek) and the authors of the Wiener Moderne (especially Schnitzler).

What definitely is remarkable is how different the various scientists and artist reacted to the existential threats of the early 20th century.
Resignation? Internal Exile? Counterattack? There were many options on the table.

The “flight into the irrational” pursued by many, by far not all, authors of Wiener Moderne was a return to surreality, irrationality and individualism. Austrian Economist, however, went from individualism to social responsibility. According to them, scientists had an obligation to preserve that kind of liberal democratic system, which fosters peaceful human cooperation. To achieve this shared goal, many Austrian Economists left the ivory tower of academic debates, where they also fought for the same purpose, and temporarily became public intellectuals; starting a much more active defence of liberal democracy.

Davies’ “Extreme Economies” – Part 1: Survival

Late to the party, I relied on the quality-control of the masses before I plunged into Richard Davies’ much-hyped book Extreme Economies: Survival, Failure and Future – Lessons from the World’s Limits (see reviews by Diane Coyle and Philip Aldrick). I first heard about it on some Summer Reading List – or perhaps Financial Times’ shortlist for best books of 2019. What really prompted me to read it, however, was an unlikely source: The Guardian’s long-read in late-August. Davies adopted his Louisiana Prison chapter and described the intricate ways prisoners and guards in maximum-security prison Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) exchange value using the top-up debit card Green Dot and single-use MoneyPak cards. I was hooked.

Davies’ captivating and personal writing in that 4000-word piece made me want to read the full thing. Once I got around to it, I couldn’t put it down – which is the best compliment an author can get. At little over 400 pages of easy non-jargon prose, it doesn’t take too long to get through – and the nine case-study chapters can easily be read on their own. Further attesting to the brilliance of the book are the many questions it raised with me, insights to investigate further.

The book’s structure is simple to follow: three themes ‘Survival’ (“The Economics of Resilience”), ‘Failure’ (“The Economics of Lost Potential”) and ‘Future’ (“The Economics of Tomorrow”), each containing three fascinating places, wrapped between an introductory and a concluding chapter.

The motivation for the book is a mixture of John Maynard Keynes and a Scottish 19th century civil engineer named David Kirkaldy. The latter’s big idea was studying “why materials buckled and bent under pressure” (p. 31); to fully grasp the potential for something, we need to examine why they fall apart. From Keynes Davies took the idea that the future is already partly here:

“We can get a glimpse of the future today, if we know where to look. The trick was to identify a sustained trend – a path most people are following – and look at the lives of those experiencing the extremes of that trend. […] to zoom forward in time, he said, we need to find those whose lives are like this already.” (p. 31)

Davies ventures to nine places of the world, all extreme in some aspect, and investigates the everyday economic challenges that people face and the ingenious ways in which they do – or do not – solve them. By carefully looking at the present, he posits to gauge something about the future.

In this first part – ‘Survival’ – I look at Davies’ three selections (Aceh, Indonesia; Zaatari, Jordan; and Louisiana, U.S.). The next part contains the case studies of ‘Failure’ (Darien, Panama; Kinshasa, DRC; Glasgow, Scotland) and the concluding part looks at ‘Future’ (Akita, Japan; Tallinn, Estonia; and Santiago, Chile). As I have personal experience of living in two of these places while knowing virtually nothing about many of the others, I reserve some complementary reflections on Glasgow and Santiago when appropriate.

Aceh, Indonesia

On Dec 26, 2004, an Indian Ocean earthquake created a tsunami that devastated coastlines from Thailand to Madagascar. Two-thirds of the 230,000 human lives lost were in Indonesia, mostly in the Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. Pictures taken before and after show how complete the destruction was; except for a few sturdy mosques, nothing was left standing.

A few years later, the busy streets and crowded beaches were pretty much back to normal. How?

Davies’ story does not emphasise aid flows or new investment by outsiders, but “informal systems of trade, exchange and even currency” (p. 49), an aspect that generally “goes unmeasured an unassessed” (p. 65). Aceh’s catastrophe is a story of human resilience and of intangibles.

The people Davies interviewed told him how the ancient Aceh practice of keeping savings in wearable and portable gold – necklace, rings, bangles – provided survivors who had lost everything with a source of funds to draw on. Importantly, a gold dealer told him, as the market price of gold is set internationally, the massive sell orders coming in simultaneously did not affect prices very much. Additionally, the dealer’s knowledge of market prices and contacts in Jakarta allowed him to quickly set up his business again. Buying Acehnese’s gold during those crucial months, way before foreign aid or government could effectively respond, provided people with funds to rebuild their lives. Traditional practices “insulated Aceh and provided its entrepreneurs with rapid access to cash” (p. 49).

Another insightful observation is the role played by intangibles – the knowledge of how and where and when that most of our economies depend on. Sanusi, 52-year-old coffee trader, lost everything: his shop, his equipment, his family. Amid his devastation he realized that one thing that the tsunami had not destroyed was his knowledge of the coffee business – where to source the best beans, how to make it, where and when to sell the coffee. He patched together some spare planks, used his business contacts to provide him with trade credit and had his rudimentary coffee business set-up in time for the arrival of coffee-drinking construction and aid-agency workers.

Davies also gives us a very balanced GDP discussion here, as the years after the December 2004 disaster saw huge GDP growth. Most economists would reflexively object and invoke Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. Yes, Davies is well aware, but he’s getting at something more subtle:

“GDP aims to capture what a country’s residents are doing now, rather than what they have done previously. [It is] all about current human activities – spending, wages, income, producing goods – rather than the value embodied in physical assets such as building and factories. Far from being a mean or cold measure, economists’ favourite yardstick is a fundamentally human one.” (p. 53, 65)

To GDP, what you produced in the past is of no consequence. Clearly, when the tsunami devastated the coastline of Aceh, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process and wiping away houses, factories and equipment, that made everyone poorer – their assets and savings and capital were literally washed away. Considering the massive construction boom that followed, only partly financed by outside aid and government money, it is not incorrect to say that GDP boomed; it is only incorrect to believe that people were made better off because of the disaster. Bastiat teaches us that they were not.

I think of this as the difference between your total savings (in cash, stocks, bank accounts, houses, jewelry) and your monthly income, a difference between “stock” and “flow”. If, like many Acehnese that Davies interviewed, your earnings-potential depend on your knowledge of your industry, your most valuable assets remain untouched even after a complete disaster. Your savings – your capital, your stuff – are completely eradicated, but the basis for your future income remains intact. With some minor equipment – a trade credit, some furniture, a shop patched together with flotsam – you can quickly approach the production and income you had before. GDP attempts to measure that income – not the current value of total assets.

“The people here,” Davies concludes, “lost every physical asset but the tsunami survivors retained skills and knowledge from before the disaster, and rebuilt quickly as a result.” (p. 66).

Zaatari, Jordan

Following the Syrian civil war and its exodus of refugees, camps were set up in many neighbouring countries. Often run by the UN, these camps ensure minimum survivability and life-support for refugees and are rather centrally-planned; the UNHCR hands out blankets, assigns tents and provides in-kind goods and services (food, medicine etc).

In April 2013, the Zaatari camp in the northern Jordan desert had grown to over 200,000 inhabitants, with daily inflows of up to 4,000 refugees. It was too much – and the UNHCR “ran out of manpower” (p. 70). They rationalised operations, focused on their core tasks – and left individuals alone to trade, construct and flourish on their own. It became a lesson in anarchic cooperation and of the essentiality of markets – and, like the Louisiana prison economy below, an ingenious monetary system.  It “did not happen by design, but by accident”, Davies writes, and constitutes “an economic puzzle worth unpicking” (p. 72) only if you doubt the beneficial consequences of markets and free people. If you don’t, the result is predictable.

Every month, the Zaatari camp administrators load up payment cards for the refugees with 20 dinars (£23) per person, spendable only in the two camp supermarkets. Designed to be a cashless economy, the money flowed directly from donors to the supermarkets: “refugees cannot transfer cash between wallets, so aid money designated for food cannot be spent on clothes, and the winter clothing allowance cannot be spent on food” (p. 79).

This extreme and artificial economy teaches us something universal about markets; imposed orders, out of touch with market participants’ demands, malfunctions and create huge wastes. Complete monetary control by outsiders, Davies writes, “fails the basic test of any well-functioning market – to be a place where demand meets supply” (pp. 80-81). Supermarkets lacked the things refugees wanted, and they stocked up on things that reflected kickbacks to donor countries (Italian spaghetti or Brazilian coffee), entirely out of sync with Syrian cuisine and preferences. And the unorganic, artificially-set prices were entirely detached from the outside world.

Yet, the refugee city of Zaatari is a flourishing economy where people build, make and trade all kinds of things. How did this happen? Innovative Syrians found a way around their monetary restrictions: the economy of Zaatari “rests on the conversion of homes to business and flipping aid credit, via smuggling, into hard cash” (p. 88). Informal and free markets, at their best.

Along most of the camp’s boundaries, there are no fences, only roads – and the huge number of children playing ball games on the concrete roads or running in and out of the camp, makes identifying who’s a refugee and who’s a teenage smuggler next to impossible. What the refugees did was:

  • buy some item in the supermarket using the e-card credits provided by UNHCR
  • sell it to smugglers for less than their outside market value and obtain hard cash in return
  • smugglers slip out of the camp and sell the goods to Jordanians and other driving past, taking a cut for themselves.

Bottom line: refugees turned 20 dinars of illiquid and restricted e-credit into hard cash, spendable on anything anywhere in the camp. The productive powers of 200,000 refugees was unleashed. In Zaatari, the presence of smugglers allowed large-scale interactions with the outside world – and so the artificially-created closed-loop payment system did not remain closed. Instead, it was connected to the outside Jordanian economy through smuggling!

The take-away point is to cherish market activities, even informal ones, since they “matter to everyone and are fundamentally human” (p. 102). Governments plan and creates problems; markets solve them.

Louisiana State Prison

Analogous to the Zaatari refugees, prisoners in Louisiana’s maximum-security prison (“Angola”) find themselves in a similar economic squeeze: unsatisfied demand and large shortage of goods, artificial constraints on what prisoners can and cannot own. Prisons are places where official prices don’t work: paltry “incomes” through mandatory work stand in no relation to the officially-mandated prices of goods that prisoners can buy at commissary. Accusations of modern slavery comes to mind. The “official price system,” Davies writes, “has been intentionally broken” (p. 119).

To escape their formal and restricted economy, prisoners have long relied on smuggling. Radford’s famous article about cigarettes becoming money in a WWII Prisoners-of-War camp applied – until Angola officials decided to ban tobacco from the premises. Cash too risky to hold; age-old money banned. What now? Fintech to the rescue!

Louisiana prisons “have a remarkable new currency innovation, something far better than tobacco or cans of mackerel”. Physical dollar bills are not handled, bank accounts that leave digital traces are not linked to individuals: “people pay each other with dots”, says an ex-convict that Davies interviewed (p. 132).

Contrary to the belief that smuggling into prisons happen through corrupt prison guards only, prisoners have some power; they can stage riots or make guards’ everyday-life very hard by misbehaving in every imaginable way. That power gives prisoners and guards alike incentives to trade with another – but prisoners don’t have anything to offer, apart from occasional or indivisible services like car repairs or (like Andy Dufresne in the movie Shawshank Redemption) accounting services. And paying guards in commissary products is not gonna cut it.

Here’s how Angola prisoners solved their monetary constraints, obtaining means of payment to smuggle in items their economy’s participants demanded:

  • set up an account with Green Dot, providing a pre-paid debit card without requirements of ID or proof of address.
  • buy a second card, a single-use scratch card called MoneyPak, used to load the first card with anywhere between $20 and $500. These cards are usable anywhere that accepts VISA and Mastercards, and easily bought/cashed out at Walmarts or pharmacies.
  • Scratch away MoneyPak’s 14-digit number (“the dots”), and transfer those digits to somebody else, be it another prisoner or guard.
  • that person goes online, logs into their Green Dot account, enters the combination and credit is added to their debit card.

The dots, Davies describes, “are a currency close to cash: an instant, simple and safe transfer of value over long distance” (p. 134). Even prison economies, argues Davies, “show that the human urge to trade and exchange information is impossible to repress” (p. 136).

The Economics of Resilience

The power of informal economies are great – and essential to people cut off from regular economic processes. Through natural disasters, in refugee camps or in prisons, innovative people find ways around their imposed-upon constraints and “establish a trading system if theirs is damaged, destroyed or limited in some way”. (p. 135)

Aceh, Zaatari and the Angola prison show “three places where markets, currencies, trade and exchange exist despite all odds.” (p. 139).

Be Our Guest: “How to make Brexit Really Worthwhile – Example: Financial Regulation”

Be Our Guest is an open invitation to NOL‘s readers to participate with us. Pretty much anything is on the table. The latest article comes from the Freeconomist, who is following up on his earlier piece about making Brexit worthwhile via information asymmetries. His new piece is on financial regulation through the prism of Brexit. Check out this excerpt:

I do not want to write a lengthy discussion on the question of which alternative is the least costly in dealing with the incentive problems arising from the implicit subsidy by the taxpayer. There are good reasons to believe an incremental, decentralized and evolutionary system of market-based regulation to be superior to centrally designed government regulation. (4)

But even if this is the case, private regulation arising as a response to the incentive problems resulting from explicit and/or implicit government guarantees is still costly. Indeed, the evolved system of private regulation in the UK banking industry was giving the appearance of a restrictive cartel. If my analysis is correct, this “cartel” served a useful social function, namely to deal with the incentive problems created by the implicit government guarantee. Nevertheless, it also involved costs.

At the root of the problem are the taxpayer guarantees.

Please, read the rest. It’s another excellent piece of work.

And don’t be afraid to submit your thoughts to us.

Thoughts on Time from a College Library

Note: This was written by my brother Keith, and he did not originally post it online but sent it to our family members. For being a younger brother, he brings a hell of a lot of wisdom to the table, and I think this thought-provoking epistle deserves to be shared more widely. I am publishing it here, with permission:

From Keith:

I learn a great deal from my family.  The facts, figures, and articles that commonly result from discussing and arguing with each other are a reward in and of themselves.  As might be expected, many of these experiences and facts are soon forgotten, making way for new debates.  Once in a while, however, when discussing a topic, we–or I–stumble upon an insight which radically changes, clarifies, or re-enforces my understanding.

In recent months, I had two routine, incidental, and unrelated conversations, one with my brother, and the other with my sister.  The conversation with my sister did not start during some contentious economic debate, but when we were eating dinner together.  Offhand, my sister said to me:  “Keith, I have really come to appreciate the ideas from your econ classes you told me about, like opportunity cost, especially the opportunity cost of time spent on one task being a loss of all other possible actions.  When I applied those ideas to my everyday life, I saw a marked improvement, because I had become more efficient, simply from valuing my time appropriately.”  We often complain that few people these days recognize how econ is not a theory of how society works but of how math can represent human reality at any level. This is one case where there are real, personal benefits from understanding the math of limited lifespan.

My second recent conversation of note did not concern this day and age, in fact, it concerned the ideas of a wealthy 2000-year-old Roman by the name of Seneca.  My brother had recently been translating his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (literally “Moral letters to Lucilius” in Latin, courtesy of Wikipedia), and had stumbled upon Roman intellectual gold.  Any attempt of mine to summarize the ideas in the letter would be less than adequate, so I shall copy it here.  I know that it is long, and rather Latin-ish, but I would encourage anyone to take the time to read it, if only because reading it will pay your time back, with interest:

Greetings from Seneca to his friend Lucilius.

Continue to act in the way you described, my dear Lucilius: set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or stolen away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words, that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem of lost time, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed, Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity: time! And yet time is the one loan that even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my time account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early.  For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.  

Farewell

After listening to my brother dictate the whole of this letter, I felt genuine chills.  The truth it contains is so blatant, a simple calculation could yield the same result:  life is made up of a limited number of hours, therefore life is time.  Whenever you work, you are giving up your time for money (hence the old adage that time is money).  This means that whenever you waste time, or money, you are wasting your life, and wasted life is death.  This single fact horrifies me every day, because like most every other human, I waste an obscene amount of time.  Time watching a movie I have already seen, trolling through Facebook without really reading any of the posts, or having the same argument all over again:  rarely, when I am doing these things do I think about what else I could be doing.

Therein lies the link, which most will have already seen, between my two conversations.  Our time is not free.  Every moment we spend sleeping, eating, studying, etc., has a cost–an opportunity cost–and once it has been spent, if it was not truly the best way to spend it, then some small part of your life has been lost without reward.

I see this nearly everywhere:  students doze off in class or idly check their email or texts, they, when “studying” in the library, will spend a majority of the time effectively idle.  Writing this, I am in a college library, and with sample size n=11, I may, without prying too much, say that ~7/11ths  of my fellow computer users are not doing what they came intending to do.  They are wasting time they will not get back.

And so I say to you, whoever you may be reading this (perhaps idly), much the same as what Seneca might say to you, only I will say it less eloquently, and more directly:  value your time.  Do not waste it.  Work on being efficient not for the sake of productivity, but for the sake of leisure, for we all have our jobs to do, and if we get them done faster then there is more time for enjoyment.  If you spent less time complaining, you might spend that time actively addressing your problems, solving them rationally and thus eliminating your cause for complaint.

Vale.