SMP: Separating the Technology of Bitcoin from the Medium of Exchange

At the Sound Money Project I have a comment on the importance of distinguishing between the bitcoin technological innovation and its use as a means of exchange. A solid technological innovation does meant that bitcoin is necessarily properly coded to be a successful monetary experiment.

Bitcoin is back in the spotlight as its price has soared in recent weeks. The most enthusiastic advocates see its potential to become a major private currency. But it is important to remember bitcoin is a dual phenomenon: a technological innovation and a potentially useful medium of exchange. One might recognize the technology as a genuine innovation without accepting its usefulness as a medium of exchange.

Continue reading at SMP.


Rules for Rulers

Watch to the end for details about the book (by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith) this video is based on.

  1. I think readers of NoL will enjoy this nicely condensed public-choice-y analysis of the constraints involved in operating (and thus changing) a government.
  2. The audiobook is available on Overdrive, so you can borrow it from your library. I’m just started listening to it and I’m enjoying it immensely.
  3. I suddenly found myself as the benevolent dictator of some country. My long-term objective is to shape my society into a libertarian utopia. Here’s my plan to deal with the constraints discussed in the video: all of my advisors are required to play devil’s advocate when I propose some change. Yes-men will be summarily executed. Assuming I stay benevolent but also ruthless, does my devil’s advocate scheme work out? Please discuss in the comments. Anyone who doesn’t earnestly try to poke holes in my idea will be sent to the work camps.

Sound Money Project Relaunch

The Sound Money Project has relaunched this November at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) under the direction of William J. Luther.

Other than Luther and myself, you’ll see regular posts by Scott Burns, James Caton, Alexander W. Salter, and Brian C. Albrecht.

Digging Deeper into Populism: A Short Reply to Derril Watson

Derril Watson offer some critical remarks on my short post about populism in Latin America. In short, Watson is arguing that (1) I’m stating something obvious (populism diminishes economic freedom) and (2) that I’m wrong when I say that populism fails to produce economic growth.

Seems I haven’t been quite clear, because I state none of the above. The intention of my post is not to show that populism decreases economic freedom, I think this is uncontroversial. The point of the post is to show, with a very simple calculation, how fast economic freedom is reduced. I might be wrong, but I have the impression that most individuals do not realize how fast they can loose their economic liberties under this type of government. This is the message carried in the title of the post “How fast does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?” rather than “Does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?”

With respect to the second point, my claim is not that under populism there is no growth of GDP, my claim is that “populist governments failed to increase GDP per capita consistently faster than the region.” My original post is just a small bite of a paper that is still work in progress and I’ll share in due time. I wasn’t expecting this claim to be controversial. Still, the figure below shows the ratio of GDP per capita (PPP) of each of he countries I observe with respect to Latin America. All countries are centered in year 0 as the first year of populism as defined in my original post. That’s the first dot in the graph. The second dot shows either the last data available or the end of populism. None of these countries show a consistent higher growth rate than the rest of the region.

Populism - Fig 1

It seems to me that Watson is confusing growth with recovery. The fact that economic growth produces a growth in GDP does not mean that a growth in GDP is due to economic growth. The recovery mentioned by Watson in Argentina happens after the largest crisis in the history of the country and the largest default worldwide at the time. As I mentioned in my post, Argentina hits stagflation in 2007. This suggests to me a rapid recovery with no significant growth and built upon an unsustainable policy (for instance, Argentina fails to improve its relative income with respect to the region, it rather stagnates in 2007 and starts to fall a few years after.) I can show a large increase in my personal GDP as measured by consumption by depleting my savings (consuming my capital stock at the country level). I wouldn’t call that personal economic growth. The Kirchner government, for instance, failed to reduce poverty below the levels seen in the 1990s. It does, of course, if that is compared with the poverty levels around the years of the crisis (which is what Watson’s table is doing.) It should also be kept in mind that official poverty measures in Argentine were hampered by the government.

There’s still another important issue regarding GDP measures of Argentina. As it became well known, GDP series were hampered by the government (also inflation and poverty rates were hampered.) By 2014 official GDP values were overestimating the size of the economy by 24%. Another sign is the evolution of real wages in Argentina, which hits a ceiling again in 2007 with a level similar to the one at the end of 2001 (just before the crisis). In 2008, 2009, and 2010 real wages decline.

As a final comment, I’m not sure to what comment of mine Watson refers to. I don’t see a comment entry of mine in my original post, nor I remember doing so. In any case, I don’t get into the definition of populism precisely for how difficult that task can be. The problem of defying populism is one of the areas covered in my yet unfinished paper.

Digging Deeper into Populism

TL;DR summary: The one thing most populist governments studied had in common was a declining protection for property rights. Focus there next time.

Nicolás Cachanosky explained that populism in five Latin American countries had led to a rapid deterioration in their economic freedom, intimating that this also led to a relative drop in living standards compared to other South American countries. Given that the two primary economic strategies of populism are control and spend (Dornbusch and Edwards 1991 quoting Carbonetto et al. 1987), it would be shocking if a populist government did not reduce economic freedom. That’s the idea! However, there is more we could learn about how populism reduces economic freedom by doing a little more to identify exactly what it was that populist governments did. First, I think it’s useful to go a little further back, to compare how trends were looking before* populism (say by 1991) to how those trends changed with the election of a populist government. Second, I’m going to take a more careful look at how and why economic freedom decreased.

It is funny to me that when Cachanosky’s response to his first commenter is to ask for a definition and a measure before being willing to debate a correction; that suggests he really ought to have been more careful to define populism in his post. In fairness, that’s a tall order*: much of the literature on populism has been trying to define it and there is still no consensus as far as I can tell. Are we focusing primarily on increasing statism, whether it is called populism or progressivism or socialism or cronyism? Or is there something special about the populist brand of statism that we should be looking out for? To the extent populism is a “power to the people” movement, Libertarianism itself could try to appropriate the populist brand and claim they are taking power back from the government for the people! I don’t think this is what Cachanosky has in mind. :). I tend to think that he is focused mostly on statism and for the purposes of his post, it doesn’t matter whether it’s populism or socialism that caused it, so please assume when I say “populism” hereafter, I mean increased state control over the economy.

Even given that, populism/statism exists on a continuum. There is a marked difference between a determined populist government that nationalizes wide swathes of an economy rapidly in order to redistribute riches to the common people and someone in an unnamed developed country who uses populist rhetoric to get elected and keep his base happy only to turn around once in office and enact largely pro-business deregulations and strengthen conservative social mores.

Because of this, it’s important to make distinctions between the 5 countries in question (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela). To demonstrate that, let me focus on Argentina and Brazil. Mueller and Mueller (2012) contrast Brazil and Argentina’s responses to the global food price crisis in 2006-08, during this populist period in both countries. There have been very few checks and balances on executive power in Argentina, allowing the Kirchners to enact “opportunistic price controls and intrusive export bans, generating significant discontent and investment disincentives” (pg 3). In Brazil, the checks on the presidency to prevent a repeat of the late 80s/early 90s inflation led to “the surprising conversion of President Lula once in office in 2003, reneging the leftish policy agenda his party had defended for years in the opposition, only to continue the fiscally disciplined macroeconomic policies of his predecessor” (pg 5). These kinds of difference are very important to understand what happens and when and why.This table shows how Heritage’s Economic Freedom in the World survey ranked the five countries Cachanosky singles out as populist in 1995 when the survey started, the year when they elected a populist government, and 2015; I then add five other South American countries for comparison. 10 represents high economic freedom and 1 very low freedom. The astute reader will notice that I am using the raw scores rather than country rankings as Cachanosky does because I suspect it matters more for economic growth what happens within my country rather than thinking economic growth will collapse because a handful of other countries on other continents become more free while I stay put where I am: I will look worse by comparison, but not be worse.

Heritage Overall
1991 start 2015
Argentina (2003) 6.8 5.6 4.4
Bolivia (2006) 5.8 5.8 4.7
Brazil (2002) 5.1 6.2 5.6
Ecuador (2007) 5.7 5.5 4.9
Venezuela (1999) 6 5.6 3.4
Heritage overall
1995 2005 2015
Chile 7.1 7.8 7.9
Colombia 6.5 6 7.2
Paraguay 6.6 6.1 6.8
Peru 5.7 5.3 6.1
Uruguay 6.3 6.7 6.9

To delve into the Argentina/Brazil comparison again, the survey shows Argentina scoring markedly higher than Brazil in 1995. This situation had already reversed itself by 2003 and the start of populism. Since then Argentina has continued to fall rapidly while Brazil has turned reversed its progress. Delving deeper into those numbers, Argentina has become markedly less free in terms of almost every category Heritage measures (respect for property rights in 2001-2003, government integrity 2006-2008, tax burden, government spending since 2011, business freedom in 2002, and monetary, investment, and financial freedom in 2003), while Brazil’s primary sin was an increase in spending in 2006 and an increase in taxes to pay for it. That’s it. This shows a real deterioration in Argentinian freedom before populism, a trend only continued and exacerbated by the Kirchners, while Brazil has shown both improvement and decline, with a much different, constrained form of policy making. Argentinian populism and Brazilian are far from the same phenomenon.

In Bolivia and Ecuador, property rights fell in 2001 and investment freedom by 2005 before populism in either country and both slid down steadily after electing a populist government; both countries have improved in government integrity, taxes got worse in Ecuador in 2008 with spending increasing massively in 2010, and financial freedom worsened after populism started. Venezuela saw the largest decrease in respect for property rights right after electing Chavez and again in 2008. In contrast to other countries, Chavez initially reduced government spending and kept taxes roughly constant, with spending not increasing again until after 2008. Business and financial freedom declined steadily, investment freedom plummeted in 2004, and monetary freedom only declined in 2014.

We see then five rather different patterns, even though most of them saw the same sort of decline of 1.2-1.4 points. The key feature in all but Brazil is the decrease in respect for property rights shortly after the election of a populist government. Spending also tends to be higher in these five countries, though all happened during the global food price crisis and the US/EU financial crisis when spending also increased by many non-populist countries as well. Otherwise, there is very little in common among the five countries, with some embracing freer trade and others fleeing it, some cracking down on monetary and financial freedoms with others largely ignoring them. Our five ‘control’ countries saw an improvement in economic freedom from 2005-201, particularly in Colombia.  Colombia and Peru reduced their respect for property rights in 2002, but later repented; Paraguay has not held property rights in even modest esteem since 1998.

All of this suggests the place to look in future research is to the importance of declining respect for property rights among populist governments as a driver of economic freedom and economic growth.

And that brings us to the second of Cachanosky’s points – that this drop in economic freedom in those five countries led to shrinking economies compared to other economies in the region. First off, to be clear, all five of these populist economies experienced rapid economic growth during the time period in question, and this economic growth was much higher than the economic growth enjoyed in the decade before populism started. This would lead pro-populists to conclude that populism was actually quite good. Cachanosky admits that even though Argentina fell farther in the economic freedom rankings than its peers, its GDP/capita actually increased. He excuses this as being “largely explained as recovery after the 2001 crisis and by consuming capital stock, not as an expansion of potential output.” Unfortunately for his story, Argentina’s GDP/capita in terms of real USDollars not only surpassed its pre-crisis level (around $12300 in 1998), but rose to $17500 – a 42% increase during its populist period. (All numbers from are PPP$ inflation-adjusted.) In every single case he cites, GDP/capita rose while the headcount poverty rate fell dramatically.

However, compare their growth to the five control countries, and compare the time period before and after in each case:

GDP/cap (PPP$) Growth poverty (% below $3/day)
1991 start 2015 91-start start-15 1991 start 2014
Argentina (2003) 9330 10300 17500 10.40 69.90 3.9 19.1 4.3
Bolivia (2006) 3850 4370 6150 13.51 40.73 30.4 32.4 12.7
Brazil (2002) 10300 11600 15400 12.62 32.76 35.8 24.5 7.56
Ecuador (2007) 7690 7810 10800 1.56 38.28 36.5 32.9 10.2
Venezuela (1999) 16100 14200 15800 -11.80 11.27 N/A N/A N/A
GDP/cap (PPP$) Growth poverty (% below $3/day)
1991 2003 2015 91-start start-15 1991 2003 2014
Chile 9750 15500 22500 58.97 45.16 N/A N/A N/A
Colombia 7780 8680 12400 11.57 42.86 22.7 26.6 13.2
Paraguay 6040 5870 8040 -2.81 36.97 7.9 19.4 7
Peru 5290 6880 11500 30.06 67.15 33.9 27.2 9
Uruguay 10100 11500 19900 13.86 73.04 2.1 5.2 1.3

The 2003-2015 period was good across the board in South America, with most growing at least 30% more from 2003ish-2015 compared to 1991-2003. Similarly, poverty rates fell markedly from 2003-2014 in every country for which I have Gapminder data. So the claim is not that populism resulted in negative economic growth. The issue is that the average growth in the non-populist countries was around 1% per year higher than in the populist countries. Thus, to the populist-supporter who points to the high growth of Argentina et al as proof that populism works, the response is that growth was even higher in their non-populist neighbors and poverty is lower in them as well.

Now the unfortunate thing for drawing a clear causal interpretation from these correlations is that economic growth was also higher in the non-populist countries in the before period as well, perhaps due in part to having higher economic freedom to begin with. Growth in the freedom-preserving countries was slightly more than 1% per year higher, and that is driven predominantly by Chile. If Chile had had a more average 11-13% growth during that time period, we would be able to show more conclusively that the economic growth gap increased after populism. So, really, the claim that populism caused a lower economic growth in those countries doesn’t hold up very well – economic growth was lower in those countries before populism as well. It may well be that economic growth would have been higher in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela had they maintained or improved their respect for property rights, but the raw data doesn’t tell us that without significantly more controls and doing some proper regressions.

* – One of the problems of this exercise is that to get “before” populism, you need to go back a hundred years or so. Ah well.

A quick rant on NY’s Excelsior Scholarship

Long Island Business News had a cover story last week: “Free for all?

And the answer is no.

NoL readers don’t need to be reminded that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. But I want to focus on the “for all” aspect. And the answer there is also no. This is a program that benefits the middle class and simply won’t be available for the poorest kids in the state.

There are a lot of different programs for paying for schooling costs, and I don’t want to get bogged down in specifics. So here’s (roughly) how this new program works: full time students whose family income is below (approximately) the 75th percentile get more money for school. That money goes away if they stop meeting those criteria.

This is not going to be helpful to poor students who don’t have to resources necessary to go to school full time. It sounds inclusive, but they might as well make the income requirement family income between the 60th and 75th percentile.

In the best case scenario, we might end up getting a positive return on this program (generating more tax revenues from more productive workers). But we still have to ask about what alternatives were possible.

Here are three problems with that outcome:

  1. If those kids were going to go to school anyways, then we’re just creating a common pool problem where costs and benefits aren’t compared by the relevant decision makers.
  2. If some of those kids weren’t going to go to school otherwise, then we’ve increased the pressure on poor kids to get a college degree without helping them out. And if we’re thinking of this like an investment, the returns would be higher on getting more poor kids to go through school.
  3. If this program doesn’t have a return on investment high enough to offset the costs, then that budget line has to compete with some other program (tax returns would be nice, or investment in infrastructure, or something else).

I don’t expect any legislation to solve the problem once and for all. But this program is more likely to make the underlying problems worse, at the expense of poor people, and with little net gain. Not only is this bad economics, it’s not even in line with the more honorable goals of progressives. It’s simply a way for politicians to buy votes with other people’s money.

Markets for Secrets?

In a world without intellectual property, would it be possible to buy and sell secrets? I suggest the answer is yes. In this post, I provide both a theoretical framework for such markets, as well as pointing to real life examples of such markets already existing.


In a previous post, we talked about why information is the only public good. But of course, it’s possible to keep information private. Such private information is called a secret. Currently, entrepreneurs and inventors have two choices when they have what they believe is a profitable secret: they can either keep recipe, industrial process, or so on, a secret, and be protected by “trade secret” laws; or they can “publicize” their secret in exchange for a patent (which they can use to either issue injunctions against competitors or to extract royalties).

But there has been a lot of economics literature in recent years that challenges the status of intellectual property (IP). Most famously, there is Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine’s book Against Intellectual Monopoly, where they detail both an empirical and theoretical case against the economics of intellectual property. Furthermore, patent lawyer Stephan Kinsella’s book Against Intellectual Property gives a principled legal and ethical case against IP.

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