The ugliness of international politics

What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.

Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.

So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.

Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.

Is planned obsolescence a good thing?

There is this recurring argument that goods don’t last as long today as they did fifty years ago. My father berated me a few months ago about my economics by saying that back in his time, goods lasted longer. I questioned his data (there are signs that goods last as long as they did twenty or thirty years ago). This new ATTN video on Repair Cafes would have caused my father to rejoice greatly. However, I am going to ask a question here and go a step further: is planned obsolescence the symptom of a good thing?

Here is my argument (feel free to throw rocks after).

Improving the lifespan of a good requires a greater level of inputs which increases the marginal costs of the good. Producing a higher-quality good basically shifts the supply curve leftwards. Basically, we pay a little more for something that lasts longer. However, if we are living in a world of rapid technological innovation, what is the point of expending more resources on a good with a twenty-year lifespan but which will be obsolete two years?

Take my previous iPhone – it lasted three years before it simply decided to not work. In the three years between my old phone and my new phone, there was a rapid change in quality: more memory, better camera, faster processing, better sound. Imagine that Apple had invested billions to increase the life of my iPhone from three to nine years. Would I have bought that phone? In all honesty, it would depend on the price increase but the answer would have been closer to “no” than to “yes”. So in a way, Apple reaches a marginal consumer like me by lowering the price and turns me into a technology adopter. However, let’s imagine this from Apple’s perspective. Its in a race for its life against competitors who keep inventing new widgets and features that change the manner in which we consume. So, its choice is the following:

A: Increase lifespan, higher marginal costs and a leftward shift of supply that causes slightly higher prices and less demand. These resources cannot be expended on R&D and innovation
B: Shorten lifespan, lower marginal costs, lower prices, more goods consumed; more resources on R&D and innovation.

If everyone is inventing rapidly, then B is the dominant strategy. If innovation is zero, A is the dominant strategy. Basically, in a Schumpeterian world like I am describing, the short lifespan of goods is a symptom of great innovations and better days to come.

What do you think?

 

The Homo Economicus is “The Body” of the Agent

The model of the decision-making agent known as homo economicus is a trivial truth, but not a misconception. All agents are supposed to maximize the utility of their resources – that is true in every geography and in every age. But because it is a tautology, it is a mistake to give to the deductions brought about from this sole model the value of a description of a particular reality. As Wittgenstein had pointed out in his Tractatus, the tautologies do not convey any relevant information of any particular world, but of every possible world. The error consists on qualifying a common note to every possible situation as a distinctive characteristic of a particular set of events. To say that every agent acts to maximize his utility is true, but to state that this observation tells us something of a particular world that distinguishes it from every other possible world is the most extended misconception about the use of the model of the rational agent.

In another post, I mentioned the importance of having a body in order to develop a personal identity. In the same line as Hayek’s Sensory Order, the body enables us with the most elementary system of classification that makes our perceptions possible, or – to express it in a more radical empiricist strain – that brings the experience to happen. Upon this system of classification will sediment more abstract layers, or degrees, of systems of classification. Our knowledge is expressed at a level of abstraction that our mind can handle, whereas the law, the market, and the language are examples of phenomena that might achieve increasing degrees of complexity that mark blurred boundaries to our knowledge. The former are named “simple phenomena” and the latter “complex phenomena” in the Hayekian terminology. Our personal identity is continuously developing on that stratus set between the simple and the complex phenomena.

In this sense, we need the conclusions brought about by the rational agent model as the stem upon which lay further strata of increasingly complex analysis. Paradoxically, the more particular the social reality we seek to describe, the more abstract has to be our layer of analysis. Notwithstanding, it would be impossible to us to conceive any image of the social experience if we lack of the fixed point of the rational agent model.

Max Weber’s ideal types could be interpreted as instances of social arrangements based on the rational agent model, which incorporate particular – and abstract – characteristics depending on the historical circumstances under scrutiny. At the bottom of both adventurous capitalism and traditional society, beneath successive strata of different social and institutional designs, we will find an agent who maximizes utility. Perhaps that is why the term “rational capitalism” is so controversial. If rationality concerns subjective reason, then rational capitalism encloses a circular definition.

In this line of ideas, I hope this quick reflection might shed some light upon the old discussion about instrumental rationality and substantive reason. Since the instrumental rationality is common to every possible world, we might look for the substantive reason that gives order to this actual world in the increasing layers of complexity that reach degrees of abstraction that are superior to the subjective reason. Although that does not mean that we will ever be able to find it.

Castro: Coercing Cubans into Health

On Black Friday, one of the few remaining tyrants in the world passed away (see the great spread of democracy in the world since 1988). Fidel Castro is a man that I will not mourn nor will I celebrate his passing. What I mourn are the lives he destroyed, the men and women he impoverished, the dreams he crushed and the suffering he inflicted on the innocents. When I state this feeling to others, I am told that he improved life expectancy in Cuba and reduced infant mortality.

To which I reply: why are you proving my point?

The reality that few people understand is that even poor countries can easily reduce mortality with the use of coercive measures available to a centralized dictatorship. There are many diseases (like smallpox) that spread because individuals have a hard time coordinating their actions and cannot prevent free riders (if 90% of people get vaccinated, the 10% remaining gets the protection without having to endure the cost). This type of disease is very easy to fight for a state: force people to get vaccinated.

However, there is a tradeoff to this. The type of institutions that can use violence so cheaply and so efficiently is also the type of institutions that has a hard time creating economic growth and development. Countries with “unfree” institutions are generally poor and grow slowly. Thus, these countries can fight some diseases efficiently (like smallpox and yellow fever), but not other diseases that are related to individual well-being (i.e. poverty diseases). This implies that you get unfree institutions and low rates of epidemics but high levels of poverty and high rates of mortality from tuberculosis, diarrhea, typhoid fever, heart diseases, nephritis.

This argument is basically the argument of Werner Troesken in his great book, The Pox of LibertyHow does it apply to Cuba?

First of all, by 1959, Cuba was already in the top of development indexes for the Americas – a very rich and healthy place by Latin American standards. A large part of the high levels of health indicators were actually the result of coercion. Cuba actually got its very low levels of mortality as a result of the Spanish-American war when the island was occupied by American invaders. They fought yellow fever and other diseases with impressive levels of violence. As Troesken mentions, the rate of mortality fell dramatically in Cuba as a result of this coercion.

Upon taking power in 1959, Castro did exactly the same thing as the Americans. From a public choice perspective, he needed something to shore up support.  His policies were not geared towards wealth creation, but they were geared towards the efficient use of violence. As Linda Whiteford and Laurence Branch point out, personal choices are heavily controlled in Cuba in order to achieve these outcomes. Heavy restrictions exist on what Cubans can eat, drink and do. When pregnancies are deemed risky, doctors have to coerce women to undergo abortion in spite of their wishes. Some women are incarcerated in the Casas de Maternidad in spite of their wishes. On top of this, forced sterilization in some cases are an actually documented policy tool.   These restrictions do reduce mortality, but they feel like a heavy price for the people. On the other hand, the Castrist regime did get something to brag about and it got international support.

However, when you look at the other side of the tradeoff, you see that death rates from “poverty diseases” don’t seem to have dropped (while they did elsewhere in Latin America).  In fact, there are signs that the aggregate infant mortality rates of many other Latin Americans countries collapsed toward the low-levels seen in Cuba when Castro took over in 1959  (here too). Moreover, the crude mortality rate is increasing while infant mortality is decreasing (which is a strong indictment about how much shorter adult lives are in Cuba).

So, yes, Cuba has been very good at reducing mortality from communicable diseases and choice-based outcomes (like how to give birth) that can be reduced by the extreme use of violence. The cost of that use of violence is a low level of development that allows preventable diseases and poverty diseases to remain rampant. Hardly something to celebrate!

Finally, it is also worth pointing two other facts. First of all, economic growth in Cuba has taken place since the 1990s (after decades of stagnation in absolute terms and decline in relative terms). This is the result of the very modest forms of liberalization that were adopted by the Cuban dictatorship as a result of the end of Soviet subsidies. Thus, what little improvements we can see can be largely attributed to those. Secondly, the level of living standards prior to 1990 was largely boosted by the Soviet subsidies but we can doubt how much of it actually went into the hands of the population given that Fidel Castro is worth 900$ million according to Forbes. Thus, yes, Cubans did remain dirt poor during Castro’s reign up to 1990. Thirdly, doctors are penalized for “not meeting quotas” and thus they do lie about the statistics. One thing that is done by the regime is to categorize “infant deaths” as “late fetal deaths” – its basically extending the definition in order to conceal a poorer performance.

Overall, there is nothing to celebrate about Castro’s dictatorship. What some do celebrate is something that was a deliberate political action on the part of Castro to gain support and it came at the cost of personal freedom and higher deaths from preventable diseases and poverty diseases.

H/T : The great (and French-speaking – which is a plus in my eyes because there is so much unexploited content in French) Pseudoerasmus gave me many ideas – see his great discussion here.

England circa 1700: low-wage or high-wage

A few months ago, I discussed the work of my friend (and fellow LSE graduate) Judy Stephenson on the “high-wage economy” of England during the 18th century. The high-wage argument basically states that high wages relative to capital incite management to find new techniques of production and that, as a result, the industrial revolution could be initiated. Its a crude summary (I am not doing it justice here), but its roughly accurate.

In her work, Judy basically indicated that the “high-wage economy” observed in the data was a statistical artifact. The wage rates historians have been using are not wage rates, they’re contract rates that include an overhead for contractors who hired the works. The wage rates were below the contract rates in an amplitude sufficient to damage the high-wage narrative.

A few days ago, Jane Humphries (who has been a great inspiration for Judy and whose work I have been discretely following for years) and Jacob Weisdorf came out with a new working paper on the issue that have reinforced my skepticism of the wages regarding England. A crude summary of Humphries and Weisdorf’s paper goes as such: preindustrial labor markets had search costs, workers were willing to sacrifice on the daily wage rate (lower w) in order to obtain steady employment (greater L) and thus the proper variable of interest is the wage paid on annual contracts.

While their results do not affect England’s relative position (it only affects the trend of living standards in England), it shows that there are flaws in the data. These flaws should give us pause before proposing a strong theory like the “high-wage economy” argument. Taken together, the work of Stephenson (whom I am told is officially forthcoming), Humphries and Weisdorf show the importance of doing data work as the new data may overturn some key pieces of research (maybe, I am not sure, there is some stuff worth testing).

Adios a Fidel

It was so romantic when those truckfuls of young men with beards took over the cesspool of Havana on New Year’s Eve (a scene immortalized in The Godfather Two). They were bringing freedom and relief from poverty to the beleaguered people of Cuba who had suffered under American imperialism for more than sixty years.

When his main acolyte was through shooting a few hundred political opponents – which took weeks – the business of revolutionary construction began in earnest. Soon, the Revolution had to face an invasion from disgruntled sons of the exiled Cuban upper-class. The invasion was roundly betrayed by the fabled Pres. John F. Kennedy. After that, the Revolution found extravagant financial support from the Soviet Union, a poor country itself but a large one.

Later, the leader of the Cuban Revolution tried to get the US nuked by his big Russian brother. That cool leader must have had his reasons, I am sure.

The stubbornness of opponents (“worms”) was so great that the Revolution was forced to jail a few thousand of them, including poets (along with thousands of men whose crime was homosexuality). Other obdurate traitors to the Revolution left Cuba on balsa rafts and on rafts made with old barrels. Many drowned at sea. Their choice! After a while, one Cuban in five was living abroad, away from the workers’ paradise.

The Revolution triumphed in the fields of education and public health. Nowadays, Cubans’ level of literacy is a high as that of other Latin American countries. Although it’s not really free, the Cuban public health service is pretty good, what with its separate public-public sector and its sector for Communist Party members only, the two equal to each other, of course.

When the first leader became too old, somehow, the best revolutionary found to succeed him was his little brother, as happened in other people’s democracies such as North Korea.

In the meantime, there had been several military adventures, all in tropical countries where even ordinary Cuban privates could afford bananas for once. That they did not win anywhere was not their fault. One prominent general even had to be shot by the leadership because he was dealing drugs. His trial lasted a whole week.

Today, after fifty years, progress is so great that ordinary Cubans easily earn forty or fifty dollars a month. Many earn three times more by renting their bedroom to foreign visitors. Take university professors and medical doctors. They can always make much more than fifty a month by driving a taxi. And meat is now available six days a month instead of the customary four. You can’t argue with this!

As Westerners, we must be especially grateful that the Cuban Revolution has made the island into one of the best destinations for sex tourism in the world.

Yes, Fidel was really, really cool and we will all miss him. He was our youth. He embarked on a great experiment in human happiness. That it failed is not his fault at all. Nobody is perfect. At least, his long life of power and influence has had the great merit of showing what happens to Communist take-overs in the long run, when no external factor puts a precocious end to them.

PS To this day, many Cubans and an embarrassing number of western leftists believe that the Cubans’ poverty is mainly due to the US BLOCKADE of the island. Well folks, there was a blockade, in the early sixties. It lasted two weeks (fourteen or fifteen days). Since then, there has been an American economic embargo on Cuba. It means that Americans cannot buy from or sell most items to Cuban economic actors. Cubans could always buy anything from and sell anything to anyone else in the whole wide world, including our Canadian cousins who have everything we have. We are talking here of a fifty year-old grand lie. You had to be cool, like Fidel and his little brother to pull it off!

Josh Barro and the Gold Standard

A few days ago, when it was announced that former Cato Institute president John Allison was under consideration for treasury secretary, Josh Barro of Business Insider dismissed the man as a “nutcase”. Why? Because Allison believes that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) generates a moral hazard that contributes to financial crises (a statement I agree with).

This slur irked one of the economists at Cato, George Selgin, who took to twitter to challenge Barro. In the exchange, at one point, Barro indicated that the desire of libertarians to return to the gold standard confirms the “nuttiness” of libertarians and the people at Cato.

And here, Barro allows me to make a comment on the gold standard. The sympathy towards the gold standard is not sympathy towards gold per se, but rather sympathy for reducing the capacity of governments to exercise discretion. Basically, each time you hear some academic economist mention the gold standard, what that economist means is rules-based monetary policy.

The gold standard era (1875-1914) was not an image of perfect monetary policy. It is not a lost paradise that we ought to strive to. However, the implicit rules imposed by the system did favor more stability that would have been the case with discretion during that era. In fact, the era of central banking with the Federal Reserve has not been that great relative to the gold standard era (and in the world of central banks, the Fed is pretty good). A lot of the scorn that the gold standard era has received had to do with regulatory policy towards banks (notably regarding restrictions on branch banking which forced more volatility) or with the role of changes in international demand for assets (see here). Thus, in spite of its many flaws, the gold standard was not that bad (but it was not* gold per se that was helpful – it was the shunning of discretion by governments).

To be sure, I do not favor a return to a gold standard era. What I do like, and what I think John Allison likes as well, is the return to rules-based monetary policy. Josh Barro should have been intellectually generous and understand this key distinction. By not making that distinction, of which he must be aware given his background, he debased the debate over monetary policy.