Does business success make a good statesmen?

Gary Becker made the distinction between two types of on-the-job training: general and specific. The former consist of the skills of wide applicability, which enable the worker to perform satisfactorily different kinds of jobs: to keep one’s commitments, to arrive on time to work, to avoid disturbing behavior, etc.. All of them are moral traits that raise the productivity of the worker whichever his occupation would be. On the other hand, specific on-the-job training only concerns the peculiarities of a given job: to know how many spoons of sugar your boss likes for his coffee or which of your employees is better qualified to deal with the public. The knowledge provided by the on-the-job training is incorporated to the worker, it travels with him when he moves from one company to another. Therefore, while the general on-the-job training increases the worker productivity in every other job he gets, he makes a poor profit from the specific one.

Of course, it is relative to each profession and industry whether the on-the-job training is general or specific. For example, a psychiatrist who works for a general hospital gets specific training about the concrete dynamics of its internal organization. If he later moves to a position in another hospital, his experience dealing with the internal politics of such institutions will count as general on-the-job training. If he then goes freelance instead, that experience will be of little use for his career. Nevertheless, even though the said psychiatrist switches from working for a big general hospital to working on his own, he will carry with him a valuable general on-the-job training: how to look after his patients, how to deal with their relatives, etc.

So, to what extent will on-the-job training gained by a successful businessman enable him to be a good statesman? In the same degree that a successful lawyer, a successful sportsman, a successful writer is enabled to be one. Every successful person carries with him a set of personal traits that are very useful in almost every field of human experience: self confidence, work ethics, constancy, and so on. If you lack any of them, you could hardly be a good politician, so as you rarely could achieve anything in any other field. But these qualities are the typical examples of general on-the-job training and what we are inquiring here is whether the specific on-the-job training of a successful businessman could enable him with a relative advantage to be a better politician -or at least have a better chance of being a good one.

The problem is that there is no such a thing as an a priori successful businessman. We can state that a doctor, an engineer, or a biologist need to have certain qualifications to be a competent professional. But the performance of a businessman depends on a multiplicity of variables that prevents us from elucidating which traits would lead him to success.

Medicine, physics, and biology deal with “simple phenomena”. The limits to the knowledge of such disciplines are relative to the development of the investigations in such fields (see F. A. Hayek, “The Theory of Complex Phenomena”). The more those professionals study, the more they work, the better trained they will be.

On the other hand, the law and the market economy are cases of “complex phenomena” (see F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty). Since the limits to the knowledge of such phenomena are absolute, a discovery process of trial and error applied to concrete cases is the only way to weather such uncertainty. The judge states the solution the law provides to a concrete controversy, but the lawmaker is enabled to state what the law says only in general and abstract terms. In the same sense, the personal strategy of a businessman is successful only under certain circumstances.

So, how does the market economy survive to its own complexity? The market does not need wise businessmen, but lots of purposeful ones, eager to thrive following their stubborn vision of the business. Most of them will be wrong about their perception of the market and subsequently will fail. A few others will prosper, since their plans meet -perhaps by chance- the changing demands of the market. Thus, the personal traits that led a successful businessman to prosperity were not universal, but the right ones for the specific time he carried out his plans.

Having said that, would a purposeful and stubborn politician a good choice for government? After all, Niccolo Macchiavelli had pointed out that initiative was the main virtue of the prince. Then, a good statesman would be the one who handles successfully the changing opportunities of life and politics. Notwithstanding, The Prince was -as Quentin Skinner showed- a parody: opportunistic behaviour is no good to the accomplishment of public duties and the protection of civil liberties.

Nevertheless, there is still a convincing argument for the businessman as a prospect of statesman. If he has to deal with the system of checks and balances -the Congress and the Courts-, the law will act as the selection process of the market. Every time a decision based on expediency collides with fundamental liberties, the latter must withstand the former. A sort of natural selection of political decisions.

Quite obvious, but not so trite. For a stubborn and purposeful politician not to become a menace to individual and public liberties, his initiative must not venture into constitutional design. No bypasses, no exceptions, not even reforms to the legal restraints to the public authority must be allowed, even in the name of emergency. Especially for most of the emergencies often brought about by measures based on expediency.

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On granting the Nobel to Kirzner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elon Musk on the Heroic Journey for a Fantastic Future

In ‘The Entrepreneur on the Heroic Journey’ (1997), Dwight Lee and Candace Allen write that entrepreneurs are heroic figures of society whose accomplishments are worth celebrating. Elon Musk is certainly an entrepreneur whose ingenuity and drive to create a fantastic future are admirable. In our current times when it seems fashionable to castigate entrepreneurs and those who have earned a fortune, it is nonetheless hard to read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk and not to be in awe of his accomplishments. Elon Musk perfectly matches Lee and Allen’s description of our modern day heroes: individuals who shape society by serving the people and adding value to society through their entrepreneurial activities.

According to Lee and Allen, a hero travels through three stages.

1. The first stage of the modern entrepreneurial hero is a venturing away from the world of accepted norms. The hero asserts “There is a better way, and I will find it!” Deviating from familiar social norms and customs, he travels into unknown territory while risking failure and loss for some greater purpose or idea. That is exactly what Elon Musk did several times in his life. First, as a teenager when he dropped out of the University of Pretoria to leave South Africa for Canada. For someone who has an early inclination toward computers and technology – Musk had taught himself the BASIC programming language at the age of 9-10 and created homemade explosives and rockets – South Africa was like a prison. Although he did not know back then what exactly he wanted to achieve in Canada, his curiosity and intrinsic desire to leave an everlasting impact on the world led him to the United States. His daydreams at Queen’s University and the University of Pennsylvania usually led him to the conclusion that the Internet, the Renewable Energy, and the Space industries were the areas where he could make a huge impact. Back then, Musk already vowed to pursue projects in all three. This was in 1994 when few could’ve predicted the many ways in which the Internet would change people’s lives, when the last successful American automobile startup (Chrysler) was dates back to 1925, and when the American aerospace industry was dominated by only Boeing and Lockheed Martin. A vow like this was surely considered super-crazy. Musk pushed himself, characterized by energy, vision and bold determination into the unknown.

2. In the second stage, the entrepreneurial hero sacrifices himself for a vision or dream he has, putting his own comfort at stake. The two Internet companies he founded were Zip2, the Web’s first yellow pages, and X.com that would eventually merge with Confinity to form PayPal. The second stage of the entrepreneurial hero is his overcoming of hardships and challenges. With just $28,000 invested in Zip2, Musk seemed to never leave the office and slept on a beanbag next to his desk. He would take showers at the YMCA and when Heilman, an early Zip2 employee, would come into the office at 7:30 or 8:00 AM he would give him a kick so Musk would wake up and get back to work. Musk’s slavish devotion to the success of his startups is best expressed when he told a VC investor, “My mentality is that of a samurai. I would rather commit seppuku than fail.” (Vance, 2015, p. 72)

Zip2 would eventually be taken over by Compaq Computer for $307 million and would earn Musk $22 million for his 7% stake in the company.

Musk’s second start-up was X.com which was an initial attempt to create an online bank. During his internship at the Bank of Nova Scotia, he found out that “bankers are rich and dumb” (p. 83) and that this provided a massive opportunity to disrupt the industry. Realizing that money is nothing but an entry in a database, Musk thought that he could enter the industry with relatively little investment. This could however not be any further from the truth. The regulatory issues they were facing seemed insurmountable and several of the early employees of X.com soon left the company after believing that Musk’s vision to disrupt the banking industry is unrealistic. One other X.com employee said, “There were a million laws in place to block something like X.com from happening, but Musk didn’t care” (p. 92). Despite such issues, Musk held on and secured a banking license, FDIC insurance and formed a partnership with Barclays.

Musk had also faced many other misfortunes in the two companies that he founded soon after he left X.com: Tesla and SpaceX. In 2008, he was almost broke while divorcing his first wife – fearing he had been wasting almost all of his $180 million he earned from the sales of PayPal to eBay. SpaceX had just enough money for its fourth Falcon 1 launch, and possibly the last launch of SpaceX. Tesla had still not delivered on its promise to produce its Roadster and needed a government loan at a time when other automobile and financial corporations were also struggling. In Musk’s words: “I remember waking up the Sunday before Christmas in 2008, and thinking to myself, ‘Man, I never thought I was someone who could be capable of a nervous breakdown.’ I felt this is the closest I’ve ever come, because it seemed… pretty dark.”

3. In the third stage, the heroic entrepreneur returns to the community with his product, service, or new process. Having been just days or weeks away from bankruptcy for both Tesla and SpaceX, Musk had eventually survived and created the first successful car company since Chrysler in 1925 and was now competing with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the Russians and the Chinese in the aerospace industry. Tesla has since delivered the Roadster, the Model S, X and is planning to deliver the Model E which will have a starting price of $35,000 by late 2017. Tesla is on its way to alter the automobile industry. SpaceX had produced rockets that can return back safely on earth which significantly lowers the costs of sending rockets into space. Elon Musk’s reward for increasing benefits to society are his profits and his wealth that he could only have accumulated when people value his products enough that they are willing buy them.

Looking at the many accomplishments of Musk and how he has served the public with his products, I believe that he can truly be considered a modern hero. The greatest contribution I think is that he has given people hope and renewed faith in what technology can do for mankind.

References
Allen, C., & Lee, D.R. The Entrepreneur on a Heroic Journey, 1997
Vance, A. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and teh Quest for a Fantastic Future, 2015

Coase’s “Nature of the Firm”: An Anthropological Critique

But is it a good one? Is it even made in good faith? I need help.

From American anthropologist John D Kelly’s The American Game…:

Ronald Coase’s theory of the nature of the firm rescued, for neo-classical economics, the existence of firms or corporations as rational entities […] Markets always come first, and the problem of the existence of firms is depicted as the problem of why a rational manager would rely on employees rather than markets. State planning and private firms are taking over what already exists, integrated by the price mechanism of markets, and are successful to the extent that they lower costs, since there are a variety of costs involved in market transactions. Thus marginalist analysis implies that an equilibrium will always be found between planning structures and integration by price mechanism, especially since, as Coase says in “The Nature of the Firm,” “businessmen will be constantly experimenting, controlling more or less” and “firms arise voluntarily because they represent a more efficient method of organizing production.” The rise of the firm, as Coase imagines it, is always a movement from many pre-existing contracts to a controlling structure, “For this series of contracts is substituted one.” (94)

The emphasis is mine. Kelly continues:

This imaginary fits poorly the situations that were precisely the actual origins of firms, as when banks gave mortgages to planters, or stock markets funded companies of young agents, prepared to cut plantations into captured wilderness for tropical commodities […] usually employing labor moved long distances and disciplined by direct violence. There is more in the universe than Coase’s imagination, more motives for controlling powers of firms than their cost efficiencies. (94-95)

Kelly goes on to give a brief account of 1) how corporations created commodity production out of thin air, 2) how these corporations were tied to European imperialism, and 3) how they used slaves and indentured servants even when it would have been cheaper to hire the locals.

I want to address Kelly’s summary of Coase’s paper (here is a pdf, by the way, in case you want to follow along), mostly because I’ve never read it although I know it’s important, but first I want to make a couple of digressions. Libertarians would more or less answer Kelly’s three charges listed above as follows: 1) yes, and this is a good thing, 2) state-sponsored corporations and private firms are two distinct entities with two very different incentive structures, and 3) see #2. There is also an issue of accuracy in regards to Kelly’s brief summary of world history since 1600. I don’t want to get into the details here, but I do want you to recognize that I am reading Kelly critically. My last digression is simply to point out that libertarians and Weberian Leftists like Kelly have more in common than we think.

To get back to Coase’s paper, and Kelly’s critique of it, I want to highlight one sentence from Kelly’s book in particular and then turn it over to the peanut gallery in the hopes of gaining some insight:

Markets always come first, and the problem of the existence of firms is depicted as the problem of why a rational manager would rely on employees rather than markets.

Is this the puzzle Coase was trying to grapple with in his paper? I ctrl+f’d Coase’s paper (“employe” – not a typo) and couldn’t find anything that actually confirms Kelly’s summary, but it would be an interesting project (if I am right in stating that Kelly’s summary of Coase’s paper is not accurate) to follow this line of thought and delve into Kelly’s insight about the reliance that entrepreneurs/firms have on employees (rather than markets)…

Undergraduate degrees are a stamp of participation

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

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

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

Of Uber, cab drivers and compensation

What a title for a blog post right? Where am I going with this? A few days ago, I debated a few of my academic colleagues who tend towards libertarianism in the predominantly left-leaning province of Quebec. The topic? How the rise of Uber is killing the taxi cartel? I authored a paper on ride-sharing a year ago and I cannot be more enthusiastic towards such technologies that are allowing consumers much more choices at lower prices than with the taxi cartel. Thus, we were all in agreement. The point of contention appeared when the topic of compensation was raised. I favor partial compensation of the owners of taxi licences. Instantly, I was cast in the minority position and branded as a statist. A debate ensued and I made the case that it was not acceptable to right a wrong by committing another wrong (how Christian of me).

First, let me lay out some facts first and some assumptions

  1. A taxi licence restricting competition is a subsidy. But it is a strange type of subsidy that occurs through a redistribution of property rights (limiting the right to use one’s own car to carry individuals in exchange for payment to those who buy the transferable right to do so). Unlike cash subsidies, quotas, trade barriers and tax credits, it is the only form of income transfer that exists that is a property. You can abolish any cash subsidy, tariff, quota, tax, tax credits or legal monopoly without having to compensate since no one has property of such things. That is the source of the odd nature of the taxi licence – a subsidy with a property deed.
  2. The two benefits from these licences occur through limiting competition and thus allowing higher prices/quality ratios and through higher asset value (the permit’s value). The extent of those benefits depends on the extent of the curtailment of the liberties of other to compete. The more restrictive the policy, the greater the redistribution from consumers to producers in the long-run.
  3. However, new drivers have to pay a high price and they must have some time to recoup the acquisition of the asset. Their recovery will take some time as they also hike prices and lower quality.

So, if you want to abolish a taxi licensing scheme, is it acceptable not to compensate? According to my colleagues, yes it is. Since the benefits of higher prices were so considerable to those drivers (at the expense of consumers), compensation is not necessary.

Yet, the drivers do own property don’t they? The licence is worth many thousands of dollars, basically the value of a small house. Many drivers rely on this asset for their retirement. Now, let me make another presumption which is crucial to this discussion: the change is caused by legal changes, not technological changes.

I believe that, in the presence of the technological change, there is no case for compensation. Nobody would compensate telecoms companies for the rise of Skype since it is a process of entrepreneurship. However, the case is different if a government decides to abolish the licences. So here, my entire reasoning for compensation is contingent to a case where the state abolishes the licences, not a situation where technologies render the licences worthless like the car killed the street horses.

Clearly, it was unjust for consumers to deal with a cartel that gouged them and which was legally sanctioned to do so. But can you right an injustice by committing another injustice (the de facto dispossession of an asset)? Normatively speaking, I simply believe that using the monopoly of violence of the state to right the abuses caused by past uses of the monopoly of violence of the state is not that productive. Why? Because I have this assumption lodged firmly in my head as a result of my training in public choice theory: rent-seeking matters.

Rent-seekers will always exist. They are the social-science equivalent of gravity in physics. You just have to deal with their existence. Rent-seekers are basically political entrepreneurs who have very concentrated benefits from applying policies whose costs are not that obvious or that important for a large population. These political entrepreneurs are very alert to opportunities and they will seize them. Sometimes, they discover that their preferred course of action leads to resistance. They will automatically shift gear and find another way to obtain an unearned reward thanks to the complicity of those they bargain with (politicians and bureaucrats). Their rhetoric will change, their narratives will change, their arguments will evolve, but at the core, they will continue to rent-seek. True, you can conceive constitutional rules that limit rent-seeking (I am a big fan of that). However, one way or another, it will remain and some will find ways to connive with politicians and bureaucrats to obtain undue rewards. And even if there was such a utopia free of rent-seekers (I just won’t buy that for a dollar) where a constitution would ban their activities or even a stateless utopia (again, I am not buying it), is it acceptable to justify all means possible to reach such a destination?

What if associations of cab drivers lobby for special tax discounts on gasoline since they provide a public service? What if they lobby for stricter security checks on drivers (needless security checks) which end up having the same effects? What if they convinced regulators that only certain types of vehicles (less than 5 years old for example) should be allowed to operate? What if they mandated association with a dispatcher to better avoid traffic jams? How could a politician oppose special tax treatment for drivers, better security for consumers or all these other bogus motives? In the end, they will find a way to rent-seek. However, by dispossessing them of an asset worth many hundred of thousands of dollars, you are basically creating the certainty that they will aggressively rent-seek to recuperate their losses. Thus, you don’t end up breaking a vicious policy cycle, you end up encouraging its continuation in stranger, hidden and subtle manners whose perniciousness continues equally.

Hence my case that you can’t right a wrong by committing a wrong. Respect the rule of law, liberalize the market and compensate and attempt to rewrite constitutions to prevent arbitrary redistribution of property rights.

Here’s why you should default on your student loans. And here’s why you shouldn’t.

This article popped up on my newsfeed the other day and I (as always) read the headline (“Why I defaulted on my student loans”), looked to see if it was posted by one of my sane or insane Facebook friends (no idea…), then promptly forgot about. Then I saw this response: “The New York Times Should Apologize for the Awful Op-Ed It Just Ran on Student Loans” (posted by a sane friend). Okay, let’s give this some thought.

Lee Siegel (of the first article) writes that he made some bad decisions and faced the prospect of either living a life he didn’t want, or defaulting on his obligation. The question then is “should more people follow his example?”

Choosing a major is essentially an entrepreneurial decision. You are investing in a set of human capital goods that you hope will provide a return in the future sufficient to justify the cost of the investment. One thing we know about entrepreneurship is that it usually fails. We also know that this failure is often not socially wasteful but simply a cost of experimentation. America was lucky to end up with a system of bankruptcy that is uniquely easy on defaulters… why lucky? Because it turns out that this system meant to merely shift resources towards farmers also allows entrepreneurs to quickly dust themselves off and get back to work on their next experiment. Some turn out to be brilliant and ultimately outweigh the costs of past failures.

But this wasn’t what Siegel was advocating. His decision was to not pay his debt but to stay in the line of work he trained for. His thinking was “sunk cost, and now it’s someone else’s problem.” Yes, the higher-ed industry is screwy on all sorts of margins, and yes, he probably didn’t have great information beforehand. But rather than learn from his mistake, he simply ignored it.

Using bankruptcy to subsidize risky experimentation turns out to make sense in some cases (it’s hard to believe, but there it is). And this might be justified in some cases in schooling… it might be worth it to subsidize 100 post-secondary schools that try all sorts of crazy methods on the chance that we learn something useful from the experience. And I think we can justify defaulting on student loans that were made in fraudulent circumstances (“Hey Buddy, wanna get a degree?”). It might be sensible to allow loan forgiveness for students who get a degree in a field that turns out to be obsolete by the time they graduate… as long as it’s paired with a policy requiring student loan applicants to watch a 12 hour long video course on employment projections and labor economics.

We might even justify subsidies by partial loan forgiveness for students studying art or some other field that might generate positive spill overs–but if we do, the decision shouldn’t be left to those who already owe a lot of money for attending an expensive school. It’s not up to Siegel to determine that he should get a subsidy. He wasn’t suggesting walking away from his mistake and starting fresh, he was suggesting letting someone else pay for the cost of his mistake while he reaped the rewards.

If there’s anything to learn from Siegel’s decision, it’s that understanding costs isn’t a requirement for writing in high profile news papers and so we should be leery of policy advice given by journalists. I think the second article I linked to makes a compelling case that Siegel is a bum.