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.

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.

Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology

It’s six a.m., I am sipping my first cup of coffee on the small balcony near the tall coconut tree. It’s still dark but I can see a short stocky woman sweeping the ground of the open space in front of the hotel next door. Right away, I detect that something is wrong in the picture although I am not fully awake. The broom the woman is using is too short, its straw end is frayed. She is bending over more than should be necessary; some of her energy is being misspent because she pushes harder than she would have to with a newer broom. No big deal! Except…

Mexico is the kind of country where the dentist kisses you when you leave. (This particular dentist is a pretty willowy blonde.) Perhaps, Mexico is the only country of its kind. I don’t know; I have not been everywhere. No American dentist has ever attempted this maneuver on me, or on my attractive wife either. I have avoided French dentists since 1960. A dentist in Morocco once gave me a root canal with no anesthesia whatsoever. I forgave him long ago but I wouldn’t let him kiss me if you paid me. The universal amiability of Mexicans might color everything I say below. You are warned.

I just spent three weeks in Mexico, in the pleasant resort city of Puerto Vallarta. With a population of 250,000, it does not feel much larger than Santa Cruz, California with its population 4/5 smaller. Still it’s large enough to be considered a real place, not a boutique resort. I was staying in a small hotel on the beach, of course, which limits observation. But my wife and I did most of our own cooking and therefore, we had to shop often in an ordinary supermarket located in an ordinary commercial center. This is important as a kind of regular and forced immersion into normal local life. We did not have a car so, we took taxis several times a day. This is important too because cab drivers everywhere are a rich fount of information if you manage to steer them from small talk. Yes, I know Spanish, and not only in my imagination as described in my masterful “Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America” (if I say so myself) but for real. I understand everything that is said to me in that language; I am able to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers; I can read the newspaper; I listen to television news without effort.* In brief, I was in a reasonable good position to observe, interpret and ask questions.

This stay in Mexico was like a refresher course on a topic that occupied me professionally for about twenty-five years: Why some countries are poorer than others. (When you begin thinking seriously about this simple question, you quickly discover that the plausible answers are numerous and complex.) I used to do it in a rigorous, quantitatively based manner, estimating statistical models and the like. This time, I am indulging myself frankly in pop-sociology. It does not imply any rejection of my past endeavors.

Comparisons between the way things are done in Mexico and in the US come naturally because the surface similarities between there and here are obvious. Mexicans want what we want and they work openly for it and, in time, they get it. Material progress usually takes a familiar American form, from shopping malls to cineplexes, to the Discovery Channel…, you name it.

Mexico’s GDP per capita is less than one third of the American equivalent (about USD 16,500 vs 52,000, Purchasing Power Parity, a formulation which makes the two figures comparable) Mexico is a poor country but not one of the poorest by a long shot. Why would it be poor?

Mexicans are not a short on entrepreneurial spirit. Every nook and cranny shelters a business of sorts. I enter a tiny corner shop in a non-touristy part of town selling I don’t know what. A toddler sleeps on a blanket on the cold floor. (It’s hot.) Against one wall, three cramped stalls offer Internet access. The owner, the toddler’s father, tells me he is opened from 7 am to 10 pm. He charges me forty cents to recharge my cellphone battery, not an especially low price considering his cost and the little labor involved. There are restaurants everywhere, also far from the tourist tracks. Some have only four tables. Most are still empty at 8 pm. Two social mechanisms seem at work. One is simple mimicry: The guy across the street has one. What does he know about birria that I don’t know? The other is a version of the Chinese eating place economic rationale: If people don’t come to dine here, my family can always eat the food; I have many children anyway. Nothing is going to go to waste. The economic risk is small. It can’t hurt. Perhaps, rents are low because there is not much  alternative use for the relevant spaces.

Food is everywhere anyway. If someone goes hungry in Mexico, it’s somewhere else. Yet, food prices are low but not very low. Rice is cheap, avocados are cheap; apples are the same price as in California perhaps because they come from afar. This is an undeveloped capitalism, with poor infrastructures; moving foodstuff is still expensive. A cup of reasonable good coffee costs USD 1,40; that’s probably more than in an Arkansas diner. That’s what it means to be poor: Your money does not reach very far.

Three facts of possible economic relevance strike you quickly; two are concrete and easy to verify; the third is intangible, or kind of unsubstantial, but that does not make it irrelevant. First, nearly every shop is overstaffed by a significant factor. That’s easy to see when people perform identical jobs with identical technologies as in the US. There are twice or more salesladies in the clothing area of a department store as there would be in KMart, the perennially failing chain. In the butcher section of the supermarket, employees are waiting for you. That’s nice but it’s probably superfluous. I could wait two minutes instead, so could Mexican housewives. In the restaurants that actually have some business, the waitpersons (waiters and waitresses ) seem to be spending most of their time standing still.

The second observation concerns low individual productivity. It’s not that Mexicans don’t work hard. In Mexico as in the US, Mexicans are remarkable for working hard for long hours. They seem to know no coffee breaks and little even by way of lunch breaks. The problem is that you see everywhere people doing work for which they have received little or no training. I watched with increasing fascination, several times a day, a laborer failing to finish a simple brick path. He did not manage to complete in three days what I am ready to bet an American bricklayer would have done in less than a day. (Yes, I know something about bricklaying too.) That’s a big productivity differential. Even the pharmacists filling my prescriptions seemed hesitant. They did not exude the authority of American pharmacists with an advanced education. Since Mexicans in general rarely lack in personal authority and, by elimination, I am forced to hypothesize that my pharmacists where just sort of learning their job as they went along.

Incidentally, I have reasons to believe that this shortage of training does not extend to superior occupations: Mexican doctors and Mexican engineers are not inferior to their American counterparts, I am guessing. (The fast development of medical tourism into Mexico from both the US and Canada testifies to the quality of the former, I think.)

The third observation, which I called intangible is difficult to render, of course. It’s almost only an impression but one that is redundantly encountered. The information dispensed by the conventional Mexican media seems very thin. The nightly news program on major channel serves poor fare as compared to the Spanish language but American Univision. If there are new or substantive programs on radio, I have not discovered them. (I may very well have missed such.) I mean that I almost missed National Public Radio there ( a difficult admission for me, obviously). Whether you read the daily newspaper or not does not make much difference in your level of information. Here is a test case.

On a weekend day, there is a massive protest march in Mexico City. The demonstration is to protest the disappearance of 43 young people from the same teachers school. Everyone except their parents knows they have been murdered. The demonstration is both very large and quite orderly as compared to anything of the same kind in the US. The police uses tear gas but only sixty people are arrested. There is no mention of anyone seriously hurt.

I buy the Sunday version of what has been designated to me as the best national daily newspaper in the country (“El Excelsior“). A description of the demonstrations and photographs cover the front page, as you would expect. The two innermost pages are devoted to the same events. In addition to eyewitness accounts are included serious interviews of government officials, of protest march organizers and of several pundits. I make myself read every word. At the end, I have learned close to nothing and I have no new perspective on the crime, sociologically, politically or otherwise. I just get confirmation of the fact that the mayor of the town where the young men disappeared and his wife have been arrested. I turn to the “global” page and get a reading of events in Iraq and Syria that I would probably not understand absent my previous familiarity based on American media. In three weeks, I see and hear not a single reference to President Obama’s executive order concerning illegal immigrants about half of whom are of Mexican origin.

I think that Mexicans, including well-educated Mexicans, are not well informed unless the Internet makes up for the obvious deficiencies of the conventional press, which is hard to believe. I would be hard put to explain how this affects Mexican economic development except that it may result in a blindness to new economic opportunities. Mexican entrepreneurs dedicate themselves to old pursuits or they imitate the gringo model late and imperfectly, perhaps (perhaps). Even where a Mexican industry has experienced notable global success such as the brewery industry, it did not innovate much, if at all. No innovation, no temporary super-profits, no generous wages (as we see in Silicon Valley, for example). This is all speculation. Others may have written on the relationship between the general level of information of a population and its overall productivity and it may have escaped my attention or, I may have forgotten it. Maybe readers will come to my rescue on this.

So, here you have it: skimpy training of ordinary workers, inferior tools, a poor physical infrastructure, an under-informed populace, together make for much lower gross productivity than what we are used to in the US. But, overall, in a sort of rough way, wages follow productivity. Mexican workers produce little and they get paid accordingly little. Note that the same factors of poverty interact with one another: Low pay encourages the hiring of a surfeit of workers; modestly paid workers may not be perceived as deserving good tools; an underdeveloped infrastructure buffers business decision-makers from all kinds of competition, including competition for workers, thereby keeping wages lower than they need be. Workers may not be well informed enough to struggle for higher wages. And, of course, workers with low pay make poor consumers. Among other things, they fail to fill the restaurants their entrepreneurially inclined neighbors open for them.

By now, you may wonder why something is missing from this story. I mean corruption, small corruption and especially, big corruption. Two reasons for this absence. The first is that, naturally, corrupt behavior is not readily amenable to casual observation. The second reason is that I am not convinced that corruption of any kind goes much way toward explaining Mexican underdevelopment.

Low level corruption first. In Mexico, it’s common to deal with an ordinary traffic transgression by asking the policeman who stopped you to pay the fine on your behalf because “I am too busy, sorry.” I am told that any amount of cash close to half of the amount of the official fine will do the trick. This sort of practice pervades Mexican life, I am still told. (I have not had a personal experience of it for twenty years myself.) It’s not clear to me that it has any relation to underdevelopment. In the above example, what is basically a tax gets diverted from the government to private pockets. Likewise, when building permits are sold by building inspectors rather than earned and deserved, a relaxation of anti-growth regulations takes place, doesn’t it ?

I don’t know, incidentally, that there is much private corruption in Mexico. I must have taken more than sixty taxis while I was in Puerto Vallarta. They have no meters but rates are fixed by zone. Only one tried to take me, for about USD 3. That’s an extremely low hit rate as compared to say, New York City.

Now, on to big-time corruption. By its nature, it’s hard to observe except if you read the paper carefully and with great, diligent constancy. (See above.) Here is one possible case that came to my attention while I was in Mexico. A big house on a golf course comes up for sale for USD 1.5 million. The seller is a police official described to me as not very high on the totem pole. Someone I know makes an offer. The asking price shrinks to USD 750,000 if he will pay cash. How did a police official get his hands on that house? Did he inherit a pile of money from his father, from a rich aunt? By insisting on cash, is he simply trying to avoid taxes or does he have a more sinister reason? I don’t know and here again, I am not sure it matters. Perhaps, it does in relation to the accumulation of capital; I wouldn’t know which way though.

People of libertarian inclination have to choose: If government is inimical to happiness in general and to economic prosperity in particular then, the suspension of government efficacy, as with corrupt government practices, must be for the better. Or, another, more benign theory of government must be developed.

* If you wonder at my linguistic prowess, don’t. First, Spanish is a dialect of Latin, like French, my native language. Second, I have been studying Spanish for a straight sixty years. It stands to reason that I have made some progress.

Around the Web

  1. Recent Mexican reforms and the impact on the United States. From Gary Becker.
  2. Is the Pope’s Capitalism Catholic? Read this for the concise history lesson on Argentina rather than for the Pope’s opinion about public policy.
  3. Sandy Ikeda asks: Who is really threatened by innovation? Rick’s recent musing on political entrepreneurs can also shed some light on Ikeda’s question.
  4. The Liberty Constitution, Or, What About Slavery? Some libertarian legal theory for dat ass.
  5. Diplomacy.” A transcript of Rand Paul’s recent speech on US foreign policy.
  6. Why the world needs more globalization, not less.

What is entrepreneurship and why should you care?

The word entrepreneurship is thrown around a lot, but rarely defined. As far as I can tell nobody really believes (or is willing to admit they believe) that entrepreneurship is anything less than highly important (“Green child entrepreneurs are our future! Support our troops against breast cancer!”). It’s probably a wise political move to not pin down the idea because it means anyone’s cronies can be considered entrepreneurs. Speaking of which, “crony” is almost the antonym of entrepreneur. Cronyism evokes images of stagnation, inefficiency, “innovations” that make things worse, and opportunities for genuine improvement that are ignored.

Invisible hand

So what does entrepreneurship mean? There are two general definitions, and both bear on the question of how to go about having a peaceful, productive, and morally praiseworthy society. The more general of the two is judgment in the face of uncertainty. That is, given that we don’t know what tomorrow will look like, and we certainly don’t know what the world will look like in 10, 25, or 50 years, we have to make wise, forward-looking decisions. We don’t have enough information to simply plug the relevant data into an Excel spreadsheet and get the “correct” action from a formula. In other words, understanding the ubiquity of entrepreneurship means that we still consider The Use of Knowledge in Society to be relevant.

The more specific definition is pursuit of pure economic profit (above “normal returns to capital, labor, etc.”) by pursuing hitherto un- or under-exploited opportunities. Such breaks from the status quo are the creative acts necessary for economic progress. Entrepreneurship is the human face of economic change that provides a micro-level description of what economists might otherwise wave their hands over and call “technology.” This sort of entrepreneurship is an important source of uncertainty about the future. 2014 is so much different from 1964 because of the actions of innovative entrepreneurs out to improve their own lives.

You’ll notice that I haven’t defined entrepreneurship in a way that actually is inimical to cronyism. That’s because not all entrepreneurship is productive. Destructive entrepreneurship is the pursuit of economic profit that makes the entrepreneur better off at the expense of someone else resulting in a net-loss. So we should be concerned not only with allowing individuals the autonomy necessary to be entrepreneurial (rather than merely reacting formulaically to top-down commands), but also with establishing institutions that direct people to help others.

Invisible hand

Obama’s Utilitarian Foibles

The utilitarian insists that the morally right way to act is to promote the greatest good for the greatest number (of people but perhaps of all sentient beings). This goes for public policy as well! The goal overrides any individual rights, so if to secure it some people’s rights to life, liberty and/or property need to be violated, so be it!

For example, if to provide health insurance for elderly folks it is necessary to coerce young people to purchase health insurance, then coerce them! Never mind their right to liberty and property. Those are irrelevant, even though they are supposed to be unalienable rights no one may violate, not in the American political tradition.

Here, then, is a clear example of how the Obama regime departs significantly, in its political philosophy and program, from the uniquely American framework. This framework supports securing the protection of individual rights as the primary job of government. Read the Declaration of Independence and see for yourself. That is indeed the central feature of the American Revolution, with its Bill of Rights and its Constitution.

Not only does that render the country one that’s free – under which all citizens may live as they choose provided they do not violate anyone’s rights – but is responsible for the great prosperity of the country, its freedom from arbitrary government intervention in people’s lives. Even the public good or interest does not permit it. While this may appear to be a restriction that stops the country from achieving utilitarian objectives, the very opposite is the result! That’s because free men and women make the most productive use of their liberty.

The idea is that human beings are by their very nature proactive. They think of ideas that they will implement and these are usually good ideas, ideas their fellows can make good use of. This is the essence of entrepreneurship. They don’t just daydream but think purposefully, which is to say their ideas can be marketed to others. Out of this process arises the bustling economy of a country and, indeed, of the world.

So long as men and women are free to think creatively and productively, they will make sure their work will have payoffs, either economic or personal or even charitable. This is how a free society works, creates products and services, and leads to high employment to boot.

But the likes of Obama & Co. want to step in and regiment how free men and women act and they believe or pretend to know what others should do to be productive. And that means, usually, that they misguide the economy. (The most notorious recent example of this was all those five-year plans Stalin and his gang unleashed upon Russia and its satellite states, which brought the Soviet Socialist system to its knees!)

But Mr. Obama & Co. fail or refuse to grasp any of this. Shame on them!

Criminalizing Innovation

By Fred Foldvary

The U.S. government has attacked an entrepreneur and his new product, as another episode of the federal government’s war on enterprise. In this case, the entrepreneur CEO is Craig Zucker, the company was Maxfield & Oberton, and the product was Buckyballs.

Buckyballs were small magnetic spheres made of neodymium, a rare-earth element that is a powerful magnet. As they stick together, the balls can be assembled into shapes such as pyramids. They were named “Buckyballs” after Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor of the geodesic dome, and futurist visionary. His friends called him “Bucky,” and the neodymium spheres were somewhat like Bucky’s domes.

The company imported the balls from China and started selling them in 2009. They became a popular office toy. But the Buckyballs were banned in July 2012 by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is now seeking to prosecute Zucker for having sold the balls.

In 2012 the Commission also sent letter to retailers warning of the risks to consumers of using Buckyballs and asking them to stop selling them. That was effective in stopping the sales. The Commission stated that the balls were a hazard for young children who swallowed them.

The company had developed the Buckyballs in collaboration with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and after the action by the Commission, the firm provided it with a corrective-action plan. Buckyballs were sold with a warning against access by children, and they were not sold in toy stores. But the Commission pursued a lawsuit against the firm even before examining the corrective plan. As pointed out by the Wall Street Journal article (cited below) on that case, there are many potentially dangerous products being sold, such as cleaning chemicals, knives, and balloons. Buckyballs were intended and marketed for adults, and, according to the WSJ article, no deaths have been associated with the Buckyballs.

The Commission declared, as a justification for the ban, that Buckyballs have “low utility” and are unnecessary, despite purchases by 2.5 million adults who spent $30 each. The principle established by the Commission is that government determines which products are desirable, not consumers. Any product could be banned by the standards of the Commission.

The company then engaged in a publicity campaign regarding the actions by the Commission. In the end, the government was too powerful to resist, and the company was terminated in December 2012. However, in February 2013, the Commission charged Zucker as being personally liable for the costs of a recall costing $57 million if the Buckyballs are judged to be defective.

The federal government has by this action abolished limited personal liability under U.S. law for corporations as well as partnerships. From now on, the executives of a firm will be vulnerable for the liabilities of the firms. Any entrepreneur will now risk losing all that he owns if he engages in the production or distribution of any product. The effect of this government action is to strangle American entrepreneurship.

In the case of United States v. Park in 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that the CEO of a food company was criminally liable for a rodent infestation. This ruling was based on the federal Food and Drug Act. But another case, Meyer v. Holley in 2003 ruled that ordinary liability applies unless there is a clear Congressional intent to hold corporate officers personally liable. The relevant law in the Buckyballs case is Section 15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, which regulates corporate persons, not individual persons.

The WSJ article says that since Zucker did not commit any criminal violation, the Commission’s continuing prosecution of Zucker “raises the question of retaliation for his public campaign against the commission.” If the Commission achieves its goal, personal-injury lawyers will take advantage of personal liability to go after CEOs and other company personae.

This action by Congress, the Courts, and the Commission has to be seen in the perspective of a broad war by government on private enterprise and consumer choice, using taxes, restrictions, mandates, and prosecutions, ultimately resulting in an economy that is nominally private but substantially controlled by governmental chiefs. The name for that system is “fascism.”

Reference: Sohrab Ahmari, “What Happens When a Man Takes on the Feds,” Wall Street Journal, August 31-September 1, 2013, p. A11.

Balanced Budget Amendment Slated to be Rejected by Tomorrow

So Tomorrow’s the big day. The U.S. government is slated to hit the debt ceiling, and with it will be faced with the prospect of actually having a balanced budget. I think the situation is nicely summed up in the opening sentence to an article from Cato: “America faces two very serious budget problems: Democrats, and Republicans.” Of course behind those problems are voters who vote for their congressman to steal and object to others’ doing the same.

This root problem is interesting and I’d like to take a minute to speculate about it. It looks like long term economic growth in the U.S. will slow down. The pace of government expansion can only continue so long before growth slows to a crawl and we hit some equilibrium. What happens then? I think there will be two changes in patterns of entrepreneurship.

The first change is a general decline in growth-oriented entrepreneurship. As the returns to private investment fall, young innovative entrepreneurs will focus on improving their (non-taxable) lifestyle rather than getting rich. Better to run a cool boutique shop and spend lots of time loafing around than work your ass off to pay taxes. Even more likely, students trained in navigating public schools and subsidized colleges will find themselves more at home in bureaucracy than industry. C students will get productive jobs and A students will shuffle papers.

The second change is an exodus of entrepreneurs. The U.S. isn’t the only game in town. The ambitious few who decide they want to make it big (and whose entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t been ground down by life in a culture that isn’t any longer interested in such ambition) will go elsewhere. And places like the Cayman Islands will get freer and flourish as they attract these entrepreneurs.

The U.S. as a country will gradually fade from prominence, the world will be less free overall, but some places will do well and will perhaps foster long run shifts.

Systeme D

In French, a man (or woman) who is particularly resourceful is called a débrouillard (débrouillarde).  In the former French colonies of West Africa, people have used this word to form a phrase, “l’economie de la débrouillardise” which refers to the vast network of “inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes.” Systeme D for short.

The concept and the quote are from a nifty and fairly new book I’m reading just now, “Stealth of Nations” by Robert Neuwirth.  He claims that the world-wide Systeme D economy would, if aggregated, amount to more than any other nation’s economy save the U.S. The claim may be hyperbolic but he leaves no doubt that in most of the developing world it is a major factor in the flow of goods and services.

He cleverly begins each chapter with a quote from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and gives accounts, mostly first-hand, of how the Systeme D economy, or the informal economy or the black market if you will, works in various countries.

The participants in this economy sometimes operate entirely outside the law and sometimes with one foot in and one foot out.  They seldom count on the police or the courts for protection or redress.  Yet informal systems of protection of life and property spring up and seem to work pretty well.

Take the bustling street market that operates along the Rua Vinte e Cinco de Março (Avenue of March 25) in São Paulo, Brazil.  The daily routine begins at 3:30 AM when vendors of pirated CDs and DVDs set up their stands.  One vendor has done well enough buying movies for 50 centavos and selling them for double that, that he has moved into the middle class.  He and his wife own an apartment and a rental house.  At 4:30 a woman parks her truck and opens the back, where she offers homemade cakes and bread for sale.  Everyone respects her “ownership” of that particular parking space.  At 6 AM come the vendors of clothing, sunglasses, pirated NY Yankees baseball caps, you name it.  At 8:30, Paulo shows up and spends the next seven hours tossing plastic spider-men against a wall, watching them rappel down the wall.  They are made in China, trucked to Paraguay, and smuggled across the border into Brazil.  Paulo buys them for 80 centavos and sells them for about triple that.  So it goes, all day long.  By late evening all the stands and stalls are packed away, ready for the daily cycle to begin anew.

The rules are simple: “Vendors pay no rent to occupy the curbside, and there’s no protection money, taxes, or other fees … You simply ask, ‘Can I set up next to you?’ and if the answer is no and you do it anyway, you have a fight on your hands.”

What’s the volume of business on the Rua?  An estimated 400,000 people (!) per day and up to a million on major holidays, most of whom come to buy.  Annual turnover for this one street market, with its estimated 8,000 vendors, mostly unregistered, is estimated at US$10 billion.  If that figure is anywhere near correct, this one market would rank with Brazil’s five largest corporations.

The description of the Systeme D economy of Lagos, Nigeria is particularly fascinating.  This is a huge city that lacks most of what we would consider basic public services, even sewers and running water.  Yet thanks largely to Systeme D it works, after a fashion.

Author Neuwirth does not gloss over the problems of the world’s Systeme D economies.  There is fraud and sometimes violence, but not necessarily any worse than that of the above-ground regulated economy.  There is wide-open pirating of software, games, music and movies.

The bizarre private bus system of Lagos, though it works for the Nigerians after a fashion, is not something any of us in the developed world would be happy with.  Most of us are happy with our clean, well-lighted supermarkets (see my article “Sardines at Midnight.”) Yet there is a lesson we can take from the Systeme D economies.  Our economy is becoming increasingly hog-tied with regulations. We could make a big dent in unemployment if the politicians and bureaucrats would lighten up a bit and allow the “informal economy” to grow.  Yes, the politicians and bureaucrats and lawyers are to blame but they take their cues from consumers who demand near-perfection in product offerings and unlimited product liability.

I highly recommend “Stealth of Nations” as light but informative summer reading.  Read it for the stories and pay no attention to occasional stumbles into bizarre generalities like “There’s nothing natural about the free market.  It’s a fiction, an artificial construct created and held together with the connivance of government.”