- Globalization and Political Structure [pdf] | what’s a monopolis?
- Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Europe [pdf] | who was James Cooley Fletcher?
- Primed against primacy: the restraint constituency and US foreign policy | polystate, book 2
- Nation-building, nationalism, and wars [pdf] | against libertarian populism
The first time I went to Boston was to look for an apartment. On my last day I was hanging around Downtown crossing. Gmail confirms it was June 12th, 2010. I was having a polish sausage, and this guy approached me. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we chatted for a few minutes. Good town. That sort of thing is exactly what I’d expect in SLO (Central Coast California) or Santa Cruz… but this was in a place with a skyline! Anyways, he wasn’t in a cult and I didn’t get robbed.
Flash forward to some time that fall. I was in Inman Square and saw a chair left on the curb for anyone who needed a chair. I needed a chair. I lived in Union Square, but that was just the next neighborhood north (if I lived on Prospect Hill, there’s no way that chair would have made it, but I might have realized that before picking it up). So I pick up this chair and walk. Google Maps puts my route at 0.5 miles. I got a couple blocks short of that before I crap out. Fortunately I’ve got a place to sit down. So I’m sitting in an easy chair on the sidewalk, hauling it forward a few yards, and plopping down again.
Across the street, someone’s trying to get my attention. He comes over, and he’s the guy I’d randomly met months earlier. He lives across the street from me! And he helps me carry home my chair. We have a beer and chat.
Flash forward to Thanksgiving of that fall. I’m hanging out by myself. This is my first Thanksgiving alone. Neighbor guy knocks on my door and invites me over. Inside are a bunch of his musician friends, and this fantastic music is coming from one of the bedrooms. An impromptu jam session is playing the sort of dusty sounding blues I’m enamored with at the time. After they finish I mention that it sounds like this African blues guitarist, Ali Farka Toure. It turns out I pronounced his name right, because I’m immediately informed that his son was playing guitar just now!
Just now I was listening to Spotify, and a song reminds me of another song which led me to the song above from that album I’d bought when I lived in SLO and was trying to be worldly. Absolutely fantastic music, a mish-mash of cultural influences bouncing back and forth around the world, and I got to experience something of it first hand because of the grace and generosity of a fellow human.
But more than that, a mix of technology, globalization, and absolutely random chance created that beautiful memory and triggered it again just now. We live in a beautiful world.
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)…
Yesterday, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute posted, in response to Bernie Sanders’ skepticism towards free market, that capitalism has made human “fantastically better”.
I do not disagree – quite the contrary. However, Pethokoukis makes his case by citing the fact that material quality of life has increased for everyone on earth since the early 19th century. I believe that this is not the strongest case for capitalism. The strongest case relies on health. This is because it addresses an element that skeptics are more concerned about.
Indeed, skeptics of capitalism tend to underline that “there is more to life than material consumption”. And they are right! They merely misunderstand that the “material standard of living” is strongly related to the “stuff of life”. For them, income is of little value as an indicator. Thus, we need to look at the “quality of human life”. And what could be better than our “health”?
The substantial improvement in the material living standard of mankind has been accompanied by substantial improvements in health-related outcomes! Life expectancy, infant mortality, pregnancy-related deaths, malnutrition, risks of dying from contagious diseases, occupational fatalities, heights, the types of diseases we die from, quality of life during old age, the physical requirements of work and the risks related to famines have all gone in directions indicating substantial improvements!
My favorite is the case of height. Human stature is strongly correlated with income and other health outcomes (net nutrition, risks of disease, life expectancy, pregnancy-related variables). Thus it is an incredible indicator of the improvement in the “stuff of life”. And throughout the globe since the industrial revolution, heights have increased (not equally though). Over at OurWorldInData.org, Max Roser shows this increase since the 1800s (in centimeters)
However, the true magnitude of the increase in human heights is best seen in the data from Gregory Clark who used skeletal remains found in archaeological sites for ancient societies. The magnitude of the improvement is even clearer through this graph.
The ability of “capitalism” to generate improvement in material living standards did leak into broader measures of human well-being. By far, this is the greatest outcome from capitalism.