Davies’ “Extreme Economies” – Part 1: Survival

Late to the party, I relied on the quality-control of the masses before I plunged into Richard Davies’ much-hyped book Extreme Economies: Survival, Failure and Future – Lessons from the World’s Limits (see reviews by Diane Coyle and Philip Aldrick). I first heard about it on some Summer Reading List – or perhaps Financial Times’ shortlist for best books of 2019. What really prompted me to read it, however, was an unlikely source: The Guardian’s long-read in late-August. Davies adopted his Louisiana Prison chapter and described the intricate ways prisoners and guards in maximum-security prison Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) exchange value using the top-up debit card Green Dot and single-use MoneyPak cards. I was hooked.

Davies’ captivating and personal writing in that 4000-word piece made me want to read the full thing. Once I got around to it, I couldn’t put it down – which is the best compliment an author can get. At little over 400 pages of easy non-jargon prose, it doesn’t take too long to get through – and the nine case-study chapters can easily be read on their own. Further attesting to the brilliance of the book are the many questions it raised with me, insights to investigate further.

The book’s structure is simple to follow: three themes ‘Survival’ (“The Economics of Resilience”), ‘Failure’ (“The Economics of Lost Potential”) and ‘Future’ (“The Economics of Tomorrow”), each containing three fascinating places, wrapped between an introductory and a concluding chapter.

The motivation for the book is a mixture of John Maynard Keynes and a Scottish 19th century civil engineer named David Kirkaldy. The latter’s big idea was studying “why materials buckled and bent under pressure” (p. 31); to fully grasp the potential for something, we need to examine why they fall apart. From Keynes Davies took the idea that the future is already partly here:

“We can get a glimpse of the future today, if we know where to look. The trick was to identify a sustained trend – a path most people are following – and look at the lives of those experiencing the extremes of that trend. […] to zoom forward in time, he said, we need to find those whose lives are like this already.” (p. 31)

Davies ventures to nine places of the world, all extreme in some aspect, and investigates the everyday economic challenges that people face and the ingenious ways in which they do – or do not – solve them. By carefully looking at the present, he posits to gauge something about the future.

In this first part – ‘Survival’ – I look at Davies’ three selections (Aceh, Indonesia; Zaatari, Jordan; and Louisiana, U.S.). The next part contains the case studies of ‘Failure’ (Darien, Panama; Kinshasa, DRC; Glasgow, Scotland) and the concluding part looks at ‘Future’ (Akita, Japan; Tallinn, Estonia; and Santiago, Chile). As I have personal experience of living in two of these places while knowing virtually nothing about many of the others, I reserve some complementary reflections on Glasgow and Santiago when appropriate.

Aceh, Indonesia

On Dec 26, 2004, an Indian Ocean earthquake created a tsunami that devastated coastlines from Thailand to Madagascar. Two-thirds of the 230,000 human lives lost were in Indonesia, mostly in the Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. Pictures taken before and after show how complete the destruction was; except for a few sturdy mosques, nothing was left standing.

A few years later, the busy streets and crowded beaches were pretty much back to normal. How?

Davies’ story does not emphasise aid flows or new investment by outsiders, but “informal systems of trade, exchange and even currency” (p. 49), an aspect that generally “goes unmeasured an unassessed” (p. 65). Aceh’s catastrophe is a story of human resilience and of intangibles.

The people Davies interviewed told him how the ancient Aceh practice of keeping savings in wearable and portable gold – necklace, rings, bangles – provided survivors who had lost everything with a source of funds to draw on. Importantly, a gold dealer told him, as the market price of gold is set internationally, the massive sell orders coming in simultaneously did not affect prices very much. Additionally, the dealer’s knowledge of market prices and contacts in Jakarta allowed him to quickly set up his business again. Buying Acehnese’s gold during those crucial months, way before foreign aid or government could effectively respond, provided people with funds to rebuild their lives. Traditional practices “insulated Aceh and provided its entrepreneurs with rapid access to cash” (p. 49).

Another insightful observation is the role played by intangibles – the knowledge of how and where and when that most of our economies depend on. Sanusi, 52-year-old coffee trader, lost everything: his shop, his equipment, his family. Amid his devastation he realized that one thing that the tsunami had not destroyed was his knowledge of the coffee business – where to source the best beans, how to make it, where and when to sell the coffee. He patched together some spare planks, used his business contacts to provide him with trade credit and had his rudimentary coffee business set-up in time for the arrival of coffee-drinking construction and aid-agency workers.

Davies also gives us a very balanced GDP discussion here, as the years after the December 2004 disaster saw huge GDP growth. Most economists would reflexively object and invoke Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. Yes, Davies is well aware, but he’s getting at something more subtle:

“GDP aims to capture what a country’s residents are doing now, rather than what they have done previously. [It is] all about current human activities – spending, wages, income, producing goods – rather than the value embodied in physical assets such as building and factories. Far from being a mean or cold measure, economists’ favourite yardstick is a fundamentally human one.” (p. 53, 65)

To GDP, what you produced in the past is of no consequence. Clearly, when the tsunami devastated the coastline of Aceh, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process and wiping away houses, factories and equipment, that made everyone poorer – their assets and savings and capital were literally washed away. Considering the massive construction boom that followed, only partly financed by outside aid and government money, it is not incorrect to say that GDP boomed; it is only incorrect to believe that people were made better off because of the disaster. Bastiat teaches us that they were not.

I think of this as the difference between your total savings (in cash, stocks, bank accounts, houses, jewelry) and your monthly income, a difference between “stock” and “flow”. If, like many Acehnese that Davies interviewed, your earnings-potential depend on your knowledge of your industry, your most valuable assets remain untouched even after a complete disaster. Your savings – your capital, your stuff – are completely eradicated, but the basis for your future income remains intact. With some minor equipment – a trade credit, some furniture, a shop patched together with flotsam – you can quickly approach the production and income you had before. GDP attempts to measure that income – not the current value of total assets.

“The people here,” Davies concludes, “lost every physical asset but the tsunami survivors retained skills and knowledge from before the disaster, and rebuilt quickly as a result.” (p. 66).

Zaatari, Jordan

Following the Syrian civil war and its exodus of refugees, camps were set up in many neighbouring countries. Often run by the UN, these camps ensure minimum survivability and life-support for refugees and are rather centrally-planned; the UNHCR hands out blankets, assigns tents and provides in-kind goods and services (food, medicine etc).

In April 2013, the Zaatari camp in the northern Jordan desert had grown to over 200,000 inhabitants, with daily inflows of up to 4,000 refugees. It was too much – and the UNHCR “ran out of manpower” (p. 70). They rationalised operations, focused on their core tasks – and left individuals alone to trade, construct and flourish on their own. It became a lesson in anarchic cooperation and of the essentiality of markets – and, like the Louisiana prison economy below, an ingenious monetary system.  It “did not happen by design, but by accident”, Davies writes, and constitutes “an economic puzzle worth unpicking” (p. 72) only if you doubt the beneficial consequences of markets and free people. If you don’t, the result is predictable.

Every month, the Zaatari camp administrators load up payment cards for the refugees with 20 dinars (£23) per person, spendable only in the two camp supermarkets. Designed to be a cashless economy, the money flowed directly from donors to the supermarkets: “refugees cannot transfer cash between wallets, so aid money designated for food cannot be spent on clothes, and the winter clothing allowance cannot be spent on food” (p. 79).

This extreme and artificial economy teaches us something universal about markets; imposed orders, out of touch with market participants’ demands, malfunctions and create huge wastes. Complete monetary control by outsiders, Davies writes, “fails the basic test of any well-functioning market – to be a place where demand meets supply” (pp. 80-81). Supermarkets lacked the things refugees wanted, and they stocked up on things that reflected kickbacks to donor countries (Italian spaghetti or Brazilian coffee), entirely out of sync with Syrian cuisine and preferences. And the unorganic, artificially-set prices were entirely detached from the outside world.

Yet, the refugee city of Zaatari is a flourishing economy where people build, make and trade all kinds of things. How did this happen? Innovative Syrians found a way around their monetary restrictions: the economy of Zaatari “rests on the conversion of homes to business and flipping aid credit, via smuggling, into hard cash” (p. 88). Informal and free markets, at their best.

Along most of the camp’s boundaries, there are no fences, only roads – and the huge number of children playing ball games on the concrete roads or running in and out of the camp, makes identifying who’s a refugee and who’s a teenage smuggler next to impossible. What the refugees did was:

  • buy some item in the supermarket using the e-card credits provided by UNHCR
  • sell it to smugglers for less than their outside market value and obtain hard cash in return
  • smugglers slip out of the camp and sell the goods to Jordanians and other driving past, taking a cut for themselves.

Bottom line: refugees turned 20 dinars of illiquid and restricted e-credit into hard cash, spendable on anything anywhere in the camp. The productive powers of 200,000 refugees was unleashed. In Zaatari, the presence of smugglers allowed large-scale interactions with the outside world – and so the artificially-created closed-loop payment system did not remain closed. Instead, it was connected to the outside Jordanian economy through smuggling!

The take-away point is to cherish market activities, even informal ones, since they “matter to everyone and are fundamentally human” (p. 102). Governments plan and creates problems; markets solve them.

Louisiana State Prison

Analogous to the Zaatari refugees, prisoners in Louisiana’s maximum-security prison (“Angola”) find themselves in a similar economic squeeze: unsatisfied demand and large shortage of goods, artificial constraints on what prisoners can and cannot own. Prisons are places where official prices don’t work: paltry “incomes” through mandatory work stand in no relation to the officially-mandated prices of goods that prisoners can buy at commissary. Accusations of modern slavery comes to mind. The “official price system,” Davies writes, “has been intentionally broken” (p. 119).

To escape their formal and restricted economy, prisoners have long relied on smuggling. Radford’s famous article about cigarettes becoming money in a WWII Prisoners-of-War camp applied – until Angola officials decided to ban tobacco from the premises. Cash too risky to hold; age-old money banned. What now? Fintech to the rescue!

Louisiana prisons “have a remarkable new currency innovation, something far better than tobacco or cans of mackerel”. Physical dollar bills are not handled, bank accounts that leave digital traces are not linked to individuals: “people pay each other with dots”, says an ex-convict that Davies interviewed (p. 132).

Contrary to the belief that smuggling into prisons happen through corrupt prison guards only, prisoners have some power; they can stage riots or make guards’ everyday-life very hard by misbehaving in every imaginable way. That power gives prisoners and guards alike incentives to trade with another – but prisoners don’t have anything to offer, apart from occasional or indivisible services like car repairs or (like Andy Dufresne in the movie Shawshank Redemption) accounting services. And paying guards in commissary products is not gonna cut it.

Here’s how Angola prisoners solved their monetary constraints, obtaining means of payment to smuggle in items their economy’s participants demanded:

  • set up an account with Green Dot, providing a pre-paid debit card without requirements of ID or proof of address.
  • buy a second card, a single-use scratch card called MoneyPak, used to load the first card with anywhere between $20 and $500. These cards are usable anywhere that accepts VISA and Mastercards, and easily bought/cashed out at Walmarts or pharmacies.
  • Scratch away MoneyPak’s 14-digit number (“the dots”), and transfer those digits to somebody else, be it another prisoner or guard.
  • that person goes online, logs into their Green Dot account, enters the combination and credit is added to their debit card.

The dots, Davies describes, “are a currency close to cash: an instant, simple and safe transfer of value over long distance” (p. 134). Even prison economies, argues Davies, “show that the human urge to trade and exchange information is impossible to repress” (p. 136).

The Economics of Resilience

The power of informal economies are great – and essential to people cut off from regular economic processes. Through natural disasters, in refugee camps or in prisons, innovative people find ways around their imposed-upon constraints and “establish a trading system if theirs is damaged, destroyed or limited in some way”. (p. 135)

Aceh, Zaatari and the Angola prison show “three places where markets, currencies, trade and exchange exist despite all odds.” (p. 139).

Be Our Guest: “How to make Brexit Really Worthwhile – Example: Financial Regulation”

Be Our Guest is an open invitation to NOL‘s readers to participate with us. Pretty much anything is on the table. The latest article comes from the Freeconomist, who is following up on his earlier piece about making Brexit worthwhile via information asymmetries. His new piece is on financial regulation through the prism of Brexit. Check out this excerpt:

I do not want to write a lengthy discussion on the question of which alternative is the least costly in dealing with the incentive problems arising from the implicit subsidy by the taxpayer. There are good reasons to believe an incremental, decentralized and evolutionary system of market-based regulation to be superior to centrally designed government regulation. (4)

But even if this is the case, private regulation arising as a response to the incentive problems resulting from explicit and/or implicit government guarantees is still costly. Indeed, the evolved system of private regulation in the UK banking industry was giving the appearance of a restrictive cartel. If my analysis is correct, this “cartel” served a useful social function, namely to deal with the incentive problems created by the implicit government guarantee. Nevertheless, it also involved costs.

At the root of the problem are the taxpayer guarantees.

Please, read the rest. It’s another excellent piece of work.

And don’t be afraid to submit your thoughts to us.

Be Our Guest: “How to make Brexit Really Worthwhile – Example: Regulation dealing with Information Asymmetries”

Here is the latest installment of NOL‘s new “Be Our Guest” series, this one by the pseudonymous Freeconomist. An excerpt:

Third-party certification provides assurance to consumers that a product or a supplier of professional services meets certain quality standards.

Private suppliers of third-party certification include organisations such as Consumer Reports, the American Automobile Association (AAA), which rates motels, or A.M. Best, rating insurance companies. Examples of third-party certification provided by the government are product safety regulation, food standards regulation or occupational licensure.

Private suppliers of third-party certification can only exist because the product they offer is valued enough by market participants to justify the cost of providing it. And their profits are determined by their credibility.

The same cannot be said for third-party certification provided by the government.

Please, read the rest and do keep submitting your thoughts to us.

Nightcap

  1. TV’s third “Golden Age” BK Marcus, FEE
  2. The life and death of North Africa’s first superstar Chris Silver, History Today
  3. The Pope that came from the South Avedis Hadjian, FOX News
  4. Globalization and Marxism JN Nielsen, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

The Political is about to disrupt the crypto-currency scene -or at least they say so.

According to this Financial Times report, Bitcoin is at the verge of a critical decision.

The implications of the chosen terms (“existential crisis,” “decisive leadership,” “political flaw”) are not casual. It looks like the market that crypto-currency had carried from the beginning contain the germ of its own destruction. As in an Escher’s drawing, Bitcoin has unraveled its political strand and its whole existence is, now, dependent upon a moment of decision of the sovereign: the assembly of miners. The decisionist narrative would be fulfilled if the political decision had to be taken by acclamatio instead of voting.

Nevertheless, the decision by acclamation would be still possible: the ones who want “Bitcoin Core” might follow one direction and the other ones, who choose “Bitcoin Unlimited,” might follow their own way. After all, no existential crisis can be solved by voting.

So, which is inside of which? Is the market framed in a system depending upon a political decision of the sovereign? Or does every decision need to be taken inside a spontaneous framework of rules?

We are used to praising Bitcoin for its independence from any political factor: Bitcoin supply depends on a set of rules which allows the public to form expectations about its value with a high degree of probability of proving to be correct.

Taken in isolation, Bitcoin emulates the market. Nevertheless, being independent of political institutions is not enough for being “the market.” The attractiveness of Bitcoin is that it operates in an open system of competition of currencies. In this system, there are many other crypto-currencies, and there might be several variances of Bitcoins as well –in esse or in posse.

Imagine, for example, that Bitcoin effectively splits into Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Unlimited. Which of the two will prevail over the other? It does not matter. What really matters is that there will be several variances of currencies in competition. The factors that determine the selection of the prevailing currency depends upon a higher level of abstraction that impose an absolute limit to our knowledge.

So, is Bitcoin in an existential crisis? Does a political decision need to be made? Maybe.

But that does not imply that “The Political” will take over the reins of the crypto-currency market. Moreover, opposite political decisions are the linkages which the spontaneous selection process -in this case, of currencies- is made of. In this sense, “Bitcoin Core” and “Bitcoin Unlimited” are attributes of a competitive system and the final prevalence of one variance among other alternatives will not be the result of a deliberate decision but of an abstract process of evolution.

Public choice and market failure: Jeffrey Friedman on Nancy MacLean

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Jeffrey Friedman has a well-argued piece on interpreting public choice in the wake of Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial critique of one of its founding theorists, James Buchanan. While agreeing that MacLean is implausibly uncharitable in her interpretation of Buchanan, Friedman suggests that many of Buchanan’s defenders are themselves in an untenable position. This is because public choice allows theorists to make uncharitable assumptions about political actors that they have never met or observed. In this sense, MacLean is simply imputing her preferred own set of bad motives onto her political opponents. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander.

I think Friedman’s arguments are a valid critique of the way that public choice is sometimes deployed in popular discourse. A lot of libertarian commentary assumes that those seeking political power are uniquely bad people, always having self-interest and self-aggrandisement as their true aim. Given that this anti-politics message is associated with getting worse political leaders who are becoming progressively less friendly to individual liberty, this approach to characterising politicians seems counterproductive. However, I don’t think Friedman’s position is such a good fit for Buchanan himself or most of those working in the scholarly public choice tradition.

Continue reading

Hayek’s Choice In Currency: A Way To Stop Inflation

I have just finished reading Friedrich Hayek’s short essay entitled ‘Choice in Currency’ (1976). I believe that this essay is highly relevant in our current time as we have become witnesses of the emergence of crypto-currencies. In the essay, Hayek argues for market competition in currencies as a way to stop inflation and its dire consequences. He does not contend that the governments’ right to issue money should be done away with. Instead, he argues that what should be abolished is their “exclusive right to do so and their power to force people to use it and to accept it at a particular price” (p. 16). Hayek concludes that

“the best the state can do with respect to money is to provide a framework of legal rules within which the people can develop the monetary institutions that best suit them… if we could prevent governments from meddling with money, we would do more good than any government has ever done in this regard. And private enterprise would probably have done better than the best they have ever done.” (p. 22)

Hayek starts the essay with a critique on John Maynard Keynes and his idea that governments or central banks should increase the aggregate of money expenditure in order to ensure prosperity and full employment. According to Hayek, an increase in money expenditure would stimulate the economy in the short run, but it would make unemployment worse on the long run. For a more detailed explanation of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory that Hayek has supported, you can read this article of mine – you have to be able to read Dutch though.

What I find most interesting about Hayek in the essay, next to his great arguments why we should allow currency competition on the market place, is that he seems to have become more embittered with politics and the common people at the point of writing in 1976. Just as my opinion of governments and the public have worsened over the years, so too has Hayek’s opinion over the course of his lifetime. He writes:

“I never had much illusion in this respect, but I must confess that in the course of a long life my opinion of governments has steadily worsened: the more intelligently they try to act (as distinguished from simply following an established rule), the more harm they seem to do – because once they are known to aim at particular goals (rather than merely maintaining a self-correcting spontaneous order) the less they can avoid serving sectional interests.” (p. 14)

“No worse traps could have been set for a democratic system in which the government is forced to act on the beliefs that the people think to be true. Our only hope for a stable money is indeed now to find a way to protect money from politics.” (p. 16)

What is Hayek’s proposal for the world in 1976? He writes:

“At this moment it seems that the best thing we could wish governments to do is for, say, all the members of the European Economic Community, or, better still, all the governments of the Atlantic Community, to bind themselves mutually not to place any restrictions on the free use within their territories of one another’s – or any other – currencies, including their purchase and sale at any price the parties decide upon, or on their use as accounting unites in which to keep books. This, and not a utopian European Monetary Unit, seems to me now both the practicable and the desirable arrangement to aim at. To make the scheme effective it would be important, for reasons I state later, also to provide that banks in one country be free to establish branches in any of the others.” (p. 17)

Fortunately, our technologies have rapidly changed since then. We are now able to create crypto-currencies that are in direct competition with governments’ or central banks’ issued currencies. I hope that such alternative currencies like Bitcoins will eventually weed out federal currencies and will stop the erosion of our money’s value. A currency that cannot be printed out of thin air would lead to a much safer world as governments cannot finance their wars through inflation anymore. Nor can they secretly usurp ‘taxes’ on seigniorage.

Reference
Hayek, F.A. (1976). Choice In Currency: A Way To Stop Inflation. Institute Of Economic Affairs