Watson my mind today

Apart from grading, reviewing, and my soon-to-be 5-yr-old’s birthday, that is…

–  A good question from Don Boudreaux. “Assuming (contrary to fact) that American trade deficits do necessarily cause Americans’ indebtedness to foreigners to rise, why do you bemoan these deficits? Why not instead cheer them? … Being indebted to foreigners means that we Americans must repay these debts, which in turn means that we Americans must in the future work to produce more goods and services for export. Isn’t this situation precisely what you and other protectionists want? Isn’t a rise in the demand for American exports – especially a rise not derived from, or offset by, a simultaneous rise in American imports – your very ideal?”

–  Speaking of protectionism, Tyler Cowen on Elizabeth Warren’s agriculture proposal: “a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.” It fails to understand inflation and food price data, calls for more protectionism, and doesn’t remove subsidies. He says he might be persuadable on a “right to repair” law, but worries about copyright infringement.

–  One of the issues Ludwig von Mises himself, I am told, never fully settled in his mind was over patents and copyright. It seems a necessary evil to encourage innovation, but granting someone a government-sanctioned monopoly just grates the wrong way. Now we’ve got “patent trolls” to add to the mix, who do not innovate themselves but buy up patents to collect licenses and sue or threaten to sue others. A paper finds that patent trolls encourage more upstream innovation while discouraging downstream innovation.

–  Why does Scott Sumner simultaneously support the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike last year and expect a cut this year? As a market monetarist, he would like the market to dictate Fed policy and “the fed funds futures market forecasts a rate cut. … Because markets continue to forecast slightly below 2% inflation, even as the economy slows, the market forecast of an interest rate cut should be taken as evidence that a rate cut is probably needed at some point this year.” I also enjoyed the picture that goes with the article – he is an owl, neither a hawk nor a dove.

–  There’s a dictionary, detailing how Africans speak about politics, including some fascinating idioms. “Three-piece suit voting” refers to supporting the same party for all elected positions. On the contrary, “skirt-and-blouse voting” means to vote for different parties for presidential and legislative elections.” Other enjoyable examples at the link.

–  538 has an interesting piece on the perceived fairness of kidney donation systems, and the real struggle that still exists trying to get people to accept slightly less-regulated systems (let alone actually compensating donors’ families).

–  David Henderson: Occupational Licensing is a Bad Idea. Still. Really.

Twelve Things Worth Knowing According to Jacques Delacroix, PhD, Plus a Very Few Brain Food Items.

Note: I wish you all a prosperous, healthy, and writerly year 2019. (No wishes for happiness, it will come from all the above.)

I have a French nephew who is super-smart. Not long after graduating from the best school in France, he moved to Morocco where he married a super-smart Moroccan woman. He is so smart that he asked me for my intellectual will before I depart for another planet. It’s below.

Here are my qualifications: I taught in universities for thirty years, including twenty-five years in a business school in Silicon Valley. My doctorate is in sociology. (Please, don’t judge me.) My fields of specialization are Organizational Theory and the Sociology of Economic Development. My degree is from a very good university although I am a French high school dropout. My vita is linked here (pdf). Its academic part is respectable from a scholarly standpoint, no more. There is much additional info in my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, available from me, and on Amazon Kindle, and in my electronic book of memoirs in French: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration”, also on Amazon Kindle.

1. When the facts don’t fit your perspective you should change …. ? (Complete sentence.)

2. One basic complex idea worth knowing that resists learning: natural selection.

Note: the effective mechanism involved is multi-generational differential reproduction. You don’t understand natural selection until you can put a meaning on all three words.

3. Another basic idea worth knowing, a counter-intuitive one, that also resists learning: the principle of Comparative Advantage: If you are not working at what you do the very best, you are impoverishing me. There is a ten-lesson quick course on my blog to explain this. Look for short essays with the word “protectionism” in the title. A longform version can also be found, here.

4. Taking from the poor is a stupid way to try to become rich when you can invent a new world – like Steve Jobs – and be immensely rewarded for it. Or open a decent restaurant and be well rewarded, or learn welding. There isn’t much you can take from the poor anyway because they are poor. Plus, the bastards often resist!

5. Culture is in the heads (plural). Everything else isn’t “culture.”

6. How a body of people act is not simply the addition of the thinking of its individual human members. (There is a sociology!)

7. Beware those pesky fractions. Quick test: Five years ago, my income was 40% of yours. Now, my income is only 20% of yours. Am I earning less than I did five years ago?

8. Correlation is not causation but there is no causation without some sort of correlation.

9. Statistical significance is significant even if you don’t quite know what it signifies. Find out. It’s not hard.

10. Use statistical estimation methods even if you don’t understand them well. It will improve your reasoning rigor by confronting you brutally with the wrongness of your guesses. And you can only become better at it with practice.

11. There is not text that’s not improved by extirpating from it half of all adjectives and adverbs.

12. Reading is still the most efficient way to improve your comprehension of the world.

It seems to me that if you understand these twelve points inside out, you are well above average in general culture; that’s even true on a global scale.

Below are some intellectual anchoring points of my life. They are subjectively chosen, of course. Don’t lend them too much credence.

My favorite singer-composers: Jacques Brel; the Argentinean Communist Atahualpa Yupanqui. (I can’t help it.)

My favorite instrumental musics: baroque music, the blues.

My favorite painters: Caravaggio (link); Delacroix (Eugene); Delacroix (Krishna).

I don’t have a favorite book because I read all the time without trying to rank books. These three books have made a lasting impression, changed my brain pathways forever, I suspect: Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; George R. Stewart, Earth Abides; Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

The only two intelligent things I have said in my life:

“Once you know a woman well vertically, you know nothing about her horizontally.”

“There is not bad book.”

Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back: British economic growth from the industrial revolution to the financial crisis

Nick Crafts can be viewed as the doyen of British economic history. His major publications date back to the 1970s – a favorite of mine is this piece from 1977 on the role played by chance in determining whether the Industrial Revolution would occur in England or France.  He is also the joint author of the Crafts-Harley interpretation of the Industrial Revolution.  But, perhaps because the majority of his research focuses on British economic history, he remains highly underrated outside of the UK.  His new book Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back: British economic growth from the industrial revolution to the financial crisis summarizes much of his research.

I’ve reviewed it for the Economic History Review. But given the whims of academic publishing, it may be a long time until my review appears in print so I’ve decided to post a preview of my draft below.


Why was Britain the first industrial nation and the workshop of the world? Why was it eventually caught up and overtaken? Why once it had fallen behind the United States, did it fall further behind its European rivals in the Post-War period? And how did it recover its relative position in the 1980s and 1990s? All these questions are addressed in Nicholas Crafts’s slim new book.

In Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back, Crafts provides a macroeconomic perspective on the British economy from 1750 to today. The word macro is advisory. Crafts surveys the British economy from 1000 feet, through the lens of growth theory and growth accounting. The upside of this approach is that he delivers a lot of insight in a small number of pages. Readers looking for discussions of individual inventors, innovations, politicians, or discussion of specific policy decisions can look elsewhere.

The first part of the book provides an overview of the Crafts-Harley view of the British Industrial Revolution. This view emphasizes the limited scope of economic change in the early 19th century. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, the British economy already had a comparatively modern structure, with many individuals working outside agriculture. Growth between 1770 and 1850 was highly reliant on a few key sectors and TFP growth was modest (0.4% a year). Most workers remained employed in traditional sectors of the economy. It took until the second half of the 19th century for the benefits of steam, the general purpose technology of the age, to fully diffuse through the economy. Nonetheless, from a long-run perspective, the achievements of this period, a small but sustained increases in per capita GDP despite rapid population growth, were indeed revolutionary.

An important theme of the book is institutional path dependency. Characteristics of Britain’s early position as an industrial leader continued to shape its political economy down to the end of the 20th century. Crafts mentions two interesting instances of this. First, Britain’s precocious reliance on food imports from the early 19th century onwards left a legacy that was favorable of free trade. Elsewhere in the world democratization in the late 19th century often led to protectionism, but in Britain, it solidified support for free trade because, after the expansion of the franchise, the median voter was an urban worker dependent on cheap imported bread. Second, industrial relationships were shaped the nature of the economy in the 19th century. Britain thus inherited a strong tradition of craft unions that would have consequences in conflicts between labor and capital in the 20th century.

The second part of the book considers the late Victorian, Edwardian, and inter-war periods. It was in the late 19th century that the United States overtook Britain. A venerable scholarship has identified this period as one of economic failure. Crafts, however, largely follows McCloskey in exonerating Edwardian Britain from the charge of economic failure. The presence of fierce competition limited managerial inefficiencies in most areas of the economy; though there were notable failures in sectors where competition was limited such as the railways. The main policies errors in this area were thus ones of omission rather than commission: more could have been done to invest in R&D and support basic science – an area where the US certainly invested in more than the UK.

The seeds of failure, for Crafts, were sown in the interwar period. Traditionally these years have been viewed relatively favorably by economic historians, as the 1930s saw a shift away from Industrial Revolution patterns of economic activity and investment in new sectors. However, in a comparative light, TFP growth in the interwar period was significantly slower than in the US. The new industries did not establish a strong export position. This period also saw the establishment of a managed economy, in which policymakers acceded to a marked decline in market competition. Protectionism and cartelization kept profits high but at a cost of long-run productivity growth that would only be fully revealed in the post-war period.

Most economic historians view the postwar period through the lens of Les Trente Glorieuses. But in Britain, it has long been recognized that this was an era of missed opportunities. Simple growth accounting suggests that Britain underperformed relative to its European peers. Thus though the British economy grew faster in these years than in any other period; it is in this period that Britain’s relative failure should be located.

Crafts examines this failure using insights from the literature on “varieties of capitalism” which contrasts coordinated market economies like West Germany with liberal market economies like the United States or Britain. In the favorable conditions of postwar recovery and growth, coordinated market economies saw labor cooperate with capital enabling both high investment and wage restraint. Britain, however, lacked the corporatist trade unions of France or West Germany. As a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, it inherited a diverse set of overlapping craft unions which could not internalize the benefits of wage restraint and often opposed new technologies or managerial techniques. Britain functioned as a dysfunctional liberal market economy, one that became increasingly sclerotic as the 1960s passed into the 1970s.

An important insight I got from this book is that government failure and market failure are not independent.  Examples of government failure from the postwar period are plentiful. Industrial policy was meant to “pick winners.” But “it was losers like Ross Royce, British Leyland ad Alfred Herbert who picked Minsters” (p. 91). Market power became increasingly concentrated. Approximately 1/3 of the British economy in the 1950s was cartelized and 3/4 saw some level of price fixing. Britain’s exclusion from the EEC until the 1970s meant that protective barriers were high, enabling inefficient firms and managerial practices to survive. High marginal rates of taxation and weak corporate governance encouraged managers to take their salary in the form of in-kind benefits, and deterred innovation. Labor relations became increasingly hostile as the external economic environment worsened following the end of Bretton Woods.

Britain recovered its relative economic position after 1979 through radical economic reforms and a dramatic shift in policy objectives. Though of course, the Thatcher period saw numerous missteps and policy blunders, what Crafts argues was most important was that there was an increase in product market competition, a reduction in market distortions, and a reduction of trade union power, factors provided the space that enabled the British economy to benefit from the ICT revolution in the 1990s.

Rarely does one wish a book to be longer. But this is the case with Forging Ahead, Falling Behind, and Fighting Back. In particular, while a short and sharp overview of the Industrial Revolution is entirely appropriate, given the number of pages written on this topic in recent years, the last part of the book does need extra pages; the argument here is too brief and requires more evidence and substantive argumentation. One wishes, for instance, that the theme of institutional path dependency was developed in more detail. Despite this, Forging Ahead, Falling Behind, and Fighting Back is a notable achievement. It provides a masterly survey of British economy history tied together by insights from economic theory.

American protectionism and Asian responses

On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.

It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.

Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.

The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading

Midweek Reader: The Folly of Trump’s Tariffs

With stocks plummeting this week upon an announcement of retaliatory tariffs by China in response to a recent spate of steel and aluminum tariffs from the Trump administration, it seems a midweek reader on the situation is appropriate.

  • At the Washington Post, Rick Noack explains how Trump is going into unprecedented territory since the WTO was founded, and why existing trade norms probably can’t stem a trade war. A slice:

    But while China has used the WTO to accuse the United States of unfairly imposing trade restrictions over the last months, Trump does not appear interested in being dragged into the dispute settlement process. In fact, Trump appears to be deliberately undermining the legitimacy of that process by saying that his tariffs plan was based on “national security” concerns. WTO rules mandate that a member state can claim exceptions from its trade obligations if the member’s national security is at stake.

    That reasoning has long been a no-go among WTO member states, because they understand  that triggering trade disputes under a “national security” framework could eventually render the WTO meaningless.

  • Last month at the Chicago TribuneSteve Chapman had a good op-ed showing why Trump’s justification of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds is bogus:

    But putting tariffs on all imports to prevent dependence on China or Russia is like throwing away your library card to avoid bad books. It would make more sense to focus on the guilty countries rather than deploy a sprayer that also soaks the innocent.

    The national security risk is minuscule, though. Imports make up only one-third of the steel we use, and the Pentagon requires less than 3 percent of our domestic output. No enemy has us over a barrel, because we buy steel from 110 different countries.

    Most of what we import comes from allies and friends, including Canada, South Korea and Mexico, which would have no reason to cut us off in a crisis. If China stopped shipping to us, friendlier countries would leap to grab the business.

  • Also at the Washington Post last month, historian Marc-William Palen gives numerous historical examples of how nobody wins in trade wars and how they can threaten our national security by arousing populist resentment of the US abroad. A slice:

    The trade wars that followed the Republican passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised duties on hundreds of imports, similarly contain illustrative lessons for today. Canada responded with tariff increases of its own, for example, as did Europe.

    In a widely cited study from 1934, political economist Joseph M. Jones Jr. explored Europe’s retaliation. His study provided a warning about the trade wars that can arise when a single nation’s tariff policy “threatens with ruin” specialized industries in other countries, arousing “bitterness” throughout their populations.

  • At Cato’s At LibertyDaniel Ikeson explains how Trump’s tariffs establish a dangerous international precedent that will threaten US interests elsewhere:

    By signing these tariffs into law, President Trump has substantially lowered the bar for discretionary protectionism, inviting governments around the world to erect trade barriers on behalf of favored industries.  Ongoing efforts to dissuade China from continuing to force U.S. technology companies to share source code and trade secrets as the cost of entering the Chinese market will likely end in failure, as Beijing will be unabashed about defending its Cybersecurity Law and National Security Law as measures necessary to protect national security.  That would be especially incendiary, given that the Trump administration is pursuing resolution of these issues through another statute—Section 301 of the Trade act of 1974—which could also lead the president to impose tariffs on China unilaterally.

  • The Independent Institute’s Robert Higgs reminds us that citing trade deficits is misleading:

    In reality, individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments trade with other such entities, some of which are located in the same country and others of which are located in other countries. The location of the trading partners has no economic significance whatsoever. Trading entities enter into exchanges voluntarily, each one in each transaction anticipating a gain from the trade. Hence, in expectational terms, every such trade entails a gain from trade, or in other words an addition to the trader’s wealth.

  • At American Greatness, Henry Olsen tries to give a communitarian justification of protectionism:

    So-called populist movements around the world are gaining strength because their voters no longer feel like valued members of their nations. They do not believe their worth should decline because the owners of capital say so, nor do they think their life dreams or values should be denigrated simply because the most educated have different visions.

    Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

  • At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan explains why communitarianism cannot justify protectionist policies:

    Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

  • Finally, given its relevance at the moment, it’s worth revisiting Paul Krugman’s classic essay “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” which remains the best account of why non-economist intellectuals have a hard understanding free trade:

    (i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

    (ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

Mormons and California’s Gold Rush

The folks over at RealClearHistory have enjoyed my weekly column so much that they’ve invited me to write a second weekly column for their Historiat blog. I was tasked with writing the introductory essay for a blog that has been dormant for 3 years. Here’s an excerpt:

Initially the Mormon leadership in Nauvoo sought to establish a new homeland in northern California – which was far enough away from the American, Mexican, and British governments to be considered safe – and Brannan was tasked with the initial wave of settlement. Once Brigham Young reached the Salt Lake valley, however, he changed his mind and decided that the state of Deseret should be run from Salt Lake City instead of northern California. Much of this decision had to do with the fact that the trek from Nauvoo, Ill. to Utah was so arduous, and there was little inclination to keep pressing onward to northern California through the Great Basin’s high altitude desert. But Samuel Brannan’s success in San Francisco, coupled with his earlier wayward fancies, also played a part in Brigham Young’s decision to establish the Mormon church’s capital in Utah instead of northern California. Samuel Brannan was competing with Brigham Young to be the leader of the Mormon church.

Please, read the rest. I am not quite sure if there will be a specific day assigned for my Historiat posts, but my regularly-scheduled Friday column is still a thang.

I haven’t seen anybody here explain why Trump’s protectionist tariffs are horrible (yet), so here’s Jacques on the topic. Here is the NY Times on the same topic.

Stock markets and economic growth: from Smoot-Hawley to Donald Trump

In a recent article for the Freeman, Steve Horwitz (who has the great misfortune of being my co-author) argued that stock markets tell us very little about trends in economic growth. Stock markets tell us a lot about profits, but profits of firms on the stock market may be higher because of cronyism. Basically, that is Steve’s argument. He applies this argument in order to respond to those who say that a soaring stock market is the proof that Donald Trump is “good” for the economy.

I know Steve’s article was published roughly a month ago, so I am a little late. But I tend to believe it is never too late to talk about economic history. And basically, its worth pointing out that there are economic history examples to show Steve’s point. In fact, its the best example: Smoot-Hawley.

Bernard Beaudreau from Laval University has advanced, for some years, an underconsumptionist view of the Great Depression (I consider it a “dead theory”). While I am highly unconvinced by this theory (in both its original and current “post-keynesian” reformulation), Beaudreau tries hard to resurrect the theory (see here and here) and merits to be discussed. In the process, Beaudreau attempted to reestimated the effects of of Smoot-Hawley on the stock market with an events study. Unconvinced about the rest of his research, this is a clear instance of sorting the wheat from the chaff. In this case, the wheat is his work (see here for his article in Essays in Economic and Business History) on Smoot-Hawley.

Basically, Beaudreau found that good news regarding the probability of the adoption of the tariff bill actually pushed the stock market to appreciate. Thus, Smoot-Hawley -which had so many negative macroeconomic ramifications* – actually boosted the stock market. Firms that gained from the rising tariffs actually saw greater profits for themselves and thus the firms on the stock market would have been excited at the prospect of restricting their competitors. If that is true, could it be that Donald Trump is the modern equivalent (for the stock market) of Smoot-Hawley.

*NDLR: I believe that Allan Meltzer was right in saying that the Smoot-Hawley might have had monetary ramifications that contributed to the money supply collapse. It was a real shock that precipitated the collapse of weak banks which then caused a nominal shock and then the sh*t hit the proverbial fan.