Category Archives: Crony capitalism

The Freedom Illusion

Today I write this article on Memorial Day while visiting a country (Germany) that those we honor today arguably did fight to bring freedom to. Although to be precise that was only an indirect consequence of the war. They were actually fighting to stop the military encroachment of Germany on its neighbors. Had Germany been content to stay within its borders and continue on with the fascist policies of the National Socialists it is no doubt certain Americans would have not gone there to “fight for freedom.” I have often heard the phrase “as the world watched in horror” concerning the atrocities of World War II. But that is not entirely true. Some may have watched in horror, but the vast majority of people both inside and outside those countries run by fascist regimes (Germany, Italy, Spain) simply watched and shrugged their shoulders. Nothing to see here, after all, the law is the law.

Today with our 20/20 hindsight we can clearly see the violations of human liberty that occur under such fascist regimes. Now we beat our chests about how such violations of freedom must be opposed. All the while we remain blind to the violations of liberty occurring in our midst. If we open our eyes what do we see? Well if we can manage to wipe the fog from the lenses of our rose colored glasses we can see most ruling regimes follow that same fascist template we now so heartily decry. Fascism originated in World War I Italy and came to prominence under Mussolini. Others soon followed (Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain) along with our own FDR. Fortunately we had a Supreme Court that tempered some of FDR’s alphabet soup of new “public-private partnership” agencies, but America was clearly on a fascist path. Today we are on that path yet again. To be clear, Fascism is not Nazism. Fascism is better known today as Corporatism, or Crony-Capitalism. It is a tight alliance between business and the state wherein the state calls the shots and the businesses that are serving the interests of the state collaboratively comply (energy independence, environmentalism, healthcare, education, etc). And everyone cheers the perceived benefits of sacrificed freedom.

So on this Memorial Day honor those that believed they were fighting for our freedom by recognizing the direction the world is headed in. Consider for a moment how much freedom we have already sacrificed in our permission based society. One is not free if one must ask permission to: start a business, get a job, hire employees, drive a cab, sell a product or service, keep their income, cross a border, get married, own a home. One is not free if one is subject to search and seizure in their own home or for merely walking or driving because they might have in their possession that is not approved. And on and on.

Honor the fallen (and those still with us) by fighting to both regain freedoms lost and by not sacrificing any more freedom. What the state gives us in return is either an illusion (safety) or that which we could have achieved on our own as free individuals.

Trading Places

A basic economic principle is the necessity of accounting for both the seen and the unseen (first elucidated by the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat). It provides a basis for understanding how politicians perennially cast themselves in the role of Santa Claus whilst picking our pockets. We are a willing audience to the magician who dazzles us with (for example) public works project (the seen benefit) while remaining unaware of the unseen harms unfolding (those things not done, created, or attempted due to diversion of resources into the political projects). The principal works for any intervention into people’s lives. For example, sanctions or trade embargos are often put in place in order to influence the actions of the leaders of another country. Although there is not a single historical precedent for this ever working, it remains the most popular passive-aggressive tool in the arsenal of the state. The language used to speak of such embargos employs the ruse of anthropomorphization (“America” cuts off trade to “Iran”) in order to hide the underlying reality that rather than the target country being harmed it is the individuals that constitute that country that are harmed. See, it’s not millions of people being made to suffer; it’s just a nebulous non-human “country”. Those who engage in these practices of course understand the reality of weighing human suffering and misery against the greater good of their desired ends. Indeed it was Madeline Albright’s admission that the deaths of approximately half a million Iraqi children during the 1990s sanctions against Iraq were “worth it” in order to achieve their goals (this remark was specifically cited by Osama Bin Laden as one of the many reasons behind the 9/11 attacks).

But that is just the seen harm. There is also an unseen harm levied against US citizens and businesses who are barred from trading with the country embargoed (for example, Iran). Iranians want to buy US made goods. US businesses want to sell those goods. We have a willing buyer and a willing seller being prevented from engaging in trade because of a belligerent busy-body-bully in the middle. Those lost sales for US businesses will not be made up somewhere else – they are simply gone. These missed opportunities lead to more unseen harms – lost jobs, or rather jobs that would have been created but never were.

To the extent US businesses have foreign competitors in countries lacking an embargo against Iran then it is our own government that is pushing sales into the arms of their competitors. Brilliant. Some might say that this loss in sales to US companies is “worth it”, that it is their patriotic duty to suffer through such lost sales in order to help our country battle the existential threat we face from a country… that has never threatened us nor attacked any other country in over two-hundred years. Well that is certainly easy to say when you’re not the one cruising past potential income you are barred from touching. Ask yourself, would you willingly skip annual bonuses if your government told you it would help influence Iran? Yeah, I didn’t think so. And apparently Boeing doesn’t think so either   – this politically well-connected company managed to get itself on a short list of companies exempt from the current trade embargo with Iran. How convenient. Apparently the expediency of pleasing big donors trumps the so-called “national interest” that applies to everyone else. Justice for all indeed.

Market Justice

The standoff between ranchers and the federal government at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building in Harney County, Oregon can be distilled down to one core issue: property rights. The Hammond’s land abuts Federal lands and due to their past less than neighborly management practices (setting containment fires that got out of hand) their neighbors (the Feds) believed they had the right to throw their neighbor (the Hammonds) in a cage for one year. Which they did. Then they decided to give it a different name (terrorism) and throw them in a cage for another 4 years. That’s when the Hammonds objected and said enough is enough. Just imagine if your next-door neighbor could lock you up in a cage at their whim for any perceived transgression. That would surely be quite frustrating and dare I say terrorizing? To know that any minor misstep could result in your freedom and liberties being ripped away from you is indeed terror inducing. Welcome to the world of the American Indian.

The federal government has been terrorizing the American Indian for the past 200 years. They’ve had a lot of practice. They’ve become quite adept at it. The modern western rancher is simply the latest recipient of this unilateral wielding of overwhelming violent force.  So to the ranchers I say this: your ownership and the related benefits of your land and abutting federal lands is the result of prior violence by the Federal government on behalf of your ancestors or predecessors. The Feds stole it from the Indians and made it available at a fraction of its value to millions of homesteaders. That is not homesteading, that is theft and redistribution.

While it is true that the Federal government has wrought numerous distortions into the fabric of society and the economy and some have benefited while others have been harmed, these past transgressions are so complex, intertwined and convoluted as to make it impossible to untie such a Gordian knot and make amends. But, presently the Federal government owns approximately 28% of the land in the United States – the vast majority of having belonged to one Indian tribe or another.  There is no chain of a multitude of prior owners; there is a direct link of ownership of Indians->Federal Government. In virtually all cases the transfer was illegitimately obtained through acts of violence. If the current presidential administration is so concerned with righting past wrongs and the redistribution of wealth then it should immediately hand over all property rights in federally owned lands to those tribes (still in existence) with the strongest past territorial claim.

Such a transfer would instantly transform many of the impoverished Indian reservations, who rely on a constant influx of Federal money to maintain their citizenry, into powerhouses of wealth. A $1 billion lotto jackpot pales in comparison to a $1 trillion jackpot! In other words the land would be taken from “public” use to “private” use. The new private owners could do with the land as they see fit relative to all economically demanded uses coming from the market. That is, those uses that people most want to see would have the most money behind them and enable the highest bid to prevail. People vote for what they want with their dollars and those with the most votes wins. Some tribes might maintain their land as a natural preserve. Some might sell portions to farmers, ranchers or those wishing to develop them commercially. Some might buy the land and build high rises, new factories, or wind farms. Others (like the Sierra Club) might buy land and create their own “private” nature reserve, where they, and not the federal government, is in control of its (seeing as how the Feds often allow mining or logging in “protected” regions).

In short, in one fell swoop a big chunk of the past wrongs against the American Indian could be rectified (nothing of course could ever undo all the damage) while simultaneously releasing nearly 1/3 of the land mass of this country into the most efficient system the world has ever known for optimizing the use of scarce and rivalrous resources: the market.

In a mirror dimly

For all that is wrong with the Trump candidacy (xenophobic neo-fascist tendencies) the silver lining is that it is forcing us to face the ugly truth about democracy: mob rule is a frightful thing to behold. Trump is one of “us” and his popularity is a reflection of what the “mob” wants. Everyone loves democracy when it is their ideas that are popular but when the mob turns stupid it doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Trump may be the first true “people’s candidate” for president that has an actual chance of winning. His financial independence all but guarantees he is not beholden to any individual, special interest, or political party elite. To the extent any candidate receives some measure of public or private funding, their words and deeds are held to account by the one doling out the money. Trump is accountable to no one but himself and the voters.

Since the advent of political parties we have been led to believe elections are about a democratic process, that we are making a choice and a difference – but – that is a lie, or rather, an illusion. A very apt line from the Matrix movies provides some context, “Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.” Those who already have power: the party bosses, the monolithic media outlets, the oligarchical dynasties (Roosevelt’s, Kennedy’s, Bush’s, Clinton’s) – they all understand and work the system to their advantage. That is, they present the illusion of choice so as to keep the masses pacified into believing they are in control of their destinies. But like choosing a white paint chip from an ocean of slightly variable gradations of white, the final choice is still just that: white. But Trump, Trump is lime green. He is a starkly different choice. He, unlike any of us, has the money to buy a seat at the table where they are doling out cards in the high stakes game of poker that is a run for the presidency. Perhaps Trump has touched a populist nerve because deep down we all know there is no choice. His candidacy is not so much support for Trump the man but rather support for NOTA (none of the above).

Trump may be spouting idiotic things, but Trump is no idiot. He is a masterful salesman and knows how to work a room. He, like any good conman or salesman, understands his audience/mark. Give them what they want and they’ll return the favor. Trump reflects America, but dimly. (1 Corinthians 13:12) Is his persona the true man, or merely a reflection of his environment? If elected we shall know fully. Most candidates appeal to the voter’s intellect, Trump appeals to their emotions (and not the good ones, i.e. fear, anxiety). This visceral appeal is a dim reflection of the American psyche. It is also a dangerous one. Emotion acts mindlessly without consideration of the consequences. History repeatedly tells a dark tale about leaders that preyed on the emotions of their subjects.

But Trump is not a solution to the moneyed concentration of power, he is merely a symptom, an immune response if you will – that cough you just can’t get rid of. Although the leftist progressives bleat incessantly on the need for government to hold the evil capitalists at bay lest they gain control of society, they miss the central irony here that their greatest fear (control of society by moneyed interests) has already come to pass not in spite of, but because of, government. Government is not a divine institution that has been corrupted by man. It is a human institution that exudes the very human nature from whence it is derived.

Think of it like this: government is simply another business. The key difference, though, is that what it sells is the ability to legally exert aggression against those that do not do its bidding. Its competitive advantage is that it is a self-declared monopoly within its arbitrarily defined geographical region. So what person, group, or other business would NOT want to tap into exerting some influence over how such a business operates? Is it really such a mystery as to why so many work so hard for so long to access that power and divert it to their advantage?

Some say the answer is to remove money from politics, but given that politics is just another economic transaction, that option is about as doable as converting to a barter economy. No, the solution is not less government, but more. That is, it is time to break up the monopoly and decentralize power to the point where our choices are not constrained but manifold. Power is kept in check when the individual is not compelled as a matter of law to acquiesce to the demands of others but may choose with whom they shall associate by voting with their wallet or, if necessary, with their feet.

Do no harm?

A recent conversation with a friend highlighted the fact that even among conservatives there is a pervasive belief that “unfettered” markets require some level of “control” by the government. The poster child for this viewpoint is Rockefeller’s Standard Oil which at its peak achieved 90% market share. The formation of such a “monopoly” (it wasn’t, a monopoly would be 100% market share – something only a government can achieve in the many areas it deems worthy of nationalization) is sufficient proof in their minds of both ill deeds and ill intent. Unfortunately the facts do not support a narrative of ill will. In 1865 when Rockefeller was just starting and had virtually no market share kerosene cost 58¢/gallon. By 1870 Standard Oil’s (SO) share was a mere 4% and yet they had driven the price down to 26¢. Only 10 years later SO’s market share had shot up to 90% and did prices skyrocket as well under this “monopoly”? No, prices declined to 9¢. And by 1890 still at 90% market share prices fell even further to 7¢.  So who exactly was harmed here? Certainly not the consumers of kerosene.

One could argue that the competitors were “harmed” but so what? SO achieved its market position by becoming more efficient so that it could profitably charge lower prices. It did not engage in violence or the threat of violence to achieve its goals, as the state/government is wont to do. Mere “harm” cannot be the nebulous standard by which we invoke the necessity of state intervention. If five people apply for a job then the four that did not get the job are arguably harmed, so, should the state step in and penalize the person who got the job by making him or her share it with the others? When two sports teams play each other is not the losing team “harmed”? Upset fans, potential decreased ticket sales, lower potential ad revenue – all these things constitute types of harm, yet no one is (yet) screaming for the state to step in. Most likely because all recognize the solution would be absurd – they would simply mandate all games end in a tie or that wins and losses must be equalized. We certainly can’t have an unequal “win” distribution, how unfair.

One type of specific harm that anti-trust proponents say must be banned is the practice of “predatory pricing”. This is the practice of a competitor temporarily lowering their price and losing money in order to drive out competitors that can’t afford to lose money as long (the economic equivalent of a game of “chicken”). Problem is, this has never actually happened. Sure there might be temporary “price wars” between competing retailers that go on for a few days, but neither side gets ahead and at the end of the day no company has ever actually been driven out of business this way. The reason for this is the following: either you have to buy up the whole world (impossible) or the act of driving competitors into bankruptcy creates replacements that can more readily compete on price. For example, if a competitor went into bankruptcy then someone else would buy up their assets at pennies on the dollar and reopen the business with a much lower operating overhead. Now they are in a much better position to compete with you. Not a useful outcome.

But lets say for the sake of argument somehow it all worked and you could drive out competitors this way. Where is the natural rights violation? What is essentially happening here is large competitor A is using their deep financial resources (savings) to compete with small competitor B in a way that B is incapable of because of their smaller size. Is this unfair? Well before you answer that consider that this goes on all day long in the business world. Larger companies can spend a lot more of their financial resources (savings) on: more sales personnel, larger R&D budget, improving efficiency through automation and so on. That is deemed perfectly fair, however using those exact same resources to facilitate deep pricing discount is not. Simply put, there is no reason to arbitrarily single out such a practice and threaten to throw people in cages if they engage in it. It is no more of an excuse for state intervention in the market than is a dislike of the font in a company’s logo.

As long as no aggression (fraud, violence, or the threat of violence) is occurring then any and all actions or businesses or products should be permitted. No one should live in fear that men with guns will throw them in cages because of someone’s subjective opinion of what constitutes fairness or harm. Opinions are fine, but opinions backed up by a threat of violence violate everyone’s natural right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Zombieland

There is a type of parasite known as “zombie” parasites. They alter the brain chemistry of their host and cause them to engage in behavior that they would normally never undertake. Naturally these behaviors benefit the parasite at the expense of the host. For example the Nematomorph hairworm targets grasshoppers and will compel them to dive directly into bodies of water – an apparent suicide. To someone unaware of the parasitical influence this behavior would be truly baffling. Humankind will also engage in similarly baffling behavior due to the influence of its parasite: the state. Likewise, to those unaware of the state’s infection of society, human behavior can be sometimes baffling. For example, just this week there was much moral outrage over the revelation that a Martin Shkreli (owner of Turing Pharmaceuticals) purchased the rights to manufacturer the drug pyrimethamine (brand name Daraprim) and promptly raised the price from $13.50 to $750 per pill. How can this be?! This is horrible; obviously this is an example of “market failure” that must be remedied by state intervention to ensure such greedy bastards can’t get away with such imprudent behavior. Oh, there is greed in play here, but it is not entirely of Shkreli’s doing, he has a good friend helping him out: the state. Acting like a zombie parasite injecting poison into its victim’s brain, the state distorts natural market incentives to such a degree that we are left with nothing but head-scratching outcomes such as this.

The first clue that the state is involved in this mess was the phrase “bought the rights” peppered throughout every new report on this matter. How does one buy the right to make something? Any reasonably competent organic chemist could look at the structure of that drug and figure out how to make it.* What is preventing someone from doing that and eschewing the need to buy the “rights” to make it? The state. Acting under the auspices of the patent office and the FDA the state creates an artificial monopoly barrier for the production of goods as well as their importation into this country. In essence the state acts as the hired goons of Company A that holds a patent or a licenses to produce Drug B. If anyone else tries to produce or import Drug B, those hired goons will take them down. Don’t believe me? Here are the facts: The FDA bans the importation of this drug (for example, a company in India currently makes it for 10¢ a pill) – so Shkreli is safe from that sort of competition. And because he has bought the “right” to make it in the US, that means no one else can make it unless they go through an onerous and expensive FDA approval process. And he didn’t just buy the rights for a song, no, he spent $55 million to acquire those “rights.” So from a strictly economic standpoint the price increase makes sense. The value of a capital acquisition is driven by the price its products can command on the market. Clearly under a monopoly situation (only made possible by the state) it can command a very high price indeed. Absent such monopoly rights, the recipe for the production of that drug would have had some value but certainly no where near $55 million worth.

When the pundits and critics blame the “free” market for this sort of ridiculous outcome I am left to ponder what an odd definition they must have for the word “free”. Does “free” mean to be influenced and controlled by an implicitly violent cartel of bureaucrats that restricts, regulates, licenses, subsidizes, and outlaws in favor of the few at the expense of the many? If so, then I’d like less freedom please. Like the unfortunate grasshopper most of society is willfully ignorant of the parasitical influence in our midst and so, like the grasshopper, we blindly leap into the abyss.

* please see this page for a discussion of the inevitable “but without IP no one will innovate” objection

Paddling in Circles

One of the more frustrating “Trumpisms” is his idea that in order for American to “win,” US exports must exceed US imports. He sees the entire country as just one big corporation whose sole purpose is to make a “profit” by exporting more than it imports (that is, sells goods at a greater value than what it paid for them). This simplistic viewpoint is deeply flawed. It presumes trade is a zero-sum game where one side always “wins” and the other side “loses” in the exchange. Indeed this mindset would mean every time we buy groceries the store has “won” and we have “lost.” Trade is always a win-win game; both parties have gained more than they gave up, otherwise they would not have made the exchange.

Viewing trade at a macro-level is myopic at best (as it ignores the underlying individual decisions being made by billions of people) but in order to make a point we will proceed with that fiction. That point is this: a trade surplus or deficit can never exist. Although that may sound shocking at first it really shouldn’t when you consider the nature of any trade. If I buy a candy bar, I hand the clerk a few dollars. Does the store now have a trade surplus with respect to me? Do I have a trade deficit with respect to the store? Of course not. The store traded away a candy bar and traded in money. I did the exact reverse. So when we consider China and US trade we see that China sends us a whole host of goods and we send them green paper rectangles. Now, ignoring the fact that Federal Reserve is constantly swelling the money supply for its friends on Wall Street, we’ll assume that the supply of US currency is constant. Given that assumption we must ask: how did we acquire those pieces of paper to give to China? We got them by producing goods and services for someone else. So if we send $x to China for $x worth of goods A that means we had to first produce $x worth of goods B. China didn’t want goods B, they wanted the money. That is the nature of indirect exchange and is why money is an emergent property of trade (it solves the double coincident of wants problem).

Ok, but some will say that’s all fine and good, but the problem we have is that the total export of goods to all countries is less than total imports of goods from all countries. So even though the US may have a trade surplus with respect to US dollars, we have a deficit with respect to goods. That is true. But it doesn’t it matter, or rather it shouldn’t matter. The only reason this is viewed as a problem is because of the artificial attempts to solve it actually make the problem worse. In order to explain the problem we must once again assume that the quantity of money is constant. In that case, as more goods come into the US and more money flows out of the US there will be fewer and fewer dollars remaining in the US. This is called deflation (a contract of the quantity of money). This is natural and does not cause depressions or any other nonsense like that (no matter what your 4th grade teacher told you). Under deflation money is in high demand (because there isn’t a lot of it), which means the money price of goods decline (in order to get that scarce money, people will trade more and more goods for it – hence prices fall). So if prices of goods made in the US fall, what do you think that would do in terms of making American goods more competitive to overseas buyers with fistfuls of dollars? That’s right, they’ll start buying all those cheap US goods which will naturally swing the trade pendulum the other way, with more goods leaving the US than coming in and likewise more money coming in than leaving.

That this does not occur presently is a testament to how much the Federal Reserve and US monetary policy has distorted these natural incentives. The Federal Reserve short circuits this natural feedback system and inflates the money supply. This very temporarily makes US goods cheaper overseas (buy devaluing the exchange rate of the US dollar relative to other currencies that are inflating less rapidly), but (a) it doesn’t last long because other countries quickly adjust their inflation to counterbalance the effect and (b) it has the deleterious side effect of making US goods MORE expensive for US buyers (that’s what inflation does, it increases the money price of goods). So, under the natural system of deflation ALL prices fall which benefits both domestic and international trade. However under the artificial Fed induced inflation system we have domestic prices rise while relative prices for international buyers fall for a short period but then quickly also rise resulting in market disruptions and distortions. Using money creation to solve trade problems is like rowing a boat with one paddle forward and the other paddle backwards.

If we want to “fix” trade we need to examine the current incentives created by the distortions into the market introduced by Fed monetary policy. Only then will we see we need to do less, not more, to “fix” the situation.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday – Not!

Jimmy enjoyed life. To more fully enjoy it Jimmy needed some money. Jimmy could have worked and saved and worked and saved – but that takes too long. Jimmy wanted to enjoy life NOW. So Jimmy borrowed money from Bob and promised to repay it later – he was a young man; he had plenty of time to pay it back. But Jimmy quickly burned through that loan and was unwilling to suffer the indignation of giving up his carefree lifestyle. So he asked to borrow some more – and he was given more, but at a higher interest rate that reflected Bob’s growing uncertainty about Jimmy’s ability to pay him back. This cycle continued for a while until the interest rate got high enough that Jimmy started to borrow less and less. Then came along Jimmy’s wealthier, older brother Timmy who agreed to co-sign all future loans with Jimmy. Knowing how wealthy Timmy was, Bob felt a lot better about his prospects for getting repaid, so he agreed to a lower interest rate. With this new found credit-worthiness Jimmy went on a binge of borrowing that vastly exceeded what he had done up to that point. This cycle of new Timmy-guaranteed loans continued until one day Timmy said “no more.” To help his brother out Timmy convinced Bob (owing to their strong business relationship) to take a “haircut” on the outstanding loans (that is, write down the amount owed) if Jimmy promised to get his financial affairs in order. Jimmy agreed and Bob complied. But after only a few years Jimmy was back to his old borrow and spend ways and Timmy and Bob had had enough. No more loans until Jimmy paid his loans on time. Jimmy was capable of doing this, but only by drastically cutting back his expenditures. Predictably Jimmy balked. He insisted he would not pay back anything unless Bob once again took a “haircut” and gave him more time to repay. The moral of the story? Don’t live beyond your means by borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today’s luxuries. Also, don’t lend money to those that obviously are unable or unwilling to repay it. This advice applies equally to individuals as well as to countries.

For those unfamiliar with the details of the current Greek debt crisis this little tale above illustrates in the abstract how Greece has behaved over the years. All the details are true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Jimmy is Greece (Jimmy the Greek, get it?), Bob represents all those banks that have lent money to the Greek government over the years, first by buying Drachma based bonds and now EU-based Greek debt, and lastly, Timmy represents the EU itself. After the Euro was fully adopted in 2002 in the EU all member nations retired their national currency in favor of the Euro. The economically more productive countries imbued the Euro with a fiscal resilience that the economically weaker countries (such as Greece) have exploited. Like a reckless teenager using daddy’s credit card, under the Euro regime Greece has been able to borrow more and at a better rate than they ever could have under their Drachma.

Some have suggested if only the EU were more like the US Greece would not be in this bind. In the US the wealthy states subsidize the poorer states via federalized tax transfers (Social Security, welfare, infrastructure projects etc) without the poorer states “owing” anything. That, however, is in invalid comparison. Those are federal programs forced upon all the states. Greece is not in financial straights because of EU mandates. Greece is in trouble because of its own internal government spending. A more apt comparison would be the looming pension crisis in US states (e.g. California, Illinois, New Jersey, etc) where the governments of those states made promises to public worker retirees that are impossible to keep. Citizens of Georgia will be no more interested in bailing out Californian public sector pensioners than are citizens of Germany interested in bailing out a similarly profligate Greece. The pattern is universal in democracy: a gullible public showers with the most votes those politicians who promises them financial security with one hand by robbing their children’s piggy bank with the other.

Although we rubbernecking Americans may feel secure atop the perch of our SUV-sized economy while we idle past the spectacle of Keynesian-influenced deficit spending and Socialism that is Greece, our time is coming. When debt is measured in relation to a country’s tax revenue (that is, the ability to repay it) the US comes in third  – right behind Japan… and Greece. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Boulders in the Stream

The surety of the law of unintended consequences proceeding from state legislation is as steadfast as the law of gravity. Emblematic of this axiom is the massive drop  off (down 40-60%) in book sales in Israel this past year after the passage of a law intended to bolster book sales, protect small book sellers from “big chains” and of course guarantee a “living wage” to authors.  To those ignorant of basic economics and human behavior the terms of this law might appear reasonable. It guaranteed authors 8% of the sales of the first 6,000 books sold and 10% of all books thereafter while simultaneously criminalizing the discounting of books during their first 18 months of sales. Supposedly this would help the underdogs: small booksellers and new authors. Ironically it does the exact opposite. It is the unknown author that has the greatest incentive to discount heavily in order to entice someone unfamiliar with their work. It is small book sellers that are most likely to haggle or “make a deal” when someone makes a substantial purchase.

Sadly Israel is not alone in this sort of book market meddling. Quite a number of other countries (mainly in Europe) have what are known as “fixed book price agreements” type laws. These are “resale price maintenance agreements”, commonly used in the US on a voluntary basis between vendor and customer, codified into law and backed by the state. In the US if company A wants Vendors B-Z to sell a widget for $1 and Vendor D sells it for less, then the solution is simple: company A just stops selling to vendor D. But in countries where such agreements are enforced by the state, vendor D can be fined or jailed. Let that sink in: jail time for selling goods “too low.” What monsters.

The usual defense of these laws is the same tired protectionist propaganda deployed whenever an entrenched business model is threatened by a new competitor: we need the state to protect us from “unfair” competition. “Unfair” being code for “somehow these people figured out how to sell the product I’m selling for a lot less and I can’t figure out what they are doing or I’m unwilling to change my business model to compete”. For example France has a “Lang Law” which permits book publishers to set the price of the book and then forbid anyone from selling it for less than 95% off the cover price. Fast forward to 2014 and a tweak was added to this law that was targeted at Amazon.com who was both discounting their books 5% and offering free shipping. Apparently selling books into the French market for the exact same price as French bookstores is considered “unfair” if the seller is a ‘foreign’ company.

So what we have here is a real world economics experiment, akin to raising the minimum wage to $50/hour. Israel has, in effect, dialed in the $50 option on book price fixing laws. While many countries have such economic interventionist type protectionism only Israel elevated theirs to stratospherically inane levels. From this we saw quick and clear signs of damage (just as we would if the minimum wage were raised to $50/hour). However, just as with the minimum wage laws, there still exist damaging effects in those countries with more “moderate” protectionist schemes such as France. It is perhaps apropos that a French economist (Bastiat, 19th century) speaks of the “unseen” damage wrought by market interventions.

If the demand for books is inelastic then to the extent book sellers earn more, the sellers of other goods earn less, while on net the public receives fewer goods for money spent. If the demand is elastic then book sellers earn less and other vendors earn more but the public still receives fewer goods. Indeed, the Israeli example demonstrated the elasticity of book demand. After their law went into affect, book sales went down and toy sales went up (as parents passed over high priced books for more affordable toys).

The fatal conceit of the politician is the belief that they can control nature (man) by dictate: people want they want and laws are like boulders in a stream  – it may slow, but it will not stop the flow of water.

Plugging the tailpipe

Newton’s third law of physics posits that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. From the kickback on a firearm to the lift provided by chemical propellants in a rocket, nothing in this universe acts in perfect isolation. This dictum applies equally to everything in the universe; from muon to man. Human action will also induce a feedback-based response; love begets love and violence begets violence. When the actions are voluntary and un-coerced we tend to see predictable outcomes (if I am kind, you are quite likely to be kind in return, but, if I hit you, you are most likely going to hit me back). When the actions are involuntary or otherwise unduly influenced then the results become unpredictable. Economic interventionism is like plugging a car’s tailpipe to silence it; it may bring temporary silence, but the building pressure will soon be relieved. The only question is when and where.

So just as plugging a tail pipe to silence a car is a fool’s endeavor, so too are forced attempts to mold society and the economy to suit the ideological leanings of those in power. Such attempts at societal meddling always end badly, typically in the form of increasing that bad thing one was trying to eliminate. The interventionist approach has all the logical soundness of hitting people in order to reduce violence in the world, yet the politicians continue to do such things everyday. For example, paying people to be unemployed augments, rather than diminishes, the number of unemployed. Likewise, subsidies for certain industries results in a whole array of undesirable side effects. Subsidization of corn production in combination with tariff-based protection of the domestic sugar market has distorted the economy and our health. Tariff-fueled high domestic sugar prices creates an incentive for sugar users to seek a lower cost alternative, which just so happens to be state subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). The state is simultaneously constraining supply of one product and expanding supply of another to make up for the ongoing constraint. This distortion alters the market in ways that would not exist absent this intervention. It has caused HFCS to become the dominant material used in domestic food production – pushing the somewhat healthier straight sugar out the door. That the overwhelming prevalence of HCFS has recently been implicated in the obesity epidemic (and all the costs associated with obesity related health ailments) should give anyone pause the next time a politician tells you they have the perfect solution to a problem.

Another side effect of agricultural interventionism is in of all places immigration. When the government guarantees a price floor for certain agricultural goods it creates a natural incentive to over produce those goods. The excess is then dumped at low subsidized prices into other countries (such as Mexico). Farmers there can’t compete with the low prices and soon go out of business. Those farmers are now desperate for work. So they come to the US. And then people wonder why so many “illegal” immigrants are pouring into the country. Time again for the government to fix the problem they created. You’ll never go out of the tire business if you keep dumping nails in the road.

The height of absurdity though is that when those in power are faced with the reality of the damage caused by subsidies they find it easier to expand those subsidies rather than to contract them. The most inane example of this is the fact that the US government pays Brazilian cotton farmers the same subsidies it pays US cotton farmers so that they can better compete with cheap US imports.

The moral of the story here is that economic interventionism (supported by the implied violent power of the state) will cause parties to behave differently than they otherwise would absent such threats. These differences lead others into altering their behavior so as to neutralize the effects of the initial intervention in a predictable sort of feedback loop. Plugging the tailpipe merely reroutes the exhaust. Equal and opposite reactions are on net a null.