Category Archives: Economic Fallacies

Trash Talk

Given Oconee County’s proximity to Athens we often can’t help but be aware of the political landscape within the People’s Republic of Athens. The powers that be in Athens are exploring the possibility of re-municipalizing trash service because a handful of residents have complained about “too many trucks on their street” because multiple providers are permitted to serves within the city. Apparently if the market does not provide a service deemed essential, then that is proof of “market failure.” Likewise, if the market provides too much of a service deemed essential, that too is “market failure.” Heads I win, tails you lose. 

The justification to proceed down this path adheres to the socialist doctrine of better societal outcomes through the increased efficiency of a monopoly provider. Apparently competition is wasteful and inefficient. Perhaps. But putting political lackeys with zero experience, unlimited budgets and little to no oversight in charge is not exactly a recipe for optimal outcomes either. The efficiency argument is not satisfied until a complete takeover by the government of all business. In other words, state run monopolies are a-ok because enlightened omniscient angels run them. Of course the trust busters come out of the woodwork the second two firms try to merge for purposes of efficiency gains through consolidation of resources.  

Sure, government run services can appear to “work” because they are propped up with tax money taken at gunpoint (fail to pay your taxes and you’ll see how quickly the guns come out). The extent to which they are subsidized is directly proportional to their operational losses. Losses represent massive inefficiencies insofar as they have taken resources of a higher value and transformed them into products of a lower value. We want profits – profits mean lower valued inputs were transformed into something regarded as more valuable.

Efficiency is a measure of how many resources are needed to meet some particular end. There are many paths to reach some end but since none of us are omniscient there is no way to know a priori which is the shortest (most efficient) path. It is an iterative process. We start with assumptions and use the profit/loss test to give us feedback. Profit means you’re headed in the right direction; losses the opposite. The desire to make more money drives us toward seeking out efficiency gains. The part people (i.e. busybodies who know nothing of how an industry operates) object to is the time component. It takes time for many individual firms to experiment and sort out what works best, with the successful firms thriving and the inefficient firms going out of business. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does eventually happen.

Maybe that will happen with the trash pickup and in a few years (or months) there will be far fewer providers. Or maybe not. Maybe, just maybe, the present arrangement is the most efficient. Maybe some carriers compete on price while others compete on service. I can understand why it might seem more efficient to have fewer providers, but when has a government backed monopoly ever been regarded as the most efficient arrangement (i.e. performing so well it did not require subsidies through taxes). I’ll wait. 

Monopolies have no incentive to improve and become more efficient. But even a company that dominates a sector at least tangentially has some incentives to provide the best service they can as they know a new company could arise and gain market share. But a government backed monopoly? That is the worst of all worlds since that provider knows it is ILLEGAL for anyone to compete with them. They can literally sit back and provide the worst service possible and they’ll still receive the same income stream. 

Government run systems incorporate the human instinct toward laziness and magnify it’s vice-like qualities because self-interest can’t be rewarded via work but rather only through social ladder climbing in the state apparatus (not what you do, but who you know). The free market, in contrast, takes that same human inclination toward laziness and transforms it into a virtue. The desire to do more work with less energy is the definition of seeking greater efficiency. This drive flourishes only because self-interest is rewarded and not outlawed. This drive toward greater efficiency and profit benefits both the producer and the consumer. 

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Adam Smith

iMonopoly?

This past May the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Apple on the question of whether a group of iPhone users could file an antitrust lawsuit against Apple arising from their contention that Apple’s App Store constitutes a monopoly and thus has harmed consumers. Their primary argument is that Apple’s 30% fee on every app store sale constitutes a “tax.” Consumers are “harmed” because most developers simply pass that additional cost onto the consumer. So apparently if some entity is construed to hold a monopoly market position and imposes a “tax”, that is a bad thing. But if the government does precisely the same thing that is just a-ok. On the precedent of this ruling it should now be possible to overturn the taxing authority of every level of government! But I won’t hold my breath.

In point of fact, Apple does not hold a monopoly position in the market. To suggest so quickly leads to absurd wrongheaded conclusions such as Ford is a monopoly because only they can sell Ford cars or that Robert Di Niro is a monopolist because he is the only one that can star as Robert Di Niro in a movie. The obvious rejoinder to such claims would be that “well that’s silly, there are other manufacturers of cars and other actors, so the consumer can simply substitute the good if they find the supply too constrained or the price too high.” Exactly. Last time I checked Apple does not have the only “App Store” in town. Google has their equivalent and there are number of other independent “Android” app stores as well. But even if Apple did have the only App store platform they would still not be in a monopoly position. Anything that can be done in mobile apps can be done through a desktop or web interface.But even if that were not true, Apple would still not be a monopolist. Why? Because no company in a free market can become a monopoly (other than governments themselves which exert their monopoly provision of certain market goods (security, courts, roads, regulation) through coercive violence). Just as Ford competes with other automakers to sell cars, they are also competing with every other market entrant. Everyone is vying for the consumer’s dollar and so everyone is competing against everyone.Apple competes against pet stores, Ford competes against Apple, pet stores compete against shoe sellers, and so on. 

Every consumer, no matter how wealthy, has a limited supply of funds. When they use those funds they economize them, that is, they rank those things they desire in order of importance and spend their money on the most important items first (food, shelter) and then work their way down the list until at some point they only have enough for one more thing. The next entrant on that list lost out to the one just before, so in that sense they were competing with them head to head. So the App Store could lose out to someone who chose to go to the movies or to buy their dog a treat, or it could be vice versa. If the consumer has a choice (even if a difficult one) then there is no monopoly power. If you hate big oil you can choose to go electric.If you hate all cell phone carriers you can choose to not have a cell phone. It may be a difficult choice that imposes other costs on you, but you are free to do so. No one will throw you in a cage if you don’t sign up for cell service. But they will if you don’t pay your taxes.

In the broader context though this case was rather amusing. That a company can be sued for providing to the consumer this thing that literally didn’t even exist 15 years ago demonstrates an utter lack of comprehension by the public at large of the benefits bestowed on them by the market economy aka capitalism. You should rejoice that there are so many greedy SOB’s seeking to take your money and giving you in return the most incredible, standard of living enhancing tools in human history… things you could not create yourself if you had a hundred years to figure it out. Very sad. Many people agree. 

Blowing the Sails

President Trump continues on his shortsighted warpath of ever escalating tariffs on Chinese goods. “Tariffs will make our Country MUCH STRONGER, not weaker. Just sit back and watch!” he tweeted recently. Well, yes, I suppose if you jump off a bridge and break both your legs those bones will be stronger once healed, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. Tariffs are a self-imposed burden; the exporter of a good does not pay them – the importer does (i.e. the domestic business, employing domestic workers, selling to a domestic market). It is the economic equivalent of me insisting I pay an extra 25% to the grocery store because I’m so upset there is a trade imbalance between the grocer and myself. Trump is either being willfully dishonest (and to be fair, what politician isn’t – ‘if you like your plan you can keep your plan’), or, he is entirely ignorant of how tariffs actually work. If Importer ABC is buying widget A from a Chinese exporter for $1 and there is a new 25% tariff imposed, the cost goes from $1 to $1.25 – paid for entirely by the importer. The cost is either passed on to the American consumer or expenses in other areas are reduced (i.e. layoffs of American workers) in order to stay price competitive. 

            Perplexingly, Trump actually acknowledged the potential harm to some sectors (i.e. US farmers, whose sales of exported goods to China have dropped off due to in-kind retaliatory tariffs by China on the US) and rather than extinguishing the dumpster-fire he has created he has doubled down on an even more ludicrous plan. He is proposing that we take the proceeds from the tariffs and use it to offset declining agricultural sales by purchasing the unsold goods – and get this – donating it to foreign countries! So, it is bad for the US if China “dumps” low cost goods into our market, yet somehow it’s a-ok if the US in turn dumps totally free goods into other countries’ markets? Nah, that won’t totally disrupt their domestic agricultural market driving them to cross a border in order to find work… there is some country where that has happened before but the name escapes me right now. This Rube Goldberg scheme is tantamount to using a fan to blow the sail of a sailboat. Yes, it works, but it is incredibly inefficient; just remove the sail and turn the fan around. In other words, an actual free market in trade (not managed trade á la NAFTA or TPP) is maximally efficient and beneficial to all.

            The only utility to be gained from this scheme is to encourage Trump-hating-leftists to closely examine the idiocy of this scheme. Perhaps once Trump is out of office they will recognize the lunacy of this scheme in future government polices. For example, all foreign aid works on this principle. Take money from some Americans and give it to others to buy their goods in order to give them to a third party for free. Or, take money from some Americans and give it to a third party with the stipulation they can only use it to buy goods from some other Americans.Carbon taxes, if imposed, would work the same way. Impose a tax (on Americans) then turn around and refund the just collected funds to other Americans to offset the fact they are paying more for energy. 

            Perhaps in the end that will be the silver lining of the Trump presidency; to awaken the American electorate to the fact that the idiotic schemes implemented by Trump are identical to every past presidential administration in their execution. These programs and schemes are counter-productive and inefficient on their face regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. 

Reparations Roller Coaster

The political landscape in the Democratic Party has become so chaotic that in order for a presidential candidate to distinguish him or herself it is no longer sufficient to engage in safe, conservative levels of vote pandering e.g. free healthcare for all. Now one must step up with über-insane policy positions like slavery reparations. Several candidates have put forth pro-reparations platform positions recently. Any self-respecting black person should reject such talk outright. The whole notion is preposterously insulting. Why? Ok, hold up your hand (any race) if you think your “success” today is even marginally affected by the life events of one or more of your sixteen to thirty-two second-great or third-great grandparents? Can you even name a single one of them? The argument is basically that all succeeding generations over 150+ years have been entirely impotent to advance in life because they lacked a check from the federal government – all other forms of welfare and assistance not withstanding (12 years of free schooling be the main one). Perhaps you could make that argument (as with apartheid in South Africa) if every single black person were dirt poor today. But that’s not the case. In fact there are numerous highly successful black individuals today (doctors, lawyers, business owners, actors, politicians, athletes, etc.). This alone should conclusively prove that race no longer plays a meaningful role in holding anyone back. While the poverty rate for blacks as a whole vs. whites is higher, it is not earth-shatteringly so (20% vs 8%). To hear the pro-reparations people talk you’d think black poverty was 90%+ in this country.

The time for reparations was immediately after emancipation, to the actual slaves. That is how reparations have operated for more recent state-level atrocities (Germany, South Africa, etc). Locate the victim and compensate them. That is correct and just (although monetary compensation can never truly make one whole for these kinds of state sponsored crimes). Reparations should have been made in the US shortly after the Civil War (and indeed this was done for a short period, General Sherman’s Special Order 15 was quickly reversed by President Johnson). That this did not occur is a crime against those former slaves. However, there is nothing that can be done to fix that now. History is like that. Bad people did horrible things, but navel gazing hundreds of years later isn’t going to put the toothpaste back in the tube. If my grandmother were raped but the culprit never served time nothing is served by putting that guy’s grandson in prison today. However that is exactly what reparations would do, only worse (it would be like grabbing some random person off the street and putting him in prison merely because he’s a man). Were reparations to come to pass it would be funded by some new tax. But many millions of Americans (like myself) are recent generation Americans. All of my great-grandparents entered this country over 50 years after the end of the civil war – why should I be taxed to pay for something that neither I nor them could ever have conceivably benefited from? Indeed, these great grandparents were initially treated harshly (yes, the Klan hates Catholics too) by the “nativist” populations they emigrated to. Should I get reparations too for how they were held back by such incipient hatred on arrival? (In case you were wondering the  answer is “no” to this rhetorical question).

Some would argue that even post Civil War emigrants enjoyed the privilege of all the wealth brought about in this country through the labor of former slaves who built this country. Ok. Except that is totally backwards. This country was made poorer, not wealthier, because of slavery. The reason for this is simple: automation. Cheap slave labor meant there was no incentive to explore more efficient means of production. Without slavery the south would have been pushed economically to explore efficiency improving automation that much sooner. As we recall from high school history, the north was regarded as wealthy while the south was considered poor. The primary reason for this was the difference in automation. The highly industrialized north was highly automated in its output. Just as paper beats rock so to do machines beat humans every time in the output Olympics.

Even if we were to pay reparations there is no practical “fair” way to do so. The whole thing quickly spirals out of control into a general welfare check. Such a check would be far out of proportion to what those individuals might have had had actual reparations been paid in 1865 to the forefathers. If it were in proportion it would amount to only a few hundred dollars and politically such a small amount would be a non-starter. So it will have to be disproportionately larger. So how does this idea go from only for descendants of slaves to everyone? Well, first if it were constrained to only those that could prove a genealogical connection to a slave, accusations would fly of unfairness for all those unable to claim their rightful inheritance because of paperwork lost to the ages. Ok, so now anyone who is black (DNA test) gets it, but how much “blackness”? 90%? 50% 25%? No matter where you draw an arbitrary line someone will complain so just make it 1% or more then no one will complain. And of course the DNA tests will have to be free, otherwise this too would be deemed as unfairly keeping those most in need from obtaining their due. Next is the problem of payment ratio. Should it be a ratio of your DNA %, e.g. you are 10% black so you get 10% of the reparations payment? Or what if you can only prove one out of 32 ancestors was a slave; do you get 1/32ndof the payment? The mind boggles with the logistics of handling this all. Even if you assume a generous $100k reparations payment to each former slave this would be rapidly diluted to only a few hundred dollars today after applying the various race and generational dilution heuristics. Is a few hundred dollars really going to change anyone’s life?

And lastly, this must be a one-time payment. Anything other than that is not reparations but simply welfare. If you have made each “victim” whole, then there is no more reason to continue payment to them or their progeny. So under the only possible “fair” model of reparations Barack Obama would qualify. That’s a good thing, just think of what he could have accomplished had he not been black!

CON Job

There are a myriad of reasons that health care costs are sky high. Every cause shares a common genesis – government. From the World War II era tax benefit of allowing tax-free employer sponsored plans to state imposed price controls (Medicare/Medicaid) to today’s outright subsidies (Obamacare), it has been a 70+ year slow motion train wreck that has annihilated anything remotely resembling a “free” market in health care. However, today I want to focus on but one sliver of that regulatory quagmire: Certificate of Need (CON) laws. When I first learned about these I honestly thought I was reading satire – this is America after all! How can such monstrosities of law exist? And yet they do. For those unaware, CON laws basically allow one or more local hospitals to have a say in whether a prospective hospital may be permitted in their “backyard.” It’s like if McDonalds had a vote in whether any new fast food restaurants could be built within say 30 miles of their location. What do you think McDonalds’ choice would be? This is nothing but state backed protectionism, pure and simple. And like all protectionism it harms consumers while benefiting the protected class (unions, taxi drivers, any tariff protected industry, etc.) But please, tell me more about this free market in health care we have.

Supporters of CON laws try to appeal to ones sense of “fairness” by claiming that if these mean old private hospitals come in why they’ll “steal” patients from our poor old public hospital by only offering the most lucrative and profitable services leaving the extant hospital with money losing care and indigent patients. Hogwash. In other words they are saying that in terms of those “lucrative” services they can’t compete because they are in fact overcharging for their “lucrative” services in order to subsidize the money losing services.  In other words they don’t know how to properly run a (hospital) business and are afraid of someone coming in and competing with them that does. 

Ludicrously, these same people will turn around and decry the “monopoly” of a company like AT&T or Microsoft or Google or Apple and claim “why we need to break them up, don’t you know monopolies are bad and that competition lowers prices and helps consumers?” But then will unironically tell you that monopolies in hospital services makes perfect sense and why don’t you just trust the guy telling you he doesn’t need competition to give you a fair price? I guess state backed monopolies are “a ok” (schools, courts, police, utilities, roads, etc.)

Ironically many of these people who support CON laws are “conservative” Republicans! Indeed there was a recent Bill 198 in the Georgia House that died in that Republican dominated chamber. One representative quipped in a local paper

“I was very happy to help kill the elimination of the CON process that would hurt local hospitals.”

David Belton
R – Buckhead, GA, District 112

Wow, give that man a Bernie Sanders medal, he is a Democratic Socialist and doesn’t even know it. Socialism claims the right of the “people” (aka the State) to own the means of production. Ownership conveys a right to control, you don’t own it, you can’t control it and vice versa. Well if the state can tell prospective investors in a new hospital what they can’t do with their own money, then what is the state doing other than asserting an ownership (control) claim over those investors’ property? I’m sorry Republicans; I must have missed the part in the Constitution (Federal or State) where it says we have a right to a livelihood unfettered by nettlesome competition. Repeat after me, just because a violation of rights can be harmful doesn’t mean anything deemed harmful is a rights violation.

Are teachers underpaid?

Are teachers underpaid? No. That’s not to say there aren’t individual teachers that should be paid more, just as there are assuredly individual teachers that should be paid less (or fired). But the “national conversation” that is being continually pushed (from the left mostly, e.g. see recent Time Magazine spread on “underpaid” teachers) is not so much about worthy star teachers being passed over for raises but rather how the collective known as “teachers” is “underpaid”; identity politics now driven by profession. With credulous acceptance the public will always answer in the affirmative if asked should teachers be paid more because what we have been conditioned to hear instead is, “do these benighted souls deserve more for their selfless work?” With “more” being the unmoored comparative there is no upper bound for “worth.” Their salaries could double every year and every year if asked, “should they earn more” we would nod our heads in bobble-head synchrony.

Please do not misunderstand dear reader, teachers do indeed provide an important service to their fellow man – just as does every other working person. How do we know this? Well, if you earn a salary or income, then that demonstrates how much value you produced. Work in and of itself is not valuable – just ask the guy making mud pies all day – no one is going to pay him a dime (sorry Marx, labor theory of value was laid to rest long ago). The “hardness” of your work is irrelevant – only the result counts. Work is only valuable when subjectively judged to have value by fellow human beings, that is, an offer to trade parts of your work for theirs is made. Value is subjective and not absolute. When people say “teachers should earn more” I always wonder, “ok, what is the mathematical formula that is used to solve for pay of a teacher?” You may believe that teachers serve a more valued role in society than say the movie star or the lawyer, but the distribution of talent in society says otherwise. Labor, like any other economic good, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. The issue with teacher’s pay is summed up nicely in the following quote from the Time article,

“Hutchison’s siblings—an attorney, engineer and physical therapist—all earned graduate degrees, but now she makes half of what they do.” 

Hutchinson (the teacher) makes half of what her siblings make because her siblings all chose careers that are in much greater demand than that of the public school teacher. The path to becoming an attorney or engineer is long and arduous and very few have the skillset to complete it. The supply is thus low and it so follows that demand (and thus pay) will be high. On the flip side is the path of teacher; most people possess the skillsets needed to teach (after getting a 2 year teaching degree). It is an “easy” career (relative to other more highly paid careers), and so that low barrier to entry means many will take up that profession – supply is thus high and so demand (pay) will (all things equal) be lower when compared to professions with limited supply.

Because we are mainly focused on public school teachers this introduces either unions or the regimentation of a public sector workforce structure into the wage equation. In these systems wages are based primarily on seniority rules and have little to do with how effectively one performs their job. Being government run, raises will typically trail inflationary trends (inflation being 100% caused by the government mind you!) due to slow to act legislatures.

A more market-based approach (where teachers could be rewarded directly without concern for the “seniority” of others) would realize the top teachers earning top salaries, thus incentivizing those in other high paid professions to switch careers (if their preference had been for teaching). The end result of this process would be highly paid teachers dominating the profession and driving out the weak or ineffective teachers. If two teachers making $125k each can “out-teach” the same number of students as five teachers making $60k each, then it would be a win for the students, the teachers, and the taxpayer. If we want teachers to make more then let’s unshackle the profession’s public sector regimentation and union demands that maintain a status quo of oversupply driven by the politics of envy.

Amazon welfare?

Tucker Carlson, the sometimes libertarian leaning Fox News pundit, is either a masterful troll or eminently confused about what the word “free” in the phrase “free markets” means. Last week he started pinch-hitting for Team Bernie when he joined Bernard in lamenting the “indefensible scam” of Amazon “offloading” payroll costs onto the taxpayer.

According to Carlson “many” Amazon employees are on welfare. This is the modus operandi of all who entreat the state to take action against some perceived societal ill. This unqualified, uncorroborated assertion is all the pretext needed to initiate action. How many is “many”? Well even according to Snopes this assertion is on flimsy ground. It is based on a mere estimate of the number of Amazon workers in just one state (Ohio) and indeed that number hardly qualifies as many – 11.8%. I suppose 600 or so workers in one auditorium would look like “many,” but within the context of the entire workforce (even assuming it extrapolates to all states) 1 in 10 is hardly “many”.

Carlson doesn’t really suggest a solution to the problem, leaving the mechanics of that process up to Bernie (100% tax on Amazon for any welfare used by employees – I guess the $15 billion in taxes Amazon paid last year isn’t quite enough to cover their “fair share” of welfare). One is left with the assumption that Carlson, like Sanders, would like to see some sort of government action to fix this “problem.” Carlson claims although conservatives are all for free markets, this market is not at all free. According to Carlson it is a monopoly (and we all know monopolies are bad – except when that monopoly is the government itself) that achieved its status via government regulation. That may be true, however that is a pretty bold claim given that Carlson provided no evidence for it. I’m unaware of any government regulations that Amazon or Walmart could have used to their benefit, although I would not be at all surprised if that were true to some extent. Retail just doesn’t happen to be one of those more highly regulated and monopolized industries such as pharmaceuticals, banking, or healthcare (where government regulations create artificial barriers to entry thereby diminishing competition and thus reducing supply which in turn drives prices skyward).

What both Sanders and Carlson miss in their missives is that the solution is not more government regulations to fix the consequences of prior government regulations. The solution is to remove government from the equation. If companies are benefiting from government regulations or subsidies, then eliminate them. If companies are able to pay lower wages to some employees because said employees are also being paid a wage by government (through welfare) then eliminate the welfare. You can’t hand out a bunch of free money to people and then expect that to not factor at all into their determination of the wage they will be wiling to accept. If you need $20/hour to get by and the government is paying you the equivalent of $10/hour in food, healthcare and housing welfare, then all things equal you are going to be much more willing to accept a $10/hour job.

As an employer myself I’ll let you in on a little secret. Employers don’t set wages. You do. Or rather groups of you do. Maybe you want $30/hour but if everyone in your working-skillset-peer group will work for $20 then why pay you $30/hour if there are hundreds of others more than happy to work for $20/hour with the same skillset as you. I’m sorry if you are a single mom raising 3 kids and working an entry level job but that is not your employer’s fault and your employer has no obligation to pay you more because you need it when there is a long line of single teenagers with the same skillset as you willing to work for a lot less. It is extremely disingenuous to lambaste a company for not paying its workers enough merely because you found one example of an unlucky individual who can’t get by on a salary that is more that enough for thousands of others.

Being mad at Amazon or Walmart for hiring people in a welfare-backed society is like being mad at them for using roads to deliver products or the postal service to send mail. Here’s a novel concept: if you want to eliminate free-riding effects for services stop paying for things with taxes (which socialize costs in a way that will always benefit some to the detriment of others) and bill only when services are actually used.

 

Riding the brakes?

Do you remember when those hurricanes hit Texas and Florida last month and since some people couldn’t access their money to buy food and other supplies the government just waived the law against theft so people could get what they needed more quickly? Yeah, me neither. But in fact the government did waive one law last month: the Jones Act. This waiver applied to affected ports in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.  But I thought laws were the very immovable bedrock upon which society was based. How can such pillars of civilization be summarily set aside? The answer is that such “laws” are not really law at all. They are but mere whims and cronyist preferences of those with the power to rule over we mere peasants. These “laws” rather than preventing victimization they instead create victims by benefiting one party at the expense of another.

The Jones Act of 1920 artificially restricts the transport of goods between US ports to only those vessels owned, operated and principally manned by US citizens. In other words no “ferners” can move goods from US port to US port. It was established for putative national security interests post World War I, predicated (as all such protectionist measures are) on a fear of the big “what if” nightmarish scenario of US goods being transported mainly by foreigners….shudder. Of course such a policy is amenable to the autarkist interests of any nation eager to engage in war.

So while the Act has benefited the US merchant marine industry, it has been at the expense of consumers, principally those on US protectorate islands (like Puerto Rico) who by necessity must have nearly all goods brought in by ocean. A 2012 study showed that it cost nearly twice as much to ship to Puerto Rico from the US as it would were a non-US vessel permitted to make such shipments. Another study showed it costs Puerto Rico $537 million per year. In other words $537 million more goes to US vessels (seen benefit) and $537 million fewer dollars goes to those businesses and industries (unseen harm) where that money would have been spent had it stayed in the pockets of the Puerto Rican people.

If a law becomes an obstacle in times of distress then think of what it does in normal times. Although one can get from point A to B while riding the brakes on a full tank, does it really require running on fumes to realize perhaps this constant braking is not a good idea? It is time to remove all such artificial drags on the economy. The role of government is to protect our rights, not to benefit one group at the expense of another.

 

Fallacies

Just as the warm, moist air of late summer engenders the destructive fury of hurricanes, so too do these storms bear the perennial fruit of economic ignorance. Like clockwork the talking heads either eagerly forecast economic prosperity or decry the mendacity of the evil price “gouger.” Or both. The former is the classic example of the broken window fallacy, which like a case of herpes, will never be fully expunged from humanity’s collective consciousness. The error lies in focusing on seen benefits while ignoring unseen harm. We are implored to consider the benefits of jobs that will be created as we set about rebuilding lost homes, towns, and infrastructure. But this economic activity is not enhanced; rather merely diverted. All the money spent on rebuilding would have, absent the hurricanes, been spent on other goods and services. It is those markets and industries that will in turn see economic decline as fewer people spend in those areas. Even if argued that the rebuilding funds come exclusively from the savings coffers of insurance carriers therefore it wasn’t going to be used anytime soon, that still does not change the economic dynamics. A huge influx of “new” cash competing for a fixed amount of supplies does nothing but cause prices to rise for everyone else (e.g. building supplies will be in higher demand therefore all users of such supplies nationwide will experience higher prices). These higher prices mean, again, fewer dollars to spend on other goods. The only sense in which one could argue that net economic activity increases is if we assign no value to leisure. Certainly if one works 12 hours a day rather than 8 to both rebuild what was lost and maintain what one still has, then output is indeed greater. But is that the world we want to live in, where we sacrifice leisure in the name of economic output? Why we don’t need a destructive storm to achieve that, just pass a law enforcing a 16 hour work day and we could double GDP overnight! Destruction is not the path to an economic free lunch. Everything has a trade-off. The only path to prosperity is through savings, capital accumulation, and investment of that capital toward avenues that make production more efficient (i.e. cheaper).

The price gouger fulfills a valuable economic role, namely the rationing of constrained supplies in direct correlation to need. The feedback is immediate and perfect. There is no need for the imprecision of someone overseeing how much has Person A bought in such and such time period if rationing is imposed by pubic or private diktat. This issue is not so much of a fallacy since people do generally understand principle that if supply goes down prices will go up. Rather, it is more of an issue of emotion; each person’s barometer of what a “fair” increase amounts to varies. The fallacy is in believing that someone charging an “unfair” amount deserves to be thrown in a cage. As much as people would like to redefine words, “victim” does not describe someone who paid more than they would have preferred. So, no victim, no crime and thus any laws against price “gouging” are themselves victimizing when those with a true need find nothing but empty shelves. Trading willfully unobserved harms for spurious benefits leaves us all vulnerable.

“Mr. Gorbachev, give us this wall”

Throughout Trump’s campaign he repeatedly promised that “we” would build a wall and that Mexico would pay for it. The details of that boast were conveniently omitted. But class is now in session and the homework is due, so at long last we have been made privy to his “secret” method of getting Mexico to pay for this wall: tariffs. Trump plans on imposing a 20% tariff on imported Mexican goods coming into the US. The proceeds are earmarked for paying for said wall. There’s just one problem with this little scheme of course: it won’t work, or at least not the way Trump imagines. In other words, as with all government actions, there will be unintended consequences. One of the central tenants of economics is that incentives matter. Closing a door just means now the window doesn’t look so bad. Like rats from a sinking ship, there are numerous routes to avoid the tariff. To offset the tariff Mexican exporters may raise prices, which of course means US buyers will shoulder the cost (although magically increases in minimum wage never incline one to increase prices). But higher prices mean US buyers may then opt to forego the purchase or to seek alternative goods; the net effect being no tariff earned and decreased sales for the Mexican company employing, you know, Mexicans (homework assignment: what effect might increased Mexican unemployment have on the demand to enter the US looking for work?). Or if the Mexican company decides to absorb the cost then that means they’ll either have to cut costs by potentially scaling back their work force or slowing the rate of hiring – all of which puts more Mexicans out of work (again see homework assignment above). The more you turn up your stereo to drown out your neighbor’s music, the more he does likewise in a perpetual game of one-upmanship until you both go deaf.

The immigration “problem” is one of positive feedback. Actions designed to decrease an effect actually make it grow. The irony here is that Trump of all people doesn’t see the problem. He is quite fond of blaming China for harming the US economy and putting people out of work by flooding the US market with cheap goods. However, he fails to see the US has been doing the exact same thing to Latin America for decades. That area of the world is less developed and so depends much more on agriculture production to support its economy. Any factors (such as cheap imports) in that agricultural market will have an outsize effect in that region. The US has a long history (since the depression) of agriculture subsidies to US farmers. Subsidies lower the cost of US agricultural products, allowing US farmer to export heavily into the Latin American market where local farmers can’t compete. That darn NAFTA! Yes, NAFTA enabled cheap imports in both directions. These imports had the obvious effect of putting them out of work whereupon they are left with little choice but to move to where there is a demand for low skilled labor – the US.

The inconvenient truth is that the solution to most of the immigration “problem” is to simply end all agricultural subsidies. But no, we’d rather scratch our heads as to why so many keep coming here, shrug our shoulders, and then set about building a wall to keep “them” out. Farm subsidies have become such a political lighting rod in this country that it is actually easier to subsidize foreign farmers (the US sends subsidies to Brazilian cotton farmers!) than to scale back subsidies to our own farmers.

If Trump really wants to stem the tide of Mexicans entering the US he needs to make Mexico great again – great enough that their economy becomes a magnet to all expatriates, drawing them home to where the jobs are. Perhaps Carrier should build that Mexican plant after all.