Category Archives: Economic Fallacies

The Rise or Fall of Socialism

Is socialism on the rise (Bernie Sanders)? Or is it on the decline (Venezuela’s economic implosion, Brazil’s impeachment of their socialist President, Cuba and North Korea’s decades of abject poverty)? To be fair, one could likewise cite the relative success of China, Denmark, Norway, or Canada as proof of socialism’s success. Why the difference? Why are some putatively socialist countries not total economic basket cases whereas others clearly are? To uncover the answer we must understand why some groups of people come together and achieve their goals while others fail. In any endeavor there is a group of individuals who have tight control over the means of goal achievement. This allows them to direct those means so as to ensure an efficient operation that will achieve the desired ends. Does that not remind you of something else? Like say a business perhaps? The reality is that the modern nation-state is simply a really big company, with shareholders (citizens), a board of directors (congress/parliaments) and a president running the show. Unfortunately this is one corporate stock you can’t sell if you disagree with how the company is being run.

So if states are structured as a business, why do some fail and some thrive? For the same reasons any business might fail or thrive. Success entails the optimization of three factors: consent, control, and resources. All factors play a role, however any one of them can overwhelm the others. This is the reason we see very different outcomes in a variety of nominally socialist countries, e.g. Venezuela vs. Denmark. It is not enough to cite Cuba (excessive level of state control) as a failure and therefore close the case on socialism. Were that the case then one would be susceptible to charges that capitalism can’t “work” because sometimes a business goes bankrupt. However it is just as disingenuous for those on the left to cite oil-rich Norway (abundant resources) as proof of socialism’s success. If Cuba had Norway’s oil resources it would be faring far better. Or maybe not, as in the case of oil rich Venezuela which too suffers from excessive state control of the economy and is presently circling the drain.

Countries that exert a high degree of control (totalitarian) over their citizens will always experience less “success” than those that exert little control. Less control means greater freedom to innovate and solve problems from the bottom up rather than the top down. Formerly socialist/communist countries (China, Vietnam) that have embraced the benefits of freedom (that is, free vs. state managed markets) within their borders have seen improved standards of living relative to those that have not (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela). As a country or business grows in size, efficient control becomes exponentially more difficult. This is due to the Hayekian knowledge problem. Stated simply it is the reason that a family farm runs smoothly but a state run collective not so much. Unfortunately, those in charge don’t realize they lack the appropriate knowledge and thus make sledgehammer style choices that only serves to undermine the endeavor. The solution to the size-control problem is to move toward less control and smaller size through decentralization. Large businesses with autonomous subsidiaries have mastered this problem well.

A critical and often overlooked factor in the success of a state is consent. Without consent the process will be crippled if participants undermine or refuse it. This is a key difference between business endeavors and state endeavors; states always compel those who do not consent to participate. Businesses cannot force people to work for them or for customers to buy their products. Apathy was not an option when it came to the rise of 20th century socialism. The motto of Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia: join us or die. Democracies maintain an illusion of consent that mollifies a credulous citizenry into the quiet acceptance of being ruled. They are better than dictatorships, but not by much, and fall far short of the benefits one would see with true pluralism.

To make America great again we must recognize that while our resources are substantial our size puts us at a disadvantage. The only way to overcome that disadvantage is to loosen, not tighten, the reigns of economic control and to foster true consensual pluralism by permitting those who wish to not participate in the dominant system to work toward building alternatives that will expand, not constrain, choice.

False Equality

This year the so-called “Equal Pay Day” was April 12th. It’s “celebration” is a weak attempt at capitalizing on the notoriety of the entirely valid “Tax Freedom Day” (i.e. the day after which a country’s citizens get to keep all their income if they were theoretically taxed at 100% until their tax burden was satisfied). In 1900 in the United States Tax Freedom Day was January 22. Today it is April 24. We have lost a lot of freedom in the interim. Many real injuries to women’s right have been reversed in that same interim; however pay inequality has always been a phantom menace. Equal Pay Day is but a disingenuous mischaracterization of a statistical truth as proof of willful malfeasance.

Yes, if you lump all female workers together and all male workers together the females earn about 79% of what the men earn. But through willful blindness of the trees (different jobs) in observation of only the forest (aggregate salaries) this statistic fails to make the case that it is employer discrimination that robs women of their rightful earnings. To highlight this failing consider another similar statistics. Comparing workers below age 45 against those over age 45 we find a similar gap. Those 45 and under earn about 80% of those 45 and over.  Clearly there must be a bias toward paying older works more. Or consider not pay but rather work place fatalities. On average, for every female workplace fatality there are twelve men who perish.  Again, clearly this must be a sign of a negligent disregard for the safety of men in the workplace relative to women. Oh, what’s that you say? There are obvious reasons why an older worker would earn, on average, more than a younger worker? There are obvious reasons why more men would die in the workplace than women? True (to both), yet somehow the “obvious” reasons that would also contribute to a difference in aggregate pay between men and women are dismissed out of hand whenever issues of gender pay disparity are discussed. Why is that?

If one were to look at wages at a hypothetical hospital where all the men were doctors and all the women were nurses would it not be surprising that the women made less than the men in aggregate? In reality, when numbers are adjusted for age and education, women (pre-child birth) earn just as much if not more than men in several fields. The shift occurs as couples start to have children and women take on the traditional role of staying at home and raising children.  This means they leave the workforce (reducing earnings based experience) or take on lower paying, more time-flexible positions.

Now the strident feminists among us might actually agree and say it is this cultural “patriarchy” that must be changed – by force. I’m not sure what they would have us do though – have the government decide which parent must raise the children in order to keep the distribution of male/female stay-at-homers equal across society? Even though feminists may privately admit that culture is the real reason for this wage “gap”, publicly they persist in casting employers as the scapegoat. This stance though demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of basic economics. Unsurprisingly, the type of person who will loudly clamor for more government intervention in the workplace to ensure “fair” pay for women will also decry the “greed” of the employer in paying them less. The irony of that position is that if the wage gap were employer driven, their supposed vice (greed) would quickly neutralize it. A properly “greedy” employer would seek out every women they can find in order to achieve a 20% discount on their payroll. In turn the unemployment rate for women would be 0%. But of course it is not. This lack of 0% female (or any supposedly discriminated group for that matter) unemployment should put to rest the notion that discrimination is the proximate cause for such pseudo-pay disparities.

Honey I Shrunk the Seat!

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently introduced an amendment to an FAA reauthorization bill that would have required the FAA to set minimum values for how narrow and close commercial airline seats may be. Fortunately, this amendment was rejected last week.  While those of us who have flown in recent years (and experienced firsthand the “Honey I Shrunk the Airplane Seat” phenomena) can all certainly sympathize with the goals of such legislation, it would nevertheless be a gross violation of the rights of the airlines to dictate how they may or may not utilize equipment THAT THEY OWN. Of course there already exists an ever-expanding regulatory framework that strangles other businesses similarly. So how is this any different? It’s not. And that’s what is so scary – it was rejected not on principal but rather because it was visible. Visible government intrusions send the wrong vibe to a supposedly freedom loving populace. But invisible intrusions go on every day and are of course perfectly fine. If the death penalty were required to take place in public it would be ended immediately; but when done behind closed doors the public in general couldn’t care less.

Such reflexive urges to regulate by those “in charge” of our lives are a predictable outcome of their glaring ignorance of basic economics. It is the usual story: government engages in Practice A which stealthily causes Harm B and so our great benefactors must now step in to save us from the very harm they caused in the first place. For example, the federal government, through its puppet the Federal Reserve, is constantly inflating the US dollar. This steadily erodes the value of said dollar until after many years the drips of annual inflation have carved a canyon of lost value. There are two ways to respond to this declining value: raise prices, or, maintain prices while reducing quantity/quality. For example, boxes of cereal now contain 15% less than they did only a few years ago but are marketed at the same price point. It is a surreptitious form of inflation that consumers don’t immediately recognize but is just as injurious to their buying power as is rising prices.

Competition has become so fierce that a game of chicken has ensued where no one wants to be the first to raise nominal prices. This has occurred with airlines as well. Although ticket prices may have risen or fluctuated with fuel prices, such prices are, all things equal, less than they otherwise would have been had seat sizes not shrunk. Getting 10-15% more seats on a plane means lower average cost for each flyer. It is simply a natural response to the incentives created by government interference in the economy (Fed money printing). Eventually seat sizes will decline to a level where ridership will drop off. At that point the industry will know they can go no lower. But that is how the market works; the feedback of profit and loss tells businesses if they are doing good or doing poorly. Top down regulations subvert that process and prevent the voice of the consumer from being heard.

Actually, progressives like Schumer should appreciate the spectrum of market prices engendered by this seating freedom. It incentivizes those who value comfort over money to pay ever-increasing prices for the larger seats. These higher prices can be used to subsidize other ticket classes thereby expanding fare access through lower prices or halting the size decline. By allowing consumers to vote with their dollars the market delivers what consumers, in aggregate, are willing to accept. While any single consumer may disagree with where that point is, it should no more be the right of a minority of consumers to dictate to all what they should be able to buy any more than a minority of busybody senators should be able to dictate to a nation how they may live their lives.

Muh’ Science!

Even among those that profess a belief in limited government there is an ready willingness to join hands with the big-government progressives on the subject of science funding. I mean, any fool can see we need government to fund science – no profit-oriented business would fund basic science research if the probability of a marketable product resulting were unknown. A recent article in Scientific American (Feb 2016, pg 11)  editorializes on this very viewpoint – that “without government resources, basic science will grind to a halt.” The irony within the article is that the author doesn’t realize the evidence he cites to advance his position in fact undermines, rather than bolsters, his argument. He claims private profit seeking businesses would never have an incentive to pursue such research… right after citing how such businesses used to do exactly that (AT&T Bell Labs and Xerox PARC). Gee, I wonder why they stopped? You don’t suppose it had anything to do with the ever expanding growth of government funding of basic science research? Indeed, why would any company make investments into basic science research if some other large entity (the government) is going to do it for them by publicly funding the research and freely publishing the results? The author then doubles down on the cognitive dissonance by calling those who believe that profit-driven companies will altruistically pay for basic science naïve. So people are naïve to believe that something that the author just cited as a past occurrence (privately backed basic science research) could occur in the future? Indeed, although it did snow last winter, now that it is summer I think it is naïve to believe it could ever snow again.

Truly there is no clearer case of the cart pushing the horse. The increase in public funding of basic science research was not a response to declining private funding; rather, it caused that very decline by providing an incentive for private industry to shift the risk burden onto the public.

If one is still unable to imagine a world without socialized science funding, then let’s examine history to see what the future might bring. Not only did we have the private labs of AT&T Bell Labs as well as Xerox PARC as free market models, we also had non-profit philanthropic foundations, such as the now over one-hundred year old Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Research Corporation, while philanthropic, follows a sound business model. They invest in basic scientific research at universities and when that research yields results that can be commercialized they package the technology and transfer the patents and use the profits to support future research grants.

Imagine that, a free market approach to funding basic science research that is both sustainable (success breeds more success) and does not require theft (taxation) in order to fund it. These are but a few examples of how the free market did, and can once again, provide support for basic science research and puts the lie to the assertion of the state-worshipers that such things are impossible without government support.

Trade Balance

Last week’s article touched on seen benefits and unseen harms wrought by political intervention into people’s lives. This week we pivot to a somewhat new corollary of that principle, that of imagined harm. This is harm that can’t exist but because of a fundamental ignorance one has an expectation that it will occur. Ignorance of economics leads to a broad range of bad predictions and decisions and even businessmen (e.g. Donald Trump, Warren Buffet, etc) are not immune to such ignorance. Despite Trump’s repeated protestations that “we” (America) are “losing” because of the presence of trade deficits with some countries (notably Mexico and China) there is simply no cause for concern. The current trade deficit between the US and Mexico is $58 billion. That means that Americans purchased $294 billion in goods from Mexico but Mexicans purchased “only” 236 billion in US goods.  In Trump’s mind (and many others) this constitutes a loss. Well if that is so I guess I had better stop buying my groceries from Publix – my family’s trade deficit with Publix is thousands of dollars every year! Yes, I would be much better off if I grew all my own food, than my trade deficit with Publix would be zero. Do you see how ridiculous this sounds now? So to solve a trade deficit Americans should pay even more for the goods they want? This is supposed to somehow compel the Mexican government to coerce its citizens into buying more US goods? How can any government make its people buy more from a particular country? Countries are not monolithic entities; they are composed of individuals.

Trade is not a zero sum game where one side “wins” and the other side “loses”. Both sides gain or profit from any trade in the sense that if either party did not value the thing they got more than the thing they gave up they would not have engaged in the trade. Trump and his ilk view trade like a game of Monopoly because they fall for the fallacy of anthropomorphizing countries into single actors and then distill all trade down to a single good: money. So in his mind the US gave Mexico $294 and Mexico gave the US $236 – as though they were just swapping currency and nothing else. Yes, that would be a loss, but that is not at all what is going on. It is an absurd distillation of the transactions of millions of individual actors into a meaningless aggregate. To get a clearer picture of what is going we need to disaggregate these numbers. Let’s imagine that Joseph buys $10 worth of goods from José. Joseph now has a $10 item and José has a $10 bill. Who lost here? No one. Trump would view this as a $10 trade deficit. But a deficit implies some sort of debt obligation, that something is owed, but nothing is owed, both sides swapped value for value. Now imagine that José buys $7 worth of goods from Joseph. Joseph now has $3 in goods and $7 cash, or $10 of value. José now has $3 in cash and $7 in goods, again, $10 in value.

Indeed all trade follows the rules of double entry accounting. Mexico’s cash account goes up while their goods account goes down: in balance. The US’s goods account goes up while their cash account goes down: in balance. Claiming a trade deficit exists is the equivalent of looking at only one side of a standard accounting balance sheet and claiming it is not balanced because one refuses to look at the other side of the sheet.

To the extent that jobs and industry are moving out of the US and that this harms in the short term those that lose their jobs perhaps it would be more appropriate to not lay blame at the feet of those business moving away but rather ask the origin of the incentives they are responding to (regulations, unionization, taxes anyone?)

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 Failure: Revenge of the Commons?

If you missed last week’s article be sure to read it here, however, a synopsis of the article’s thesis is that “market failure” is impossible. Markets are closed systems and as such anything internal to the system affects the entire system. A market can no more “fail” than a pot of water exposed to a flame will fail to boil. Apropos the pot of water example: if a pot of water does not boil after 5-seconds of exposure to a lighter we do not say “ah-ha, physics has failed, here is proof that flames cannot boil water!” No, we realize that if sufficient heat is applied, it will boil (thermodynamics) but that the process takes time (kinetics). Failure of something to occur instantly or even within our own lifetime does not equate to “failure”. Markets regulate themselves; perhaps not as fast as some would like, but it occurs nevertheless. As the saying goes: you can have it fast, cheap, or good: pick any two. With state regulation of the market you only get one: fast, at the expense of it being both expensive (inefficient) and poor (ineffective). Natural market regulation is both good (effective) and cheap (efficient), but tends to be slow, which many find frustrating. This gradual process thus provides a framework of excuses for state intervention to speed things up. These people fail to see the thermodynamic forest for the kinetically slow-growing trees.

At first glance it might appear the pot example is not illustrative of a closed market system. The pot is exposed to the surrounding air, which can transfer the heat away. So we must clearly demarcate the borders of the system under discussion; let us say the pot and flame are in an insulated box. Everything outside is irrelevant to what occurs in the box.

So, we define the market as that system containing everything that is (apparently) part of the market. However, the counterargument here would be that things outside of the market system, unlike the pot and flame, do effect what is in the system. That is, the “commons” outside of the market (into which things may be dumped or extracted) apparently play a role. To the extent such commons are artificial in nature (“public” spaces) and thus through state coercion the market’s efforts to allocate and economize those resources via private property are frustrated, we cannot say then that any abuse of such spaces is a market failure. The state itself is setting up the very situation that opens them up to abuse. The state is not part of the market. The market is peaceful voluntary trade where both parties “win”; the state is violent involuntary trade where one side wins and one side loses.

However, there are natural common areas (the oceans and the sky) that are not amenable to conventional private property demarcations (e.g. fences) – although technology is slowly changing that reality. These would appear to be areas outside of the closed market (private) systems and thus immune to feedback from the market even though the market may benefit from them. For markets separated by a commons but connected through other means, the feedback occurs at the border with the commons and this information is transmitted via the other connection just as though they directly bordered each other.

But, let us consider the more difficult example of two isolated markets, not in communication, separated by a commons. We will consider the ocean (although the sky works equally well). Imagine that you live on the coast and fish for a living. Far across the ocean another settlement pollutes the water. Eventually that pollution reaches your shore and affects your fishing productivity. You have no idea where it is coming from (non-point source pollution), all you know is that it is a new cost you did not have before. Since you do not know the source you only have once choice: to clean up/remove the pollution at the bordering point to where you customarily fish.

Is the fact that you have to devote resources to cleaning this up a market failure? No. Why not? Well imagine that if instead of it being some far away people polluting the water it was some natural event (volcano, mudslide, etc.). Your actions would be no different (cleaning the water) yet you would not say the market has failed just because Nature foisted additional hurdles at you. If the effect is the same, the cause is irrelevant if you have no way of knowing or influencing the cause.

Now lets say you do find out who is polluting and ask them to stop but they refuse. You do not trade with them so feedback cannot occur that way. You now have two choices that prompt me to pose this question: Is it morally justified to attack and kill them until they submit to your will if continuing to remove the pollution yourself may also solve the problem? One option involves the ending of human life; the other option is a mere inconvenience. Which would you choose? If you answer yes to the former then I suggest you reflect on how the state has warped your sense of reality such that it is considered morally acceptable to initiate violent actions against others in order to resolve non-violent conflict. Now consider that all state actions rest on a bedrock of threatening violence against those that will not bend to its will, no matter how trivial the concern. History does not judge kindly those who initiate aggression to force others to do their bidding

Removing all doubt

Poor Bernie, he went and opened his mouth and thusly removed all doubt that he has no grasp of economics. Such ignorance from an internet troll might be expected and can be amusing in the same way that a child’s explanation of something can be so. But when such breathtakingly inane statements emanate from a candidate for President of the United States, well, what can one do but weep for the future. To what perplexing attempt at pontification do I refer? None other than this Dec 26 Tweet from @SenSanders: “You have families out there paying 6, 8, 10 percent on student debt but you can refinance your homes at 3 percent. What sense is that?”

Now most people would probably look at this statement and not find it particularly outrageous. We as a society have been conditioned to accept the notion that interest rates are arbitrarily set from time to time by some talking head in government. The assignment of these rates is apparently disconnected from any external factors. They are like lotto numbers plucked from the ball machine. We assume other lenders (banks, credit cards, etc) set their rates in a similar pattern.

In reality non-government rates are primarily market driven. That is, the relative difference in rates is market driven while the net value rests on the arbitrarily set Fed rates. Interest rates are not arbitrary digits, they are prices. They are the price people are wiling to pay to not wait. Interest rates are a reflection of supply, demand, and risk. The demand for loaned funds is indicative of high time preference, that is, preferring something now rather than later. The supply of loaned funds is indicative of a low time preference, that is, the willingness to forego consumption in the present and defer it into the future – for a price. To understand high time preference, ask yourself, do you prefer to buy that 72” OLED 4k TV today, or in a year after saving the funds yourself? Most of us prefer to have it today so that we can enjoy it immediately. The cost of that sooner than otherwise realized enjoyment is reflected in the interest rate we are willing to pay. If there are a lot of people willing to supply loaned funds, then the interest rate will be lower (supply goes up, price i.e. interest rate, goes down). If there are few people willing to supply loaned funds then the interest rate will be higher (supply goes down, price, i.e. interest rate goes up). It’s really not that complicated.

The only wrinkle with interest rates relative to regular money prices exchanged for tangible goods is that unlike exchanging cash for a hamburger (where both parties have something after the exchange), with the process of loaning/borrowing, only one party has the thing they desire in the beginning. The other party has a promise to deliver the other half of the bargain at some future date. The future is uncertain and there is always risk that someone may not do what they say, either deliberately or for reasons beyond anyone’s control. That uncertainty is also reflected in the interest rate. If there is a high chance the lender won’t get paid back then the interest rate will be quite high. But, if something can be offered to mitigate that risk, something tangible, like say a house or a car, then the lender can feel more assured that at least they will get some portion of the loaned funds back in the worst case. So that brings the rate back down.

Bernie, this is why loans backed by tangible collateral (like a home mortgage or equity line) have a lower interest rate than a student loan which has no collateral. A student loan is no different than credit card debt – it is unsecured. Now, look at the interest rate on your credit card (likely over 20%) and compare to the 6, 8, or 10% figure being cited – doesn’t look so bad now does it? These rates are so much lower than they otherwise would be because of government intervention in the student loan market.

Now some might say the banks should be willing to invest in such human capital, that a college degree will translate into a high paying job that allows them to pay it off. That can be true. That is why years ago before government involvement lenders did give out student loans, but only to the most academically worthy of students, those that clearly would succeed. But even so, possible future income is not collateral, the bank can’t take possession of the student himself and enslave him or her to get their money; they can take a house or car, they can’t take a person.

If Bernie wants to help students he should promote the idea of removing government involvement from higher education. Every sector the government subsidizes (healthcare, housing, education) has seen explosive price inflation. That is no coincidence. The patient can’t heal until you kill the disease.

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.

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.