Sunday, November 15, 2015

When, and Why, did the Economy Start to go Downhill

When, and Why, did the Economy Start to go Downhill

This post is in response to a question to a comment I made over at:
It is also posted as a series of comments at that site.  asked the question:

“So, greg, please, exactly when out of all that mess was "the turning point"?” referring to the point at which I said “when the increasing energy cost of energy and other resource production started to be a significant problem.”  The word “mess” refers to the entire price history of oil production.

So:  The short answer might be that point when it became (nominally) more profitable to exploit society, to plunder it, rather than provision it and invest in it.  When it became more profitable to be a pirate, than a builder.  (Understanding this clarifies the motives and actions of the Right, and the modern capitalist. “Greed is good” is the motto of a pirate, not a builder.)   But this transition itself is a consequence of the increased difficulty in extracting resources from the environment.  In particular, non-renewable energy resources. 

So if you want a date, sometime around the Reagan presidency, in perverse reaction to the oil crises of the1970’s.

In the beginning, (Well, once the ball got rolling, about 1880.)
the real cost of energy extraction was low, lower than the cost of  developing the infrastructure needed to distribute and consume the oil.  So the cost of extraction was the benchmark for the price. Only as the infrastructure for demand was emplaced did demand on occasion drive the price.  In the first half of the 20th Century, because of the- inconsistent nature of the supply and its irregular rate of increase, sometimes demand, sometimes supply drove the price. 

With the opening of the Middle Eastern fields, supply smoothed out.  Supply and demand both expanded apace, the price relatively stable and low.     Until the Arab oil embargo of 1973, and the later panic in 1979 due to the Iranian crisis. The result was an effective and dramatic increase in the *real* cost of oil to the US, since it now had to hand over an increased quantity of goods and services to pay to import foreign production.  Domestic fields were becoming exhausted.  New ones (Prudhoe Bay, etc.)  more expensive to develop.

In an energy based society such as ours, (almost) all inputs can be traced back to the energy needed to support them. Thus the size of the economy can be measured in terms of energy consumption, and this is measured in terms of energy input. This instead of dollars.  With this understanding, the inverse of the EROI, the energy return on (energy) investment, is the portion of the real economy which must be devoted to the extraction of energy.  Only the remainder of the economy is available not only to providing services to society, but also to investment and maintenance.

For EROI, see: "Energy, EROI and quality of life"
Check out: Fig. 1  The Net Energy Cliff

Now:  From about 2004, supply has been constant, but until the 2008 crisis, demand increased, driving up the price.  Demand and price then crashed with the recession, increased with the recovery, and recently spiked again, and is now again depressed. 
The question is why is the price, and demand, now (relatively) depressed. 

We return to the short answer, considering the gradually decreasing EROI, that is, a gradually increasing average real cost of extraction.   

So:  We have two different measures of accounting in an economy:  Energy accounting, and money.  Is the price in money necessarily a faithful measure of the real cost, in energy, of energy production?

Why should it be?  Instances where monetary price does not reflect cost, real or even merely monetary, are common occurrences.  Is the current energy market one of them?  In particular, we ask: “How can we subsidize energy production? 

Well, we can’t.  When we subsidize something, we divert real resources from elsewhere in the economy to promote the production of the subsidized good.  We decrease the nominal cost, and therefore the nominal price at which the good may be offered for profit.  However, the real cost must be greater than if the good were produced without the subsidy. So when we subsidize the real cost of energy, we are merely increasing the real cost of production. (Note:  Subsidizing production is not to be confused with subsidizing the capitalization of production.)   That is, because of the cost of our churning resources through the mechanism of subsidy, we are worse off than if we let the price reflect the real cost of production. 

However, we can still manage to increase quantity produced, and depress price. Especially if we also depress demand.  Remember, those resources transferred to subsidize production can only come from one place:  The remainder of the economy, where a portion of those resources would have gone to maintain and capitalize the infrastructure which supports the economy, the infrastructure which also enables the consumption of oil.  

the world formally spends about $400 billion per year, one way or another subsidizing fossil fuel production.  (The US, formally, a mere $25 billion.)  Given an inelastic demand curve, this can result in a dramatic reduction in price. 

But there are other mechanisms of subsidy.  For instance, consider the US trade deficit in goods.  All those goods, if made in the USA, would require energy inputs, and concomitant infrastructure, for their production.  Just as agricultural imports can be regarded as water imports, the importation of goods can be regarded as energy imports. So energy supply is increased, while demand is contracted. 

Further, the production cost of fracking, while recently improved, is still above the current market price of oil. (Externalization of costs also represents a form of subsidy.)  This production has been financed in large part by massive quantities of debt. This debt represents an enormous effective subsidy, much, much larger than the formal subsidies provided the fossil fuel industry, especially those debts, (and they represent a substantial fraction,) which will never be repaid.  Considerations of the relative discount rates of oil and money, also suggest the actual effective subsidy is much greater.  (The discount rate of a non-renewable resource should probably be considered at most zero, and more likely negative, since all current consumption necessarily implies less ultimately available in the future, likely coupled with an increase in demand.)  And as above, these debts represent demand transferred from the larger real economy to support the production of energy.
Infrastructure neglect is also an effective subsidy. 

My guesstimate of a price that reflects the real cost, everything I can think of considered, of oil is somewhere well over $100 per barrel.  The difference between that and what we actually pay we are passing to the future, our own and that of our descendants.  It is a price we will begin to pay when the delusion live under (and which requires an input of real resources to maindain,) can no longer be sustained.

So, sometime around or, actually before1980, the leaders of society decided to pursue their own narrow and what may ultimately prove to be ephemeral gains, rather than look after the enduring interests of their society. The actual process of their choosing the consolidation of power has been noted elsewhere.  (Consider also eg the Exxon climate data suppression scandal.)  They propounded an ethos to justify their actions, and geared up their media to convince society of the rightness of those actions.  And the people, for their part, got to live beyond their means, splurging on underpriced energy,  their political acquiescence purchased with their own futures, and that of their descendants.  Most of them.  So now society is in a hole, 30 years and many trillions of dollars of squandered resources and mal-investment, with an economy ill-adapted for a future of costly energy.  

Now some might argue that the economy has not been going down hill for the past 30 or so years.  That we have instead made remarkable progress during that time.  We will address that issue in the next post. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Few Brief Remarks on Walmart

A few brief remarks on Walmart

We examine some of the effects of Walmart on a local economy, and the nation’s. There is about one store per 100,000 in the US, each with average revenues of about $110 Million.  The revenue of a small retail establishment is about $3 Million, so a Walmart displaces about 35 small retailers, generally locally owned businesses which previously helped provide much of the community leadership.  If we include the earnings of the owners, the payroll of the Walmart is less than that previously provided by the sum of the small retailers, so the employment situation is also worsened when a Walmart moves in. 

This calculation, of course, does not include the benefit of the increased consumer surplus provided by Walmart’s always lower prices.  However, if these benefits are limited to an increase in purchases of consumer goods and services, as we would expect since the consumer surplus is widely dispersed among Walmart customers, we would not expect this to improve the capital situation of the community. Indeed, the value existing capital in the community is severely reduced. Downtown commercial rents, for instance, would be severely depressed, as the value of the buildings themselves.

In compensation for this damage, Walmart paid taxes of  $7 Billion on $22 Billion profits, or 31.8%.  But: Public assistance for its employees cost the US government $6.2  Billion last year, so in effect Walmart paid $800 Million taxes on $15.8 Billion profits, or slightly under 5%.   If instead it had paid its employees the $6.2 Billion more, so they would not need to collect public assistance, it would still have to pay 31.8% on $15.8 Billion. To raise the salary of their employees $1, roughly, they would have to pay $2. The people at Walmart Headquarters are probably smart, so presumably they have made this calculation also, and given present government policy, optimized it.   Indeed, as the reference indicates, this is probably general behavior among retailers, and other low wage industries.  An interesting problem for economists. 

This calculation is for 2013:

Many of Walmart's employees did receive a raise last year, somewhere between $1 and $3 so the figures have changed a little.

But not a lot.

Fast food companies do pretty much the same thing:

So we're probably talking about a comparable manipulation of their tax bill. Nominally, they pay a lot more than they really do.  So they are all not quite the good citizens they appear to be.

Clearly, a minimum wage where taxpayers have to supplement  the worker's income for them to reach subsistence is inadequate. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Third and a Fourth Reason Libertarian Societies Must Fail

A Third and Fourth Reason Libertarian Societies Must Fail

We previously presented two social problems libertarian societies are incapable of solving.  The first is the producer-consumer problem:  Without a compulsive mechanism to continually, or at least periodically, redistribute demand, that is, a government capable of effective taxation, the net consumers, (which is to say, those who actually allocate consumption,)  end up with all the money, and the producers end up decapitalized.  The second is the bully problem:  In the absence of a government, there is no mechanism to prevent the strong from victimizing the weak. 

A third reason is the necessity to regulate competition among the powerful.  The problem here is that, among the powerful, there are two incompatible expressions of self interest. 

Consider the rest of society as the common resource of the wealthy. Clearly it is in the collective interests of the wealthy to manage, maintain, and nurture society, since they are dependent on it.  However, it is in the individual interests of the wealthy to exploit society as much as they can, since any one who does not will be left with less, and weaker than the others.  The wealthy are thus in competition with each other to exploit society, and to the greatest of their ability.  It is the tragedy of the commons, where the commons is the entirety of society.

Now there are (many) cases of successful community regulation of shared resources.  But they are invariably local in scale, and associated with strong and close community relationships.

In the absence of close community, there are only two solutions.  One is to divide up the resources.  In terms of a country, this would be the fragmentation of that country into smaller ones, and the assumption of the government functions of each new country by a single individual. In this case, the libertarian society fails by fragmentation into a collection of independent autocracies. However, the force of competition between nations need not allow this as a solution at all, as resources may be consumed in a greater than sustainable rate in an arms race.  That is, the competition between the new, smaller, nations to build force will impose a higher rate of discounting the future. 

The other solution is to restrain and direct the self interested behavior of the wealthy by an overarching agency. That is, the institution of a government of sufficient strength to restrain the wealthy.  One of the necessary requirements of strength needed to accomplish this is an effective monopoly of force by the government.  So the third reason, then, that a libertarian society will fail, is that either it will tear itself apart, or it will acquire a government.

And this is already incompatible with the premises of Right Libertarianism.  However, even this government is not sufficient. The monopoly of force will merely prevent the competition between entities from itself degenerating into a balance of realized and potential violence.    The other required ability of the government is to force the internalization of costs.  The internalization of costs must be done in both space and time.  In particular, pollution must be eliminated, or at least paid for in real, compensatory, investment.  Also, all resources must be consumed at a sustainable rate. Since the consumption of non-renewable resources by definition cannot be sustained, they must be either recycled or, if they are of a nature where they cannot be recycled, dependence on them must be eliminated. Only with this requirement can society be assured that the benefits of production are greater than the costs. 

One note here. The greater the concentration of wealth, the greater the powers of government required to counterbalance it.

To put the point nicely: Right Libertarianism, except perhaps on the smallest scale, lacks the necessary organization to respond to the demands of its physical environment. This includes the demands made by other, more organized, societies.  This is the fourth reason libertarian societies will fail.  

Regarding organization, the body politic of Right Libertarianism might be regarded to most closely resemble that of a jellyfish, rather than any higher life form with some sort of functioning brain.  In consideration of that, the increasing rise of moneyed power, the concomitant reduction in government functionality as it increasingly becomes subject to control by the wealthy, the "Libertarianization" of our nation, are given additional perspective. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Response to Kanbur/Stiglitz: Economics is a Mess, and Economists Need to Fix it. Fast.

This post was basically written to be posted over at Naked Capitalism. It was written as a response to this post:
EDIT(8/20/2015):  Well, Naked Capitalism chose not to publish this.  Perhaps it is a bit frenetic.  I did crank it out in a few hours. As may be.

One possible issue is I did not address 'rent seeking,'  per se. My view on rent seeking is that it is up to the regulators of an economy to minimize and distribute it, and up to economists to provide the best theory for doing so.  Since basically everyone tries to  do it all the time, to address it as original cause would seem not to be a properly economic issue.  However, if the problem is some institutional structure which permits some small slice of society to damage the rest of society with their rent seeking, then that institutional structure is what  you want to address.

Anyway, if you disagree with this post, please comment.  If you agree, feel free to comment, also.  And then you might want to help spread the word. END EDIT.

A Response to Kanbur/Stiglitz:  Economics is a Mess, and Economists Need to Fix it.  Fast.

Recently, Yves crossposted (from VOXEU) an analysis by professors Ravi Kanbur and Joseph Stiglitz.  (Also posted by Mark Thoma at  )This analysis raises the issue that currently fashionable theories in economics may not be able to adequately explain our current, unequal, economy.  While their analysis has value, and admits to serious problems in the study of economics as it is currently understood, the post does not go nearly far enough in acknowledging or addressing the actual problems which may be found in the foundations of the field of economics,. 

As can be shown, these problems rest with some of the fundamental assumptions underlying the practice of economics, and until these errors are addressed, economics will continue to only poorly represent the reality it seeks to describe.

First, regarding the particular issues raised by Profs. Kanbur and Stiglitz.  In the concluding remarks to their post, they propose the following changes to the analysis of the problem of inequality.  They propose these changes as necessary to gain an adequate understanding of the problem: 

“Concluding Remarks
Thus, the new stylised facts of our era demand new theories of income distribution.
  • First, we need to break away from competitive marginal productivity theories of factor returns and model mechanisms which generate rents with consequences for wealth inequality.
This will entail a greater focus on the ‘rules of the game.’ (Stiglitz et al 2015).
  • Second, we need to focus on the interaction between income from physical and financial capital and income from human capital in determining snapshot inequality, but also in determining the intergenerational transmission of inequality.
  • Third, we need to further develop normative theories of equity which can address mechanisms of inequality transmission from generation to generation.”
To be fair, the first item is actually a pretty deep cut.  ‘Marginal productivity theories’ are fundamental, some of their basics taught to budding freshmen in Econ101. For any economist to call these into question is an act, first of all, of intellectual courage. 

However, I think the problem with this formulation runs at once deeper, but is also more shallow, than the real issue.  On the shallow side, models are what economists construct to gain an understanding of a very complex reality.  If in some way, the behavior of the model mirrors the behavior of reality, the model is usually considered a success.  Models can be simple, and based on a few simple assumptions, or like the Kaldor-Kuznets model Profs. Kandur and Stiglitz discuss, more complicated, and based not on just simple assumptions, but some previous body of theory developed from and based on those assumptions.  So questioning such a sophisticated model is only an incidental attack on its underlying assumptions.  And replacing such a model, then, with one based on equally sophisticated theory, does not necessarily address the underlying problem with the assumptions.  And here, Kandur and Stiglitz  seem to be proposing we essentially start with model mechanisms which must ‘generate rents.’  This seems to beg the question, and so such a model will likely be basically useless. 

And on the deep side, are the assumptions underlying ‘marginal productivity theories’ the correct ones to attack?  I am not so proficient at economics that I can determine whether the assumptions underlying ‘marginal productivity theories’ are above reproach.  In my understanding of the theories, however, they seem pretty useful, and generally so.

So I can instead offer alternative assumptions, different from the assumptions I believe economists make, calling them into question. I believe the economics profession should, in any case, examine them.

Now. for item two, however, I think Prof. Stiglitz makes a wrong cut.  He lumps physical and financial capital together, when they are not at all the same thing, and the difference is especially glaring for this problem.  In particular, financial capital feeds off physical capital.   Prof Stiglitz then lumps all human capital together, when the relevant distinction is between labor, in particular labor closely tied to physical production, and management, in particular those who manage financial capital.  Thus the appropriate associations are between physical capital and labor, and between financial capital and (upper) management: The one exploits the other, and indeed, that is how we can define them.    So he puts the lions and the lambs in the same pen.  Twice.

But, let me add that the assertion financial capital and upper management exploit labor and physical capital may be unfair.  The necessary counter claim would be that the benefits to labor and physical capital of the activities of management and financial capital outweigh the costs to labor and physical capital of those activities.  This claim may, in fact, be true.  The claim would seem, however, to be contradicted by the evidence of the combination of increasing inequality, and the decline in the investment in and even maintenance of, society’s real capital. These processes do suggest that ‘exploit’ is indeed the proper word.

In item number three, I believe Prof Stiglitz implies that current normative theories of equity are basically correct, but “further” theories need to be developed, and presumably developed from those basically ‘correct’ theories. 

One of the fundamental and essential assumptions underlying current theories of equity, however, is the standard, textbook definition of money. If this definition of money is in error, then so is our understanding of equity.  So is our understanding of asset. So is our understanding of the nature of investment.  And so would our understanding of the flows and distributions of assets and their distributions. We could not claim to understand either the state of an economy, nor its dynamics.  In all these things we would be no more than part right, and certainly also quite mistaken. So. 

Conventional economics must examine some of its fundamental assumptions.  Here are three corrected assumptions for economists to look at. They need not agree with my assumptions.  But, as Yves said to my earlier post, they need at least to refute them.   As a fourth item, I also bring to attention statistical mechanics.  This is a field whose potential contributions I believe economists fail to appreciate.

1)        The textbook definition of money, which I assume is still relevant to the study     of economics, is wrong:  Money is only incidentally a measure or a store of value.  It is actually a measure and store of *demand* on (things of real) value.  Because money is merely demand, it cannot reliably distinguish between productive assets, and ‘assets’ which are in fact a drain on production and maintenance of real wealth in an economy.  Money, for instance, cannot distinguish between the value of a high school, and the value of a yacht.  In fact, money, especially if badly distributed in an economy, favors the production of yachts over high schools, and in general, the consumption of resources over their production. I argue this point in greater detail at:

2)        While the costs of factors of production are additive, the combination of factors in production is multiplicative.  Labor and capital multiply to create production.  Consider, for starters, how much is *added* to the value of the freight of an empty truck going across country.  And in general, where the cost of an activity exceeds its benefit, it is because the multiplicative factor of that activity is less than one. For example, in the analysis of sectors, finance is multiplicative, as is government.  For another example, academia, and in particular the study of economics itself, is multiplicative. To say that economists add to the value of things produced in an economy is absurd. Economists produce nothing of substance: Nothing that anybody can eat;  Nothing that will heat anybody’s home.  What they do produce, or are supposed to produce, is understanding. This understanding offered by economists can multiply the productive capacity of an economy. Policy adapted from correct theory can increase the productive efficiency and resiliency of an economy.   Efficiency is a multiplicative factor. This factor can be greater than one for sound policy.  Or that productive efficiency can be reduced, the multiplier become less than one, when policy is based on unsound theory.

3)        The motives of capitalists are not the same as the motives of society as a whole.  Therefore, there is no guarantee that the activities of capitalists advance the interests of society.  Indeed, where their motives conflict, where, for example, there is opportunity for capitalists to externalize the costs of their activities, there is every reason to suppose otherwise. 

4)        The study of statistical mechanics is a well developed branch of physics, and one that a few physicists, at least, have been trying to apply to economics.  For statistical mechanics to have application to large systems of ‘particles,’ all that is required is some form of interaction between the particles. One implication of the approach is that there are what might be called ‘natural’ distributions of wealth an income.  Resources must be consumed to maintain distributions of wealth and income which are different from these ‘natural’ distributions.  And indeed, the greater the deviations of these ‘unnatural’ distributions from the natural ones, the more resources which must be consumed merely to maintain them.   There are problems with dimensionality to be worked out, and I have not been following the literature.  However, I can say that I have not heard much about this approach from economists.  I do not access the formal literature all that much, but from the economics blogs I frequent, I have heard nothing.
       “Statistical Mechanics of Money, Income, and Wealth: A Short Survey,” from       2002 might be a start for the interested economist.    

Kanbur and Stiglitz are deserving of great respect, They have labored long and hard and produced important results in the difficult and, what also should be, the immensely valuable field of economics.  But, if the assumptions those results are based on are in error, then much of the effort that they and their colleagues have expended have been wasted. And the same can be said of any future investment they, and our society, make, if any errors are not corrected.  Worse, much of those efforts may even have been counterproductive, and this may continue.

To many outside observers, the study of economics seems incoherent. Is it? In many cases, diametrically opposed descriptions and prescriptions can each find support from one or another school of economics. If the study of economics is incoherent, this raises the questions: Is the study of economics incoherent because it is politicized? Or is it politicized because it is incoherent?  If economics is incoherent because it is politicized, then it cannot qualify as a science: It is not the study of, or the theory of, any objective phenomenon. It is, and can be, no more than one or another’s propaganda. 

If instead economics is merely incoherent in the understanding of economists, economics as a science need not be incoherent in principle. For coherent theory to be developed, consistent assumptions need first be discovered.  This failure of understanding then, a failure which is exploited by politicians, is because the assumptions actually used by economists to make and base their theories on cannot be consistent. From inconsistent assumptions, mutually contradictory conclusions can be drawn.  If contradictory conclusions can be drawn, we should not be surprised that the various players should choose from economics those conclusions which favor their own interests, and those economists, who espouse those conclusions. Neither should we be surprised if those players also deny the conclusions which stand in opposition to those interests. After all, they have refutations, and people to argue them.  And so we should also not be surprised if many of the pronouncements of economists are ignored.

Incoherency also implies that any conclusions economics reaches will fail, at least in part, to correspond to reality, where economics is so understood.  This does not necessarily mean here that economics will totally fail to represent reality.  Indeed, microeconomics provides much excellent application. But the true definition of money is not important in microeconomics.  In macroeconomics, however, the definition of money may be very important.  I claim that money, and its flows, impose many significant forces on an economy in the large, with the consequence of many stresses and distortions in that economy.  In this I do not think I am alone. So if the definition of money is in error, then so long as it is in error, explanations for these distortions, if even they are noticed and recognized, will remain mysterious.  The best theories will be no more than ad hoc rationalizations.  Like the Ptolemaic Cosmology, these theories will be bereft of any true insight.  

It is the implicit opinion of some policy makers on the Right that society has no genuine need for economists, or their dubious ‘economics.’  Their claim is that the free markets of unfettered capitalists create the optimum economy, and the optimum society.  To them, the only use for economists is to enable such capitalists to more efficiently exploit these markets, and so enhance their profits. Nowhere for them is there any other role for economists. There is no point to economic analysis, because there is no point to economic governance. To them, there can be no better economy.  There can be no better society.

One final word:

Today’s academic money-centric economics is to very large degree woefully unequipped to handle the analysis of the demands of an increasing population on a diminishing resource base. Most seem to be in denial, their activities increasingly irrelevant to our collective future. What ever else he, or she, may think of this post, every economist, every reader, needs to look at:  and the links it points to.
Their analysis concludes that humanity is using the earth’s resources at a rate it takes 1.6 earths to replenish. The other way they put it, for the year up to August 13, humanity consumed the amount of resources it would take the earth one entire year to replace. Simply, we are consuming our children’s future today, and at an ever accelerating rate.

There is a need for a correct understanding of economics. There is a need for economists to clean their house.

It is the case that while we may never run out of money, we may run out of the things that money will buy.  However, if the standard definition of money is correct, we may indeed be fortunate. According to the standard definition of money, $10 of money has the same value as $10 of food.  So if we run out of food, we may yet be able to eat the money.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Second Reason Libertarian Societies must Fail

In the previous post, we argued that a mechanism for the redistribution of demand was required to maintain a society. In a libertarian society, there can be no such mechanism. In consequence, in a libertarian society the market for production is progressively destroyed, and with the market the entire economy.

There is also a more direct reason libertarian societies fail: Libertarian societies provide no adequate mechanism for protecting your neighbor from  the aggression of others.  There must be a mechanism, because without such a mechanism, there is inadequate motive for you, or anyone else, to help your neighbor resist the bully.

It is in the concentrated interest of the bully to oppress your neighbor.  The bully may profit greatly if he succeeds.  The benefits to the bully will be greater than the cost.  But you, and everyone else, only have a diffuse interest in helping your neighbor resist the bully.  The cost to you to help your neighbor is concentrated, and may be far greater than the benefit to you.  Further, if mutual aid is agreed to, but such protection is voluntary, it is in your interest, and the interest of others who might be expected to contribute, to contribute as little as possible to the protection of your neighbor. Which would likely be nothing.  This is an instance of the free rider problem: If anyone can ride for free, everyone will ride for free, because only a fool, (or a saint, perhaps,) would pay for what is offered for free.

So the consequence is that in the absence of government, and police, and regulation, the bully, the large organization, the wealthy, will dominate and oppress your neighbor, and after your neighbor, you. A government diffuses the cost for the protection of your neighbor across the whole society. In the libertarian state, some are more equal than others, and the more equal shall devour the liberties of the less equal, because the only thing to stop them is: principle.  That is, in libertarianism, the only mechanism to stop the powerful from effectively enslaving the weak is the moral disposition of those same powerful interests.

From the point of view of Widerquist's thesis, there is only the pronouncement of platitudes and the benevolence of the powerful to prevent the establishment of absolute monarchy by force of violence. There is no real reason for the prospective despot to wait on 'legitimate' means.  

Why there are no Right Libertarian Societies

Why there are no Right Libertarian Societies 

Despite the attractiveness, to some, of libertarian prescriptions for creating a ‘better’ and ‘freer’ society, there is a notable absence of any examples of states run according to libertarian principles in the record of history.  The reason is that libertarian societies, as a matter of definition, lack an institution, ( a government, basically) capable of redistributing demand.  They thus are incapable of dealing with the producer-consumer problem, (which I describe below,) and so fail.

One of the problems in dealing with libertarian economics is the protean nature of the libertarian state, which, in the hands of libertarians, changes according to the criticism leveled against it.  That is, what ever the libertarian state one criticizes, it is not the state advocated by any libertarians.  

Anyway, from Karl Widerquist (who, granted, seems to be no apologist for libertarians,) “A Dilemma for Libertarians,” we have:

            “Libertarianism can be thought of in at least three ways: It is the ideology
supporting (1) maximal equal liberty understood as self-ownership or noninterference, (2)
strong, inviolable property rights without regard to the pattern of distribution of those
rights, or (3) a so-called libertarian state, which is either a government limited to
protecting property rights and self-ownership or no government at all.

 Natural rights libertarians think of their philosophy as embodying all three of these claims, believing that a commitment to maximal equal freedom entails a commitment to strong property rights, which in turn entails a commitment to a libertarian state.”

Widerquist, whose paper is well worth the read, argues that any libertarian state operating under these assumptions necessarily evolves into what is effectively an absolute monarchy.  (An aside:  A close analysis of the 11 incidents of property,  as described by Tony Honore an conveyed by Widerquist in his paper, at least strongly suggests that it is impossible to eliminate any of the functions of government.  These functions can only be redistributed.  Libertarians, then, seem to believe in appropriating all, or for the minimalist state libertarians almost all, of the functions of government to the individual.)

So we will address libertarianism as described above.  But we will show something different.  (Since here the notion of property is paramount, we will consider this an instance of right libertarianism. Here we will not address the concerns which might be raised by any of the many varieties of left libertarianism.) We show that in the libertarian ‘minimal state’ of government protecting only property rights and ‘self-ownership,’ the economy cannot maintain demand for its production, and so will collapse. (Actually, we will show something quite different from this!)

But consider then a closed model economy, consisting of two sectors: a producing sector, and a consuming sector.  We allocate to the consuming sector a quantity of money. Here we are just talking tokens of demand, as I discussed in “The Standard Definition of Money is in Error.“  With these tokens, this money, the consuming sector buys the products of the producing sector. The consuming sector must spend its money to support itself, since it produces nothing on its own, and therefore can earn no money selling what it produces. So eventually it runs out of money.  (With this model there is no provision for borrowing, or assets.  Adding these features do not change the direction of the dynamics.)  As a result, the consuming sector demand then collapses.  With the collapse of the demand of consuming sector, there is no one to buy surplus production.    Prices crash, and with that crash production, and so the economy.  Adding the possibility of borrowing, or the selling of assets by the consuming sector, does not change the direction of the process, but merely adds to its duration.

Reality is of course, more complicated. First, any economy is more properly divided into net consumers and net producers. Consumers do produce, and producers do consume, but the distinction may still be made.  Now, whenever the consuming sector of the remaining economy is driven from the economy, the remaining economy may still be so divided. That is, the remaining economy cannot produce a net surplus to its own consumption, because there is no one to buy it. No one else has any money.  Therefore, the remaining economy must reduce production to match the reduced demand. Because production is reduced, so is that part of the economy which produces.  Thus, the producing sector is less than the whole of the remaining economy, and so the other part of the remaining economy is necessarily a net consuming sector. But this new net consuming sector has only a finite amount of money, with which to buy the surplus production of what is now the producing sector.  And so the process iterates.  The actual process of collapse, then, can better be described as a continual increase in the concentration of money and wealth, as ever an ever larger portion of the economy is stripped of its demand on the ever shrinking net producing portion of the economy. 

Although we have argued from a closed economy, we can actually start from an open one.  The entire economy then is the net producer, which exports its entire surplus into the exterior. The exterior, however, necessarily starts with a finite amount of money.  And this money necessarily is eventually depleted.  And so we return to the start of the previous process, which we have already shown eventually leads to collapse.

In a more realistic monetary economy, relative profits determines who is a net consumer, and who is a net producer.  The net consumer is the one who profits from his production, and the net producer is the one who loses money from his production.

This is not intuitive.  But suppose a fixed money supply.  The producer who profits, can buy more than he produces.  That is, he can consume more than he produces.  He is a net consumer.  The producer who loses money, can only buy less than he produces.  That is, he can only consume less than he produces.  He is a net producer.  ( I would like to point out here that, under capitalism, labor, certainly at least in private industry, is a net producer. This is because, for the capitalist to make a profit, labor, in the net, must produce more than it consumes.  (Consider first a one product economy.)  Even if we include government labor, if in the net businesses make a profit after taxes, labor as a whole is still a net producer.)

 This fact inverts the conclusion:  It is the net consumer who ends up with all the money and wealth, whereas the net producer is stripped of all his money and eventually all his assets. So as promised, what we have instead shown is that it is production which is decapitalized, and which the economy fails to maintain, and that is the cause of the economy failing. 

Labor, of course, is not the only net producer.

In the libertarian economy, there is no mechanism to redistribute demand, as is required to maintain production. Voluntary redistribution of demand from the net consumers to the net producers cannot work.  The set of all producers represents a commons, and any consumer who restrained his consumption would be exploited by other consumers.  And any compulsive mechanism of redistribution is contrary to minimal government libertarian principles.

The best solution seems consist of the continual issuance of money by the producers, (as defined in the more realistic monetary economy,) and, in order to prevent inflation, be attendant by the extinction of money among the consumers.  This is another way of saying money is taken from the consumers and returned to the producers.  This requires an instrument of compulsion, a government.  Such government must remain an instrument of the (real) producers, or it will fail to adequately return demand to the producing sector, and the economy will increasingly, de facto, approximate the character and trajectory of a libertarian society, and collapse.    

Two final notes:

1) Principle never stood in the way of profit. For instance, there is profit to be made from slavery, that is, the violent appropriation of the ‘ownership of self’ by others.  It took a war to establish the principle, and overcome the profit.  And there is profit to be made from the violent appropriation of property. In the absence of a mechanism to enforce principle, principle is empty. While libertarians enunciates the doctrines of “(1) maximal equal liberty understood as self-ownership or noninterference,” and “(2) strong, inviolable property rights without regard to the pattern of distribution of those rights,” the ‘libertarian state’ libertarians promote provides no effective mechanism to guarantee these rights.  Indeed, the very existence of such a mechanism is anathema to Libertarianism. 

So the preservation of individual rights, civil, political, and economic, requires a mechanism to guarantee those rights:  A government. This government requires a sufficient input of real resources to both to maintain itself, and to be able to act to effect such guarantee. It must also answer to those whose rights it guarantees.  Where the input of resources to this government erodes, or where that government less and less answers to the people, so must the rights of the people that government guarantees, erode. 

2)We will divide the functions of government into two:  internal and external.  We will suppose the external functions of government to be a net consuming sector of the economy. That is, any society with external functions of government has less wealth to distribute among its members.  That every society, or more certainly, almost every reasonably complicated society that we have ever known of, has had these external functions of government, despite the net cost, suggests that at least the leading members of those societies considered those functions necessary.  

Suppose now that all the internal functions of government were necessarily a net consuming sector.  That is, any society with a government would necessarily have less wealth to distribute among its members than a society without the internal functions of that government.  There are two possibilities.  The internal functions of government are used and maintained as an instrument for the oppression of the majority of the people by some ruling elite, to that elite’s profit.  That is, the benefits of those internal functions to that elite would be greater than the cost, to that elite, of maintaining and operating those functions.   Or, it would be preferable to the members of that society to have no internal functions of government, since then they wouldn’t have to pay for any functions.  That is, the people would be better off, and presumably choose, the internal functions of the libertarian state.  (Except, perhaps, for internal functions to enforce taxation to support the external functions.)  However, we have not seen this, or at least have not seen it perpetuated often enough for it to make the record, so we must assume that such an internal libertarian state must be unstable, and evolve as described above. (One possible example, though, might be the Old West.  Which raises other issues.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Education is Insufficient to Maintain US Wages with Unrestricted Trade

A recent post over at Bloomberg Business:' Global Labor Glut Sinking Wages Means U.S. Needs to Get Schooled' is nonsense.

Education will not maintain US wages in the face of international competition. Once foreign countries are able to supply sufficient basic education, both in quantity and quality, there is nothing to stop them investing in the necessary specialized education needed for their own workers. Information (education) is more transferable than labor. The US cannot embargo the export of information.  The development of skills in foreign countries cannot be prevented. Any advantage in education is transitory, requiring a continuing race of investment in human capital. Further, the cost of education in US is greater than the cost of the same education in foreign countries, the US is at an absolute disadvantage in such a race.  Because education in the US is more expensive, it makes greater sense for international corporations to invest in the education of the foreign workers, rather than American workers.  Finally, the high cost of maintaining and developing capital in the US discourages the investment in education in the US, aggravating the competitive disadvantage in which American labor finds itself. 

In particular, the equalization of factor prices affects those factors more directly exposed to international competition faster than those factors more insulated from direct competition.  (All factors of production are connected, and therefore affected. The price of all factors of production eventually equalize, across borders. However, during the transition stage to the new equilibrium, the relationship of factor prices within the economy is altered.)   In the American case,  because of its substantial trade deficit with low wage so called ‘developing nations,’ the prices of labor and other exposed factors declines faster, while factors such as education and government, (in particular infrastructure, and military,) become relatively more expensive, and more difficult for the rest of the economy to sustain.  On the other hand, in the case of the developing countries themselves, and where they run a substantial surplus, these insulated factors become relatively less expensive, as the prices of the exposed factors rise faster.  Education, (and infrastructure, and the military,) in the developing countries thus becomes relatively inexpensive to capitalize.  Thus, the US is also at a comparative disadvantage in providing education to labor. 

One further aspect is that because the price of American education is increased relative to the rewards, and a greater share of that cost is borne by the individual, the individual is less encouraged to capitalize in himself.  This is aggravated by the fact that, with continued economic destruction because of the deficit, and inequality and resultant decrease in career opportunities, vs mere job opportunities, the chances of advancement through education are reduced anyway, especially for disadvantaged youth.  Indeed, many of these might see the costs, in time and attention, of even a minimal education as not worth the bare rewards this society seems to them to be prepared to offer them.

 The result of these factors is that, over time, US labor's disadvantage will increase, and their wages continue to decline.  This decline in wages will not result in greater competitiveness, because the capitalization of the American labor force will be reduced over the period of factor equalization, and be less than the capitalization of their foreign competitors.

Efforts to educate the American work force will not save American jobs or maintain American wages in the face of international competition.  These efforts are not being made, anyway.

Corrected and slightly expanded version of an earlier post