Increased Opportunities Do Not Indicate a Shortfall

Trade deficits are often pointed to as a sign that there is a “savings shortfall” or “savings imbalance” within a nation (see, for example, this article).  This description, as Scott Sumner reminds us, is an implication of the GDP accounting model.  In this lens, there is no objection to classifying as trade deficit as a savings imbalance.  But does it make economic sense to view it in such way?

Let’s go back to a main question of economics: why do people trade?  Specialization of labor allows people to focus on the things they are comparatively better at and trade with others to get the rest of their needs.  In other words, people trade because their time is best spent doing what they are best at.

As David Ricardo showed us, when people specialize, they increase production; that is to say, new consumption opportunities emerge when people specialize and trade.  At no point is this development considered a “production imbalance.”  So, why then is the identical situation considered a savings imbalance when viewed at a macroeconomic level?  Other than the mathematical wrangling of the GDP accounting formula, I have no good explanation.  As people specalize and trade, new opportunities, both for consumption and investment emerge, which indicates a new balance developing.  The economy has gotten larger; there is no imbalance.

Has the Human Cost of War Gotten Too Low?

File this under “counterintuitive things economists say.”

Has the cost of war gotten too low?  The United States has been at war for almost my whole life.  I was born in 1989.  In 1991, on my birthday, the Operation Desert Storm began.  Throughout the 90’s, the US was launching strikes on Iraq, Bosnia, and Africa.  In 2001, we invaded and occupied Afghanistan.  In 2003, we invaded and occupied Iraq.  In the 2010’s, we attacked Lybia, Yemen, multiple places in Africa, and now Syria.  I’m nearly 30 and the US has been at war in some capacity almost every year.

Last night (EDT), the US and allies launched a missile strike on Syria.  The French put out a video of the strikes presumably from a French warship (it’s the second video in the link.  I can’t link directly to the video because technology is hard).  What I notice in the video is computer screens.  Lots and lots of computer screens.  The launches are being made many miles from their targets.  To the extent the people attacking see their targets, it’s from drones.  They face no immediate danger nor immediate feedback of the carnage they wrought.  Just like when we watch an action movie and we don’t smell the horrors of the battlefield, neither do they.

US and Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said: “It is good war is so terrible, lest we grow fond of it.”  The burden of war was once shared by both sides.  On the battlefields of the Civil War, the World Wars, the Far East, the soldiers had to combat each other face to face.  Wave after wave of men crashed into each other in Fredericksburg.  The mud and creeks of Antietam flowed red with blood.  The soldiers of Normandy had to scale walls and engage in hand-to-hand combat.  There was a major human cost to war and the military leaders (with exceptions) were cautious about going to war.

But war has become less terrible.  We can strike at an enemy from the comfort of our beds.  Much of modern war is played like a video game.  This, in turn, reduces the cost of war; the aggressor no longer feels the pain if he can attack from thousands of miles away.  The comfort of the politician to wage war from the safety of his capital is now enjoyed by the soldier, too.  Yes, this means (initially) fewer deaths of servicemen, but will it also lead to more war?  If the US had to actually invade Syria, not be able to rely on missiles, would have the strike happened?  Will the use of drones, of long-range bombers, of other technological killers, create a perpetual war by reducing the human costs?  I suspect so.

So, let me ask the unpopular question: are wars too safe?

Trade-Offs and Public Policy

This semester, I have been studying Law & Economics with Robin Hanson at GMU.  In class, we have been discussing the legal system, how it is structured, and other ways to structure it.  Questions we’ve pondered include: why can one appeal on matters of law and not matters of evidence?  Why are rules of evidence what they are?  Should all contracts be enforced or what limits should be placed on them?  Why are property taxes structured they way they are?  Why common law in the US as opposed to civil law?  Etc.

Simultaneously, I am evaluating a book for my course this summer: Trade-Offs by Harold Winter.  Trade-Offs is a public policy-focused look at economic reasoning.  In the book, he points out one of the dangers of public policy analysis (Page 5, original emphasis):

Even if there is agreement on the broad objective of maximizing social welfare, policy objectives may differ due to differences in the definition of social welfare.  A good example of this can be found in the economic analysis of crime.  To deter crime, we must use resources for the apprehension, conviction, and punishment od criminals.  But should the benefits that accrue to individuals who commit crime (also members of society) be added to social welfare?  If yes, this may suggest that fewer resources can be used to deter crime, because crime itself has offsetting benefits.  If not, crime is more costly to society, and more resources may be needed for deterrence.  Notice, however, that it is a fact that a criminal reaps a benefit from commiting a crime (or why commit the crime?), yet it is an opinion as to whether that benefit should be counted as social welfare.  Policy objectives and definitions of social welfare are subjectively determined.

What is also subjectively determined, as explained by Carl Dahlman in his 1979 Journal of Law & Economics article The Problem of Externality, is the effectiveness of the policy change proposed.  When a policy proposal is made, the proposer implicitly assumes that whatever institution he is invoking (government, market, etc) can necessarily solve the problem he’s subjectively identified better than the status quo (otherwise, why would he make such a proposal?).

All this subjectivity means that discussing “optimal” policy gets really tricky.  Optimal tariffs, Pigouvian taxes, optimal forms of law, legislation, etc are going to depend greatly on how we measure social welfare.  When discussing tariffs, should the welfare of foreign producers and consumers be counted?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  When discussing Pigouvian taxes, should the welfare of clean-up companies be taken into account (eg, the laundromat who loses business because fewer people are washing soot-caked clothes) and is government necessarily the best solution?  What makes sense given a certain accounting of social welfare doesn’t with a different accounting.

Answers to these questions can go a long way in helping us consider supposed market failures: whether something optimal or suboptimal will depend a lot on how these trade-offs and welfare are measured (to Winter’s point above, if the welfare of criminals is taken into account, there may be too much police activity.  If the welfare of criminals is not, there may be too little).  In this sense, optimality is in the eye of the beholder.

I’d argue that the subjective nature of social welfare policy suggests a strong presumption of liberty for people to choose their own way.  Indeed, there is no initial reason to believe any given action taken by an individual is somehow sub-optimal given the subjective nature of social welfare.  Even something like pollution is subject to these conditions.  This realization also should force economists (and their consumers) to ask the question “what are we assuming?” and “how are my biases affecting this analysis?”

Economists rarely argue about data.  It’s somewhat rare that someone made a math mistake or jumbled data (ideally, that gets caught long before publication).  Outcomes are not in question, but the subjectivity of trade-offs are.

A Robust Theory of Trade

Economists are often accused of ignoring moral consequences of trade, or in particular, being focused too much on material well-being (for example, see here).  There is a lot of truth to this claim; much of our models to focus narrowly on measurable items like material wealth.  I agree with this criticism very much and lots of my research focuses on ways of re-inserting moral man into economic models.

But it is incorrect to argue that free trade is either immoral or amoral.  The earliest free trade philosophers (Adam Smith, David Hume, Frederic Bastiat) all approached trade from a moral point of view.  Hume gives us a justice argument for free trade, Smith demonstrates the strong presumption of liberty in a modern society, and Bastiat shows how protectionism can quickly become a perversion of law and justice.  Economists have long spent time considering the moral aspects of trade.

But one thing that really rubs people the wrong way regarding trade is the concept of competition.  Firms and individuals compete with one another for scarce resources and that competition can sometimes lead to outcomes that make some observers uncomfortable (workers getting laid off in favor of machinery, for example.  Or low-cost labor overseas).  Because of the unpleasant nature of this competition, free trade often gets labeled immoral.  But let’s look at the nature of competition and how it is used in economics.

Economics appears to begin with the assumption of a somewhat Hobbseian jungle world: all actors are self-interested and looking to maximize their own gains.  From this, we derive the concepts of competition and the “invisible hand” which leads to improvement for everyone while appealing to their self-interest.  To quote Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

But surely altruism exists!  Surely people are not so wrapped up in self-love they dismiss all of humanity!  How can this dismal view of humanity, that we are merely self-interested, dominate economics?  The answer is two-fold: 1) Everyone is, to some extent, self-interested (what Russ Roberts likes to call “the Iron Law of Me”).  We tend to focus on events close to us and our loved ones far more than events separate from us.  2) This method of conceptualizing humanity makes our models robust.  Lots have been written on #1, so I’d like to focus on #2.

The idea of self-interested humans makes economic models robust.  In a sense, by assuming humans at their “worst,” it allows for humans to act at their “best.”  For example, simple economics indicates that, after a disaster, prices should rise in order to incentivize people to bring more supplies into the area.  The pursuit of profit will bring in people looking to make a buck.  This is the self-interested story.  But what happens if the community and nation band together and donations fly to the area?  The effect is the same: an increased supply to where it is needed most.  By weakening the assumption, the result remains: the model is robust.

So, why the assumption of self-love in the first place?  Well, let’s reverse the scenario.  A disaster strikes.  People are altruistic and chip in and send supplies to the disaster area.  People will band together when things get tough.  This is our model.  But let’s weaken the assumption of altruism.  Disaster strikes.  People are only self-interested.  What happens?  Nobody sends supplies.  Since the results of the model change, it is not robust.

The concept of self-love does nothing to reduce the usefulness of our models.  Whether true or false is irrelevant as the results of the model do not change.  So long as the presumption of liberty is upheld, in other words, no central planning is attempted, then the assumption of human behavior and its results are largely irrelevant and economic models are robust to the changes.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from Chapter 3 of Frederic Bastiat’s final work Economic Harmonies (page 499 of the Mises Institute Edition):

Can we concieve a time when man can no longer form even reasonable desires? Let us not forget that a desire that might be unreasonable in a former state of civilization–at a time when all the human faculties were absorbed in providing for low material wants–ceases to be so when improvement opens to these faculties a more extended field. A desire to travel at the rate of thirty miles per hour would have been unreasonable two centuries ago–it is not so at the present day [or 70mph in Bastiat’s time! -JMM]. To pretend that the wants and desires of man are fixed and stationary quantities, is to mistake the nature of the human soul, to deny facts, and to render civilization inexplicable.

JMM: What we take for granted were once unobtainable wants because we had to focus on growing food. As that food was automated (thus destroying a lot of farmer jobs) and became cheaper and taken for granted, more desires, once unobtainable, became obtainable. Desires like kitchen appliances, faster transportation, recorded music, etc. Then, as more of those desires became taken for granted and cheap (displacing lots of manufacturing jobs), we moved to other desires, like better health, better medicine, more diversions (theatre, movies, sports, TVs, etc).

Shift happens, but it happens because desires are being met, which in turn allows new desires to come about. Human desires are indefinite.

Donation Bleg

Hello everyone,

I’ve been running this blog since 2015.  Many of you have been there since the beginning and I appreciate you being along for the ride.

At the end of this month, I will need to pay the hosting fees for this website, which comes to $100.  As I am a graduate student, funds are tight, so I set up a GoFundMe page to solicit donations.  If you enjoy this blog, please consider donating.  Every little bit helps!  100% of donations will go to paying hosting fees.  I will not keep a penny

The Role of Jobs

Are jobs a cost or a benefit?

In other words, are jobs a means (cost) or an end (benefit)?

This question is key for much economic policy.  Economists treat jobs as the former; politicians, the latter.  We often hear some economic policy being touted for the number of jobs it creates/saves (or, conversely, some policy is lambasted because it destroys jobs).  Comments like these treat the job as the ends and not the means.

But, if jobs were an end rather than a mean, then we’d see people refusing vacations and leisure time (indeed, people would need to be paid to take vacations/days off).  As it is, people fight to get vacation time and days off.  If jobs were an end, then the labor movement in the US would be vilified for things like wanting weekends, vacation, family leave, sick days, etc since they reduce the work done by Americans.  But the labor movement is celebrated for such things.  Why?

The reason is simple: because jobs are a means toward an end.  What is that end?  Consumption and leisure.  We work so we can put food on the shelves, a roof over our head, clothes on our back, our children in schools, etc.  My father worked hard so I could study and not have to work as hard as him.  And his father did the same.  And his father and his father and, in turn, I will do the same for my child.  Every parent works so that they might give just a little more leisure into the life of their child.  If jobs were an end, then this action would be parental abuse.

People want jobs and those jobs do provide a benefit, but it doesn’t immediately follow that those jobs are in and of themselves beneficial.  Consider the following: going to the dentist incurs a lot of costs: there’s the poking and prodding while they clean, the doctor’s inevitable one-way conversation because his hands are in your mouth and you can’t respond, the lecture on flossing, and the reminder you have to do that again in six months.  But the end is healthy gums.  If there was a way to achieve that ends without all the costs, people would jump all over that.  It’d be insane to suggest that the poking and prodding is why people go to the dentist.  And yet, that is exactly the conclusion politicians make regarding jobs.

People work, they suffer, because it leads to some better end.  That suffering in and of itself is not the valuable part; the consumption that it leads to is.