Everyday Economics: Bioshock Edition

On my recent trek between Virginia and Massachusetts (and back), I listened to an audio version of the book Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley (If you’re looking for something light to take your mind off of things, this is a good book).  The book details the rise and fall of Rapture, a massive underwater city built by Andrew Ryan (a not so subtle jab at Ayn Rand) to escape the “parasitic” governments of the world and build a society dedicated to freedom and free markets.  While the initial goal of Rapture may have been freedom and free markets, as the novel (and the video game that the novel is based on) details, Rapture becomes a totalitarian police state with an extremely wealthy (and often sadistic) upper class, and extremely poor low class, and no one in between.  Some see Bioshock as a refutation of Randian philosophy, however, I will not address that here as I am no expert in Ayn Rand (for an excellent discussion, see The Value of Art in Bioshock: Ayn Rand, Emotion, and Choice by Jason Rose).  I’ll leave that to people far smarter than I.  Rather, I want to address the economic situation of Rapture and discuss, briefly, how that contributed to the downfall.

A few quick disclaimers before I begin:

  1. As far as I know, Bioshock: Rapture is not canonical.  However, it is the only detailed source I can find thus far on the days of Rapture that take place before the video game (which is canon) so I will operate on the assumption that my source material is canonical knowing full well everything I write here could become completely worthless insofar as discussing canonical information (the lessons gleaned from this book are still important, however).
  2. Nothing in this essay should be taken as implying the rise or fall of Rapture is purely economic.  There are many other factors involved (social, political, medical, psychological, etc).  I skip or gloss over these not because I think they are unimportant (quite the opposite, really), but because I simply lack the expertise to discuss them with any confidence.
  3. I will be avoiding using direct quotes in this version of this essay.  The reason for this is simple: I have the audio book, not the book itself.  I can’t easily do verbatim quotes and attribute them to proper pages for citations.  Therefore, the reader should be aware that I am doing this partly out of memory (although I did scribble some notes) and further the reader should assume that whenever I describe what’s happening in Rapture, that is a reference to the work of Mr. Shirley.  The only original material will be my analysis.  Any inaccuracies, either to details or analysis, belong to me and me alone.

The short version of what follows: Rapture cannot be classified in any meaningful sense as a “free market.” It suffers from several deficiencies that prevent us from labeling Rapture as a free market: lack of property rights, lack of free trade (autarky), lack of labor mobility (autarky in the labor market), rejection of altruism, widespread and institutionalized fraud (this issue is speculative based off of interviews with characters within the book but not substantiated by details), and censorship (indirect at first, but more direct later).  In Andrew Ryan’s Rapture, “free market” and “laissez-faire” were not much more than dishonored buzzwords.  It can best be described, in the words of James Buchanan, as “moral anarchy,” (see Moral Science and Moral Order, especially page 190 and Limits of Liberty, especially Chapter 7).  These factors, coupled with other psychological, social, and other factors, lead to the decline, civil war, and eventual fall of Rapture.  Continue reading

Savings Is Not A Cost

Don Boudreaux draws my attention to an opinion piece at the Washington Post written by Robert Samuelson.  Don addresses one concern Samuelson has, but I want to address another, more fundamental point.

Samuelson writes (emphasis added):

A simple example shows why the theory works. Consider (hypothetically) widgets. Assume that new technologies cut widget production costs by 20%. These savings must go somewhere, and the chances are that they will be spent, thereby creating new jobs. The major candidates to receive the windfall are: (a) consumers, who could benefit from lower widget prices; (b) widget workers, whose salaries might be boosted; or (c) the shareholders of widget makers, which might raise dividends or build factories.

This logic could be thwarted if the windfall were saved and not spent.

Strictly speaking, this is not true.  If the windfall were saved and not spent, that does not mean that benefits do not occur.  Savings are economically productive, too.  Even if 100% of the windfall were saved, that would mean there are more funds for investment: housing loans, car loans, retirement, business loans, etc.  An increase in savings would help boost the economy, too.

Let’s do some thinking on the margin.  Let’s say that the windfall results in $1m saved.  Taking Samuelson’s argument above at face value, it’d mean that the $1m saved was a loss for the economy.  However, that $1m is loaned out to a new business owner who uses it to build his building, stock his store, and, once up and running hires more workers and produces more wealth for his community and the world.  The economy certainly has benefited.  I would suggest the following edit to Dr. Samuelson’s paragraph (bold and italicized part is my writing):

A simple example shows why the theory works. Consider (hypothetically) widgets. Assume that new technologies cut widget production costs by 20%. These savings must go somewhere, and the chances are that they will be spent, thereby creating new jobs. The major candidates to receive the windfall are: (a) consumers, who could benefit from lower widget prices; (b) widget workers, whose salaries might be boosted; (c) the shareholders of widget makers, which might raise dividends or build factories; or (d) borrowers/investors who now have a larger pool of loanable funds from which to draw, if some of the windfall is saved.

This logic could be thwarted if the windfall were saved and not spent.


A Non-Technical Guide to Econometrics

Chris Auld has an excellent piece on his blog regarding interpreting the “competing” Seattle minimum wage studies from the University of Washington and UC Berkeley.  It’s long, but very much worth the read.  In fact, it’s probably the best short introduction to statistics/econometrics I think I’ve read (another great one is Chapter 1 of Robert Abelson’s Statistics as a Principled Argument.  I’m also a big fan of Angrist & Pischke’s Mastering ‘Metrics).

Allow me to highlight two items in particular from this blog:

There is no statistical magic which can fully overcome these fundamental [causal] problems.  We will never be able to “prove” what the effect of the minimum wage was: that’s not the way statistics work in general, and in a case study like `what was the effect of the 2015 increase in minimum wages on employment in Seattle?’ the best we can hope for is to bring some suggestive evidence to the table. [Emphasis added]


In other words, what they Berkeley team means when they report “no effect” on employment is not that there is no effect on employment (yes, that is confusing).  What they mean, again, is that there is no statistically significant effect on employment, whereas the UW team, using different data and somewhat different statistical methods, finds a statistically significant effect.  But the difference between statistically significant and statistically insignificant is often itself not statistically significant.

One team found there were no statistically significant effects on employment, but that result should not be misunderstood as a claim that the study “proves” the effect was actually zero… [original emphasis]

Any additional commentary I add here will only detract.  Read Dr. Auld’s post.  It’s excellent stuff.

H/T: Michael Enz

Some Links

Scott Sumner points us to some good news on trade for the world.  His conclusion is excellent:

Unfortunately, one major country stands on the sidelines pouting while the rest of the world moves toward ever freer trade. Sad.

JMM: So much for making America great again…

Mike Munger reviews Nancy MacLean’s smear-job new book on James Buchanan and Public Choice

John McGinnis discusses what happens when government moves beyond its core functions.

Mike Rappaport on law and legislation

Mark Perry celebrates Thomas Sowell’s 87th birthday

What Does Protectionism Protect?

What does protectionism protect?

Some claim that it protects jobs, but that’s not true.  By raising the price of the “protected” good, it reduces quantity demanded, thus reducing the need for labor and other inputs in that particular industry.  Plus, by increasing the price of the protected good, it reduces demand from other areas of the economy just to pay for the new price, costing jobs and inputs into those areas as well (eg, if you have $100 and a suit jacket costs you $50, you have $50 to spend on a night out.  If, due to tariffs, the price raises to $100, you now have nothing to spend on a night out if you buy the suit jacket).

Some claim protectionism protects industries/firms; helps them grow.  That’s not true, either.  As Mercatus Center scholar Dan Griswold reminds us: “Protected industries tend be lazy about innovation and customer service because they are shielded from normal market competition – think the U.S. Postal Service.”  Protectionism tends to weaken the protected industries, not strengthens them (this, in turn, could lead to perpetual calls for protection by the industry.  A good example of this is the US sugar industry.  The subsidies and tariffs it receives were only supposed to be temporary, while the new American nation got on her feet.  Almost 300 years later, they’re still around).

Some claim protectionism protects the economy, it “makes us great” by encouraging exports and reducing imports.  This isn’t true either.  As Dartmouth College professor Douglas Irwin reminds us: “a tax [tariff] on imports is equivalent to a tax on exports. Any restraint on imports also acts, in effect, as a restraint on exports.”  Whether you measure economic gain in the number of exports or the total volume of trade, tariffs reduce both, so it can’t encourage economic growth.

So what, then, does protectionism protect?  Nothing, so far as I can tell.  All it does is reduce the number of goods a society can enjoy by increasing prices.  This is why I call protectionism by its proper name: scarcityism.

Emergent Order vs Imposed Order

In my recent post on the law, I had talked a little bit about law as an emergent order.  Commentor Greg G responded:

You have fallen into the trap of simply using the word “emergent” as a compliment for those emergent processes you approve of. Millions of voters select hundreds of thousands of representatives at different levels of government. Different levels of government sometimes make laws that conflict with each other. The elected representatives select many thousand of bureaucrats who participate in determining what the law is. Every single one of these agents has their own decentralized complex set of motives and goals which include calculating to what extent they need to satisfy the desires of the voters.

Greg’s comment deserves a response.

Is the formation of a government an emergent order?  Yes.  If we go with the classically liberal view of government, government was formed in order to protect individual rights in cases where collective action is the least costly action (other theories of government will work in this same manner; we’ll just change the justification.  The only theory that might now work is government by divine right, as that would indicate not an emergent order by human interaction but rather divine intervention).  Government emerged to satisfy certain needs in the same way a firm emerges to satisfy certain needs.

Emergent order arrives peacefully; consensually.

Imposed order, on the other hand, is non-consensual.  It is imposed by force.  Libertarians and classical liberals tend to identify government as the perpetrator of imposed order.  While government is a perpetrator (and perhaps the largest), the problem is not isolated to government alone.  For example, a man who mugs another is imposing order: he is imposing the forcible transfer of goods/currency from one person to another.

When it comes to government, we must be very careful about how we apply classifications.  It’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I understand it fully.  For example, let’s say that, on a constitutional level (that is, when designing the government), the group unanimously agrees that any legislation passed only needs 51% approval.  So, we have an emergent order on how things work.  Using that simple majority, the government makes rules.  Are these rules emergent order or imposed order?  I suspect there is a justice element to the answer.  I also expect there’s a discussion on whether or not the decision-maker is exceeding his mandate.

As with my piece the other day, these are rough ideas which I will need to fill out going forward.  Comments appreciated and encouraged.