Who Are the Economic Experts?

Economists are considered the economic experts.  After all, we’re the ones with the PhDs, the fancy mathematics, the complex theories that purport to explain everything.

But the reality is quite different.  We are not the economic experts.  Indeed, a good education in economics inoculates one from thinking himself an expert and forces him to think himself more of an observer.

The real economic experts are everyone.

People understand how to act in their own best interests. Nothing about the market needs experts to guide it. People are not fools who require technocrats to tell them what they can and cannot buy.  The outcome of the market, the observed phenomena that are the market process, is nothing more than the results of people interacting with one another; human action but not human demand.  People are acting on information that they have and the signals they see.  They are the experts, not the economist or technocrat.

Protectionists disagree, however. They believe they know better than everyone else. They believe they know better than the Joes of the world. They believe they know better than people what is in their own best interest. So they seek to impose their will upon everyone else, the opinions, hopes, and dreams of the others be damned. “They are not educated,” the protectionist thinks. “They are not versed in the theorems and mathematical proofs that show that Joe is harming himself. If only he had a benevolent hand to guide him; to push him in the right direction (or tug on the leash, if necessary).”

Free marketers believe non-economists do indeed know more economics than the economists. That’s precisely why they argue for free markets; so people can exploit their knowledge and expertise to the best of their ability. The protectionists and socialists (but I repeat myself) disagree. They believe themselves to be far smarter than the Joes of the world and that the Joes are simply too stupid to act in their own behalf.

Markets are observed empirical phenomena, not a technocratic outcome.  The market process is not a theory per se but an actual outcome.  The theory is used to explain why that outcome occurs, but it is an outcome nonetheless.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

On Monday, I opened my inaugural lecture in my Econ 100 (Economics for the Citizen) class by showing this video:

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a hobo’s Paradise.  Everything he wants is at his fingertips.  Lakes of whiskey and stew, lots of places to sleep, where they “hung the jerk that invented work.”  Truly a Heaven on Earth.

But the economic problem is that we don’t live on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.  We live in a world of scarce resources, that is a world where choices need to be made.  How does one decide?  How can one maximize his resources?  How do we interact with one another on this issue?  How do we develop rules and institutions that govern these interactions?  These are the questions that economists study.*

Economists spend most of our time repeatedly reminding people that resources are scarce.  Politicians like to pretend otherwise.  Scarcityists like to pretend otherwise.  But they are merely chasing a hobo’s dream.

*Note the subtle difference between these questions, which are positive in nature, and the normative questions of “how should resources be allocated” and “who should decide” that many pseudoeconomists like to think economics is.

Cause, Effect, and Misallocation

In preparation for a price theory book I am writing, I am re-reading George Stigler’s classic 1966 text The Theory of Price.  The following is found on page 19 (3rd edition):

[I]t has become a major task demanded of all economies: they are required (as soverigns use this word) to provide technological advances, capital accumulations, improved labor forces, and larger incomes.  So strong is this demand, that sometimes a method by wich western nations become richer–industrialization–is confused with the growth itself, and inappropiate industries that reduce a nations’s income are adopted to increase it.

Confusing cause with effect is a major problem facing all analysts.  This becomes doubly true when discussing economic growth when policy is involved.

Industrialized nations are wealthy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean such industrialization is the cause of wealth.  Rather, industrialization is itself a symptom of a deeper cause, that is the division of labor.  “Industrialization” is a term without definition, as it can refer to many kinds of industries.  Comparative advantage is what tells us what kind of industrialization is needed to foster growth.

The United States has a comparative advantage in high tech industries; we are an extremely intelligent people with lots of capital (both human and machine) at our disposal.  China, however, has a comparative advantage in low tech industries; they have lots of unskilled labor at their disposal.  It makes sense for the US to industrialize in high tech industries and China to industrialize in low tech industries.

But even within countries, industrialization is varied.  In the US, the vast middle of the country has some of the most fertile farmland in the world.  It makes sense for those states to be agriculturally-based and other places, like Texas, to be resource-based, and others, like Massachusetts, to be tech-based.

A scheme based on the mistaken notion that “industrialization = progress” will lead to misallocation of resources.  Resources, such as labor, capital, time, will be diverted into less productive and more costly areas.  This, in turn, leads to a net decline in wealth compared to where it otherwise would have been.  An example of this is China during the “Great Leap Forward.”  Industrialization, specifically of steel, was all the rage of the Communist Party.  All production was geared toward steel production.  This inherently meant a rapid decline in production of other items–like food.  China’s poverty deepened.

The Great Leap Forward is an extreme example, but other historical cases of misallocation of resources due to the mistaken belief of “industrialization = wealth” include the USSR, modern Venezuela, and North Korea.

When examining the causes of economic growth, one must be very careful in determining cause and effect.  This is where price theory really shines.

The Law of Demand in Action (or Why Monopoly Power is Fleeting)

Writing at Human Progress, Martin Tupy has an excellent article on the real effects of predatory pricing and monopoly.  Here is the upshot (although one should read the whole article.  It is excellent):

In a 2014 Council on Foreign Relations report, Eugene Gholz, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, revisited the crisis and found that the Chinese embargo [of rare earths to Japan] proved to be a bit of a dud.  Some Chinese exporters got around the embargo by using legal loopholes, such as selling rare earths after combining them with other alloys. Others smuggled the elements out of China outright. Some companies found ways to make their products using smaller amounts of the elements while others “remembered that they did not need the high performance of specialized rare earth[s] … they were merely using them because, at least until the 2010 episode, they were relatively inexpensive and convenient.” Third, companies around the world started raising money for new mining projects, ramped up the existing plant capacities and accelerated plans to recycle rare earths.

In other words, when faced with a sudden shortage, people compensated through other means.  It’s almost as if demand curves slope downward.

Monopolies are still subject to the whims of consumers.  They cannot raise their prices with impunity.  As prices remain high, people will innovate around them.  This indicates that the fear of predatory pricing, that a firm (or country) will seize market power and use it to jack up prices or manipulate people, are greatly overblown.

 

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?

The Parable of the Two Shipmasters

A prudent ship captain his crew set sail for a multi-month journey.  In port, he makes sure he has enough supplies for his crew for the entire journey and then some (just to be safe).  While underway at sea, he checks the galley and finds that about half of his food stores are spoiled because there was some unforeseen blight in the crops he bought.  The captain gathers his crew together and says: “Mates, we have a problem.  Half of our food is gone.  Unfortunately, this means I must put you all on half rations for the remainder of our voyage.”  The crew, understandably, begins to grumble.  They enjoyed their rations and now there will be half?

“But sir!” cries one young sailor, “We were used to our old rations!  The life on the ship was fun.  We had beer and bread and meat.  It gave us strength and kept morale high.  Why must we be tortured so?”

“Because,” replied the captain, “otherwise we may not have enough food to survive our journey.  We are weeks from the closest port and these stores must last.  I promise it is better to have a dearth now than a famine later.”

The crew grumbles, but they comply.  Two months later, the ship arrives at its destination with the full complement of crew who are tired but alive.

At the same time as the above story, a second imprudent ship captain also buys the same amount of food for his journey of the same length.  While out at sea, he also suffers the blight and loses half his stores.  He gathers the crew around and says: “Mates, half our food stores are gone.  It looks like I may have to cut rations.”

“But sir!” another young sailor objects.  “Half rations are no good!  We won’t be merry!  Our lives will be tougher.  This is no good!”

“Agreed,” said the captain.  “The happiness of my crew must come first.  We should not have to suffer inconveniences.  Rations will not be cut!”  The crew cheers.

Two months later, a ghost ship drifts into the port full of emancipated men who have not eaten in over a month.  The few that survived resorted to eating whatever they could find, including each other when necessary.

The above parable is adapted from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in particular, Book IV Chapter V.  In times of scarcity, prices must rise in order to encourage conservation of resources (in this case, the price acts as the ship captain rationing food).  Prices rise through the acts of speculators buying goods in periods of relative plenty and selling in times of relative scarcity (thus the maxim “buy low sell high”).  It is obvious that the higher prices cause discomfort.  People eat less or less desirable things.  But the alternative to this discomfort is famine.  If prices are not allowed to adjust for whatever reason (the ship captain who keeps rations the same), then the resource is consumed too quickly and famine can quickly set in.  The discomfort is delayed to the future, but it is repaid with heavy interest.

Predatory Pricing, Tariffs, and the Second Law of Demand

Predatory pricing is a common justification for government intervention in a marker (predatory pricing is when a firm or government tries to gain monopoly power in a market by selling below cost, undercutting competitors and forcing them out, and then raising prices to a monopoly level.  For a great treatment of predatory pricing, see here).

On a recent Cafe Hayek post, Craig Walenta (friend of the blog) objected to a lack of concern vis-a-vis Chinese dumping thusly:

 Of course that which is seen, but that which is unseen are the incidental effects because this absolutely must be incorporated into your business judgment, or you’d just be a complete idiot, and you’re not going to have any sense of what the unseen is unless you actually own a business and talk to other business owners who will tell you that the general rule is that ‘if it can be done in China, EVEN IF IT CAN BE DONE HERE CHEAPER, don’t do it’ — indeed foreign and domestic favoritism clearly impacts businesses that have absolutely no relation to the favored industries in question.
Mr. Walenta’s concern is legitimate.  Why would business owners compete in a market if someone is going to undercut them?  There may be people who do not enter some industry for fear of competition.
But does that mean China can, once they receive monopoly power, can raise and keep prices high with the mere threat of undercutting prices again?  Not likely, because of the Second Law of Demand.
The Second Law of Demand is, to quote Armen Alchian and William Allen (Page 28):
[T]he longer the time allowed to adjust amount demand in response to a price change, the greater is the change in amount demanded, that is, the greater the elasticity…For example, if the price of water were doubled, consumption would immediately decrease some–but would decrease by a great deal more within a few months, after people had more economically made adjustment to their water-using equipment[.]
In other words, people initially make little adjustments to a rise in prices but the longer prices stay high, the bigger their adjustments become.  To stick with the water example, if the price of water spikes quickly, people may water their lawn less or wash their car less, but that’s about it.  If the price of water stays high, people may rip out their lawns and go for rock gardens (eg, Arizona), may shower together to save water, may move to disposable plates rather than washable dishware, etc.
To bring this back to China, if China were to gain a monopoly power and raise prices, even if they were to maintain their monopoly power with the mere threat of lower prices, it is unlikely they would succeed.  At first, they may be able to command monopoly prices, but the high price of steel will eventually force people into different areas: maybe more plastic is used for automobiles than steel.  Maybe wood and brick replace architectural steel.  Maybe some new metal alloy is created to replace steel, or there are shifts to titanium or something like that.  Maybe someone develops a super-lightweight but super-strong material that renders steel obsolete (like Kevlar for buildings).  It’s impossible to know what path things would take.  What we do know is the Law of Demand says that people will adjust, and thus it is highly improbable anyone who gains monopoly power through predatory pricing will be able to maintain monopoly profits.