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

Mistakes to Avoid When Discussing Health Care

Noah Smith has an interesting piece on health care at Bloomberg.  The piece is worth a read, although there are some head-scratchers in there.  Smith’s big conclusion is this:

In other words, don’t believe the argument that the cost difference between the U.S. and other countries is the inevitable price of a more innovative health-care system. Americans really are being greatly overcharged for their care. For whatever reason, health seems to be one industry where government does things more cheaply than the private sector.

There’s a problem with this conclusion, namely that it uses biased data to support the claim.  Health care is cheaper in other countries because the price system is rigged: universal health care keeps prices down by refusing to let them rise.  So, one cannot compare prices in a system where prices are allowed to fluctuate vs one where prices are determined by government diktat.

Prices are a signal.  They provide us valuable information about the relative scarcity of commodities.  When prices are allowed to adjust, they provide accurate information.  When they are not, they provide poor information, and lead to worse outcomes.

It is also important to note that monetary costs are not the only costs involved.  They are one cost, sure, but there are many other kinds of costs: wait times, quality, quantity supplied in general, that sort of thing.  Monetary prices can/will adjust for these different factors (for example, a luxury higher quality car may sell for more than a lower quality car), but if prices cannot adjust, these other costs will rise; there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, after all.

Let’s take, for example, Canada.  In the US, monetary costs for doctor visits may be higher, but in Canada, wait times are much longer (in the US, it’s approximately 24 days to see a doctor.  In Canada, it’s 20 weeks).  This is a real cost.  Quality of care is another cost.  In Britain, for example, you’re about 45% more likely to die in a hospital than the US.  This is a real cost.

It’s admirable to want to compare costs and benefits among two systems like Smith does, but he makes two major mistakes when doing so: 1) he compares price signals from a relatively free market to price signals that are artificially low, thus biasing his estimate (this is a point Bob Higgs has made repeatedly when discussing GDP), and 2) does not do a full accounting of the costs.  Smith may be right that health care is an area where government can provide cheaper than the private sector, but the evidence he puts forth for his claim is weak.

Social Welfare and Unanimity

Like James Buchanan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and many others before me, I invoke the “unanimity” condition whenever talking about social welfare (aka “the Greater Good”).  The reason for this is simple: only through unanimous agreement can something truly be said to be for the greater good; that it improves social welfare.

Welfare economists (and others) will call me crazy for such a claim.  “Of course that’s not true!” they say.  “Simply look at the benefits the beneficiaries get, the costs the payers pay, and if the benefit is higher than the cost, then it increases social welfare.”  This kind of cost-benefit analysis is important, I’ll grant that, but for the individual, not society as a whole.  Extrapolating to the societal, or collective, level gets messy.  The reason why is simple: valuation of costs and benefits are subjective.  For any given individual, the valuation of the benefit of Good X is likely to be different from the valuation of the cost of Good X.  Aggregating those valuations gets very very tricky and it ultimately leads to judgement calls by the analyst/policy maker.

If we want to make the claim that a collective action benefits the greater good, and we want to be able to say this positively and not normatively (that is, to eliminate judgement calls), then we need to apply the same standards as at the individual level, the most important of which being unanimity.  In an individual action, all parties agree to interact; if there is no unanimous agreement, the interaction does not take place.  If one disagrees, then we can conclude he does not stand to benefit from the interaction.  Extrapolating this to collective action (that is, more than two people interacting), then the only way to positively claim the action benefits the group as a whole is if it is chosen unanimously.

At this point, I provide only assertions and light reasoning.  An upcoming blog post will go much more in depth and I will attempt to prove my assertion, using the reasoning of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock.  However, this post is long enough as it is and I will bore the reader no further.

A Presumption of Competence

Why free markets?  Why am I prejudiced toward emergent order vs imposed order in economic matters?  Why is my default position against government involvement?  Why do I invoke such a high standard before justifying active government involvement in the economy?

Because the presumption of competence that is prevalent throughout a free society should be applied to economics as well.  The American civil legal system and the concept of Justice, at least in theory, have presumptions of competence built in.  Parties may contract with one another, with only the need for an arbitrator if there is a disagreement or fraudulent behavior.  They don’t need government to direct their contracts; each party is assumed to understand the deal.

Other freedoms are the same way: the freedom of speech presumes that the speaker is competent and that his audience is capable of choosing whether or not to listen.  Freedom of religion presumes each person is capable of finding their own belief system (or not).  Freedom of press assumes each reader is competent to understand ideas.  Freedom to marry presumes each person is competent in choosing a life-partner.

Economics is the same.  When two people complete a transaction, the presumption of competence is with both: each person trades knowing, to the best of his ability, how to improve his situation.

What about externalities?  Externalities may require necessary government involvement, but the presumption of competency still stands.  People in groups are quite clever.  The market institution does an amazing job channeling resources to reducing all costs, not just private costs.  A presumption of competence allows the market institution to work.

Unfortunately, most economic policies (especially the interventionist ones) rely on a presumption of incompetence.  Tariffs, punitive taxes, many kinds of regulations, et cetera all contain a presumption of incompetence: these regulations must be passed because at least one party (typically the consumer) is incompetent for one reason or another to make his/her own choices.*  The justification is usually “the consumer can’t act in his own best interest.”

I defer to the emergent order because of the knowledge problem.  Without overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the presumption of competence on the parts of the actors (and incomplete information on the part of the observer) should be observed.

*A potential objection an interventionist might raise is that these regulations are necessary because of a lack of information on the part of consumer.  For example, FDA regulations and testing are necessary because otherwise firms will just try to pass off placebos or post biased results.  However, prima facie this justification doesn’t make sense for an interventionist policy, rather than an advisory policy.

What-ifs and Whatnot

Two friends are sitting by a pool on a hot day.  One of the friends, Joe, casually says to Smith (the other): “Smith, it sure is a hot day today.  I hope the sun doesn’t dry up all the water!”

“Don’t be stupid!” says Smith.  “The sun doesn’t cause water to evaporate.  It causes the water level to go higher!”

Joe looks at his friend perplexed.  Smith continues:

“It’s real simple.  The sun hits the water, water gets warmer and starts to evaporate, right?  So the pool master comes out and adds more water to the pool.  On net, the water rises!  Ergo, the sun causes a higher water level!”

Joe, still confused, says “No, that’s not true.  The effect of the sun is to evaporate the water.  The pool master coming in is serendipitous; it’s a ‘what-if’.”

Smith laughs.  “Oh Joe.  Don’t be so dogmatic in your thinking!  Always insisting that the sun causes evaporation!  But I have clearly proven that wrong.  These chemists who constantly insist evaporation occurs because of the sun are just ideologues.”

Joe, rolling his eyes, goes back to his book.


And so it is with minimum wage, too.  Minimum wage advocates love to construct all kinds of “what-ifs” to explain why minimum wage has no effect (or even a positive effect) on employment.  But by doing this, they hide the effect of minimum wage behind all sorts of stories and claim, then, they have turned theory on its head.  But constructing what-ifs are easy.  Any storyteller can do it.  But what-ifs and serendipity make poor bases for public policy.


An Open Letter to President Trump

Mr. Trump-

Over the past year, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) has been doing repairs on their subway lines, called “Safe Track.”  During this period, stretches of the different Metro lines have slowed service considerably or closed them entirely for weeks on end.  During this period, Lyft and Uber drivers such as myself have made lots of money ferrying frustrated commuters back and forth to operational Metro stations or their offices.  During rush hour, one could easily command high surge pricing.  As you can imagine, this has been quite a financial boon to us.

But now, Safe Track is coming to an end.  This will mean lost money for us Uber and Lyft drivers.  It is often cheaper for commuters to ride the Metro than pay us.  Furthermore, the Metro is subsidized by the evil governments of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.  This is hardly fair.  Surely, you can see how this would be bad for America.

Mr. President, in order to Make America Great Again, I insist you demand the Metro to immediately cease their repairs.  Further, they should be required to rip out all the repairs they’ve already done, redo them, and then rip them out again just before being finished.  This cycle should be done into perpetuity.  This would have the duel effect of keeping Lyft and Uber drivers’ incomes high and keeping construction jobs in the area which would otherwise disappear once the work is done.

Some commuters might object to this, saying that the costs of their commutes are already too high.  Don’t listen to them!  They’re just being greedy.  They don’t care about America.

Some businesses might object and say the high cost of commutes may force them to relocate outside of the area.  Don’t listen to them!  They just want to protect their bottom line and don’t care about us workers.

Some economists might object and say that the dearth of transportation options is a cost, not a benefit, to the DMV.  Don’t listen to them!  They’re just in the pockets of Big Business.

Mr. President, for the sake of our jobs and incomes, I demand the above actions be taken!


Jon Murphy
Fairfax, VA