Is being pro-business and pro-capitalism the same? Does capitalism generate an unfair distribution of income? Was capitalism responsible for the most recent financial crisis? Dr. Jeffrey Miron at Harvard answers these questions by exposing three common myths of capitalism.
May 19, 2013
May 16, 2013
I link to this article with a heavy heart, because I’m a hop-aholic in my beer preferences:
If one of my favorite session beers was too hoppy and bitter for an avid beer drinker — for a homebrewer who is currently brewing beer to serve at his own wedding — what would he think of the famed Pacific Northwest IPAs? Do friends let friends drink only pilsners?
That’s when I realized that I had a problem. In fact, everyone I know in the craft beer industry has a problem: We’re so addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them anymore.
Hops are the flowers of the climbing plant Humulus lupulus, a member of the family Cannabaceae (which also includes, yes, cannabis), and they’re a critical ingredient in beer. Beer is made by steeping grain in hot water to turn its starches into sugar (which is later converted to alcohol by yeast). While the resulting liquid, called wort, is boiling, brewers add hops to tone down the mixture’s sweetness — without hops, beer would taste like Coke.* Recipes usually call for only a few grams of hops per gallon of beer produced, but those little flowers pack a big punch. In addition to their bittering properties, hops impart strong piney, spicy, or fruity flavors and aromas. They also contain antimicrobial agents that act as natural preservatives.
[. . .]
There are a few obvious reasons for hops’ status as the darling of craft brewers. Hops’ strong flavors present a stark contrast to watered-down horse piss, which is how I believe one refers to Bud Light in the common parlance. Maximizing hops is a good way for craft brewers to distinguish their creations from mass-market brands.
So, given all the flavourful goodness of hops, what’s the issue?
… unfortunately hops are a quick way for beginning brewers to disguise flaws in their beer, by using the hops’ strong flavor to overcome any possible off tastes. Do you regret throwing those juniper twigs in the boil? Did you forget to sterilize a piece of equipment and are now fretting about bacteria? Quick! Hops to the rescue!
From a consumer’s standpoint, though, beers overloaded with hops are a pointless gimmick. That’s because we can’t even taste hops’ nuances above a certain point. Hoppiness is measured in IBUs (International Bitterness Units), which indicate the concentration of isomerized alpha acid — the compound that makes hops taste bitter. Most beer judges agree that even with an experienced palate, most human beings can’t detect any differences above 60 IBUs. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the hoppiest beers of its time, clocks in at 37 IBUs. Some of today’s India pale ales, like Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, measure around 100 IBUs. Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, one of the most sought-after beers in the world, has three times as many hops as the brewery’s standard IPA; the hops are added on eight separate occasions during the brewing process.
The question seems to be is it totally broken or only partially broken?
According to one well-publicised estimate, there are 250,000 patents relevant to a modern smartphone. Even if the number is one-tenth of that, it suggests an impossible thicket of intellectual property through which a company must hack to bring a cool new product to market.
A key issue is something called the hold-up problem. If a $1bn product depends on 1,000 patents, it is clearly impossible to pay the typical patent holder more than $1m. But any patent-holder could try to extort many times that amount by threatening to block the whole project.
Large firms have responded to this problem by buying or developing large collections of patents. This gives them the ability to launch countersuits, and that threat should make rivals reasonable. But although defensive patenting looks like a pragmatic solution, it has costs and limits. The wave of defensive applications swamps patent offices, which means more poor-quality patents and longer delays.
“Patent trolls” — a derisive name for companies that make money purely from their patents — have less to lose in a patent war but although some are legitimate, others are extortionists. And while established players may reach cosy understandings, a young company with a new idea may find it impossible to break into a market that is thick with defensive patents. If only the big boys can play the patent game, innovation will suffer.
May 14, 2013
In Maclean’s, James Cowan makes the case for liberating the CBC from the shackles of government subsidy, as it’s now out-competing private business in several fields:
The online success of the CBC should be laudable. Its website received an average of 6.2-million unique visitors last year, making it the most popular Canadian website. Around 4.3-million people visit the CBC News site each month, besting both The Globe and Mail and Huffington Post. Adding to this success is an ambitious five-year plan that will open digital-only news operations in cities like Hamilton and Kamloops and allocate 5 per cent of the overall programming budget to digital content. Once upon a time, it was only private TV and radio broadcasters who had reason to grumble about competing with the Crown corporation; in building its online empire, the CBC is taking on everyone from newspapers to Netflix.
In doing so, the CBC has strayed a long way from its original purpose: to sustain Canadian culture when and where the market cannot. The problem is, the CBC’s traditional funding model now allows it to build its digital empire unfettered by economic reality. In its last quarter, 60 per cent of the company’s expenses were paid by government subsidies while just 21 per cent of its revenue comes from advertising. All media companies are struggling to adapt to shifting consumer and advertising patterns brought about by the digital age; only the CBC had $1.2 billion in government cash to fund its experiments and ease the transition.
Broadcasters would argue the CBC has always operated from an unfair advantage. But the current scenario is different in several respects. For one, the Corp.’s legislated mandate to be “predominantly and distinctly Canadian” arguably placed it at a commercial disadvantage. Further, capital and regulatory requirements made it implausible for commercial broadcasters to serve many areas of the country. But nobody needs to ask the CRTC’s permission to create a website, and the startup costs for a digital service are far less than those of a television or radio station. If small cities like Kamloops need a local digital news service, that’s a need that could be plausibly served by entrepreneurs. The CBC is increasingly no longer complementing the market, but instead meddling within it.
May 4, 2013
As you probably guessed, he’s against it:
David French, Senior Vice President of the National Retail Federation, the major industry group lobbying for the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act,” (more aptly named the “National Internet Tax Mandate”) recently commented that “…the law [governing Internet sales] today is a 20th-century interpretation of an 18th-century document…” Mr. French’s comments are typical of those wishing to expand government power beyond the limits established by the United States Constitution.
[. . .]
The National Internet Tax Mandate overturns the Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill v. North Dakota decision that states can only force businesses to collect sales tax if the business has a “physical presence” in the state. Quill represented a rare instance where the Supreme Court properly interpreted the Commerce Clause. Thanks to the Quill decision, the Internet has remained a tax-free zone, though some states require consumers to later pay taxes on products they purchased online. This freedom has helped turn the Internet into a thriving and dynamic sector of the economy, to the benefit of entrepreneurs and consumers.
Now that status is threatened by an alliance of big business and tax-hungry state governments seeking new powers to force out-of-state business to collect state sales taxes. Far from updating the Constitution to fit the needs of the 21st century, the National Internet Tax Mandate is a throwback to 18th century mercantilism.
The National Internet Tax Mandate will raise the costs of doing business over the Internet. Large, established Internet companies, such as Amazon, can absorb these costs, whereas their smaller competitors cannot. More importantly, the Mandate’s increased costs and regulations could prevent the creation and growth of the next Amazon.
At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Tim Worstall explains that Adam Smith was right about conspiracies to raise prices, especially when we look at governments:
Imagine that you don’t like the taxes that are being imposed upon you. No, go on, just imagine. You as an individual voter don’t actually have much influence over this. Which is why that option of exit is so important. The ability to simply say “The hell with you lot” and leave. We should note that there are very definitely some campaigners who insist that that exit route should be closed off. As, largely, it already is for US citizens. They can leave the US, certainly, but find it very difficult indeed to escape the clutches of the IRS.
Mitchell’s also making a very good Smithian point there. It is indeed true that once businessmen have gathered together for that conspiracy against the public then it is indeed competition from alternative suppliers that is said public’s only method of beating the conspiracy. And so it is with government: we can only preserve a modicum of freedom (and a modest portion of our wallet) if we are indeed free to choose among competing providers of those governmental services.
Which is what much of the conspiracy among governments is all about: seeking to deny us that exit, that protection from their monopoly.
April 24, 2013
S.M Oliva calls for the abolition of the NFL’s annual offseason TV mega-event in Reason:
The sports draft is an anomaly of the American labor market. In most industries new hires are free to seek employment wherever there’s an opening. Even promising high school athletes may accept a scholarship offer from any college. But the NFL shield has stood resolutely against labor freedom since 1935 when Bert Bell, then the struggling owner of the last-place Philadelphia Eagles, convinced the rest of the nine-team league that poorly performing clubs should be rewarded with first choice of promising college talent. Under this new system, a “drafted” player could only negotiate a contract with a single team.
[. . .]
Regardless of how players come into the league, they are all subject to a salary cap that fixes total compensation as a percentage of football-related revenues. The present collective bargaining agreement further constrains rookie salaries, and roster limits prevent a team from simply stockpiling players. All the draft does is increase the likelihood that the most promising new talent — the players taken at the top of the first round — will go to teams with a demonstrated history of mismanagement.
This should concern the league as it faces a rising tide of concussion-related lawsuits brought by former players. While the NFL tinkers with playing rules in an effort to make the game “safer,” there’s been no effort to question the role of the draft system in promoting unsafe working conditions. Let’s say Player X is a highly touted quarterback prospect drafted by Team A. What if Team A has a poor offensive line and a coach prone to recklessness with his quarterbacks? Player X can’t turn around and negotiate with Team B, which offers a better line and a coach with a stronger record of developing young quarterbacks. Player X is stuck with Team A, and if that means he’s out of football after four years, a record number of sacks and a half-dozen concussions, then so be it.
April 17, 2013
Timothy Carney explains why the big companies that made ordinary incandescent lightbulbs were among the groups pushing to make those lightbulbs effectively illegal. It’s a classic case of using government power to reduce competition and increase profit margins for certain companies:
Absent barriers to entry, light-bulb profit margins had to stay low. GE could make superior bulbs — soft white, etc. — but people are only willing to pay so much of a premium for those. After all, we’re dealing with light here, which is kind of a commodity.
So, where to find barriers to entry? Maybe higher-tech bulbs? LEDs, CFLs, or other bulbs that offer longer life and greater efficiency. GE, Osram, and Sylvania jumped into those high-tech bulbs, got some patents. R&D expenses, higher manufacturing costs, proprietary information — these created barriers to entry and allowed heftier profit margins.
But what if you made a super-efficient long-life bulb — and nobody wanted it? What if you couldn’t convince consumers that these bulbs were good for them? Well, that’s when you thank your lucky stars that you are GE, with the largest lobbying budget of any company in America.
You “heavily back” legislation that will “effectively outlaw … the traditional incandescent light bulb.” Now all consumers are forced to play in the world where you have greater barriers to entry, and thus bigger profit margins.
The negative consequences here aren’t mere Tea Party concerns about “crony capitalism” or, say, freedom of choice. One cost is the erosion of competition. GE in this case has found a way to divorce profit from the delivery of value – and I call it public-policy profiteering.
Sure, these high-tech bulbs have value. But I think consumers, rather than politicians, should be the ones who determine what value they assign to energy efficiency and longevity. So, through government intervention, capitalism starts to resemble the Marxist caricature of capitalism — Big Businesses making profits while denying consumers what they want.
April 14, 2013
Sheldon Richman suggests that some people’s objections to free trade and free markets isn’t so much ethical as aesthetic:
Market advocates tend to respect the intellect of their fellow human beings. You can tell by their reliance on philosophical, moral, economic, and historical arguments when trying to persuade others. But what if most people’s aversion to the market isn’t founded in philosophy, morality, economics, or history? What if their objection is aesthetic?
More and more I’ve come to think this is the case, and I believe I witnessed an example recently at a lecture I gave at St. Lawrence University. During the Q&A a woman asked, in all sincerity, why society couldn’t do without money, since so many bad things are associated with it. She also suggested that cooperation is better than market competition. I replied that since money facilitates exchange and exchange is cooperation, it follows that money facilitates cooperation — a lovely thing, indeed. Government, I added, corrupts money.
I also said that competition is what happens when we are free to decide with whom we will cooperate. I don’t know if my response prompted her to rethink her objections to the market, but I am confident her objection was aesthetic. For her, money and competition are ugly. Perhaps I didn’t respond on an aesthetic level; it’s something I have to work on. But I tried, and so must we all when we encounter these sorts of objections.
Like that nice woman, many decent people dislike markets because they find them unattractive. And they associate markets with other things they find unattractive besides money and competition: (rugged, atomistic) individualism, selfishness, and profit. F.A. Hayek noticed this, writing in “Individualism: True and False”, “the belief that individualism approves and encourages human selfishness is one of the main reasons why so many people dislike it.” If that’s the case, philosophical, moral, economic, and historical arguments may fall on deaf ears. The objections must be met on an aesthetic level.
February 11, 2013
In the Financial Post, Terence Corcoran looks at the good and not-so-good aspects of a recent Senate report on the reasons Canadians pay so much more for goods than Americans (even when the goods are identical and the currencies are trading at par):
Retail prices in Canada, seemingly across the board, are higher. Even with the Canadian dollar at par, the price of everything from running shoes to televisions and Chevy Camaros to books is said to be above U.S prices. One bank report once put the Canada-U.S. price gap at 20%.
Somebody’s gotta do something, everybody agrees. Enter the Senate committee with one of the most hard-nosed, market-driven overviews of how and why Canadians pay more for goods at retail. The report dodges and fudges some key issues, especially farm product supply management, which was seen by the committee and the retail industry as too politically hot to handle.
[. . .]
Even in this, however, the committee pulls its first punch. The recommendation to “review” such tariffs — watery phrasing in itself — also suggests “keeping in mind the impact on domestic manufacturing.” Sorry, folks, but you can’t have it both ways. Tariffs are protectionist devices for manufacturers that consumers pay for. If you want to reduce the price to consumers, the $3.9-billion in protection for manufacturers has to go. End of discussion.
What makes The Canada-USA Price Gap even more valuable is its compact insights into the many causes of higher retail prices in Canada. The economy is a complicated and often unfathomable series of market and price relationships beyond the power and even understanding of policy makers. The report recognizes that fact time and again.
January 24, 2013
In the latest Ontario Wine Review, Michael Pinkus pours scorn on the LCBO’s latest attempt to fend off an actual competitive market:
The LCBO is about money and profits — and about control. I know I will have people freaking out at me for saying this but I want you to ask yourself “why?” Why would the LCBO suddenly decide that grocery stores are the place to put locations? Doesn’t sound all that smart to me — and not what we asked for. We asked for the right to pick up booze and bread in the same place — the government has said fine but you’ll still have to visit two cashiers and wait in line. Heck, I could have gone across to the mall parking lot to the LCBO location, got a bigger selection than in that tiny kiosk they’ll most likely rent and I still would have had to stand in line at a different cashier — where’s the convenience?
Plus we already have Wine Rack and Wine Shoppe locations in grocery stores … and therein lies the rub (as Shakespeare would say). The LCBO already knows those stores are profitable, the “pilot project” is done, there’s no study needed, Vincor and Peller have already done the research (and if you don’t think the LCBO has had a look at those numbers you’ve got another surprise coming) — this is just another way for the LCBO to compete with those two companies — and by extension, the wineries of Ontario. [Ed. Note: just in case you don’t know Peller and Vincor hold the majority of private liquor store licenses in the province — something they acquired before 1988 when free trade came in].
“… and will also create new VQA boutiques for Ontario wines inside five of its own stores.” A novel idea? I don’t think so. They have one in St. Catharines already (of all places), and what do you want to bet the LCBO will place these new “boutiques” where they are most needed like Niagara, Prince Edward County and Windsor where wineries already exist — no better way to compete with your competition than on their own turf.
December 23, 2012
Remember the headlines from a few years back, when China was the source of a disproportional amount of the rare earth required for many of our modern electronic toys like iPhones and hard drives and such? China’s ham-handed attempt to constrain supply and jack up the prices has signally failed:
For I’ve been saying for years now that this “China will control all the rare earths” thing is nonsense and so it has turned out to be: nonsense.
Not that it hasn’t tried to control it all, mind, it’s just that it has failed. Failed for the reason we’d expect from communist state: its officials don’t understand free market economics. Specifically, it’s possible to successfully exercise monopoly power only if that monopoly is not contestable.
[. . .]
We were also continually reminded that China has 30 per cent of the world’s reserves: which simply shows that people don’t know what a reserve is. It’s not, as just about everyone assumes, the amount of something that’s available. It’s an amount whose exact location is known, which we’ve measured, drilled, sampled and baked a fluffy cake from – and which we can mine with current techniques AND with which we make a profit at current prices. Miss any of those steps (except maybe the cake) and it is not a reserve: it’s a resource. And resources of rare earths are vast: several are individually more common than copper for example. China has 30 per cent of the proven fluffiness, not 30 per cent of all that is available.
I will admit to a certain suspicion that the stories we heard were rather more a well-organised PR campaign to allow a couple of companies to suck subsidies out of the US taxpayer. Or perhaps even, given the conversation I had with a lobbyist about how to try to get on that gravy train, a plot to enrich lobbyists via companies paying to try to suck subsidies out of the US taxpayer.
So, now that I have finished puffing out my chest to “We Will Rock You”, on to what to economists is the blindingly obvious point of this story and what it means for the tech business. You might well have a monopoly: but it ain’t going to do you much good if, when you try to exercise your monopoly power, people come along and successfully contest your monopoly. We thus need to divide monopolies into two classes: those that are contestable and those that are not.
Back in 2010, I commented on Tim’s original debunking of the story:
So, if they have a monopoly on 95% of the world supply, why won’t it hold up? Because in spite of the name, they’re not as rare as all that … and there are substitutions that can be made for some or all of the current application needs. By restricting the supply and/or driving up the price, China will spur new competitors to enter the field and new sources of rare earths to be developed. In the short term, it will definitely create price increases (which, of course, will be passed on to the consumer), but in the medium-to-long term they will create a vibrant competitive marketplace which will almost inevitably drive the prices down below current levels.
Isn’t economics fascinating?
December 20, 2012
“Japanese are smart. Chinese are smart. Americans are smart. Even Finns are smart. But Canadians? We tend to be plodders.”
William Watson on a terrible psychological burden Canada has been labouring under for generations — the productivity gap — which does not actually appear to exist.
The good news just keeps pouring in. Last week we learned courtesy of a special report from TD Economics that median income in Canada had caught up with median income in the U.S. Never mind that the measure of income used was a little screwy: market income plus cash received from the government — basically all the goodies — with no accounting for taxes paid to the government. Most Canadians seemed tickled by the result anyway, as we always are when outperforming the Americans.
Now this week, just in time for Christmas, comes news that Canada’s productivity, far from having flatlined over the last 30 years, has actually been growing at a perfectly respectable pace that’s even comparable to American rates. It turns out we’re not nearly as incompetent as our official productivity numbers have been suggesting we are. We’ve just been calculating them wrong. In fact, it’s tempting to say our incompetence is mainly in the productivity section of Statistics Canada. Tempting maybe, but not fair. It’s Christmas, after all, and, besides, calculating productivity is like doing Sudoku for a living and there’s plenty of room for disagreement over what the data are saying.
[. . .]
StatCan’s estimates of our MFP have consistently suggested that as a people we aren’t at all clever. We may be lumberjacks. We may be OK. But doing more with less — or even more with the same — just hasn’t been our game. Japanese are smart. Chinese are smart. Americans are smart. Even Finns are smart. But Canadians? We tend to be plodders. Thus over the last half-century our business-sector MFP growth has averaged just 0.28% per year. By contrast, the Americans are used to rates a full percentage point higher. In 2010, they hit 3.4%! But now Diewert and Yu estimate that in fact over the last 50 years our MFP growth has averaged a perfectly respectable 1.03% per year. If you can add 1% a year to overall output without adding more and smarter people and machines to the mix — which of course you’re also allowed to do and we have been doing — your living standards will rise very nicely over time.
How can StatCan’s estimates have been so wrong? Diewert and Yu use quite different techniques at different stages of the calculation, but the main problem surrounds capital services. StatCan’s estimates of how much capital we use in production typically are much higher than Diewert and Yu’s. Partly the difference revolves around abstruse discussions about what internal rates of return to assume when trying to measure capital.
December 1, 2012
Tyler Cowen discusses his book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. Andrew Coyne (National Post) presents a rebuttal and the pair discuss Cowen’s thesis focusing on issues of productivity, innovation and government policy (moderated by Wendy Dobson).
October 2, 2012
Megan McArdle writes about the worsening problem of government officials who have never spent any time in the business world, but have huge power over the business environment:
Of course, we’ve had many good presidents with no business experience. But Obama’s whole administration tends to be light on people from outside the academia — NGO — government triangle. It’s something that’s increasingly true of Washington in general — and, I think, increasingly problematic.
[. . .]
The increasingly mandarin elite, hygienically removed from the grubby business of scrounging for customers, frequently seems to have no idea at all what goes on in companies. Stop grinning, Republicans; I mean you too. Yes, too many liberals seem to believe that all infelicitous market outcomes can be cured by appointing a commission composed of really top-notch academics — during the debate over health care reform, the words “peer reviewed study” were invoked by supporters with no less touching a faith than an Italian grandmother performing a rosary for the salvation of the godless Communists. On the other hand, here comes the GOP claiming that entrepreneurship can be started or stopped with small changes in marginal tax rates, as if one were turning on and off a light. This is no less of a technocratic fallacy, even if, as with many technocratic fallacies, there is a grain of sound theory buried somewhere under that towering mountain of unwarranted assumptions.
The result is that companies usually get treated as a rather simple variable in a model rather than the complex organizations they are. For example, you see people reasoning from corporate behavior to efficacy: if fast food companies spend a lot of money on advertising, then said advertising must make kids eat more fast food; if hiring managers demand a college degree for positions that didn’t used to require one, there must be a good business reason. “They wouldn’t do it,” says the argument, “if it didn’t work.”
If you’ve actually worked at a company, this is a ludicrous statement. Companies do stuff that doesn’t work all the time, and it can take decades to unwind even the stupidest expenditures and rules. More importantly, when they do have good reasons, they are often not the reasons that outsiders think. The elite projects their own concerns onto the company, instead of asking the company what it’s worried about.
[. . .]
The flip side of this is the people who think that companies don’t do anything at all that couldn’t be done better by government or academia … except sit back and rake the money in. This is particularly prevalent in discussions of health care, but it frequently pops up elsewhere. My favorite in this genre is Jerry Avorn, the professor of pharmacoeconomics who told Ezra Klein that we didn’t really need drug companies because now academics with good drug prospects could simply go straight to the capital markets and raise money to fund their own projects.
This is simply breathtakingly wrong. For one thing, venture capitalists want an exit strategy before they will put money in, and in biotech, exit is often a sale to a big pharmaceutical firm; no Big Pharma, no VC funds. And second, few newly hatched biotech firms have the complementary capacities to bring a drug to market by themselves. Forget the sales force; I’m talking about the expertise to get the thing through the FDA approval process and produce it in massive quantities. How do they acquire those capacities? They partner with Big Pharma, or license to them.