Quotulatiousness

August 29, 2016

Debunking “the 1950s as some sort of golden age of progressivism”

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

James O’Brien selects a few imaginative historical myths for debunking:

Here are a few facts about U.S. life 60 years ago, in 1956:

  • The top tax rate was largely irrelevant. The average household income in 1956 was about $4,800. Only 8 percent of families earned more than $10,000 per year. The 91 percent top tax rate (and that really was the top tax rate – a holdover from World War II) kicked in at $400,000 for married couples, or the equivalent of about $3.2 million today). While few individuals made that much money in 1956, people who did earn large sums of money could deduct everything from interest on auto loans to sales taxes, and could – and did – structure things so that their income was funneled through tax shelters at much lower rates.
  • There was a lot less money overall. Adjusted for inflation, that $4,800 average household income would be about $42,000 today. That is roughly 20 percent less than current average household income of about $53,000. Even in 1956, when a Harvard education cost $1000 per year, $400 per month hardly afforded a riotous existence for a family of four. One of the most striking things about 1956 was how little people at the top of their professions earned. Yogi Berra – the highest paid player in Major League Baseball that year – received $58,000. That would be a little over $500,000 today, essentially minimum wage by MLB standards.
  • Tax revenues as a percentage of GDP were about the same as they are today. Since 1945, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have fluctuated within a fairly narrow range of 15 to 20 percent. The state of the economy, not tax rates, has determined how much the government takes in. Despite the high marginal rates of the 1950s, the tax intake as a percentage of GDP was just 16.5 percent in 1956. It was 18 percent in 2015, so we are actually taking in more, rather than less money, although we are spending it in many new and different areas.
  • Government spent less on everything but defense. The U.S. Federal budget for 1956 might best be described as “Spartan”, not in the sense of being frugal (although it was that) but in the sense of being primarily devoted to preparations for war. In the Cold War climate, defense spending soaked up 60 percent ($47 billion) of the total $76 billion Federal budget – about three times the current percentage — and spending on “social programs” was essentially nonexistent. There was no Department of Education, and total Federal spending on education was just $1.5 billion. Healthcare expenditures were just $1.0 billion; there was no Medicare, (which now represents 15 percent of the total Federal budget), no Medicaid, and certainly no Obamacare. The Interstate Highway Program – so beloved by liberals – was conceived as a defense spending measure and was designed to be self-funding through diesel and gasoline taxes.
  • Opportunities were anything but equal. Racial discrimination was rampant and gender bias was everywhere. Many fields were essentially closed to women and to people of color, while quota systems deterred talented Jewish students from pursuing careers in fields such as engineering and law. We can argue all we want about white privilege in 2016 but in 1956 it was endemic, and bred not just economic but social and cultural inequality.

When we look at the United States in 1956 we see a country with high (but largely irrelevant) marginal tax rates, no social programs to speak of, and a massive defense budget. With Europe still recovering from World War II, the economy is strong, and companies are willing to spend and hire. The country’s focus, however, is not on the welfare of its people, but on its survival in a grim ideological and geopolitical struggle with a ruthless and determined opponent. Those who portray the 1950s as some sort of golden age of progressivism are writing historical fiction, not history.

The 1950s for the United States (and for Canada) were, to borrow a notion from John Scalzi, run in “easy mode” — in game terms, the lowest difficulty setting. There was no peer-level competition in manufacturing or even in services and this provided profit levels that allowed both corporations and workers to enjoy unrealistic long-term conditions that finally came to an end in the gas shocks of the 1970s, after the devastated economies of the defeated Axis powers finally were able to compete again. Twenty-five years of minimal competition left the major corporations totally unable to cope with even minimal competitive pressures from overseas … but willing to use whatever political levers were available to try to quash those foreign upstarts.

But as the courtiers of King Canute were finally obliged to accept, even the King can’t order the tide to recede when it’s convenient.

August 8, 2016

QotD: Peace

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Almost everyone wants peace, the problem is that we’ve had peace in this country for so long that most people don’t recognize it for the aberration that it is. Because of this, a curiously contradictory mindset holds sway over a large segment of the population, most of them on the left side of the political spectrum. It goes something like this: “Well, we want peace, so we’ll just refuse to fight. If we refuse to fight, the other guy will have no reason to fight us.” If you point out to them that the other guy just might not want peace, you’ll get a predictable response: “Well, since peace is the default state of the world, if we can figure out what we did to make the other guy mad at us and desirous of war, and make it up to him, then he’ll feel comfortable with allowing the default state to resume.”

The problem is, of course, that peace isn’t the default state of the world, war is. Human beings are predators, and we are genetically designed to be in competition with other human beings, either individually or in groups. If group A has something group B wants, the natural instinct of group B is to attack group A and take it. The only way that group A can prevent this from happening is to be stronger than group B. For centuries, the Mongol tribes roamed the countryside of Mongolia, squabbling with and fighting each other. The great neighboring dynasties, the Xia and Jin, had little to fear from the Mongols beyond nuisance raids, because they were stronger. Then Temujin united the tribes, assumed the title Genghis Khan, and swept both empires off the face of the earth. The empires had enjoyed peace for generations — because they were strong. When they ceased to be stronger than their foes, they soon ceased to be entirely.

So what? Primitives. Barbarians. Savages. We’re different now. Civilized. Cultured. Superior.

I hate to break it to you, but we’re not. 13th century man is behaviorally identical to modern man. 8 centuries is nowhere near long enough for that kind of evolutionary change in the human animal. People are … people. Always have been, always will be. The reason that we’ve enjoyed centuries of peace in America (even our wars haven’t been fought here since the 1860s) is because we’ve been strong enough that nobody has had the ability to fight us over here, and we’ve had the ability to go fight them over there when we needed to. There is nothing about this situation that is written in stone. Our homeland is peaceful because we’ve had the military might necessary to make it impossible for foes to make it not peaceful.

But now, with so many believing that peace is the natural order of things, we are in grave danger of finding out that peace is not the natural order of things, it’s a luxury, one that is paid for in blood and the willingness and ability to shed it. Our military is a shell of its former self, hollowed out to buy bread and circuses for the masses. Our diplomacy a joke, conducted insecurely and thus transparent to our foes. Our foreign policy is a hot mess of appeasement and apology. All of this makes us look weaker and weaker to the world, and so now they believe that they can take what they want from us because we can no longer defend it. Bill Clinton gave Ukraine a rock solid guarantee of protection in return for them giving up their nukes to ensure “peace”. That’s gone, along with half that country. Our strongest allies are realizing that they are on their own against genocidal aggressions and prepare to act alone or in concert with new allies. We issue ultimatums and draw red lines and the world laughs at us. This isn’t peace, it’s the prelude to destruction. Our destruction.

Weirddave, “Fundamental Concepts – Weakness Invites Aggression”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2015-03-07.

July 17, 2016

QotD: Regulating Napa County

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Quotations, USA, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… at each tour we typically got the whole backstory of the business. And the consistent theme that ran through all of these discussions was the simply incredible level of regulation of the wine business that goes on in Napa. I have no idea what the public justification of all these rules and laws are, but the consistent theme of them is that they all serve to make it very hard for small competitors or new entrants to do business in the county. There is a board, likely populated by the largest and most powerful entrenched wine makers, that seems to control the whole regulatory structure, making this a classic case of an industry where you have to ask permission of your competitors to compete against them. There are minimum sizes, in acres, one must have to start a new winery, and this size keeps increasing. Recently, large winemakers have started trying to substantially raise this number again to a size greater than the acreage of any possible available parcel of land, effectively ending all new entrants for good. I forget the exact numbers, but one has to have something like 40 acres of land as a minimum to build a structure on the land, and one must have over 300 acres to build a second structure. You want to buy ten acres and build a small house and winery to try your hand at winemaking? — forget it in Napa.

It took a couple of days and a bunch of questions to put this together. Time and again the guide would say that the (wealthy) owners had to look and wait for a long time to find a piece of land with a house on it. I couldn’t figure out why the hell this was a criteria — if you are paying millions for the land, why are you scared to build a house? But it turned out that they couldn’t build a house. We were at this beautiful little place called Gargiulo and they said they bought their land sight-unseen on 3 hours notice for millions of dollars because it had a house AND a separate barn on it grandfathered. Today, it was impossible to get acreage of the size they have and build two structures on it, but since they had the barn, they could add on to it (about 10x the original size of the barn) to build the winery and still have a separate house to live in.

This is why the Napa Valley, to my eye, has become a weird museum of rich people. It seems to be dominated by billionaires who create just fantastically lovely showplaces that produce a few thousand cases of wine that is sold on allocation for 100+ dollars a bottle to other rich people. It is spectacularly beautiful to visit — seriously, each tasting room and vineyard is like a post card, in large part because the owners are rich enough to care nothing about return on capital invested in their vineyards. The vineyards in Napa seem to have some sort of social signalling value which I don’t fully understand, but it is fun to visit for a few days. But in this set-piece, the last thing the folks who control the county want is for grubby little middle-class startups to mess up their carefully crafted stage, so they are effectively excluded.

I know zero about wines, but from other industries this seems to be a recipe for senescence. It would surprise me not at all to see articles get written 10 years from now about how Napa wines have fallen behind other, more innovative areas. I have never been there, but my friends say newer areas like Paso Robles has an entirely different vibe, with working owners on small plots trying to a) actually make a viable business of it and b) innovate and try new approaches.

Warren Meyer, “My Nomination for Corporate State of the Year: Napa County, California”, Coyote Blog, 2016-07-08.

May 13, 2016

QotD: The boring efficiency of North American freight railways

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world. Europe and Japan are not even close. Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan. As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States. For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible. You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains. This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes. Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars. Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full. I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight. As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves. Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail. One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy. Its not a government function in the US. So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from an energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.

Warren Meyer, “The US Has The Best Rail System in the World, and Matt Yglesias Actually Pointed Out the Reason”, Coyote Blog, 2016-05-02.

February 5, 2016

QotD: Chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans

Filed under: Health, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Popular concerns are often weirdly unrelated to actual circumstances. It was only in the 1960s, after the percentage of Americans failing to complete secondary school had been falling for decades and had reached an historic low, that Americans discovered the problem of “high school dropouts.” Political and economic conditions in France steadily improved in the decades leading up to the French Revolution; as Tocqueville explained, expectations rose faster than conditions could improve, so more humane government was accompanied by growing dissatisfaction over “despotism.” A similar process may underlie contemporary hysteria over “intimate partner violence.”

Many have commented on the “irony” that the most pampered women in history are the ones complaining most about oppression. Perhaps we should consider whether this does not represent an irony but a direct causal relation: whether modern woman complains of her lot because — rather than in spite of — its being so favorable.

Writer Jack Donovan has made an ethological argument in favor of such an interpretation. Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are physically not very different from other chimps, but they are now classed as a separate species because of radical differences in their behavior. Bonobo males are not very aggressive. They compete less for status than do male chimps, and they do not compete at all for mates. Sex is promiscuous, and males are not possessive. Homosexual mating is common. All parenting is done by mothers. Female bonds are stronger and more enduring than male bonds. In short, bonobo society is a feminist paradise.

Chimpanzee behavior is the opposite of bonobo behavior in almost every respect. Male chimps form hierarchical gangs and compete constantly for status and access to females. They are violent and territorial, forming alliances both to defend their own territory and raid that of other chimpanzee bands. They kill stray males from other bands when the opportunity presents itself. They push females around, and females are expected to display submission to males. Homosexuality is uncommon among them. Chimpanzee social behavior is a feminist’s worst nightmare.

Evolutionary theory would lead us to look for a difference in the living environments of bonobos and chimps to which their radically different behavior could represent adaptations. And the primatologists have found such a difference: chimps must compete with other species, especially gorillas, for food. The bonobos live in a food-rich, gorilla-free environment where the living is easy. It is this lack of competitors which makes violence, hierarchy, competition, and male bonding unnecessary for bonobos.

F. Roger Devlin, “The Question of Female Masochism”, Counter-Currents Publishing, 2014-09-17.

December 16, 2015

To lower healthcare costs, increase the competition

Filed under: Business, Economics, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum links to an article that explicitly shows the cost of having monopoly providers in healthcare:

Regular readers of this blog should know that when it comes to the price of hospital care, it’s competition that matters, not insurance companies. In areas with only a single hospital, insurance companies have no leverage and have to accept whatever price the hospital charges. If there are lots of hospitals, they have to compete with each other to earn the insurance company’s business.

But in case you’re still skeptical, a team of researchers has analyzed a huge database of health care claims in the US to check this out. They found enormous regional variation in hospital costs for the same procedure, and one of the biggest drivers of this variation was competition:

Market power and hospital price

    Hospital market structure stands out as one of the most important factors associated with higher prices, even after controlling for costs and clinical quality. We find that hospitals located in monopoly markets have prices that are about 15.3 percent higher than hospitals located in markets with four or more providers. This result is robust across multiple measures of market structure and is consistent in states where the HCCI data contributors (and/or Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers) have high and low coverage rates.

November 27, 2015

The Balance of Industries and Creative Destruction

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

Why are price signals and market competition so important to a market economy? When prices accurately signal costs and benefits and markets are competitive, the Invisible Hand ensures that costs are minimized and production is maximized. If these conditions aren’t met, market inefficiencies arise and the Invisible Hand cannot do its work. In this video, we show how two major processes, creative destruction and the elimination principle, work with the Invisible Hand to create a competitive marketplace that works for producers and consumers.

November 23, 2015

Minimization of Total Industry Costs of Production

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

This section connects several ideas covered in previous videos about the price system and profit maximization. In this video, we begin to understand two basic functions of the Invisible Hand. In competitive markets, the market price (with the help of the Invisible Hand) balances production across firms so that total industry costs are minimized. Competitive markets also connect different industries. By balancing production, the Invisible Hand of the market ensures that the total value of production is maximized across different industries. We’ll use the example of minimizing total costs of corn production, and demonstrate our findings through several charts.

November 13, 2015

QotD: To many the very concept of “tax competition” is anathema

Filed under: Economics, Government, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I have written a fair bit on this site and elsewhere (I work in the financial/media world) about this subject, and there is no doubt in my mind that the idea that tax competition is harmful is almost always held by politicians and collectivist-minded commentators who want to create a sort of global tax cartel. Cartels are, we learn in our textbooks, harmful although they tend to fracture with time. (The OPEC cartel had a problem in the 80s and 90 sustaining high oil prices, which at one stage went below $10 a barrel). However futile the attempt, however, do not underestimate the harm that is being done in the process of trying to shut down offshore financial centres and the like. The possibility that people can and will take their money elsewhere is one of the few constraints that exist on otherwise rapacious governments. So naturally, governments try to stop this from happening – hence all this talk about shutting down tax “competition”.

When governments claim that tax dodgers are taking food from the mouths of poor babies, treat it with scorn. The money that goes offshore doesn’t disappear down some black hole, never to appear again: that money, if it is to earn a return and outpace inflation, is invested – ie, it is put to work, often far more effectively than would otherwise be the case.

Johnathan Pearce, “The end of tax competition?”, Samizdata, 2014-11-07.

November 12, 2015

Entry, Exit, and Supply Curves: Decreasing Costs

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we talk about the special case of the decreasing cost industry. As output increases, costs will continue to fall, and more firms will enter which, again, increases output. It’s a virtuous circle! At the end of this video, we review the major points made in this section. If you find that something doesn’t quite make sense, feel free to re-watch videos as many times as you’d like.

November 3, 2015

Brian Micklethwait explains why libertarians love Uber

Filed under: Business, Economics, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait discusses why Uber comes up in conversation with libertarians … constantly:

I and my libertarian friends all love Uber. By that I don’t just mean that we love using Uber, the service, although I am sure that just like many others, we do. I mean that we love talking about Uber, as a libertarian issue, as an issue that nicely illustrates what libertarianism is all about and the sorts of things that libertarians believe in. In particular, we believe in: technological innovation and the freedom to do it, for the benefit of all, except those in the immediate vicinity of it and overtaken by it, because they make a living from the technology that is being overtaken.

[…]

To me, the really interesting thing about Uber as an issue is how it makes a nonsense of the old Public Choice dilemma in pro-free market lobbying and opinion-mongering. I’m talking about the fact, which it does often tend to be, that when there is a lurch, proposed or actual, towards a free market, unleashed either by politics or by technology or by a mixture of the two, the people who suffer or who look like they will soon suffer are highly concentrated and easily organised and know exactly who they are. However, those who will benefit from the new dispensation are dispersed and hard to organise and tend not to know who they are. Consequently you get this imbalance in the political argument, in favour of the status quo, even if, in the longer run, many more people would benefit from the new dispensation than the old, and would like it very much, in the event that that ever discovered that they were benefiting from it.

Uber might have been invented to solve the above problem.

Thought: maybe there is a sense in which it was invented to solve this problem. Discuss.

October 19, 2015

Maximizing Profit under Competition

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

A company in a competitive environment does not control prices. So the key to maximizing profit is choosing how much to produce. To do that, we need to factor in the costs involved in production. So what exactly are the costs? How do these costs influence how you maximize profit? And, remember, if you want to think like an economist, you must factor in opportunity cost!
In this video, we define profit, including how to calculate total revenue and total cost. We also go over fixed costs, variable costs, marginal revenue, and marginal cost.

October 14, 2015

Introduction to the Competitive Firm

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

How does a company really behave? We tend to assume profit — the bottom line — is the main motivation for a firm’s actions. For most firms most of the time, this is a good assumption, especially in a competitive market. With this video, you will explore how a company maximizes profit in a competitive environment where there are many buyers and sellers.

This idea comes with a few surprises. Does a company really control what price it sets? Or does the market determine the price? Here’s a clue. If you owned an oil well, even your mother wouldn’t buy your oil if she could get the same oil somewhere else for less money. Watch and find out why.

September 15, 2015

Ontario wineries and the demands of the Chinese market

Filed under: Business, Cancon, China, Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the most recent edition of his wine review newsletter, Michael Pinkus just barely avoids sounding like an editorialist from the anti-Chinese era of American yellow journalism (er, sorry) over Chinese money being used to buy up Ontario wineries to concentrate on icewine production for the Chinese market:

Hinterbrook, Joseph’s, Marynissen, Alvento, Lailey – all wineries in Niagara that have seen a major shake-up of ownership over the past few years; in fact it is reported that about 8 or so wineries have seen new ownership, which potentially can be seen as a good thing: a revitalized interest in wineries in Ontario’s largest growing area.

Now before I go any further, I’m sure this topic is going to spark some controversy and some of the comments I’ll make might come off a tad inflammatory, but hear me out over the next few paragraphs.

The majority of these wineries have been purchased by those of Oriental decent, namely Chinese interests, who see exporting Ontario Icewine back to the homeland as a path paved with gold … On the positive side this provides wineries and workers with jobs, another bonus is that Icewine is still being made here at home, instead of being falsified, forged, misappropriated, and wrongly-labelled elsewhere; and some longtime growers and owners are finally cashing-in after a lifetime of tilling the soil, and growing the grapes to make the wines we all know and love … but at what cost to the industry and reputation of Ontario wine?

We have been battling a snake-belly-low reputation for years – one that never lets us forget we put Baby Duck and inferior Baco Noirs (with apologies to Henry of Pelham) into bottle. Now we have some of our most beloved names (namely Lailey and Marynissen) seemingly on the brink of becoming Icewine houses. The fear here is that Ontario will be bought up by foreign interests and our wines moved off-shore, and most, if not all our grapes used for the purpose of making Icewine – for all intents and purposes killing off our quality domestic dry wine production.

These fears were realized once again in July after reports were confirmed that Lailey had been sold. They then closed their doors for “renovations”, subsequently re-opened to sell their remaining inventory, and netted their entire 2015 crop to be used in the production of Icewine … As the French say, “quel domage!” (what a pity) – those beautiful old vines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, that fantastic Syrah, the Sauvignon Blanc … all the grapes that were lovingly nurtured so that they produced the fruit to make wines full of terroir / character will go into lifeless sweet Icewine. Frustration and dismay were echoed time and time again on Twitter and FaceBook with the hashtag “RIPLailey”.

No matter how we may try to romanticize them, wineries are just businesses. Not only businesses, but farm-related businesses. Farming is a hell of a way to earn a living — ask any farmer — so if someone comes up to your farm gate and offers you enough money to sell up … at least some farmers/grape growers/winery owners are going to take the cash and split. From the list of wineries that Michael lists, I’d had poor experiences at three of them … bad enough that I’ve never been back. If my experiences were typical of other customers, then selling up was a great thing for the former owners. Treat your customers like shit, don’t expect them to come back (but do expect them to mention you to all their friends).

If someone thinks that it’s worth the money to buy up these places and convert them to all-icewine production and concentrate on exporting to China, great. More wineries are opening every month, so the loss of a few under-performing (and customer-abusing) “old names” has more chance to improve the overall wine scene in Ontario.

August 27, 2015

Comparative Advantage Homework

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

Make sure you’ve completed the homework introduced in the Comparative Advantage video before you watch this video, as we’ll be going over the answer. We take a look at our example which compares shirt and computer production and consumption in Mexico and the United States. At the end of this video, you’ll have a better understanding of why it makes sense for countries to engage in trade.

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