May 24, 2016

The Great Enrichment

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

In the Wall Street Journal, economist Deirdre McCloskey pinpoints the launch point of the greatest increase in global human wealth ever seen:

In the 18th century, liberal thinkers such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin courageously advocated liberty in trade. By the 1830s and 1840s, a much enlarged intelligentsia, mostly the sons of bourgeois fathers, commenced sneering loftily at the liberties that had enriched their elders and made possible their own leisure. The sons advocated the vigorous use of the state’s monopoly of violence to achieve one or another utopia, soon.

Intellectuals on the political right, for instance, looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Middle Ages, free from the vulgarity of trade, a nonmarket golden age in which rents and hierarchy ruled. Such a conservative and Romantic vision of olden times fit well with the right’s perch in the ruling class. Later in the 19th century, under the influence of a version of science, the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war.

On the left, meanwhile, a different cadre of intellectuals developed the illiberal idea that ideas don’t matter. What matters to progress, the left declared, was the unstoppable tide of history, aided by protest or strike or revolution directed at the evil bourgeoisie — such thrilling actions to be led, naturally, by themselves. Later, in European socialism and American Progressivism, the left proposed to defeat bourgeois monopolies in meat and sugar and steel by gathering under regulation or syndicalism or central planning or collectivization all the monopolies into one supreme monopoly called the state.

While all this deep thinking was roiling the intelligentsia of Europe, the commercial bourgeoisie — despised by the right and the left, and by many in the middle, too — created the Great Enrichment and the modern world. The Enrichment gigantically improved our lives. In doing so, it proved that both social Darwinism and economic Marxism were mistaken. The supposedly inferior races and classes and ethnicities proved not to be so. The exploited proletariat was not driven into misery; it was enriched. It turned out that ordinary men and women didn’t need to be directed from above, and when honored and left alone, became immensely creative.

The Great Enrichment is the most important secular event since human beings first domesticated wheat and horses. It has been and will continue to be more important historically than the rise and fall of empires or the class struggle in all hitherto existing societies. Empire did not enrich Britain. America’s success did not depend on slavery. Power did not lead to plenty, and exploitation was not plenty’s engine. Progress toward French-style equality of outcome was achieved not by taxation and redistribution but by the Scots’ very different notion of equality. The real engine was the expanding ideology of classical liberalism.

The Great Enrichment has restarted history. It will end poverty. For a good part of humankind, it already has. China and India, which have adopted some of economic liberalism, have exploded in growth. Brazil, Russia and South Africa, not to speak of the European Union — all of them fond of planning and protectionism and level playing fields — have stagnated.

February 16, 2016

How Sweden got rich

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

Johan Norberg talks about the economic state of Sweden 150 years ago:

Once upon a time I got interested in theories of economic development because I had studied a low-income country, poorer than Congo, with life expectancy half as long and infant mortality three times as high as the average developing country.

That country is my own country, Sweden — less than 150 years ago.

At that time Sweden was incredibly poor — and hungry. When there was a crop failure, my ancestors in northern Sweden, in Ångermanland, had to mix bark into the bread because they were short of flour. Life in towns and cities was no easier. Overcrowding and a lack of health services, sanitation, and refuse disposal claimed lives every day. Well into the twentieth century, an ordinary Swedish working-class family with five children might have to live in one room and a kitchen, which doubled as a dining room and bedroom. Many people lodged with other families. Housing statistics from Stockholm show that in 1900, as many as 1,400 people could live in a building consisting of 200 one-room flats. In conditions like these it is little wonder that disease was rife. People had large numbers of children not only for lack of contraception, but also because of the risk that not many would survive for long.

As Vilhelm Moberg, our greatest author, observed when he wrote a history of the Swedish people: “Of all the wondrous adventures of the Swedish people, none is more remarkable and wonderful than this: that it survived all of them.”1

But in one century, everything was changed. Sweden had the fastest economic and social development that its people had ever experienced, and one of the fastest the world had ever seen. Between 1850 and 1950 the average Swedish income multiplied eightfold, while population doubled. Infant mortality fell from 15 to 2 per cent, and average life expectancy rose an incredible 28 years. A poor peasant nation had become one of the world’s richest countries.

Many people abroad think that this was the triumph of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which somehow found the perfect middle way, managing to tax, spend, and regulate Sweden into a more equitable distribution of wealth — without hurting its productive capacity. And so Sweden — a small country of nine million inhabitants in the north of Europe — became a source of inspiration for people around the world who believe in government-led development and distribution.

But there is something wrong with this interpretation. In 1950, when Sweden was known worldwide as the great success story, taxes in Sweden were lower and the public sector smaller than in the rest of Europe and the United States. It was not until then that Swedish politicians started levying taxes and disbursing handouts on a large scale, that is, redistributing the wealth that businesses and workers had already created. Sweden’s biggest social and economic successes took place when Sweden had a laissez-faire economy, and widely distributed wealth preceded the welfare state.

This is the story about how that happened. It is a story that must be learned by countries that want to be where Sweden is today, because if they are to accomplish that feat, they must do what Sweden did back then, not what an already-rich Sweden does now.

February 11, 2016

QotD: Dissing Wal-Mart as a cultural signalling device

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

There’s no sign of it here in Magnolia, Ark., but the boycott season is upon us, and graduates of Princeton and Bryn Mawr are demanding “justice” from Wal-Mart, which is not in the justice business but in the groceries, clothes, and car-batteries business. It is easy to scoff, but I am ready to start taking the social-justice warriors’ insipid rhetoric seriously — as soon as two things happen: First, I want to hear from the Wal-Mart-protesting riffraff a definition of “justice” that is something that does not boil down to “I Get What I Want, Irrespective of Other Concerns.”

Second, I want to turn on the radio and hear Jay-Z boasting about his new Timex.

It is remarkable that Wal-Mart, a company that makes a modest profit margin (typically between 3 percent and 3.5 percent) selling ordinary people ordinary goods at low prices, is the great hate totem for the well-heeled Left, whose best-known celebrity spokesclowns would not be caught so much as downwind from a Supercenter, while at the same time, nobody is out with placards and illiterate slogans and generally risible moral posturing in front of boutiques dealing in Rolex, Prada, Hermès, et al. It’s almost as if there is a motive at work here other than that which is stated by our big-box-bashing friends on the left and their A-list human bullhorns.

What might that be?

Kevin D. Williamson, “Who Boycotts Wal-Mart? Social-justice warriors who are too enlightened to let their poor neighbors pay lower prices”, National Review, 2014-11-30.

January 24, 2016

QotD: There are no Veblen goods at Wal-Mart

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

People buy Rolex watches for reasons other than their timekeeping excellence, just as people buy Ferraris and horses for reasons other than going to the store to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Economists talk about “Veblen goods,” which are more valued because of their high prices rather than in spite of them, coveted not for their conventional utility but for their exclusivity. Owning a Rolls-Royce isn’t about the car — it’s about you. Which is why you see magazines such as The Robb Report — one of those glossies full of “bland advertisements for being wealthy,” as the novelist William Gibson put it — for sale in places such as Wal-Mart, where the typical customer is not actually in the market for a yacht or Kiton overcoat. If you’ve ever seen the heartbreaking sight of a young woman stopping a Wal-Mart checker three-fourths of the way through ringing up her purchases — because she does not have enough money to pay for what’s left in her cart — then you can be pretty sure that what’s going in her sack is more or less the opposite of Veblen goods.

Ironically, the anti-Wal-Mart crusaders want to make life worse for people who are literally counting pennies as they shop for necessities. Study after study has shown that Wal-Mart has meaningfully reduced prices: 3.1 percent overall, by one estimate — with a whopping 9.1 percent cut to the price of groceries. That comes to about $2,300 a year per household, savings that accrue overwhelmingly to people of modest incomes, not to celebrity activists and Ivy League social-justice crusaders.

Ultimately, these campaigns are exercises in tribal affiliation. The Rolex tribe, and those who aspire to be aligned with it, signal their status by sneering at the Timex tribe — or by condescending to it as they purport to act on its behalf, as though poor people were too stupid to know where to find the best deal on a can of beans. Or call it the Trader Joe’s tribe vs. the Wal-Mart tribe, the Prius tribe vs. the F-150 tribe.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Who Boycotts Wal-Mart? Social-justice warriors who are too enlightened to let their poor neighbors pay lower prices”, National Review, 2014-11-30.

January 15, 2016

Malthusian thinking

Filed under: Britain, History, India — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Matt Ridley on how horrible implementations of the ideas of Thomas Malthus have made the world an even more cruel place:

For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.

According to his epitaph in Bath Abbey, the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), was noted for “his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. Yet his ideas have justified some of the greatest crimes in history. By saying that, if people could not be persuaded to delay marriage, we would have to encourage famine and “reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases”, he inadvertently gave birth to a series of heartless policies — the poor laws, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilisations and China’s one-child policy. All derived their logic more or less directly from a partial reading of Malthus.

To this day if you write or speak about falling child mortality in Africa, you can be sure of getting the following Malthusian response: but surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people’s babies dying? Better to be cruel to be kind. Yet actually we now know, this argument is wrong. The way to get population growth to slow, it turns out, is to keep babies alive so people plan smaller families: to bring health, prosperity and education to all.

Britain’s Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to ensure that the very poor were not helped except in workhouses, and that conditions in workhouses were not better than the worst in the outside world, was based explicitly on Malthusian ideas — that too much charity only encouraged breeding, especially illegitimacy, or “bastardy”. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was motivated by “a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief”, according to a biographer. The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, had been a pupil of Malthus at the East India Company College: famine, he thought, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” sent to teach the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish a lesson. Trevelyan added: “Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”

In India in 1877, a famine killed ten million people. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, quoted almost directly from Malthus in explaining why he had halted several private attempts to bring relief to the starving: “The Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil.” His policy was to herd the hungry into camps where they were fed on — literally — starvation rations. Lytton thought he was being cruel to be kind.

December 1, 2015

Britain’s welfare system

Filed under: Britain, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Brendan O’Neill says it’s time to smash the welfare system because it’s too badly broken to fix:

… however much the the apologists for the Byzantine system of welfarism might kick and shout, we need to get the facts out there, and we need to talk about them frankly.

The fact that more than half of Britain’s households, 13.7m, receive more in welfare benefits than they pay in taxes. The fact that this represents a rise from 45.9 per cent of households in 1997 to 51.5 per cent today. The fact that 20.3m families now receive some kind of state benefit. The fact that for 9.6m of these families, benefits account for more than half of their income. The fact that nearly five million people have their rent paid by the state. The fact that vast numbers of people, first through Incapacity Benefit and then through Employment Support Allowance, have been redefined by the state as ‘incapable’ — of work, of independence, of dignity, in effect — and have been put out to pasture. There are parts of Britain where a state-sanctioned culture of incapacity has deadened community spirit, destroyed its soul.

The growth of welfarism in recent decades, the replacement of economic vision and the creation of new wealth with a colossal system of state charity and therapy, has terrible consequences. It dents individual ambition, and corrodes social solidarity. When people are invited to rely for their every financial and psychic need on the distant, faceless state, then they’re less likely to rely on their own volition and on the support and kindness of neighbours and friends.

Welfarism is a classic good intention turned hellish: in the name of helping people it actually weakens both individual pluck and community zest. Of course, the loudest cheerleaders of welfarism — the comfortable, cushioned liberals who shout down anyone who criticises the welfare state — have no experience of this. They don’t even want to see it on their TV, as their lust to censor Benefits Streets demonstrated. Yet a few miles from the leafy suburbs in which they churn out their defences of welfarism there will be communities branded incapable and made divided by that welfarism.

Some people say, ‘But welfare benefits is not a huge part of government spending!’ This is true. It accounts for somewhere over 20 per cent. Or they say, ‘And old people get most of it!’ This is also true, and I think it is quite proper: the generational jihadists who moan about pension spending don’t seem to realise that old people who have worked or child-reared all their lives deserve society’s help in their twilight years, and that this is massively different to giving state largesse to fit, young 25-year-olds.

But my concern with welfarism is not how much it costs the government but the costs it has for community life, public spirit, the self-willed individual. Welfarism should be radically rethought not in order to save a few billion quid but in order to reverse the state’s spread into communities and to repair the self-belief and independence of working-class and poorer sections of society.

November 27, 2015

Wealth, inequality, and billionaires

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

Several months ago, the Washington Post reported on a new study of wealth and inequality that tracked how many billionaires got rich through competition in the market and how many got rich through political “connections”:

The researchers found that wealth inequality was growing over time: Wealth inequality increased in 17 of the 23 countries they measured between 1987 and 2002, and fell in only six, Bagchi says. They also found that their measure of wealth inequality corresponded with a negative effect on economic growth. In other words, the higher the proportion of billionaire wealth in a country, the slower that country’s growth. In contrast, they found that income inequality and poverty had little effect on growth.

The most fascinating finding came from the next step in their research, when they looked at the connection between wealth, growth and political connections.

The researchers argue that past studies have looked at the level of inequality in a country, but not why inequality occurs — whether it’s a product of structural inequality, like political power or racism, or simply a product of some people or companies faring better than others in the market. For example, Indonesia and the United Kingdom actually score similarly on a common measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient, say the authors. Yet clearly the political and business environments in those countries are very different.

So Bagchi and Svejnar carefully went through the lists of all the Forbes billionaires, and divided them into those who had acquired their wealth due to political connections, and those who had not. This is kind of a slippery slope — almost all billionaires have probably benefited from government connections at one time or another. But the researchers used a very conservative standard for classifying people as politically connected, only assigning billionaires to this group when it was clear that their wealth was a product of government connections. Just benefiting from a government that was pro-business, like those in Singapore and Hong Kong, wasn’t enough. Rather, the researchers were looking for a situation like Indonesia under Suharto, where political connections were usually needed to secure import licenses, or Russia in the mid-1990s, when some state employees made fortunes overnight as the state privatized assets.

The researchers found that some countries had a much higher proportion of billionaire wealth that was due to political connections than others did. As the graph below, which ranks only countries that appeared in all four of the Forbes billionaire lists they analyzed, shows, Colombia, India, Australia and Indonesia ranked high on the list, while the U.S. and U.K. ranked very low.

Wealth and political connections

Looking at all the data, the researchers found that Russia, Argentina, Colombia, Malaysia, India, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and Italy had relatively more politically connected wealth. Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K. all had zero politically connected billionaires. The U.S. also had very low levels of politically connected wealth inequality, falling just outside the top 10 at number 11.

When the researchers compared these figures to economic growth, the findings were clear: These politically connected billionaires weighed on economic growth. In fact, wealth inequality that came from political connections was responsible for nearly all the negative effect on economic growth that the researchers had observed from wealth inequality overall. Wealth inequality that wasn’t due to political connections, income inequality and poverty all had little effect on growth.

November 24, 2015

QotD: The real lack of diversity issue

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

As an editor, I have the privilege of working with all sorts of interesting and influential Canadians. On paper, many of these people are “diverse” — men, women, black, white, straight, gay, trans, cis, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim. Yet scratch the surface, and you find a remarkable sameness to our intellectual, cultural, and political elites, no matter what words they use to self identify. In most cases, they grow up middle-class or wealthier, attend the same good schools, and join the same high-value social networks. They have nice teeth because mom and dad pay for braces, and hit a nice forehand (or three iron) because mom and dad pay for lessons. They know the best patisseries in Paris, because of that epic backpacking trip between undergrad and law school. And as ambitious young adults, they feel okay about ditching the law-firm grind for a prominent life in politics, art, journalism or activism — because a wealthy parent or spouse is paying the mortgage.

We rightly worry about how many women, or blacks, or First Nations individuals are represented in public life. Yet that concern is rarely extended to people whose marginalization cannot be reduced to tidy demographic categories.

In two decades of journalism, I have written and edited countless articles about Canada’s criminal justice system. But never once have I, or any of my close journalistic colleagues, ever spent a night in prison. I have written and edited countless articles about the Canadian military. But never once have I, or any of my close journalistic colleagues, witnessed the hell of war. Nor, to my knowledge, have I ever had a close colleague who lived in public housing; who experienced real hunger; who suffered from a serious health condition that went untreated for economic reasons; whose career or education was compromised by the need to support impoverished relatives; or who had been forced to remain in an abusive relationship for purely financial reasons. We often describe people like this as living “on the margins.” But collectively, this is a vast bulk of Canadians whose hardship and anxiety are rarely witnessed by politicians and media except through survey data and think-tank reports.

Jonathan Kay, “Diversity’s Final Frontier: The real schism in our society isn’t sex or race. It’s social class”, The Walrus, 2015-11-03.

October 21, 2015

The two types of statists

Filed under: Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Another post I stashed away, intending to blog and then somehow forgot … Dan Mitchell on the two main varieties of statist supporters:

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two types of statists.

The first type is generally insincere and simply views bigger government and increased dependency as a strategy to obtain and preserve political power. Most inside-the-beltway leftists in Washington are in this category.

The second type genuinely cares about the less fortunate but makes the mistake of thinking that good intentions somehow lead to good results. You could call these people the Pope Francis leftists.

As you might imagine, there’s very little hope of persuading the first category of statists. You could show them all the data and evidence in the world, for instance, that a flat tax would boost prosperity, and they’ll simply shrug and tell you to jump in a lake because genuine tax reform would reduce the power and influence of Washington’s political elite.

But the second group of statists should be persuadable. That’s why I share so many comparisons of nations with smaller government and freer markets versus countries with bigger government and more intervention. I want open-minded folks on the other side to see how good policy leads to better economic performance, particularly since the poor will be big beneficiaries. That should be compelling, especially when combined with the data on how the welfare state simply traps poor people in government dependency.

October 17, 2015

Moynihan’s scissors

Filed under: Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

David Warren looks at the work of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

We are celebrating this year, if that is the word, the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps the most inconsequential sociological study ever published. That was, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, by the brilliant American politician and thinker, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003).

Working then in the U.S. Department of Labour, Moynihan focused his attention on a counter-intuitive statistical fact. Unemployment among black males was falling, in 1965. But rates of welfare enrollment for black families was rising. This did not make sense. The two lines on this chart had always fallen or risen together. But they had crossed over in 1962. He had put his finger in what came to be called, “Moynihan’s scissors.”

[…] while the “Moynihan Report” is famous, and at one time, everyone claimed to have read it, it contains something so obnoxious to enlightened post-modern thought as to remain invisible to all participants in the discussion.

This was Moynihan’s sociological and anthropological observation that the American black culture was becoming “matriarchal.” Whether without, or more likely with the help of welfare programmes, women were becoming the heads of households, and men were being removed from that station.

(The background: All of the higher civilizations have been unambiguously patriarchal; matriarchy is associated in the prehistoric and anthropological record with savage, gratuitously violent, self-destructive tribes.)

Already, in 1965, one in four black kids in the USA were born out of wedlock. Today it is more than three in four, and levels of bastardy among the other races have risen in course. By the end of the last century (1990s), white children were as likely to be raised in fatherless homes as black children had been in the 1960s. “Progress” has been progressing rapidly.

The Nanny State has replaced fathers as the principal source of income for such families (bankrupting itself in the process), and the feminist movement has supplied the arguments — or more precisely, misandronist slogans and vindictive clichés — for the overthrow of “patriarchy” and its systematic replacement with a shrewish matriarchy in all facets of social life. The movement has been, moreover, so successful in achieving its objects — the emasculation of men, and degradation or actual inversion of traditional morality — that it has now moved on. For with the defeat of masculinity, new horizons of “gender-bending” or “transgendering” have come into view.

Now, part of the reason people can’t get their little heads around what has actually happened — first to the black family, then to the brown, then to the white — is the surviving, basically modern (i.e. pre-post-modern) belief that eunuchs behave much like fairies; that they become docile and effeminate, harmless and nurturing, sensitive and sweet; that their previously reprehensible “masculine” traits will quietly disappear. Some men do indeed respond to emasculation by becoming the pathetic, contemptible wimps that all women, including feminists, instinctively abhor. But some do not.

As a well-read student of social sciences and history, Moynihan knew better than this. The masculine capacity for violence (at all levels, spiritual as much as physical) does not go away. From Spartan Laconia, backwards and forwards through history on all continents, we see that eunuchs and other “homosexual” (the word is inadequate) guards and soldiers have been employed by the great warrior despots. This is because they make the fiercest fighters. Having no families, no heritage to protect, no women and children to feed and shelter in safety, they become a purely destructive force. They become men who do not care even for their own lives, let alone for the lives of others.

October 16, 2015

Fair Trade: Does It Help Poor Workers? (Everyday Economics 7/7)

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

Published on 8 Jul 2015

Elizabeth, an Everyday Economics viewer, asks: “How does the purchase of fair-trade goods affect wages in developing countries?”

Great question! The “fair trade” movement has become popular as a proposed way to increase living standards in developing countries. In this video, we look at whether fair trade does just that.

For a good to be considered “fair trade” it must meet various requirements developed by a handful of fair trade organizations. In the developing world, who is better positioned to meet these fair trade requirements — large producers in wealthier countries or small producers in poorer countries? To answer this question, we take a look at the the example of fair trade coffee produced in both Costa Rica and Ethiopia. How does fair trade affect wages and overall quality of life in those countries?

And, if fair trade isn’t the best way to improve living standards in developing countries, how else can we maximize employment options and well-being for poor workers? This question is at the core of an entire branch of economics — Development Economics. To learn more, check out MRU’s Development Economics course.

September 27, 2015

If the Pope actually cares about the world’s poorest, he should embrace capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

His Holiness the Pope would do far better for the remaining billion truly poor people on the planet if he ignored the blandishments of the anti-capitalists and looked at the actual track record of free enterprise in the developing world:

He has been called the “slum pope” and “a pope for the poor.” And indeed, it’s true that Pope Francis, leader to 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, speaks often of those in need. He’s described the amount of poverty and inequality in the world as “a scandal” and implored the Church to fight what he sees as a “culture of exclusion.”

Yet even as he calls for greater concern for the marginalized, he broadly and cavalierly condemns the market-driven economic development that has lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty within the lifetime of the typical millennial. A lack of understanding of even basic economic concepts has led one of the most influential and beloved human beings on the planet to decry free enterprise, opine that private property rights must not be treated as “inviolable,” hold up as the ideal “cooperatives of small producers” over “economies of scale,” accuse the Western world of “scandalous level[s] of consumption,” and assert that we need “to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits.”

Given his vast influence, which extends far beyond practicing Catholics, this type of rhetoric is deeply troubling. It’s impossible to know how much of an impact his words are having on concrete policy decisions — but it’s implausible to deny that when he calls for regulating and constraining the free markets and economic growth that alleviate truly crushing poverty, the world is listening. As a libertarian who is also a devout Roman Catholic, I’m afraid as well that statements like these from Pope Francis reinforce the mistaken notion that libertarianism and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

There’s no question that the pope at times seems downright hostile to much of what market-loving Catholics believe. In this summer’s lauded-by-the-press environmental encyclical Laudato Si (from which the quotes in the second paragraph were drawn), Pope Francis wrote that people who trust the invisible hand suffer from the same mindset that leads to slavery and “the sexual exploitation of children.” In Evangelii Gaudium, his 2013 apostolic exhortation, he chastised those who “continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”

Even more frustratingly, he asserted that such a belief in free markets “has never been confirmed by the facts.” Worse still, this year he stated in an interview: “I recognize that globalization has helped many people to lift themselves out of poverty, but it has condemned many other people to starve. It is true that in absolute terms the world’s wealth has grown, but inequality and poverty have arisen.” Globalization has caused poverty to “arise” and “condemned…many people to starve”?

A man Politico described as insisting “reality comes before theory” could not be more mistaken about the empirical truth of capitalism’s role in our world. While income inequality within developed countries may be growing, the income gap between the First World and the rest of the world is decreasing fast. As the World Bank’s Branko Milanovic has documented, we are in the midst of “the first decline in global inequality between world citizens since the Industrial Revolution.” In 1960, notes the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy, the average America earned 11 times more than the average resident of Asia. Today, Americans make 4.8 times as much. “The narrowing of the income gap,” Tupy found, “is a result of growing incomes in the rest of the world,” not a decline in incomes in developed nations.

September 24, 2015

A case study – Nik-Mart in Subsistia

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Don Boudreaux looks at the different effects of international aid and capitalist exploitation in a desperately poor, far-away country:

The far-away land of Subsistia is inhabited by people who are desperately poor, not only relative to the typical person elsewhere on the globe but also in absolute terms. For decades well-meaning, well-educated, and well-funded people from the United States and other wealthy countries have visited Subsistia to help raise Subsistians out of poverty.

Alas, while these efforts by governments, NGOs, and churches have been many and munificent, all ordinary Subsistians continue to live in deep poverty – that is, until recently. A few short years ago a large U.S. corporation, Nik-Mart, set up factories in Subsistia. The wages that Nik-Mart pays to its Subsistian workers, while much higher than the average wage in Subsistia, are only a tiny fraction of the wages that Nik-Mart pays to its production-line employees in America.

Nik-Mart sells the goods produced in its Subsistian factories all around the world. One result of Nik-Mart’s operations in Subsistia is that the real prices that poor Americans and Europeans pay for shoes, clothing, and home furnishings have fallen significantly.

Nik-Mart is consistently one of the world’s most profitable corporations. It is also one of the world’s most hated.

When word recently leaked out of Nik-Mart’s record sales revenues and of the healthy rate of return on Nik-Mart’s assets, protests erupted in all major capitals of the developed world. Washington, Ottawa, Santiago, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Moscow, Tokyo, Pretoria, Canberra – these and other cities were swarmed by protestors demanding “social justice” and criticizing Nik-Mart for exploiting workers. “Nik-Mart’s profits are in the billions,” screamed U.S. Sen. Elsbeth Walter, who gave a rousing speech to protestors on the Washington Mall, “and yet it exploits poor workers in Subsistia while it off-shores jobs from America, hurting poor Americans! Have you no shame, Nik-Mart? Have! You! No! Shame?!!” Sen. Walter rhetorically asked, her index finger pointing accusingly at an imaginary Nik-Mart executive presumably hovering, phantasmically yet bloatedly, before her.

The Sunday talking-head shows were filled with heads talking of little else. “It’s really unconscionable,” said Harmon Nicholson, a famous progressive columnist, “that Nik-Mart takes advantage of the freedom that this country gives it to produce the things it sells in America outside of America. It’s no wonder our jobs picture is so weak and that American wages have stagnated.”

Sen. Lawrence Greenham, a Republican from the south, chimed in: “I don’t normally agree with Harmon, but he’s right on this. American plutocrats are gettin’ richer an’ richer off the backs of America’s poor. It’s gotta stop.”

September 23, 2015

Comparative Advantage and the Tragedy of Tasmania (Everyday Economics 4/7)

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 24 Jun 2014

What can a small, isolated island economy teach the rest of the world about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations? When Tasmania was cut off from mainland Australia, it experienced the miracle of growth in reverse, as the reduction in trade and human cooperation forced its inhabitants back to the most basic ways of living. In an economy with a greater number of participants trading goods and services, however, there are more ways to find a comparative advantage and earn more by creating the most value for others. Let’s join Bob and Ann as they teach us the “Story of Comparative Advantage” like you’ve never seen it before.

September 3, 2015

The beer ineQuality index

Filed under: Cancon, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I took a couple of weeks off over the summer and subsequently forgot some of the interesting articles I’d intended to link to from the blog (but no sensible person comes here for breaking news, do they?). Here’s one from the wonderfully named Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog:

The conventional Canadian view is that American beer is bad; watery and weak. Yet American breweries produce some of the world’s best beers — superb brews coming out of microbreweries across the country.

Why is american beer

What is striking about the United States is the country’s level of inequality — or, to be more precise, the beer quality inequality. Countries like Germany, Belgium — the Scandinavian countries in general — have much less variation in the quality of their beer.

The question is: why? Does beer quality inequality result from other forms of inequality, like disparities in income and wealth? Or do the forces that produce income inequality also produce beer quality inequality? Is it a spurious correlation, or is the armchair empiricist’s observation that the US has more beer ine-quality simply wrong?

The income-causes-beer quality inequality story is easily told. Some people are poor. They demand cheap beer, and cheap beer is necessarily poor quality. Some people are rich. They demand high quality beer, and are willing to pay for it. Hence, in theory, we would expect income inequality to produce beer quality inequality. As an empirical observation, the US has substantially more income and beer quality inequality than other rich countries, including Canada, while Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest levels of income and beer inequality in the world (here). So income inequality causes beer quality inequality: Q.E.D.

This story is plausible, and there may be some truth to it. The problem with it is that not everybody drinks beer. Take a country like England, for example. There beer was traditionally a working man’s drink — the upper classes sipped Pimm’s on the lawn, or perhaps a gin and tonic. If the rich aren’t drinking beer, an increased concentration of income in the hands of the richest 1 percent will have no impact on the variation in beer quality.

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