If you want an illuminating example of the fact that there is more to the way that prices work in a free market than can be captured by the pragmatic calculations of cold-eyed util-traders, consider the luxury-goods market and its enthusiastic following among people who do not themselves consume many or any of those goods. One of the oddball aspects of rich societies such as ours is the fact that when people pile up a little bit more disposable income than they might have expected to, they develop a taste for measurably inferior goods and outdated technologies: If you have money that is a little bit obscene, you might get into classic cars, i.e., an outmoded form of transportation; if your money is super-dirty obscene, you get into horses, an even more outmoded form of transportation.
Or consider the case of fine watches: Though he — and it’s a “he” in the overwhelming majority of cases — may not be eager to admit it, a serious watch enthusiast knows that even the finest mechanical timepiece put together by magical elves on the shores of Lake Geneva is, as a timekeeping instrument, dramatically inferior to the cheapest quartz-movement watch coming out of a Chinese sweatshop and available for a few bucks at, among other outlets, Wal-Mart. (To say nothing of the cheap digital watches sold under blister-pack at downscale retailers everywhere, or the clock on your cellphone.) But even as our celebrity social-justice warriors covet those high-margin items — and get paid vast sums of money to help sell them, too — they denounce the people who deal in less rarefied goods sold at much lower profit margins.
If economic “exploitation” means making “obscene profits” — an empty cliché if ever there were one — then Wal-Mart and the oil companies ought to be the good guys; not only do they have relatively low profit margins, but they also support millions of union workers and retirees through stock profits and the payment of dividends into pension funds. By way of comparison, consider that Hermès, the luxury-goods label that is a favorite of well-heeled social-justice warriors of all sorts, makes a profit margin that is typically seven or eight times what Wal-Mart makes, even though, as rapper Lloyd Banks discovered, its $1,300 sneakers may not always be up to the task. If Wal-Mart is the epitome of evil for selling you a Timex at a 3 percent markup, then shouldn’t Rolex be extra-super evil?
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.
February 3, 2016
January 29, 2016
One of the obvious points being made, as is now traditional, concerning the great wealth of the Walton family, those inheritors of Sam Walton’s cash and stock. It’s not actually all that difficult to get people riled up about a store paying an average of $8.80 an hour (for non-supervisory staff) when the people who own the company have some $150 billion in wealth. However, that’s not actually the correct response. And insisting upon a change in public policy so that some of that wealth is paid to those workers, or that it should be taxed away in some manner, would be very much the wrong answer. For, you see, those Waltons actually deserve that $150 billion: we should be absolutely overjoyed that they have it in fact.
So, we get $250 billion a year and the Waltons, the inheritors of the man who started it all off, get $150 billion. We get more than they do: that sounds like a pretty good deal really. Except that is of course to grossly overstate what they are getting. That mountain of cash they’ve got is not an annual figure: that’s the capital value, their wealth, not the income from one year. Our benefit is what we save in one year. That value of WalMart stock is the net present value of everything that WalMart is expected to make in profits from now until eternity (although obviously we use a discount rate so that something 40 years out is given less importance than something next year). So we need to adjust our $250 billion figure in the same manner to make the two numbers comparable.
The easiest way to do that is simply to ignore discounting and to also impose a 20 year time limit. Neither assumption is correct but it’ll give us a nice rough and ready guess at the capital value to us all of those annual savings. And the answer if we do it that way is that the current value of WalMart’s existence to the rest of us is $5 trillion. That’s the number that is comparable to that $150 billion family fortune. They’re both the net present values of future income streams which does indeed make them comparable even if that value to us is calculated in a much simpler manner than the way the stock market values WalMart.
At which point it looks like we’re getting a massive bargain. We get $5 trillion and the people who made it happen only get $150 billion? Why aren’t we cheering in the streets over this rather than demonstrating in them about how awful it all is?
January 24, 2016
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 19, 2016
Don Boudreaux on the amazingly thin line that now separates many of the quality consumption goods of the ultra-rich from the nearly as high quality goods of ordinary North American consumers:
This list includes also non-prescription pain relievers, most other first-aid medicines and devices such as Band-Aids, and personal-hygiene products such as toothpaste, dental floss, and toilet paper. (I once saw a billionaire take two Bayer aspirin – the identical pain reliever that I use.) This list includes also gasoline and diesel. Probably also contact lenses.
A slightly different list is one drawn up in response to this question: When can median-income consumers afford products that, while not as high-quality as those versions that are bought by the super-rich, are nevertheless virtually indistinguishable – because they are quite close in quality – to the naked eye from those versions bought by the super-rich? On this list would be most clothing. For example, an ordinary American man can today afford a suit that, while it’s neither tailor-made nor of a fabric as fine as are suits that I suspect are worn by most billionaires, is nevertheless close enough in fit and fabric quality to be indistinguishable by the naked eye from expensive suits worn by billionaires. (I suspect that the same it true for women’s clothing, but I’m less expert on that topic.)
Ditto for shoes, underwear, haircuts, corrective eye-wear, collars for dogs and cats, pet food, household bath towels and ‘linens,’ tableware and cutlery, automobile tires, hand tools, most household furniture, and wristwatches. (You’d have to get physically very close to someone wearing a Patek Philippe – and you’d have to know what a Patek Philippe is – in order to determine that that person’s wristwatch is one that you, an ordinary American, can’t afford. And you could stare at that Patek Philippe for months without detecting any superiority that it might have over your quartz-powered Timex at keeping time.) Coffee. Tea. Beer. Wine. (There is available today a large selection of very good wines at affordable prices. These wines almost never rise to the quality of Chateau Petrus, d’yquem, or the best Montrachets, but the differences are often quite small and barely distinguishable save by true connoisseurs.)
I’ve made this point about the wines before (I’ve tasted each of those wines, but don’t believe the price difference justifies buying them over nearly-as-good equivalents that lack the prestige factor), but Don is talking a much wider range of goods and services where there’s barely any real quality difference between “ordinary” and what the very richest among us can obtain.
December 14, 2015
… the point about a Veblen Good is not that sales rise when prices do. Rather, it’s that a Veblen Good is desirable because it is expensive. It is a way of showing that you can afford to buy something expensive. That you can afford something expensive is a sign of social status (well, it is in our society, where having lots of money and thus being able to buy something expensive is a sign of social status. It’s possible to imagine other societal forms which don’t include this).
The archetypal example was certain of the Vanderbilt women who would have diamonds implanted into their backs, where they would be visible to people at parties given the low cut backs of dresses at the time. The point of such implantations simply being to show that one had enough money (and perhaps little enough sense in a pre-antibiotic era) to have a diamond implanted over one’s spine. There’s a story that Mick Jagger had a diamond implanted into one of his teeth for the same sort of reason at one point (removed when it promoted caries).
The point being that a Veblen Good does signal something, and as such the greater the price the more desirable the ability to transmit that signal. But it doesn’t go as far as stating that the more the price rises then the higher sales go.
Tim Worstall, “Being Quoted In The New York Times Is Great But…”, Forbes, 2014-11-22.
November 27, 2015
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.
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.
October 2, 2015
Published on 20 Apr 2015
The list of famous inventions from the last few centuries is long, and you may even be making use of one right now — laptops, smartphones, tablets, and televisions, for instance. There are countless unsung improvements, too, that make our daily lives much easier. We’ve all benefited from zip top sandwich bags, twist bottle caps, and long-lasting batteries, to name a few!
The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey coined the term “innovationism” to describe the phenomenal rise in innovation over the past couple hundred years. While there have always been inventors and innovators, that number exploded after the eighteenth century, contributing to what we’ve described in previous videos as the “Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity.”
Why has innovation grown so rapidly? Economist Douglass North argues it has to do with institutions such as property rights, non-corrupt courts, and rule of law, which lay the foundation for innovation to take place. Others attribute the rise to factors such as education or access to reliable energy. McCloskey argues that what really kicked innovation into high gear is a change in attitude — ordinary people who once celebrated conquerers and kings began to celebrate merchants and inventors.
In this video, we discuss these ideas further. After all, a better understanding of what drives innovation could help poor countries that still live on the handle of the “Hockey Stick” reach a much greater level of prosperity.
September 25, 2015
Published on 3 Sep 2015
When do artists sell out and when do they keep their artistic integrity?
September 3, 2015
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.
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.
September 1, 2015
August 24, 2015
In the Washington Post, Ana Swanson examines the good and bad (for economic growth) of the billionaire class:
Over the past few decades, wealth has become more concentrated in the hands of a few global elite. Billionaires like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim Helú and investing phenomenon Warren Buffett play an outsized role in the global economy.
But what does that mean for everyone else? Is the concentration of wealth in the hands of a select group a good thing or a bad thing for the rest of us?
You might be used to hearing criticisms of inequality, but economists actually debate this point. Some argue that inequality can propel growth: They say that since the rich are able to save the most, they can actually afford to finance more business activity, or that the kinds of taxes and redistributive programs that are typically used to spread out wealth are inefficient.
Other economists argue that inequality is a drag on growth. They say it prevents the poor from acquiring the collateral necessary to take out loans to start businesses, or get the education and training necessary for a dynamic economy. Others say inequality leads to political instability that can be economically damaging.
A new study that has been accepted by the Journal of Comparative Economics helps resolve this debate. Using an inventive new way to measure billionaire wealth, Sutirtha Bagchi of Villanova University and Jan Svejnar of Columbia University find that it’s not the level of inequality that matters for growth so much as the reason that inequality happened in the first place.
Specifically, when billionaires get their wealth because of political connections, that wealth inequality tends to drag on the broader economy, the study finds. But when billionaires get their wealth through the market — through business activities that are not related to the government — it does not.
August 13, 2015
Published on 24 Jun 2014
In this series, Professor Don Boudreaux explores the question economists have been asking since the era of Adam Smith — what creates wealth? On a timeline of human history, the recent rise in standards of living resembles a hockey stick — flatlining for all of human history and then skyrocketing in just the last few centuries. Without specialization and trade, our ancient ancestors only consumed what they could make themselves. How can specialization and trade help explain the astonishing growth of productivity and output in such a short amount of time — after millennia of famine, low life expectancy, and incurable disease?
July 11, 2015
It is, after all, a sound instinct which puts business below the professions, and burdens the business man with a social inferiority that he can never quite shake off, even in America. The business man, in fact, acquiesces in this assumption of his inferiority, even when he protests against it. He is the only man who is forever apologizing for his occupation. He is the only one who always seeks to make it appear, when he attains the object of his labors, i. e., the making of a great deal of money, that it was not the object of his labors.
H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 7: The Business Man”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
July 3, 2015
Frances Woolley on the hidden advantages even a modest amount of money can provide:
Less often observed is that wealth itself generates consumption benefits, even if one never spends a dime of it.
I own a 12 year old Toyota Matrix. The front fender has collided with one too many snow banks, and is now held together with string. The exhaust system has seen better days. It breaks down occasionally. But overall it’s very cheap to run.
If I was poor, it would be tough having an old, unreliable car. The unexpected, yet inevitable, major repairs would be a financial nightmare. $750 to repair the clutch. $200 to fix the axle seal. If the car broke broke down, and I couldn’t get to work, I might lose my job.
But because I’m financially secure, I can afford a cheap car. I can self-insure against financial risks: unexpected repair costs, taxi fares, rental cars, and so on. I can afford to get my car towed. If it was beyond repair, I could get another car tomorrow.
The real value of having $10,000 in the bank isn’t $200 in interest income, or the stuff $200 in interest income might buy. $10,000 in the bank creates a little bit of room to take risks. One could call it the “implicit value of self-insurance generated by own capital.” It’s the comfort of being rich (or having rich relatives). It’s real. It’s valuable. But it wouldn’t be taxed if Canada had a consumption tax.
Admittedly, the insurance value of having wealth isn’t taxed under an income tax either. But at least under an income tax some of the return on wealth is taxed, so there is, at least potentially, some shifting of the tax burden onto those with wealth.
The greatest freedom money offers is the freedom to walk away. Your bank doesn’t offer you unlimited everything with no monthly fees? Walk away. There’s always someone else who wants your money. Your phone plan is too expensive? Walk away (o.k., that may not be the best example).
People with money have alternatives, which makes their demand for goods and services elastic. Food may or may not cost more in poor areas. But a rich person can shop at Value Village if he chooses. A poor person may not be able to afford expensive purchases which save money in the long run, like bread machines or high efficiency appliances or pressure cookers. Consumption taxes aim to tax the amount of stuff people actually consume. But if poor people pay a higher price for their stuff than rich people, is a system that taxes only consumption spending, without taking into account the ability to command consumption wealth conveys, fair?
June 25, 2015
At Reason, Ronald Bailey links to a study that appears to undermine most of Thomas Picketty’s claims:
From the study:
We believe Piketty’s core message is provably flawed on several levels, as a result of fundamental and avoidable errors in his basic assumptions. He begins with the sensible presumption that the return on invested capital, r, exceeds macroeconomic growth, g, as must be true in any healthy economy. But from this near-tautology, he moves on to presume that wealthy families will grow ever richer over future generations, leading to a society dominated by unearned, hereditary wealth. Alas, this logic holds true only if the wealthy never dissipate their wealth through spending, charitable giving, taxation, and splitting bequests among multiple heirs.
As individuals, and as families, the rich generally do not get richer; after a fortune is first built, the rich get relentlessly and inevitably poorer.
The “evidence” Piketty uses in support of his thesis is largely anecdotal, drawn from the novels of Austen and Balzac, and from the current fortunes of Bill Gates and Liliane Bettencourt. If Piketty is right, where are the current hyper-wealthy descendants of past entrepreneurial dynasties — the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Rockefellers, Mellons, and Gettys? Almost to a man (or woman) they are absent from the realms of the super-affluent. Our evidence — used to refute Piketty’s argument — is empirical, drawn from the rapid rotation of the hyper-wealthy through the ranks of the Forbes 400, and suggests that, at any given time, roughly half of the collective worth of the hyper-wealthy is first-generation earned wealth, not inherited wealth.
The originators of great wealth are one-in-a-million geniuses; their innovation, invention, and single-minded entrepreneurial focus create myriad jobs and productivity enhancements for society at large. They create wealth for society, from which they draw wealth for themselves. In contrast, the descendants of the hyper-wealthy rarely have that same one-in-a-million genius. Bettencourt, cited by Piketty, is a clear exception. Typically, we find that descendants halve their inherited wealth — relative to the growth of per capita GDP — every 20 years or less, without any additional assistance from Piketty’s redistribution prescription.
Dynastic wealth accumulation is simply a myth. The reality is that each generation spawns its own entrepreneurs who create vast pools of entirely new wealth, and enjoy their share of it, displacing many of the preceding generations’ entrepreneurial wealth creators. Today, the massive fortunes of the 19th century are largely depleted and almost all of the fortunes generated just a half-century ago are also gone. Do we really want to stifle entrepreneurialism, invention, and innovation in an effort to accelerate the already-rapid process of wealth redistribution?