A very important fact, indeed

I agree with Yuval Levin, from his EconTalk podcast, about a simple point and an important fact:

I think Conservatives today don’t often enough make the simple point: that, when it comes to economics the market system that we are advocating has been the best thing that has ever happened to the poor in human history. And has dramatically reduced extreme poverty around the world and is still doing it right now; has been the way in which the needy and the vulnerable have been lifted up. It’s worked far better than anything else we’ve every tried, far better than anything the Left has tried to do economically. And that should matter. That’s a very important fact.

I hear this point made on occasion in left/right debates by the right. I find it interesting at how quickly it gets swept under the rug by the left. It’s usually with a red herring like, “but capitalism has its problems, too.” What I find interesting is how uninterested the left is in examining this important fact.

It goes back to the Levin quote in the previous post, “…the left takes for granted a thriving economy that just comes in the background…

This very important fact, in fact, was key in dislodging my liberal thinking. Before it was pointed out to me, I too, took the thriving economy for granted.

But, when it was pointed out to me, it was eye opening. Rather than sweeping it under the rug, I went silent and thought, if that’s right, how could I be against it? Isn’t it achieving the very thing that I say I want?

Levin went on to say:

Beyond that, the kind of society we are arguing for is a society that for very solid reasons we believe is grounded in a way of life that helps advance the moral good. A way of life that helps people build the sort of lives they want. That makes government more effective at solving problems that people confront. That gives people the room to build the lives they want and protects them from the worst risks that they might confront in modern life, rather than a society that says: This is the way, and you have to do it. Which, again and again, this is how the Left approaches the life of our society: centralize, consolidate, exercise authority to push people into the right grooves.

I couldn’t help to think of this quote when I read this Wall Street Journal op-ed on the politics around the federal nutrition standards for school cafeterias.

The nutrition mandates from 2010 First Lady bill centralizes nutritional choices for school lunches to “push people into the right grooves.”

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Party Planning vs. Raising Kids

Lant Pritchett uses a starfish/spider analogy to illustrate differences between bottom-up/top-down systems.

Steve Landsburg explained that people mistake central planning as being something like planning a birthday party. Based on this vision, they think it can work well. You just need good planners. Landsburg says that folks who make such mistakes simply can’t imagine the complexities involved when hundreds of millions of people are added to the mix, so even good planners won’t do well.

Russ Roberts recently distinguished between engineering and economics problems in a post on Cafe Hayek, building off the following Soviet joke:

Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone.  ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says.  ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock.  But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’

Of course, her Mom may be an avid shopper. But, the joke was meant to convey that centrally planning something as mundane as producing products that people want, at reasonable prices and making them available in nearby stores is a much more vexing problem than sending man into orbit. Prices do a better job of coordinating that effort.

I made a similar point in a follow-up to the Landsburg post, because I’ve heard too many people use the “If we can send a man to the moon, then we can do anything” fallacy.

Though, I didn’t distinguish it then as an engineering problem. That is an important observation. It’s also a good question to keep in mind when people start using the man on the moon fallacy, are we solving an engineering or economics problem?

But, I still think some folks may have a difficult time understanding exactly how an economics problem differs from an engineering problem. For many, both fall into one category: complicated. So, if we can solve one complicated problem, why not another?

I think it might help to go back to Landsburg’s party planning analogy. An engineering problem is like planning your kid’s birthday party. It’s straightforward (place, invites, plates, cake, fun, done) and it’s a relatively short time commitment. The short time commitment is important. Any longer and it might be harder to get grandparents to help clean up or for guests to come.

An economics problem is more (though still not quite) like raising kids. That’s much more complex than planning a two-hour party. It doesn’t end. It’s not easy.

Just when you think you figure it out, it changes. Why? Because kids are human and they go through phase. They have preferences. They respond to rewards and punishments — differently to different ones. They make decisions. They like what they like. They change. They will fight you. They won’t always do what you tell them. You need to let them make mistakes and learn for themselves, even though it is painful to do so.

Now, I say it’s not quite like an economics problem because people can do a good job of raising kids. Though, there aren’t many truth-telling parents who will say that it’s easy.

So, an economics problem is much more like being tasked with raising all of the kids in your town, or maybe your state, or more.

Multiply the frustrations, the reactions, the support, attention and love required by a thousand or a million kids.

We’re all smart enough to know that’s impossible. We would never sign up for it because we know we’d do those kids a major disservice. Hmmm…..

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If you want to help the poor, you should read this

I agree with Mark Perry (an economist who has bought me a beer), of Carpe Diem, that the reduction in the world poverty rate is the most remarkable achievement in human history.

The percentage of the world population living on $1 per day or less has dropped since 1970 from around 26% to just over 5%.

It’s hard to argue with those results. They are inflation-adjusted.

I can think of a couple things that might be easier to argue about regarding those results.

1. I can imagine some folks would say that 5% isn’t good enough.

2. I can imagine that some folks would argue about the cause of those results. I agree with Perry’s explanation as provided by Arthur Brooks: “globalization, free trade and international entrepreneurship.”

I can imagine that some folks would say it was the growth in government and aid. But, for them, I’d ask, what if you’re wrong? As Brooks says:

…if you love the poor, if you are a good Samaritan, you must stand for the free enterprise system, and you must defend it, not just for ourselves but for people around the world. It is the best anti-poverty measure ever invented.

I agree. I could be wrong and I think — for the benefit of the poor — I should keep that in mind and stay open to evidence to the contrary, because whether I’m right or wrong doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

What is important it what really helps them.

I also think us supporters of free markets often forget this. The opposition paints us as the defenders of the rich, the “1%” and king-like CEOs, while we’re really advocating for the benefit of everyone, including the poor. 

Greed is not unique to capitalism

A discussion I heard on the radio today between a self-described socialist and a radio talk show host reminded me of this post about greed.

It also brought into a focus an important point that many people miss and may even be a source of dislike or distrust for capitalism.

The point is that greed is not unique to capitalism. Many people seem to think it is. Or maybe they mistake any money-making endeavor for capitalism.

There are greedy politicians, greedy not-for-profit chairmen, greedy welfare recipients and greedy welfare administrators. There were greedy kings, greedy socialists, greedy communists and greedy fascists.

When a corrupt politician sells his vote, that’s not capitalism. That’s corruption. And it’s greed.

What is unique to capitalism is its ability to harness greed for the greater good, as Walter Williams discusses in the post I linked to.

It does this by encouraging people to produce something of value — using what is rightfully theirs’ — for others to satisfy their greed.


Mark Perry links to three examples of how the market is the best regulator and our best friend (though, admittedly, the kind of friend many people like to dump on).

Chris Berg explains why Capitalism is Awesome (HT: EconLog‘s Alberto Mingardi). Worth a read. It’s not the necessarily the Facebooks and the Apples, but the guys trying to make a better shelf.

A short video of Jim Buchanan on the illusion of the public interest (HT: Cafe Hayek‘s Don Boudreaux):


Unintended consequence of Obamacare?

I yawned when I read this. Did you?



Source of evil

My blog received a big boost in traffic this week because, according to commenter Stephen (with minor corrections):

Founder of Crossfit had a talk in which he used rent-seeking as a reference and why that was bad for crossfit and against his business model which he likened to “Striving to excellence instead of striving to make money is a better way to run a business”

He then posted a link to a blog post I wrote in 2011 to distinguish rent-seeking (or as one of the excellent regular commenters here, Mike M, put it, “privilege seeking”) from capitalism. So, I’d like to thank the Founder of CrossFit, thank all who visited Our Dinner Table and thank to all who left a comment to advance the discussion — even those who disagreed with me.

I’m guessing he posted a link for rent-seeking because, as I point out in that blog post, so few people understand what rent-seeking is and the term itself is not intuitive.

Privilege seeking is a more intuitive term. Seeking privileges at the expense of others is about as spot on description as I’ve heard, so far.

Rent-seeking is using government to reduce consumer choices for the benefit of a special interest.

In my 2011 post, I used the sugar tariff as an example of rent-seeking. It works like this: Government adds a tariff to sugar imports, which results in a higher price paid for sugar products in the U.S. by consumers. The higher price benefits domestic sugar farmers who get to charge more since their foreign competitors’ sugar prices includes the tariff.

The objective of my previous post was to highlight that to the extent the tariff allows domestic sugar farmers to charge more, those profits are not earned through capitalism. But, too often folks see that as capitalism. In their eyes, profit and capitalism are almost interchangeable.

I’d like to commend the founder of CrossFit for shunning rent-seeking (it’d be great if he could hook me up with a set of pipe/monkey bars and maybe a small climbing wall for my basement :)). That means his strategy is to attract and retain customers by making their lives better, rather than using government to restrict their alternatives.

As it turns out, I happened to also listen to a Harvard Business Review podcast this week with guest John Mackey, Founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. He has a new book titled, Conscious Capitalism.


capitalism is actually beautiful (Photo credit: wallstalking.org)

In the podcast, Mackey describes his journey from spouting progressive to appreciative capitalist — and it sounds a lot like mine, except I haven’t founded any big companies, yet.

He discovered that how he viewed businesses when he was young — as greedy, singularly focused money-makers — wasn’t all true. He learned that businesses (usually) succeeded by providing something customers value, which is a tremendous overlooked (or perhaps taken for granted) benefit for society. It may be fun to hate on capitalism, but by gosh, don’t take away my iPhone, sort of thing.

But, I think Mackey misses something BIG. While I applaud Mackey and the Founder of CrossFit for eschewing rent-seeking and favoring customer value creation, i.e. for being capitalists, not all businessmen are capitalists.

One thing almost all business people have in common with the rest of us is that they are human. And one thing nearly all economists know about humans is they respond to incentives (though they differ in their beliefs by how much).

So, it follows that business people respond to incentives. They make more money when their companies do well. One way to guide their companies to success is through good-ol’ capitalism — providing the customer with products they value enough to buy.

But, another way for business people to make money is through rent-seeking. Whether it’s a sugar tariff that allows you to charge more or a state giving special tax breaks for auto plants to ‘attract jobs’, as government at all levels have gained more power, the value of rent-seeking has increased along with it. As Harry Browne put it:

Government is good at one thing: It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and say, “See, if it weren’t for the government, you wouldn’t be able to walk.”

You can blame greedy business people who are unlike John Mackey and the CrossFit founder for seeking profits without creating customer value, but you’d be blaming the wrong people. The right people to blame would be us, for letting government out of its cage to sell the power we give it to the highest bidder to do things like transfer $40/year of our money to rich, rent-seeking sugar farmers so they can continue to buy that power…with our money.

Think about that for a second, $40 isn’t much (which is why we’re not picketing in the streets about it). But, wouldn’t you rather use that $40 to buy something you value rather than give it to the sugar farmer so he can use it to keep getting it from you?

That’s a double-whammy. Whammy one: You lose your chance to buy something with that $40 that makes your life better. That value never materializes in society. Whammy two: Some of that money goes to do nothing more than to convince politicians to continue getting it. If you understand that, it shouldn’t be hard to see that shrinking government can help the economy.

What is profit?

I’m looking forward to listening to the latest EconTalk podcast, where an organic farmer talks about profit and how she finds her teenage workers not quite ready to earn their keep. Her theory, similar to mine, is that kids have led a life up to the point of getting their first job where things are done for their benefit, rather than them having to make themselves useful to others.

EconTalk host, Russ Roberts, posted her interesting comments about this here. It’s worth repeating:

we hire some high school kids. And they are lovely people. But usually it’s one of their first jobs, like maybe they’ve mowed the lawn for their neighbor or maybe they did some babysitting. But by and large we’re their first job. So, everything else that’s happened in their life has happened for their benefit. They’ve gone to summer camp–that was for their benefit. They’ve gone to school–that was for their benefit. We as parents certainly do everything we can to benefit our children. And then they come to me and–yeah, there are a lot of programs that go on in the summer. And that’s not what this is. This is: You are going to work, and at the end of the week I’m going to give you money; and I expect that because you are here, I will make more money. And that’s a concept that I’ve had to explain to them. And it comes in really hard. And I have to say: Why would I have you here if I wasn’t going to end up with more money? Why on earth would I have you show up every day? And they kind of start to get that this should be a mutually beneficial arrangement, not just that I shouldn’t come out even because I think of–capitalism as me making money for the aggravation of having you here. And then we get the college kids; they’ve kind of gotten that kind of concept a little better. But then I’ll say: What do you want to do when you are done with college? And they’ll say: Oh, I want to work for a non-profit. And that one makes me angry. First, it’s like, well, non-profit, that could be a hospital, that could be a–like you haven’t thought about this any more–that could be a land trust, it could be anything. ‘Non-profit’ is huge. You don’t have any more direction than that you want to work for a non-profit? But also, they are telling me that profit is bad. So, I say: Well, look around at all this stuff you see, the tractors, the greenhouses, the walk-in cooler–like all this stuff. Ralph and I could have taken that money and even if we put it in the bank in a savings account we’d have earned like a percent or something, even now. But we’ve done this, and we’re risking that–it may not work out; we may not make any money from this; we may not get back the money we put in. Don’t we deserve a little more than what we could get in a bank by doing something safe? And they say: Oh, well yeah, of course you do. And I say: Well, that’s profit. And that’s all that profit is. And: Ohhhh. And then the light dawns. But they come with no idea about how capitalism works, even though capitalism is the economic system of our country.

I’d go a step further on profit.

I think it is unfortunate that we tend to only think of profit as a financial term. This causes us to see differently the actions undertaken by profit-seeking companies from the actions we undertake ourselves to conduct our daily lives. Those evil companies seek profit. How noble I am to give my time to charity.

But, a more general definition of profit is to derive benefit. What percent of your actions do you take to derive benefit?

Why did you show up to work? Probably for the same reason companies distribute their products, to earn money.

Why don’t you devote all of your time to charity? Probably because you need to have a shelter, you need food and clothes and you want quite a few other things. Companies, too, do not give all of their output to charity because they would soon have nothing left to give.

Why did you build the patio and fire-place in your backyard, instead of giving that money to charity? You did this for the same reason companies build lounges for workers and sell their products in pleasant surroundings.

Why did you replace your aging vehicle, instead of giving that money to charity? For the same reason companies replace their aging equipment.

How are the actions you take to derive benefit different from the actions companies take to derive benefit?

There are only two key differences that I see. First, companies more carefully record the money unit benefits of their actions because they have folks who hold them accountable, the owners. Second, they are trying to accrue those benefits for someone else, the owners instead of themselves, unless they happen work for an employee-owned company.

Profit is nothing more than a derived benefit. We profit a great deal from others, that’s why we are willing to pay them. Without that profit, we’d be living the short and lean lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer.