Good reading

Sheldon Richman explains that the “market does not ration.” (HT: Cafe Hayek)

I liked how Arnold Kling worded this:

My own view is that these are two areas [health care and education] where outcomes depend largely on factors other than the services provided. Meanwhile, we have succumbed to the claims of suppliers that their services ought to be heavily subsidized. The subsidies lead to over-provision of education and health care services, well past the point where the marginal return from additional spending becomes negligible. In health care, this is known as the flat of the curve hypothesis. Perhaps the hypothesis also applies in education.

Eating apples is a good thing. But it’s not good to continue eating more and more apples every day.

George Schulz in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, gives some good advice to would-be Presidents. When I read this, it made me think about the short-term thinking of Keynesian economics:

The political people would come in and say ‘You’ve got to be careful, Mr. President. There’s gonna be a recession [if the Federal Reserve tightens the money supply]. You’re gonna lose seats in the midterm election.’

“And he basically said, ‘If not us who? If not now when?’ And he held a political umbrella over [Fed Chairman] Paul Volcker, and Paul did what needed to be done. And by late ’82 early ’83, inflation was under control, the tax changes that he made were kicking in, and the economy took off. But it took a politician with an ability to take a short-term hit in order to get the long-run results that we needed.”

Government’s role is not to smooth GDP.  It’s job is to predictably protect our freedom:

“Let’s talk about football. . . . You want to know the rules and have an impartial referee, but you also want to make sure somebody isn’t going to come along and change the rules in the middle of the game. . . . Now it’s as though we have all these people who have money on the sidelines and we say ‘Come on and play the game,’ and they say ‘Well what are the rules?’ and we say ‘We’ll tell you later.’ And what about the referee? Well, we’re still struggling for who that’s gonna be. . . . That’s not an environment designed to get people to play.

We all learned this on the playground as we were growing up, didn’t we? We stopped playing tag and kickball with the kids who changed the rules in their own favor after every play. It wasn’t worth our time. Stop changing the rules.

Schulz also makes a good point about being cautious to use debt for true emergencies (and not GDP smoothing or buying votes, rewarding cronies and special interests):

Now remember something. Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the Treasury, and a very good one, redeemed all of the Revolutionary War debt at par value, and he said the ‘full faith and credit’ of the United States must be inviolate, among other reasons because it will be necessary in a crisis to be able to borrow. And we saw ourselves through the Civil War because we were able to borrow. We saw ourselves able to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese because we were able to borrow. We’ve got ourselves now to the point where if we suddenly had to finance another very big event of some kind, it would be hard to do it. We are exhausting our borrowing capacity.”

Finally, he reminds us what results with price controls:

“I fear that the approach to controlling costs in the health-care business is moving more and more to a wage-and-price-control approach. And one thing you know from experience is when you control the price of something, you end up getting less of it. So if you control the price of health-care providers, you will have fewer of them and that’s gonna wind up as a crisis. The most vivid expression of that . . . was Jimmy Carter’s gas lines.”

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Things fail

Here’s an interesting post from Arnold Kling on EconLog. 

In it, he discusses federalism and cartel federalism. Few people consciously view government in these terms, but should.

Federalism is the idea that governments compete for citizens, much like how companies compete for customers. When people are free to move, they tend to move to areas that offer governments they find more attractive.

As a small example, when I was ten years old, my parents moved seven miles to exit a poorly performing school district to a better school district.

Cartel federalism is when political elites, driven by similar motivations as business people, try to reduce competition between governments by colluding to offer similar types of government.

Bastiat reminds us to “treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer, for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race.”

For the same reason, we should treat all political questions from the viewpoint of the citizen.

When I studied engineering, they taught us to avoid designing systems that have a single point of failure. Why? Because things fail.

No matter how durable and reliable we believe something to be, we don’t possibly know enough to know with certainty it will not fail.

We forget that when it comes to governments. Enron failed and hurt a small portion of the economy. The Soviet Union failed and took down the whole economy. That’s a single point of failure.

Even with governments, it’s good to have choice and competition. Why? Because things fail.

Do you need another can of green beans in your pantry?

English: Cut Green Beans Español: Habichuelas ...

"Creating" Demand

I enjoyed Arnold Kling’s column (econblogger at EconLog), Government Cannot Create Sustainable Jobs, published in the European edition of The Wall Street Journal.

I think the following two paragraphs contain the most concise and understandable contrast of two competing visions on how the economy works (emphasis mine):

For Keynesians, job creation is simple. Entrepreneurs have knowledge of how and what to produce. All that is required is more demand, in order to induce them to undertake more hiring.

n contrast, in our [Adam] Smith-Ricardo story, the knowledge of how and what to produce has to be discovered. Entrepreneurs have to figure out ways to utilize resources that satisfy wants in an efficient way. The market mechanism first must undertake trial and error to create production processes that exploit comparative advantage. Until these new patterns of sustainable specialization and trade are discovered, there are no job slots.

I bolded the key phrases.  Do you believe that progress comes from stimulating evermore demand or from trial and error experimentation?

I believe the latter.  Progress, wealth, improvements in the standard of living, GDP per capita growth — whatever you call it — comes from experimentation and trial and error and a process that allows the valued to survive and multiply and the least valued to die off (i.e. evolution).  This trial-and-error market process is driven by the ultimate democracy of individuals voting with their own value store on the the things they value and vote against those things they don’t value.

The problem for me with the former explanation, creating more demand, is where this new demand comes from.

The theory says that more government spending will put more money into some folks pockets, which they then spend.  So, then the businesses that benefit from that extra spending will spend more too.  And so on.  This is a chained spending effect.  By the time the that extra dollar of government spending has worked its way through the economy, it’s spawned more than a dollar of economic activity.

This seems reasonable on the surface.  But pry deeper.  Where did that extra dollar of government spending come in from in the first place?  It either came from current or future spending.

If it came from current spending, then all we’ve done is take a dollar from someone to get the spending chain started.  That someone may have started their own chain by spending it themselves.

Defenders of this theory will say, yes, but that someone wasn’t going to spend it any time soon so it’s best for everyone that the government took it and spent it.

I believe the miss in this line of thinking is that someone was waiting to discover something of value to spend it on, while spending it now does not help him find that value.

What’s really happened is that demand was pulled forward from the future and we’ve spent it on something that doesn’t add value.

Companies see this when they run ineffective limited time promotion.  The sale will produce a sales spike during the offer period and a lull afterwards.  The sale encouraged people who were going to buy the product anyway to buy it sooner, and buy less later.

But, in the case of the government pulling forward demand, it makes things worse.

That someone with the original dollar was waiting to spend that dollar on something he valued — maybe a new pill that will reduce his sick days and make him more productive.

Instead, the government takes it and spends it on another can of green beans.  So, instead of having four cans of green beans in the pantry (that he’s never going to eat), he has five now — something that doesn’t bring as much value as that new pill.  But, hey, the green bean growers and canners are better off.  Except, we find that since there’s a glut of canned green beans now, green bean makers will sell fewer cans in the coming months.

So, creating demand through government spending is a myth.  There is no creation.  Just moving demand from one place to another or from the future to now — and in either case, we replace careful spending with careless.

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Grandpa’s Lament

Markets fail.  Use government.

This is the underlying belief held by those who think it’s a good idea to expand the role of government to fix problems.

Arnold Kling gets credit for this simple counter:

Markets fail.  Use markets.

Kling calls this Masonomics, after the classical/libertarian economics department of George Mason University.  As Kling explains:

Masonomics worries much more about government failure than market failure. Governments do not face competitive pressure. They are immune from the “creative destruction” of entrepreneurial innovation. In the market, ineffective firms go out of business. In government, ineffective programs develop powerful constituent groups with a stake in their perpetuation.

In the Wall Street Journal this week, David Malpass wrote about why we should pay some heed to Masonomics as grasshopper governments are looking for ants to bail them out, so they can keep acting like grasshoppers:

Across Europe and the United States, the fiscal crisis is setting up an epic battle among government services, pensioners, government employees, creditors and taxpayers. There is simply not enough money coming in to pay all the promises politicians have made. The shortfalls and fights are challenging our democracies and shifting wealth from the private sector to ever bigger government.

The hope has been that Europe’s debt crisis would force government downsizing in time to meet cash flow requirements. Newfound fiscal discipline would provide a silver lining to the debt crisis. But that’s not working out.

Germany’s insistence on centralized fiscal discipline for the euro zone will lead to a massive expansion of bureaucracies in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. They’ll include temporary and permanent bailout funds, dangerously intrusive powers for the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, endless summits, new taxes on property, and recessions.

With Europe’s government structures assured of getting even bigger, the U.K. reacted immediately by opting out. U.S. lawmakers are already objecting to the European plan to expand the IMF. As in Greece, IMF programs are antigrowth, imposing austerity on the private economy, not the government. Greece has raised value-added and property taxes, then projected revenue increases that never materialize in order to keep payments flowing to creditors and the government’s entourage.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to use the crisis to grow rather than shrink. News of Europe’s fiscal incompetence abounds, but Washington had no budget at all in 2010 or 2011 and the federal deficit grew at record pace. President Obama sailed through 2011 without any significant spending cuts or government downsizing.

It’s a shame that the U.S. government has been turned into a grasshopper government.  My Grandpa used to express his concern for the future:

If these kids are going to be our next leaders, we’re in trouble.

Yep.

Good innovation model at Coke

In a September 22 HBR Ideacast (Harvard Business Review’s podcast), Coca-Cola CEO, Muhtar Kent, says this as a side note about innovation at Coke:

…for us, innovation is not only inside the four walls of the company.  We have incubation projects [in] many parts of the world, because we think that the Coca-Cola company and system is too big to have embryonic ides flourish.

So, we have outside [projects], in parts of the world, innovation/incubation projects.

I’ve seen my share of embryonic ideas die.  Some even showed promise.  With some adaptive business folks in charge, they may have grown into something.

But, inside a big company, there are many reasons to say no.  Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz wrote about this in their book, From Poverty to Prosperity, which I wrote about here:

Corporate decisions are made by committees.  In a typical committee, no individual has the power to say “yes” to a new project.  On the other hand, almost every member of a committee has the power to veto a new project.

Observers of organizational behavior have noted that in committees one is more likely to be regarded as intelligent and a good team player by one’s peers by arguing against a new idea than by arguing in favor of it.  Middle managers who fight for new ideas are regarded as troublemakers, even if they succeed in convincing corporations to undertake the projects they propose.

I’ve seen this in action.  For example, I’ve seen projects killed that threatened a powerful leader’s turf (of course, that’s not the reason they made passionate pleas against the project).  Or because the project was a pet idea of previous leadership.  Or, the project didn’t fit into some arbitrary slogan the leader had for running the company (e.g. “We’re in the widget business, not the gidget business”).  I’ve also seen these shutdown just due to impatience.

Because of this, I recommend that companies do just as Coke does, separate innovation from the bureaucratic organization.  In reality, it’s hard to put any new project out of the reach of meddling bureaucrats.

Ultimately, it takes the realization by leadership that few of these projects will succeed, that none will add significantly to next quarter’s earnings (think more like 5 to 10 years) and, most importantly, leadership needs to protect these external projects from the meddling bureaucrats.

Unintended Consequences Matter

I linked to Aaron McKenzie’s disentanglement of self-interest and greed here.

In this post, Arnold Kling recommends reading an essay called Capitalism and the Jewish Intellectuals.  In it, he writes, the authors believe intellectuals are hostile to capitalism because of this entanglement of self-interest and greed.  They interpret “incentives matter” as “greed drives capitalism.”

So, they recommend a way to get intellectuals over that hump.  Kling poses their recommendation in the form of a Q&A:

Q: How would you break down that hostility to capitalism?

A: By de-emphasizing “Incentives matter” and instead emphasizing that “unintended consequences matter.” That is the message of Adam Smith. It is the message of Hayek. Once we embed people in complex economic and political systems, selfish intentions can turn out well (because of competition), and good intentions can turn out badly (because of imperfect knowledge).

Though, based on Aaron’s advice, I would reword part of the answer to:

…self-interested intentions can turn out well (because of competition)

A refreshing look at jobs

I much prefer Phil’s take (HT: Arnold Kling) on jobs to Megan McArdle’s.

From Phil:

The same technology that is eliminating jobs also connects us and empowers us in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Maybe what’s becoming obsolete is not jobs per se, but the idea that they are something that you simply find.

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

That sounds difficult, maybe even a little dangerous. We’re all comfortable with the idea of “finding” a job. We search for them; we hunt them; we land them. All of these images assume the job already exists.

But to create something new…what does that even mean? Do we all become entrepreneurs? (I think the answer to that question is yes, although many of us will have to learn to be entrepreneurs within existing organizations.) Ultimately, it means we have to find something useful to do, something so useful that others are willing to pay for it.

In other words, as my grandparents use to say, go out make yourself useful to somebody.