Audio: Mark Thornton Discusses ‘The Bastiat Reader’

220px-Bastiat (1)From the 2014 AERC:

At the Authors’ Forum this year, Mark Thornton discussed the origins and scope of The Bastiat Reader a new collection of Bastiat’s writings to become widely available later this year.

Full audio here. 

See also The Bastiat Collection.

Lean Startups and Capital Ownership

In the last few years, there has been a big emphasis in entrepreneurship on “lean” startups. Being lean basically means avoiding unnecessary costs early in the development of a new venture, thus minimizing waste and reducing the negative effects of uncertainty. For example, a common lean strategy involves using consumers to test a limited run of an unfinished product in order to furnish data before going to market. This allows the firm to gauge the likelihood of success before committing resources to full-scale production, which is expensive and uncertain.

The conventional wisdom, which in some ways is just economic common sense, is that a new firm should stay lean for as long as possible. Yet one implication that is sometimes drawn from the lean approach is that capital ownership is a negative for early-stage entrepreneurs, because in some ways owning capital narrows a firm’s strategic options, both economically and geographically. Lean ideas are especially popular in high-tech industries (where they originated), which are more likely to be driven by ideas and lines of code than intensive investment in plant and equipment.

The lean philosophy may then hint at some interesting questions for Austrian economists. For instance, if it is true, as many Austrians have emphasized, that entrepreneurship requires resources (and especially capital goods), how would economists respond to the claim that successful entrepreneurship doesn’t or shouldn’t require capital assets (at least in its early stages)?

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Further to Julian Adorney on the Maximum Wage

It is worth recalling that Congress during the first Clinton administration passed legislation limiting cash compensation for CEO’s of public companies to $1 million. The result was that compensation swung to stock options. This in turn encouraged CEO’s to borrow in order to buy in company stock, which helped stoke the subsequent stock market bubble.

When the accounting profession then sought to rein in the use of options, which at the time did not have to be treated as corporate expenses, several congressmen and senators, Joe Liberman in particular, publicly threatened them with legislation that would take away their authority over options.

The actions of the Fed were far more important in creating the stock market bubble that subsequently popped in 2000, but Congress certainly made it worse with its unwise legislative interference with executive compensation. This was just one more example of government fixing, manipulating, or nudging prices that should be set by the market, that is, by consumers.

Piketty and Capital

Further to Hunter’s remarks: Piketty understands “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.”

Profits are amounts, not rates. The old notion of capital as a pool of funds that generates a rate of return automatically, just by existing, is incomprehensible from the perspective of modern production theory. Robert Solow, in a glowing review of Piketty’s book, states: “The key thing about wealth in a capitalist economy is that it reproduces itself and usually earns a positive net return.” But this is nonsense from the point of view of microeconomics, entrepreneurship, uncertainty, innovation, strategy, etc.

Much of the excitement around Piketty’s work deals with his estimate of the long-term rate of return on capital, and how this compares to the long-term rate of economic growth. I hear from third parties that Piketty’s calculations (the early work was done with Emmanuel Saez) are thorough and careful, and I have no reason to doubt the empirical part of the book. But it seems like a pointless exercise to me — I don’t know what the underlying constructs even mean.

Of course, there are many other issues related to the interpretation of these data and what they mean for social mobility, fairness, etc. For example, there may be much more vertical movement than Piketty’s admirers admit — few people remain in one part of the income distribution all their lives. And most Americans are capitalists, with some of their financial wealth invested in equities through their retirement portfolios. So the link between (say) stock-market performance, rents on land and natural resources, and interest returns and the distribution of financial wealth among individuals is complicated.

Another Medium of Exchange?

From Jeff Deist:

An important but overlooked story is Walmart’s recent announcement that it will offer cheap store-to-store money transfers.  Given the ubiquity of Walmart stores (which are large and strategically located), this development represents a real threat to the existing wire-transfer industry.

But what if Walmart reduced or eliminated the transfer fee, provided the transmitted funds could be spent only at Walmart?   Why not create some kind of Walmart scrip?

This is nothing more than an extension of retail store gift cards, or existing scrip programs such as Disney Dollars. But since virtually everything one needs to live (other than luxury type goods) can be purchased in Walmart stores, its scrip might begin to circulate among the public (as casino chips do to a limited extent in Las Vegas).  And while Disney Dollars might seem silly, they actually appreciate in value, unlike Federal Reserve Notes!

Thomas Piketty’s Sensational New Book

This 42 year economist from French academe has written a hot new book: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The US edition has been published by Harvard University Press and, remarkably, is leading the best seller list, the first time that a Harvard book has done so. A recent review describes Piketty as the man “who exposed capitalism’s fatal flaw.”

So what is this flaw? Supposedly under capitalism the rich get steadily richer in relation to everyone else; inequality gets worse and worse. It is all baked into the cake, unavoidable.

To support this, Piketty offers some dubious and unsupported financial logic, but also what he calls “a spectacular graph” of historical data. What does the graph actually show?

The amount of U.S. income controlled by the top 10% of earners starts at about 40% in 1910, rises to about 50% before the Crash of 1929, falls thereafter, returns to about 40% in 1995, and thereafter again rises to about 50% before falling somewhat after the Crash of 2008.

Let’s think about what this really means. Relative income of the top 10% did not rise inexorably over this period. Instead it peaked at two times: just before the great crashes of 1929 and 2008. In other words, inequality rose during the great economic bubble eras and fell thereafter.

And what caused and characterized these bubble eras? They were principally caused by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks creating far too much new money and debt. They were characterized by an explosion of crony capitalism as some rich people exploited all the new money, both on Wall Street and through connections with the government in Washington.

We can learn a great deal about crony capitalism by studying the period between the end of WWI and the Great Depression and also the last twenty years, but we won’t learn much about capitalism. Crony capitalism is the opposite of capitalism. It is a perversion of markets, not the result of free prices and free markets.

One can see why the White House likes Piketty. He supports their narrative that government is the cure for inequality when in reality government has been the principal cause of growing inequality.

The White House and IMF also love Piketty’s proposal, not only for high income taxes, but also for substantial wealth taxes. The IMF in particular has been beating a drum for wealth taxes as a way to restore government finances around the world and also reduce economic inequality.

Expect to hear more and more about wealth taxes. Expect to hear that they will be a “one time” event that won’t be repeated, but that will actually help economic growth by reducing economic inequality.

This is all complete nonsense. Economic growth is produced when a society saves money and invests the savings wisely. It is not quantity of investment that matters most, but quality. Government is capable neither of saving nor investing, much less investing wisely.

Nor should anyone imagine that a wealth tax program would be a “one time” event. No tax is ever a one time event. Once established, it would not only persist; it would steadily grow over the years.

Piketty should also ask himself a question. What will happen when investors have to liquidate their stocks, bonds, real estate, or other assets in order to pay the wealth tax? How will markets absorb all the selling? Who will be the buyers? And how will it help economic growth for markets and asset values to collapse under the selling pressure?

In 1936, a dense, difficult-to-read academic book appeared that seemed to tell politicians they could do exactly what they wanted to do. This was Keynes’s General Theory. Piketty’s book serves the same purpose in 2014, and serves the same short-sighted, destructive policies.

If the Obama White House, the IMF, and people like Piketty would just let the economy alone, it could recover. As it is, they keep inventing new ways to destroy it.

Killing the Maximum-Wage Myth

6731Julain Adorney writes in today’s Mises Daily:

CEO turnover has reached its highest peak since 2009, which indicates two things. First, CEOs who do not fully grasp the rapid technological change their companies are living through are being let go. Being a CEO is not a secure job; you earn your keep or you find yourself on the street. Second, CEOs who do have a solid understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the evolving economy are in high demand; many may leave their current job for a better offer with a new company.

If this sounds like the labor market for a lot of other workers, that’s because they’re very similar. The labor market for the top 1 percent is not fundamentally different from the labor market for other workers. Some employees, who are underqualified or who golf with the boss’s son or who simply perform less well than their hirer expected they would, may be overpaid. Others, who work harder than their coworkers and provide more value, are underpaid.[2] “The market is an ongoing discovery process,” Mr. Reed points out. “Information being imperfect, adjustments and movements take time.” That’s as true for highly paid employees as lower paid ones.

Consumption Does Not Drive the Macroeconomy

DCUSA.Gallery11.BB&BBlackFriday.WikipediaMark Skousen, through his Economic Logic and The Structure of Production, has been leading the fight for years for a measurement of economic activity that more closely aligns with a capital structure based macroeconomics. GDP is truly a Keynesian–based view of the economy; a data set that often hampers rather than helps advance Austrian macroeconomics. Misguided use of the data set encourages counterproductive active management of aggregate demand.

Both Hayek and Rothbard highlighted the inadequacies of national product measures of the  economy. From a Hayekian perspective, investment as measured by product and income accounts, greatly understates the role of capital or future-oriented expenditures in the economy. Hayek raised the point in his criticism of Foster and Catchings’s misguided underconsumption approach to fluctuations.  Expenditures on “raw materials, semi-finished products and other means of production” greatly exceed the value of consumption goods that are simultaneously offered in the markets for consumption goods. According to Rothbard, “It is certainly legitimate and often useful to consider net incomes and net savings, but not always illuminating, and its use has been extremely misleading in present-day economics.” Consumption spending is overemphasized and investment and saving is dwarfed relative to their overall importance in maintaining and expanding the structure of production.

Fortunately Mark Skousen stayed diligent in pressing for a better data set. Now what started as windmill jousting has ended in a minor victory for those who desire a better understanding of how an economy works. Mark explains more in today’s Wall Street Journal in his commentary, “At Last a Better Measure of Economic Activity.”

Highlights:

In many ways, gross output is a supply-side statistic, a measure of the production side of the economy. GDP, on the other hand, measures the “use” economy, the value of all “final” or finished goods and services used by consumers, business and government.

GDP is a useful measure of a country’s standard of living and economic growth. But its focus on final output omits intermediate production and as a result creates much mischief in our understanding of how the economy works.

In particular, it has led to the misguided Keynesian notion that consumer and government spending drive the economy rather than saving, business investment, technology and entrepreneurship.

The critical importance of business activity is clear when you look at employment statistics and leading economic indicators. Employees in the consumer side of the economy (retail outlets and leisure businesses) account for about 20% of the labor force, and another 15% work for various levels of government. Yet the vast majority of employees, 65%, work in mining, manufacturing and the service industries.

Finally, as a broader measure of economic activity, gross output is more consistent with economic-growth theory. Studies by Robert Solow at MIT and Robert Barro at Harvard have shown that economic growth comes largely from the supply side—increased technology, entrepreneurship, capital formation and productive savings and investment. Higher consumption is the effect, not the cause, of prosperity [emphasis added].

The new measure: Gross Output, while not perfect, is a marked improvement that should enable more and better historical analysis of the economy from an Austrian perspective. What an opportunity for the growing ranks of Austrian influenced scholars.

Congressional Budget Update From Laurence Vance

800px-US_Capitol_west_sideBy Laurence M. Vance

According to the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the president must annually submit a proposed budget to Congress for the next fiscal year by the first Monday in February. Although he was late, as usual, President Obama did submit his budget proposal on March 4. But because Republicans control the House of Representatives, and politics controls everything, the president’s budget was, of course, dead on arrival. Although there is no reason why Republicans should object to Obama’s budget, they have now introduced their own.

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