Power & Market
When sharing Bob Murphy's excellent article today on the Knowledge-Calculation Debate, one of the most common responses has been "Murphy makes a good case, but why does this really matter?"
Beyond the value of grasping intellectual nuance, I think this debate has actually increased in real world importance over time with the rise of "Big Data."
Increasingly we see entrepreneurs, economists, and other thought leaders discuss the possibility of using improved data collection and algorithms to solve the "knowledge problem" Hayek famously outlined.
Now, of course, these big data central planners still suffer from their own fatal conceit, as brilliantly discussed in this article by Per Bylund. Still though, laissez-faire skeptics are able to use Hayek's knowledge critique of socialism as a way of justifying their new tech-backed schemes.
The same can't be said for the Misesian critique of socialism grounded in economic calculation, as Xiong Yue noted last year:
[T]hose who consider the problem of socialism as merely a problem of information failed to understand that the core problem of socialism lies in the absence of prices in a centrally-planned economy. The role of prices in the market economy is unique because money prices offer an indispensable tool in economic calculation. As Mises writes in Human Action,
One cannot add up values or valuations. One can add up prices expressed in terms of money, but not scales of preference.
With prices as a guide, entrepreneurs can potentially pursue profits by examining differences in the market prices of production factors and the expected prices of the final products. He or she can then organize production accordingly.
Therefore, even if we have some excellent data already, without this market-price mechanism, neither the economic calculation nor the efficient allocation of resources is possible; the planned economy is therefore not feasible. Because rationally planning or resource allocation requires the ability to calculate economically, such calculations need the prices which can be determined only in the market by the real-world exchange of owners of private property in the first place. Since the planned economy requires state and collective control of resources — and thus does not allow for these necessary voluntary exchanges between owners — it cannot rationally plan the operation of the modern economic system.
As a result, it's theoretically impossible for a planned economy to determine the prices needed for economic calculation. The cutting-edge technologies may help Jack Ma to optimize his strategies in his private enterprises in a relatively capitalist society. However, for a modern economy, as long as there are no prices available on which to base economic calculation, the failure of a planned economy is inevitable. As Joseph Salerno writes in his postscript to “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”:
[I]n the absence of competitively determined money prices for the factors of production, possession of literally all the knowledge in the world would not enable an individual to allocate productive resources economically within the social division of labor.
As someone who has witnessed first hand Barney Frank quote F.A. Hayek in order to justify the creation of new government bureaucracies, I have seen how dangerous people can twist his ideas to justify all sorts of elaborate government schemes. It is much harder to do so with Ludwig von Mises.
In the face of staggeringly high tax rates and growing housing costs, people are abandoning San Francisco at such a rate that U-Haul prices have skyrocketed in the area.
The start of the NFL off-season offers an amusing illustration of just how significant the California tax burden is compared to other states. As Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk notes, when center Daniel Kilgore was traded from the 49ers to the Miami Dolphins, he saw his roster bonus increase by over $300,000 dollars thanks to Florida not having California's 13.5% income tax.
Unfortunately for Kilgore, he won't be quite so lucky with his remaining $2.525 base salary. The majority of states with professional sports teams have what is often referred to as a "jock taxes," where states (and some times cities) steal from the game checks of pro athletes. It was these taxes that actually led to Cam Newton having to pay the State of California for the privilege of losing in Super Bowl 50. While Kilgore will avoid them every time he plays a home game, only one of his 2018 away games (against the Houston Texans) is in a state that doesn't engage in this practice.1
Still, Kilgore was a financial winner thanks to his trade to South Beach. Now whether the extra cash is worth moving from Jimmy Garrapolo to Ryan Tannehill is another matter altogether.
- 1. Along with Florida and Texas, Washington and Tennessee are the only other states without these taxes. Nevada will be the fifth, after the Raiders move to their new tax-payer subsidized stadium.
In fact, most geniuses seem to simply not get economics. An example is the recently departed physicist Stephen Hawking, who - like so many - made rather ridiculous statements of economic nature. Quoted by MSN/MarketWatch, Hawking makes several very simple mistakes in his attempted economic commentary. For instance, he seems to not understand the difference between a natural resource (the physical production factor) and an economic resource (the subject value), which leads him to erroneously conclude that hoarding, and the resulting increased scarcity of physical resources, impoverishes humanity. Also, Hawking noted:
“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,” he wrote. “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”
This is a common view that at best captures a fundamental misunderstanding of economics: that ownership of the means of production somehow implies power (economic or otherwise). But, as we've known since Menger, the means of production have only value to the extent they contribute to the production of consumers' goods, the consumption of which is the realization of value. In other words, if I buy all machinery in the world and refuse to use any of them to produce goods, the economic value is zero. If I don't use the machinery to produce and sell consumers' goods, I have destroyed the economic value of my property.
The real effect of robots "producing everything" is that the cost of production plummets, which offers producers profits. But as we're flooded with goods, their market price also plummets. And as the (only) role of capital is to increase the productivity of labor, it means we don't have to work much to support a very high standard of living. The true gig economy is that we can work only for an hour or two - when we feel like it - to support a month's (or maybe a year's) worth of luxurious leisure.
This is apparently a problem to some geniuses.
Venezuela continues to be one of the great humanitarian crises of our times. Every day brings new horrific headlines of starvation, violence, and chaos. Not only should this tragedy serve as a reminder of the true evils of socialism, but is vivid illustration of what hyperinflation looks like in the modern world.
While the Venezuelan government has tried it hands with modern gimmicks - like the largest cryptocurrency scam since Prodeum - the citizens continue to struggle with the realities of a currency so worthless that thieves don’t even bother picking it up off the floor.
The question now is simply how long this horror story continues.
Elections in the country are set for May, but of course no one expects politics to offer much hope for the Venezuelan people. What’s interesting here is that it provides another fascinating example of how dangerous the United Nations truly is.
Stalin is credited to have said, “It's not the people who vote that count, it's the people who count the votes.” Understandably his ideological heir, Nicolás Maduro, feels pretty good about his re-election chances in Venezuela. His opponents have no delusions to think elections will be handled fairly, and are calling boycotting elections.
In enters the UN, who is considering sending in observers to ensure the integrity of the election process. Of course this is precisely what the Maduro government desires. After all the Venezuela people, beaten and starved, are unlikely to take the presence of a few foreign bureaucrats as the protection they need to stand up to their oppressive leaders. The UN’s presence will only serve to prop up Maduro, at least until complete economic collapses leads to military intervention – which some analysts think could be in the next 12 months.
Still, the fact that the UN would ever consider serving the desires of Venezuela’s socialist government is simply another reminder that the UN is worse than useless.
Of course, at the end of the day, any inevitable change in leadership in the country will not solve the plight of the country without a revolution in ideology. As Jose Nino has noted in several great articles for us, socialist ideology was a Venezuelan problem before Hugo Chavez, and risks outliving the rein of Maduro.
Often the worst of Washington is a bipartisan affair, but late last night a solid Democratic voting block stopped legislation that would allow terminally ill patients the ability to seek help from non-FDA approved treatments.
Needing a two-thirds vote to expedite right to try legislation, 140 Democrats voted against patient rights. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, defended his vote by saying "By defeating this bill tonight, we protected patients and supported F.D.A.’s continued role in approving experimental treatments that may help save a patient’s life.”
Yes, in the twisted world of Washington politicians limiting the choices of dying patients is "protecting them."
While Democrats desperately clung to the narrative that non-FDA approved drugs represented "false hope", we are given examples every day of how absurd this notion truly is. Rather than being some sort of scientific seal of approval, the FDA approval process is a bureaucratic nightmare, taking years of testing and millions of dollars to complete. The numbers of lives lost due to the FDA's actions is incalculable. As Timothy Terrell has noted:
The American public tends to think of the FDA as a protector against dangerous side effects, as we saw with Thalidomide decades ago. But how many Americans have died because of lags in approval? A five-year delay in bringing the antibiotic Septra to the US market may have cost 80,000 lives. A lag in the approval of beta blockers may have cost 250,000 lives.1 The FDA's ban on advertising aspirin as an effective preventer of first heart attacks may have caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year. But because it's easy to identify those harmed by side effects, and difficult to identify who might have been saved by earlier introduction of Septra to the marketplace, the FDA tends to be over-conservative in its regulatory process.
In spite of yesterday's vote, this right to try legislation isn't dead yet. Legislators supporting the measure have made it clear that it will be reintroduced and go through the standard voting process. Of course this delay, coupled with what will be required to get it through the Senate, could prove fatal for many of Americans who could possibly benefit from medical freedom.
President Trump’s planned 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports may provide a temporary boost for those industries, but the tariffs will do tremendous long-term damage to the American and global economies. Tariffs raise the price of, and reduce demand for, imported goods. Tariffs ensure the preferences of politicians, instead of the preferences of consumers, to determine how resources are allocated. This reduces economic efficiency and living standards.
Some justify these economic inefficiencies as being worth it to save American jobs. This ignores how tariffs increase costs of production for industries reliant on imported materials to produce their products. These increased costs lead to job losses in those industries. For example, President Trump’s proposed steel tariff could cost nearly 40,000 jobs in the steel-dependent auto manufacturing industry. Tariffs also cause job losses in industries reliant on exports. This is especially true if — as is likely to be the case — other countries respond to President Trump’s actions by increasing tariffs on US products.
Many of President Trump’s critics do not themselves support true free trade, which is the voluntary exchange of goods and services across borders. Instead, they support the managed (by government) trade of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization (WTO). NAFTA and the WTO promote world government and crony capitalism, not free markets. Any libertarian or free-market conservative who thinks the WTO promotes economic liberty should remember that the WTO once ordered Congress to raise taxes!
Foreign manufacturers may make convenient scapegoats for the problems facing US industry. However, the truth is that most of the problems plaguing American businesses stem from the US government. American businesses are burdened by thousands of federal regulations controlling every aspect of their operations. The tax system also burdens businesses. Until last year’s tax reform bill, the US had the highest corporate tax rates in the developed world. The tax reform bill lowered corporate taxes, but the US corporate tax rate is still higher than that of many other developed countries.
The United States not only spends more on military weapons than the combined budgets of the next eight biggest spending countries, but also spends billions subsidizing the defense of developed counties like Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Bringing US troops home from these countries is an excellent place to start reducing spending on militarism.
The biggest cause of our economic problems is the Federal Reserve. America’s experiment with fiat currency has enabled a system based on private and public debt. This makes trade imbalances inevitable as the US government needs foreign investors to purchase its debt. Foreign investors get the money to purchase the US government’s debt by selling products to American consumers. A trade war could cause foreign investors to stop buying US debt instruments and could end the dollar’s world reserves currency status. This would cause a major economic crisis — but at least it would stop our shores from being flooded with “cheap foreign goods.”
President Trump’s claim that trade wars can be easily won is as credible as the neoconservative claim that the Iraq War would be a cakewalk. A trade war would likely push the global economy into a recession or worse. Instead of imposing costs on American businesses and consumers and putting those whose livelihoods depend on imports out of s job, President Trump should address the real causes of our economic problems: the welfare-warfare state, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve.
Rene Boucher, who attacked Rand Paul at his Kentucky home last year, has pled guilty in Federal court:
At first glance, this appears to be as things should be. Given what information is publicly available, it seems clear that Boucher was the aggressor ,and attacked Paul, although Paul posed no threat to Boucher.
But there's a problem here. The case was tried in federal court even though there is no shortage of state laws that forbid assault and battery. So why is the federal government involved? Well, it should surprise few people that there are two sets of laws in the United States: one for high ranking government officials, and another set of laws for everyone else.
By attacking a very-special member of the American ruling class, Boucher opened himself up to federal charges of "assaulting a member of Congress resulting in personal injury, a felony under federal law."
This situation is relatively new, however.
This law provides for a death penalty for killing a member of Congress, a presidential or vice presidential candidate, or a Supreme Court justice, as well as imprisonment up to life for attempting to kill such a person...
The background of this law is interesting. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, it was not a federal crime to kill a U.S. president. Had alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald been tried, the trial would have taken place in a Texas state court. In 1965, Congress passed a law, 18 U.S.C. 1751, making it a federal crime to kill, kidnap, or assault the President or the Vice President.
In 1968, presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. That was not a federal crime at the time, and Sirhan Sirhan was convicted in California state court for the murder and sentenced to death. (That sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972, when that state abolished the death penalty, and Sirhan remains in a California state prison.) In 1971, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. 351, which extended the protection of the Federal criminal law to members of Congress, paralleling that extended to the President and the Vice President.
One can be sure, of course, that when important federal personnel are victims, federal investigators will bring to bear a large amount of focus and resources. On the other hand, when it's just ordinary school children, as in the case of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, the FBI is much too busy to pay attention.