Archive for entrepreneurship

Trade as Good as Gold—or, How the Hanseatic League Thrived without Debt

Fotothek_df_ps_0005300_Rathäuser_^_Kirchen_^_BasilikenWe’re often told that international trade thrives on debt. In an especially risky line of business, financial intermediation, with its loans and guarantees, is the indispensable infrastructure for the progress of commerce. Perhaps entrepreneurs wouldn’t even consider selling goods to foreigners if it weren’t for banks and credit markets to finance them. Naturally, if and when markets fail in this role, Ex-Im Banks and other government intervention must provide ‘extra liquidity’ for trade.

While this string of non-sequiturs sweeps economists of all stripes, international trade—or better yet, trade in general—is better off not ‘banking on’ such helping hands. Without doubt, loans have their economic role, but retained earnings, equity, or simply cash-hoarding can be just as effective in transferring purchasing power to entrepreneurs. In fact, international trade thrived in times when banking and financial systems were not only in their in their infancy, but also when oceanic trade was dangerous and expensive.  Nonetheless, it began as a self-financed venture, a venture for which merchants themselves set money aside. The Hanseatic League (c. 13th to 17th century)—a commercial association of traders from German towns—is a good example of this type of financial behavior.

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Scientific Progress Needs Entrepreneurial Progress

2593426985_21eb9aa4eb_oIn our age of technological marvels, it’s easy to be in awe of science, and even to believe that science in and of itself is responsible for the high living standards enjoyed in some nations. Likewise, it’s all too easy to see poverty and economic stagnation as stemming from a lack of scientific progress, and conclude that to make the world a better place, all we need are more breakthroughs and inventions.

However, the recent explosion of interest in “science” tends to overlook what is maybe the most important fact about human progress: it doesn’t happen without entrepreneurial progress. In other words, scientific breakthroughs don’t actually increase most people’s welfare until entrepreneurs figure out how to make them do something practical, at prices consumers find reasonable. As Peter Klein points out, such was the case of the internet, which had little value until it was integrated into the market economy.

Given the popularity of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, or of pages like “I f@&%ing love science,” it’s vital to stress the common-sense economics of scientific research. It’s when science enters our lives through the market that it bestows the greatest benefits on humanity. Whether it’s a basic invention or the most advanced physical science, entrepreneurs make the wonders of the scientific world into commonplace conditions of everyday life.

What science needs then is a guiding hand (hint: an invisible one), a means to assess the social worth of new knowledge and inventions. And that’s exactly what the market provides through the indispensable tool of economic calculation. Because their mission is to improve the lives of consumers, entrepreneurs are the standard-bearers of scientific progress, looking constantly to the frontiers of knowledge for new ways to increase human well-being.

England’s Private Road Rakes in the Money

tollsA couple of months ago I wrote about Mike Watts, the businessman who built a private toll road to replace a public road destroyed by a landslide. Because local government couldn’t fix the damaged road for almost a year, drivers were obliged to take an extremely inefficient detour, greatly increasing commute times and other transportation costs. In response, Watts and his wife stepped in and risked their life savings to open a toll road alongside the closed public one.

The big question when it opened was whether Watts would be able to recover his expenses, and so far the answer seems to be, yes. Watts just served his 100,000th customer, earning him £200,000 in the process. His total expenses for the project will be about £250,000, so he’s well on his way to breaking even before the public road is scheduled to reopen some time in December.

Naturally, Watts is having trouble with local government, which hates to look bad when entrepreneurial initiative accomplishes what it can’t, and at a fraction of the cost. He’s had to retroactively apply for a planning permit for the road that has already cost £25,000 in surveyor’s fees and ecological assessments. The local council has even spent an additional £660,000 to speed up repairs to the old road, which will now cost £2.66 million to get running again. This kind of desperation only goes to show how threatening it is for public officials when entrepreneurs provide services usually protected by monopoly.

Entrepreneurship Can Be Hazardous to Your Health


An entrepreneur at work.

The Economist ran a good article last week about the enormous difficulty of being an entrepreneur. In particular, the piece emphasizes the importance of doing away with the mythology of entrepreneurship as a life of romance, adventure, and the heroic pursuit of greatness. In reality, entrepreneurship is grueling and unforgiving, and can destroy not only an entrepreneur’s finances, but her mental and physical health as well.

Now, there’s irony in the fact that the article appears on The Economist’s Schumpeter Blog, given that Schumpeter himself helped popularize the romantic view of entrepreneurship. But the article rightly points out that thinking about entrepreneurship in idealistic terms glosses over the harsh truth:

It is fashionable to romanticise entrepreneurs. Business professors celebrate the geniuses who break the rules and change the world. Politicians praise them as wealth creators. Glossy magazines drool over Richard Branson’s villa on Lake Como. But the reality can be as romantic as chewing glass: first-time founders have the job security of zero-hour contract workers, the money worries of chronic gamblers and the social life of hermits.

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Hoppe on Entrepreneurs and Thornton on the Drug War in The Free Market

augfm The August Issue of The Free Market Is Now Online!

Hans-Hermann Hoppe is back with a new lecture on the social virtues of the entrepreneur this month:

What can be unambiguously stated about a capitalist’s profit or loss is this: his profit or loss is the quantitative expression of the size of his contribution to the well-being of his fellow men, i.e., the buyers and consumers of his product, who have surrendered their money in exchange for his more highly valued (by the buyers) product. The capitalist’s profit indicates that he has successfully transformed socially less highly valued and appraised means of action into socially more highly valued and appraised ones, and thus increased and enhanced social welfare.

We also interview Mark Thornton about his recent debate at Oxford University:

Mises Institute: Why were you invited to debate at Oxford?

Mark Thornton: The Oxford Union can pretty much get whoever they want to debate, including presidents, prime ministers, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and even Julian Assange, so I was honored that they invited me. I met several students in the Oxford Union and at Oxford University who were familiar with my work on the drug war and at the Mises Institute. Each side of the debate generally consists of a student presenter and three experts. The debate is similar in structure to the House of Commons and has been that way since 1823.

We recounted the highlights of the Summer Fellows program and the Rothbard Graduate Seminar here in Auburn. Be sure to also find the latest updates on new translations, and new publications, degrees, and media appearances from our scholars and alumni.

Guess Who Built the Roads?’s a great story in the news this week about Mike Watts, a British entrepreneur who’s found a creative solution to one of economics’ most clichéd questions: “Who will build the roads?” Ever since a landslide in February, a section of the A431 roadway between Bath and Bristol has been closed to traffic. The closure has been making life very difficult for commuters—who face dramatically increased fuel costs, driving times, and pollution—and it will take until Christmas before local government will be able to repair the road.

Seeing the trouble caused by the closure, Watts stepped in to solve the problem by building his own toll road to provide a cheaper and more direct route for motorists. The Telegraph reports that “The route, which opened on Friday, is believed to be the first privately-run toll road built in more than 100 years.”

Watts and his wife have been truly entrepreneurial in their venture, which cost £150,000 to build and will require another £150,000 to maintain over the next five months (compared to an estimated £1.5 million to repair the damaged road). But they’re confident they’ve made the right decision both for themselves and local drivers. Unlike the “patrons” of public roads, Watts’ customers know up front how much they have to pay and what to expect for their money. He’s charging £2 per vehicle, and already has 1,250 customers daily. Shockingly, his road is somehow serviceable and drivers are using it even though it hasn’t received approval from local safety inspectors.

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The Right Way to View Entrepreneurship

6814Mises Daily Weekend by Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss:

Much of the existing research on entrepreneurship focuses only on start-ups and small business. But entrepreneurship is a much broader topic and entrepreneurs appear everywhere as drivers of greater wealth and economic growth. Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss discuss new ways to study this phenomenon.

IKEA’s “Minimum Wage”

200px-Ikea_logo.svgIKEA has announced it will be raising the “minimum wage” of its US employees to $10.76 per hour, an increase of about 17% from the current minimum. The news comes in the midst of another “national discussion” (often code for anti-economic hysteria) about minimum wage “reform” (always code for an increase).

Economic criticisms of the public minimum wage are readily available, but IKEA’s decision is different. It does have some interesting economic implications, but there are a lot of other issues in this story worth discussing, not the least of which is the language used to report it. That is, I have to wonder why people use the term “minimum wage” to refer to the internal policy of a private firm. Maybe it’s just a convenience of language, but regardless of its true cause, this usage gives a rhetorical advantage to proponents of government-mandated minimum wages.

That is, using “minimum wage” to describe both entrepreneurs’ decisions and government regulation obscures the distinction between them, i.e. that one is chosen by employers and the other forced on them under penalty of law (often through the influence of larger competitors). Using the same term opens the door to falsely conflating policies, making it seem like private and political decision making are the same or similar. If private firms declare their own minimum wages, a government minimum wage loses its distinctiveness, and seems like just another benign entry on a long list of possible wage policies. It’s all too easy—as news outlets reporting this story demonstrate—to compare IKEA’s minimum wage to the federal minimum wage, as if each is just a different but harmless way to improve people’s welfare.

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Do Video Games Teach Economics?

GalagaMany teachers know that encouraging interest in the dismal science can be difficult because students often find economics abstract and, well, dismal. It’s basically a truism then that if economists want to engage students, we should use interesting and relatable examples. And more often than not, this means mining pop culture for teaching moments from music, TV, and film. Along these lines, I suggest economists begin to look to video games for inspiration as well.

In the last few years, there has been an explosion of interest in the economics of the video game industry, and especially in the digital economies that emerge within games. Whether we look at social interaction and trade, or money and inflation, it’s obvious that as games become more complex, they increasingly illustrate the principles of economics. The most common examples come from Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) titles like World of Warcraft and EVE Online, but I think games incorporate economic ideas in more fundamental ways as well.

I’ve discussed in a recent article how games imply economic behavior, and how making decisions within a game highlights the fundamentals of human action. The basic idea is that virtual worlds, like the real world, present us with a series of choices. Games impose digital scarcity, obliging players to weigh the benefits of different courses of action, make tradeoffs, and incur costs.

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“But Who Will Build the Roads?”

solar-roadway-bike-pathAs always, the market comes to the rescue through innovative entrepreneurship. And in this case, not only do these entrepreneurs promise to build roads – they will use the roads to generate electricity for sale on the market. So they solve two problems at once. Nay, three – the roads use part of the generated power to keep snow and ice off the surface, thereby making them safe even in cold weather. Wait, four – the roads can display lights to warn drivers of danger ahead such as wild animals.

The venture, called Solar Roadwaysis fully crowd-funded (closing in on double what they requested) but is looking to ”improve” existing government roads (which shouldn’t be all that hard) rather than lay their own. Too bad government doesn’t allow competition.

Video: Peter Klein Explains How Entrepreneurs Help Shape Our Economy

In this excerpt from his recent “Liberty on the Rocks” interview with Justin Longo, Peter Klein explains the importance of entrepreneurship.

Lean Startups and Capital Ownership

6719452305_78383ce4e3_zIn 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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Extended Version of Peter Klein’s Interview on Entrepreneurship

eTalks1[After reading Peter Klein's interview in Mises Daily today, you're probably thinking to yourself: "I would love to read more on this, and I want to do it right now." So, here is the full 3,000-word original version of the interview, thanks to eTalks. -ed]

Editor’s Note: Peter G. Klein, is Executive Director and Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and Associate Professor in the Division of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Missouri. At Missouri he also directs the McQuinn Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and he holds adjunct faculty positions with the Truman School of Public Affairs and the Norwegian School of Economics. His research focuses on the economics of organization, entrepreneurship, and corporate strategy, with applications to diversification, innovation, food and agriculture, economic growth, and vertical coordination. Klein has authored or edited five books and has published over 70 academic articles, chapters, and reviews.

He taught previously at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Georgia, and the Copenhagen Business School, and served as a Senior Economist with the Council of Economic Advisers. He is also a former Associate Editor of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. He lectures regularly at the Mises University and other Mises Institute events.

Klein received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He co-founded the popular management blog Organizations and Markets.

To learn more about him, check out this this this this and this.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Peter Klein recently to gain insights about entrepreneurship, economics and education which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Peter, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Peter: It’s my pleasure to participate!

Niaz: You are the prominent researcher, speaker, author, analyst and think tank in the field of entrepreneurship, innovation, economics, and education. At the very beginning of our interview can you please tell us about Entrepreneurship? What is entrepreneurship to you? What are the different contexts of entrepreneurship?

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Entrepreneurship: The Driving Force of the Economy

6717Peter Klein writes in today’s Mises Daily:

Unfortunately, most people see economics as a dry, technical subject that involves poring over charts and graphs and writing equations to describe the “equilibrium” behavior of hypothetical actors. But economics is a logical, deductive, human science about real people acting in the real world, with all the dynamism, unpredictability, and creativity that entails. Markets aren’t static, lifeless mathematical constructs but lively, vigorous spaces where people interact and coordinate. Firms, markets, and industries don’t just come into existence by themselves, they have to be created and operated by real people with real responsibility. These people are entrepreneurs, what Mises called the “driving force” of the market economy. That’s one reason I’m attracted to the “Austrian” approach to economics, which has always placed the entrepreneur at the front and center of production and exchange — not an incidental actor who steps in to introduce novelty then fades into the background as the “normal” market process resumes. Entrepreneurship, as decisive action under uncertain conditions, is at the very heart of a market economy.

Video: The Present State of Entrepreneurship Research

The Murray N. Rothbard Memorial Lecture, sponsored by Hélio Beltrão. Recorded at the 2014 Austrian Economics Research Conference in Auburn, Alabama, on 21 March 2014.

Audio: Peter Klein Examines ‘The Present State of Entrepreneurship Research’

MP3 Audio.

“The Present State of Entrepreneurship Research” by Peter G. Klein. The Murray N. Rothbard Memorial Lecture, sponsored by Hélio Beltrão. Recorded at the 2014 Austrian Economics Research Conference in Auburn, Alabama, on 21 March 2014.

Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship in March’s ‘The Free Market’

marfmThe March issue of The Free Market is now online featuring David Gordon’s new review of Butler Shaffer’s A Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property:

Butler Shaffer’s superb new monograph offers an easy way to unravel the IP puzzles. He starts from a fundamental prin­ciple basic to libertarianism and explains how the implications of this principle shed light on IP issues.

What is this principle? It is that rights stem from “the informal processes by which men and women accord to each other a respect for the inviolability of their lives”… In adopting this stance, Shaffer puts himself at odds with much that passes in our day for wisdom among professors of law.

And Peter Klein discusses how the entrepreneur is at the center of what drives economic growth:

Markets aren’t static, lifeless mathematical constructs but lively, vigorous spaces where people interact and coordinate. Firms, markets, and industries don’t just come into existence by themselves, they have to be created and operated by real people with real responsibility. These people are entrepreneurs, what Mises called the “driving force” of the market economy.

Also in this month’s issue is a wide variety of scholar and alumni notes, and news from the Mises Institute including Gary North’s donation of his 10,000 books, and more.


Entrepreneurship without Romance

3279740532_d4105eb4fa_oJames Buchanan’s work on the economics of public choice has been called “politics without romance,” because it looks beneath the glossy exterior of government and reveals the underlying reality of political behavior. Unfortunately, the “romantic” view of politics is shared by supporters of all types of political power, who seem to don rose-colored hazmat suits in order to promote their particular candidates, parties, or ideologies. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, from the perspective of economics, politics looks less like romance and more like an abusive marriage.

Entrepreneurship also attracts a kind of mistaken romanticism, although in a different way than politics. A couple of weeks ago, Isaac Morehouse wrote an insightful post on the Praxis blog warning that we should take care to avoid glamorizing creativity too much. His point is that creative success, especially in entrepreneurship, can derive from relatively straightforward decision making. Creativity is often simply an attempt to solve a problem while avoiding harm to oneself, as opposed to the flashy, dramatic, and heroic struggle against the odds we sometimes imagine it to be.

In other words, we often place undue emphasis on the personal magnetism and economic “heroism” of entrepreneurs. Yet despite being the “driving force of the market,” entrepreneurship is often quite mundane. Taking a romantic view can be misleading if we end up thinking in terms of only the most dramatic cases of disruptive innovation or personal entrepreneurial charisma (or lack thereof!), and less on the pervasive and vital role of entrepreneurial calculation and judgment.

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Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Entrepreneurial Alertness

downloadFor fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres, Stephen R. Donaldson probably needs no introduction. For those not so familiar, Donaldson has penned numerous novels and short stories, many to critical acclaim, and is the author of the recently-concluded Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, widely regarded as one of the best fantasy series of the last forty years.

I’m currently reading Donaldson’s novel The Real Story, which is the first of five volumes in his sci-fi epic The Gap Cycle. In an afterword to the book, Donaldson explains in great detail how the idea for The Gap Cycle was conceived and, through various twists and turns, eventually completed. What strikes me most is the way Donaldson describes the writer’s creative process:

Most writers hate the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

This is because the answer tends to be at once ineffably mysterious and excruciatingly mundane. We are all in love with the magic of the imagination—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive as creative artists—but none of us can explain how it works. In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers. They happen to us. If we don’t submit to their power, we lose them; so by trying to control or censor them we can make the negative choice of encouraging them to leave us alone. But we can never force ourselves to be truly creative. The best we can do is to teach ourselves receptiveness—and trust that ideas will come…

For some reason, a fair number of my best stories arise, not from one idea, but from two. In these cases, one idea comes first; it excites me enough to stay with me; yet despite its apparent (to me) potential, it stubbornly refuses to grow. Rather than expanding to take on character, event, and context, it simply sits in my head—often for many years—saying over and over again, “Look at me, you idiot.” If you just looked at me, you would know what to do with me. Well, I do look; but I can’t see what I need—until the first idea is intersected by the second.

What I find intriguing about this passage is that in describing his inspirations, Donaldson seems to capture the essence of Israel Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship as alertness to opportunities. The key feature of Kirzner’s theory is that opportunities tend to be discovered spontaneously by entrepreneurs who are not actively looking for them. Instead, the lure of a pure profit opportunity creates a special incentive for entrepreneurs that causes them to notice the opportunity. I read Donaldson as taking very much the same approach; he even goes so far as to say that when he actively looks at ideas (searching for meaning) they end up revealing nothing. For him then, artistic creativity is also spontaneous.
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Conflicting Views of the Entrepreneur in Turn-of-the-Century Vienna

A recent publication in the History of Economics Review by Matt McCaffrey:

McCaffrey, Matthew
History of Economics Review;
Summer 2013; 58; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 27