Tag: capitalism

The Great Fact of Economic Growth, in Three Glimpses

In Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, economic historian Deirdre McCloskey writes about the “Great Fact” – the enormous and unprecedented growth in living standards that began in the western world around 1700. She calls it “a factor of sixteen”: we moderns consume at least 16 times the food, clothing, housing, and education that our ancestors did in London in the 18th century. Two new books help us to understand what that means.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviews Flyover Lives, a family memoir by Diane Johnson. She found diaries from some of her Midwestern ancestors, and Yardley notes what they tell us:

It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses — mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere — slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: “Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.” Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: “When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.”

This isn’t so long ago. Catharine Martin was the great-great-grandmother of Diane Johnson. Go back another century, and read about 18th-century life in another new book, Three Squares by Abigail Carroll:

Invited to dine with a ferryman and his family, [a 1744 traveler from Maryland to Maine] declined. He described the meal: “They had no cloth upon the table, and their mess was in a dirty, deep, wooden dish which they evacuated with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, and all. They used neither knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin because, I suppose, they had none to use.”

By the standards of the age, the ferryman’s repast was ordered: “Only about a third of the families in seventeenth-century Virginia had chairs or benches, and only one in seven had both,” writes Ms. Carroll. Only about a quarter of the early Virginian houses had tables.

And finally, I note an older book on my own Scottish ancestors, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn:

The squalor and meanness of [lowland Scottish] life around 1600 [or 1700] can hardly be conceived by a person of the twentieth century. A cluster of hovels housed the tenants and their helpers….A home was likely to be little more than a shanty, constructed of stones, banked with turf, without mortar, and with straw, heather, or moss stuffed in the holes to keep out the blasts….The fire, usually in the middle of the house floor, often filled the whole hut with malodorous clouds, since the smoke-clotted roof gradually stopped the vent-hole. Cattle were tethered at night at one end of the room, while the family lay at the other end on heather piled upon the floor….Vermin abounded…skin diseases…Infectious diseases were propagated readily.

According to scholars such as Angus Maddison and Brad DeLong, GDP per capita hardly rose for thousands, or tens of thousands, of years before the emergence of capitalism. And then after 100,000 years of stagnation (by DeLong’s estimates), around 1750 capitalism and growth began, first in Northern Europe and the American seaboard, and spreading ever since to more parts of the world. That is, the existence of relatively free markets is the reason we don’t live like my Scottish ancestors. This is indeed the Great Fact of the modern world. We should celebrate it, even as we work to extend the benefits of markets to people and nations who don’t yet enjoy as much capitalism as they should.  

Immigration Does Not Decrease Economic Freedom

A common criticism of immigration reform (here, here, and here) is that it will decrease economic freedom in the United States, by increasing the voting pool for the Democratic Party.  Leaving aside the issue of which party supports economic liberty, if any, it’s important to see what the actual impacts of immigration are on economic freedom in the United States and the world.  The political effects of immigrants after they arrive are less certain than the economic benefits.  Do immigrants decrease economic freedom in their new countries?  The bottom line: fears of immigrants decreasing economic freedom seem unfounded.

Since 1980, wealthy countries have seen rises in immigrant populations.  Immigrants are drawn to economic prosperity, higher wages, and better standards of living so it’s not surprising that wealthier countries have higher percentages of immigrants.  I excluded numerous small countries and petro-states like the UAE and Kuwait from the analysis.

I looked at the 25 wealthiest nations in the world in 1980 (by per capita GDP PPP) and considered their economic freedom rating and the percent foreign born.  I then tracked those same countries every 5 years until 2010.  Here are the averages for all 25 nations:

Who’s Afraid of School Profits?

Should there be a separation of school and profit? Many opponents of education reform seem to think so.

Case in point, a blog post at the Washington Post yesterday decried “outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.” Setting aside that the vast majority of private schools are nonprofit, the author apparently misses the fact that parents choose to send their kids to these schools. (Does it make sense to complain that other businesses are profiting “on the backs” of their paying customers?) In order to persuade parents to switch to private schools, they must offer parents something that the free-to-attend government schools do not. Even when a school choice program covers the full cost of private school tuition, the parents would merely be financially indifferent. To motivate parents to choose something other than the default government school option, private schools still must offer something better.

Moreover, it is absurd to think that profit—in the sense of financial gain—is limited only to the for-profit sector. Do teachers, principals, and other school staff from janitors to bus drivers “profit” from their salaries or wages? What of the profits made by the corporations that publish the textbooks that students read? Or construct school buildings? Or manufacture desks, whiteboards, pens, pencils, and playgrounds? Whether government- or privately-run, nearly every adult involved in the formal education process is earning a “profit” short of the parents who volunteer to chaperone the high school dance.

Those who denounce “profits” in education simply don’t understand the role of profits in a market. Perhaps they are confused because in the government-run education system with which they are familiar, there is little connection between financial gain and meeting the needs of students. In a competitive market, by contrast, profits (and, just as importantly, losses) provide valuable information. As explained in Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast’s excellent book, Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary):

In a capitalist economy, profits are the reward earned by firms that maximize the quality of services and goods, minimize overhead and bureaucracy, motivate their workers to achieve high and consistent levels of productivity, and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Successful firms sell better, cheaper, or better and cheaper products and services than do other firms. Customers notice, and business gradually shifts from inefficient to efficient firms. […]

Low-performing government schools don’t gradually lose customers and face the threat of closure, the way an inefficiently run business does. As a result, there is little urgency for reform. Their assets do not move from the control of those who have misused them into the hands of others who could do a better job. (Pages 98-9)

In our existing education system, only the financially well-off can afford to live in the expensive districts with high-performing government schools or to pay for private schooling. Without school choice programs, low-income families are locked out of these markets. Instead, their only option is the local, assigned, government school. If I blogged for WaPo, I might say that these underperforming schools are built on “the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

The Rising Cost of Labor — a Triumph for Capitalism

Articles on page A7 and A8 of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, about rising wages in China and France, confirm something that I learned from Julian Simon. As the Journal reported:

The 14% wage rise for private-sector workers in 2012, reported by China’s National Bureau of Statistics on Friday, represented an acceleration from 12.3% in 2011.


With high labor costs eating into his bottom line, Mr. Madec uses frozen ingredients—and even complete main courses—for the dishes served at Les Templiers…. a steady increase in labor costs and food prices has fueled an unexpected phenomenon: Many restaurants can no longer afford to prepare meals from fresh ingredients in their own kitchens.

And what’s the lesson I learned from Julian Simon? As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer,

Over the long run, in real terms, the only price that consistently seems to rise is the price of human labor.  Looking back a hundred years or so, we see that prices of goods–from wheat to oil to computers–have fallen, while the real wage rate has quintupled in 50 years.  The only thing getting more scarce in economic terms, that is, relative to all other factors, is people.


Obama’s Stark Vision of the World

Charles Krauthammer zeroes in on the stark worldview expressed in President Obama’s inaugural address:

Obama is the apostle of the ever-expanding state. His speech was an ode to the collectivity. But by that he means only government, not the myriad of voluntary associations — religious, cultural, charitable, artistic, advocacy, ad infinitum — that are the glory of the American system.

For Obama, nothing lies between citizen and state. It is a desert, within which the isolated citizen finds protection only in the shadow of Leviathan. Put another way, this speech is the perfect homily for the marriage of Julia — the Obama campaign’s atomized citizen, coddled from cradle to grave — and the state.

“Nothing lies between citizen and state.” Exactly. That’s why Obama can say things like

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future. Or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

Well, of course not. No one thinks a single person could. It takes many people, working together. But even Krauthammer misses the point that it takes businesses, coordinated by prices and markets. Krauthammer correctly chides Obama for thinking that collective action means only the state and not voluntary associations. But most of our needs are met, most of our progress is generated, by neither the state nor charities.

We are fed, clothed, sheltered, informed, and entertained by individuals, working together with other individuals, mostly in corporations, with their activities coordinated by the market process. As I’ve said before, libertarians “consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.”

What kind of a bleak worldview is it that can look at the bounty provided by business enterprises and charitable associations and see a barren wasteland enlightened only by the activities of the federal government? President Obama’s worldview, apparently. And Hillary Clinton’s.

My further thoughts on Obama’s collectivist speech in this 10-minute audio podcast.

The Miracle that Is the iPhone (or How Capitalism Can Be Good for the Environment)

Last week I asked a friend of mine if he could recommend a good white noise machine. “Why don’t you,” he responded, “download an iPhone app instead?” I did and the app works just fine. That got me thinking: what other gadgets do I no longer have or could do without thanks to my iPhone? I put together a short list and asked Lauren Kessler from Cato’s art department to create the lovely graphic below. Of course, “dematerialization,” or using less material and energy to produce more goods, is not new. As Ron Bailey writes in Reason,

Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, show that the world economy is increasingly using less to produce more. They call this process “dematerialization.” By dematerialization, they mean declining consumption of energy or goods per unit of GDP. In a 2008 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ausubel and Waggoner, using data from 1980 to 2005, show that the world is on a dematerialization binge, wringing ever more value from less material.

No, I am not claiming that because of the iPhone all the gadgets that I have listed below will totally “disappear.” People will still prefer to have their weddings shot by a professional photographer using sophisticated camera equipment. Many people, however, will never need to buy a camera or video camera (especially as the iPhone and similar products become better at taking pictures and videos) and that will save resources.

Dematerialization, in other words, should be welcome news for those who worry about the ostensible conflict between the growing world population on the one hand and availability of natural resources on the other hand. While opinions regarding scarcity of resources in the future differ, dematerialization will better enable our species to go on enjoying material comforts and be good stewards of our planet at the same time. That is particularly important with regard to the people in developing countries, who ought to have a chance to experience material plenty in an age of rising environmental concerns.

Maybe I am too much of an optimist, but dematerialization could also lead to a greater appreciation of capitalism. Namely, the “profit motive” can be good for the environment. No, I am not talking about dumping toxic chemicals into our rivers, which is illegal and should be prosecuted. Rather, I am talking about the natural propensity of firms to minimize inputs and maximize outputs. Take the humble soda can. According to the Aluminum Association, “In 1972… a pound of aluminum yielded 21.75 cans. Today, as a result of can-makers’ use of less metal per unit, one pound of aluminum can produce 33 cans.”

PS: If there are other gadgets that you no longer find essential thanks to your iPhone, let me know and we will expand our graphic accordingly: mtupy [at] cato.org

In the Lake Wobegon Fantasy World, All Investments Make Money

I sometimes wonder whether journalists have the slightest idea of how capitalism works.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen breathless reporting on the $2 billion loss at JP Morgan Chase, and now there’s a big kerfuffle about the falling value of Facebook stock.

In response to these supposed scandals, there are all sorts of articles being written (see here, here, here, and here, for just a few examples) about the need for more regulation to protect the economy.

Underlying these stories seems to be a Lake Wobegon view of financial markets. But instead of Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town where “all children are above average,” we have a fantasy economy where “all investments make money.”

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble or shatter any childhood illusions, but losses are an inherent part of the free market movement. As the saying goes, “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.”

Moreover, losses (just like gains) play an important role in that they signal to investors and entrepreneurs that resources should be reallocated in ways that are more productive for the economy.

Legend tells us that King Canute commanded the tides not to advance and learned there are limits to the power of a king when his orders had no effect.

Sadly, modern journalists, regulators, and politicians lack the same wisdom and think that government somehow can prevent losses.

But perhaps that’s unfair. They probably understand that losses sometimes happen, but they want to provide bailouts so that nobody ever learns a lesson about what happens when you touch a hot stove.

Government-subsidized risk, though, is just as foolish as government-subsidized success.