Tag: capitalism

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 [dot] 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.

Free or Equal on PBS

In 1980 Milton Friedman made a splash with his 10-part PBS documentary, Free to Choose, which also became a bestselling book. Thirty years later Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg travels in Friedman’s footsteps to see what has actually happened in those places Friedman’s ideas helped transform. From Stockholm to Estonia to India, from New York to Hong Kong to Chile and Washington, D.C., Norberg examines the contemporary relevance of Friedman’s ideas in the 2011 world of globalization and financial crisis. The result is a one-hour documentary, Free or Equal: A Personal View, which is now running on PBS stations across the country.

Visit the Free to Choose Network page to find out more about the documentary. Click on “Carriage Grid” to find showings in your area. Note that it’s arranged by size of media market, so New York is first, then Los Angeles, and so on down through 210 media markets. It’s searchable.

I missed the first Washington showing on Sunday, so check it out today. But note that showings will run into mid-September, so your friends will have many chances to catch the show.

And for a book by Norberg on related issues, check out In Defense of Global Capitalism.

Pro-Choice Activists Become Skeptics of Regulation

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Barton Hinkle notes that the Virginia General Assembly has just passed “tough new regulations on abortion clinics.” And

Suddenly, outraged liberals are sounding remarkably like libertarian advocates of laissez-faire capitalism and the industries they defend.

For instance, abortion-rights supporters already are warning that the heavy hand of government will impose requirements so absurd and so economically burdensome that they will force clinics to close their doors. “What they’ll do is put a burden of extra cost that is not backed up by sound science,” said one abortion provider who spoke on condition of … whoops! Actually, those were the words of Alva Carter Jr., chairman of a New Mexico dairy industry group, who was protesting new groundwater pollution regulations last April.

“The scale of the … current assault is unprecedented,” complained Planned Parenthood spokes — no, that was The Wall Street Journal, raging last November against the EPA. The paper said the agency “has turned a regulatory firehose on U.S. business and the power industry in particular.”

“The massive red tape … threatens to strangle … the industry,” complained — well, that was Investor’s Business Daily, writing about the Dodd-Frank financial bill last year. The paper cited a report by the American Bankers Association warning that “the coming ‘tsunami of regulations’ could wipe out hundreds of smaller banks.” Substitute “abortion clinics” for “smaller banks,” and you have the Virginia debate in a nutshell. (And yes, let’s stipulate right here that many so-called conservatives believe in limited government everywhere except the uterus.)

“They could require things that are completely unnecessary.” That actually was a quote from an abortion-rights supporter: Shelley Abrams, the director of A Capital Women’s Clinic in Richmond.

And she is entirely right. Sometimes government does require things that are not strictly necessary. And those requirements impose a heavy financial burden. This is hardly a revelation. Small-government advocates have been saying it for many years. Yelling it, actually, at the top of their lungs. To little avail.

Example: Supporters of abortion rights now worry that even existing clinics might have to obtain a Certificate of Public Need from the state. To which one might reply: Why should they be different? For years, certain voices in Virginia have been suggesting that the COPN process — essentially, a government permission slip for health-care providers — creates an unnecessary market entry barrier. They have argued that government has no business deciding whether a particular community needs a particular health-care facility.

He goes on to note that

when free-marketeers and industry groups gripe about the burden of governmental regulation, they often get truth-squadded by deeply skeptical liberals. On Monday, the AP’s “Spin Meter” gave the gimlet eye to predictions that the Obama administration’s new smog regulations could destroy more than 7 million jobs. The news service pointed out that the researcher who came up with the number was “industry-sponsored.” (Boo.) It lamented the “imprecise economic models” used. (Hiss.) And it pointed out that “those opposed to government regulations rarely mention the potential benefits to society.” Amen, brother.

Hinkle hopes that people concerned about the burden that regulation imposes on abortion clinics will eventually come to recognize that regulation also imposes costs and burdens on every other business.

Jerry Taylor and I have both noted in the past the differing media treatment of abortion and other science and health issues. Looking at two NPR stories on the same day, I praised one on the dangers of abortion pills:

It was a good example of careful, cautious reporting. But why are journalists seemingly much more cautious in reporting medical risks involving abortion than in reporting other kinds of risks? There are plenty of critics of the “junk science” involved in the Vioxx stories; why aren’t they interviewed in Vioxx stories? The numbers were small in the Vioxx study, as in the case of the abortion drugs, but that fact was dismissed in one report and emphasized in the other.

Cato’s Jerry Taylor noticed something similar in a Wall Street Journal column 11 years ago (January 3, 1995; not online). He noted that the Journal of the National Cancer Institute

caused quite a stir by publishing an epidemiological study suggesting that women who have abortions are 50% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not….”Not so fast,” countered epidemiologists; a 1.5 risk ratio (as epidemiologists put it) “is not strong enough to call induced abortion a risk factor for breast cancer.”

Taylor agreed that a 1.5 risk ratio is below the appropriate level of concern. But he wondered why “the same risk ratio that was so widely pooh-poohed by scientists as insignificant and inconclusive when it comes to abortion was deemed by the very same scientists an intolerable health menace when it comes to secondhand smoke. Actually, that’s not quite true. The 1.3 risk factor for a single abortion was significantly greater than the really hard to detect 1.19 risk ratio for intensive, 40-year, day-in-day-out pack-a-day exposure to secondhand smoke (as figured by the EPA).”

How Capitalism Saved the Pilgrims

When I was growing up, my father would occasionally tell me the story around this time of year of how private property rights saved the Pilgrims from starvation.

When the Pilgrims first arrived in 1620, as my father told the story, they tried to live communally according to the spirit of the Mayflower Compact. What crops they grew were put in a common storehouse and then apportioned according to each family’s need. The small colony struggled to survive for two or three years until its leaders declared that every family henceforth would be responsible for growing its own food. The new system proved much superior at putting food on the table.

Years later, when I was writing editorials for the Colorado Springs Gazette, I would tell the story in print on Thanksgiving Day, this time quoting from Governor William Bradford’s first-hand account. One of my fellow editors objected to my version, claiming it was Squanto the friendly Indian who saved the Pilgrims by teaching them how to fertilize their crops with dead fish. We agreed to disagree and I stuck to my version.

Earlier this year, as I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Penguin Books, 2007, paperback edition), I came across a passage that weighs in decisively on our editorial dispute. It appears my father did know best after all.

From page 165 of Mayflower:

The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally–the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.

In April, Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.

Among the many things I’m thankful for this week is that I live in a country that was founded on the solid rock of property rights and free markets.

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First World War Ends

On September 26, 2010 – 92 years after the WWI officially ended – Germany made her last payment of $94 million in reparations “to private individuals, pension funds and corporations holding debenture bonds as agreed under the Treaty of Versailles.” As Keynes rightly predicted, the unreasonably high French demands for financial reparations led to German economic weakness. The end result was hyperinflation, which was one of the principal causes of Hitler’s rise to power and the start of the Second World War. In spite of losing two world wars, Germany did eventually become the most powerful nation in Europe – through trade, capitalism and German ingenuity.

Cuban Government Will Choke the Nascent Private Sector

Following the announcement of massive layoffs in the public sector, the Cuban government published today new guidelines that will allow private employment in 178 economic activities. Among the newly authorized private occupations are masseurs, clowns, shoemakers, locksmiths, and gardeners.

However, these new entrepreneurs will face a few hurdles before enjoying the benefits of their own work. Not only must they get a government license in order to operate (according to official sources the number of permits will be capped at 250,000), but they will also have to pay high taxes. A leaked document from the Communist Party says that small businesses will pay between 10 to 40 percent of their gross income in taxes. On top of that, they will have to contribute 25 percent of their incomes to social security.

Don’t expect a thriving private sector in Cuba any time soon.