Tag: capitalism

China’s Dilemma

In the Wall Street Journal, Ian Buruma puts Google’s conflict with China in its historical context: the long struggle by China’s leaders to have the benefits of knowledge and trade from around the world without loosening their own hold on the Chinese people:

One way of dealing with this problem was to separate “practical knowledge” from “essential” culture, or ti-yong in Chinese. Western technology was fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with Chinese morals and politics. In practice, however, this was not feasible. Political ideas came to China, along with science, economics, and Western religion. And they did help to undermine the old established order. One of these ideas was Marxism, but once Mao had unified China under his totalitarian regime, he managed for several decades to insulate the Chinese from notions that might undermine his power.

Once China opened up to the world for business again in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the old problem of information control emerged once again. Deng and his technocrats wanted to have the benefit of modern economic and technological ideas, but, like the 19th century mandarins, they wished to ban thoughts which Deng called “spiritual pollution.” The kind of pollution he had in mind was partly cultural (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), but mainly political (human rights and democracy).

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship – without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.”

As I wrote on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China is launched on a long process of economic growth and openness to the world, which is inevitably leading to political unrest and challenges to established authority. I believe that the changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world – more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. In the long run, I think that the attractions of growth and openness will overwhelm the rulers’ attempt to maintain their hold on power. But that process is rarely entirely peaceful, and we can expect conflicts of all kinds as this struggle proceeds.

Global Markets Keep U.S. Economy Afloat

Three items in the news this week remind us why we should be glad we live in a more global economy. While American consumers remain cautious, American companies and workers are finding increasing opportunities in markets abroad:

  • Sales of General Motors vehicles continue to slump in the United States, but they are surging in China. The company announced this week that sales in China of GM-branded cars and trucks were up 67 percent in 2009, to 1.8 million vehicles. If current trends continue, within a year or two GM will be selling more vehicles in China than in the United States.
  • James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacular “Avatar” just surpassed $1 billion in global box-office sales. Two-thirds of its revenue has come from abroad, with France, Germany, and Russia the leading markets. This has been a growing pattern for U.S. films. Hollywood—which loves to skewer business and capitalism—is thriving in a global market.
  • Since 2003, the middle class in Brazil has grown by 32 million. As the Washington Post reports, “Once hobbled with high inflation and perennially susceptible to worldwide crises, Brazil now has a vibrant consumer market …” Brazil’s overall economy is bigger than either India or Russia, and its per-capita GDP is nearly double that of China.

As I note in my Cato book Mad about Trade, American companies and workers will find their best opportunities in the future by selling to the emerging global middle class in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere. Without access to more robust markets abroad, the Great Recession of 2008-09 would have been more like the Great Depression.

Wednesday Links

  • Alan Reynolds: Hey, leave Lieberman alone. “Human interest stories are sure to get readers’ sympathy. But emotion is no substitute for common sense.”
  • The money behind climate science.

Rhodes Scholars and the Business World

On the weekend that next year’s Rhodes Scholars are announced, Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust and executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, writes in the Washington Post that he is greatly disappointed that a few Rhodes Scholars have gone into business.

Yes, you read that right. He’s disappointed that even a few Rhodes Scholars have chosen to go into business:

For more than a century Rhodes scholars have left Oxford with virtually any job available to them. For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service. They have reached the highest levels in virtually all fields.

In the 1980s, however, the pattern of career choices began to change. Until then, even though business ambitions and management degrees have not been disfavored in our competition, business careers attracted relatively few Rhodes scholars. No one suggested this was an unfit domain; it was simply the rare scholar who went to Wall Street, finance and general business management. Only three American Rhodes scholars in the 1970s (out of 320) went directly into business from Oxford; by the late 1980s the number grew to that many in a year. Recently, more than twice as many went into business in just one year than did in the entire 1970s.

Apparently Gerson believes that our best and brightest can accomplish more good for the world in such fields as writing, law, and bureaucracy than they can by creating, innovating, and improving lives in the world of business – the arena that not only provides all of us with more comfortable, more interesting lives, and has lifted billions of people out of the back-breaking labor and short lives that were the human condition for millennia, but also makes possible the luxuries of the Aspen Institute, which was founded by Walter Paepcke (1896-1960), chairman of the Container Corporation of America, and is supported by successful businesspeople and their heirs today.

Of course, it’s not clear that business needs Rhodes Scholars. Think of the businesspeople who have revolutionized our world in recent decades: Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison, David Geffen, Ted Turner, and Malcom McLean, among others, either never attended or never finished college. Sam Walton, Bill McGowan, and Fred Smith did finish college but weren’t Rhodes Scholars. In the Washington Post Jay Mathews notes that the chief executives of the top 10 U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies attended Pittsburg (Kan.) State, Texas at Austin, University College Dublin, Texas Tech, Texas at Austin, Dartmouth, Kansas, Gannon, Georgia State and Central Oklahoma, not the usual sources of Rhodes Scholars.

But the elite hostility to business – a holdover from Europe, perhaps, where aristocrats looked down on “trade,” or an unconscious echo of Marxism – is unseemly and harmful to both general prosperity and the individuals who are influenced by it to avoid productive enterprise. It crops up in President Obama’s commencement addresses sneering at students who want to “take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy” and in Michelle Obama’s urging hard-pressed women in Ohio, “Don’t go into corporate America.” It’s nice that some people, like senators’ wives, can make $300,000 a year in “the helping industry,” but it’s business that produces the wealth that allows such nonprofit generosity.

Gerson and the Obamas are disparaging the people who built America – the traders and entrepreneurs and manufacturers who gave us railroads and airplanes, housing and appliances, steam engines, electricity, telephones, computers and Starbucks. Ignored here is the work most Americans do, the work that gives us food, clothing, shelter and increasing comfort. That work deserves at least as much respect as “scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service.”

Curbing Free Trade to Save It

In the latest example of “We had to burn the village to save it” logic, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) argues in a letter in the Washington Post this morning that the way to “support more trade” in the future is to raise barriers to trade today.

Brown criticizes Post columnist George Will for criticizing President Obama for imposing new tariffs on imported tires from China. Like President Obama himself, Brown claims that by invoking the Section 421 safeguard, the president was merely “enforcing” the trade laws that China agreed to but has failed to follow. He scolds advocates of trade for talking about the “rule of law” but failing to enforce it when it comes to trade agreements. Brown concludes, “If America is ever to support more trade, its people need to know that the rules will be enforced. And Mr. Obama did exactly that.”

Nothing in U.S. trade law required President Obama to impose tariffs on imported Chinese tires. As my colleague Dan Ikenson explained in a recent Free Trade Bulletin, Section 421 allows private parties to petition the U.S. government for protection if rising imports from China have caused or just threaten to cause “market disruption” to domestic producers. If the U.S. International Trade Commission recommends tariff relief, the president can decide to impose tariffs, or not.

The law allows the president to refrain from imposing tariffs if he finds they are “not in the national economic interest of the United States or … would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States.”

As I argue at length in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, trade barriers invariably damage our national economic interests and weaken our national security, and the tire tariffs are no exception. If the president had followed the letter and spirit of the law, he would have rejected the tariff.

And since when is causing “market disruption” something to be punished by law? Isn’t that what capitalism and market competition are all about? New competitors and new products are constantly disrupting markets, to the discomfort of entrenched producers but to the great benefit of the general public and the economy as a whole.

Human beings once widely practiced an economic system that minimized market disruption. It was called feudalism.

C/P Mad About Trade

Michael Moore’s Billionaire Backers

I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, “One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism.” (In the final section, “Toward a Framework for Utopia.”)

Now Ira Stoll notes the irony that it was very successful capitalists who put up the money that allowed Michael Moore to make his anti-market screed Capitalism: A Love Story:

The funniest moments of all in the movie, though, may just be in the opening and closing credits. We see that the movie is presented by “Paramount Vantage” in association with the Weinstein Company. Bob and Harvey Weinstein are listed as executive producers. If Mr. Moore appreciates any of the irony here he sure doesn’t share it with viewers, but for those members of the audience who are in on the secret it’s all kind of amusing. Paramount Vantage, after all, is controlled by Viacom, on whose board sit none other than Sumner Redstone and former Bear Stearns executive Ace Greenberg, who aren’t exactly socialists. The Weinstein Company announced it was funded with a $490 million private placement in which Goldman Sachs advised. The press release announcing the deal quoted a Goldman spokesman saying, “We are very pleased to be a part of this exciting new venture and look forward to an ongoing relationship with The Weinstein Company.”

So maybe I should add a corollary to my claim:

One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society won’t put up the money for people to make libertarian movies, but in a capitalist/libertarian society the capitalists are happy to put up the money for anti-capitalist movies.

And if you doubt that a socialist society would discriminate against anti-socialist movies, you can either observe socialism in practice — in Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc. — or read the chilling words of bestselling economist Robert Heilbroner in Dissent:

Socialism…must depend for its economic direction on some form of planning, and for its culture on some form of commitment to the idea of a morally conscious collectivity…

If tradition cannot, and the market system should not, underpin the socialist order, we are left with some form of command as the necessary means for securing its continuance and adaptation. Indeed, that is what planning means…

The factories and stores and farms and shops of a socialist socioeconomic formation must be coordinated…and this coordination must entail obedience to a central plan…

The rights of individuals to their Millian liberties [are] directly opposed to the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal… Under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.