The Bad News Industrial Complex

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Matt Ridley had an interesting piece on his blog last month entitled “Bad News Is Sudden, Good News Is Gradual“. It’s about the timing of news, as stated, and it’s about our bias toward bad news more generally. There is no question that bad news tends to be more dramatic than good news. But with steadily increasingly lifespans, growing prosperity, and world poverty at an all-time low, surely good news must come as much or more frequently than bad. But good news can be inconvenient to certain narratives. It is therefore often ignored, and some other purported disaster is found as a substitute:

Poverty and hunger are the business Oxfam is in, but has it shouted the global poverty statistics from the rooftops? Hardly. It has switched its focus to inequality. When The Lancet published a study in 2010 showing global maternal mortality falling, advocates for women’s health tried to pressure it into delaying publication ‘fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause’, The New York Times reported. The announcement by Nasa in 2016 that plant life is covering more and more of the planet as a result of carbon dioxide emissions was handled like radioactivity by most environmental reporters.

Tales of bad outcomes can be alluring, especially if they haven’t happened yet. In fact, bad things might even happen gradually, but dark visions of a world beyond the horizon impart a spooky sense of immediacy, and indeed, urgency. Ridley notes the tendency of people to regard pessimists as “wise”, while optimists are viewed as Pollyannas. And he recognizes that risk aversion plays an important role in this psychology. That brings me to the point I found most interesting in Ridley’s piece: the many vested interests in disasters, and disasters foretold.

Risk management is big business in an affluent society. There is a lot to lose, and a squeamish populace is easily cowed by good scare stories. The risk management and disaster-prevention narrative can be wrapped around any number of unlikely or exaggerated threats, serving the interests of the administrative state and private rent-seekers. One particular tool that has been most useful to this alliance is the precautionary principle. It is invoked to discourage or regulate activities presumed to pose risks to the public or to the environment. But there are three dimensions to the application of the precautionary principle: it provides a rationale for public funding of research into the risk-du-jour, for funding projects designed to mitigate its consequences, and for subsidizing development of alternative technologies that might help avoid or reduce the severity of the risk, often at great expense. The exaggeration of risk serves to legitimize these high costs. Of course, the entire enterprise would be impossible without the machinery of the state, in all its venality. Where money flows, graft is sure to follow.

Well-publicized disaster scenarios are helpful to statists in other ways. Risk, its causes, and its consequences are not distributed evenly across regions and populations. A risk thought to be anthropomorphic in nature implies that wealthier and more productive communities and nations must shoulder the bulk of the global costs of mitigation. Thus, the risk-management ethic requires redistribution. Furthermore, wealthier regions are better situated to insulate themselves locally against many risks. Impoverished areas, on the other hand, must be assisted. Finally, an incredible irony of our preoccupation with disaster scenarios is the simultaneous effort to subsidize those deemed most vulnerable even while executing other policies that harm them.

Media organizations and their newspeople obviously benefit greatly from the subtle sensationalism of creeping disaster. As Ridley noted, the gradualism of progress is no match for a scare story on the nightly news. There is real money at stake here, but the media is driven not only by economic incentives. In fact, the dominant leftist ideology in media organizations means that they are more than happy to spread alarm as part of a crusade for state solutions to presumed risks. There are even well-meaning users of social media who jump at the chance to signal their virtue by reposting memes and reports that are couched not merely in terms of risks, but as dire future realities.

Mitigating social risks is a legitimate function of government. Unfortunately, identifying and exaggerating risks, and suppressing contradictory evidence, is in the personal interest of politicians, bureaucrats, crony capitalists, and many members of the media. Everything seems to demand government intervention. Carbon concentration, global warming and sea level changes are glaring examples of exaggerated risks. As Ridley says,

The supreme case of unfalsifiable pessimism is climate change. It has the advantage of decades of doom until the jury returns. People who think the science suggests it will not be as bad as all that, or that humanity is likely to mitigate or adapt to it in time, get less airtime and a lot more criticism than people who go beyond the science to exaggerate the potential risks. That lukewarmers have been proved right so far cuts no ice.”

Other examples include the “beepocalypse“, genetic modification, drug use, school shootings, and certain risks to national security. Ridley offers the consequences of Brexit as well. There, I’ve listed enough sacred cows to irritate just about everyone.

In many cases, the real crises have more to do with government activism than the original issue with which they were meant to reckon. Which brings me to a discomfiting vision of my own: having allowed the administrative state to metastasize across almost every social organ and every aspect of our lives, a huge risk to our future well-being is continuing erosion of personal and economic liberties and our ability to prosper as a society. Here’s Ridley’s close:

“Activists sometimes justify the focus on the worst-case scenario as a means of raising consciousness. But while the public may be susceptible to bad news they are not stupid, and boys who cry ‘wolf!’ are eventually ignored. As the journalist John Horgan recently argued in Scientific American: ‘These days, despair is a bigger problem than optimism.'”

Social Media and the Antitrust Reflex

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Falling Zuckerberg

Facebook is under fire for weak privacy protections, its exploitation of users’ data, and the dangers it is said to pose to Americans’ free speech rights. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, who controls all of the voting stock in Facebook, attempted to address those issues before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees. It represented a major event in the history of the social media company, and it happened at a time when discussion of antitrust action against social media conglomerates like Facebook, Google, and Amazon is gaining support in some quarters. I hope this intervention does not come to pass.

The Threat

At the heart of the current uproar are Facebook’s data privacy policy and a significant data breach. The recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica arose because Facebook, at one time, allowed application developers to access user data, and the practice continued for a few developers. Unfortunately, at least one didn’t keep the data to himself. There have been accusations that the company has violated privacy laws in the European Union (EU) and privacy laws in some states. Facebook has also raised ire among privacy advocates by lobbying against stronger privacy laws in some states, but it is within its legal rights to do so. Violations of privacy laws must be adjudicated, but antitrust laws were not intended to address such a threat. Rather, they were intended to prevent dominant producers from monopolizing or restraining trade in a market and harming consumers in the process.

Matt Stoller, in an interview with Russ Roberts on EconTalk, says antitrust action against social media companies may be necessary because they are so pervasive in our lives, have built such dominant market positions, and have made a practice of buying nascent competitors over the years. Steps must be taken to “oxygenate” the market, according to Stoller, promoting competition and protecting new entrants.

Tim Wu, the attorney who coined the misleading term “network neutrality”, is a critic of Facebook, though Wu is more skeptical of the promise of antitrust or regulatory action:

In Facebook’s case, we are not speaking of a few missteps here and there, the misbehavior of a few aberrant employees. The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.”

Google has already been subject to antitrust action in the EU due to the alleged anti-competitive nature of its search algorithm, and Facebook’s data privacy policy is under fire there. But the prospect of traditional antitrust action against a social media company like Facebook seems rather odd, as acknowledged by the author at the first link above, Navneet Alang:

… Facebook specifically doesn’t appear to be doing anything that actively violates traditional antitrust rules. Instead, it’s relying on network effects, that tendency of digital networks to have their own kind of inertia where the more people get on them the more incentive there is to stay. It’s also hard to suggest that Facebook has a monopoly on advertising dollars when Google is also raking in billions of dollars.

Competition

The size of Facebook’s user base gives it a massive advantage over most of the other platforms in terms of network effects. I offer myself as an example of the inertia described by Alang: I’ve been on Facebook for a number of years. I use it to keep in touch with friends and as a vehicle for attracting readers to my blog. As I contemplated this post, I experimented by opening a MeWe account, where I joined a few user groups. It has a different “feel” than Facebook and is more oriented toward group chats. I like it and I have probably spent as much time on MeWe in the last week as Facebook. I sent MeWe invitations to about 20 of my friends, nearly all of whom have Facebook accounts, and a few days later I posted a link to MeWe on my Facebook wall. Thus far, however, only three of my friends have joined MeWe. Of course, none of us has deactivated our Facebook account, and I speculate that none of us will any time soon. This behavior is consistent with “platform inertia” described by Alang. Facebook users are largely a captive market.

But Facebook is not a monopoly and it is not a necessity. Neither is Google. Neither is Amazon. All of these firms have direct competitors for both users and advertising dollars. It’s been falsely claimed that Google and Facebook together control 90% of online ad revenue, but the correct figure for 2017 is estimated at less than 57%. That’s down a bit from 2016, and another decline is expected in 2018. There are many social media platforms. Zuckerberg claims that the average American already uses eight different platforms, which may include Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, MeWe, Reddit, Spotify, Tinder, Tumblr, Twitter, and many others (also see here). Some of these serve specialized interests such as professional networking, older adults, hook-ups, and shopping. Significant alternatives for users exist, some offering privacy protections that might have more appeal now than ever.

Antitrust vs. Popular, Low-Priced Service Providers

Facebook’s business model does not fit comfortably into the domain of traditional antitrust policy. The company’s users pay a price, but one that is not easily calculated or even perceived: the value of the personal data they give away on a daily basis. Facebook is monetizing that data by allowing advertisers to target individuals who meet specific criteria. Needless to say, many observers are uncomfortable with the arrangement. The company must maintain a position of trust among its users befitting such a sensitive role. No doubt many have given Facebook access to their data out of ignorance of the full consequences of their sacrifice. Many others have done so voluntarily and with full awareness. Perhaps they view participation in social media to be worth such a price. It is also plausible that users benefit from the kind of targeted advertising that Facebook facilitates.

Does Facebook’s business model allow it to engage in an ongoing practice of predatory pricing? It is far from clear that its pricing qualifies as “anti-competitive behavior”, and courts have been difficult to persuade that low prices run afoul of U.S. antitrust law:

Predatory pricing occurs when companies price their products or services below cost with the purpose of removing competitors from the market. … the courts use a two part test to determine whether they have occurred: (1) the violating company’s production costs must be higher than the market price of the good or service and (2) there must be a ‘dangerous probability’ that the violating company will recover the loss …”

Applying this test to Facebook is troublesome because as we have seen, users exchange something of value for their use of the platform, which Facebook then exploits to cover costs quite easily. Fee-based competitors who might complain that Facebook’s pricing is “unfair” would be better-advised to preach the benefits of privacy and data control, and some of them do just that as part of their value proposition.

More Antitrust Skepticism

John O. McGinnis praises the judicial restraint that has characterized antitrust law over the past 30 years. This practice recognizes that it is not always a good thing for consumers when the government denies a merger, for example, or busts up a firm deemed by authorities to possess “too much power”. An innovative firm might well bring new value to its products by integrating them with features possessed by another firm’s products. Or a growing firm may be able to create economies of scale and scope that are passed along to consumers. Antitrust action, however, too often presumes that a larger market share, however defined, is unequivocally bad beyond some point. Intervention on those grounds can have a chilling effect on innovation and on the value such firms bring to the market and to society.

There are more fundamental reasons to view antitrust enforcement skeptically. For one thing, a product market can be defined in various ways. The more specific the definition, the greater the appearance of market dominance by larger firms. Or worse, the availability of real alternatives is ignored. For example, would an airline be a monopolist if it were the only carrier serving a particular airport or market? In a narrow sense, yes, but that airline would not hold a monopoly over intercity transportation, for which many alternatives exist. Is an internet service provider (ISP) a monopoly if it is the only ISP offering a 400+ Mbs download speed in a certain vicinity? In a very narrow sense, yes, but there may be other ISPs offering slower speeds that most consumers view as adequate. And in all cases, consumers always have one very basic alternative: not buying. Even so-called natural monopolies, such as certain public utilities, offer services for which there are broad alternatives. In those cases, however, a grant of a monopoly franchise is typically seen as a good solution if exchanged for public oversight and regulation, so antitrust is generally not at issue.

One other basic objection that can be made to antitrust is that it violates private property rights. A business that enjoys market dominance usually gets that way by pleasing customers. It’s rewards for excellent performance are the rightful property of its owners, or should be. Antitrust action then becomes a form of confiscation by punishing such a firm and its owners for success.

Political Bias

Another major complaint against Facebook is political bias. It is accused of selectively censoring users and their content and manipulating user news feeds to favor particular points of view. Promises to employ fact-check mechanisms are of little comfort, since the concern involves matters of opinion. Any person or organization held to be in possession of the unadulterated truth on issues of public debate should be regarded with suspicion.

Last Tuesday at the joint session, Zuckerberg acted as if such a bias was quite natural, given that Facebook’s employee base is concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area. But his nonchalance over the matter partly reflects the fact that Facebook is, after all, a private company. It is free to host whatever views it chooses, and that freedom is for the better. Facebook is not like a public square. Instead, the scope of a user’s speech is largely discretionary: users select their own network of friends; they can choose to limit access to their posts to that group or to a broader group of “friends of friends”; they can limit posts to subgroups of friends; or they can allow the entire population of users to see their posts, if interested. No matter how many users it has, Facebook is still a private community. If its “community standards” or their enforcement are objectionable, then users can and should find alternative outlets. And again, as a private company, Facebook can choose to feature particular news sources and censor others without running afoul of the First Amendment.

Revisiting Facebook’s Business Model

The greatest immediate challenge for Facebook is data privacy. Trust among users has been eroded by the improprieties in Facebook’s exploitation of data. It’s as if everyone in the U.S. has suddenly awoken to the simple facts of its business model and the leveraging of user data it requires. But it is not of great concern to some users, who will be happy to continue to use the platform as they have in the past. Zuckerberg did not indicate a willingness to yield on the question of Facebook’s business model in his congressional testimony, but there is a threat that regulation will require steps to protect data that might be inconsistent with the business model. If users opt-out of data sharing in droves, then Facebook’s ability to collect revenue from advertisers will be diminished.

As Jonathan Zittrain points out, Facebook might find new opportunity as an information fiduciary for users. That would require a choice between paying a monthly fee or allowing Facebook to continue targeted advertising on one’s news feed. Geoffrey A. Fowler writes that the idea of paying for Facebook is not an outrageous proposition:

Facebook collected $82 in advertising for each member in North America last year. Across the world, it’s about $20 per member. … Netflix costs $11 and Amazon Prime is $13 per month. Facebook would need $7 per month from everyone in North America to maintain its current revenue from targeted advertising.”

Given a choice, not everyone would choose to pay, and I doubt that a fee of $7 per month would cost Facebook much in terms of membership anyway. It could probably charge slightly more for regular memberships and price discriminate to attract students and seniors. Fowler contends that a user-paid Facebook would be a better product. It might sharpen the focus on user-provided and user-linked content, rather than content provided by advertisers. As Tim Wu says, “… payment better aligns the incentives of the platform with those of its users.” Fowler also asserts that regulatory headaches would be less likely for the social network because it would not be reliant on exploiting user data.

A noteworthy aspect of Zuckerberg’s testimony at the congressional hearing was his stated willingness to consider regulatory solutions: the “right regulations“, as he put it. That might cover any number of issues, including privacy and political advertising. But as Brendan Kirby warns, regulating Facebook might not be a great idea. Established incumbents are often capable of bending regulatory bodies to their will, ultimately using them to gain a stronger market position. A partnership between the data-rich Facebook and an agency of the government is not one that I’d particularly like to see. Tim Wu believes that what we really need are competitive alternatives to Facebook: he floats a few ideas about how a Facebook competitor might be structured, most prominently the fee-based alternative.

Let It Evolve 

Like many others, I’m possessed by an anxiety about the security of my data on social media, an irritation with the political bias that pervades social media firms, and a suspicion that certain points of view are favored over others on their platforms. But I do not favor government intervention against these firms. Neither antitrust action nor regulation is likely to improve the available platforms or their services, and instead might do quite a bit of damage. “Trust-busting” of social media platforms would present technological challenges, but even worse, it would disrupt millions of complex relationships between firms and users and attempt to replace them with even more numerous and complex relationships, all dictated by central authorities rather than market forces. Significant mergers and acquisitions will continue to be reviewed by the DOJ and the FTC, preferably tempered by judicial restraint. I also oppose the regulatory option. Compliance is costly, of course, but even worse, the social media giants can afford it and will manipulate it. Those costs would inevitably present barriers to market entry by upstart competitors. The best regulation is imposed by customers, who should assert their sovereignty and exercise caution in the relationships they establish with social media platforms … and remember that nothing comes for free.

Federal Unaccountability Beyond My Wildest Dreams

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In December, Laurence Kotlikoff wrote in Forbes about large chunks of federal spending over many years that have not been reconciled with known accounting transactions. (The link is to a cached version of Kotlikoff’s article because Forbes blocks its site to those using adblockers). I first learned of these massive discrepancies at The Solari Report, which covered the issue in February. At first, I was so dumbfounded by the numbers that I thought it might have been a joke, or worse: fake news on Solari? But the story is real and it is shocking: $21 TRILLION of spending that cannot be explained, spanning the years 1998-2015! That’s more than five times the level of federal spending in 2017. It’s also shocking that the gap has gone almost unnoticed by the news media, though a few specifics have garnered attention at different stages of the disgorgement, as demonstrated by the various links provided in the Solari article.

The discrepancies are concentrated mainly in two departments of the federal government: Defense (DOD) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Kotlikoff quotes a description of the “accounting adjustments” from the Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office (GAO). These adjustments are akin to the entries people make in their checkbook registers when the balance can’t be reconciled to their bank statement:

“‘Journal vouchers are summary-level accounting adjustments made when balances between systems cannot be reconciled. Often these journal vouchers are unsupported, meaning they lack supporting documentation to justify the adjustment or are not tied to specific accounting transactions…. For an auditor, journal vouchers are a red flag for transactions not being captured, reported, or summarized correctly.'”

The article at Solari makes the following observations:

There appear to be at least five possibilities: 1-The missing money was spent appropriately, but existing accounting infrastructure is incapable of tracking it. 2-The money was “wasted,” i.e. spent unwisely. 3-The money was directed into black projects and Special Access Programs in massive amounts outside the Constitutional appropriations process, and therefore without the knowledge of Congress and the citizenry, for purposes unknown. 4-The money was used to manipulate markets to maintain the reserve status of the dollar. 5-The money is being stolen by fraud and collusion between government and private interests. Or perhaps a combination of all of these.

All five explanations represent a form of failure of governance or government administration. Some are more nefarious than others. While #1 might seem fairly innocuous, it nevertheless would demonstrate a slovenly approach to record-keeping and accountability as well as a ripe temptation to anyone seeking opportunities for graft. Furthermore, one cannot trust that #1 is the full explanation. The amounts are so massive that they far exceed the waste in government that even I thought possible. And no one in the federal agencies seems to have an explanation. Mark Skidmore, a Michigan State University economist who has studied the issue and made inquiries with these agencies, describes what sounds like a runaround. In December, however, the DOD announced a positive step: it’s first-ever department-wide independent audit. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accounting Office are certainly aware of the discrepancies. Links to supporting documentation at the OIG and DOD web sites appear in both the Solari and Kotlikoff articles.

If these funds have been wasted or misused, taxpayers are the victims, of course. There are a few well-known examples of private and even public companies that have victimized investors to perhaps a similar (proportionate) extent over the years. Bernie Madoff and Exxon come to mind. But in general, public companies cannot escape demands that their books be in order and that they produce value over time. The federal government, however, has received a pass for this fecklessness over many years. Perhaps it’s because the public has such low expectations for the government’s effective use of tax dollars. Federal agencies such as HUD and DOD seem almost as budgetary “black holes” into which tax dollars are sucked, with an apparent lack of scrutiny.

Kotlikoff closes by urging a thorough investigation into the government’s cockeyed accounts:

Taken together these reports point to a failure to comply with basic Constitutional and legislative requirements for spending and disclosure. We urge the House and Senate Budget Committee to initiate immediate investigations of unaccounted federal expenditures as well as the source of their payment.”

The Solari piece is no less emphatic in demanding a full probe of the causes of the budgetary discrepancies:

We must recognize the possibility that massive fraud is being perpetrated against the American people. If that is not the case, it would take relatively little effort and expense to put that concern to rest. On the other hand, what malfeasance might investigation reveal, and who might be responsible?

At the very least, we should be asking the secretaries of DOD, HUD, and the Treasury, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the President of the NY Fed what they know, and we need independent audits of all those entities plus the Exchange Stabilization Fund. Anything less will be to acquiesce in an ongoing financial coup d’état.

Corporate Lapdogs of the Left

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ceo

Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely prefer to see private goods and services produced privately, not publicly. Private ownership of the means of production makes the world a better place because ownership and self-interest drive performance and value, to put it all too briefly. But corporate America is now so thoroughly encumbered by ideological distractions that it compromises the mission of creating value, risking shareholder returns and invested capital as well. Having spent the past 31 years employed successively by three gigantic corporate hairballs (with a 2-year stint at the central bank), the following thesis about corporate CEOs, and corporate America by extension, strikes me as wholly accurate:

CEOs … mostly [reject] the ethos of rugged individualism in favor of a more collectivist view of the world. The capitalists [are] not much interested in defending the culture of capitalism. … the psychological and operational mechanics of large corporations [are] much like those of other large organizations, including government agencies … American CEOs [believe] that expertise deployed through bureaucracy [can] impose rationality on such unruly social entities as free markets, culture, family, and sexuality. The supplanting of spontaneous order with political discipline is the essence of progressivism….

I changed the tenses used above by Kevin Williamson, who attempts to explain why American corporations became such progressive activists. The beginning of the quote describes interviews conducted by William H. Whyte in the 1950s, but it’s as true now as it was then, and probably much more so. The technocratic view of organizational efficacy may be true up to a point. In fact, there is undoubtedly an optimal size for any organization that is dependent upon it’s mission, the technologies at its disposal, and the range of prices it is likely to face in input and output markets. It’s all too easy for a successful firm to expand beyond that point, however, as many now-defunct businesses have learned the hard way. However, the quote merely highlights the sympathetic view often held by corporate managements toward the notion of a planned society, guided by a class of technocrats. They share this scientistic line of thinking with the statist left, though the corporatist vision is a world in which their private organizations play a critical role, with risks mitigated by “partners” in government.

Private incentives can produce wonderful results, but they are corrupted by the scent of private advantage that can be gained via government intervention in markets. The corporate practice of seeking rents through legislative and administrative action has been going on since at least the 1880s, when railroads sought protection from competition and other shipping interests via federal regulatory action.The symbiosis between government and corporate interests, or corporatism, has been growing ever since. Whether it is lucrative contract awards, subsidies, or favorable regulation, government has lots of goodies at its disposal by virtue of its exclusive ability to exert coercive power. This quote of David Cay Johnston describes the end-product of corporate rent-seeking behavior:

Corporate socialism is where we socialize losses and privatize gains. Companies that have failed in the marketplace stick the taxpayers with their losses, but when they make money they get to keep it, and secondly, huge amounts of capital are given to companies by taxpayers.”

Risk mitigation is at the heart of a second variety of corporate leftism, and Williamson notes the asymmetry in the political risks faced by most corporations:

Conservatives may roll their eyes a little bit at promises to build windmills so efficient that we’ll cease needing coal and oil, but progressives (at least a fair portion of them) believe that using fossil fuels may very well end human civilization. The nation’s F-150 drivers are not going to organize a march on Chevron’s headquarters if it puts a billion bucks into biofuels, but the nation’s Subaru drivers might very well do so if it doesn’t. … The same asymmetry characterizes the so-called social issues.

At this point, Williamson goes on to describe a few social issues on which corporate leaders are frequently harangued by the left. Those leaders may view conservative positions on those issues as aberrant, according to Williamson, because the leaders inhabit an insulated world of elitist, media-driven, politically-correct opinion. They wish to be seen as “progressive” and discount the risk of offending conservatives. While I do not take Williamson’s side on all of the social issues he mentions, I concede that there is some truth to the asymmetry he describes.

An avenue through which corporate America is strongly influenced by the left is identity politics. This is partly an unfortunate side-effect of civil rights legislation and other anti-discrimination law, but in today’s litigious environment, there are excessive legal risks against which corporations must take precautions. This is embedded in human resource policies to the point at which hiring the best individual to fill a role is subject to a series of costly, time-consuming hurdles, and is sometimes impossible. Then, there are the mandatory “Diversity and Inclusion” courses that all employees are required to complete. These overbearing attempts to “educate” the work force consume valuable staff time and are of questionable value in light of the aggravation and resentment they inspire in employees. Finally, I can’t keep count of all the corporate-sponsored activities devoted to celebrating one identity group after another. Can we please get back to work?

Today, as a consumer, it is becoming more difficult to engage in commerce without exposure to a seller’s political positioning. For example, I buy about 90% of my clothing from a particular clothier, but last weekend I learned that the company had taken an objectionable position (to me) in the debate over gun legislation. I am certain that activists badgered the company, and it succumbed, and so I will change my shopping habits. People often find that it’s easier to engage in arms-length transactions when the other party stays off the soapbox. But it goes further than that. Here is Williamson:

Whereas the ancient corporate practice was to decline to take a public position on anything not related to their businesses, contemporary CEOs feel obliged to act as public intellectuals as well as business managers.

Well, “ancient” might take it a bit too far, but as a customer, employee, and especially as a shareholder, I would urge any company to steer clear of political posturing. Do not dilute your mission of delivering value to customers, which dovetails with serving the interests of shareholders. You must pursue that mission in a way that you consider responsible and ethical, which just might narrow the scope of the mission. And that’s okay. Just be as neutral as possible on extraneous issues as you reach out to potential customers, and do not respond to politically-motivated threats except in the most diplomatic terms.

Should I bother to say that corporations should eschew public subsidies? That they should respond to competition by improving value, rather than lobbying for advantages and protection from lawmakers or regulators? That they should not badger their employees to give to their company’s Political Action Committee (PAC)?

I must be fantasizing! Corporations would never follow that advice, not as long as they can capture rents through the seductive expedient of big government. If that were the only reason for the hate reserved by leftists for corporate America, I’d be right with them. But in fact, leftist rhetoric condemns the profit motive generally, both in principle and as a method of scapegoating for any social ill. Williamson marvels at the incredible irony of the corporate enterprise-cum-lapdog of the Left, which is especially palpable as the Left beats the dog so unrelentingly.

March of the Benighted Pawns

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I’ll say one thing for the high schoolers participating in the March For Our Lives political front: they are no more ignorant about guns and the Constitution than their anti-gun, adult counterparts. These naive kids are learning the charms of virtue signaling, newly imbued with so much superstition, misconception, misplaced blame, and inflated self-regard that you’d be hard-pressed to engage most of them in reasoned discussion. But I reserve my highest disdain for adults who shake their fingers and say, “How dare you speak critically of these poor kids, who survived the tragedy that took place at their very own school.” Indeed, some of the Parkland students saw the mayhem with their own eyes. but that admonition is a sham show of indignance designed to squelch legitimate debate. The debate would be unnecessary if not for the anti-gun lobby’s opportunistic exploitation of children befallen by tragedy.

First, as I noted recently on SacredCowChips, the supposed escalation in mass shootings at schools is a myth. Northeastern University provides this summary of the research quoted in my post, including the chart on the long-term decline in school shootings shown above. In light of these statistics, the lead researcher, James Alan Fox, believes that most school security measures are counter-productive, including proposals to arm teachers. I do not fully agree, but be that as it may, it is astonishing that the media and large swaths of the public have accepted as fact the myth of a school shooting epidemic.

The ignorance of would-be gun controllers about guns themselves is legendary. Few of them can actually define an “assault weapon” yet are convinced that they must be banned. The cosmetic addition of certain features to a standard semi-automatic rifle apparently makes these guns too “scary”. And there is little understanding that standard rifles sold today, which fire one shot at a time, are semi-automatic weapons! Rifles, by the way, are involved in only a small fraction of gun homicides, so the focus on “assault weapons” is misplaced. Given this level of ignorance, it’s all too easy to dismiss the gun control crowd as unworthy of a real debate over gun regulation.

Of course, the crux of the debate revolves around constitutional rights. While many of those in favor of stricter gun regulation disavow any desire to repeal the Second Amendment or to actually confiscate guns, there is a significant contingent among them harboring that as an end-goal. Their ideal is politically laughable because it would never get a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, let alone ratification by 3/4 of the states.

The Second Amendment is described by its foes as outdated and dangerous. I submit, however, that the right to defend oneself against predators, human or otherwise, is a natural right and not subject to obsolescence. The Second Amendment was also intended as protection against tyranny by government, and it serves as protection against a tyranny of any majority or rogue minority. Gun-rights critics argue that the founders of our country did not anticipate the powerful weapons available today, and that they would never have intended citizens to be armed with them. The claim is dubious because the founders certainly would have believed that citizens should have the freedom to arm themselves at least in proportion to the arms used by potential predators (please forgive the use of the term “assault weapons” at the link).

Frankly, I do not expect government tanks to roll down my street on a mission to confiscate guns. Instead, the first step would be a strongly-suggested voluntary sacrifice of weapons. Later, perhaps actual confiscations would be attempted via small detachments of authorities or perhaps by marauding, black-shirted proxies. But confiscations won’t happen as long as a serious threat of reprisal exists, with reasonably powerful weapons, and that is a credit to the Second Amendment.

There are serious misconceptions (not to mention plentiful media propaganda) about the likelihood that stricter gun laws can reduce gun homicides, or that they could have prevented the mass shooting tragedies that have occurred. Some of those shootings are better viewed as failures of law enforcement — examples are the lack of official follow-up on prior tips about the shooter in Parkland, FL, the failure of the school’s resource officer to engage the shooter, the failure of the FBI to detain a shooter prior to an attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and in still other cases, the failure of background checks to identify individuals as ineligible to purchase guns. There is little doubt that proper enforcement of existing law and protocol would have prevented a number of mass shootings. The focus should be on improving the existing system before expecting responsible citizens to happily consent to further erosion of their natural and constitutional rights.

Strict gun regulation would certainly infringe on liberty, leaving private citizens defenseless in exchange for tenuous assertions of social benefits. Defensive gun uses (DGUs) are thought to far outstrip gun homicides (seven posts touching on that subject are at this link). If guns could be effectively outlawed in the U.S., other instruments of homicide would replace guns because so much killing is driven by the drug war, gang activity, and other social dysfunctions. The same is true of suicides. If you recognize the futility of the war on drugs, you shouldn’t expect much success from a war on guns. Criminals will acquire guns whether they are illegal or not, so the ability to defend oneself with equal force is critical. There is a lively debate over the empirical research on the efficacy of stricter gun laws, but it’s always good to be skeptical when it comes to government prohibitions. Control advocates often cite Australia as an example of successful firearms control, but the country’s gun ban and buy-back program was ineffective in reducing gun homicides (also see here).

Finally, it’s appalling to see the depths to which certain radical enemies of gun ownership will sink in attempting to cast blame on their opponents for mass shootings. In fact, they have blamed not just the NRA, but all gun owners for the Parkland shooting and gun homicides generally. But the NRA represents responsible, law-abiding gun owners and promotes safe and responsible gun use. Roughly 47% of adults in the U.S. have guns in their homes, and they own guns for self-defense or sporting purposes. Attempts to shame them into supporting curtailments on their liberties is obnoxious and rather foolish because it is so unlikely to be fruitful approach. Successful codification always hinges on consensus, which just doesn’t exist with respect to gun law in the U.S.

The media have fawned over the students who have participated in the March For Our Lives campaign. The childrens’ ignorance of constitutional principles, and guns of course, is noteworthy, but their exploitation by powerful political and economic forces is pathetic. The significance of their numbers has been exaggerated as well: reports show the crowd size at the march in Washington, DC was about a quarter of what the organizers claimed. And the anti-gun students have failed to convince many of their peers, according to a poll conducted by USA Today/Ipsos. Perhaps as the spotlight fades, more of these student protestors will have occasion to study the U.S. Constitution and the natural rights it protects against government overreach. No matter how the kids feel now, I’m certain that many of them will be responsible gun owners someday.

Sea Level Measurement and Perspective

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The measurement of sea level change is much more complicated than most people realize. In fact, the reported changes that alarm so many are minuscule relative to the uncertainties caused by these measurement difficulties. First, consider the easy part: If you drive a stake into the ground at the shore at high tide one day, your task of measuring sea level change will be complicated by the changing day-to-day tides. Those changes will force you to calculate average readings off of your stake over complete lunar cycles (and even that isn’t quite right, since the gravitational pull of the sun matters as well, and the moon’s distance from earth fluctuates). Or, you can make comparisons only between readings one lunar cycle apart.

Once the local reference point is established at the shore and the tides are controlled for, there are two kinds of changes that cause the sea to rise or fall relative to the “zero” point on your stake. The sea water can rise or fall, of course, but the land itself might do so as well! Settling or upwelling at the land surface can be caused by a variety of geological phenomena. “Vertical land motion”, up or down, occurs almost everywhere. That means sea level is a relative concept. In addition, over time the placement of on-shore sea-level gauges often change with harbor and ship channel alterations, and even accidents. These all require adjustments in order to make valid comparisons across time. That’s to say nothing of variations in air pressure and water currents, which certainly affect on-shore readings. Today, sea levels are also measured by satellite, but that doesn’t make sea level measurement simpler by any means, as you’ll see below.

Kip Hansen discusses the vagaries of sea level measurement in an excellent post. If it isn’t already obvious, changes in readings from a single tide level gauge do not show the rate at which the absolute sea level is changing over time. It shows only the local net effect of the absolute sea level change and the land movement. But Hansen emphasizes an implication about which few are aware: a comparison of relative sea level changes in two different locales shows only the difference in “vertical land motion” between the two sites (at least as a first approximation).

Hansen notes a major discrepancy between the absolute sea level changes reported by NOAA (1.7 mm per year) and NASA (3.0 mm per year). These figures are estimated by satellite readings, which have extremely poor resolution (measured in cm, not mm) compared to tidal gauges. This quote from Hansen in the comments section is revealing (emphasis added):

Satellite Altimetry — when reporting sea level rise — is not a measurement, but a complex calculation with a dozen or so ‘corrections’ and ‘adjustments’ for confounding factors, all of which are of greater magnitude than the change in sea surface height being sought. Many of these confounders are orders of magnitude greater. Some additions, such the famed GIA adjustment, are acknowledged not to appear in the physical sea surface height at all, but are added on the basis that ‘the sea would have risen the 0.3 mm/yr if the ocean basins hadn’t expanded. There is no scientific justification for the difference. In this essay, I point out that NOAA has stuck to its scientitic guns and not gone along with the NASA figure.

There are statements on NOAA’s web site that seem to endorse the NASA estimate, but Hansen discounts those references. He advises that there is a big difference between the NOAA science community and its marketing staff, which undoubtedly dominates the content viewed by the public on the site.

There are many other factors that play havoc with sea level estimates, some of which are intractable. One issue, which comes up in the comments to Hansen’s article, has to do with sedimentation and its displacement of sea water. While its effect spreads out across the entire ocean, Hansen stops short of calling it a contributor to absolute sea level rise, though that would be the implication in terms of measurement.

Alarm over rising sea levels is based partly on the focus of local media on relative sea level changes. That may well be an important local issue, whether the land is settling or the absolute sea level is rising (though the two may have different local policy implications). But local concerns about relative sea level are often translated into global concerns that confuse relative with absolute sea levels. This makes excellent fodder for the propaganda of the leftist climate change movement. That propaganda is so effective that it sometimes feeds back to foment local concern, even in areas experiencing reductions in relative sea level! These concerns fly in the face of local experience as well as the absolute rates of change estimated by NOAA.

I’ll close with the following comment taken from an earlier post on SacredCowChips:

The prospect of rising sea levels is another matter that concerns alarmists, who always fail to note that sea levels have been increasing for a very long time, well before carbon concentrations could have had any impact. In fact, the sea level increases in the past few centuries are a rebound from lows during the Little Ice Age…. But even those fluctuations look minor by comparison to the increases in sea levels that occurred over 8,000 years ago.

Don’t Cry for the Former Taxi Monopoly

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It would be odd to argue that innovation is not unequivocally positive, that its costs will exceed its benefits. Certainly there are downsides: human capital invested in the methods and technologies supplanted by an innovation is devalued, jobs may be lost, retraining becomes necessary, and even consumers must get used to new ways of doing things, which is not costless. But most of these costs are temporary. And when an innovation eliminates an incumbent’s monopoly, the former monopolist’s profit ends up back in the pockets of consumers.

People do seem to focus excessively on the downside of innovation without carefully tallying the benefits. For example, this article focuses on the loss of New York City taxi pickups since ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft began to have an impact in 2014. Mark Perry reproduces a chart from that article, which is featured above. The number of monthly taxi rides in NYC has fallen by about one-third since then, from an average of 13+ million to about 9 million in 2017. In fact, Perry reports that the market for taxi medallions has tanked since then as well, with plunging medallion prices and many medallions sold out of bankruptcy and foreclosure. But don’t be too quick to shed tears for a monopoly lost.

The same chart shows the massive upside to ride sharing, as discussed here by Warren Meyer. The size of the total market has nearly doubled, from about 13 million per month to roughly 24 million (adding the two lines together). And it was a quick transition! That’s what happens when real competition is introduced to a market: prices fall and quantity increases, with an attendant increase in the welfare of consumers. That increase always exceeds the loss suffered by the former monopolist or cartel (as the case may be), which was earning excessive profits at the expense of consumers before the innovation had a market impact. And many former taxi drivers have made the switch to ride sharing providers, and they seem to prefer it for the flexibility and autonomy it offers. Yes, the best innovations benefit workers as well as consumers.

Competition can bloom when government opens markets to competitors or when an innovation creates new alternatives for consumers. In the case of ride sharing, both were necessary. For many years, NYC restricted the supply of taxi medallions, which kept taxi fares artificially high. The formal approval of ride sharing services in the city was not uncontested. But once it was approved, consumers took advantage of superior dispatching and payment technologies enabled by their smart phones, as well as security features and rating systems, not to mention lower fares. Again, these developments have contributed massively to consumer well-being, which is ultimately the point of all economic activity. Traditional taxis have to try to keep up. The ride sharing industry has inflicted the kind of creative destruction for which consumers are quite grateful.

Francis, Papal Perónista, Courts Redistributional Mirage

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Is world poverty really increasing? Actually, no, quite the opposite, and you can blame economic liberalism, capitalism, and free markets for that. Yet we hear exactly the contrary from Pope Francis who, despite his evident compassion, has an amazingly poor understanding of economics. He misstates basic facts, offers dimly reasoned analyses of human rights, and promotes ill-considered policies. Now that the Vatican is set to release the Pope’s first feature film, no doubt a stirring piece of social justice propaganda, it seems as good a time as any to review the confounded state of Francis’ economic reasoning. This is not the first time I’ve discussed the Pope’s policy views: this link contains three previous posts from SacredCowChips on which Francis was tagged.

The False Narrative

My inspiration for this post comes from Robert P. Murphy, whose recent commentary on Francis’ pronouncements is trenchant. Murphy covers this speech written by Francis for the World Economic Forum, but delivered by a Vatican proxy, in which the Pope asserts the following:

… governments must confront … the growth of unemployment, the increase in various forms of poverty, the widening of the socio-economic gap and new forms of slavery, often rooted in situations of conflict, migration and various social problems.

Francis refers to increasing unemployment and poverty, and I could let that phrase pass if he was referring to certain nations or locales that have experienced chronically depressed economic growth. But Francis’ description is rather general, as evidenced by his diagnosis of causes. More on that below. Regarding his statement about trends in poverty, he is flatly incorrect. Here is Murphy:

As the World Bank reports, the global “extreme poverty” rate in 1990 was cut in half by 2010. Back in 1990, 1.85 billion people lived on less than $1.90 per day, but by 2013, the figure had dropped to 767 million such people—meaning that more than a billion people had been lifted out of crushing poverty.

After the Great Recession, world unemployment decreased from 2009-2015, according to the World Bank, though it is estimated to have crept up slightly in 2016-17. Again, the Pope’s woeful tale of growing unemployment and increasing poverty is nonsense.

But the world is a difficult place. In the underdeveloped world, the range and quality of goods available is extremely limited, and $1.90 represents bare subsistence, yet it’s a condition that exceeds the historical norm in many places. Movement above that threshold can represent a meaningful improvement in economic well-being.

Francis may lack an appreciation for the general enrichment in material conditions that has been taking place over the last two centuries, which is ongoing, or perhaps he believes that even greater achievements are easily within reach but for certain injustices, though he offers no qualifications. Perhaps he is mistakenly generalizing specific instances of exploitation in the underdeveloped world, which often occur with the explicit blessing of the state apparatus in exchange for kickbacks.

Rights and Markets

Even more egregious is the Pope’s presumption that private markets are at fault for any stagnation that he has identified. A notable difference between countries with successful, growing economies and those mired in stagnation is the degree to which their citizens enjoy freedoms, especially economic freedom. That is a well-established empirical fact, as Murphy explains. But the Pontiff goes further with preposterous dogma on the meaning of human rights. Again, from Murphy:

“Although inspired by concern for the poor and the marginalized, the Vatican’s message is seriously flawed…. On a conceptual level, Pope Francis posits a false dichotomy between economic freedom and human rights. … ‘Economic freedom must not prevail over the practical freedom of man and over his rights, and the market must not be absolute, but honour the exigencies of justice.’ 

What does the concept of “economic freedom” entail? It means freedom to work in any occupation of one’s choice, without permission from the government, and certainly without being conscripted into service against one’s will. It means the freedom to start a business. It means the freedom to keep what you have produced, without having your assets seized by a rapacious regime. It means the freedom to trade with people who live in another country. It means the rule of law, where contracts are interpreted fairly and government officials can’t exercise arbitrary power.

Economic freedom, more than anything else, means that individuals are endowed with property rights. To deny such rights is to banish any reward for work and differential rewards for work well done. If free individuals are rewarded, it is a matter of their own discretion as to whether they immediately consume the reward or save it in order to accumulate wealth. Yet Francis takes the misanthropic and childish view that economic freedom, private property and markets imply exploitation. He lacks a basic understanding of the revolutionary power of markets as a form of social organization.

Within just a few hundred years, a small fraction of the many millennia during which mankind was mired in poverty and pestilence, markets have dramatically transformed the existence of most human populations. Peaceful, arms length transactions made in mutual self-interest exploit only one thing: gains from trade that would otherwise be wasted. And only a form of social organization that enables those gains can dovetail with the human rights and justice that Francis so strongly desires. The denial of economic freedom, property rights, and self-interest prohibits those gains, however, denying humanity of the wealth necessary to achieve anything like justice.

Pope Francis is a redistributionist, and that goes well beyond the charitable giving, good works and service performed voluntarily by individuals. In fact, he is a statist, advocating an economic system in which property rights are abrogated, wholly or in part, and wages above a politically determined threshold are confiscated.

The Pope and Perón

Francis is often described as a “Perónist”, after Juan Perón of Argentina, the so-called “right-wing socialist” (and sometime associate of the murderous Che Guevara). Anyone familiar with the economic history of Argentina should know that’s not praise. Here is Maureen Mullarkey from the last link:

“Both Juan and Eva understood the enchantments of populism. A charismatic pair, they ruled more by dint of personality—personalismo—than democratic procedure. Ushers of an ‘option for the poor,’ they glorified the lower classes and denigrated the wealthy. (This, while they amassed a huge personal fortune from the Eva Perón Welfare Foundation.) …

When Francis speaks of ‘the people’ as a revolutionary vanguard that ‘overflows the logical procedures of formal democracy,’ he is lapsing toward that ecstatic Peronist vision of a Third Way—justicialismo. That the disposition and design of it ended in economic collapse and misery is nothing against the splendor of the mystique.

In his youth, Francis absorbed the myth but not its lessons. Chief among them is how much Argentina’s fiscal catastrophe owed to an extravagant welfare system that favored enforced wealth redistribution over development. Among the many factors of Argentina’s historic economic crisis, one cries for attention: Perón’s increasing reliance on redistributing income, not only between industries and occupations but between skilled and unskilled workers.

For further perspective on Francis, Perónism, and the disastrous Argentine “experiment”, see this piece by Daniel J. Mitchell.

For many years, naive Marxists have accepted the myth that central economic planners could and would direct productive and distributional activities with foresight, efficiency, and integrity. None of those is possible. The only form of social organization capable of registering and processing the myriad and dynamic signals on preferences and scarcity is free market capitalism. It is the only system capable of spontaneously harnessing appropriate responses based on the complex incentives faced by consumers and producers, and all at a minimal administrative cost for society, free of the government intervention that typifies the Peronist welfare state and corporatism.

Conclusion

Pope Francis should know better than to make claims having no empirical support. He should also have the wisdom to understand and advocate for the empowering nature of private property rights and markets. Elevating the human condition is possible only by allowing people to be free — economically free — and endowed with opportunities to earn private rewards and build wealth. Francis should realize that the massive private gains afforded by the market mechanism enable rewards which spill over, inuring to the benefit of parties external to a given exchange. On the other hand, state domination and control of economic activity gives over decision-making to selfish and ill-informed public commandants, who are all too pleased to grant special advantages to those in a position to return private favors. Such graft and mismanagement of resources comes at the expense of others. That way lies decay and a return to the much more brutal conditions of the past, unlike the mutually beneficial promise of market exchange.

Bankers, Risk and the Rents of Slippery Skin

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Risk taking is important to the economic success of a nation. Creative energy demands it, and it is critical to achieving economic growth and wealth creation. But it’s obviously possible to take too much risk or risks that are ill-considered, and that is all the more likely when risk-takers are absolved of the consequences of their actions. That is, healthy risk-taking and responsibility are inextricably linked. One can’t truly be said to take a risk if the cost of failure is borne by another party. It’s easy to understand why risk-taking becomes excessive or misdirected when that is the case.

Risk Shifting

There are various ways in which a party can parlay risky undertakings into easy gains by shifting the risks to others. For example, any piece of merchandise comes with the risk that it will not perform as advertised. Some traders might be tempted to sell unreliable merchandise and shift risk to the buyer without recourse. This is an area in which we must rely on a bulwark of private governance: caveat emptor. On the other hand, government tends to subsidize risk-taking in various ways: limited liability under the corporate form of business organization, bank deposit insurance, bankruptcy laws, the implicit government guarantee on mortgage assets, and the “too-big-to-fail” mentality of government bailouts.

Whose Skin In the Game?

These are examples of what Nassim Taleb bemoans as the failure to have “skin in the game”. The quoted expression happens to be the title of his new book. I have both praised and castigated Taleb’s work in the past. He made an interesting contribution about the nature and risk of extreme events in his book “Black Swan”, such as his application of so-called “fat tails” in probability distributions, though some have claimed the ideas were anything but original. I was highly critical of Taleb’s alarmist hyperbole on the effects of GMOs. In the present case, however, he considers “the asymmetry of risk bearing” to be a major social problem, and I’m generally in agreement with the point. The most interesting part of the brief discussion at the link is the following:

In Taleb’s universe, the fieriest circle of hell is reserved for bankers and neoconservatives. ‘The best thing that could happen to society is the bankruptcy of Goldman Sachs,’ he tells me. ‘Banking is rent-seeking of industrial proportions.’ Taleb, who became rich as a derivatives trader, is not a foe of capitalism but of ‘cronyism’. ‘If you’re taking risks, God bless you. This is why I accept inequality. I’ve seen people go from trader to cab driver and back again.’

Banks are a prominent example of the risk-shifting phenomenon. First of all, banking institutions are not required to hold much capital against their assets. In fact, recently banks have had average equity of less than 6% of assets. That’s much higher than during the financial crisis of ten years ago, but it is still rather thin and hardly represents much “skin in the game”.

Fractional Reserves

It should come as no surprise that a bank’s assets are funded largely by account balances held by depositors (liabilities), and not by equity capital. But your bank balance is not kept as cash in the vault. Instead, it is loaned out to the bank’s credit clients or used to purchase securities. This is facilitated by “fractional reserve banking”, whereby banks need only keep a fraction of their depositors’ money on hand as cash (or in their own reserve deposit accounts with the Federal Reserve). This generally works well on a day-to-day basis because depositors seldom ask to redeem more than a small fraction of their money on a given day.

Reserve requirements are set by the Federal Reserve and range from 0-10%, depending on the size of a banks’ deposit account balances. At the upper figure, a dollar of new cash deposits would allow a bank to extend new loans of up to $0.90. This legal practice divides many in the economics profession. Some believe it represents fraud rather than sound banking. This article by Frank Hollenbeck at the Mises Canada web site states that it is improper for a bank to lend a depositor’s money to others:

“Suppose you lived in the 18th century and had 100 ounces of gold. Its heavy and you do not live in a safe neighborhood, so you decide to bring it to a goldsmith for safekeeping. In exchange for this gold, the goldsmith gives you ten tickets where eachis clearly marked as claims against 10 ounces. …

… Quickly the goldsmith realizes there is an easy, fraudulent, way to get rich: just lend out the gold to someone else by creating another 10 tickets. Since the tickets are rarelyredeemed, the goldsmith figures he can run this scam for a very long time. Of course, it is not his gold, but since it is in his vault, he can act as though it is his money to use. This is fractional reserve banking with a voluntary reserve requirement of 50%. Today, modern US banks have a reserve requirement of between 0% and 10%. This is also how the banking systemcan create money out of thin air, or basically counterfeit money, and steal the purchasing power from others without actually having to produce real goods and services.”

Another aspect of the argument against fractional reserves is that it creates economic instability, fueling booms and busts as the quantity of money in circulation sometimes exceeds or falls short of the needs of the public. Many authorities have taken a negative view of fractional reserve banking through the years: Irving Fisher, Milton Friedman, John Cochrane, Ralph Musgrave, and Laurence Kotlikoff, to name a few prominent economists (see this recent paper by Musgrave).

In Defense of Fractional Reserves

Others have defended fractional reserves as a practice that has and would again arise in a free market environment. According to this view, depositors would accept the logic of allowing banks to lend a portion of the funds in their accounts in order to generate income, rather than charging larger fees for “storage” and administration. If the depositing public is aware of the risk and has competing choices among banks, then the argument that banks expose depositors to excessive risk via fractional reserves is moot. Fractional reserves can exist in a private money economy in which competitive pressures reward banks (and their privately circulating notes) having sound lending practices. In fact, some would say that the very idea of a 100% reserve requirement is an unacceptable government intrusion into the private relationship between banks and their customers. All of that is true.

Some have compared fractional reserve banking to the sale of insurance. Consumers buy insurance to take advantage of pooled risk, but they have no expectation of a refund unless they incur the kind of insured loss in question. Bank depositors, on the other hand, expect a return of their funds in-full. Yes, low risk is an attribute they desire, and pooling across the withdrawal needs of many depositors is one reason why banks can invest and pass a part of the return on to depositors, both in interest and reduced fees. So, despite the differing needs and expectations of their customers, there is some validity to the comparison of insurers to fractional-reserve bankers.

Amplification of Shifted Risks

Do fractional reserves allow banks to take risks without having skin in the game? Absolutely! With as little as 6% equity at risk, banks have relatively little to lose relative to depositors. Yes, banks pay the FDIC to insure deposits, and premiums are higher for riskier banks. However, not all deposits are insured by the FDIC. More importantly, at the end of 2017, the entire FDIC deposit insurance fund was about 0.7% of commercial bank assets. One big bank failure would wipe it out, or a few hundred small ones. That’s well within the realm of possibility and historical experience. So, where does that leave depositors? Their skin is very much in the game, and the game is about the risks taken by banks in investing depositors’ funds.

We now live in the era of “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF), whereby large banks (and sometimes industrial firms) are viewed as so “systemically important” that they cannot be allowed to fail. Taxpayers must bail them out in the event they become insolvent. Thus, taxpayers have skin in the game. Banks collect rents to the extent that their returns exceed those commensurate with the risks for which they are actually “on the hook”.

Another avenue through which banks off-load risk is the extent to which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are still presumed to have the federal government’s implicit guarantee against default on the mortgage debt they purchase from banks. That is beyond the scope of the present discussion, however. And I have not discussed the role of large investment banks in the capital markets. That’s a whole other dimension of the story. This article by Guatam Mukunda in the Harvard Business Review provides a perspective on rent seeking in investment banking.

Conclusion

The combination of deposit insurance, TBTF and other risk-insulating subsidies, layered on top of a fractional reserve banking system, places banks into Taleb’s “fieriest circle of hell”. These factors blunt bank incentives to manage risk effectively as well as consumer incentives to conduct adequate due diligence in their banking relationships. It means that risk is not priced properly, because banks are likely to ignore risks from which they are shielded. Therefore, banks may allocate resources into excessively risky uses. The consequences for depositors and taxpayers can be dramatic.

Fractional reserves are not “fraud” in the sense that the system has unsuspecting victims. Anyone who has watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” knows that banks lend your deposits to others. But fractional reserves magnify the risk-mitigating privileges conferred upon the banking industry by government through various mechanisms. This “risk-cleansing” is converted to rents and collected by banks for their shareholders, but the risks are still borne by society. To the extent that fractional reserves create instability, deposit insurance is viewed as a necessity, but banks should pay a market premium to an insurer to cover the actual risk inherent in the system. Too-big-to-fail should end, as should the implicit subsidy collected by banks through the government-sponsored enterprises.

The Master Negotiator: I’ll Beat Myself Till You Accept My Terms!

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As if you needed more evidence that governments are incompetent, look no further than trade policy: public officials the world over are almost universally ignorant regarding the effects of international trade and trade imbalances. In this sense, the Trump Administration’s new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are in keeping with the long history of public sector foibles on trade. This phenomenon stems from an unhealthy and obsessive focus on the well-being of producers without regard to the implications of policy for consumers. Warren Meyer of Coyote Blog offers an evaluation of Chinese trade policy, which he mischievously (I believe) claims was written by a Chinese blogger on a “sister blog” called “Panda Blog“. Despite Meyer’s playfulness, the post is instructive:

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States. The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, … each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers. A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called ‘dumping’ represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts. And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange. Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

The very idea of a trade deficit is often used to intimate a threat to a nation’s economic health. Conversely, a trade surplus is used to suggest that a nation is achieving great economic success. Both contentions are nonsense. Here is more from “Panda Blog“:

“We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses. These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China. In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China’s subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much. They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth. … They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress’s insane deficit spending. They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China! This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled American media. After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China’s economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa.

By the way, those “quotes” from “Panda Blog” appeared on Coyote Blog 12 years ago!

All nations tend to play these trade games to one extent or another. But protectionist actions always harm a nation’s consumers more than they help producers, a proposition that is easy to demonstrate using a simple supply and demand diagram. While the class of consumers is broader than the class of producers, ultimately “producer” and “consumer” are different roles played by the same individuals. So protectionism is always harmful to a nation, on balance. Furthermore, retaliation against another nation for its dim-witted trade barriers also harms the retaliating nation’s consumers more than it helps its producers, and that’s true regardless of whether retaliation begets reciprocal actions.

Of course, producers are generally in a better position than consumers to grease the political skids in their favor. In a separate post, Meyer notes that protectionist trade policies are rooted in cronyism. The costs to society are very real, but they tend to be diffuse and therefore less obvious to most consumers.

A lot of the media seems to believe the biggest reason they are bad is that they will incite retaliatory tariffs from other countries, which they almost certainly will.  But even if no one retaliated, even if the tariffs were purely unilateral, they would still be bad. In case after case, they are justified as increasing the welfare of a certain number of workers in targeted industries, but they hurt the welfare of perhaps 100x more people who consume or work for companies that consume the targeted products. Prices will rise for everyone and choices will be narrowed.

A couple of points deserve emphasis in relation to my last post on Trump’s tariff action:

  • In terms of jobs, the tariffs announced by President Trump present a very poor risk-reward tradeoff (WSJ article is gated):

The policy point is that Mr. Trump’s tariffs are trying to revive a world of steel production that no longer exists. He is taxing steel-consuming industries that employ 6.5 million and have the potential to grow more jobs to help a declining industry that employs only 140,000.

  • Stephen Mihm discusses ways in which the U.S. steel industry squandered its superiority in the post-World War II era. Much of Mihm’s article is devoted to the industry’s failure to upgrade to new production technologies. Interestingly, however, it fails to mention the damaging role played by unions in the process. “Dumping” had very little to do with it.
  • Finally, Pierre Lemieux takes a closer look at the national security argument for trade barriers. He concludes that it is fallacious. Of course, it is an excuse for cronyism. Protectionism harms the competitiveness of the protected industries, which actually undermines national security. And protectionism is usually unnecessary on close examination. In the case of steel, for example, national defense and homeland security use only about 3% of American steel production. Beyond that simple fact, the argument is dangerously open-ended. Almost anything can be represented as critical to national security: steel, food, clothing, and many other categories. Even human resources.

Today, Trump announced that Canada and Mexico will be exempt from the new tariffs while a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is underway. That’s better, but this carve-out exempts only 25% of U.S. steel imports. Perhaps Australia will be granted an exemption as well, but additional carve-outs will prompt further increases in tariffs on non-exempt imports. Trump also said that U.S. flexibility in applying the new tariffs to allies will depend on their commitments for military spending!

Thus, rather than maintaining the pretense that trade relationships are about economics, the administration has conceded that the tariffs and the exemption process will be transparently political, never a prescription for efficient resource allocation. Moreover, U.S. trading partners are likely to be reluctant to test the politics of modifying their own trade manipulations at home. Indeed, the politics may dictate retaliation, rather than concessions. In any case, the governments of our trading partners are as clueless on trade as Trump, his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and his economic advisor Peter Navarro, or they would never intervene in private trade decisions to begin with.