Deconstructing the Health Care Administrative State

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A leftist friend chided me early this year for my foolish optimism about repeal and replacement of Obamacare. I have to give her credit. She said the GOP did not have a viable plan — I’m sure she meant that both as a matter of policy and politics. I pointed to the several “plans” that were extant at the time, and even some that I thought might soon be formalized as legislation. I wrote off her skepticism as a failure on her part to understand an approach to health care policy less statist than the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Like so many on the left, she probably has trouble conceiving of any plan not relying on centralized control. Apparently, quite a few Republicans share that blind spot. Nevertheless, I was certainly naive about the prospects of getting anything through Congress quickly.

But the battle is not lost, even now. It should be obvious to everyone, as Michael Tanner notes, that the health care debate is far from over. The individual insurance market is in bad shape, reeling from the unfavorable balance of risks created by community rating, mandated coverage and guaranteed issue. As Robert Laszewski notes, the attrition in the individual market is dominated by individuals not eligible for Obamacare subsidies. While legislation is a much longer shot than I imagined back in January, there remain a variety of ways in which Obamacare’s most deleterious provisions can be neutralized and replaced to create a more market-oriented environment. And though it’s too bad that it might come to this, as the situation continues to devolve, new legislation might gain viability.

Tanner mentions a variety of administrative decisions sitting squarely in the hands of the Trump Administration: insurance company subsidies? congressional exemption from Obamacare? promotion of open enrollment? enforcing the individual mandate? And there are many others. Tim Huelskamp provides a link to The Heartland Institute‘s “complete healthcare reform toolbox“. He says:

“During congressional testimony in March, my former House colleague and HHS Secretary Tom Price pointed out that the law offers him multiple opportunities to do just that: ‘Fourteen hundred and forty-two times … the secretary ‘shall’ or the secretary ‘may” make changes to the Affordable Care Act. The Price is right! Under Obamacare, he has tremendous power and latitude not only to dismantle the ACA but to replace it with health care options that enhance individual freedom.

Let Americans pick their doctors, choose a ‘skinny’ health insurance plan, or even purchase a plan from a company based in another state. The Trump administration can waive penalties on individuals and businesses who simply can’t afford Obama’s mandates.  HHS can give a green light to any state that wants to begin restoring choice and freedom for their citizens without federal bureaucrat interference.

Another productive avenue is deregulation of health care providers themselves. One of the worst aspects of the ACA is its reliance on so-called Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), which were intended to encourage greater cooperation and efficiency among providers. The reality is that the ACO rules imposed by HHS are leading to higher costs, greater financial risk and increased concentration in the provision of medical care. Patients, also, are often penalized by the monopolizing effects, and because they might not be able to continue seeing the doctor of their choice under the limits of the health plans available. Moreover, the ACA infringes upon the doctor-patient relationship by restricting the doctor’s authority and the patient’s choices about tests and treatments that can be provided. Many of these rules and restrictions can be undone by administrative action.

Finally, before we completely dismiss the possibility of a legislative solution, there is a new Republican health care bill to consider in the Senate. However, it is just as limited in its reforms, or more, than the bill that passed in the House and the one that failed in the Senate. It’s unlikely to go anywhere soon. There could be later opportunities to consider various pieces of reform legislation, especially if the Trump Administration makes good on its promises to roll back administrative rules put in place to implement the ACA. Sadly, for now we wait in vain for legislators and President Trump to overcome the intellectual failure at the root of the inaction on ending Obamacare. The lesson is that in human affairs, central planning doesn’t work!

The Comparative Human Advantage

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There are so many talented individuals in this world, people who can do many things well. In fact, they can probably do everything better than most other people in an absolute sense. In other words, they can produce more of everything at a given cost than most others. Yet amazingly, they still find it advantageous to trade with others. How can that be?

It is due to the law of comparative advantage, one of the most important lessons in economics. It’s why we specialize and trade with others for almost all of ours needs and wants, even if we are capable of doing all things better than them. Here’s a simple numerical example… don’t bail out on me (!):

  • Let’s say that you can produce either 1,000 bushels of barley or 500 bushels of hops in a year, or any combination of the two in those proportions. Each extra bushel of hops you produce involves the sacrifice of two bushels of barley.
  • Suppose that I can produce only 500 bushels of barley and 400 bushels of hops in a year, or any combination in those proportions. It costs me only 1.25 bushels of barley to produce an extra bushel of hops.
  • You can produce more hops than I can, but hops are costlier for you at the margin: 2 bushels of barley to get an extra bushel of hops, more than the 1.25 bushels it costs me.
  • That means you can probably obtain a better combination (for you) of barley and hops by specializing in barley and trading some of it to me for hops. You don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s just not in your self-interest even if you have an absolute advantage over me in everything!

This is not a coincidental outcome. Exploiting opportunities for trade with those who face lower marginal costs effectively increases our real income. In production, we tend to specialize — to do what we do — because we have a comparative advantage. We specialize because our costs are lower at the margin in those activities. And that’s also what motivates trade with others. That’s why nations should trade with others. And, as I mentioned about one week ago here, that’s why we have less to fear from automation than many assume.

Certain tasks will be automated as increasingly productive “robots” (or their equivalents) justify the costs of the resources required to produce and deploy them. This process will be accelerated to the extent that government makes it appear as if robots have a comparative advantage over humans via minimum wage laws and other labor market regulations. As a general rule, employment will be less vulnerable to automation if wages are flexible. 

What if one day, as Elon Musk has asserted, robots can do everything better than us? Will humans have anywhere to work? Yes, if human labor is less costly at the margin. Once deployed, a robot in any application has other potential uses, and even a robot has just 24 hours in a day. Diverting a robot into another line of production involves the sacrifice of its original purpose. There will always be uses in which human labor is less costly at the margin, even with lower absolute productivity, than repurposing a robot or the resources needed to produce a new robot. That’s comparative advantage! That will be true for many of the familiar roles we have today, to say nothing of the unimagined new roles for humans that more advanced technology will bring.

Some have convinced themselves that a fully-automated economy will bring an end to scarcity itself. Were that to occur, there would be no tradeoffs except one kind: how you use your time (barring immortality). Superabundance would cause the prices of goods and services to fall to zero; real incomes would approach infinity. In fact, income as a concept would become meaningless. Of course, you will still be free to perform whatever “work” you enjoy, physical or mental, as long as you assign it a greater value than leisure at the margin.

Do I believe that superabundance is realistic? Not at all. To appreciate the contradictions inherent in the last paragraph, think only of the scarcity of talented human performers and their creativity. Perhaps people will actually enjoy watching other humans “perform” work. They always have! If the worker’s time has any other value (and it is scarce to them), what can they collect in return for their “performance”? Adulation and pure enjoyment of their “work”? Some other form of payment? Not everything can be free, even in an age of superabundance.

Scarcity will always exist to one extent or another as long as our wants are insatiable and our time is limited. As technology solves essential problems, we turn our attention to higher-order needs and desires, including various forms of risk reduction. These pursuits are likely to be increasingly resource intensive. For example, interplanetary or interstellar travel will be massively expensive, but they are viewed as desirable pursuits precisely because resources are, and will be, scarce. Discussions of the transition of civilizations across the Kardashev scale, from “Type 0” (today’s Earth) up to “Type III” civilizations, capable of harnessing the energy equivalent of the luminosity of its home galaxy, are fundamentally based on presumed efforts to overcome scarcity. Type III is a long way off, at best. The upshot of ongoing scarcity is that opportunity costs of lines of employment will remain positive for both robots and humans, and humans will often have a comparative advantage.

Ridley’s Case For Free Market Capitalism

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Matt Ridley delivered an excellent lecture in July addressing a generally unappreciated distinction: markets and free enterprise vs. corporatism. Many don’t seem to know the difference. Ridley offers an insightful discussion of the very radical and liberating nature of free markets. The success of the free market system in alleviating poverty and increasing human well-being is glaringly obvious in historical perspective, but it’s become too easy for people to take market processes for granted. It’s also too easy to misinterpret outcomes in a complex society in which producers must navigate markets as well as a plethora of regulatory obstacles and incentives distorted by government.

I agree with almost everything Ridley has to say in this speech, but I think he does the language of economics no favors. I do not like his title: “The Case For Free Market Anti-Capitalism”. Free Markets are great, of course, and they are fundamental to the successful workings of a capitalistic system. Not a corporatist system, but capitalism! Ridley seems to think the latter is a dirty word. As if to anticipate objections like mine, Ridley says:

‘Capitalism’ and ‘markets’ mean the same thing to most people. And that is very misleading. Commerce, enterprise and markets are – to me – the very opposite of corporatism and even of ‘capitalism’, if by that word you mean capital-intensive organisations with monopolistic ambitions.

No, that is not what I mean by capitalism. Commerce, free enterprise, markets, capitalism and true liberalism all imply that you are free to make your own production and consumption decisions without interference by the state. Karl Marx coined the word “capitalism” as a derogation, but the word was co-opted long ago to describe a legitimate and highly successful form of social organization. I prefer to go on using “capitalism” as synonymous with free markets and liberalism, though the left is unlikely to abandon the oafish habit of equating liberalism with state domination.

Capital is man-made wealth, like machines and buildings. It can be used more intensively or less in production and commerce. But capitalism is underpinned by the concept of private property. You might own capital as a means of production, or you might operate an enterprise with very little capital, but the rewards of doing so belong to you. Saving those rewards by reinvesting in your business or investing in other assets allows you to accumulate capital. That’s a good way to build or expand a business that is successful in meeting the needs of its customers, and it’s a good way to provide for oneself later in life.

Capitalism does not imply monopolistic ambitions unless you incorrectly equate market success with monopoly power. Market success might mean that you are an innovator or just better at what you do than many of your competitors. It usually means that your customers are pleased. The effort to innovate or do your job well speaks to an ambition rooted in discovery, service and pride. In contrast, the businessperson with monopolistic ambitions is willing to achieve those ends by subverting normal market forces, including attempts to enlist the government in protecting their position. That’s known as corporatism, rent-seeking, and crony capitalism. It is not real capitalism, and Ridley should not confuse these terms. But he also says this:

Free-market ideas are often the very opposite of business and corporate interests.

Most fundamental to business interests is to earn a profit, and the profit motive is an essential feature of markets and the operation of the invisible hand that is so beneficial to society. Why Ridley would claim that business interests are inimical to free market ideals is baffling.

I hope and believe that Ridley is merely guilty of imprecision, and that he intended to convey that certain paths to profit are inconsistent with free market ideals. And in fact, he follows that last sentence with the following, which is quite right: capitalism is subverted by corporatism:

We need to call out not just the worst examples of crony capitalism, but an awful lot of what passes for capitalism today — a creature of subsidy that lobbies governments for regulatory barriers to entry.

And, of course, crony capitalism is not capitalism!

Now I’ll get off my soapbox and briefly return to the topic of an otherwise beautiful lecture by Ridley. He makes a number of fascinating points, including the following, which is one of the most unfortunate and paradoxical results in the history of economic and social thought:

Somewhere along the line, we have let the market, that most egalitarian, liberal, disruptive, distributed and co-operative of phenomena, become known as a reactionary thing. It’s not. It is the most radical and liberating idea ever conceived: that people should be free to exchange goods and services with each other as they please, and thereby work for each other to improve each other’s lives.

In the first half of the 19th century this was well understood. To be a follower of Adam Smith was to be radical left-winger, against imperialism, militarism, slavery, autocracy, the established church, corruption and the patriarchy.

Political liberation and economic liberation went hand in hand. Small government was a progressive proposition. Insofar as there was a revolution during the Industrial Revolution, it was the weakening of the power of the aristocracy and the landed interests, and the liberation of the bulk of the people.

Do read the whole thing!

Mr. Musk Often Goes To Washington

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Elon Musk says we should be very scared of artificial intelligence (AI). He believes it poses an “existential risk” to humanity and  calls for “proactive regulation” of AI to limit its destructive potential. His argument encompasses “killer robots”: “A.I. & The Art of Machine War” is a good read and is consistent with Musk’s message. Military applications already involve autonomous machine decisions to terminate human life, but the Pentagon is weighing whether decisions to kill should be made only by humans. Musk also focuses on more subtle threats from machine intelligence: It could be used to disrupt power and communication systems, to manipulate human opinion in dangerous ways, and even to sow panic via cascades of “fake robot news”, leading to a breakdown in civil order. Musk has also expressed a fear that AI could have disastrous consequences in commercial applications with runaway competition for resources. He sounds like a businessmen who really dislikes competition! After all, market competition is self-regulating and self-limiting. The most “destructive” effects occur only when competitors come crying to the state for relief!

Several prominent tech leaders and AI experts have disputed Musk’s pessimistic view of AI, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. Schmidt says:

My question to you is: don’t you think the humans would notice this, and start turning off the computers? We’d have a race between humans turning off computers, and the AI relocating itself to other computers, in this mad race to the last computer, and we can’t turn it off, and that’s a movie. It’s a movie. The state of the earth currently does not support any of these scenarios.

Along those lines, Google’s AI lab known as “DeepMind” has developed an AI off-switch, otherwise known as the “big red button“. Obviously, this is based on human supervision of AI processes and on ensuring the interruptibility of AI processes.

Another obvious point is that AI, ideally, would operate under an explicit objective function(s). This is the machine’s “reward system”, as it were. Could that reward system always be linked to human intent? To a highly likely non-negative human assessment of outcomes? Improved well-being? That’s not straightforward in a world of uncertainty, but it is at least clear that a relatively high probability of harm to humans should impose a large negative effect on any intelligent machine’s objective function.

Those kinds of steps can be regarded as regulatory recommendations, which is what Musk has advocated. Musk has outlined a role for regulators as gatekeepers who would review and ensure the safety of any new AI application. Ronald Bailey reveals the big problem with this approach:

This may sound reasonable. But Musk is, perhaps unknowingly, recommending that AI researchers be saddled with the precautionary principle. According to one definition, that’s ‘the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.’ Or as I have summarized it: ‘Never do anything for the first time.’

Regulation is the enemy of innovation, and there are many ways in which current and future AI applications can improve human welfare. Musk knows this. He is the consummate innovator and big thinker, but he is also skilled at leveraging the power of government to bring his ideas to fruition. All of his major initiatives, from Tesla to SpaceX, to Hyperloop, battery technology and solar roofing material, have gained viability via subsidies.

But another hallmark of crony capitalists is a willingness to use regulation to their advantage. Could proposed regulation be part of a hidden agenda for Musk? For example, what does Musk mean when he says, “There’s only one AI company that worries me” in the context of dangerous AI? His own company(ies)? Or another? One he does not own?

Musk’s startup OpenAI is a non-profit engaged in developing open-source AI technology. Musk and his partners in this venture argue that widespread, free availability of AI code and applications would prevent malicious use of AI. Musk knows that his companies can use AI to good effect as well as anyone. And he also knows that open-source AI can neutralize potential advantages for competitors like Google and Facebook. Perhaps he hopes that his first-mover advantage in many new industries will lead to entrenched market positions just in time for the AI regulatory agenda to stifle competitive innovation within his business space, providing him with ongoing rents. Well played, cronyman!

Any threat that AI will have catastrophic consequences for humanity is way down the road, if ever. In the meantime, there are multiple efforts underway within the machine learning community (which is not large) to prevent or at least mitigate potential dangers from AI. This is taking place independent of any government action, and so it should remain. That will help to maximize the potential for beneficial innovation.

Musk’s also asserts that robots will someday be able to do “everything better than us”, thus threatening the ability of the private sector to provide income to individuals across a broad range of society. This is not at all realistic. There are many detailed and nuanced tasks to which robots will not be able to attend without human collaboration. Creativity and the “human touch” will always have value and will always compete in input markets. Even if robots can do everything better than humans someday, an absolute advantage is not determinative. Those who use robot-intensive production process will still find it advantageous to use labor, or to trade with those utilizing more labor-intensive production processes. Such are the proven outcomes of the law of comparative advantage.

 

 

Infrastructure: Public Waste & Private Rationality

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The exaggerated deterioration of American infrastructure is the basis of a perfect bipartisan spending coalition. Proposed public spending on capital such as roads, bridges, high-speed rail, locks, dams, and water and wastewater systems is of obvious value to those who would build it, but the benefits for the public are not always beyond question. As Jeffrey Harding notes at the link, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rates U.S. infrastructure as seriously deficient, but it is in their interests to do so. The news media finds the kind of horror story promoted by ASCE hard to resist:

What they don’t tell you is that if you look at transportation issues over time, things have been getting better, not worse. … The Reason Foundation’s studies on state-owned highways (they are widely recognized as being leaders in this field) and other studies on highways and bridges reveal that there have been significant improvements of infrastructure measures like road and bridge quality and fatalities over the past 20 or 30 years. The facts are that, on the state level, overall spending on highways doubled during that period, and overall measures of highway transportation have improved.

The point of building new infrastructure is the future flow of service it can offer. Creating construction jobs is not the point. If it were, the government could hire workers to dig holes with spoons, to paraphrase Milton Friedman. Nor should the timing of infrastructure investment be dependent on employment conditions. Unworthy projects are not made worthy by high unemployment. Politicians often attempt to sell projects to the public on exactly that basis, yet as Harding points out, increases in public spending on infrastructure seldom happen in a timely manner, and they often fail to create jobs in any case. This is partly due to the regulatory morass that must be navigated to get approval for new infrastructure, and also because the skilled labor required to repair or add infrastructure is usually occupied already, even when the jobless rate is elevated. In addition, expensive infrastructure projects are vulnerable to graft, which is compounded by the many layers of approval that are typically required.

Harding questions the ASCE’s insistence that inadequacy of our infrastructure is inhibiting U.S. productivity growth. If there is any truth to this assertion, it is probably more strongly related to how infrastructure is priced to users than to the state of the facilities themselves. For example, road congestion in certain areas is a chronic problem that can only be solved via efficient pricing, not by endless attempts to expand capacity. Not only does efficient pricing ease congestion, it enhances the profitability of improvements as well as other modes of transportation. A proposal to add infrastructure that is destined to be mis-priced to users is a plan to waste resources.

Donald Trump conveniently bought into and re-sold the notion that America’s infrastructure is unsound, and he is likely to garner support for an infrastructure initiative on both sides of the aisle. He would undoubtedly include the proposed wall at the Mexican border as an infrastructural need, but we’ll leave the wisdom (and payback) of that project aside for purposes of this discussion. As I’ve discussed before on Sacred Cow Chips, President Trump has at least learned that infrastructure is not and should not be the exclusive domain of the public sector. Trump’s infrastructure proposal calls for tax credits for “public-private partnerships” (Harding’s acronym: P3s). As Harding says:

P3s let private companies design, build, and operate new infrastructure projects. According to Bob Poole, the Reason Foundation’s expert on privatization, P3s will result in projects that will be more economically productive (no bridges to nowhere) and would be much more cost effective. … These projects would be based on privatized systems which generate an income stream, and are financed by revenue bonds. Thus, the risks of these projects are shifted to private companies rather than to taxpayers.

P3s solve several problems: they allocate private resources toward facilities for which developers expect high demand and user willingness to pay; they avoid higher levels of general taxation, instead allocating costs to the cost causers (i.e., the users); they give users a more accurate measure of opportunity costs when considering alternatives; and they avoid overuse. Too often, users of public infrastructure pay nothing, or at most they pay enough to cover operating costs with very little contribution to capital costs. Ultimately, that makes the quality and service level delivered by the infrastructure unsustainable. Private developers are unlikely to invest in such boondoggles as long as taxpayers are not obliged to subsidize them.

The P3 tax credits in the Administration’s proposal would certainly represent a public contribution to the funding of a project, but the incentive provided by those credits helps avoid a much more substantial committment of public funds. Moreover, the credits do not create the degree of forced economic stimulus that publicly executed projects often do. Rather, the availability of credits means that projects will be initiated when and if they are economically viable and profitable to do so. We can therefore dispense with the nonsensical goal of “job creation” and focus on the real problems that infrastructure investment can solve.

Some would argue that many types of infrastructure are too public in nature to be left to P3s. In other words, projects with pure public benefits would be under-provided by P3s due an unwillingness to pay by users of “the commons”. Yet there is no rule limiting the public role in the design of a public-private partnership, whether that refers to physical development, operation, or funding. Presumably, the more “public” (and non-exclusive) the benefits, the greater the share of development and maintenance costs that should be funded by government. Whether a piece of true public infrastructure should be funded is a standard question of public finance. Assuming it should, there is likely to be a significant role for private builders and operators. Finally, P3’s do not eliminate the potential for graft. Public review and ongoing regulation would still be demanded. In a sense, P3s are all formalized corporatist efforts, but a key difference relative to current practice is the use and risk of private capital rather than public funds. Ultimately, that won’t matter if failed developments are bailed out by public “partners”. The assets of a failed infrastructure project must be sold off to the highest bidder, presumably at a steep discount.

The standard narrative is that America suffers from substandard infrastructure is highly misleading. There are certainly needs that should be met, many with urgency, and there will always be a series of worthwhile repairs and replacements that require funding. Using P3s to accomplish these objectives demands recognition that 1) users typically derive significant private benefits from infrastructure; and 2) use is often underpriced, especially with respect to allocating capital costs. Infrastructure development can be encouraged by inducing private firms to put “skin in the game”. High-risk but potentially valuable projects might have trouble attracting private funds, of course, and that is as it should be. Politicians might ask taxpayers to fund such a project rather than shopping it to private developers. It therefore behooves voter/taxpayers to evaluate the benefits and sustainability of the project with the utmost skepticism.

Postscript: The image at the top of this post prompts me to reflect on whether a starship is infrastructure. It is certainly a transportation system. Is it a public good? In a large sense, the diversification offered by spreading humanity across multiple worlds can be viewed as a benefit to mankind in the future. But rides on the starship would offer private benefits, depending on one’s sense of adventure as well as the prospects for the home planet. Those private benefits, and the voluntary payments they induce, just might get it done.

The Tyranny of the Job Saviors

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Many jobs have been lost to technology over the last few centuries, yet more people are employed today than ever before. Despite this favorable experience, politicians can’t help the temptation to cast aspersions at certain production technologies, constantly advocating intervention in markets to “save jobs”. Today, some serious anti-tech policy proposals and legislative efforts are underway: regional bans on autonomous vehicles, “robot taxes” (advocated by Bill Gates!!), and even continuing legal resistance to technology-enabled services such as ride sharing and home sharing. At the link above, James Pethokoukas expresses trepidation about one legislative proposal taking shape, sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), to create a federal review board with the potential to throttle innovation and the deployment of technology, particularly artificial intelligence.

Last week I mentioned the popular anxiety regarding automation and artificial intelligence in my post on the Universal Basic Income. This anxiety is based on an incomplete accounting of the “seen” and “unseen” effects of technological advance, to borrow the words of Frederic Bastiat, and of course it is unsupported by historical precedent. Dierdre McCloskey reviews the history of technological innovations and its positive impact on dynamic labor markets:

In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never got another job, unemployment would not be 5 percent, or 10 percent in a bad year. It would be 50 percent and climbing.

Each month in the United States—a place with about 160 million civilian jobs—1.7 million of them vanish. Every 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910. Not because people quit. The positions are no longer available. The companies go out of business, or get merged or downsized, or just decide the extra salesperson on the floor of the big-box store isn’t worth the costs of employment.

Robert Samuelson discusses a recent study that found that technological advance consistently improves opportunities for labor income. This is caused by cost reductions in the innovating industries, which are subsequently passed through to consumers, business profits, and higher pay to retained workers whose productivity is enhanced by the improved technology inputs. These gains consistently outweigh losses to those who are displaced by the new capital. Ultimately, the gains diffuse throughout society, manifesting in an improved standard of living.

In a brief, favorable review of Samuelson’s piece, Don Boudreaux adds some interesting thoughts on the dynamics of technological advance and capital-labor substitution:

… innovations release real resources, including labor, to be used in other productive activities – activities that become profitable only because of this increased availability of resources.  Entrepreneurs, ever intent on seizing profitable opportunities, hire and buy these newly available resources to expand existing businesses and to create new ones.  Think of all the new industries made possible when motorized tractors, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, improved food-packaging, and other labor-saving innovations released all but a tiny fraction of the workforce from agriculture.

Labor-saving techniques promote economic growth not so much because they increase monetary profits that are then spent but, instead, because they release real resources that are then used to create and expand productive activities that would otherwise be too costly.”

Those released resources, having lower opportunity costs than in their former, now obsolete uses, can find new and profitable uses provided they are priced competitively. Some displaced resources might only justify use after undergoing dramatic transformations, such as recycling of raw components or, for workers, education in new fields or vocations. Indeed, some of  those transformations are unforeeeable prior to the innovations, and might well add more value than was lost via displacement. But that is how the process of creative destruction often unfolds.

A government that seeks to intervene in this process can do only harm to the long-run interests of its citizens. “Saving a job” from technological displacement surely appeals to the mental and emotive mindset of the populist, and it has obvious value as a progressive virtue-signalling tool. These reactions, however, demonstrate a perspective limited to first-order, “seen” changes. What is less obvious to these observers is the impact of politically-induced tech inertia on consumers’ standard of living. This is accompanied by a stultifying impact on market competition, long-run penalization of the most productive workers, and a degradation of freedom from restraints on private decision-makers. As each “visible” advance is impeded, the negative impact compounds with the loss of future, unseen, but path-dependent advances that cannot ever occur.

Sell the Interstates and Poof — Get a Universal Basic Income

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Proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) seem to come up again and again. Many observers uncritically accept the notion that robots and automation will eliminate labor as a factor of production in the not-too-distant future. As a result, they cannot imagine how traditional wage earners, and even many salary earners, will get along in life without the helping hand of government. Those who own capital assets — machines, buildings and land — will have to be taxed to support UBI payments, according to this logic.

Even with artificial intelligence added to the mix, I view robot anxiety as overblown, but it makes for great headlines. The threat is likely no greater than the substitution of capital for labor that’s been ongoing since the start of the industrial revolution, and which ultimately led to the creation of more jobs in occupations that were never before imagined. See below for more on my skepticism for robot dystopia. For now, I’ll stipulate that human obsolescence will happen someday, or that a great many workers will be displaced by automation over an extended period. How will society manage with minimal rewards for labor? The question of distributing goods and services will depend more exclusively on the ownership of capital, or else it will be charity and/or government redistribution.

The UBI, as typically framed, is an example of the latter. However, a UBI needn’t require government to tax and redistribute income on an ongoing basis. Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith suggests that the government owns salable assets sufficient to fund a permanent UBI. He suggests privatizing the interstate highway system and selling off federal lands in the West. The proceeds could then be invested in a variety of assets to generate growth and income. Every American would receive a dividend check each year, under this plan.

Why a UBI?

Given the stipulation that human labor will become obsolete, the UBI is predicated on the presumption that the ownership of earning capital cannot diffuse through society to the working class in time to provide for them adequately. Working people who save are quite capable of accumulating assets, though government does them no favors via tax policy and manipulation of interest rates. But accumulating assets takes time, and it is fair to say that today’s distribution of capital would not support the current distribution of living standards without opportunities to earn labor income.

Still, a UBI might not be a good reason to auction public assets. That question depends more critically on the implicit return earned by those assets via government ownership relative to the gains from privatization, including the returns to alternative uses of the proceeds from a sale.

Objections to the UBI often center on the generally poor performance of government in managing programs, the danger of entrusting resources to the political process, and the corrosive effect of individual dependency. However, if government can do anything well at all, one might think it could at least cut checks. But even if we lay aside the simple issue of mismanagement, politics is a different matter. Over time, there is every chance that a UBI program will be modified as the political winds shift, that exceptions will be carved out, and that complex rules will be established. And that brings us back to the possibility of mismanagement. Even worse, it creates opportunities for rent seekers to skim funds or benefit indirectly from the program. In the end, these considerations might mean that the UBI will yield a poor return for society on the funds placed into the program, much as returns on major entitlements like Social Security are lousy.

Another area of concern is that policy should not discourage work effort while jobs still exist for humans. After all, working and saving is traditionally the most effective route to accumulating capital. Recipients of a UBI would not face the negative marginal work incentives associated with means-tested transfer payments because the UBI would not (should not) be dependent on income. It would go to the rich and poor alike. A UBI could still have a negative impact on labor supply via an income effect, however, depending on how individuals value incremental leisure versus consumption at a higher level of money income. On the whole, the UBI does not impart terrible incentive effects, but that is hardly a rationale for a UBI, let alone a reason to sell public assets.

Funding the UBI

We usually think of funding a UBI via taxes, and it’s well known that taxes harm productive incentives. If the trend toward automation is a natural response to a high return on capital, taxes on capital will retard the transition and might well inhibit the diffusion of capital ownership into lower economic strata. If your rationale for a UBI is truly related to automation and the obsolescence of labor, then funding a UBI should somehow take advantage of the returns to private capital short of taxing those returns away. This makes Smith’s idea more appealing as a funding mechanism.

Will there be a private investment appetite for highways and western land? Selling these assets would take time, of course, and it is difficult to know what bids they could attract. There is no question that toll roads can be profitable. Robert P. Murphy provides an informative discussion of private roads and takes issue with arguments against privatization, such as the presumptions of monopoly pricing and increased risk to drivers. Actually, privatization holds promise as a way of improving the efficiency of infrastructure use and upkeep. In fact, government mispricing of roads is a primary cause of congestion, and private operators have incentives to maintain and improve road safety and quality. Public land sales in the West are complex to the extent that existing mineral and grazing rights could be subject to dispute, and those sales might be unpopular with other landowners.

Once the assets are sold to investors, who will manage the UBI fund? Whether managed publicly or privately, the best arrangement would be no active trading management. Nevertheless, the appropriate mix of investments would be the subject of endless political debate. Every market downturn would bring new calls for conservatism. The level of distributions would also be a politically contentious issue. Dividend yields and price appreciation are not constant, and so it is necessary to determine a sustainable payout rate as well as if and when adjustments are needed. Furthermore, there must be some allowance to assure fund growth over time so that population growth, whatever the source, will not diminish the per capita payout.

Jesse Walker has a good retrospective on the history of “basic income” proposals and programs over time. He demonstrate that economic windfalls have frequently been the impetus for establishment of “rainy day” programs. Alaska, enabled by oil revenue, is unique in establishing a fund paying dividends to residents:

“From time to time a state will find itself awash in riches from natural resources. Some voices will suggest that the government not spend the new money at once but put some away for a rainy day. Some fraction of those voices will suggest it create a sovereign wealth fund to invest the windfall. And some fraction of that fraction will want the fund to pay dividends.

Now, there are all sorts of potential problems with government-run investment portfolios, as anyone who has followed California’s pension troubles can tell you. If you’re wary about mismanagement, you’ll be wary about states playing the market; they won’t all invest as conservatively as Alaska has.

Still, several states have such funds already—the most recent additions to the list are North Dakota and West Virginia—and the number may well grow. None has followed Juneau’s example and started paying dividends, but it is hardly unimaginable that someone else will eventually adopt an Alaska-style system.”

Human-Machine Collaboration

A world without human labor is unlikely to evolve. Automation, for the foreseeable future, can improve existing processes such as line tasks in manufacturing, order taking in fast food outlets, and even burger flipping. Declines in retail employment can also be viewed in this context, as internet sales have grown as a share of consumer spending. However, innovation itself cannot be automated. In today’s applications, the deployment and ongoing use of robots often requires human collaboration. Like earlier increases in capital intensity, automation today spurs the creation of new kinds of jobs. Operational technology now exists alongside information technology as an employment category.

I have addressed concerns about human obsolescence several times in the past (most recently here, and also here). Government must avoid policies that hasten automation, like drastic hikes in the minimum wage (see here and here). U.S. employment is at historic highs even though the process of automation has been underway in industry for a very long time. Today there are almost 6.4 million job vacancies in the U.S., so plenty of work is available. Again, new technologies certainly destroy some jobs, but they tend to create new jobs that were never before imagined and that often pay more than the jobs lost. Human augmentation will also provide an important means through which workers can add to their value in the future. And beyond the new technical opportunities, there will always be roles available in personal service. The human touch is often desired by consumers, and it might even be desirable on a social-psychological level.

Opportunity Costs

Finally, is a UBI the best use of the proceeds of public asset sales? That’s doubtful unless you truly believe that human labor will be obsolete. It might be far more beneficial to pay down the public debt. Doing so would reduce interest costs and allow taxpayer funds to flow to other programs (or allow tax reductions), and it would give the government greater borrowing capacity going forward. Another attractive alternative is to spend the the proceeds of asset sales on educational opportunities, especially vocational instruction that would enhance worker value in the new world of operational technology. Then again, the public assets in question have been funded by taxpayers over many years. Some would therefore argue that the proceeds of any asset sale should be returned to taxpayers immediately and, to the extent possible, in proportion to past taxes paid. The UBI just might rank last.

The Real Minimum Wage Is Always Zero

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Min Wage Denmark

A minimum wage study from Denmark reinforces the findings of the Seattle study released this week by economists at the University of Washington. Both studies conclude that increases in the minimum wage have negative effects on low-earners, at least for large increases in wage floors of the type advocated by “living wage” proponents. Alex Tabarrok provided commentary of both studies this week on the Marginal Revolution blog.

The Seattle study found that both employment and hours worked declined substantially among low-wage workers following the city’s minimum wage hikes. This became particularly clear after the most recent increase from $11 to $13 per hour. The average low-wage worker in Seattle lost $125 per month, according to the findings. The study has generally been praised for its detailed data and careful methodology.

The Danish study took advantage of the fact that the minimum wage rises by 40% on a worker’s 18th birthday. The chart above pretty much boils down the results. Employment drops by a third at age 18. Even worse, Tabarrok notes that after one year, 40% of workers who lose their jobs at age 18 are still unemployed, while 75% of those who keep their jobs at 18 are still employed. The fate of these two groups is likely driven by a gap in talent and skills, and that gap can only expand as the least-skilled are idled.

The minimum wage is a misguided policy that hurts those who can least afford it: low-wage, low-skilled workers. Firms forced to adjust to the higher mandated wage are worse off as well, not to mention their customers, who are likely to face higher prices and degraded service levels. Even those who remain employed at the minimum wage might suffer under less generous job perks and working conditions. Today, large increases in the wage floor can be expected to bring premature automation of jobs.

In the real world, workers of low skill vary tremendously in their actual ability, prior training and discipline to perform in a structured environment. Many of these individuals simply cannot add value over and above the legal wage. Some are simply incapable of understanding the demands of arriving on time and delivering effort over the course of a work day. Hiring firms cannot easily discern these differences up-front from social cues. They might try, however, which could lead to decisions that are unfair to some individuals. An even higher minimum wage makes these decisions all the more difficult and risky, and forecloses opportunities to a broader swath of low-skilled workers, consigning them to dependency on family or the state.

The minimum wage has always had appeal as an exclusionary tactic by higher-paid union workers. Cowed by its ostensible first-order effects on worker incomes, the left latched onto it as a fundamentally just policy. The negative second-order effects are predictable however. The economic evidence has been piling up, while methodological flaws in an earlier, prominent study finding the opposite in the 1990s have been exposed. As a policy, the minimum wage is unjust in its effects on the incomes of low-skilled workers and on their ability to gain valuable work experience, and on businesses attempting to deliver value to their customers.

Note: I believe Don Boudreaux should be credited with the phrase used in the title of this post, which I’m sure I’ve quoted before. For more background on minimum wage effects, see these earlier posts on Sacred Cow Chips. There are 20 posts with that tag, and some are more focused on the minimum wage than others, so keep scrolling!

Can Health Care Bill Get GOP Off the Schneid?

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health insurer bailout

For those who are “woke” to Obamacare’s failures, the Senate GOP’s health insurance reform bill has plenty to hate and maybe some things to love. There are likely to be some changes in the bill before it goes to a vote, which now has been delayed until sometime after Congress’ July 4th recess. Known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 (BCRA), the bill is another mixed bag of GOP health care reforms and non-reforms. It is the Senate Republicans’ effort to improve upon the bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The non-reforms are tied to an inability to repeal all aspects of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act, or ACA) within the context of budget reconciliation, a process which permits a simple majority for approval of changes linked in some way to the budget (the so-called Byrd rule). Yuval Levin offers an excellent discussion of the bill and the general motivations for the form it has taken:

They are choosing to address discrete problems with Obamacare within the framework it created and to pursue some significant structural reforms to Medicaid beyond that, and they should want the merits of their proposal judged accordingly. Their premise is politically defensible — it is probably more so than my premise — and the proposal they have developed makes some sense in light of it.

It’s necessary to get one thing out of the way at the outset: the CBO’s scoring of the Senate bill is flawed in a massive way, like the earlier score of the House bill. The estimate of lost coverage for 22 million individuals is based on the CBO’s errant predictions of Obamacare coverage levels. (See here and here, and see Avik Roy’s latest entry on this topic.) Does anyone believe that enrollment on the exchanges will decline by 15 million in 2018 due to the elimination of the individual mandate? That’s over 40% more than total enrollment in 2017, by the way. Even if we attribute the CBO’s prediction to the elimination of both the individual and employer mandates, it would be an incredible plunge, especially given the means-tested tax credits in the BCRA. Does anyone believe that coverage levels under Obamacare would increase by 18 – 19 million by 2026 (mostly on account of the individual mandate)? That is the baseline assumed by the CBO in its scoring of the BCRA, which is laughable. A more realistic estimate of lost coverage under the BCRA might be 2 to 3 million, but remember that many of those coverage losses would not be “forced” in any sense. Rather, they would be purposeful refusals to take coverage with the demise of the individual mandate. But they would tend to be the healthiest of the current, coerced enrollees.

A related point has to do with hysterical claims that the BCRA will “kill thousands of people”. Someone cooked-up this talking (screaming?) point to rally the ignorant left and perhaps frighten the ignorant right (including a few GOP Senators). As Ira Stoll explains, there are several reasons to dismiss these assertions, not least of which is its tradeoff-free conceit. More ugly detail on the basis of these claims can be found here.

Will the BCRA “gut” Medicaid, as Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and other have claimed? Program spending would not decline by any means, only its growth rate. Enrollment would decline with tougher eligibility rules, but as noted above, tax credits more generous than the Medicaid savings (relative to Obamacare) would help replace lost Medicaid coverage with private insurance. Steve Chapman has contributed one of the most nitwitted commentaries on Medicaid reform that I have seen. Not only do critics consistently ignore the proposed tax credits for coverage at low incomes, but they never address the monumental waste in the program., something that would likely improve under the budgeting requirements and additional discretion given to states by the BCRA.

An even crazier scare story going around is that the Senate bill will cut Medicare benefits. That is not the case, though the bill repeals an Obamacare Medicare tax increase on the self-employed.

Getting back to the broader BCRA, here are some of the major provisions:

  • Medicaid reform to replace the budgetary disaster of federal matching with per capita caps or block grants, and state program control.
  • Means-tested tax credits for insurance purchases would extend to low-income individuals who might otherwise lose their expanded Medicaid eligibility. According to Levin, this group is heavily weighted toward the unmarried and childless.
  • Greater state authority over regulation of the individual insurance market. This is accomplished through the availability of state waivers from many Obamacare regulations, including essential health benefits.
  • Almost all Obamacare tax provisions would be repealed. One exception is the “Cadillac” tax on high-cost employer plans starting in 2026 (after a temporary hiatus). Many of these repeals would benefit individuals broadly as taxpayers, employees, business people, and patients.
  • Expanded allowable age rating to 5/1 from 3/1. This helps limit adverse selection by pricing more risk where it exists, and the means-tested credits would help offset higher premiums for older individuals with low incomes.
  • Provides about $130 billion in “stabilization” funds for insurers over a three-year period. This is an attempt to keep premiums down during a transition over which the GOP probably hopes to enact additional deregulatory measures. Is this a practical maneuver? Yes, but it also reflects a bit of “corporatism-when-it’s-convenient” hypocrisy.
  • Eliminates funding for Planned Parenthood. Presumably funding could be restored later were the organization to split off its abortion services into a financially distinct division, which the Hyde Amendment would seem to require.
  • Retains coverage for pre-existing conditions.
  • Elimination of the individual and employer mandates, including the tax penalty. However, individuals who go without coverage for two months would face a six-month waiting period before they could re-qualify for coverage.

Eliminating the mandates is great from a libertarian and an economic perspective. The coercion inherent in those requirements is bad enough. In practice, the individual mandate has proven less effective in encouraging enrollment than Obamacare’s architects had hoped, which makes the CBO’s conclusions all the more puzzling. The employer mandate gives firms an incentive to reduce hours and employment, so it has extremely undesirable labor-market implications.

Most criticism of the BCRA from the right has centered on its failure to fully repeal Obamacare insurance and health care regulations. The continuation of Obamacare community rating is a major shortcoming of the bill, as it distributes the financial risks of medical needs in ways that do not correspond to the actual distribution of health risks. The result is the very same adverse selection problem we have witnessed on the Obamacare exchanges. Unfortunately, this raises the specter that we’ll be stuck with some form of community rating in the long-term, along with employer-provided coverage and the ill-advised premium tax deductions, which tend to inflate premium levels.

Michael F. Cannon of the CATO Institute calls the BCRA an Obamacare rescue package. John C. Goodman is largely in agreement with Cannon, stating that Republicans have no real desire to repeal Obamacare. Peter Suderman at Reason has many of the same concerns. In addition to community rating, Cannan (and Senator Rand Paul) are unhappy that Medicaid spending continues to grow under the bill with a new program of subsidies (tax credits) to boot! They also condemn the so-called “stabilization” or “cost-sharing” subsidies that would be paid to insurers under the bill. While a broader range of plans would become available, there is little confidence that insurers will be able to  bring down premiums and/or deductibles substantially without the added subsidies.

Avik Roy has defended the Senate bill for its proposed reforms to Medicaid, replacement of Obama’s Medicaid expansion with tax credits for private coverage, and transitional tax credits to smooth jumps in premium levels as income rises from low levels. This is an improvement over the House bill. However, marginal tax rates would be high under the BCRA for individuals in the range of income over which the credits phase out, which is a legitimate “welfare trap” criticism.

David Harsanyi also believes the bill is a good start:

If Republican leadership had told conservatives in 2013 that they could pass a bill that would eliminate the individual and employer mandates, phase out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, cut an array of taxes, and lay out the conditions for full repeal later, I imagine most would have said ‘Sign me up!’

Naturally, most critics of Obamacare have strong misgivings about a bill that would leave major components of the ACA’s structure in place. That includes Obamacare’s regulation of health care delivery itself, not just health insurance coverage. The BCRA might incorporate signifiant changes before it goes to a vote, however. One can only hope! Rand Paul has suggested breaking the bill into two parts: repeal of the ACA and other spending provisions, though it’s not clear how a repeal bill would qualify under the Byrd rule. Either way, the GOP intends to follow-up with additional health care legislation and administrative changes. Were a bill enacted soon, there is some chance that additional legislation could garner limited bi-partisan support. Long-term stability of the health insurance and health care markets would be better-served by a stronger semblance of political equilibrium than we have seen in the years since Obama was elected.

 

 

Sharing Apps and Market Benefits

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Transaction costs prevent lots of trades. So many that we often aren’t aware of their potentiality. Michael Munger asserts that transaction costs are so prohibitive that we tend to accumulate a lot of stuff that we could otherwise do without. That’s what he says in “Why we can’t break up with our stuff — yet“.

Transaction costs of all kinds have fallen dramatically over time. One of the greatest innovations in “transactions technology” was the avoidance of barter with the broad acceptance of a medium of exchange (money). Without a medium of exchange, trade requires a “double coincidence of wants”, which often makes the effort to engage in trade impractical. No less important was the establishment of secure property rights such that the integrity of a contract or transaction was protected, whether enforced by possible repercussions from other traders or through the police power of the state. Secure property rights and the use of money facilitated the development of markets and pricing that conveyed better information about scarcity. Other historical developments that reduced transaction costs include better transportation, communication, packaging, and more efficient distribution and supply chain management. In a variety of complex transactions, such as real estate, standardization of contracts has reduced transaction costs.

Those costs have been reduced dramatically of late by new communication and computing technologies. The size of these reductions is difficult to quantify in such prominent examples as Uber ride-sharing and Airbnb home-sharing, but there is no question that the new supplies of rides and accommodations would not have materialized absent the enabling on-line “apps”. The ease, low-cost and minimal risk of these transactions is incredible.

Suppose that hotels in Soho average $400 per night for a suite and that Airbnb rentals in Soho average $300. It’s fair to say that the average Airbnb host in Soho, without Airbnb, faced transaction costs in arranging for qualified occupants of at least $100 plus Airbnb’s fees. Probably much more. Now, it’s true that the hotel suites and the Airbnb rentals are fundamentally different “products”, but they are alternatives for meeting a particular need.

Similar reductions in transaction costs are occurring across a wide variety of sectors besides transportation and vacation rentals: trading in new and used goods, handymen, concierge services, snow plowing, home-sitting, food delivery, and hook-ups are but a few examples.

Munger’s twist on this story is that dramatically lower transaction costs will mean we’ll all need to own much less “stuff” on average, because we can “share”, or at least buy what we need at minimal transaction cost. Or, what we have will be used more intensively because we can share it profitably.

Munger mentions the high cost of owning an auto that he uses for about 5 out of 168 total hours in a week. The costs include dedicated “storage” space, both at home and at work, and sometimes the extra cost of “storing” it in airport parking. He could certainly afford to arrange alternative forms of transportation. Is owning the auto worthwhile because the transaction costs of the alternatives are too high? Well, Munger owns a nice car and he probably likes to drive it, so there is more to it than transaction costs. Still, if we mention the “convenience” of having a car at one’s disposal, that is really an expression of transaction costs avoided via ownership.

If the cost of arranging an acceptable and ready alternative is minimal, why own a car? This decision is very real in certain congested locales with costly real estate (e.g., parking New York City). In short, Munger believes even fewer individuals will bother to own personal autos, or that those cars will be less idle (rented to users), as technology reduces transaction costs:

Why do I pay to store my car rather than let other people use it and collect rent? Transaction costs. …But we are living in the beginning of a pivotal era that will transform our relationship to ‘stuff’ (we’ll need less of it) and to each other (we’ll share more). For all of human history until about 1995, the desire to reduce transaction costs was tied to the desire to sell a particular product. Now, entrepreneurs are combining three things — mobile platforms, software apps, and internet connections — to sell reductions in transaction costs with no product attached. And that combination will change everything.

Will that also mean fewer personally-owned kitchen appliances? Home furnishings? Clothing? Power tools? Stereo components? Probably not. Even if it’s easy to find a willing renter for my power tools or stereo components from time-to-time, I might not want to bother with the required exchanges (at pick-up and return). I use power tools from time-to-time, but I won’t want to shlep back and forth to rent them from someone when I could own them myself at relatively low cost. Perhaps I’ll rent a tiller or a power washer, but not a power drill. Maybe I could hire a gopher on the Air-gopher app to get the tools I need and return them when I’m done, but that adds back to my transaction costs. So there are certain limits to how far this can go in reducing our “stuff”.

Nevertheless, there is no question that there will be many new trades and competitive opportunities to exploit as transaction costs fall, and that implies more choice, lower prices, and less waste in the larger allocative sense. Those, I believe, are the major benefits of sharing technologies. For example, if you enjoy cooking but are the sole member of your household, imagine an app that allows you to sell your extra preparations to other individuals, or to give them away at a minimal transaction cost. Or, if you are able to perform odd jobs but prefer to take them at your convenience, you will likely be able to bid for projects of your choice. If you have a talent for teaching guitar, you could solicit business and even provide the lessons remotely through an on-line app. The major impediment to the development of such market innovations is potential interference by government or other entrenched interests who wish to prevent competition. Licensing laws and various forms of regulation and taxes could easily smother or eliminate the benefits of sharing technologies, and that would be a shame.

I’ll close with a digression on Munger’s hypothesis: why do I own or keep a lot of “stuff? It’s not all about transaction costs. Most people harbor nostalgic feelings for their “stuff”. I hate parting with my old shirts, old drivers licenses, theater programs, and ticket stubs. Most of those things have approximately zero market value. Some people believe it’s just plain wasteful to pitch something that can be put back into working order, like an old lawnmower. Transaction costs might be to blame, but the failure to junk the mower in the first place may be driven by a depression-era instinct for penny-pinching. The hoarder might simply underestimate the benefits of a new mower, or perhaps they deserve credit for undertaking a restoration project they enjoy.

I find myself hoarding all kinds of things that I think might be useful to me somehow, someday. Particularly things like miscellaneous nuts & bolts, sundry pieces of hardware, wire, old fixtures, pieces of lumber, and my late Dad’s old tools. I’m certain I won’t ever use 95%+ of these items, but it’s reassuring to have the inventory. Then again, every time I need an odd item, I find myself in my basement work room searching through all that stuff. Invariably, I end up on my way to the hardware store to get what I need. So much for minimizing transaction costs. What would it cost me to pitch all of it? An afternoon of painful evaluation… yet that too represents a transaction cost!