Patterico's Pontifications


Trump Administration Plays the Tariff Game

Filed under: Economics,Politics — DRJ @ 6:11 am

[Headline from DRJ]

ReutersWhy one U.S. can-maker avoids Trump’s tariffs while rivals pay up:

One of the largest U.S. producers of aerosol cans, Colorado-based Ball Metalpack, has laid off 91 of its 500 U.S. workers since President Donald Trump imposed a 25% tariff on imported steel that abruptly hiked the firm’s raw materials costs.

At a chief competitor, DS Containers, the story is different. The subsidiary of Japan’s Daiwa Can Co has added more than 80 workers over 18 months at its two Illinois plants, bringing employment to 232.

Rivals of the Japanese-owned firm say the reason for its success is simple – it’s not paying the tariff, allowing the firm to snatch business from competitors who have been forced to raise prices to cover their higher materials costs. The U.S. Commerce Department granted DS Containers an exemption from the import tax because it uses a raw material, plastic-laminated steel, that isn’t produced by U.S. steelmakers.

Firms that use standard tin-plated steel, including Ball Metalpack and Mauser Packaging Solutions, have seen their exemption applications denied or delayed by Commerce after U.S. steelmakers objected to them, arguing the material is available domestically. Executives from the can makers counter that domestic steelmakers can’t produce nearly enough tinplate to meet their needs – forcing them to keep importing and paying tariffs.

I think Patterico is right about tariffs. Picking winners and losers is what Trump does when he uses tariffs.



REUTERS: Walmart says higher China tariffs will increase prices for US shoppers

Filed under: Economics,Government — DRJ @ 8:05 pm

[Headline from DRJ]

Walmart says higher China tariffs will increase prices for U.S. shoppers:

Walmart Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs said in an interview that higher tariffs will result in increased prices for consumers. He said the company will seek to ease the pain, in part by trying to obtain products from different countries and working with suppliers’ “costs structures to manage higher tariffs.”


“It’s not just tariffs. Transportation costs are up, labor costs are up. It’s an inflationary environment,” Del Monte CEO Greg Longstreet told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference. “A lot of that’s going to have to be passed on. The consumer is going to have to pay more for a lot of critical goods.”



Bernie Sanders Is Wrong: Part 1: The Bottom 20% Does Not Remain Constant

Filed under: Economics,General — Patterico @ 9:08 am

Lately I have been reading The Thomas Sowell Reader — a collection of essays and passages from across the gamut of Sowell’s writing. One of Sowell’s most valuable contributions comes in the form of hard statistics showing that people like Bernie Sanders are wrong.

Over the next few days, I will present some of the most compelling statistics in different categories, showing Bernie Sanders is wrong. I’ll start with movement between income categories.


Sanders implies that the top 20% of income earners is a block of powerful people, getting rich at the expense of everyone else:

Sanders fails to recognize that income categories are not stagnant, but that most people move in and out of them throughout their lives. When we hear about how “the top 20% is doing better than the bottom 20%” we are not, by and large, talking about the same people. The people in the top 20% do not stay there. Nor do the people in the bottom 20%. Consider:

  • Only 5% of those in the bottom 20% of income earners in 1975 were still there in 1991.
  • More then 3/4 of working Americans with incomes in the bottom 20% in 1975 were in the top 40% of income earners by 1991.
  • 29% of those initially in the bottom 20% of income earners in 1975 had risen to the top 20% by 1991.

Studies in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Greece show similar results.

Perhaps the most staggering error comes from measuring income and not wealth. When Sanders says “you have 99 percent of all new income today going to the top 1 percent” (not true, by the way, because it’s a statement about income pre-tax), you would, again, get the impression that the top 1% is this static category of the same people.

So I’ll tuck the next statistic under the fold and make you guess. Among those in the top 1/100 of 1% of income earners in 1996, what percentage do you think were still there in 2005? Is it more or less than 90%?

Answer below the fold.



“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 12: Mises’s Approach to Money and Banking

Filed under: Economics,General,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 12:01 am

This is Part 12 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” Like previous posts, this post is a summary of a summary.

The purpose of these posts is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

Murphy says of chapter 12: “The material in this chapter is the most technical of the present book.” But it will make the explanation of the business cycle in post 14 more understandable, so it’s worth it.

We begin with some definitions. We have already discussed commodity money (such as gold, for example) and how it emerged on the market. A money substitute is a trusted alternate form of money that can be redeemed for the commodity money on demand. “Money in the broader sense” encompasses both the substitute and the commodity money (“money in the narrower sense”). When the issuer suspends redemption for the commodity, but people believe the suspension is temporary, the medium of exchange is credit money. Once the suspension is understood to be permanent, we have fiat money. (Recall from past chapters that Mises believed all fiat money necessarily originated with a commodity money — and logically had to emerge in that manner, or its purchasing power could never be determined.)

Commodity money allows new producers to produce money, while fiat money must of necessity be issued by a monopoly (a government). No single firm (such as a private mint) can monopolize commodity money, because the firm is not creating money, it is ensuring the authenticity of existing money.

As noted, in addition to money (whether it be commodity money or fiat money), there are also money substitutes, which fall into two broad categories. One is a money certificate, in which the issuer has set aside the money to back it. Another is fiduciary media, in which the issuer does not retain the commodity in reserve. In fractional reserve banking, a guy named Eugene might deposit $1000 of actual money — dollar bills — into an account. The bank might loan $900 of Eugene’s money, but still allow Eugene to withdraw the full $1000. Eugene’s bank balance consists of $100 of money certificates and $900 of fiduciary media. Fiduciary media in a gold standard setting could also include token money — coins that don’t have the requisite amount of gold, for which the government did not retain a 100% reserve of gold to back up the nominal face value.

To sum up, money in the narrower sense could include commodity money, credit money, or fiat money. Money substitutes could include money certificates or fiduciary media (uncovered bank deposits or token money). Money in the broader sense encompasses money in the narrower sense plus money substitutes.

A sneak peek of the relevance of all this: as banks create new money by creating fiduciary media (uncovered bank deposits created when loans are made), the quantity of money in the broader sense increases. As we saw in post 11, an increase in the money supply will tend to lead to a drop in money’s purchasing power or value, through the basic law of supply and demand (due to the lower marginal utility of extra units of money out of the total stock). Such a credit expansion (accomplished through the creation of new fiduciary media) tends to force banks to lower interest rates to encourage borrowing.

In other words: credit expansion tends to lead to higher prices and lower interest rates, while credit contraction leads to the opposite.

At this point Murphy pauses to delineate the two distinct functions of banks: 1) to serve as a safe place to keep money, and 2) to serve as a credit intermediary. Murphy explains that a bank can serve the latter role, even while keeping 100% reserves on demand deposits (deposits that can be withdrawn immediately at any time) — by lending out only funds obtained from depositors who purchase certificates of deposit, or make time deposits. (In either situation, the bank customer has made a deposit in which the customer’s right of withdrawal is limited by contract.) While lending and 100% reserves for demand deposits are not mutually exclusive, many Austrian economists differ on whether fractional reserve banking is desirable or legitimate.

Murphy next turns to Mises’s view of free banking: banking without government regulation. Mises believed that only free banking could prevent dangerous credit expansion, because banks that overissue fiduciary media would be forced to settle accounts with other banks, and the expanding bank would see its reserves dwindle. To avoid insolvency, the expanding bank would have to contract credit to strengthen its reserves. This is all a function of the interbank check clearing process. When customers of bank A write checks to customers of bank B, bank B comes to bank A and demands the money. Bank A must hand over the cash, or it will lose its reputation for being a sound bank. If bank A has overexpanded its issuance of fiduciary media, bank B (and bank C, and bank D, and so on) will come knocking, asking for their cash, at some point. So when each bank has only a small percentage of the population as its clients, “any attempt to expand credit will lead to a quick drain on its reserves.”

By contrast, government intervention allows all the banks to expand credit together. When the inflation takes place in all banks, you don’t see cash reserves accumulating in conservative banks and leaving inflationary banks. Having a central bank allows cartelization, which in turn allows a general expansion of the money supply . . . which governments love.

This is why governments want to have a central bank. Not to protect people. To have a mechanism to allow endless inflation.

Next, we’ll look at capital, time preference, and the theory of interest.


“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 11: Indirect Exchange and Money

Filed under: Economics,General,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 7:30 am

This is Part 11 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” Like previous posts, this post is a summary of a summary.

The purpose of these posts is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

This is one of the longest chapters in the book, and I think it’s the toughest post in the series (at least so far). Some paragraphs may need to be read twice, or perhaps you should just read them more slowly than you’d normally read a blog post. But I think the concepts are among the most fascinating. You should learn something today.


Murphy begins by explaining the difference between direct and indirect exchange. We have explored simple examples of direct exchange before, in post 7 (trading one flavor of ice cream for another) and post 10 (selling ice cream for money). Let me illustrate indirect exchange while sticking with the ice cream example.

Say Milton has chocolate, but wants vanilla. Murray has vanilla, but wants strawberry. Ludwig has strawberry, but wants chocolate. No two of these men can trade with one another and have both sides directly obtain they want. But any two of the three can trade directly, and thereby have one side get what they want directly, and have the other side obtain what he needs to successfully trade with the third party. The party that uses the first transaction to get what he needs for a second transaction is engaged in indirect exchange.

For example, if Milton trades his chococate for Murray’s vanilla, Milton is immediately happy, because he wanted vanilla. Murray, exchanging his vanilla for chocolate, is not happy yet — because Murray wanted strawberry, and he has chocolate. But now Murray can go to Ludwig, and exchange strawberry for chocolate. After two transactions, everyone’s happy.

Here, Murray used strawberry ice cream as a medium of exchange. Trading something of value for strawberry did not satisfy Murray immediately, but using that strawberry ice cream as a medium of exchange allowed Murray to get what he wanted.


Carl Menger, the father of Austrian economics, explained that money got its start with this sort of indirect exchange. People recognized that they could not always trade goods directly. But they also realized that if they could trade their goods or services in return for a widely accepted medium of exchange, they could get what they wanted.

Menger explained that money must of necessity emerge in this way. His was not a historical analysis, as there are no clear records of how this happened; rather, he argued from economic logic. Money could not have emerged because a wise ruler said: “everyone should start accepting these shiny rocks” (or pieces of metal, or whatever) “in return for the valuable stuff they have.” It seems very unlikely that people would have signed onto such a bizarre-sounding plan. And if a wise ruler had managed to pull this off, how would he know how many shiny rocks people should have to exchange for one sheep? for three cows? for one day’s labor picking crops? and so forth.

No: instead people started trading for things that they knew would be widely accepted, because they were useful commodities on their own. In some societies the initial medium of exchange was tobacco. It has been cocoa beans at times. (I explained the origins of money more fully in May 2014, and for a fuller description, I refer you to that post, but here we will just summarize it.) But over time, people gravitated towards previous metals like gold and silver, because they had the properties you would expect from a medium of exchange: they were recognizable, scarce, liquid, divisible, durable, easily stored, and transportable. The general idea, however, is that money was a commodity — and it cannot logically emerge any other way. (Gold is thus a “commodity money” — as contrasted with fiat money, which is money simply because government declares it to have value.)

Now comes the fun part — that I think is going to upset some of you, because it may run counter to the conventional way you have likely thought about money for most of your life. (Why “fun”? Well, where’s the fun if I’m not challenging your ingrained beliefs a little bit?)


Mises’s great insight into money (one of them, anyway) is that money is a good that is demanded by people, just as they demand any other good. It’s not just what’s left after you get through satisfying your other demands. It’s something you demand just as you demand traditional goods or services. Money is demanded, not so we can consume it (obviously), but because we can hold it, and it provides a flow of services to the person who holds it.

If you view money as a good, there are immediately some problems that need to be addressed. For one, how do you value it? Oranges might be said to be worth $2 per pound. Bicycles might be $200 each. What is money “worth”? The answer is: the reciprocal of all the goods and services it could purchase. If oranges are $1 for a half pound, then $1 is worth a half pound of oranges. If bicycles are $200, then $1 is worth 1/200 of a bicycle. Etc.

Viewing money in this way helps you to understand general price fluctuations as a function of the demand for money. If the price of money goes up (because the demand for money goes up), then the price of all these other goods goes down. When people demand money more, prices fall. Put another way, money’s purchasing power rises. Like any other good, as its price goes up, people will hold less of it, because they can get more for it. (As a side note — and this is my own observation, not endorsed by Murphy — this is why deflation is not worrisome. As people hoard money, it becomes more valuable, and naturally people will want to exchange it for goods, since they can buy more with it.)

By contrast, when money’s purchasing power (or price) falls, prices of other goods go up. This is what is typically thought of as “inflation” (price inflation, or rising prices) — and it is a function of money losing its purchasing power. Put another way, the price of money is falling, which is often a side effect of expansion of the money supply — the marginal utility of extra units of money decreases as the supply available increases.

Ultimately, then, the purchasing power of money is a function of the demand for money. (Remember, Mises liked to explain the economy in terms of demand.) The purchasing power of money throughout the economy adjusts so that the total quantity of money demanded by all people (taking into account what they would have to exchange to get it) equals the total amount of money in existence. (This is the same thing that happens with goods and services: the quantity of a good in an unhampered market economy tends towards the level equal to the total amount demanded at the market clearing price.)

Viewing money as a good collapses the artificial distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. It allows Austrian economists to analyze the macro economy according to the common-sense principles (incentives and purposeful behavior) that govern decisions on the individual level.


Other problems come to mind, however. Remember, we have said all value is subjective. How can we use subjective value theory to explain the value of money without engaging in circular logic? Before Mises, explanations of the purchasing power of money seemed to travel in a circle: money can buy stuff because people demand it . . . and people demand money it because it can buy stuff.

Mises introduced the time element to break the circle. He explained that money’s purchasing power today is based on people’s expectations of what money’s purchasing power will be in the future. We’re no longer explaining money’s current purchasing power by reference to money’s current purchasing power, but rather by referring to the purchasing power we expect it will have in the future. This evaluation of the future is crucially aided by knowledge of what money was worth in the recent past.

You might say: that breaks the logical circle, but it leads us into a another problem: of infinite regress. If today’s purchasing power is based on yesterday’s expectations, and yesterday’s purchasing power was based on the previous day’s expectations, where did the original purchasing power come from? That’s where Menger’s explanation of the origin of money, described above, comes in. Mises said all money started as commodity money, like gold. Mises called this the “regression theorem.” At some point in the past, the community was in a situation of direct exchange (as opposed to indirect exchange) and this explains the origin of the purchasing power of money.

Mises argued that, if everyone in the world suddenly forgot tomorrow what the prices had been for everything in the past, people could reconstruct the process of comparing the relative values of different goods or services (a Ferrari is worth more than an orange), but nobody would know what a “dollar” is worth anymore. This is why Mises says that money — a medium of exchange — must begin as an economic good for which people assign an exchange value. People who have commonly used nothing but fiat money in their lives may have a hard time accepting this. But there is no fiat currency in existence whose value can’t be traced backwards in time to a commodity money. (This may help explain why people are having such a hard time determining a stable value for Bitcoin. Murphy acknowledges in a footnote that Misesians are still debating whether Bitcoin can escape the logic of the regression theorem.)


Mises also argued that money is not “neutral.” As noted, many economists would explain prices through the examples of a barter system, and throw in money as an afterthought. Mises did not. One effect of this view is Mises’s views on the effects of new money entering the economy. Many people seem to assume that if you double the stockpile of money, prices will double and purchasing power will halve, but otherwise people’s relative economic positions will remain constant. First, it’s not so neat and mathematical as that — but more importantly, money enters the economy in different places, and the people who get to use it before the prices rise are benefited. So, during QE, for example, large investment banks received the new money injected in the economy first, and benefited at the expense of others.

Another Mises tenet was that the currently available quantity of money is sufficient. Many people assume that, as the population rises, it is necessary to expand the money supply to forestall that horrible bogeyman called “deflation.” Mises emphatically disagreed. Doubling the money supply does not make people richer, and halving it does not make people poorer.


Mises was also a fan of the gold standard, seeing it as a critical bulwark against government power — as important as a written constitution or bill of rights. (I hesitate to use the words “gold standard” in a post, as it is almost certain that the comment section will fixate on it, making arguments that have nothing to do with the points made in the post. Still, this is part of the chapter.) Mises did not want governments to have the power to take action (even war) without the political accountability that comes with raising the money for the government action through taxation or borrowing. Simply inflating the currency allows governments to pretend that the government action costs them nothing.

The gold standard sets an automatic brake on inflation. If countries tried to inflate their currency, gold would flow out of the country as the government would be forced to redeem the inflated currency for gold. The money supply would have to shrink (or, if you were insistent on inflating, you could just pull a Richard Nixon and kill the gold standard — the “to hell with everything” strategy — leading to the price inflation we saw in the 1970s).

This mechanism also keeps foreign trade in balance; if more Americans bought British products than vice versa, they would have to buy pounds to do so. The surfeit of dollars chasing pounds would cause pounds to increase in value relative to dollars. But the gold standard would keep this from getting out of control, because if the value of a dollar became too low vis-a-vis the pound (meaning it took more dollars to buy a pound), gold owners could simply sell gold to England, buy U.S. dollars with the pounds, exchange those dollars for gold in the U.S., and end up with more gold than they started with. The net effect is that gold would flow out of the U.S., causing U.S. prices to fall, which would cause the British to buy more American goods, bringing everything back into balance. This mechanism has been understood since the days of Hume and Ricardo.


Finally, Mises was very clear that we should use the term “inflation” to refer to the quantity of money, and not the rise in prices that an increased quantity of money causes. (In a slight concession to the widespread use of the term to refer to the latter concept, Murphy uses “price inflation” to refer to the rise in prices, and “monetary inflation” to refer to an expansion in the money supply, which is what Mises insisted inflation really means.) Mises reasoned: “It is impossible to fight a policy which you cannot name.” (Shades of Ted Cruz talking about radical Islamic terrorism!) The root cause of price inflation is monetary inflation, and if we call rising prices “inflation,” we are then left without a term to describe what the real problem really is.

That was a bear of a chapter; possibly the toughest one in the book. I may give you a few days to reflect on this one before moving ahead with the next post.


“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 10: Where Prices Come From

Filed under: Economics,General,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 7:48 am

This is Part 10 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” Like previous posts, this post is a summary of a summary.

The purpose of these posts is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

This is another meaty chapter.

In explaining how the prices of consumer goods are determined, Murphy relies on preference rankings similar to the ones we used in post number 7, which gave examples of preference rankings in ice cream.

In that post, we showed that one person (Milton) who had two scoops of vanilla ice cream, but preferred one scoop of chocolate, could profitably trade with someone (Murray) who had one scoop of chocolate, but preferred two scoops of vanilla. Then if a third person comes along (Ludwig) who also has a scoop of chocolate, and is willing to settle for one scoop of vanilla instead of two, Milton will trade with Ludwig and not Murray. (See post 7 for a fuller discussion.)

If you substitute dollars for scoops of one of the flavors of ice cream (for example, vanilla), you can see how prices are determined. Murray will sell his scoop of chocolate for $2. Ludwig will sell his for $1. The market clearing price becomes $1.

The valuation is still subjective even though money has been introduced. As for the issue of why people would want little green pieces of paper (dollars) instead of scoops of ice cream, we can, of course, answer that by saying that people expect to be able to use those little green pieces of paper to obtain other things they want. Why this should be so, however, is a topic for a future post.

Mises distinguishes between valuation and appraisement. Valuation, according to Murphy, is “the significance that an individual places on a good or service because of its ability to confer happiness or utility on the individual.” Appraisement “assesses the amount of money for which a good or service can be sold.” Each influences the other, but they are separate concepts.

The next point is very subtle but worth understanding, because it was important to Mises, and misunderstood by even famous economists such as Joseph Schumpeter. For a single actor, the subject of valuation of a higher-order good depends on his own subjective valuation of the consumer good it helps produce. In a market economy, by contrast, the prices of higher-order producer goods are ultimately determined both by consumer preferences and by entrepreneurs — who appraise the prices of producer and consumer goods using economic calculation. Mises’s concern is that we always keep in mind the key role of the entrepreneur in allocating resources to produce consumer goods. This is a task that entrepreneurs do using economic calculation, which works only in a free market economy with accurate price signals.

Why was this important to Mises? Because if you ignore the key role of accurate price signals as used by entrepreneurs, then you might get fooled into thinking socialism is viable. More on this in a future post.

Murphy now stops to mention two “complications” that arise in assessing the role entrepreneurs play in determining the prices of the factors of production.

One is the ever-looming issue of time preference — the idea that people tend to prefer having their desires satisfied now, and not in the future. As entrepreneurs bid on the factors of production, they must remember that goods are always more valuable today than in the future. Thus, entrepreneurs always have to charge a mark-up. Because, even if you set aside the risks taken by entrepreneurs in trying to predict what consumers will value in the uncertain future, they also generally must use capital. Thus, they must contend with the fact that production takes time — and this means that capitalists’ investments in the production process must be recouped and then some, to make it worth their while to put the capital up for use by the entrepreneurs.

Also, Murphy notes that entrepreneurs choose to buy inputs according to anticipated marginal productivity — similar to the way consumers buy consumer goods according to the marginal utility they expect to receive from successive units of those goods in the production process. The only difference is the inclusion of the factor of the entrepreneur’s appraisement. The entrepreneur appraises how much extra revenue a producer good will bring in, and purchases (and thus appraises the value of) those producer goods accordingly. This applies to labor too. If you think an extra worker will bring in more money, you hire him. (Shockingly, this means a higher minimum wage could mean fewer workers hired on the margin!)

THE ROLE OF SUPPLY: Standard economics textbooks tend to mechanically portray prices as intersections of supply and demand curves. Now, Austrians don’t reject out of hand the role played by supply. Obviously scarcity affects your demand decisions on the margin; recall the example of water and diamonds offered in post 4:

[A]s the supply of a good increases, the marginal utility of the good decreases, and vice versa. You pay less for water than diamonds because there is plenty of water (currently) to satisfy our most critical desires, like satisfying thirst. If there were so little water that you had to pay $10,000 (more than you’d pay for a small diamond), just to get a drink and not die of thirst, you’d pay it (if you had the money).

But Murphy notes that Austrians tend to portray prices as fixed by subjective demand rather than by “objective cost” or by supply. Consumers determine demand for consumer goods, and entrepreneurs “sit on the demand side” for producer goods. The reason to emphasize the demand, Murphy says, is to keep in the forefront of one’s mind that subjective demand drives the whole process. To the extent that “supply” sits on one side of a transaction, it is really demand . . . reversed. What we call “supply” in a traditional transaction is really someone demanding money, and willing to exchange a good or service in exchange for money.

Put simply, the reason demand is king is because demand is what creates value to begin with. Without subjective demand for a good, it is worthless.

Murphy notes that, while creating consumer goods is a process, at the time of the exchange, “suppliers” have usually sunk their costs in the particular item being offered. They then have to get the best deal for the goods they have created, based on demand for those goods. Demand will also affect their decisions going forward, including whether to produce the same goods, how many to produce, and what to charge for them.

These are difficult concepts, and I hope I have summarized them accurately. Tomorrow, we address Mises’s brilliant insights regarding money, and how it is not a mere afterthought grafted onto the barter economy. Challenging stuff, but very worthwhile. Stick with it!


“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 9: Defining and Studying the Market Economy

Filed under: Economics,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 12:56 am

This is Part 9 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” Like previous posts, this post is a summary of a summary.

The purpose of these posts is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

Mises describes the market economy as a “process” — as “the social system of the division of labor under private ownership of the means of production.” It is the way individuals coordinate their activities voluntarily, acting on their own behalf, but aiming to satisfy others’ needs as well as their own.

Mises studies what would happen in a pure market economy even though no such economy actually exists. Some criticize this as unrealistic, but any policy proposal requires one to conduct a thought experiment about how things would be, if one’s proposal were accepted. This is no different.

We must now classify different people in the economy and the money they receive for what they provide. Workers provide labor and receive wages. Landowners and capitalists provide similar things as one another, and both receive interest. (While land, or natural resources, is not man-made, it is similar to man-made capital in that it provides entrepreneurs a head-start in time in the production process. More on this later.) Entrepreneurs adjust the factors of production in anticipation of the future, and receive profits when their foresight is accurate.

More definitions: Capital is the market value of assets minus the market value of liabilities. Income is the amount of consumption that can occur without reducing capital. Saving is the difference between income and consumption.

Mises was very clear that in a capitalist economy, the consumer is sovereign. The notion that everything is controlled by guys with white mustaches and top hats carrying around giant sacks with dollar signs on them (thanks to Tom Woods for the image) is a socialist fabrication. According to Mises, a businessman may be at the helm of the ship, but he has to obey the captain’s orders — and: “The captain is the consumer.”

Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. If a businessman does not strictly obey the orders of the public as they are conveyed to him by the structure of market prices, he suffers losses, he goes bankrupt, and is thus removed from his eminent position at the helm. Other men who did better in satisfying the demand of the consumers replace him.

The steering by consumers is not always explicit, of course — but it happens nonetheless. Murphy gives as an example two entrepreneurs, a jeweler and a house builder. The jeweler makes pretty and affordable jewelry with gold, while the builder makes houses that are lined with gold inside and out, in the manner of European kings, making the prices of his houses astronomical. If people buy the jewelry, but reject the houses as too expensive, this means the consumer has steered the use of gold into jewelry rather than house-building. It’s not that the consumer explicitly told these entrepreneurs to use gold for one purpose, and not to use it for another . . . but in effect the consumer did communicate that message, through his decision to buy jewelry, but not absurdly priced houses.

In this way, price signals allow entrepreneurs to direct the economy’s resources in such a manner that they best satisfy the preferences of the consuming public. Rather than having government make arbitrary decisions, people vote with their dollars. There is, in this process, a deep connection between economic freedom and political liberty. Mises said:

No government and no civil law can guarantee and bring about freedom otherwise than by supporting and defending the fundamental institutions of the market economy.

This is critical, and I believe it with every fiber of my being. There is no political liberty without economic freedom.

Competition is what gives market actors freedom within the market economy. Workers who feel exploited can work elsewhere. Consumers who don’t like the product can buy elsewhere. (Try doing that with government!) But competition is a process, and while a snapshot at any given time may cause one to believe incorrectly that there is no competition, because one firm has a large market share, that is usually shown to be wrong over time. As long as government does not impose barriers to entry, lack of competition is an indication that the current goods and services are being provided at an adequate price. Meanwhile, any industry that appears to be a dominant and overbearing force is either a) a product of government, and/or b) faces extinction when technology finds a new way to accomplish the same goal in a better, cheaper way.

The railroads seemed like a monopoly at one point, Mises noted — and indeed, the lack of competition at one point in time showed that there was really no reason for other firms to invest in more rail lines, when the existing ones were sufficient. But this did not prevent the invention of the automobile or the airplane.

Next, we consider what Murphy calls “the vexing issue of (in)equality.” Murphy explains that “inequality of income and wealth is an unavoidable feature of a market economy.” If there are 100 people, and two are singers, and 98 are fans, the 98 may be willing to work a little harder to give money to one of the singers. The 98 fans may be willing to work a lot harder to give a lot more money to the other singer. This will result in the singer who makes the most people happy gaining a greater income and having more wealth — but if you changed this system, it would prevent or negate voluntary transfers, and might have an effect on the satisfaction of the consumers.

Once the critical role of monetary calculation in allocating resources is understood, it becomes clear that governmental redistribution of income impairs economic calculation and the proper distribution of scarce resources. Price signals are distorted and the consumer is less satisfied.

Another implication of monetary calculation is that the most efficient allocation of resources (satisfying the most people) can happen only in the pure market economy. Government cannot allocate resources efficiently, because the profit motive is alien to government bureaucracy. Bureaucratic management is different from profit management, not just in incentives. Bureaucracy need not convince consumers to voluntarily part with their money, and can (unlike businesses) prevent competition. Thus, the forces that make resource allocation efficient in the market economy are utterly absent in bureaucracy.

Enough for today. We’re over halfway done with the book! I hope this made sense. These are central concepts that show why the market is better than governments in allocating resources. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss how prices are formed on the market.


“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 8: What Monetary Calculation Can and Can’t Do

Filed under: Economics,General,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 1:11 am

This is Part 8 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” (At the end of this short post, we’ll be about halfway home!) Like previous posts, this post is a summary of a summary. If you’re intrigued by what I discuss here, you’d do well to buy and read Murphy’s book.

The purpose of these posts is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

Yesterday we introduced the concept of monetary (or economic) calculation. Today we’ll look a little bit more at that important concept, and talk about what it can, and cannot, do. Chapter 8 is a short chapter — and after the lengthy exercise we put the reader through yesterday, I am happy to do a shorter post today.

Although Murphy labels his chapter as being about what economic calculation can and cannot do, it seems to be principally about what it cannot do. Murphy starts by reminding us that a balance sheet (the key document in monetary calculation) seems so very precise . . . yet it is full of predictions about an uncertain future. You include, as an item of depreciation, 1/10 of the cost of a capital good expected to last 10 years . . . but for all you know, it will crap out tomorrow. You list your accounts receivable as an asset . . . but one of the businesses that owes you might go bankrupt next week, leaving you to receive pennies on the dollar.

Entrepreneurship is about predicting an uncertain future. Monetary calculation aids in this endeavor greatly — to the point where Goethe described double-entry bookkeeping as “one of the finest inventions of the human mind.” But no activity that involves predictions about the future can ever be exact.

Another point that I consider very important: remember that in Part 1 I said (in a comment) that

one thing I find very attractive about Mises and Austrian economics is that it is so much more realistic than classical economics, because it treats human beings as human beings.

In Chapter 8, Murphy makes the point that, according to the Austrian school in general, and Mises in particular, it is not assumed to be true “that people in a market economy are just out to make money.” The great thing about Mises’s broad view of “human action” is that it does not judge between people’s ends or desires — and in particular, it does not require that the desired goal be a goal to make more money. The altruism of a Mother Teresa is every bit as compatible with Mises’s theories of “human action” as are a CEO’s mass firing of employees to boost the bottom line. So economic calculation is not the be-all and end-all of the Austrian school, by a long-shot — and to me, that makes it the most realistic economic school of thought in existence.

By contrast, classical economics all too often reduces people to stick figures in a graph, robotically “maximizing utility under constraint.”

That’s it! See, I told you this would be a short post! Tomorrow, we act much more ambitiously, tackling the economics of the market society, beginning with defining and studying the market economy. Hope you’re enjoying the posts. See you tomorrow.


“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 7: The Importance of Monetary Calculation

Filed under: Economics,General,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 12:01 am

This is Part 7 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” As a result, you are reading a summary of a summary.

The purpose of these posts is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

We are now moving into the section of the book titled “Economic Calculation” and begin with a chapter on the importance of monetary calculation.

In an earlier post, we emphasized that preference rankings in human action are ordinal, not cardinal. You can say you prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla, but you can’t assign a number of units to each: it makes no sense to say “I prefer chocolate ice cream three times as much as vanilla.” More importantly, you can’t compare the intensity of your preferences to the intensity of another individual’s preferences. But I told you that there was a subtlety involving buying goods with money that would come up in a future post. This is that post.

With the introduction of money, for the first time arithmetical operations can be applied to economic affairs. The importance of money to the workings of the free market can’t be overstated. Having price signals determined by the market and communicated in units of money allows society to allocate resources in the most efficient manner possible. Without money, and without prices set by a free market, this cannot happen — because (as previously noted) in a barter system one can only look to ordinal preference rankings which cannot be expressed in units. (As we will later see, this is the central reason that Mises said socialism could not work — his famous “socialist calculation problem,” which will merit its own post.)

Before we get to money, we must explain how “barter prices” emerge in a world without money, based on ordinal preference rankings. (These are my examples and not Murphy’s. Although they are loosely based on his examples, don’t blame him.)

Assume there is a fellow named Murray whose ordinal ice cream preferences line up this way:


1. Two scoops of vanilla
2. One scoop of chocolate (Murray possesses this)
3. One scoop of vanilla

#1 is his top preference. #2 is his second, and #3 is his last choice.

Clearly, Murray would trade his scoop of chocolate for two scoops of vanilla, but not for one.

Now, pretend a fellow named Milton has this ice cream preference rank:


1. One scoop of chocolate
2. Two scoops of vanilla (Milton possesses this)
3. One scoop of vanilla (obviously Milton possesses this too; if he has two, he necessarily has one)

Milton would trade two scoops of vanilla for one scoop of chocolate. We know that Murray would trade his own scoop of chocolate for two scoops of vanilla. So we can see that these two folks can do a direct trade — and both will be better off.

Now say there is a third guy, Ludwig, whose ice cream preference is as follows:


1. Two scoops of vanilla
2. One scoop of vanilla
3. One scoop of chocolate (Ludwig possesses this)

Now, Murray and Ludwig both have a scoop of chocolate, which Milton wants. But Ludwig has set a cheaper price. He will accept just one scoop of vanilla for a scoop of chocolate — while Murray is demanding two scoops of vanilla.

Milton, with his two scoops of vanilla, would rather trade with Ludwig, who will take only one of Milton’s two scoops of vanilla, as opposed to Murray, who insists on getting two scoops of vanilla in return for his one scoop of chocolate.

In this way, adding more people to the market helps establish an equilibrium barter price for the scoop of chocolate: namely, one scoop of vanilla, the lowest price that a vendor of chocolate scoops will demand.

Note well: we never once had to say anything like “Milton gets twice as much pleasure from chocolate as he does from vanilla” or anything of the sort.

Also note that we never once talked about how difficult it is to create or obtain one scoop of chocolate vs. one scoop of vanilla. From the time of Adam Smith there was something called the “labor theory of value” which posited that prices depend upon the cost of the inputs. This fallacy led directly to the fallacy that the laborer, and not the capitalist, was the person who imbued goods with their true value, and thus “deserves” the fruits of that production. You can easily see that, while the labor theory of value was taken as true by Adam Smith, it was seized upon by Karl Marx, and is still implicit in many of the complaints of socialists like Bernie Sanders.

Whenever someone like Bernie Sanders complains that McDonald’s workers are getting paid too little, their implicit argument is that the workers are the ones who are really adding value to the business, while the people running the company are just fat cats putting in cash and watching the profits roll in. When they refuse to give those profits to the workers, they are exploiting the workers, who really give the business its value. This exploitation theory is Marxism 101.

But once you understand that value is subjective, then you understand that the person who contributes the most to an enterprise is the entrepreneur, who correctly foresees what consumers will want. The entrepreneur who predicts the advent of streaming video like Netflix will add far more value to his company than all the sweat of workers tirelessly toiling away to build new Blockbuster outlets that are going to go out of business.

Getting back to ice cream: the creation of barter prices wowed economists so much that they treated money as an afterthought: as a kind of neutral factor that served as a kind of stand-in for the equilibrium barter prices that are reached through the operation of trades like those described above, following from simple ordinal preference rankings. This, Mises warned, was a huge mistake — and his recognition of that fact amounted to one of his key insights. (We’ll discuss this in later posts. The hint I’ll offer here, which will be elaborated on later, is that money is a good with its own demand and supply issues.)

For now, it is enough to understand (with subtleties to be added later) that money serves as the basis of economic calculation, which is the central device that allows man to determine how to most efficiently allocate his resources. You might not need monetary calculation (though it helps) to decide it actually makes more sense to grow oranges in Florida and ship them to Montana, rather than try to grow them in Montana. But without monetary calculation, how can a businessman decide how many oranges to grow? whether to ship them by truck or by plane? how many retail outlets should distribute them? and so forth.

To make complex determinations like this, you could never rely on something like the equilibrium barter prices such as we demonstrated above with our ice cream examples. There are just too many elements in the calculation: how much is a plane ride worth, compared to a truck shipment, compared to a box to put your oranges in, compared to a tractor to plow your grove, compared to an hour of labor offered by a retailer to sell your oranges . . . and so on? Without monetary calculation, this sort of analysis cannot possibly be done. It is just too complicated.

And (again jumping ahead), this is why a socialist economy, without real price signals, cannot possibly succeed.

With that observation, we have come full circle for this post, which has been a longer one, but (I hope) very satisfying and informative. Tomorrow we will further explore what economic calculation can do — and cannot do.


“Human Action” and Robert Murphy’s “Choice,” Part 6: The Importance of Ideas and Reason

Filed under: Economics,General,Human Action and Choice — Patterico @ 12:02 am

This is Part 6 of a 17-part series of posts summarizing Bob Murphy’s indispensable book Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action. Murphy’s book is itself is a summary of Ludwig von Mises’s classic treatise “Human Action.” As a result, this is a summary of a summary. Blog life.

The idea here is to popularize and spread the word about Austrian economics and educate the public. (Several of you have bought Murphy’s book, and that is very pleasing to me. Some have even started reading Mises himself, which is fantastic!) Rather than list all the previous parts, I have created a category for all these posts, called “Human Action and Choice,” so that all these posts can be read (in reverse order) with a single click. Note well: any errors in these summaries are mine and not Murphy’s.

Chapter 6 is a chapter devoted to summarizing Mises’s views on the importance of ideas in history. As Keynes said, most men are “the slaves of some defunct economist.” How ironic that quote is to the Austrian economist! — who watches governments haplessly careen from one absurd Keynesian “solution” to another, always prescribing the most counterproductive “cure” imaginable to the given diagnosed economic disease. The Austrian watches countries in a “bust” try to “fix” everything with huge infusions of cash and lowering of interest rates. The Austrian sees these actions as insane — like using trepanation to cure headaches, lobotomies to cure depression, or cigarettes to cure asthma. The Austrian longs for the day when the basics of economics are widely understood by policymakers, as real human suffering will thereby be alleviated to a previously unheard-of extent.

Mises literally believed that using reason “to grasp the advantages of social cooperation” (to use Murphy’s phrase) is the key to preventing the collapse of society.

Murphy spends much of chapter 6 drawing contrasts between Mises’s Austrian economics and other economic philosophies, such as Marxism and logical positivism.

The contrast with Marxism might sound like it would require a long explanation, but for now Mises (and Murphy) are concerned mainly with showing that Marx believed society molded men’s ideas, while Mises believed that ideas molded society. Other stark differences between Austrian economics and Marxism/socialism, such as Mises’s famous explication of the “socialist calculation problem” (also discussed by Hayek) will be reserved for future posts.

Probably the most interesting contrast is that between Mises and the logical positivists asserted that statements about economics lacked value unless they could be “verified.” This contrast, to me, appears related to Murphy’s final topic of the chapter: the notion that economics cannot be a “science” unless it makes testable predictions. Although Murphy separates the sections, I will discuss them together in this post.

Here, Murphy contrasts Mises with another well-respected economist (and a Patterico favorite): Milton Friedman. It turns out that Friedman and Mises are severely at odds with one another on the notion of economics as a “science” — and whether the correctness of economic principles depends upon those principles being validated by real-world data.

At this point the reader may be uneasy. We’re taking issue with Milton Friedman and rejecting the notion of using real-world data to validate our principles? Surely we are on shaky ground here! The fact that I know you are thinking this, to me, means I need to spend a little extra time on this final point.

This reminds us of Murphy’s analogy to geometry in Chapter 3 (see post number three in this series). As I summarized it in that post:

We do not derive the Pythagorean theorem by building 500 right triangles and measuring the angles and the sides. The proof of the theorem does not depend on experimentation. The proof is within us — it is simply a logical chain of thoughts that we need to reflect on.

Murphy quotes Mises on this point in chapter 6. Mises argued that while the Pythagorean theorem could be considered a “tautology” in the sense that “its deduction results in an analytic judgment,” that does not mean it is to be discounted:

Nonetheless nobody would contend that geometry in general and the theorem of Pythagoras in particular do not enlarge our knowledge. Congition from purely deductive reasoning is also creative and opens for our mind access to previously barred spheres. . . . It is its vocation to tender manifest and obvious what was hidden and unknown before.

Mises makes an analogy here to the quantity theory of money (the cornerstone of which he elsewhere modestly defined as “the idea that a connection exists between variations in the value of money on the one hand and variations in the relations between the demand for money and the supply of it on the other hand” — Theory of Money and Credit, p. 130) and says that it is like the Pythagorean theorem:

The quantity theory does not add to our knowledge anything which is not virtually contained in the concept of money. It transforms, develops, and unfolds; it only analyzes and is therefore tautological like the theorem of Pythagoras in relation to the concept of the rectangular [right] triangle. However, nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory. To a mind not enlightened by economic reasoning it remains unknown. A long line of abortive attempts to solve the problems concerned shows that it was certainly not easy to attain the present state of knowledge.

In chapter 6, Murphy gives us a hypothetical in which aliens visit Earth. We might not expect them to already know things that are purely a matter of human convention — such as the idea that a “bachelor” is someone without a wife. But we would expect that they would know geometry. And (if they engage in specialization and trade) we would expect that they would know economic principles like marginal utility theory. And if the aliens didn’t know geometry, or economic principles, we would expect that they would be grateful to learn these things — and that they would recognize their inherent truth.

Murphy quotes Friedman as disdaining an economic theory based on “a structure of tautologies” as being nothing but “disguised mathematics” if it cannot predict action in the real world. Let me quote Murphy at length in response:

From the starting point that humans act, the economist could logically deduce — thereby forming a tautology, it’s true — that individuals have subjective preferences with ordinal rankings, that choices come with opportunity costs, and that the value of second-order capital goods is dependent on the value of the first-order consumer goods that the individual believes they have the technological power to produce. Say what one will about these types of statements, they are clearly within the realm of economics and are not merely “disguised mathematics.” Although they have not been derived by reference to empirical observation, thinking through these tautologies definitely aids acting individuals as they navigate the real world. Logical, deductive economics as championed by Ludwig von Mises is not mere word games.

That’s how Murphy ends his chapter, and it’s a good way to end this blog post. We’re about 1/3 of the way through the project so far. Keep reading and sharing!

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