Power & Market
My posts on social media lately have focused on national and international issues related to COVID-19. I occasionally cruise through posts from my neighborhood's Facebook page and Nextdoor.com and just throw up my hands. The local "Karens" are condemning people for traveling, looking for offending groups of >3 people they can narc on to the local hotline, and calling for increased police patrols of the neighborhood, etc. The most fundamental of civil rights mean nothing to these people.
We are being careful in my household. We don't go out much. Fortunately, we have jobs that allow us to work from home. When we go out, we take precautions as recommended.
But the mostly upper middle class residents of my neighborhood and others—at least the ones who have time for social media—are worked up into such a lather about this that they've forgotten that there are important things about our society other than avoiding getting sick.
We will all have to live in this society after the pandemic has passed. On a national scale, we will have to live with the powers government obtains during this crisis. Whatever powers they take won't all be given back (see Robert Higgs' "ratchet effect" and his book Crisis and Leviathan). And whatever powers government obtains won't all be used to effectively fight a pandemic—they will end up being used for political purposes, as the "stimulus" act should have amply indicated. People in government are no less selfish, no more ethical in their conduct, than the rest of us. And they don't always know what is best. Local information, often at the granular level of the household or individual, is vital but usually unavailable or ignored by officials in Washington, DC or a state capital. Even if totalitarianism is an effective way to fight a pandemic—and I'm certainly not persuaded that it is—can anyone reasonably suggest that people granted such power will nobly and promptly relinquish all that power when the crisis has passed? Despotisms have arisen out of a fearful population in a crisis calling for government to rescue them.
On a more local scale, we're all going to be neighbors when this is over. In this crisis, a neighborhood should be growing closer, chatting (from a 6 foot distance of course) with the people who live on our streets, picking up items from the grocery store for those whose risk of an outing is greater, or sharing a couple of extra rolls of TP. Instead, I'm seeing posts on Facebook calling for the arrest of kids in the neighborhood who dare to assemble in groups of more than 3. Unqualified shaming of people who don't "stay home" when we really have no idea what the personal situation is that might result in venturing out. Calls for draconian policies from government that would have warmed Stalin's heart and could severely impact neighbors. I'm not doing anything that would contravene current policy where I live. But I'm appalled at the instincts of some of my neighbors. The thought has already crossed my mind as I walk or run around my neighborhood—who among these people would inform on me if I appear to be doing something that doesn't comply with a government order? Will they knock on my door and share their concern (from a 6 foot distance) or just call the cops? (Is it paranoia if they already publicly stated a desire to have people arrested?) Or worse—a few days ago an 86 year old woman died in a NYC hospital after being shoved by another patient who didn't like how close the elderly woman was standing. Will violence increase?
We may have a long way to go before the restrictions on our activities begin to be loosened rather than tightened. Stress is building. Most of us are worried about getting sick, or having a family member get sick. Many households are struggling financially. Family members that don't get along well at the best of times are living together in a pressure cooker environment. Parents are trying to shepherd children through online schooling. Some employees are trying to adjust to working from home, and are worried about the future of their employers. People are already reaching a breaking point.
In the face of all this stress and anxiety, a commitment to civil and peaceful relationships with neighbors is even more important. Let's think before we condemn neighbors for not "social distancing" enough, and have polite conversations to persuade those who disagree. And let's refrain from calling on the social institution whose primary distinctive is the use of force to induce compliance. After calling the cops on our neighbor or our neighbor's kid—or advocating policies that render our neighbors jobless—we still have to live around each other.
We have an opportunity to build relationships with those around us who have perhaps been ignored for years. Let's not squander that opportunity by looking for chances to narc on each other. That means you, Karen.
As grappling with COVID-19 has required rapid and difficult decisions by world leaders to protect the public, it has been easy to overlook some of the lessons basic economics can teach us about prices. I taught economics for several years, and this topic that we covered in the first few sessions of each semester comes to mind as I watch today’s events unfold.
Prices serve a far more important role than simply telling us how much cash we need to part with in order to receive a good or service. They form the backbone of the entire market system. Individual market actors deliver critical products around the world more effectively than any third party–directed effort ever could. And they can do that only because of prices.
Prices act as signals to entrepreneurs of what value society is placing on particular resources at any given time. So, if society wants more iPhones, then the prices of the inputs to make iPhones will increase, thereby allowing the raw materials required to be directed to that purpose. Industries creating products with less value to society can’t pay as much for those raw materials, and thus they don’t get them. In times of crisis, our focus shifts from studying how prices direct resources to iPhone production to the more critical function of rationing—who does and doesn’t get food, fuel, and medical supplies.
The political consensus is that prices should be prevented from fluctuating in times of crisis. Although these policies are often well intentioned, they remove the critical signals needed by those on both the supply side and the demand side to make decisions in the best interest of society.
Consider hand sanitizer, the price of which has been increasingly scrutinized during this crisis. People around the world have been hoarding it, making it difficult or impossible to find in some areas. Nervous citizens quite naturally understand the importance of this product and want to make sure they have plenty of it. With prices forced to remain low, those who can get to the stores fastest have little economic incentive to not stock up. Those who aren’t as swift (who coincidentally make up a large portion of those who would be most at risk should they contract COVID-19) are left with empty store shelves. Once hand sanitizer is out of stock, those who really need it can’t purchase it—at any price. Even if a desperate person deems fifty dollars per bottle a lower cost than the cost of contracting the virus, they have no options. Our well-intentioned anti-price-gouging policies have left them with nothing.
And because producers who might currently be supplying ethyl alcohol for other, less needed uses (such as alcoholic beverages) aren’t able to be compensated for the expense of converting their plants or abandoning their existing customers, many of them aren’t able to shift gears—even if they might like to in the name of helping society in a critical time.
The inevitable outcome is the emergence of a black market as desperate buyers and sellers attempt to skirt the rules and transact anyway. A basic supply and demand graph shows us that black market prices are higher than those the market would have arrived at. Our attorney generals then run around making criminals out of people who were attempting to serve the needs of the community, and no one wins.
If, however, we allow the price to fluctuate freely, two good things happen. Those who are able bodied and make it to the stores first will have some challenging decisions to make. When faced with hand sanitizer at twenty dollars per bottle that was previously only two dollars, they will be a lot less likely to clean the shelves out. They will be much more likely to grab only the amount their families need, thereby leaving additional supply for those who come behind them.
In addition, producers of alcoholic beverages will quickly notice that prices of hand sanitizer are rising. They will find it more profitable to supply hand sanitizer than beverages and rapidly convert their production. This increase in production will not only increase the amount of hand sanitizer available in the world, but also mitigate the rise in prices. Even enterprising suppliers who might appear to be exploiting the situation at the consumer’s expense are sending vital signals to other suppliers that they need to start ramping up production.
The phenomenon has been proven time and again over many generations, and no product or service to date has been exempt—no matter how urgent the crisis. The invisible hand is still at work. Markets provide more products than any other delivery method and the most just form of determining who gets them. In a time of crisis, instead of abandoning their most beneficial feature, perhaps we should lean on them more.
Generally I think people who advocate for minimum wage laws mean well but likely have a fundamental misunderstanding of the topic. Pleas for a living wage are not new by any means. Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that commodities (farm products) should demand a fair price and that workers should be paid a sufficient income to support themselves. In his time period, however, this was unachievable, as the majority of people lived very minimally and often survived on their own food production. The idea of a "just wage" or "living wage" really saw a resurgence of popularity during the Industrial Revolution. Social reformers of the time believed that it would be more beneficial for children to be in school, rather than working for low wages in dangerous conditions. This belief led to the creation of the first minimum wage laws in the country.
Minimum Wage Laws as a Limit on Total Labor
In 1912 Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage laws the US had ever seen, although it was only pertinent to women and children. The law was passed largely in response to a fear that unskilled workers who were paid low wages were taking the jobs of adult men. The idea behind the law was that by forcing employers to pay unskilled workers similar wages to skilled ones employers would opt for the latter, protecting the working man from competition. Many states followed Massachusetts's example, but these laws were short lived as the United States Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional for violating the principle of freedom of contract. The repeal of these laws was largely ignored as the country prospered in the 1920s. High demand for workers, coupled with tightened immigration restrictions, allowed for competition within the market to allow wages and working conditions to naturally improve with no coercion from outside forces.
In 1929 the unemployment rate in the US was roughly 3.14 percent compared to 24.75 percent in 1933. As wages across the nation began to decrease, the desire for a guaranteed minimum wage again resurged. Unfortunately, the underlying justification for the laws seemed to shift from getting children out of the workforce to instead guaranteeing a "living wage" to those who were employed. What is misunderstood about this situation is that even though many with jobs were making less, if wages had remained where they had been in the 1920s many more people would have been without a job. In 1933 the New Deal's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) promised a minimum wage. This was largely a failure, as it only increased the wages of unskilled workers, who already struggled to find gainful employment, not the wages of skilled workers, who already were paid above the minimum wage. Rather than stimulating recovery, it appears to have made it harder for unskilled laborers to find work. The NIRA lasted only two years before it was deemed unconstitutional as well, in 1935. It was replaced by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. and since then the US has had a minimum wage.
The Fair Labor Standards Act did not immediately impact the labor market in a significant manner. Once the US began to militarize in the 1940s, the wartime economy increased wages far above the minimum. It remained this way until 1956, when Congress significantly increased the minimum wage and authorized the US Department of Labor to conduct surveys to increase employer compliance. Teenagers have always had a higher unemployment rate than adults, but after 1956 there was an incredible proliferation of teen unemployment, illustrated in the graph below.
Teenagers typically have the least marketable skills other than the unique value they possess as low-wage workers. Without this advantage, many lost their jobs to more skilled laborers in the short term and the long-term impact of automation is has started to be realized more and more.
Perhaps more alarming is the power that these minimum wage laws grant employers to discriminate in hiring. As wages increase and businesses reduce their workforces, this creates a surplus of individuals looking for employment. Economist Thomas Hall in Aftermath: The Unintended Consequences of Public Policies explains very clearly that discrimination is very difficult when the amount of applicants is similar to the amount of job vacancies in the market. As this surplus increases, it empowers employers to increasingly choose employees based on personal preferences, including race. Historically, black teens have had a higher unemployment than their white counterparts, but after the 1956 wage increases it became much worse. This can be seen in the following graph depicting the difference in unemployment rates among black and white teenagers before and after the 1956 wage increases.
It's ironic that labor unions and politicians that call for higher minimum wage laws forget why they were enacted in the first place: to force unskilled laborers (largely children) out of the workplace. This has greatly impacted the most vulnerable groups of workers, namely teenagers, and steals valuable experience that they need to be successful in gaining future work. Although many people who support these laws have good motives, the road to hell is surely paved with good intentions. Supporting these laws seems good in theory; in practice they not only promote a slew of dangerous outcomes, but can explicitly allow racist hiring behavior.
On October 17, 2019, civil protest erupted in Lebanon. The reason for the eruption was a proposed tax on the popular WhatsApp app.1 The tax served as only a spark to ignite the uprising. Over the years the economy of Lebanon has been steadily worsening. Of course, the usual suspect is the state, and the preferred method is interventionism.
Although there is no reliable data to track the unemployment rate in Lebanon, at a certain point in 2018 the president himself stated that the unemployment rate was about 46 percent. He attributed this high number to the grave economic situation and to Syrian refugees.2 According to the IMF, the debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to grow to about 185 percent in 2024.3 The official conversion rate of the US dollar to the Lebanese pound is about USD 1 dollar for LBP 1512.5, but in reality as of March the rate at which people are exchanging is USD 1 for LBP 2700.
During the first days of the civil protests, banks shut down and blocked depositors' access to their funds. They then moved to set some severe withdrawal limits on dollar accounts. Some banks have set a limit of USD 600 a month. Although there have been no severe limitations on accounts in Lebanese pounds, as of March 1 I am no longer allowed to spend more than fifteen dollars per month for international transactions using my debit card. Yes, you read that correctly! Fifteen dollars per month. And to top it all, the first sovereign default in Lebanon’s history took place on March 9. Much can be said regarding the current Lebanese economic conditions. But It is self-evident that Lebanon is currently undergoing the worst financial crisis since its independence. Not even during the civil war (1975–90) did people witness such a financial crisis. It could be that during the civil war the state was much more powerless than now and wasn’t able to intervene in the economy as much as it is now.
Between 1993 and 2018, Lebanon’s public debt increased from $4.2 billion to $85 billion4—a debt that has been forced on the Lebanese people, and the burden of which Lebanese citizens have been dealing with for years. To put things into perspective—and this is from the IMF report:
Because of the large public debt, interest payments exceeded 9 percent of GDP. Tax revenues in 2018 were lower than forecast, with all tax revenue categories disappointing in the slow economy except taxes on income and profits.5
Consequences of the State’s Actions
I could go on discussing the awful policies and actions of the Lebanese state. I could give a very accurate description of its anatomy, which is an abomination. But what I would like to shed light on is the forgotten youth of Lebanon. How long is it going to be before the economy recovers? Is it still possible for a young Lebanese to build a better future for himself? Can all the young Lebanese who emigrated ever hope to come back? Existential crises, as bad as they already are for young individuals, have been made worse by the Lebanese government. Future Lebanese generations will inherit a debt that cannot be repaid. The state has robbed us of our prosperity.
Despite everything that has happened, there’s still some hope for the youth of Lebanon. Lebanese have learned a lot from the past few months. It has become self-evident that the government of Lebanon holds too much power and is too centralized. Traditional political parties in charge of the government have had their popularity diminish dramatically. And the best thing is that some Lebanese have been resorting to cryptocurrency as a way to bypass the bank and transfer money. Above all, I truly hope that in the future Lebanese people will aim to reduce the concentration of power that the state holds.
- 1. "Lebanon: WhatsApp tax sparks mass protests," Deutsche Welle, Oct. 10, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/lebanon-whatsapp-tax-sparks-mass-protests/a-50880357.
- 2. "Lebanon's president says unemployment is at 46 percent. Is it true?," StepFeed, Apr. 4, 2018, https://stepfeed.com/lebanon-s-president-says-unemployment-is-at-46-percent-is-it-true-7375.
- 3. H. Plecher, "Lebanon: National debt in relation to gross domestic product (GDP) from 2014 to 2024," Statista, Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/455257/national-debt-of-lebanon-in-relation-to-gross-domestic-product-gdp/.
- 4. Rouba Chbeir and Marwan Mikhael, "A Historical Analysis of Lebanon’s Public Debt" (Blominvest Bank, 2019), p. 2.
- 5. 2019 ARTICLE IV CONSULTATION—PRESS RELEASE, p. 5
With many of our readers having more time on their hands while practicing social distancing, the Mises Institute is exploring our online archives and offering topic-specific collections of curated content. This series, we are calling it the "Quarantine Chronicles: A Shelter-at-Home-Series," will highlight essays, articles, and clips that may not be as widely known, but will provide a deep understanding of important concepts and history.
On the topic of praxeology, we recommend some of the following selections:
- "The Mantle of Science" by Murray Rothbard (from Economic Controversies)
- "Praxeology as the Method of the Social Sciences" (from Economic Controversies)
- "The Fight Against Error" (from Human Action)
- "Economics and the Revolt Against Reason" (from Human Action)
- "Praxeology and Understanding: An Analysis of the Controversy in Austrian Economics" by George Selgin
- Economic Science and the Austrian Method by Hans-Hermann Hoppe
September 17, 2019 was a significant day in American economic history. On that day, the New York Federal Reserve began emergency cash infusions into the repurchasing (repo) market. This is the market banks use to make short-term loans to each other. The New York Fed acted after interest rates in the repo market rose to almost 10 percent, well above the Fed’s target rate.
The New York Fed claimed its intervention was a temporary measure, but it has not stopped pumping money into the repo market since September. Also, the Federal Reserve has been expanding its balance sheet since September. Investment advisor Michael Pento called the balance sheet expansion quantitative easing (QE) “on steroids.”
I mention these interventions to show that the Fed was taking extraordinary measures to prop up the economy months before anyone in China showed the first symptoms of coronavirus.
Now the Fed is using the historic stock market downturn and the (hopefully) temporary closure of businesses in the coronavirus panic to dramatically increase its interventions in the economy. Not only has the Fed increased the amount it is pumping into the repo market, it is purchasing unlimited amounts of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities. This was welcome news to Congress and the president, as it came as they were working on setting up trillions of dollars in spending in coronavirus aid/economic stimulus bills.
This month the Fed announced it would start purchasing municipal bonds, thus ensuring that the state and local government debt bubble will keep growing for a few more months.
The Fed has also created three new loan facilities to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in credit to businesses. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell has stated that the Fed will lend out as much as it takes to revive the economy.
The Fed is also reducing interest rates to zero. We likely already have negative real interest rates because of inflation. Negative real interest rates are a tax on savings and thus lead to a lack of private funds available for investment, giving the Fed another excuse to expand its lending activities.
The Fed’s actions may appear to mitigate some of the damage of the coronavirus panic. However, by flooding the economy with new money, expanding asset purchases, and facilitating Congress and the president’s spending sprees, the Fed is exacerbating America’s long-term economic problems.
The Federal Reserve is unlikely to end these emergency measures after the government declares it safe to resume normal life. Consumers, businesses, and (especially) the federal government are so addicted to low interest rates, quantitative easing, and other Federal Reserve interventions that any effort by the Fed to allow rates to rise or to stop creating new money will cause a severe recession.
Eventually the Federal Reserve–created consumer, business, and government debt bubbles will explode, leading to a major crisis that will dwarf the current coronavirus shutdown. The silver lining is that this next crisis could finally demolish the Keynesian welfare-warfare state and the fiat money system.
The Federal Reserve’s unprecedented interventions in the marketplace make it more urgent than ever that Congress pass, and President Trump sign, the Audit the Fed bill. This would finally allow the American people to learn the truth about the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy. Audit the Fed is a step toward restoring health to our economic system by ending the fiat money pandemic that facilitates the welfare-warfare state and the unstable, debt-based economy.
It's been a couple of days since my post on deaths per 100,000 in the USA and several other countries.
I'm very much a cautious "measure twice, cut once" type of person, so I went back and updated some of my calculations using more recent numbers.
Specifically, I've updated the third graph in the original post which is the number of deaths per 100,000 at the same point in the timeline since at least 1 case per million population was reported.
In the US, the first day to show more than one case per million population was March 7. So, counting up twenty days we arrive at March 26. On that day, there were 1,295 total deaths in the US. That works out to 0.391 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000. Meanwhile, in Italy, the first day with at least one case per million was Feb 22. Twenty days later, there were 1,106 deaths. That works out to 1.572 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000.
And so on:
And here's how things looked five days earlier, on day 15:
The gap between the US and Spain and the US and Italy became larger over these five days. At day 15, Italy's total for deaths per 100,000 was 3.9 times larger than the US rate. At Day 20, Italy's rate was up slightly at 4 times larger. At Day 15, Spain's death rate was 4.6 times larger than that in the US. At day 20, Spain's rate had grown to 5.6 times larger than the US rate.
As I noted earlier, there are many reasons why the deaths per 100,000 could be higher in Spain and Italy than in the US, Germany, and Switzerland. One may be the quality of healthcare. While the US, Germany, and Switzerland all have health systems with sizable government sectors, they have multi-payer systems that are more competitive and modern than the systems found in Spain and Italy (and the UK, for that matter). Switzerland has a system similar to Obamacare.
Another major factor is demographics. Both Spain and Italy have some of the lowest birth rates in the world, and these relatively elderly populations are lopsidedly affected by COVID-19. These demographic trends can be seen a bit in their population growth:
Note how few people Spain and Italy add each day on average. Spain barely adds anyone at all each day. And Italy is declining in population. (These are historical averages, so this doesn't include deaths from COVID-19.) Italy is simply a country with a very old population and very low birth rate. In fact, Italy's population is projected to fall more than 10 percent over the next thirty years. The US's population growth, while not high by global standards, is certainly more robust than we're seeing in Spain and Italy. This is true both in total numbers and proportional to the population overall. With the exception of Iran and Switzerland, the US is growing faster percentagewise than all these countries.
These trends aren't carved in stone. It's entirely possible that something will happen in which the US's death rate accelerates so fast that it overtakes Spain and Italy in this regard. At this time, however, that is not the trend.
(Net population change data, COVID-19 deaths, and total population data are from Worldometer.)
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” — Benjamin Franklin (1706–90)
One of my Fox colleagues recently sent me an email attachment of a painting of the framers signing the Constitution of the United States. Except in this version, George Washington—who presided at the Constitutional Convention—looks at James Madison—who was the scrivener at the Convention—and says, “None of this counts if people get sick, right?”
In these days of state governors issuing daily decrees purporting to criminalize the exercise of our personal freedoms, the words put into Washington’s mouth are only mildly amusing. Had Washington actually asked such a question, Madison, of all people, would likely have responded: “No. This document protects our natural rights at all times and under all circumstances.”
It is easy, 233 years later, to offer that hypothetical response, particularly since the Supreme Court has done so already when, as readers of this column will recall, Abraham Lincoln suspended the constitutionally guaranteed writ of habeas corpus—the right to be brought before a judge upon arrest—only to be rebuked by the Supreme Court.
The famous line by Benjamin Franklin above, though uttered in a 1755 dispute between the Pennsylvania legislature and the state’s governor over taxes, nevertheless provokes a truism.
Namely that since our rights come from our humanity, not from the government, foolish people can only sacrifice their own freedoms, not the freedoms of others.
Thus, freedom can only be taken away when the government proves fault at a jury trial. This protection is called procedural due process, and it, too, is guaranteed in the Constitution.
Of what value is a constitutional guarantee if it can be violated when people get sick? If it can, it is not a guarantee; it is a fraud. Stated differently, a constitutional guarantee is only as valuable and reliable as is the fidelity to the Constitution of those in whose hands we have reposed it for safekeeping.
Because the folks in government, with very few exceptions, suffer from what St. Augustine called libido dominandi—the lust to dominate—when they are confronted with the age-old clash of personal liberty versus government force, they will nearly always come down on the side of force.
How do they get away with this? By scaring the daylights out of us. I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime, though our ancestors saw this in every generation. In America today, we have a government of fear. Machiavelli offered that men obey better when they fear you than when they love you. Sadly, he was right, and the government of America knows this.
But Madison knew this as well when he wrote the Constitution. And he knew it four years later when he wrote the Bill of Rights. He intentionally employed language to warn those who lust to dominate that, however they employ governmental powers, the Constitution is “the Supreme Law of the Land” and all government behavior in America is subject to it.
Even if the legislature of the state of New York ordered, as my friend Governor Andrew Cuomo—who as the governor, cannot write laws that incur criminal punishment—has ordered, it would be invalid as prohibited by the Constitution.
This is not a novel or an arcane argument. This is fundamental American law. Yet it is being violated right before our eyes by the very human beings we have elected to uphold it. And each of them—every governor interfering with the freedom to make one’s own choices—has taken an express oath to comply with the Constitution.
You want to bring the family to visit grandma? You want to engage in a mutually beneficial, totally voluntary commercial transaction? You want to go to work? You want to celebrate Mass? These are all now prohibited in one-third of the United States.
I tried and failed to find Mass last Sunday. When did the Catholic Church become an agent of the state? How about an outdoor Mass?
What is the nature of freedom? It is an unassailable natural claim against all others, including the government. Stated differently, it is your unconditional right to think as you wish, to say what you think, to publish what you say, to associate with whomever wishes to be with you no matter their number, to worship or not, to defend yourself, to own and use property as you see fit, to travel where you wish, to purchase from a willing seller, to be left alone. And to do all this without a government permission slip.
What is the nature of government? It is the negation of freedom. It is a monopoly of force in a designated geographic area. When elected officials fear that their base is slipping, they will feel the need to do something—anything—that will let them claim to be enhancing safety. Trampling liberty works for that odious purpose. Hence a decree commanding obedience, promising safety, and threatening punishment.
These decrees—issued by those who have no legal authority to issue them, enforced by cops who hate what they are being made to do, destructive of the freedoms that our forbears shed oceans of blood to preserve, and crushing economic prosperity by violating the laws of supply and demand—should all be rejected by an outraged populace, and challenged in court.
These challenges are best filed in federal courts, where those who have trampled our liberties will get no special quarter. I can tell you from my prior life as a judge that most state governors fear nothing more than an intellectually honest, personally courageous, constitutionally faithful federal judge.
Fight fear with fear.
A reader, A.B. Sterner, writes:
Toilet paper, for reasons I still can’t grasp, is experiencing a severe (in store) shortage in a lot of areas of the country. Yet in some areas price ceilings—in the form of "anti-gouging" laws—have been put in place to keep those prices artificially low, despite the unprecedented increase in demand.
Our family is one who gets a predetermined order of paper and other products delivered by Amazon monthly, through their subscribe and save feature. One of the items we receive monthly is toilet paper. This last delivery, Amazon was unable to fill the order. Thanks to our overestimation and failure to adjust our previous orders, we have been unintentionally hoarding toilet paper for years. When set up initially, we assumed we would use a package equivalent to 56 “regular” rolls of toilet paper each month. As it turns out, we have used an estimated average of 38 regular rolls of toilet paper per month. So even as we did not receive our shipment this month, we still had plenty of stock on hand, the equivalent of nearly 500 rolls, or enough to easily supply our family for at least a year.
We are now faced with a far larger than needed inventory of toilet paper. Our first thought is we should hold onto it, given the uncertainty of when we will be able to purchase more. Given we have more than a year’s supply, there isn’t a likely scenario where this would be necessary. It's a sunk cost, we have the room to store it without sacrificing the storage of other items. The do-nothing approach is the most appealing option right now. But what if we were to try and sell it? We paid roughly $0.30 for each regular roll. It’s $150.00 worth of inventory we are currently carrying. Our subjective value of this toilet paper is at least what our costs were, as of now. As laws to prevent price gouging are in effect, and if we were to try to sell any of our inventory for more than $0.30 per roll would be considered illegal, there is no incentive to let go of our current inventory.
As of now, our subjective value of each roll is probably $0.50, a 67% premium over what we paid for them. If we could receive more than $0.50 per roll, instead of hoarding them, we would put at least a couple of cases up for sale. If we could get $1.00 [per] roll, we would likely put most of my inventory up for sale. If we could get $5.00 per roll, we would sell every last roll and either purchase a bidet or two, or maybe even use warm wash cloths and do quite a bit of unpleasant laundry every day.
I’m sure plenty are thinking that we should do the “right” thing and just donate them to others less fortunate. The problem with this is prices have remained unchanged, thanks to price ceilings put into place by the government. You may not think this would have any effect on our willingness to donate our inventory, but it has a large impact. Donations to a qualified non-profit carry tax benefits. Our $150.00 inventory, if donated, would generate a tax deduction of no more than $150.00, since this is the current artificial price. The actual tax savings to us would be less than $50.00, well below what we paid and far below our subjective value per roll. The incentive isn’t there. If we could deduct $500.00 or $1,000.00 worth of income by donating our excess inventory, because prices were not artificially restricted, there would be an incentive to donate our extra to those in need.
If the price system were allowed to work, even though we would gain more profit from selling them outright, we would more likely donate our excess, because the monetary benefit would be equal to or more than our subjective value. In addition, we would also profit from the psychic benefits we would get, from knowing we were helping those who are in need during this time. So even if we had the opportunity to be selfish, uncaring capitalist dogs, we wouldn’t.We are not the only ones in this situation. Others are have inadvertently overordered their supply of toilet paper and have inventories such as ours. Even more have purchased well more than they need in the short term and have subjectively valued theirs at more than they have paid. If prices were allowed to work, ask yourself, how many of just these rolls of personal inventory would be put back out into the market? The answer is an easy one. It would be more than enough to satisfy the current needs of every American. As we established, there is no shortage of toilet paper out there, just a shortage of toilet paper in the marketplace because of the price ceilings put in place by our philosopher kings.
There are two very distinct approaches to crisis resolution. One is the socialist approach, adopted by most governments of the world in the latest coronavirus crisis. The other is the individualistic approach, used by few if any of the world's major nations.
The Socialist Approach
Here are some of the main elements of the socialist approach:
- Centralized decision making to which all must comply
- Temporary loss of civil liberties
- Suspension of property rights
- Large, perhaps even totalitarian, government
- Reliance on data and statistical models
- Reliance on expert opinions and recommendations
The Decentralized/Individualistic Approach
Here are some of the main elements of the individualistic approach:
- Radical decentralized decision making even to the individual level
- Defense of all civil liberties
- Defense of property rights
- Limited government
- Skepticism of data and statistical models, especially early in the crisis
- Skepticism of experts, especially early in the crisis
The Look of the Two Different Approaches
We know what the socialist approach looks like, since it has been adopted by all the world's major nations during what is called the coronavirus crisis. The president closed our borders to international travelers (but not goods). Many state governors have restricted the people's right to assemble, the right to work, the right to open their businesses as normal, and even the right to leave their own homes except for "permitted purposes". The financial and personal cost of these measures is beyond calculation. Government justifies these measures by reliance on expert advice that to allow citizens to go about their lives as they see fit will cause a medical catastrophe. These experts rely upon data and statistical models to justify their recommendations. One of the problems with reliance upon experts who, in turn, rely upon data and models, is that the data and the models constantly change and may even become suspect. For example, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) reported on March 25, 2020 that the Oxford-based Our World in Data had stopped using World Health Organization data for the coronavirus reporting, citing errors. Another problem is assessing when the data and expert advice should trigger the suspension of civil and property rights, if ever. Is it not interesting that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that 12,000 will die of the "normal" flu this year in the US and that 61,000 died in the 2017/2018 flu season? Yet the US has taken draconian action only this year in reaction to the 804 who have died with the coronavirus as of March 25, 2020. (Note the qualifying preposition "with".) What changed to warrant such action and are we to expect similar draconian responses in the future?
The individualistic approach is well known. It is the approach taken heretofore following other major flu-type outbreaks in the fairly recent past. But let us pursue a thought experiment somewhat. What action might individuals and businesses take on their own in response to this media hyperbole? We know that some people with medical conditions or those who simply don't want to take a chance are self-quarantining themselves or venturing out in public much less than normal. Furthermore, some stores are open and people seem to be taking precautions. They are maintaining a safe distance from one another in public. Hand sanitizers are being used in some stores to clean public shopping baskets and for customer use. Some stores are asking customers not to use cash. My local Ace Hardware Store has blocked off a six foot distance between the customer and checkout clerks. These are just some common sense actions taken by a self reliant people. But what might be the response if businesses who were forcibly shutdown were allowed to open? I'll use my local dental office for a thought experiment.
My dental office has been forced to close, but what if it were not? It could close voluntarily anyway, of course. That would be my dentist's decision. But if she closed and others remained open, she might lose many customers permanently. Or she could remain open. Then customers could decide whether to see her for their regular checkups, etc. or not. If some did go, they might assess what steps the dentist was taking to protect herself and her patients. If they were not comfortable with her measures, they might try another dentist, in which case my dentist would risk losing a customer permanently if the other dentist adopted better protective measures. We could go on and on about the choices that both my dentist and her customers might take, but the point is that there are lots of options available to both my dentist and her customers. Individuals and businesses may rely on data somewhat, but the data is just one input to guide their action.
The Austrian school of economics explains that humans are guided by preferences, and preferences are NOT quantifiable. They are subjective. They differ from one person to another and change often within the same person. It is impossible for government to draft rules and restrictions that can satisfy the subjective preferences of ALL people all the time on how to respond to a crisis. Pretending that it knows what's good for over three hundred million people is ludicrous. Better to adopt the individualistic approach and let each of us decide for himself.