Power & Market
Today is an interesting milestone for libertarian-minded people, as well as those with a fondness for trivia.
86 years ago today FDR 86’d prohibition.
Drinking became a crime starting on January 17th 1920, and remained a crime until December 5th 1933. Prohibition serves as a leading example of what happens when people in a largely free society lose part of their freedom. Prohibition did not stop Americans from drinking, it just drove an industry underground and into the control of gangs. Consequently, gang violence escalated during the prohibition years.
Prohibition also escalated police raids against harmless commerce. Prohibition fueled speakeasies as dispensers of beer & booze. Speakeasies obviously dealt with violent gangs as suppliers, but speakeasy customers engaged in voluntary transactions for desired goods. Police raids on speakeasies drove willing customers out of these businesses now and then, and these raids prompted both corruption and a minor change in the English language.
One speakeasy was “Chumley’s” located at 86 Bedford Street in Manhattan. Some police acted as informants to the bartenders at Chumley’s: shortly before a raid they would call with the message to “86 the customers”, to stop business and push all customers out the door. Hence the term 86’d began as a term for putting a stop to illicit business in one bar, but developed subsequently into a more general term for getting rid of something or refusing service. Prohibition ended 86 years ago today.
This is perhaps the only day during any year that libertarian-minded person might find it appropriate to raise a toast to FDR.
Cheers to the 32nd President, for just this one occasion.
A few months ago, just after Boris Johnson had become Prime Minister, I wrote an article addressing the ongoing selection process for the next Governor of the Bank of England, in which I gave my prediction of who the top 5 most likely candidates might be.
Much has changed in the British political landscape since then, including the decision to hold a general election on 12th December. As a result, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid has announced that he will not be making his selection for the next BoE Governor until after the election, to avoid compromising the Bank’s independence by announcing during a “politically sensitive” time.
However, an official shortlist has been delivered to the Treasury, and the 5 names “thought to be” on the shortlist, as reported by the Grauniad, are Andrew Bailey, Minouche Shafik, and Ben Broadbent (who were on my predicted shortlist) as well as Shriti Vadera and Jon Cunliffe (who were not).
I included Vadera as an “honourable mention” in my article, but am admittedly surprised she made it onto the official shortlist, given her reputed “fiery” management style and strong partisan links to the Labour Party. However, bearing in mind the government’s stated intention to make this a diverse hiring process, and their use of the headhunting firm Sapphire Partners which “specialises in diversity and placing women in top roles”, it makes sense that they would have wanted to include her, at least to avoid the shortlist being 80% pale, male, and frail.
Everyone seems to be surprised that former Reserve Bank of India Governor and central banking superstar Raghuram Rajan was not included on the list, having previously been second only to Andrew Bailey in the bookies’ estimations. It’s perfectly true, as has been pointed out, that his failure to be included on the shortlist (or even interviewed) doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out of the race; current Governor Mark Carney was not included in the shortlist to replace Mervyn King in 2013. However, I have long had my doubts about the likelihood of Rajan getting the job, mainly due to the simple fact that (through no fault of his own, mind you) he isn’t British. I imagine this wouldn’t be such an issue in normal circumstances, but current Governor Mark Carney is the first of the Bank’s 120 Governors to have been foreign, and his tenure has been marked by repeated accusations of insufficient familiarity with the British economy. So it’s easy to imagine the pressure that must exist to not give the job to a second full-blown foreigner in a row.
I say “full-blown” foreigner to distinguish Rajan from the person who I personally believe is most likely to get the job, Egyptian-born Nemat “Minouche” Shafik. As I mentioned in my original article, Shafik’s status as a woman of colour would tick all the diversity boxes the government could reasonably hope for, yet she has sufficient “insider status”, both within the British economy and the Bank of England itself, to shield her from the sort of criticism to which Rajan might be subjected, and to be a considerable advantage in its own right. Educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics (two damn fine institutions, in my own entirely unbiased opinion), Shafik is the current Director of the latter institution, and was formerly a Deputy Governor at the Bank of England, having sat on its rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee from mid-2014 to early-2017. During her tenure, Shafik typically voted with the rest of the MPC, making it difficult to isolate her personal views on monetary policy. The only factor I can imagine holding her back would be her reportedly difficult working relationship with current Governor Mark Carney. However, if I were a betting man the research for my original article would have led me to bet on Shafik, and that remains true now that the official shortlist is out.
The only character on the list who I didn’t mention in my original article is Sir Jon Cunliffe, who is currently the Bank’s Deputy Governor for Financial Stability. Cunliffe has held a wide variety of senior civil service positions since 1990, and is currently on the Bank’s Financial Policy and Monetary Policy committees. He was educated at the University of Manchester, with his highest degree being a Master’s in English Literature, which, more than anything else, illustrates Britain’s unique status as a country where you can work in the financial sector with a degree in almost any subject. Cunliffe recently made headlines when he gave a speech arguing that low long-term interest rates put pressure on financial stability, and risk more severe downturns; a potentially welcome sentiment for Austrian ears.
When Mark Carney’s term as Governor comes to an end in late-January, the situation in British politics could potentially be very different: either the Conservatives will win the election and pass Johnson’s EU withdrawal bill, in which case Britain will be out of the EU by February, or Jeremy Corbyn will be Prime Minister, Brexit will be delayed (potentially indefinitely), and this shortlist of candidates might be re-thought or thrown out entirely. For the time being however, this shortlist provides an interesting insight into the priorities and policy goals of Britain’s government and central but doesn’t provide much hope for Austrians.
The 50-year US war on drugs has been a total failure, with hundreds of billions of dollars flushed down the drain and our civil liberties whittled away fighting a war that cannot be won. The 20 year “war on terror” has likewise been a gigantic US government disaster: hundreds of billions wasted, civil liberties scorched, and a world far more dangerous than when this war was launched after 9/11.
So what to do about two of the greatest policy failures in US history? According to President Trump and many in Washington, the answer is to combine them!
Last week Trump declared that, in light of an attack last month on US tourists in Mexico, he would be designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Asked if he would send in drones to attack targets in Mexico, he responded, “I don't want to say what I'm going to do, but they will be designated.” The Mexican president was quick to pour cold water on the idea of US drones taking out Mexican targets, responding to Trump’s threats saying “cooperation, yes; interventionism, no.”
Trump is not alone in drawing the wrong conclusions from the increasing violence coming from the drug cartels south of the border. A group of US Senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging that the US slap sanctions on the drug cartels in response to the killing of Americans.
Do these Senators really believe that facing US sanctions these drug cartels will close down and move into legitimate activities? Sanctions don’t work against countries and they sure won’t work against drug cartels.
A recent editorial in the conservative Federalist publication urges President Trump to launch “unilateral, no-permission special forces raids” into Mexico like the US did into Pakistan to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda!
I am sure the military-industrial complex loves this idea! Another big war to keep Washington rich at the expense of the rest of us. And the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force can even be trotted out to fight this brand new “terror war”!
Perhaps unintentionally, however, this sudden push to look at the Mexican drug cartels as we did ISIS and al-Qaeda does make sense. After all, the rise of the drug cartels and the rise of the terror cartels have both been due to bad US policy. It was the US invasion of Iraq based on neocon lies that led to the creation of ISIS and expansion of al-Qaeda in the Middle East and it was the US war on drugs that led to the rise of the drug cartels in Mexico.
Here’s another suggestion: maybe instead of doing the same things that do not work we might look at the actual cause of the problems. The US war on drugs makes drugs enormously profitable to Mexican suppliers eager to satisfy a ravenous US market. A study last year by the CATO Institute found that with the steady decriminalization and legalization of marijuana across the United States, the average US Border Patrol agent seized 78 percent less marijuana in fiscal year 2018 than in FY 2013.
Instead of declaring war on Mexico, perhaps the answer to the drug cartel problem is to take away their incentives by ending the war on drugs. Why not try something that actually works?
Can a Roman Catholic be an Austro-Libertarian as well? Christopher Ferrara in a book called The Church and the Libertarian says that one cannot. In Ferrara’s view, Austrian economists deny that the moral law applies to the economy. Instead, Austrians say, strictly scientific laws govern the economy and these limit what the State or the Church can do. Minimum wage laws, for example, tend to cause unemployment, like it or not.
Ferrara challenges this contention. Economic laws are not absolute but must be subordinated to the moral law. For example, a worker must be paid a “living wage” that enables him to raise a family. To deny this, he thinks, is to reject Catholic Social Thought, and to do that is to put oneself outside the Church.
Tony Flood, who is both a believing Catholic and sympathetic to the thought of Murray Rothbard, who was a friend of his, subjects Ferrara’s book to close examination and finds it lacking. In his book, Christ, Capital and Liberty: A Polemic. Flood argues thatAustro-libertarian thought is compatible with the key teaching of the Church, In contending that it is, Flood draws attention to the writings of the great Jesuit Father James Sadowsky, S.J., a distinguished Catholic philosopher and theologian who was also a Rothbardian in his political philosophy.
Flood analyzes in detail the errors in Ferrara’s book. In one case, for example, Ferrara included in a quotation from Murray Rothbard words that were not Rothbard’s but in fact were from a polemical discussion by Kevin Carson, a writer of different views altogether
Flood has ably shown that Ferrara’s assault on Austro-libertarianism is baseless.
Denmark as a country in Europe with a population around 5.8 million people and with a GDP per capita of more than 60 thousand dollars. Since 1973, Denmark has been a part European Union, which at that time was called the "European Community." Despite being a part of EU, Denmark is not a part of Eurozone, and it looks like Denmark won't be joining any time soon.
The Voters Say No
According to the public opinion surveys in the European Union (research held in Spring 2018) only 29% of Danish responders were in favor of accepting the Euro as potential National currency. EU-wide, this number was 61%. The vast majority — 65 percent — of Danish responders were against monetary union. EU-wide, this number was 32 percent. The only area where the Danish are in line with European average is the 6% of respondents that do not have opinion on that topic.1
Moreover, in Danish modern history two referendums have taken place in regards to Euro implementation. The first referendum was held in June 2, 1992 and was a “proxy referendum.” The vote was for or against ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which established the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union. The idea of the Maastricht Treaty was minimally rejected by Danish voters — 50.7 percent of the voters were against while 49.3 percent where in favor. The rejected referendum had impacted further negotiations, leading to the Danish-government negotiating limitations on EU mandatesknown as the Danish Opt-outs. One of these opt-outs was the decision to not adopt the europ. In 2000, Danish voters voted on whether or not the country should join the euro zone or stay with its national currency the Danish krone. The measure was rejected by 53.2 percent of voters.
Why There is Opposition
One advantage to joiuning the euro zone would be a decrease of the interests rates on Danish government bonds, despite the fact that since 2014, the interest rate of 10 years government bond is below 1%. (Denmark’s government bonds are rated with rating AAA with stable outlook.)
On the other hand, a disadvantage of adopting the euro — as the voters see it — would be a loss of domestic control over monetary policy. However, under current policy, the independence of the Danish krone is only an illusion. Since 1982 ,the currency of Denmark has had fixed exchange rate with the German mark. When the mark was changed to the euro, the Danish central bank joined the ERM II (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). This mechanism fixes the currency exchange rate at 1 euro to 7.460 Danish krone with the possibility of fluctuation of 2.25 percent. Naturally, this limits the independence of the Danish central bank. Each deviation above or below 2.25 percent triggers intervention by the Danish Central Bank.
By the standards of the EU itself, Denmark is more than qualified to join the euro zone. All the criteria have been met, including the inflation rate, the size of the budget deficit, the Debt-to-GDP ratio, and more. But it looks like the Danish voters are not yet prepared to hand over control of monetary policy to the EU's central bankers.
- "Danish Central Bank Stumbles with Its Currency Peg to the Euro" by Uffe Merrild.
- "Whither the Euro?" by Hans Sennholz
- The Tragedy of the Euro by Philipp Bagus
- 1. "Standard Eurobarometer" Spring 2018, European Commission
The US federal government is divided up into a variety of institutions, with the three main "branches" of government designed to compete against each other. Theoretically, these three branches were initially thought to place checks on the other branches of government, thus minimizing abuses of power by the federal government overall.
Things haven't really worked out that way. Thanks to the rise of political parties, coordination between the branches — along party lines — has often replaced competition between the branches. Moreover, as political parties vie for the a controlling majority in the various branches, they are loath to limit the power of these institutions lest these partisans limit their own power in the process. Nor do the different branches represent different socio-economic groups in the manner imagined by John Adams in his Defense of the Constitutions.
So weakened had this imagined separation of powers become by the time of the New Deal that Franklin Roosevelt asserted during the days of his court-packing scheme that the various branches of government existed to work together, rather than to mutually obstruct each other. In a 1937 "fireside chat," Roosevelt claimed the federal government is
a three-horse team provided by the Constitution to the American people so that their field might be plowed. The three horses are, of course, the three branches of government – the Congress, the Executive and the Courts. Two of the horses are pulling in unison today; the third is not.
FDR's point was that the Supreme Court was being obstructionist, and it ought to conform itself to the other two branches of government, since it was the duty of each branch to assist the other branches in "plowing the field."
The fact many people would find this theory remotely plausible speaks to the magnitude of the public's disregard for the notion the division of the federal government into branches was supposed to prevent government action, not facilitate it.
Not All Branches Are Equally Terrible
FDR, of course, is the poster child for claims the presidency has become lopsidedly more powerful than the other branches of government. Through the party structure, FDR was able to dominate Congress, and through the cult of personality that surrounded him, he was even able to intimidate the Supreme Court as well.
But FDR certainly isn't the only example of how the presidency has come to be the driver behind most of the federal government's worst abuses and usurpations of power.
For detailed accounts of these many crimes, the reader may consult Reassessing the Presidency, published by the Mises Institute in 2001.
In it, the authors explore how the presidency has greatly expanded its power at the expense of Congress (of, of course, ordinary Americans).
This has been made possible by both inaction and support from the other branches. For example, except in rare cases, the Supreme Court has tended to defer to the other branches of government — and especially the presidency — when the court perceived both of the other branches were unlikely to oppose the court's decisions on a topic.
Meanwhile, the Congress's danger has mostly manifested itself through inaction and through its deference to both the Presidency and the Supreme Court. Over the past century, Congress has repeatedly handed over its lawmaking authority to the executive branch and to a variety of independent regulatory agencies.
The Rise of the Fourth Branch
This capitulation to the presidency and the administrative state, however, has enabled what has become an essentially independent fourth branch of government. Yesterday, in an article titled "The Deep State: The Headless Fourth Branch of Government," I described how the regulatory and national-security agencies of the executive branch have evolved over the past century to become more or less autonomous in their own right.
These organizations are sometimes collectively called "the deep state," and their are characterized by a lack of responsiveness to the electorate or to any other branch of government.
Although the president is technically the head of these agencies, he can only count on cooperation if there is general agreement among the agencies' personnel that the president's agenda does not threaten them. In other words, the president can often count on cooperation from this deep state to expand the executive branch's power. These same agencies, however, tend to place insurmountable obstacles in the way of any president who might attempt to significantly curtail the powers of the federal bureaucracy.
While the president's formal power is certainly quite vast, the informal power of this permanent bureaucracy is much greater. The agency personnel can usually wait out any president, and if a president becomes too inconvenient, these same bureaucrats can engage in a variety of investigations, indictments, and leaks designed to undermine the president. What they do is often secret, protecting it from public scorn.
The fact many of these bureaucrats have tenured positions, and function largely in the shadows, increases their power further. Even enormous failures on their part — as evidenced in the failure to prevent 9/11, or to "win" the failed War on Drugs — only leads to even larger budgets and even broader prerogatives.
From Worst to Least-Awful
Since the New Deal, and especially since 9/11, I suggest this fourth branch of government has actually become the most dangerous one. Ranking the branches of government from the worst to least bad, it looks like this:
- The Permanent Administrative State
- The Presidency
- The Supreme Court
- The Congress
The bureaucracy, as we've seen, is dangerous largely because of its permanence and the lack of any means in ensuring accountability. While elected officials come and go, career bureaucrats (military and otherwise) are more or less permanent. Moreover, since the other branches depend on the bureaucracy to enforce the "rules," there is no means of enforcing accountability on the bureaucracy beyond the short term.
The Presidency, on the other hand, is dangerous for both administrative and political reasons. It can use hero worship and mass media to ram through legislation. The President can also issue executive orders, essentially creating new legislation without Congressional approval.
The problem with the Supreme Court stems largely from its exalted position in the minds of voters. Polls show Americans trust the "judicial branch" more than either the Presidency or Congress. Thus, when the Supreme Court hands down its decisions, these decrees are often considered to be indubitable fait accomplis. On the other hand, the court has no means of enforcing its decisions, lessening its de facto power.
And then there is the Congress — the least popular, least respected, and most disorganized branch of the federal government. This is the branch which has the least ability to capitalize on a cult of personality given its lack of any single established figurehead. Moreover, turnover in Congress is higher than most people think. Although some members of Congress serve for decades, most members have tenures that are much shorter. The average tenure for current members is 8.6 years in the House and 10.1 years in the Senate.This means many members of Congress come and go as quickly as the presidents.
But if we've determined which federal institutions are the worst, the question remains: so what?
Well, this sort of analysis may help us determine which side is the greater threat when observing conflicts within the federal government. It also helps us to see through the rhetoric of political parties who always insist attempts at limiting their guy's power is unconstitutional or inappropriate.
One example of this was Nancy Pelosi's diplomatic trip to Syria in 2007, during which the Speaker attempted to assert some Congressional control over the White House's foreign policy. Vice president Dick Cheney denounced the move, insisting "we don’t need 535 secretaries of state" and claiming Congress should defer to the president on all matters of foreign policy. Cheney, of course, was wrong, and it would be a good thing if Congress spent quite a bit more time "meddling" in the White House's foreign policy agenda. The proper view of this relationship between Congress and the White House, however, is often clouded by partisan loyalties.
On the other hand, during the Trump administration, we've seen the permanent bureaucracy assert itself in its attempts to undermine the presidency, and to protect the deep state's own interests. The House majority has been supportive of this for partisan reasons. But more fundamentally — as a recent New York Times article concludes — this has really been a conflict between the presidency and the deep state. Although the presidency's power is already bloated to dangerous levels, the power of the permanent administrative state is even greater, more unaccountable, and most dangerous of all.
Mere partisan analysis would impel us to overlook this, but by keeping an eye on the relative danger of each branch within the federal government, we may perhaps be more able to identify the worst of the bad guys in each new political controversy.
Now that I've reached the ripe old of age of 42, I've been married for twenty years, and I've partially raised four children.
The older I get, the more I realize how very wrong I was to ever think that a disproportionate number of people older than me possessed some sort of special knowledge about how to properly run one's life.
The amount of laziness, moral degeneracy, arrogance, and general buffoonery I've witnessed among the older set has forever cured me of the idea that my "elders," prima facie, are a source of wisdom.
This doesn't mean none of our elders provide excellent examples after which to aspire. Many do.
But the problem lies in figuring out which ones are worthy of such consideration.
Many parents will recognize this conundrum from problems encountered while parenting.
After all, obedience and respect of others, practiced properly, are virtues. But who is deserving of obedience or respect?
As a a parent, what quickly becomes apparent is that it takes very little effort to tell young people they should be obedient to people who are in positions of authority. This, apparently, is what people have done in a great many times and places. Many are told to "respect" cops, soldiers, their teachers, clergy, government officials, parents, elders, and people with impressive titles.
But this is also a very lazy way of teaching children how to engage with their world. Any half-wit can just wave a hand and tell children to respect people in positions of authority.
The proper — but much more difficult — way of teaching "respect" is to teach the young that only some people in positions of authority deserve respect. The hard part is figuring out who deserves it and who doesn't. (Even more difficult is the task of earning respect from others.)
For example, a police officer who doesn't know the law, shirks his duty, or abuses his power does not deserve respect. A politician who is dishonest or imagines himself a hero while living off the sweat of taxpayers doesn't deserve respect. A school teacher who is lazy, teaches her subject poorly, or treats students badly, deserves only contempt. A parent who spends the family budget on toys for himself doesn't deserve respect. An "elder" who lives a life of dissipation ought to be treated accordingly.
Unfortunately, all police officers wear the same uniform. All politicians wear similar "respectable" outfits. There is no easy way to just look at a teacher or college professor and know if he she is competent.
This task is especially difficult for children who are only just beginning to learn how to differentiate between honorable people, and ignorant fools.
But we have to start somewhere, and a good place to start is not by insisting that just because Old Man Wilson managed to avoid death for a certain number of decades, his words must be heeded.
That many people still believe this nonsense, however, has been on display in recent years thanks to social media and and the seemingly endless number of news articles and op-eds about "Millennials." The recent rise of the dismissive phrase "OK boomer" has elicited even more whining from some boomers about how the youngsters ought to show them more respect. Some have even attempted to claim the term is a slur like the "n-word" or a violation of federal anti-discrimination law.
And for what exactly is this respect so deserved? Admitting that boomers didn't directly exercise much political power until the 1990s, we still ask:
Do they deserve respect for running up 20 trillion dollars of government debt since the 90s?
Do they deserve respect for inaugurating a period of endless war that began with the periodic bombing of Iraq and the Balkans, and which continues to today?
Do they deserve respect for ushering in a culture in decline, characterized by latchkey children, widespread divorce and out-of-wedlock children, a rising suicide rate, and the continued obliteration of civil society in general?
Do they deserve respect for the destruction of the Bill of Rights through "patriotic" legislation like the Patriot Act and the continued spread of our modern surveillance state?
Too Much Aggregation
This sort of "analysis" of course, misses most of the details, and relies on broad generalizations. It is not true that all boomers supported the sort of policies that led to endless war, out-of-control spending and the destruction of our human rights. Many boomers actively opposed this sort of thing. But many did either directly or indirectly support all these unfortunatel developments in recent decades. And they deserve the scorn they receive.
But this very fact makes our point for us: it is never a good idea to pay respect to elders just because they are elders. They deserve no more respect than anyone else, until proven otherwise. The same ought to be applied to any group demanding respect, whether that be judges, cops, bishops, or university faculty.
On Tuesday, Congressional impeachment hearings exposed an interesting facet of the current battle between Donald Trump and the so-called deep state: namely, that many government bureaucrats now fancy themselves as superior to the elected civilian government.
In an exchange between Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Alexander Vindman, a US Army Lt. Colonel, Vindman insisted that Nunes address him by his rank.
After being addressed as "Mr. Vindman," Vindman retorted "Ranking Member, it's Lt. Col. Vindman, please."
Throughout social media, anti-Trump forces, who have apparently now become pro-military partisans, sang Vindman's praises, applauding him for putting Nunes in his place.
In a properly functioning government — with a proper view of military power — however, no one would tolerate a military officer lecturing a civilian on how to address him "correctly."
It is not even clear that Nunes was trying to "dis" Vindman, given that junior officers have historically been referred to as "Mister" in a wide variety of times and place. It is true that higher-ranking offers like Vindman are rarely referred to as "Mister," but even if Nunes was trying to insult Vindman, the question remains: so what?
Military modes of address are for the use of military personnel, and no one else. Indeed, Vindman was forced to retreat on this point when later asked by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) if he always insists on civilians calling him by his rank. Vindman blubbered that since he was wearing his uniform (for no good reason, mind you) he figured civilians ought to refer to him by his rank.
Of course, my position on this should not be construed as a demand that people give greater respect to members of Congress. If a private citizen wants to go before Congress and refer to Nunes or any other member as "hey you," that's perfectly fine with me. But the important issue here is we're talking about private citizens — i.e., the people who pay the bills — and not military officers who must be held as subordinate to the civilian government at all times.
After all, there's a reason that the framers of the US Constitution went to great pains to ensure the military powers remained subject to the will of the civilian government. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans regarded a standing army as a threat to their freedoms. Federal military personnel were treated accordingly.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states that Congress shall have the power "to raise and support Armies …" and "to provide and maintain a Navy." Article II, Section 2 states, "The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States." The authors of the constitution were careful to divide up civilian power of the military, and one thing was clear: the military was to have no autonomy in policymaking. Unfortunately, early Americans did not anticipate the rise of America's secret police in the form of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other "intelligence" agencies. Had they, it is likely the anti-federalists would have written more into the Bill of Rights to prevent organizations like the NSA from shredding the fourth amendment, as has been the case.
The inversion of the civilian-military relationship that is increasingly on display in Washington is just another symptom of the growing power of often-secret and unaccountable branches of military agencies and intelligence agencies that exercise so much power both in Washington and around the world.
Last week Wednesday, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel delivered the 2019 Wriston Lecture at the Manhattan Institute. During the Q&A following the lecture, the topic of artificial intelligence was raised and Thiel discussed it within the context of Austrian economics.
He said (my highlight):
AI is sort of the buzz word of the day. It could mean the next generations of computers, the last generation of computers, anything in between. It can mean the Terminator movie where it's a robot that kills you, it can mean sort of all these sort of creepy social credit scoring things in China. But in practice, the main AI applications that people seem to talk about are using large data to sort of monitor people, know more about people than they know about themselves. And in the limit case, maybe it can solve a lot of the sort of Austrian economics type problems where you can know enough about people that you know more about them than they know about themselves, and you can sort of enable communism to work, maybe not so much as an economic theory, but at least as a political theory. So it is definitely a Leninist thing. And then, it is literally communist because China loves AI; it hates crypto. And so that, I think, tells you something. And then I think there's a commonsense level on which people are creeped out about it and this is why. And we should label it accurately.
Thiel, by singling out Austrian economic theory, seems to suggest that AI will solve some problems that Austrian economists raise.
But, for the record, both Austrian school economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek discussed the supercomputer situation decades ago, long before there were even smartphones or personal computers or much in the way of computers.
For example, the essay, The Equations of Mathematical Economics and the Problem of Economic Calculation in a Socialist State, was first written by Mises in German in 1920 as "Die Wirtschaftsrechnung im sozialistischen Gemeinwesen."
In it he wrote:
[E]ven if we know the present conditions, we are unable to say anything of a quantitative nature, on the basis of this knowledge, about the pattern of future values. This is the big mistake that has been made by all those who have wanted to substitute “quantitative” economics for “qualitative” economics. A quantitative treatment of economic problems can only be economic history: it can never be economic theory. And there is no economic history of the future. The equations which describe the state of economic equilibrium include consumers’ preferences. These are the preferences which will prevail at the moment when the equilibrium is established on the market. They are different from today’s preferences as we know them from the way in which they are expressed on today’s market. Today we know nothing about these future preferences and cannot predict what they will be. Thus, though we may know the present-day condition of the market and all the data determining the configuration of today’s market position, including consumers’ preferences as they are expressed in that market position, we still do not know the future preferences of consumers.
We may be justified in assuming that they change. This assumption does not help however. For the economic system is not in equilibrium today, and we want to know the consumers’ preferences for the point of time when it will be in equilibrium and when, in consequence, other conditions will prevail. The progressive approach of things towards an equilibrium situation which we have in mind, and which forms the subject of our inquiry, means the progressive transformation of the conditions determining the preferences and therefore also of the preferences themselves. The problem is not only that, in order to make use of the equations, we need to know the scale of preferences that will prevail at a future point of time and which are not known to us today. Even today’s preferences are only known to us in so far as they are reflected in the system of prices ruling on today’s market. That is to say we know roughly how great is the demand for a certain article by the price prevailing for it on the market today. But we know nothing of what the demand would be if another price prevailed. We do not even know the shape of the supply and demand curves; we only know the position of one point at which the two curves cut or, more precisely, have cut today. Experience tells us so much and no more. It can provide us with no information about the data which we require for solving our equations.
Finally there is still a third point which needs mention: The state of equilibrium which our equations describe is a purely imaginary state of equilibrium. It is merely a hypothetical, though indispensable, tool of analysis which has no counterpart in reality. Thus it is not only a future state which differs from the state of the moment that has just passed and with which we are acquainted: It is merely an imaginary theoretical construction which will never become reality. Hayek (1935, p. 211) has also pointed out that the possibility of using the equations describing the state of equilibrium for purposes of economic calculation presupposes a knowledge of the future scales of preferences of consumers. But here he has in mind only a complication of the practical task of applying the equations, and not a fundamental and insuperable obstacle to their use for any such process of calculation.
And Hayek makes the important point:
We should not expect equilibrium to exist unless all external change has ceased.
If there is external change, Hayek's implication is that some of these changes will not be known in advance and thus these changes in the environment will change individual valuations in unknown ways that even artificial intelligence can't anticipate.
No, artificial intelligence will not "solve" problems of changing valuations.
On a further point, Thiel in mid-sentence during his answer, after saying it is about Austrian economic questions, oddly says it may not be so much about economic theory but political theory.
I have no idea what Thiel means when he says that communism might work from a political perspective because of AI but not from an economic perspective. Communism is about the nature of the economic structure. It can not be planned if unknown changes can take place.
Originally published at Economic Policy Journal
Jeff Deist joins the Death to Tyrants podcast to discuss themes in his recent article, "Politics Drops Its Pretenses" and his recent speech on how "meaningless words" create a narrative. Is "democracy" really a good thing? Do those who use it even know what it means? Are we best off when 51% of the voters force their will upon the other 49%? Is it realistic for libertarians to find the right presidential candidate that will win over a majority of voters in hopes to live in a libertarian society? What if secession and decentralization is the best way moving forward? We will hear the establishment tell us that "politics and voting will bring us together" and "democracy in action is a good thing". Why does it seem, then, that the further entrenched government becomes in our lives, the more divisive and at odds the country becomes?