Power & Market
In recent weeks, we've been keeping an eye on weekly total deaths as they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Weekly deaths—as opposed to COVID-19 death totals—provide some needed context. This is important, since we now know that doctors and health administrators are encouraged to be—in the words of Deborah Birx—"liberal" with counting COVID-19 deaths.
This week I'm looking at week 15 (the week ending April 11). The CDC says that week 16 data is "100% complete" but experience suggests that it will still be a week or two before we have 90 percent or so of the total.
Even week 15 will continue to adjust upward, but large adjustments for week 15 are unlikely at this point.
Looking at the data we do have, there were 65,524 total deaths in the US during the week of April 11. That's up 18 percent (or 10,338 deaths) over the week 15 average (55,186) for 2017–19. Using the average for 2017–19 as the baseline, "excess deaths" number about 10,000 or 0.0031 percent of the US population. Interestingly, no weekly total this year has yet equaled the total mortality for week 2 of 2018, which was a very bad flu year according to the CDC (week 1 is on the left in blue and week 15 is on the right in gray for each year):
Not surprisingly, a large portion of this is coming from New York State. In New York, the week 15 total was 4,156 death, which was 2,129 above the 2017–19 average of 2,027. So, about one-fifth of all excess death in week 15 came from New York. With excess deaths at more than 2,000 for week 15, that means deaths more than doubled the average for that week:
This isn't surprising, since, as we see here, COVID-19 deaths in New York are many times larger per capita than is the case in the rest of the nation. Indeed, as of late April, New York and New Jersey combined accounted for more COVID-19 deaths than all other US states combined. New York's excess deaths during week 15 amount to 0.01 percent of the state's population.
Many other states saw far more modest increases. In Florida, for instance, the data received through May 7 shows that there is still no sign of a New York-like surge for the week of April 11. Total deaths for week 15 of 2020 were 4,214, which was up five percent, or 134 deaths, over the 2017–19 average of 4,010. One hundred thirty-four deaths is 0.00054 percent of the state's population.
In recent weeks, we've been keeping an eye on weekly total deaths as they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Weekly deaths—as opposed to COVID-19 death totals—provide some needed context. This is important, since we now know doctors and health administrators are encouraged to be—in the words of Deborah Birx—"liberal" with counting COVID-19 deaths.
This week I'm looking at week 14 (the week ending April 4) deaths for a second time as we wait for some more complete counting for week 15.
The week 14 data, which is now three weeks old, shows that nationwide total deaths were up by 4,512 over the 2017–19 average for week 14. In other words, "excess deaths" in week 14 now total about 0.0013 percent of the US population.
We also know that most of this is coming from the state of New York. New York now reports 3,373 total deaths for week 14. This means that for the week the death total was up by 1,385 over the 2017–19 average of 1,987.
This isn't surprising, since, as we see here, COVID-19 deaths in New York are many times larger per capita than is the case in the rest of the nation. Indeed, New York and New Jersey combined account for more COVID-19 deaths than all other US states combined.
The realm of politics is to coordinate solutions beyond what decentralized actors and organizations can themselves achieve. This is done through the power of the state (coercion). Thus, the scope and use of politics as a means is strictly limited to where it is the better solution for society and its constituents.
This means that the boundary of the proper use of politics and the state is identified by what can (and will) be coordinated through decentralized means. In other words, the boundary of politics is composed by our understanding for the mechanisms behind spontaneous orders and their emergence.
Chief among these is the price mechanism and economic calculation.
In other words, the "other side" of politics, which suggests where and to what extent the powers of the state should and can be used, is economics and, more broadly, economic literacy.
Economic theory explains how markets, the nondirected and unplanned coordination of decentralized efforts, work. Where markets work, and where the market order does not pose a problem that is unsolvable by market actors themselves, there is no reason for politics—other than as prescribed by the minority normative position that coercion is somehow preferred over voluntarism.
There are of course issues involved with defining the exact boundary of the proper realm of politics, and which issues are actual problems.
There is also a problem of "insiders" in the political system having more or less unlimited interest in expanding their sphere of influence (if not power). But the underlying problem, especially in democracies, is widespread economic illiteracy: if we do not (or will not) understand how markets work and how beneficial orders can arise spontaneously out of the actions of self-interested actors, whether individuals or families or businesses, then we undermine, expand, and will even dissolve the boundary of the proper realm for politics.
In other words, to use Franz Oppenheimer's old but insightful dichotomy, we invite the political means (coercion), along with the inefficiency and unproductive (if not destructive) incentive structures, to take over the proper space of the economic means (voluntarism).
That's problematic for all of us, if not for society overall, and poses an ethical problem, since the vast majority does not hold the position that "coercion is preferable to voluntarism."
A problem that can only be solved by learning how markets work, studying sound economics, and gaining economic literacy.
As Mises put it:
Economics must not be relegated to classrooms and statistical offices and must not be left to esoteric circles. It is the philosophy of human life and action and concerns everybody and everything. It is the pith of civilization and of man’s human existence. (Human Action)
The social function of economic science consists precisely in developing sound economic theories and in exploding the fallacies of vicious reasoning. In the pursuit of this task the economist incurs the deadly enmity of all mountebanks and charlatans whose shortcuts to an earthly paradise he debunks. (Economic Freedom and Interventionism)
Formatted from Twitter @PerBylund
According to new data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, the personal saving rate in the US in September 2019 was 8.3 percent. That puts it near a six-year high, and comparable to the saving rate we saw during the early 1990s.
Indeed, the personal saving rate has been heading upward steadily for the past eighteen months. And that's a bit of an unusual thing. For at least the past fifty years, the saving rate has tended to increase when the economy is doing poorly, and decrease when the economy is doing well.
We saw this in the last 1970 and early eighties during the age of stagflation and the 1982 recession. We certainly saw it in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the saving rate quickly rose from a near-low of 3.8 percent in August 2008, more than doubling to 8.2 percent during may of 2009.
But if the BEA's numbers are correct, that pattern appears to be over, and Americans appear to be more willing to save even when job growth continues to head upward.
This change could be a result of several factors. It could be Americans are less confident about their prospects for future earnings, even if the current job situation appears bright. Many could be less confident that the assets they do have will provide a cushion in case of crisis. For example, many Americans may have learned their lesson about the myth that "housing prices always go up."
The fact that these numbers are averages makes it especially hard to guess. After all, surveys suggests a very large numbers of Americans are saving very little.
For example, CNBC reported in January that "Just 40 percent of Americans are able to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense, such as an emergency room visit or car repair, with their savings..."
A separate survey "found that 58 percent of respondents had less than $1,000 saved."
Regardless of who is doing it, however, increased saving can be a good thing for the economy overall. For instance, even if only the rich are the ones saving more, their saving increases the amount of loanable funds, decreasing the interest rate, and making lenders more likely to lend to riskier borrowers. That's good for farmers and small business owners.
Moreover, as the wealthy refrain from spending, they increase the value of cash held and spent by people at all income levels. For example, if the rich are spending less on restaurant meals and pickup trucks, this means the prices for those items are not being bid up as much. When the rich save, that means fewer dollars chasing goods and services, which can lead to more stable, or even falling prices. That can be good for many people at lower income levels.
Nonetheless, many mainstream economists continue to get hung up on the idea that saving "too much" hampers economic growth. For example, in a recent article at the Wall Street Journal titled "Americans Are Saving More, and That Isn’t Necessarily Good" Paul Kiernan writes:
if saving outstrips investment opportunities for a long time, some economists say, it can hold down interest rates, inflation and economic growth. Such “secular stagnation” may leave less room to cut interest rates, making it harder for the Federal Reserve to boost growth during downturns.
“Rather than being a virtue, saving becomes a vice,” said Gauti Eggertsson, an economist at Brown University.
This is an old story we've been hearing for years, and the idea that there is too much saving certainly received its share of promotion during the 2001-2002 recession, and during the 2007-2009 recession.
Economists do recognize that more saving helps increase loanable funds — and thus puts downward pressure on interests rates — and reduces inflation. But more saving does not, as they think, reduce real economic growth.
True, it might reduce economic growth as measured by government stats which mostly just add up money transactions. But properly understood, economic growth increases with saving, because the capital stock is increasing, making it easier for entrepreneurs to deliver new goods and services — and more goods and services — to consumers. As Frank Shostak explains, we need more saving to create more and better goods:
What limits the production growth of goods and services is the introduction of better tools and machinery (i.e., capital goods), which raises worker productivity. Tools and machinery are not readily available; they must be made. In order to make them, people must allocate consumer goods and services that will sustain those individuals engaged in the production of tools and machinery.
This allocation of consumer goods and services is what savings is all about. Note that savings become possible once some individuals have agreed to transfer some of their present goods to individuals that are engaged in the production of tools and machinery. Obviously, they do not transfer these goods for free, but in return for a greater quantity of goods in the future. According to Mises, "Production of goods ready for consumption requires the use of capital goods, that is, of tools and of half-finished material. Capital comes into existence by saving, i.e., temporary abstention from consumption."
The common view among many economists today, however, is that it's better for economic growth to make sure more people spend every last dime on trinkets at the discount store. Those who have been around long enough to remember previous business cycles will remember that this idea manifests itself during times of recession as pundits insist it's our patriotic duty to spend more, in order to create economic growth.
In truth, in a time like today, the best thing people can do is save more. We live in a time of multiple economic bubbles and non-productive sectors of the economy fueled by inflationary monetary policy. When recession finally does come, vast amounts of debt will never get paid back and immense numbers of "assets" held on balance sheets will evaporate. The result will be a lot of lost jobs and a lot of failed businesses. The only real cushion will be real savings which will be badly needed in a time of recession.
Not that QE ever really went away, but the European Central Bank is taking it up a notch with today's rate cut. According to the Wall Street Journal today :
The European Central Bank cut its key interest rate and launched a sweeping package of bond purchases Thursday that lays the ground work for a long period of ultraloose monetary policy, jolting European financial markets and triggering an immediate response from President Trump.
The ECB’s pre-emptive move was aimed at insulating the eurozone’s wobbling economy from a global slowdown and trade tensions. It is the ECB’s largest dose of monetary stimulus in 3½ years and a bold finale for departing President Mario Draghi, who looks to be committing his successor to negative interest rates and an open-ended bond-buying program, possibly for years.
But the move triggered opposition from a handful of ECB officials, according to people familiar with the matter, while leaving key practical questions unanswered. Primarily: How long can the ECB keep purchasing bonds without significantly enlarging the pool of assets it can buy? Some analysts estimated it might be less than a year.
Meanwhile, the president attempted to use the move to put additional pressure on the Fed to ratchet up its own QE plans, writing: "European Central Bank, acting quickly, Cuts Rates 10 Basis Points. They are trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting U.S. exports.... And the Fed sits, and sits, and sits. They get paid to borrow money, while we are paying interest!"
European Central Bank, acting quickly, Cuts Rates 10 Basis Points. They are trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting U.S. exports.... And the Fed sits, and sits, and sits. They get paid to borrow money, while we are paying interest!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2019
Trump, apparently is unconcerned by the effects of negative rates on the banking sector or on family budgets.
For example, the European banking sector has been hit hard by negative rates, as shown by Maurus Adam recently at mises.org:
Low interest rates make credit for private banks — and in turn, for consumers — cheaper. But at the same time, the low return on government bonds makes investment in these long-term options unattractive. Inflation and low return on investment options discourage people from saving and investing capital but encourage spending. Moreover, the low interest rates result in a low return for banks on the credit they grant to consumers. High consumption, low investment, and low profit on all banking activities strongly affects the ability of European banks to compete. Consequently, Markets Insider reports :The extremely low interest rates in the Eurozone hit the bank’s investment branch hard...
The bank has struggled financially amid rock-bottom interest rates in Europe and fierce competition in the German banking industry, limiting its ability to invest and expand in line with US rivals.
And, as reported by Matt Egan at CNN:
Deutsche Bank's struggles have also been amplified by something the 149-year-old lender never imagined, mostly because it had never happened before in modern history: negative interest rates. In 2014, the European Central Bank wanted to boost the sluggish economy but interest rates were already at zero. The unconventional decision to take them into negative territory was aimed at encouraging growth and avoiding deflation, but it meant banks were charged a fee for parking their reserves with the central bank. The ECB's extreme policies may have injected some life into Europe's sleepy economy, in turn giving Deutsche Bank and other lenders a boost. However, negative rates are also crushing the profitability of all banks, Deutsche Bank included. And this unorthodox policy — one that the ECB is on the verge of doubling down on — is making it awfully difficult to revive the champion of Germany's banking system. But rates don't have to be negative to have a negative impact on savers and pensioners. In order to see any meaningful gains from saving in an economy with ultra-low rates, an investor must engage in yield chasing. but that;s much more difficult for ordinary households who don't have the tools of wealthy investors at their disposal - tools that allow for a variety of risky investments that may bring sizable returns. Ordinary people, in contrast, can't gamble their savings in that way, and can't even access hedge funds and other tools designed to seek out returns in an environment with so few opportunities for yield.
Moreover, pension funds that rely on more safe and traditional investments must pursue riskier investments, or do without the sorts of gains they need. That means future retirees will face far fewer returns and a falling standard of living.
None of this concerns the president, apparently, as he now appears to be champing at the bit to get his over version of European style QE.
Just yesterday, he was demanding the Fed cut the federal funds target rate "down to ZERO, or less":
The Federal Reserve should get our interest rates down to ZERO, or less, and we should then start to refinance our debt. INTEREST COST COULD BE BROUGHT WAY DOWN, while at the same time substantially lengthening the term. We have the great currency, power, and balance sheet.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2019
That is, the president apparently believes savers should have to pay to save money, as is potentially the case under a negative-rate regime.
The president might also want to consider the fact that even after a decade of extreme easy-money policies, the European economy is still weak, and the euro zone's growth has slowed to under one percent.
This won't surprise hawks who understand that easy money is not exactly a miracle formula for economic growth. But this fact is seemingly irrelevant to the president who sees monetary policy as little more than a tool to spur exports.
Although the Fed is now expected to cut its own target rate later this month, one can only hope that it keeps to only 25 basis points.
After all, the good news here is that, with a target rate of 2.25 percent, the US's central bank looks relatively sane compared to the ECB and the Bank of Japan, both of which are employing negative rates. The Fed is even clocking in at well above the Bank of England's target rate of 0.75 percent.
So long as the Fed does not significantly increase its own balance sheet and other QE efforts in response to the ECB and other central banks, the dollar will continue to look relatively attractive compared to other currencies. Predictions that the dollar will quickly devalue in relation to other currencies are likely overstated. It is true that larger geopolitical trends, such as de-dollarization efforts among some major world economies , are a threat. But these efforts lie outside run-of-the-mill monetary policy right now which continues to point to a relatively sound dollar.
A summary of the most recently set rates:
- USA: 2.25%
- Canada: 1.75%
- UK: 0.75%
- Australia: 1.0%
- ECB: -0.5%
- Japan: -0.1%
Note: All graphs by Ryan McMaken. Here are the specific key rates discussed here, with links:
The Federal Reserve, responding to concerns about the economy and the stock market, and perhaps to criticisms by President Trump, recently changed course on interest rates by cutting its “benchmark” rate from 2.25 percent to two percent. President Trump responded to the cut in already historically-low rates by attacking the Fed for not committing to future rate cuts.
The Fed’s action is an example of a popular definition of insanity: doing the same action over and over again and expecting different results. After the 2008 market meltdown, the Fed launched an unprecedented policy of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing.” Both failed to produce real economic growth. The latest rate cut is unlikely to increase growth or avert a major economic crisis.
It is not a coincidence that the Fed’s rate cut came along with Congress passing a two-year budget deal that increases our already 22 trillion dollars national debt and suspends the debt ceiling. The increase in government debt increases the pressure on the Fed to keep interest rates artificially low so the federal government’s interest payments do not increase to unsustainable levels.
President Trump’s tax and regulatory policies have had some positive effects on economic growth and job creation. However, these gains are going to be short-lived because they cannot offset the damage caused by the explosion in deficit spending and the Federal Reserve’s resulting monetization of the debt. President Trump has also endangered the global economy by imposing tariffs on imports from the US’s largest trading partners including China. This has resulted in a trade war that is hurting export-driven industries such as agriculture. President Trump recently imposed more tariffs on Chinese imports, and China responded to the tariffs by devaluing its currency. The devaluation lowers the price consumers pay for Chinese goods, partly offsetting the effect of the tariffs. The US government responded by labeling China a currency manipulator, a charge dripping with hypocrisy since, thanks to the dollar’s world reserve currency status, the US is history’s greatest currency manipulator. Another irony is that China’s action mirrors President Trump’s continuous calls for the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates.
While no one can predict when or how the next economic crisis will occur, we do know the crisis is coming unless, as seems unlikely, the Fed stops distorting the economy by manipulating interest rates (which are the price of money), Congress cuts spending and debt, and President Trump declares a ceasefire in the trade war.
The Federal Reserve’s rate cut failed to stop a drastic fall in the stock market. This is actually good news as it shows that even Wall Street is losing faith in the Federal Reserve’s ability to manage the unmanageable — a monetary system based solely on fiat currency. The erosion of trust in and respect for the Fed is also shown by the interest in cryptocurrency and the momentum behind two initiatives spearheaded by my Campaign for Liberty — passing the Audit the Fed bill and passing state laws re-legalizing gold and silver as legal tender. There is no doubt we are witnessing the last days of not just the Federal Reserve but the entire welfare-warfare system. Those who know the truth must do all they can to ensure that the crisis results in a return to a constitutional republic, true free markets, sound money, and a foreign policy of peace and free trade.
Economists don't appear very interested in economics nowadays.
Indeed, they mostly seem interested in muscling in on other disciplines.
Consider, for example, this profile on Harvard economist Raj Chetty published in May by Vox. The article acts as is Chetty has done something revolutionary in the social sciences by processing large amounts of data to examine human behavior.
For example, the Vox author breathlessly notes that in Chetty's class:
There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers.
He [Chetty] used huge amounts of IRS tax data to map inequality of opportunity in the US down to the neighborhood, and to show that black boys in particular enjoy less upward mobility than white boys.
But here's the thing: people have been doing this sort of thing for years. They're called sociologists.
Similarly, we're supposed to be impressed that the new "empirical economists" are using data to examine the psychological roots of human behavior. They call it "behavioral economics," but they haven't developed anything new. They're just doing the work of psychologists, and then calling it "economics."
And then there's the field called "developmental economics." which is just trying to recreate the work that's been done for years by political scientists.
I should note that I don't so much have a problem with overlap in these disciplines. In fact, that's a good thing. What is silly is that every time the economists decided to start doing sociology or psychology, they then tell themselves (and others) that they're doing something "revolutionary."
That, of course, is the whole tone of the Vox piece. Isn't it amazing that people are examining data to look at income!"
No, it's really not.
In fact, some of the most heated debates over household income occur among sociologists, not economists.
Take for example, the debate over Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure from 1992. For years, scholars debated whether or not she was right, and whether or not people really are working more than they used to. (She was probably wrong.)
Nonetheless, we can see that the debate over work was largely driven by sociologists in recent decades.
Similarly, for data on trends in family size and living arrangement — something with huge implications for standards of living — we find much of the work being done by Steven Ruggles, a history professor and scholar of "population studies."
And then, of course, there are the criminologists. This topic has important implications for economics, given the supposed connection between crime and income, and the effects crime has on one's standard of living. But the empirical work in this area is rarely done by economists. It's done by political scientists and historians.
This isn't to say that economists are never involved in this sort of thing. Claudia Goldin, for example, has looked at issues surrounding family incomes for decades.
But economic history is all these alleged new "empirical economists" are doing. Looking at the upward mobility of black boys, as Chetty is doing, is just economic history. There's nothing wrong with doing economic history. It's a perfectly legit field. But doing that sort of work doesn't make Chetty special. (And the sheer size of the data-sets doesn't make him special either. All these social science fields have been moving more and more in the direction of large-scale data mining.)
But there's also nothing new about it, and nothing that warrants a gushing piece about the new page economics is supposedly turning by doing what sociologists have already been doing for decades.
In fact, the more economists go all-in on trying to copy the work done by other fields, the more they ignore what's actually important about economics, which is theoretical economics devoted to understanding core issues like business cycles, entrepreneurship, and value. By ignoring these issues, economists only make themselves more irrelevant. Were economists to devote themselves to better understanding and spreading good economic theory, they'd be in a position to interpret and and analyze the empirical work done by others. After all, empirical work is only as good as the theory used to understand it.
But it doesn't look like economists are much interested in that sort of thing. They just want to hop on the empirical bandwagon. Meanwhile, economists seem to think they discovered all this sort of thing the day before yesterday. This is just the sort of obliviousness we should expect from academic departments, and it helps demonstrate much of what's increasingly wrong with economists in the first place.
Of all the natural and social sciences, economics1 is the most crucial for the intelligent laity. This is because economic understanding among the public makes the difference between barbarism and a healthy society. While the other sciences are important, they only require a small minority of specialists with a deep understanding of those topics for the fruits of those disciplines to spread throughout society. But good public policy frequently depends on a sound understanding of economics, and thus depends on the public's understanding of it.
When passengers are sitting in coach, flying from the Bahamas to New York, it doesn’t matter whether any of them understand the laws of aerodynamics, or anything about the mechanical engineering of the plane they’re flying in. The successful operation of the plane goes on, so long as a small, specialized group of people understand. When millions of people take their medicine every night, it doesn’t matter whether they understand the chemistry underlying their pills and syrups, so long as a relatively small number of chemists who produced the medicine knew what they were doing. A cruise ship does not get lost at sea on the way to, say, Alaska, based upon the sailing expertise of those playing laser tag on its deck, if the captain and his crew know what they’re doing. A country, on the other hand, is a boat that only floats if those inside it understand how to operate it successfully.
Even a Non-Voting Majority Affects Policy
Accepting the key role of the economic system on a society’s wellbeing, it’s straightforward why representative republics or other forms of democratic government with populations that favor free markets have free markets, and those with populations that favor interventionism have interventionism. Politicians seek election, and if voters en masse really demand certain policies, politicians will pursue those policies. But why should non-democratic states care at all what their populations think? Doesn’t the dictatorship have all of the guns? Can’t they let the people pointlessly pass around their issues of The Austrian while the overlords continue about their business, undisturbed behind their battalions? As Mises stated in Human Action:
In the end the philosophy of the majority prevails. In the long run there cannot be any such thing as an unpopular system of government. The difference between democracy and despotism does not affect the final outcome. It refers only to the method by which the adjustment of the system of government to the ideology held by public opinion is brought about. Unpopular autocrats can only be dethroned by revolutionary upheavals, while unpopular democratic rulers are peacefully ousted in the next election.2
Emphasizing the strength of public opinion in the face of the state’s military might, Dr. Robert Murphy explains:
And if you think that’s naïve, well then if you were right, that means the most totalitarian states where the leader can just have somebody disappeared at night . . . then there they should have free and open internet access, they can let the schools teach whatever they want . . . if anyone gets out of line they just kill them. But no, it’s precisely in those totalitarian societies where they can just kill people at will where they want the most strict control over information.3
Indeed, in virtually every case, the most militarized and totalitarians states, those most willing to use force against their own people, are those most concerned with controlling the education, speech, and thought of their subjects. The reasoning behind such efforts is clear in light of two facts. First, the people are many and the state is few. Second, the constituent agents of the state itself, including members of the police and military, are not immune to infection by dissent, and can come to support regime change. Inverted pyramids of force are built upon the base of opinion. Even if, as Lenin said, one man with a gun can control one hundred without one, opinion can make that one man turn around onto his masters.
In some significant ways, dictatorships and monarchies face even stronger popular opinion constraints than democracies do. While elected officials are typically voted out of office in one piece, strongmen and their loved ones often face grotesque deaths when ousted. Additionally, the understanding among the public that democratic politicians can be voted out peacefully every few years can breed patience until the next election, whereas subjects of strongmen know change won’t come unless and until people take action. Thus, dictators have more personally at stake in the battle over popular opinion than do democratic politicians, and do not have the hope of periodic peaceful regime change to allay unrest among the masses.
Of all of the natural and social sciences, it’s most important that the intelligent layperson have a solid hold of economics, because their understanding of economics will shape the operation of the most powerful organization in every country in the world: the state. “The flowering of human society depends on two factors: the intellectual power of outstanding men to conceive sound social and economic theories, and the ability of these or other men to make these ideologies palatable to the majority.”4
Consider what wealth is: it is to have the means to satisfy wants. Those means can be anything, including berries or fruits growing in the wild. But the vast majority of means are created. There are no hamburgers, iPhones, or houses growing on trees.
In other words, most means to satisfy wants were created. So wealth, generally speaking, is created.
Many appear confused by this rather obvious fact, or take offense by it being stated.
That is not only ignorant, but counter-productive: whoever does not believe that the means to satisfy wants (wealth) are created surely is not acting to create them. So we are missing out on a lot of wealth because of this ignorant view; our standard of living could be higher.
It should also be obvious that the creation of one means does not makes anyone poorer or, as some claim, that the creation of any means to satisfy a want "creates poverty."
Imagine two people living without any created means to satisfy wants: they are naked and without any wealth other than the occasional berry or fruit provided by nature. If Person One spends her day creating a shelter, this provides a means to satisfy a want. She is thus richer. Does that make Person Two poorer? No. That person's situation has not changed. If anything, there is now a shelter that could potentially be shared, and the knowledge of how to create one is now available. So if anything, Person Two is (slightly) richer too.
Sure, there is now inequality because person one has a shelter and person two does not. You may have the opinion that Person One must share this wealth or think it is okay for Person Two to use force to take that shelter away from Person One. But neither changes the fact that this wealth – the shelter – was created and that, as a result, there is now more wealth in the world.
More wealth means less poverty.
The distribution of wealth is an important issue that needs to be properly discussed, but it is separate from the fact that wealth is created. And it must be created before it can be "distributed." Anything else is nonsense.
Sure, critics may claim shelters are different from the things people want today. That, for example, iPhones etc. do not satisfy "real" wants. But that's also an issue that is separate from the creation of wealth, and it is not really for them to make such judgments. The only thing that matters is that people who use – and choose to use – those means do so because their use satisfy some want that they have. It thus creates value in their lives. Your opinion does change this fact; it does not decide the wealth or standard of living of someone else.
It's actually beautiful that we do want different things and have different skills, which means we can cooperate through specializing and exchanging and help everyone satisfy more wants than we would be able to on our own. So we're richer as a result (perhaps despite your opinion of people's choices).
Formatted from Twitter: @PerBylund.
- 1. Link added by the editor.
Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe does not pull punches when it comes to tearing down conventional wisdom in professional advancement.
Rowe has had choice words for the university system and how it has kept Americans ill-prepared for the real world. One of the greatest insights that Rowe has shared with many Americans disillusioned with their professional prospects is to look the other way in the blue-collar sector for lucrative opportunities.
On Tucker Carlson’s nightly show, Mike Rowe continued his attacks on higher education in America. Rowe claimed that Americans and legacy institutions are “obsessed with credentialing, not education.”
Rowe continued, “I think because stuck in this binary box, this or that. Right, blue-collar or white color, good job or a bad job. Higher education or higher alternative education.”
The TV show host then said:
“The cost of college today has almost nothing to do with the cost of an education, and everything to do with the cost of buying a credential. That’s all a diploma is. Some are more expensive than others, but none of them reflect the character of the recipient, none are necessary to live a happy and prosperous life, and none of them come with any guarantees.”
Rowe gets the surface details correct, however, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Ever since the federal government got involved in education, not only has the quality become suspect, but the cost of education has skyrocketed.
A study from the National Bureau of Education Research (NBER) found that the average net tuition increased by 106 percent from 1987 to 2010. We can thank government subsidized loans for that.
These guaranteed subsidies artificially drive up demand, and in turn, universities take advantage of this by raising tuition rates . On top of that, rigorous accreditation standards shield established universities from competition. Gary North explains how the American university has evolved during the past century:
Accreditation was initially private. Private regional accrediting associations were set up. Today, there are state laws governing the use of the word 'university.' A university must be accredited.
In effect, these legal barriers to entry restrict the supply of academic institutions providing educational services, thus keeping prices high.
With how democratized information has become due to technology like the Internet, it no longer matters what educational institution you go to. Now, people from all over the world can learn information that was only available to rich elites. In theory, the playing field should already be leveled. Unfortunately, the government has not caught up with this trend and impedes the market from doing its thing.
The U.S. political economy, from its tax code to an out-of-control bureaucracy, has in many ways created a quasi-rigged environment against new entrants. Further, the education system helps perpetuate this vicious cycle of control. From the primary level up until the university level, students are treated as if they are cogs in a machine. Go to class, get lectured, memorize material. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
Once students enter the real world, they are up to their necks in debt and ill-prepared to be a part of the workforce. It’s even sadder when young individuals, disillusioned with their dreary corporate jobs, end up gravitating toward government solutions to these problems. The same government that constricts our job prospects, has also constricted our mindsets when it comes to working. Indeed, we can aspire for more.
It’s time to recognize that not everyone needs a traditional degree to have a successful career. Some people’s calling belongs in trades, not an office cubicle. Our society’s blind acceptance of the university to the corporate pipeline has stunted the professional imagination of countless individuals.
Rowe’s insights on higher education are a breath of fresh air. The next step is for Rowe and others to embrace free markets as the solution to the higher education conundrum.
Rowe might not have the correct specifics but he’s at least starting a conversation that must take place if we want to overhaul our education system. We can start by treating education like a good or service, not some positive right that has to be provided or stimulated by the most primitive institution to rule them all—the State.