Category Archives: The Market Process

Book Review: Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014)

This book from two MIT professors is part big-picture history, and art techno-optimism. McAfee is also the author of the excellent 2020 book More from Less, which is better-argued from a public policy perspective.

The opening chapter sets the historical stage. Living standards were poor and stagnant for nearly all of human history, from our birth as a species until about 1750 or so. If you put human well-being on a graph, it runs almost perfectly flat for thousands and thousands of years. Then it spikes sharply upwards starting around 1750-1800, like a hockey stick on its side. This giant wealth explosion is still happening today, and the authors believe it will continue for some time to come. This is one of the biggest changes in human history.

What caused it? Brynjolfsson and McAfee think it was technology. More specifically, it was the steam engine. Even more specifically, it was James Watt’s iteration of the steam engine. Steam power existed as early as ancient Rome, but it was mostly used for amusement purposes, and not industry. That changed in Watt’s lifetime. This was the start of Bynjolfsson and McAfee’s First Machine Age.

The Second Machine Age is the computer revolution. The First Machine Age revolutionized physical power. The Second Machine Age is revolutionizing mental power. Just as Watt’s steam engine took time to influence manufacturing, technological development, government, and culture, so too is the Second Machine Age. It is far enough along where they argue its fundamental difference from the First Machine Age is clear. But it is also early enough where its impact is only beginning to be felt. The future has almost limitless potential—and some tradeoffs.

The larger arc they draw is the right shape, though I don’t know that their need for two separate Machine Ages is much more than a useful gimmick for talking about technology. I would also submit that the true cause of both revolutions goes a level deeper than just technology. Yes, steam engines and computers are necessary for the two machine ages. Necessary, but not sufficient.

They need another ingredient in the mix: culture. Larger cultural values are difficult to quantify, which is why economists and many other social scientists do not use them. They are still significant, even if they are immune to regression analysis and other quantification. Statistically significant? No. Real-world significant? Very.

Culture shifted in the centuries leading up to Watt’s generation. People were gradually becoming a little more open to change, progress, and improvement. It showed in literature, trade patterns, philosophy, and a new prestige for science and its discoverers. That is why a technology that was already around now began to be used more differently—people allowed it, approved of it, and were willing to countenance large fortunes being made from it.

After setting up their two-machine-ages framework, Brynjolfsson and McAfee go on a tour of new and emerging technologies to see where the Second Machine Age might take us. They take a ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars, among other highlights, and draw encouraging pictures of some of the things new technologies could do for people over the next few decades.

One area where they fall short is their discussion of inequality. They are so focused on the mathematical ratio of the differences between rich and poor peoples’ incomes, that they forget to ask how people at the bottom are actually doing. They also focus almost solely on wage income, which is a significant mistake. This leaves out non-wage income such as employer-sponsored insurance, tuition assistance, free meals, company cars, and other perks that do not show up in income data.

More to the point for a book about technology, Brynjolfsson and McAfee should have asked a question similar to one Don Boudreaux likes to ask: would you rather have 1970-quality medical care at 1970 prices, or today’s health care at today’s prices?

Very few people would rather have 1970’s health care, even at its lower price. That means people view themselves as better off with today’s options. Most people would similarly answer related questions about televisions, computers, cars, appliances, and many other products that both rich and poor people consume.

In fact, society today has substantial consumption equality. Most low-income households have cars that drive at the same speeds on the same roads as wealthy people. They watch the same television shows and have similar Internet connections. More tellingly, rich people are not substantially taller or longer-lived than poor people. In the olden days, one could tell nobles and peasants apart at a glance by their height. Children of nobility got enough to eat, while peasant children were often so malnourished that their growth stunted. There were also substantial differences in infant mortality and life expectancy.

While the very wealthy have orders of magnitude more wealth than ordinary people do, they don’t consume very much of it. Nor do they keep it in a Scrooge McDuck-like vault. They invest it, in an unexpected type of income redistribution. When it’s invested, borrowers use that money to buy homes, go to college, and start businesses. The wealth doesn’t just sit there, people make use of it. It is a subjective question how much of this type of wealth is the “right” amount. But this positive use of wealth is something inequality scholars need to account for, and rarely do. In fact, invested wealth is where most of the capital that funds the amazing technologies Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in this book comes from.

They make another lapse in quoting a professional trade association for civil engineers in calling for more infrastructure spending. Of course civil engineers want more infrastructure spending, they have a vested interest in it! This is basic public choice theory. While they briefly acknowledge this conflict of interest, they also do not acknowledge the seriousness of the point, or look at data from less self-interested sources.

Their promotion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is similarly idealistic. This model, essentially a straight cash grant, is an objectively better system of poverty relief than the current welfare state. A UBI is easier to administer and more flexible for the recipients. A UBI also makes it more difficult for nanny statists to tell the poor what they shall eat, what things they may and may not buy, what types of health care they may receive, or where they shall educate their kids.

The trouble is politics. Again, a little public choice theory would go a long way in this discussion. Replacing the current welfare state with a UBI would be a fantastic tradeoff, both for the poor and for taxpayers. But the way politics works in practice, this would not happen. A UBI would be negotiated in a Congress led by people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or whoever succeeds them in a few years. Real-world politicians are unlikely to enact a well-functioning UBI, nor will their constituents let them. Public sector unions whose members administer the current system will block any reform they possibly can.

Tis means any politically-possible UBI would be added on top of the current system, preserving the current system’s flaws and minimizing a UBI’s advantages. Unless this problem is addressed, a UBI risks causing more harm than benefit.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are consistently a little too idealistic. Some of the technologies they explore in this 2014 book turned out to be flops, and others are still materializing. Similarly, they assume that their political reforms will actually work as they intend them to.

They are certainly right about the larger arc of progress and prosperity. And though I take their technological hyper-optimism with a grain of salt, it is also inspiring. Books like this one and by other thinkers such as Kevin Kelly give me confidence that my daughter’s life will be richer, longer, healthier, and frankly, cooler than mine. This is a source of happiness for me, and gives me inspiration to continue my work on improving economic policy and defending liberalism against populists who would tear it down for no good reason.

Best Books of 2020: Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi – Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019)

Most people see markets as dens of greed and moral corruption. In their new book, Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi, of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argue the opposite. In fact, they go one step further: Markets make people more moral. Make that two steps further: Because markets have moral benefits, restrictions on markets have moral costs. They back up their argument with a healthy mix of theory and evidence. Along the way, they make a case for rethinking how people approach markets. Their arguments, rather than traditional “markets are efficient” arguments, are the liberal movement’s best hope for the future.

Storr and Choi describe their main thesis on p. 225:

But the evidence suggests that the consensus is wrong. Markets do not corrupt our morals. Not only are people wealthier, healthier, happier, and better connected in market societies, market activity makes us better people. Markets are spaces where we discover who is virtuous and can expect many of our vices to be revealed. Additionally, markets reward virtue and punish vice. As such, markets are moral training grounds.

In short: Less of Alfred Marshall’s supply and demand graphs, and more Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Less Homo economicus, more Homo sapiens.

Their phrase “moral training grounds” is important. One of the most common mistakes in economics is the Nirvana fallacy. This says that because markets are not perfect, government can make things better. Storr and Choi know that perfection does not exist. Markets fail, but they also have a built-in improvement mechanism. Markets are an ongoing discovery process. People have to learn from experience what works and what doesn’t. They make mistakes, learn from them, and make changes. But because conditions are always changing, the adaptation process never ends.

People use markets to learn how to trust and to be trustworthy. This takes practice. It takes trial and error. The feedback people get from profit and loss help. So does learning what it takes to earn someone’s trust or their repeat business. Evidence from experimental economics shows that people who participate in markets learn these things more quickly than in other systems.

In one-shot games in lab experiments, people can cheat and get away with it, like doing a dine-and-dash at a restaurant in a town you’ll never visit again. Despite this, people in these studies who come from market-oriented societies cheat far less than one would expect from a traditional blackboard-economics model. They also cheat less than people from non-market societies who play the same games.  

Repeat-play games give the opportunity for cheaters to learn from their moral decision. Other players can punish cheaters in future rounds. They will often do so even when punishment also comes at a cost to the punishers. Upholding honesty is important enough that most people are willing to pay for it. In the long run, this reduces cheating. In fact, it happens almost automatically.

Without coaching, players often spontaneously settle on a tit-for-tat strategy. You start by assuming the other players are trustworthy, but if they cheat, return the favor. Depending on a game’s rules, this may mean punishing cheaters, or simply refusing to do business with them again. Regardless of whether the players come from countries with free markets or not, they tend to behave better in repeat-play games than in one-shot games. And again, players from market societies cheat less often than players from non-market societies.

Storr and Choi also take a tour of the different ways in which markets affect morals. The obvious one is that because people in market societies are richer, they can afford to be more moral. They can afford to give to charities. They can also afford a fuller life. Education, literature, the arts, and world travel all cost money. Dollars are nice, but they aren’t really wealth. Wealth is being able to treat others well, to have leisure to spend time with family, and to pursue friendships, hobbies, and to try new things. Market societies can afford far more of these life enrichments than non-market societies—and these experiences positively shape people’s characters.

Moreover, people in market societies have longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, are more respectful of women’s rights, minority rights, and LGBT rights, are more religiously tolerant, go to war far less often, and have lower crime rates. All of these are moral outcomes. All of them are backed by abundant data. All of them are made possible by embracing markets. The moral conclusion is obvious.

Storr and Choi represent the future of the liberty movement. The Cold War is a generation in the past now. People still throw around the word “socialist,” but usually just to mean they don’t like something.

But markets are still very much under attack in the current political realignment. The in-groups and out-groups people are using are different now; capitalism-vs.-communism is out, and populist nationalism-vs.-liberal cosmopolitanism are in. Yet, most libertarians are still using the same materialist arguments.

Yes, markets are efficient and create more wealth than other systems. That’s important, but that also isn’t the main point. Markets have other positive effects that are ultimately more meaningful—and more persuasive in today’s society. Not only is Storr and Choi’s moral defense more versatile in today’s intellectual climate, it is more in tune with most people’s values. As CEI founder Fred Smith argues regarding values-based communication, it is important to speak to people in their language.

Most people don’t care about adding an extra decimal point to this quarter’s GDP growth, even though that is important in the long run. They do care about their kids growing up to be decent people. They don’t care that subsidies and taxes cause market distortions. They do care about having a well-rounded life.

Many market liberals only speak a niche language of efficiency. This is one reason why they remain a curiosity. Their disconnect is a major reason why so many people continue to oppose markets despite their moral benefits—hardly anyone makes the moral case.

Storr and Choi are not the only thinkers trying to correct this oversight. CEI Julian Simon Award winners Deirdre McCloskeyJohan Norberg, and Steve Horwitz are among them. But Storr and Choi just might be the ones to do it best. They deserve far more company.

Jean-Baptiste Say on Manufacturing Nostalgia and Industrial Policy

There is a reason the classics never go out of style. For example, on page 62 of Charles Robert Prinsep’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Say’s 1803 A Treatise on Political Economy, Say writes:

Production is the creation, not of matter, but of utility.

That one sentence captures one of today’s major debates: the decline of manufacturing. Which matters more: output for its own sake, or the value people get from that output? Most economists agree with Say that utility matters more. It doesn’t matter how much steel a factory can crank out if people don’t get value from it. On the opposite side are economic populists such as Oren Cass on the right and Sen. Sherrod Brown on the left.

Many politicians are convinced that manufacturing is in decline, and are advocating far-reaching industrial policies from Washington to save it. Unlike Say, they seem to believe that there is something intrinsically better about creating physical goods, rather than services, ideas, or technologies. To them, matter is what matters most. This is not a reductio ad absurdum. Cass, in his book The Once and Future Worker, advocates subsidizing industries and even entire towns engaged in manufacturing, even if their products create so little value that few people want to buy them. Rather than doing more with less, Cass argues for the opposite.

This view is mistaken in two ways. First, according to the data, U.S. manufacturing is in good health. Second, the size of this or that sector doesn’t matter anyway. What does matter is that people are able to create as much value for each other as they can. Sometimes that involves manufacturing, and sometimes it doesn’t. Policy makers in Washington will never be in a place to correctly decide that ever-changing mix.

Pre-COVID manufacturing output in the U.S. was at near-record levels, though dented a bit by President Trump’s trade policies. It is still too early to tell what COVID’s impact will be, but it almost certainly will not be good. Fortunately, economic fundamentals remain strong. While recovery will likely take a few years, manufacturing will likely resume its long-term steady climb.

Even when populists do acknowledge the data, they worry that manufacturing output growth is slower than in other sectors of the economy. This is why manufacturing’s share of GDP is smaller than it used to be. This is just a more nuanced version of the same mistake. The percentage of GDP taken up by this or that industry does not matter. What matters is that consumers are free to spend on what gives them value.

The ongoing shift from manufacturing to services is hardly at the same level as the earlier shift from farming to manufacturing. But the impulse to oppose the change is the same. Even Adam Smith, who was no Luddite, distinguished between “productive” labor, which was agricultural, and “unproductive” labor, which was most non-agricultural. Today, Cass and other industrial policy advocates draw a similar distinction between productive manufacturing and less productive non-manufacturing jobs.

The data have a problem with this argument, too. Even back in the 1940s and 1950s, the service sector had roughly triple manufacturing’s GDP share. The populists’ fixation on ratios, rather than how much wealth people are creating, is a similar mistake to the one in the inequality debate Iain Murray and I pointed to in our paper “People, not Ratios.”

Say’s Treatise was published in 1803, about a generation after Adam Smith and right at the point in history when industrialization was becoming noticeable in Say’s native France. This was the beginning of the Great Enrichment that has raised incomes in the richer countries by 30-fold or so, and is still operating today.

This brings up the second flaw in today’s economic populism. Not only do populists often get the data wrong, they make a fundamental error about what people value.

Say’s insight is that if people value something, it doesn’t matter if it was made this way or that way, or on a farm or a factory, or even whether it is a physical product that a person can hold, or sit on, or drive. This is true regardless of an industry’s NAICS code, which is an artificial distinction anyway.

The whole point of labor is to create value for people, not to create it only in ways that Peter Navarro or Elizabeth Warren approve of. As Say says, what matters isn’t matter; it’s utility.

Time for a Federal Price Gouging Law?

Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, calls for a federal price gouging law in a recent post over at Amazon’s in-house blog. This is a bad idea for several reasons.

One is that there are already effective ways to reduce price gouging without regulation. At Amazon, Huseman writes, “We deploy dynamic automated technology to proactively seek out and pull down unreasonably priced offers, and we have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating unfairly priced products that are now in high demand, such as protective masks and hand sanitizer.”

This should be a competitive selling point for Amazon, not a call for more regulation. Regulations, remember, are made by the government we have, not the government we want. Amazon’s technology and in-house policies are almost certainly more effective than what Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell would enact during an election year and a pandemic. Company-level policies are also more adaptable than federal-level policies as technology and circumstances change.​

In fact, if Amazon isn’t already doing so, it could license or sell its anti-price gouging technology to competitors for a profit. Price gouging is unpopular, and companies that fight against it look good to customers. Amazon does not need federal regulations to force this business opportunity into being.

Looking at price gouging legislation from Amazon’s perspective, but without the public relations filter, they stand to gain three things from a federal price gouging law:

  1. Regulatory certainty. One federal standard is easier to follow than dozens of state standards.
  2. Liability protection. Amazon will face fewer price gouging lawsuits if the company is cooperative with legislators, or even has a hand in crafting the rules.
  3. Rent-seeking, which is economists’ term for using government for unfair advantage. Price gouging legislation is a way for Amazon to raise rivals’ costs without having to improve its own offerings. Amazon has already invested in artificial intelligence algorithms (AI) and in enforcing guidelines for its third-party sellers. Many of Amazon’s competitors have not, especially the smaller ones.

There is something to be said for the first two items, though there are also arguments against them. But the third item, rent-seeking, is anti-competitive behavior at its worst. One of the primary reasons CEI opposes antitrust regulation, for example, is that antitrust regulations themselves are a major rent-seeking opportunity. Big companies routinely game the rules to thwart competition. Price gouging legislation is another example of the same rent-seeking process. These initiatives happen when companies compete in Washington, rather than the marketplace.

Other Factors

Amazon’s call for a price gouging bill might be part of a larger effort to get itself out of antitrust crosshairs. Ironically, such a bill would make retail less competitive. Not only would Amazon raise rivals’ costs, legislation would prevent companies from competing with each other to offer price gouging policies their customers most prefer.

The timing is as bad as the idea itself. Retail sales declined by 16.4 percent in the month of April, the worst ever recorded—for the second month in a row. Retailers have enough to deal with without having to spend resources complying with new rules their competitor helped to write.

There is a federalism angle, as well. A federal rule would impose standards on more than a dozen states that intentionally refuse them.

Prices Are More than Money

As any good economist will tell you, money isn’t everything. Prices are a lot more than money. Every good has a mix of both money and non-money prices. Price gouging legislation is ultimately ineffective because it only reduces ­money prices during a crisis. Tamping down on those means more severe non-money price increases. These cannot be legislated away.

A high money price causes people who don’t urgently need toilet paper or hand sanitizer to hold off until later, when the price goes back down. That leaves more left over for people who need it now. This matters a great deal during an emergency. On the other side of the equation, that same money price increase also induces producers and distributors to go the extra mile, often literally.

What about non-money prices? One example of a non-money price is when a good becomes harder to find. You might have to drive to a store further away or do some deep digging online for some potentially shady sources. Queuing and waiting lists emerge or shipping times might take longer. These things don’t cost money, but they still have a price. They are not measured in dollars, but in wasted time, extra hassle and stress, and lost opportunities. These non-money price increases leave people with less time left over for other things such as job searches, home schooling, or even taking some time for self-care.

Shortages will happen during a crisis. That is unavoidable. The question is how to deal with them. Just as pushing on a balloon doesn’t change how much air is in it, squeezing down on money prices with a price gouging regulation doesn’t actually do anything to stop price increases. It mostly just redirects them to non-money areas.

What is the correct mix of money- and non-money prices? That is a subjective value judgment. There is no truly right or wrong answer, which is another reason why federal price gouging legislation is bad policy.

Public opinion is pretty well set against price gouging. Importantly, though, most anti-price gouging activists have likely not considered the tradeoffs they would pay in steeper non-money prices. Some of them would likely change their mind if they did. Pollsters should find out. Corporate PR departments would likely change their tune quite a bit based on the results.

Federal price gouging legislation would not stop price increases or alleviate shortages. It would sharply increase non-money prices during emergencies and drive some economic activity into black markets. Companies can set their own price gouging policies without regulation, as Amazon has proven with a mix of AI and sanctions against violating sellers. The rent-seeking aspect of potential price gouging legislation is worth considering for people concerned about business ethics and about large companies gaining an unfair advantage over smaller rivals.

In short, a price gouging bill is #NeverNeeded. Congress has already passed enough harmful flash policy. There’s no need for still more.

Alvin E. Roth – Who Gets What ― and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design

Alvin E. Roth – Who Gets What ― and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design

Roth co-won the 2012 economics Nobel. His work focuses on solving coordination problems in markets. His most famous work is on matching donors and recipients for kidney transplants. But his insights also apply to other areas from matching college dorm roommates to football bowl game opponents, to marriage matchmaking, to residency and internship assignments for medical school graduates.

He has also greatly improved K-12 school placement systems in cities that allow a limited amount of school choice, such as New York City. In ranked-choice systems, many parents found it in their interest to rank their choices not in their actual order of preference. This level of gamesmanship gummed up the works for both parents and schools, and prevented honest signals from being sent. Borrowing from auction theory, Roth devised a lottery system that worked best when parents honestly ranked their order of preference when applying for schools. This made life simpler for parents, students, and schools, lowered the transaction costs of engaging in the lottery system, and made for better matches all around. Roth advises that similar lessons apply to students applying to college. Apply to the best schools you can, but don’t do early admission unless you have enough information to know that’s your best match. At the same time, apply to some “safe schools” since the better schools tend to be more competitive.

Crucial to Roth’s work is his distinction between thick and thin markets. Thick markets have numerous buyers and sellers with all manner of different preferences. Thin markets are much more difficult to find matches in. Some of the biggest challenges Roth has faced involved thin markets that lack a price system. For example, not only do kidney donations have to match the recipient’s blood type, it is illegal to compensate the donor in every country except, of all places, Iran.

This is where Roth falls short. The obvious solution is to allow price systems to emerge. As numerous economists have pointed out, banning compensated organ donations quite literally kills people. It is one of the most immoral policies a government can enforce. Roth’s work has consisted of second-best workarounds of these bad policies. He has saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives—his Nobel is well-earned. The trouble is that Roth is aware that his matchmaking work treats symptoms rather than problems, and seems content to leave it at that. He does not oppose paid organ donations. But he is also in no hurry to work to change social norms and government policy in a more humane direction.

The astute reader will notice that even in lower-stakes markets where Roth has worked on solving coordination problems, they tend to be either non-profit markets or markets that do not use money. He has devised brilliant systems to work around a lack of a price system, and some good rules of thumb that any non-price market designer can use. But, as with organs, in many cases the better solution is simply to introduce a price system where possible.

At one point, looking back on one of his more successful designs, Roth was proud to view himself as an engineer, rather than a mere student, seeking understanding. This is hubris on his part. Adam Smith famously warned that people are not chess pieces that can be moved around the board as a planner sees fit. The pieces have their own wants and desires. They move on their own in ways nobody can foresee. Roth’s second-best solutions are often improvements. But they are just that—second-best. Even the wisest, most compassionate designer cannot meet peoples’ needs as well as an honest price system can allow people to adapt and create for themselves, on their terms.

Vlad Tarko – Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography

Vlad Tarko – Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography 

Tarko is quickly establishing himself as a top-notch economist. In this, his first book, he offers the best available introduction to Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s work and the concept of polycentrism. Ostrom was the first, and so far the only, woman to win the economics Nobel [Update: I wrote this review before Esther Duflo co-won the 2019 prize in October]. She and her husband Vincent, also an accomplished economist and political scientist, ran a famous Workshop at Indiana University where they paid less attention to disciplinary boundaries than they did to solid theoretical and empirical research.

Elinor Ostrom also popularized the concept of polycentrism. It’s essentially a more finely graded version of federalism. The United States’ federal system has three main levels of government—federal, state, and local, plus a few in-between grades, most commonly counties. But not all services, Ostrom argues, fit cleanly into one of those categories. Services such as parks, police, and schools, have nothing to do with each other. They may also have different optimum characteristics. So why are they often provided at the same fixed level of government? What if a school district’s optimum size extends beyond a city’s boundaries? What if a park district would be better run as multiple, hyperlocal districts? Moreover, these optimum sizes will vary from place to place. A further complication is that these optimum sizes and structures are constantly changing and evolving as culture, technology, and demographics change. Nothing else stays the same, so why should the sizes of government “firms?”

From this polycentric framework, Ostrom teases out some ground rules for institutional design. One is that smaller is usually better. Most federal issues can be more effectively handled at the state level. Many state-level issues can be handled at smaller gradients, whether regional water or irrigation authorities, transportation authorities, or neighborhood-based policing, a term which now means nearly the opposite of what it did when Ostrom began using the term. Two, because times change, institutions need to be designed with flexibility in mind. They need to be able to grow, shrink, merge, separate, and evolve as circumstances dictate. The goal is the service, not this or that corporate structure, so make change easy.

Ostrom was much more than a theorist. She placed a far greater emphasis on field research than most scholars. This empirical backing greatly improved not just her own work, but that of her many students and collaborators. Tarko shares pictures, stories, and the research she conducted across the country and abroad over her long career. For an introduction to her thought and her broader approach, Tarko is an excellent place to start.

Joel Mokyr – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Joel Mokyr – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Mokyr’s larger thesis is that technology is the most important driving engine of growth. It’s not the only factor, but the most important one–and it isn’t the direct factor. Lurking one level beneath technology are cultural attitudes about technology and progress. This, to Mokyr, is where the real explanation lies for the origins of the modern economy. The Romans had the technology for the steam engine. But Roman culture wasn’t interested in applying technology to improving production processes the way the 18th-century Britain was when James Watt was a young man. So steam power remained a novelty toy for the wealthy, and was soon forgotten.

Technophobic and neophobic cultures tend to have less technological progress. As such, they tend to be less prosperous and grow more slowly—and even then, much of the growth is “catch-up growth” when technologies long established elsewhere reluctantly enter through osmosis. There is a good deal of intersection here with Deirdre McCloskey’s work, which focuses more on wider bourgeois values. But Mokyr confines himself for the most part to technological norms rather than wider arguments about attitudes about letting people have a go, whether through commerce or life’s many other worthwhile aspects.

Mokyr has written several books applying his technology-and-culture thesis to different historical periods. His thinking has evolved over time, though the general framework has proved sturdy enough to pass the test of time. A Culture of Growth focuses mostly on Europe from 1500-1700, from roughly the end of the Renaissance, through the Scientific Revolution, up to the Enlightenment’s earliest stirrings. Essentially, these two centuries laid the cultural ground the Industrial Revolution needed before it could stand on its own.

See also Pierre Lemieux’s review, which goes into much more detail than this one.

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

This book reminded me a bit of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants in its tech- and innovation-centric hyper-optimism. His optimism isn’t quite as sober as the Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, or Hans Rosling variety, but Diamond’s enthusiasm is contagious. Readers interested in this subgenre might also like John Tamny’s The End of Work and Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.

One useful contribution Diamond makes is a deep dive into just how disruptive new technologies are. For workers, the changes are often less severe than commonly thought. When cars replaced buggies, they still needed wheels, frames, and upholsteries, for example. Those workers’ skills did not become obsolete, though they did have to evolve. Many disruptive technologies take years or even decades for widespread adoption.

Ultimately, Diamond makes a culture-based argument for explaining technological progress. It takes more than research and development, or available capital for entrepreneurs. It takes a culture that approves of such things. People need to be willing to try something new and see if they like it or not. They need to have a certain audacity, or at least a positive view of it. People aren’t likely to give it a go if it makes them a pariah. Though Diamond openly admires Schumpeter—hence the phrase “creative destruction” in the title—ultimately his argument owes more to Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey.

Jean-Baptiste Say – A Treatise on Political Economy

Jean-Baptiste Say – A Treatise on Political Economy

Say was an early 19th century French economist, most famous for what we now call Say’s Law. It is often cynically misunderstood as meaning “supply creates its own demand.” A more accurate statement is that “abundance makes more abundance possible.”

Think of it this way: if you produce more value, have more you can trade to others in exchange for other things you value. If everyone does this, the result is a virtuous circle of growing prosperity. Even if people just act in their own self interest, other benefit. The more people who do this, the more people benefit, and to a greater degree.

Say’s Law is a very deep concept to which this short review cannot do justice; suffice it to say that when it clicked in my head, it gave me a major “eureka!” moment I have only experienced a few times in my life.

Say also roundly refutes the labor theory of value that John Locke, Adam Smith, and later, Karl Marx all used. But Say stops short of the subjective theory of value that Walras, Jevons, and Menger independently developed in the 1870s, and that nearly all economists use today.

In that respect, Say is an important bridge figure in economic history. He also displays much common sense on trade barriers, rent-seeking, and political corruption, and dispels common romance about preserving obsolete industries and jobs. On those issues, he remains pertinent reading nearly two centuries after his death.

Say’s book is also long overdue for a new English language edition–a perfect project for the good people at Liberty Fund. The old-timey edition linked to above (courtesy of Liberty Fund, naturally) has distracting and uninformed editorializing in endless footnotes by the translator and editor. They are less than helpful and beyond irksome–and date from 1830.

Say’s name is not obscure, but his Treatise is surprisingly hard to find. The link above might save interested readers some time. In the meantime, let us hope a new edition will come out sometime soon. Say still has much to teach us.

Pro-Market, Not Pro-Business

Charles Sauer’s new book Profit Motive: What Drives the Things We Do quotes from a paper Iain Murray and I coauthored:

Young Murray cite Sauer Profit Motive

The book is here. See also Iain’s and my paper “The Rising Tide: Answering the Right Questions in the Inequality Debate,” and our companion paper “People, Not Ratios: Asking the Wrong Questions in the Inequality Debate.”