Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Occupational Licensing

In 2015 Obama sent his council of economic advisers out on a fact finding missions to discover why job creation was so hard for the administration and this council - made up of a bunch of Democrats, right - not ideological free marketeers - concluded that demands for mandatory occupational licensing were creating terrible cartels, excluding workers and getting in the way of regular people wanting to start up businesses.

There are over 800 occupations that might require a licence in some states in America including a tour guide, manicurist, dog walker, librarian, locksmith, dry cleaner, auctioneer, fruit ripener, plumber, private investigator, Christmas tree vendor, florist, interior designer, funeral director, cab driver, shampoo specialist, glass installer, cat groomer, tree groomer, hunting guide, kick boxer, real estate agent, tattoo artist, nutritionist, acupuncturist, music therapist, yoga instructor and mortician.

On the back of people's justified fears of disastrous bridges being built by unqualified tradesmen and hapless patients being sliced open by quacks, government - with the help of protected industries - have managed to sell the myth that mandatory occupational licensing increases the safety and quality of services. People assume that if the government says its fixed its fixed. The reality is that mandatory occupational licensing far reduces the number of practitioners operating in any sector, and when consumers have less choice they have to take whatever they can get at whatever price they have to pay. As a result the quality of services can actually go down and prices up.

This is borne out by the empirical data:

After compiling a meta-analysis entitled, "Rule of Experts," S. David Young concluded “…most of the evidence suggests that licensing has, at best, a neutral effect on quality and may even cause harm to the consumers... The higher entry standards imposed by licensing laws reduce the supply of professional services…. The poor are net losers because the availability of low-cost service has been reduced.”

Stanley Gross of Indiana State University, had to concur, “…mainly the research refutes the claim that licensing protects the public.”

More recently economics PhD. Morris Kleiner released two publications (2006, 2013) for the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research demonstrating that licensing occupations does more to restrict competition that to ensure quality.

On a free market, the poor may have to sometimes settle for inferior services - but often that is better than no service at all which might be what they otherwise receive. Even so, the price of most services will come down over time if a multiplicity of firms are offering similar services: if not in price then in real terms as wages rise. There are more risks though. When people can’t buy services they might try to do their own work, their own electrical work, plumbing or dental work, this has often happened in the past, and sometimes the consequences can even be fatal.

Still, most people find it difficult to imagine how society might be protected from quacks without government-mandated occupational licences, so lets have a quick review of some of the market can account for this:

Market Competition. Consumers provide a large degree of regulation over markets by not repeatedly buying poor services and advising other customers of what to buy and what not to buy.
Consumer Watchdogs. Customers want to know which services offer the best value for money and are quick to consult experts in magazines or online for good information before they choose a provider.
Employer Discretion. Employers do not want to take on a poorly qualified civil engineer or plastic surgeon.
Registration. Third parties or groups of experienced practitioners can create registries of bonafide service providers. If a complaint is lodged against someone on the registry the administrators can investigate the case and strike them off if they are guilty or give them a warning.
Private Certification. In the absence of mandatory government licensing consumers will often want assurance from credible sources that the services they are going to pay for are of high quality - and more importantly - safe. Third parties can offer to certify practitioners that meet their standards.
Litigation. Customers already have protection under the law against faulty products or false advertising even in the absence of mandatory occupational licensing. The threat of being sued for causing damages is enough to deter most companies from releasing harmful products, if the threat of killing off their customers is not enough already.
Contracts. Customers can make explicit contacts with service providers to ensure they have recourse if they don't get what they think they are getting. If a company says the customer is getting x but gives them y the contract clearly delineates who is in the right and who is in the wrong.
Bonding. Individuals can engage in agreements in advance that involve third parties to ensure that payment is transferred when it is supposed to be.
Insurance. Customers can insure themselves against receiving faulty goods or receiving harm from services. In some cases the insurer will be able to bring litigation against the service providers for damages incurred offering a deterrent against providing poor services.
Jail. If the fact that it is not profitable in the long-term to kill of your customers is not enough to deter greedy capitalists from selling products that are physically harmful, the prospect of a jail term just might be.


Occupational Licensing simply come down to the government abolishing someone's right to provide services to someone else who is willing to buy those services, and then selling it back to that person at a fee. This is usually at the cost of several years in some educational institution where education in the necessary skills is dragged out over several years and supplemented with a whole bunch of written work that is superfluous to the exercising of those skills. The sum result of these policies are to drive otherwise capable people out of their passion because they are not academic, can't afford the education or the time off work, or can't look at another educational institution after the horrors of school. Willing students are saddled with debts and loss of work experience while they study and expect to recoup expenses from customers. All of this drives up the cost of products, reducing living standards for average people.




We see a real problem with this with the FDA when they allow highly dangerous foods - and people presume "the government has taken care of it, if it was dangerous it would be off the market" - when the opposite is the case. They have also held (and continue in some cases to hold) life-saving drugs off the market for decades at the expense of countless lives. They also have the monopoly on this service so it's impossible to compare their performance with any other agencies that might have had a much better record of making good judgements of food and drugs. With a multiplicity of firms acting in the sector you could compare their history for a sense of which might be the most reliable when it comes to what.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

10 Ways The Profit Motive Drives Sustainability.

Time for some heresy today.

Most people are given to thinking that the profit motive in a capitalist economy can only drive environmental destruction, but I am here to say that the profit motive has been acting as a massive bulwark against the kind of environmental destruction which was seen in the communist nations during the 20th century which far outstripped the damage done to the environment here in the west.

The idea that the desire for profit is ripping apart the environment seems so intuitive that you'd think it were beyond dispute. People take resources from the earth to make products and draw a profit, right?  And because corporations are only motivated by profit they will destroy the environment in pursuit of profit, won't they? Obviously.

Well, this is not the full story, lets investigate what is unseen.

1) A forest, fishery or grazing land is a renewable resource if properly managed. Keeping it in pristine condition will not only preserve (or even increases) the value of the land but will allow the owner to profit from it indefinitely. Laying waste to it for a quick buck would be like slaying a goose which laid golden eggs for a single dinner. This is why loggeries that are privately owned are handled sustainable whereas when land is leased out to firms by the government they usually mistreat the land for short term profit and leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab. Renters don't take as good care of their stuff as owners do.

2) Companies are always trying to decrease the cost of their inputs because the lower their costs of production the higher their margin of profit. This gives firms and active incentive to constantly find innovative ways of stretching the same amount of resources further. An example of this, often cited, is that Coca Cola have made their cans thinner than they used to be. There must be dozens of others. There is no comparable incentive to save resources by decreasing inputs in a centrally planned economy.

3) Those with the knowledge of how to stretch limited resources the furthest are the most likely to acquire them on a free market because they are able to pay more to acquire them owing to their larger projected profit. This will broadly lead to copper mines and oil wells ending up in the hands of the most competent custodians; so long as the state is not in charge of who gets what, a more competent owner will be able to buy-out a less competent owner.

4) On a free market the price system values resource inputs in proportion to how scarce they are and how many people want to use them. Therefore the most environmentally friendly way to produce something also becomes the cheapest. As resources become more scare the laws of supply and demand push the price of those resources up driving innovation to find alternatives and use those which are still left better - the best alternative being a renewable alternative. There is no comparable defense against the overuse of resources under socialism where the central planners can continue to dish out the goods to cronies long after they have become scarce. (In fact the only defense against this is the potential killing the central planners can make by selling those scarce resources to capitalist economies that actually have a price system.)

6) On a free market the mechanism of profit and loss minimises the production of goods and services that no one wants limiting waste. In a planned economy central planners have to best-guess what people will want. They will often guess wrong and lots of production will simply go to waste.

7) Because consumers have to choose what products to buy with their limited resources on the free market they have to be discerning. Products that are more intensive in resource use are more expensive, meaning someone who buys them has less to spend on something else. Because resources are held privately rather than in common there is no "tragedy of the commons" where everyone has the incentive to take as much as they can in the short term to stop other people from taking it first.

8) On a free market, much of what we consider waste could be considered a free resource to one entrepreneur or another. Food waste could be slop for livestock; aluminium and tin cans, glass bottles, and many electronics can be reused. Were there a market in trash disposal, rather than central planning, people would be charged for waste in proportion to how expensive that waste was to dispose of. Perhaps they would even be remunerated for waste to the extent that that waste could be reused. The companies who were most effective at recycling and reprocessing waste in an environmentally friendly way would be able to pay the most to acquire that waste. This would change the whole face of the economy by presenting a massive incentive for companies to make their goods easy to recycle, reuse or repair as consumers faced real financial incentives for choosing sustainable purchases, Non-biodegradable forms of excess packaging and would probably be eliminated as consumers would favour items that they would not be charged for the disposal of. Planned obsolescence would also be heavily discouraged by a system where people had to pay not only the cost of buying goods but disposing of them as well.

9) The profit motive provides an incentive for companies to devise ways to turn their waste into useful biproducts that people can actually use. For example, Standard Oil invented thousands of biproducts such as paraffin wax, lubricating oils, chewing gum, and fertilizer out of resources that other companies were simply wasting. This incentive would also be far more pronounced of a true free market where companies had to pay for waste, not in the abstract, but directly in proportion to how difficult it was to dispose of - and potentially get paid for waste in proportion to how valuable it was to people who could recycle it.

10) The profit motive is constantly driving capitalists to creating innovations which are better for the environment and more sustainable than previous technologies. Memory sticks invented by capitalists have saved billions of trees. A 15 watt fluorescent LED light provides the same luminosity as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. Burgers grown in a lab from cloned meat will be solving our factory farming crises by reducing the massive ecological impact of meat production. The average smart phone has a camera, radio, television, sound recorder, music player, gps, flashlight, board and card games, computer games, video player, maps, encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, access to textbooks, compass, photo album, thermometer, scientific calculator, dematerialising the need for the production of many goods and saving the environment.

A recent innovation in progress designed with the third world in mind is high-tech toilets that burn feces for energy and flash evaporate urine rendering everything sterile. No pipes are required under the floor, no leach field under the lawn, no sewer systems required to run down the block. These may have been invented decades and decades ago had the state not been responsible for getting rid of our sewage; removing the necessity to innovate. Rather than waste anything, these toilets give back packets of urea to be used as fertilizer, table salt, volumes of freshwater, and enough power to charge a mobile phone. If users can sell the energy back into the grid they will literally be being paid to poop!

So, on that note, allow me to end by saying: I’m not shitting you when I say the free market is good for the environment.


There is reams more to say on this topic and I intend to expand upon it in my book The Free Market Hippy. If you would like to be notified when it is finished download my previous book free and you will automatically be informed when it is available.



Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Child Labour

Many people believe that it was the government that put an end to child labour in Western Nations but in fact almost all the children in Britain were already in school when child labour was banned. Likewise, child labor laws in the US were passed only after around 90% of the child labor had been eliminated anyway. A large part of the push for these laws came from labour unions who wanted to increase wages by reducing competition from younger workers, and as the business community was not particularly dependent on child labour any more it had no reason to lead a counter charge.

It actually requires an advanced economy to ban children from working. Children had worked throughout all of history, long before the onset of the industrial revolution had them conspicuously running around factories. It was a given fact of life because every pair of hands was needed to provide for a family, so they worked on the farm. As soon as Western economies were rich enough that parents could provide for their children without sending them to work they sent them to school instead. In the mind-nineteenth century before there was any mandatory education in the UK, 95% of children in Great Britain already had at least 5 and often as many as 7 years of education.

Further empirical evidence was recently provided, all to sadly, in Bangladesh where they tried to ban child labour prematurely only to find (as Oxfam reported) that the results were horrific. The kids went into prostitution, destitution, begging, stealing and starvation.

Image result for child labour in factories

It appears that every society naturally takes children out the workplace when they are rich enough. It's not that parents, all throughout history, hated their children! They sent them to work because there was no viable alternative.

As world poverty continues to decline, things are going in the right direction. Child labour has declined by one third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children. It's not that we can do nothing in western nations to speed along this process either, in fact - with the political will - we can. Charity can help, but the primary necessity is to open up free trade with the poorest countries in the world. Removing trade barriers to buying their products would help lift millions out of poverty abroad and lower the cost of living for families on low incomes at home. The next step would be to use our influence to encourage those countries to open up their economies to foreign investment so that companies from all over the world would flood in, bringing technology, skills, and infrastructure while bidding up the price of wages. As adults are able to earn increasingly more they will be able to take their children out of work and into education where they belong.

A. S. 04-03-17

If you liked this article you may also learn from this related article on workplace safety.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Why is the Capitalist Workplace so Authoritarian?

You are told that capital tyrannizes over labor. I do not deny that each one endeavors to draw the greatest possible advantage from his situation; but, in this sense, he realizes only that which is possible. Now, it is never more possible for capitalists to tyrannize over labor, than when they are scarce; for then it is they who make the law -- it is they who regulate the rate of sale. Never is this tyranny more impossible to them, than when they are abundant; for, in that case, it is labor which has the command.
- Frederic Bastiat, from Capital and Interest

A persistent criticism of capitalism as an ideology is that it is authoritarian by nature, and can only lead to tyrannical bosses ruling over dependent staff who are forced - by fear of poverty and starvation - to remain under their command. Certainly, if we take our example from the workplaces of today, most of them are hierarchical, and many of them pretty authoritarian. In extreme cases staff even need to ask permission to go to the bathroom. So there appears to be some demonstration to the thesis.

In reality there is nothing inherent in the system of free enterprise that necessitates hierarchy, and many businesses have been successfully run with decentralised structures. Ricardo Semler is an example of an entrepreneur who had such massive success running his business on a non-hierarchical model that he turned to teaching other capitalists all over the world to do the same. Nonetheless, crappy bosses who like to throw their weight around the shop or office are ten a penny, and since no one likes working under a dictatorship we really have to question why more egalitarian models not more common.

A market will tend to use the skills and propensities of the labour force within that market, because it is costly and time consuming to inculcate staff with new habits. For example, if a workplace can afford to hire experienced staff rather than train newbies they will often do so (especially where there is a high minimum wage.) Companies will sooner offer a raise to hold on to an employee with a good work ethic than take a risk on someone new. The fact is, human qualities are less malleable than other factors of production, and so it's usually going to be preferable to try and court the kind of employees you want around rather than try to foster whoever walks in the door into a new sort of character you like; especially considering people have their own proclivities and desires for their own personal character development, unlike machines. This is why most of the companies that run in cooperative or non-hierarchical structures begin with this idea as a primary value, and will tend to attract a certain kind of person who shares in the company vision and is competent to contribute to making it a reality. (Tim Kelley, an expert who currently helps companies adapt to what he calls "The New Paradigm in Business" states that as they do usually some number of employees flee, unable to adapt to the rights they are afforded, and responsibilities they must shoulder, under the changed system.)


Now am I saying that people are naturally slavish and therefore will tend towards hierarchy on a free market?

Not at all!

The average person who enters the workplace has been through 11-13 years of a mandatory education system which is highly authoritarian and hierarchical, and at the time in their life where their character is most impressionable and inclined to adapt to their circumstances. Their personalities have already been adapted to what was necessary for them thrive (or at least survive) under that system. Interestingly, the empirical evidence on how people best learn seems to suggest that a cooperative learning environment is far more productive than the isolated one that is the dish of the day at school. A crappy boss is not that unfamiliar in aspect from a crappy teacher, and it's hard to imagine that a population exposed to a long period of cooperative and mutually edifying education along the lines of the empirical evidence would be so tolerant of poor treatment from authority. If schools were to teach reasoning, social skills, emotional handing, conflict resolution, and other soft skills, far more people would have the skills to run organisations. start business enterprises, or create egalitarian ones.

The Marxist ideal of workers owning the means of production is perfectly compatible with free market capitalism, and there is no reason why there should not be more worker run cooperatives, communally owned business, and organisations with polycentric structures - other than the fact that currently, workers have no idea how to own the means of production or run a business. Partly because this requires different skills from what is required to complete their jobs from day to day, and partly because they are pre-conditions by years of hierarchical and authoritarian state education. If Marx was right and bosses provide no value - only skimming profit off the top - then workplaces without bosses will surely be more efficient and out-compete workplaces that shell out unnecessarily on paying them... but we will never know until we reform our education system.




Thursday, 9 March 2017

World Government is possibly The Worst Idea Ever

I was reading some old articles by Bertrand Russell on diverse topics and noticed his persistent urge to advocate the necessity of establishing World Government, even when it bore no relevance to the subject at hand.

Russell, the famous atheist, was a Government-worshiper. He wrote frequently as though Government gave rise to civilization rather than civilization to government, an unfortunately prevalent view to this day. To him it was a given that despite the many abuses that governments have perpetrated against their own people and those of one another (including two world wars in his time) that barbarism was the only alternative. One of the great tricks of government to disguise itself as society, and once the disguise is complete people come to view the achievements of society instead as the achievements of government. The more successes people attribute to government the more of it they will surely call for. Russel called for the ultimate amount - world government.

One of the reasons why most products we buy meet our needs - and reliably so - is that markets allow for a plurality of ideas to be tested against each other and for the best of those to ideas to prevail. People copy ideas and improve on them.  In an environment where there is a minimum of patent laws and monopolistic government regulations, companies can even learn from the best ideas of their competitors and mix them with their own ingenuity to create ever better products as we see in the fast moving tech and software industries. Bad ideas don't last very long, and the consequences of poorly thought out plans and products are limited to some small number of producers and consumers. Meanwhile, successful ideas are proven on the small scale before being adopted more widely, spreading out to the furthest reaches of the earth the way mobile phones are now reaching the world's poorest populations.

On the other hand, when government rolls out a policy they do so across an entire economy, and policy-makers essentially have to make a "best guess" of what will work without any small scale trials, and without any optimisation through a trial and error process with kills bad ideas and allows good ones to be tested on small populations of voluntary consumers before becoming more and more widely adopted through word of mouth. Government edicts are rolled out across the entire nations on the assumption that they will work as planned, but all policies have secondary and tertiary consequences that cannot be easily predicted. When policies go wrong, as they often do, they can have dreadful consequences for million of people or across generations, and often government will be called on to respond to the ensuing crises with another volley of "best guesses" that have not past the litmus test of trial and error by end-user approval. Often the cure in one area turns out to be poison in another.

If there is one saving grace of governments it's that they don't have jurisdictions that extend to the entire planet. As such they have the example of other nations who have tried a multitude policies that have turned out well or poorly (or more realistically poorly or disastrously) which they can learn from the example of. If one country is too regulated industry dies and it must emulate its neighbors. If another has taxes which are too high people will flee next door. Indeed one of the reasons why Switzerland is so successful a nation is that it has a Federalized form of government extending over twenty six Cantons in an area no bigger than Virginia. Because policies that work well in one area can easily be adopted in another, and populations can easily move from one state to another in response to bad ones, their government is relatively benign.

So what are we to make of the calls of great figures such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Mahatma Ghandi, and Russell, all of whom called on governments to proceed further by taking gradual steps towards forming an effectual federal world government? Or those progressives that are ever eager to see this done in the name of preventing the greedy rich from moving their fortunes offshore to avoid paying taxes?

Only that they are grievously optimistic about the benefits which world government may bestow, and woefully naive about its dangers.

Governments grow, and as they do so to does their power and influence. Vested interests are always willing to turn a blind eye to abuses taking place under the watch of those whom they are partisan to. The Right turned a blind eye while Bush sent eroded civil liberties and actively supported his invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan - after jeering Clinton's intervention in Kosovo. Obama, before elected, complained of the expansion of power in the executive branch under Bush, only to spend eight years strengthening the executive branch at the expense of Congress and The Senate. Now the left, who turned a blind eye to this use (or abuse) of executive power protest in horror as the very power they allowed Obama to accumulate has been transferred into the hands of arch-nemesis Trump.

If you want to know how bad an idea World Government is just close your eyes and picture a combination of the most devious, incompetent and glib politicians you have ever seen, and then imagine them secretly forming cohorts to compete for control of that government; because that is precisely what is going to happen should we ever face such bad luck.


Monday, 6 March 2017

What we can Learn about Economics from Scandinavia

Lately there has been a lot of talk online about how successful the Scandinavian countries are, and their success has been put down to Democratic Socialist policies like a large welfare state, high taxes, and high public spending. We are encouraged to view the example set by Denmark and Sweden as a model for our nation, and indeed there is a lot to learn about economics from the examples they have set. The nature of those lessons, however, may come to many as a surprise.

The Scandinavian countries are successful, but not for the reasons most people think they are. Each of them were already wealthy, egalitarian, equitable and successful nations long before they adopted any socialist policies whatsoever. For most of the 20th century they had more free market economies than the other countries in Europe; and because they largely stayed out the two World Wars they didn't have to waste huge sums of money on weapons, paying forces, and then replacing destroyed infrastructure in the aftermath.

In many ways the Scandinavian nations are still far more free market than the USA, Britain or France are. Their economies are far less regulated, they do not demand occupational licenses to practice in hundreds of professions that require them in some states of The US (in Finland you don't even need a license to practice law, yet people manage to hire competent lawyers and the cost is far lower), it's easier to start a business, to hire people - and fire them, and there is a lot less red tape and forms to fill in. We have certainly not been asked to heed the example of the Nordic countries in these respects, in fact these policies have been fervently opposed by the champions of The Scandinavian Model in Europe and America.

What's more, the Scandinavian countries were all far more successful before they adopted any socialist policies at all. Sweden enjoyed the highest per-capita income growth in the entire world from 1870 to 1950. It was from the 1970s onward that the Scandinavian nations began their experiments in Democratic Socialism and they remained somewhat successful during this period but less so than previously. These nations build their welfare states on the wealth created by free markets; and in so doing began to reverse their success.

All the Scandinavian countries are market economies. Danish Prime Minister Lars L√łkke Rasmussen finally got so tired of media claims to the contrary that he exclaimed: "I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy." Sweden, however, did attempt the experiment of centrally planning their economy like The Soviet Union - and with disastrous consequences.

Image result for sweden and denmark

The Case of Sweden

Socialism nearly destroyed Sweden. Swedish government spending rose from a relatively modest 20% of GDP to 50% between 1950 and 1975. Taxes, public debt, and the number of government employees all expanded massively. By the 1980s the destructive effects of Sweden experiment with socialism were completely apparent to everyone and the government had to attempt to jump-start the economy with a massive expansion of credit which resulted in economic chaos: stock market and real estate bubbles burst, and interest rates were pushed up to 500 percent by the Swedish central bank. By 1990 Sweden had fallen from the fourth place in international income comparisons to twentieth. The decline led to a revolt against the socialist regime. More economically liberal politicians sharply reduced income tax rates, abolished currency controls, deregulated bank lending, privatized several government enterprises, deregulated the retail, telecommunications and airline industries; and implemented deep government spending cuts. Sweden began to recover and is doing a lot better now (as I am sure you have all heard.) But Sweden's recovery was all thanks to free markets - and no thanks to socialism.

Despite Sweden's economic recovery after the mid-1990s it is still poorer than Mississippi, the lowest income state in the USA. A 2009 study by the Swedish Economic Association discovered that the Swedish economy had failed to create any new jobs in the private sector on net between 1950 and 2005. The actual unemployment rate in Sweden is still probably at least three times higher than the official government figures because many Swedes live off government sick benefit and early retirement and are not counted. Thousands of Swedes are paid by the government to participate in "labor market political activities" whose only purpose is to reduce the official unemployment rate. To speed along their recovery, Sweden has been privitising portions of it's healthcare, social security, and education sectors in an effort to heal them up from the incentives entailed in public ownership which always destroys the quality of services while ratcheting up the cost of provision. Private health insurance is booming in Sweden because of the inevitable rationing, shortages and long wait times which their highly socialised healthcare system has lead to. It may seem shocking but in Sweden the government instructed doctors to "prioritize" patients according to their status as future taxpayers. The elderly are at the bottom of that list since they are mostly retired and paying relatively little in taxes while receiving large shares of government services. It's a distressingly callous approach that can only make cool sense from the perspective of planners seeking to minimize expenses out of the public purse which different interests are all angling for. (So much for socialism doing away with competition.)

Sweden's experiment with socialism also destroyed its history of innovation. The great companies that came out of Sweden such Lidl, H&M, Volvo, Saab,  AstraZeneca, Electrolux and Ericsson were all founded in Sweden's free market period. After 1970, the establishment of new firms dropped significantly and many enterprises now survive purely on government contracts out of the public pocket rather than by indication that they are producing what consumers actually want. It was during the free market period when Sweden produced Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, Sven Wingquist inventor of the self-aligning ball bearing, Gustaf Dalen who founded the gas company AGA, and Baltazar von Platen, who invented the gas-absorption refrigerator.

The Case of Denmark

Denmark, like the other Scandinavian nations, may have a large welfare state and public sector, but it also has a far freer economy than the US and many other western nations as I have mentioned. Denmark is only one place below America on the Economic Freedom Index and was previously one rank above it. It is the most free market of all the Scandinavian countries.

This does not mean Denmark has found the right balance, having "the best of both worlds" though.

The large welfare state and heaving public sector has lead to poor social consequences in Denmark, not good ones. Only the nation's relatively free market economy has compensating for the fact, as evidenced by the fact that similar policies have worked nowhere outside of Scandinavian countries: neither in Greece, nor France, nor Spain nor anywhere else. This is partly down to the culture of a hard work ethic that the Scandinavian countries have inherited from their history which required their people to survive the harsh climate. Unfortunately, as generations wear on these welfarist policies are warping the very culture that allowed them to work in the short term.

In Denmark more than a quarter of the working-age population (aged 18-66) is on the government dole; for every one hundred persons employed full time, there are about sixty working age on welfare. In many regions less than half of people are employed.  More than 1.5 million people live full-time on taxpayer-funded handouts; the other 4 million people in the country have to pay a marginal income tax rate of 55.6% (on incomes of 55,000$ and above), a 25% national sales tax, and a wide variety of other taxes. Danish economist Per Henrik Hansen estimated taxes in Denmark approach 70% of income when all is considered. It has been claimed that Denmark has a more regressive tax system than the US where a far higher percentage of the taxes fall on the rich.

It might come to a surprise to many on the left who are championing the Danish model (such as Bernie Sanders and his supporters) to discover out that many Danish voters are turning out to vote for more free market politicians, and even the Democratic Socialist Party and those further to the left are in agreement that this is a problem. The classic liberal (free market) Venstre Party was in power in a coalition with the Conservative People's Party from 2001 to 2011 and was elected on its own in 2015. They have gained massive support in making free market reforms to the welfare state and are carrying them out right now! The platform has cross-party support.

Denmark is following the example that Sweden has been laying out since the 1990s. They are undergoing massive welfare reforms because they acknowledge their huge welfare state has created massive dependency and started to shift their culture away from personal responsibility and the ancient hard work ethic they had inherited. This calls the final death knell of empiricism for Socialism as an ideology - but how long before the left will heed the sound?

The Real Economic Lesson to be taken from Scandinavia

The real lesson to be taken from Scandinavia is that socialism wrecks economies and culture. It erodes the work ethic of a nation over generations and it takes a long time for free markets to restore them to prosperity afterwards. In Scandinavia, these policies have been a disaster only mitigated by having economies that are relatively unregulated compared to Europe and America.

New Zealand also flirted with all the policies that Bernie Sanders and supporters want to copy from Scandinavia up until the 1990s as well. It didn't do much for them at all. Since the 1990s New Zealand liberalised their economy and have been far more prosperous; Australia are following suit. Hong Kong was poorer than most countries in Africa and has become one of the richest countries in the world per head in a generation thanks to free market policies. Singapore has also proven itself to be a modern economic miracle. None of the countries which adopted socialism, nor any of the highly statist economies in the developing world, have had results that compare to those of Hong Kong or Singapore in the same period - and many of them remain devastated.

Free markets have helped the poor more than anyone else as they take people out of the most abject poverty and dependency at once, giving them control over their own destiny rather than having to rely on unreliable government to hand them alms. Markets also create the wealth necessary to look after those who remain poor, which is why most of the world's poor would rather be poor in a market economy than a highly socialised one with big government.

We can learn from Sweden and Denmark, yes. We can learn that we don't need miles of regulations or occupational licensing in up to 800 professions which drive up the price of services and stop young people from getting jobs. We can learn that when it's easier to start a business, hire and fire people, and to cut through red tape that brings prosperity. We can learn that high taxes and high spending stunt rather than grow an economy. We can learn that well-intentioned welfarist policies do more to foster dependency than to help the poor in the long term. That is the hardest pill to swallow.

What we can learn from Scandinavia is what Sweden and Denmark have already learned from their experiments with socialism. Hopefully we will learn from them without repeating their mistakes.




The main sources for this article are Debunking Utopia by Dr. Nima Sanandaji, and The Problem With Socialism by Tom DiLorenzo, you can get these two books if you want to learn more.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Regime Uncertainty

A seductive (if poorly considered) critique of markets is the notion that they are so wildly unpredictable and inherently unstable that we need government to watch over them and intervene to mitigate their excesses. There is a great irony in this position which I will reveal.

Economist John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946) made perhaps the most famous case for this view, coining the term "animal spirits" to describe the irrational, impulse-driven whims of market-actors based on arbitrary expectations that could only cause instability. The idea itself seems to make sense because it's hard for intellectuals, who love chewing over ideas and coming up with bright plans, to see how a society could run coherently without a single plan. The truth is, market economies are actually planned - there is just no central plan. What happens on a market is that lots of individuals make little plans to roll out their bright ideas into the through businesses, charities, and other organisations, hoping to influence as many people as possible. The plans which prove successful on the small scale attract resources and grow steadily in their impact. Other planners emulate them and adapt their own plans in light of their success. Meanwhile those plans which prove to be failures never get far off the ground.

Image result for animal spirits

This means that, left to their own devices, markets have their own self-correcting mechanisms which Keynes appeared to have overlooked. While in any situation there may be entrepreneurs, investors, and consumers who do indeed make poor or irrational decisions and make mistakes (driven by their animal spirits) there will always be others who succeed as well. The mechanism of profit and loss allocates the pool of available capital to those producers who make good predictions as to what consumers (you and I) want over the long term and reallocate them away from those who use the badly. This limit the scope of damage caused by bad or incompetent decision-makers. Where people fail, the results of those failures will be limited to some small number of people. This can not be said of failures of government which might extend to affecting the entire society.

Now, here's the irony. Even allowing for Keynes his hypothesis that markets are inherently unstable, how can the prospect of intervention by government, at any time, into the economy do anything but make the market more unpredictable and make it more difficult for the "little planners" to make long-term decisions? Over the course of 20 years a government could change 5 or more times. With each change in administration the form of state interventions in the economy can change dramatically, as can the political philosophy driving it. Plans can be added or scrapped at any time. Government can increase or reduce taxes at whim, or increase or decrease spending. They can pass new tariffs, grant subsidies, institute licensing laws and regulations or scrap them. Government-mandated Central Banks (like The Bank of England or The Federal Reserve) can increase or decrease interest rates; expand the money supply or contract it. Plus what makes those calm and virtuous actors themselves immune to the influences of the animal spirits? Do they not too have emotional whims, not to mention voters and campaign contributors to please?

Yes, when the specter of government hangs looming over the economy conditions can rapidly and unpredictably change at any time, in countless ways and this can only exacerbate the problem that the Keynesians plan to solve. Economist Robert Higgs called this the phenomenon of "Regime Uncertainty", where investors fear it may be hard or even impossible to foresee the extent to which future government actions will alter the “rules to the game.” As a result, investors become averse to taking risk (much in the way that Keynes feared they might) not due to a lack of government intervention – but in anticipation of it!

Private investors have "skin in the game." Their own self-interest should motivate them to only take certain risks of personal loss, and investigate all the available information to make robust decisions. But public servants are forever fated to spending other peoples money on other people. The best people at making decisions with money are most likely not in government. They're probably out there in the free market making "Little Plans" to launch a new businesses or product that might one day spread out to the furthest reaches of the earth the way mobile phones are now reaching the world's poorest populations in Africa.


I'm in the process of writing a book called "The Errors of Keynes" if you would like to receive updates about it please grab my free eBook and you will get an update when it's good to go.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Excesses of Capitalism

The government - we are told - is necessary to protect us from the excesses of capitalism, and whatever gripes the average person might have about their elected officials, almost all of them can agree upon this.

But there's a problem with thinking the government can ever enter the economy as a fair referee rather than merely playing into the hands of whatever factions are most rich, powerful, and influential; because as soon as a corporations can make more money by angling for government favours than they can by serving customers that is exactly what they are going to do. Not necessarily because they are evil - but because it becomes the rational thing to do.

On an open market where only voluntary exchanges are permitted a business can only turn a profit by  providing something that the general buying public wants. No matter how greedy the corporate fat-cats may be, if they fail to 'cough up the goods' (and services) that people want they will go to the wall. [all puns intended] In this way the market forces otherwise self-interested people to apply their self-interest to social ends.

Critics may still complain about "tooth and nail" competition, but at least on a free market firms are competing to serve you better and win your disposable income. As soon as the government intervenes in the economy one thing is for sure: companies will compete for control over legislative bodies and the strings of the public purse. This is where the real "tooth and nail" begins.


According to The Sunlight Foundation for each of the 5.8 billion dollars spent by America's 200
most politically active corporations between 2007 and 2012 on federal lobbying and campaign contributions by they got $741 in return in kickbacks and benefits.

To pay for these kickbacks tax-payers were left $4.3 trillion dollars poorer - but that's not all.  $5.8 billion was spent in political gaming instead of invested in jobs and product development. These incentives drive companies to misallocate resources by making products that the general public doesn't want profitable, and products that they do unprofitable. In other words, the government has become these companies clients rather than their customers.

Firms might lobby or contribute to political campaigns to earn the exclusive right to provide government with their products. This will give them a huge advantage over competitors even if they are producing inferior or more expensive services. They can lobby for subsidies on their own goods or tariffs on cheaper or superior competitors.They can get the government to pass laws about who can and cannot operate in their sector.

Mandatory licenses, fees, reviews, huge stacks of forms, inspections, make it expensive for small start up businesses to enter the market and compete on an equal playing field. Companies spend millions of dollars on accountants, lawyers, actuaries and bureaucrats - not to mention tens of thousands of hours - to make sure they comply with the entangling webs of red tape, and make no mistake this harms the public. The costs are reflected in the price of products, and those are millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours that are not being spent on more productive work that would benefit others. The rounds of "regulation" inflate corporate profits more and more, by cutting small firms out the market and directing sales to bigger firms who can afford specialists or whole departments to play the game.

By changing the incentive structure of the economy to favour profit through political influence over serving customers the government corrupts the market rather than moderating its excesses.





Thursday, 19 January 2017

Beauty Salon Economics

One of the most fundamental things about economics which most people who are passionate about politics do not understand is that the economy is not just like a chess board where you can move one piece with deterministic and predictable consequences. On the contrary, an economy is an intricate fabric of interrelated institutions and actors all of whom act relative to one another. Any one move creates a cascade of domino effects. If the price of milk changes dramatically then orange juice sales might be affected - you just never know.

The role of a good economist is to be able to follow the threads of consequences liable to result from a policy so that the short-sightedness of policy-makers (and would-be policy makers) seeking some immediate and favourable end does not result in a multitude of negative unintended consequences into the bargain. (Clearly this goes to the very heart of why I called this blog Seeing the Unseen.)
Many policies can end up having the opposite effect from what is intended.
For example, supposing some of the fancy hair salons are getting irked because cheap salons are popping up everywhere and giving people poor quality haircuts. They're giving the whole industry a bad name. So a coalition goes to the government to pass standards and licensing laws in the hairdressing industry (in some places you currently need a license to braid hair.) That's going to improve the quality of haircut going around, right?
Not necessarily. Now all the hair salons have to send their employees to college for two years to get a license, and when they graduate they are expecting much higher pay because they just sunk two years into an education which they saw no money during. They went out drinking with their student loans, paid rent, and accrued debts. What's more the salons need to consult special accountants or lawyers to make sure they can prove that they are adhering to the new regulations - even the ones who are way ahead of the law already providing far better conditions and services than the existing standards. Such professionals can charge upwards of $100 an hour. Many independent salons simply can't afford the increase in costs and have to close down entirely; others have to jack prices up to pay for the extra costs of compliance and staff. In some areas only one salon is left standing and since people have less choice they can afford to let standards slip.
With the price of haircuts going up lots of people decide to go without. They cut their friends hair at home, badly. Or they get pretty good at it and don't have to go to the hairdressers any more but take longer to prepare for going out and miss out of the chat and gossip. What's more everyone who does still go for a professional haircut has less left over to spend on a manicure or something else nice, so other industries also suffer. You can add to that the marginal increase in taxes to pay the civil servants in the new public body which acts as a regulator for the hairdressing industry. Now those people are involved in busy work instead of making commodities and providing services that improve people’s living standards in real terms and rather than paying into the public purse they are a net drain on it.

I choose a relatively trivial example (no disrespect ladies) because it's perfectly illustrative of how a seemingly simple and innocuous policy suggestion - mandatory hairdressing licenses - can generate more than its fair share of consequences. An alternative is for a series of private watchdogs to certify only hairdressers that meet their standards and give the ones who do an official number and sticker to put in their window; because they are competing they have to keep the costs of certification to a minimum (no $100 an hour fees), and people who are not fussed to pay extra for a certified cut can take a risk on somewhere cheaper or go by word of mouth.

Occupational licensing makes for an interesting case because it is almost ubiquitously considered in the public interest and even necessary to prevent catastophe, and yet there is actually zero evidence that it leads to a higher quality of service provision. Zilch!
Usually all it means is that instead of taking budget options people with fewer means have to go without any services at all! This is a topic to which we will have to return to in more detail, check back! :)