Category Archives: Free Trade

A Question of Labor Scarcity

Cory Doctorow started the New Year with a very interesting piece on the “roboticization of the workforce”. The whole article is worth a read, but it brings up a disturbing question:

But here’s the thing that neither of these articles — or even Bruce’s acid observations — touches on: once technology creates abundance, what possibilities exist for distributing the fruits of that abundance such that the benefits are more evenly felt?

There are plenty of people who will suggest that collectivist economics and centralized redistribution are the answer. Given the last century of history, that’s not an option I like. Take a look at Doctorow’s nightmare scenario:

We’ve been talking about an increase in productivity producing an increase in leisure for a long time, but instead, the “winner take all” world of Brynjolfsson and McAfee often seems to produce a “winner” class that works itself into an early grave by running 100-hour work weeks at astounding payscales, and a much larger “loser” class that works itself into an early grave by working 100-hour weeks in shitty, marginal, grey-economy jobs, trying to stitch together something like an income.

This is bad. However, the nightmare scenario that evolves under socialism is invariably worse. Instead of a winner class created by skilled, high-value work, a winner class develops from people who successfully gain control of the redistribution machine. Giving power to those who covet it is rarely a good idea, but usually unavoidable. The United States was built with a system of government shaped by this insight. By and large, its citizens have profited from keeping checks and balances on power seekers, even as the power seekers have eroded them.

A class of power seekers in control of an economic redistribution machine that replaces labor markets would not be subject to checks and balances. By controlling what people have, they would have absolute, unchecked power. Worse, power seekers tend to be the least sensitive to the wants and needs of the people they control. Even worse, most power seekers see others as resources to be exploited for their benefit.

Terrifying, isn’t it? Surely, we can avoid this by making sure the right people are in charge. Nope, sorry. Eventually, those who want power will take over the redistribution machine. It’s a certainty. Those who seek power will overcome the will of the rest to keep them out. It’s the consistent thread in human history.

The real problem is that we’re approaching a point where the labor market as it’s structured will collide with the efficiency gains caused by technology. If most labor is not scarce enough to allow workers to earn enough to support themselves and their families, how does society respond? How do supporters of economic liberty respond? What new mechanisms can be devised that allow ordinary people to continue to participate freely in the markets for goods and services without the wealth earned from the labor market?

This is stuff supporters of economic liberty need to start thinking about now. Our opponents have a ready answer that people will be drawn to despite its historic failures. Without an alternative from us, tyranny of the default will result in actual tyranny.

I, Pencil: The Movie

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is working on a film series based on Leonard E. Read’s 1958 essay entitled: I, Pencil in which the author makes the claim “[N]ot a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me [a pencil].” The video below is their animated adaptation of the essay (I, Pencil: The Movie). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the essay, its one of the best explanations of how spontaneous order works IMO. For those who have read the essay, I think you will enjoy this video as well.

The Modern Republican Party is a Special Kind of Suck (Part 1 of 3)

Barack Obama’s Record of Suck
Four years ago, Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. He promised hope n’ change from the failed policies of George W. Bush. His policies were going to lower the debt, reduce unemployment to around 5%, become the “most transparent administration in U.S. history,” close Guantanamo Bay, and restore the damaged international relations around the world.

Four years later, Obama has increased the debt by $6 trillion (the national debt is now over $16 trillion), kept unemployment hovering around 8% for nearly his entire first term despite his Keynesian efforts to stimulate the economy, and punished whistleblowers for daring to shed light on what has arguably been one of the least transparent administrations in history. Guantanamo Bay is not only still open but now with Obama’s signing of the NDAA, even American citizens can be taken there and detained indefinitely without charge or trail. If this wasn’t enough, the Obama administration also developed a “secret kill list” from which drones search for and kill targets from that list– including American citizens, who are sought out in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and who knows where else without any Constitutional authority whatsoever.

Then there’s “Fast and Furious,” an operation of Eric Holder’s Justice Department in which the BATFE purposely gave weapons to Mexican drug cartels resulting in untold deaths including a Border Control Agent by the name of Brian Terry. Obama has since invoked executive privilege to protect Holder from congress getting too close to the truth.

Finally, there are the terrorist attacks in Libya and Egypt on September 11, 2012. Rather than admit the obvious, President Obama and his administration lied to the American public concerning the nature of the attack claiming the attacks came from spontaneous protesters who were angry about an obscure YouTube video that “slandered” the prophet Mohammad.

A Special Kind of Suck
This is only a thumbnail sketch of the failures and malfeasance of the Obama administration in one term of office. Today the news should be about the Romney/Ryan transition team after a slam dunk landslide victory. But that is not the news today, is it? Yes, the Republican Party sucks but for the Republican challenger to be beaten despite Obama’s record, an advantage the last Republican challenger did not have, that takes a special kind of suck.

How exactly did the Republican Party achieve this special kind of suck? That is the question political observers are asking and what the party needs to answer if the GOP wants to win future elections. Reflexively, many on the Right are blaming the main stream media for its pro-Obama bias. There’s no question the MSM was more critical of Romney than Obama. They downplayed team Obama’s missteps but never missed an opportunity to report each and every gaffe of team Romney. Romney was also running against history – America’s first black president. While this is all true, it’s also true that Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections on a wave of Tea Party fervor. The MSM had just as much of an Obama/Left wing bias then as they do now yet the Republicans gained ground. What was different this time?

Mitt Romney, the Nominee of Suck
No doubt, Gov. Mitt Romney is probably getting most of the blame and he deserves much of it. That being said, the reasons Romney failed to beat a failed president go well beyond Romney or his campaign. Maybe, Romney is a good place to start though.

Rather than make a choice that would be a champion of the limited government issues Republicans claim to care about (like say Gary Johnson or Ron Paul), the GOP decided they would go with Mitt Romney. Never mind that he authored the forerunner to ObamaCare (RomneyCare) or that he was a political chameleon (does anyone seriously think he made a principled change, as opposed to a political calculation, on abortion when it was time to run in 2008?). No, Romney was “electable” and by gosh, it was “his turn.”

Much of the destructive foreign policy of the Obama administration was right in line with what Romney said he would do. Romney had no problem with the NDAA, Guantanamo Bay, the secret kill list, or renewing the Patriot Act, therefore; these areas which were ripe for criticism were off the table. Other than the question of defense spending, they seemed to both have identical policies concerning Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and both pledged they would “stand with Israel”…whatever that means. In the foreign policy debate, the moderator handed Romney a golden opportunity to go after Obama on the recent terror attacks but decided not to do so. On another occasion, Romney did casually bring up Fast and Furious in response to a question about gun control but didn’t ask Obama some of the hard hitting questions many Americans were dying for Romney to ask.

On domestic issues, Romney allowed his opponents to define him as an out of touch millionaire who didn’t care about the 47% of the people he determined wouldn’t support him. Romney did a very poor job of defending free market capitalism* in general and his record both as governor and as a businessman in particular. When asked about the alleged gender pay gap in one of the debates, rather than explaining that the statistic doesn’t actually compare women and men of comparable occupation or work experience he said he asked for “binders full of women” from which he picked to be in senior positions when he was governor of Massachusetts. The Democrats took that line and demagogued** the hell out of it and made it part of their “war on women” mantra. If Romney didn’t want to go through the trouble of explaining why the gender pay gap is a myth, he could have respectfully asked Obama why the women on his staff and why female staffers for Democrats in the Senate are paid far less than their male counterparts. Another hanging curveball that Romney didn’t even take a swing at.

The Romney campaign was ultimately a campaign of missed opportunities; a campaign in which the candidate failed to make the case that he would be a better alternative to the incumbent. When asked how his “numbers would add up” concerning his economic policy, his answer was basically “trust me, the numbers add up.” Barack Obama could get by with his slogans and his platitudes as MSM dutifully filled in the details. But to run against an incumbent who the MSM clearly supported, the challenger apparently made the mistake that the MSM would do the same on his behalf. When you are running against an incumbent and the MSM, you better understand that you have to explain your positions yourself (particularly in the debates) rather than hope others will carry your message for you.

*Though really, I’m not sure how much Mitt Romney really believes in free market capitalism given his desire to start a trade war with China.
** Frankly, I never quite understood what their criticism was in this instance. Was it just that “binders full of women” sounds funny?

Part 2

Atlas Shrugged Part II in Theaters This Weekend

Atlas Shrugged Part II is opening this weekend. Want to check it out? Follow this link to find a theater near you.

And now, the official Atlas Shrugged Part II trailer:

Farming in an Equilibrium Trap

JayG wrote something today about how this summers drought is hitting farmers very hard; which is absolutely true. And it’s already having an impact on food prices, and that impact is just going to grow.

The crop that’s being impacted worst is dent corn, which makes up the majority of livestock feed in this country; particularly beef feed. This is exacerbated by the governments ethanol mandates, which take even more of the feed corn crop out of the feed market.

Over the next couple months, we’re going to see beef prices crash, as ranchers and feedlots come to the end of their stored feedstocks and slaughter more steer than normal (so they don’t have to keep feeding them), and then SOAR to highs we haven’t seen in years over the fall and winter.

Jay points out that some are “blaming subisidies” for the state of things… which I think is silly, you can’t blame subsidies for weather (well… usually… Microclimate and regional climate adjustments due to overplanting can sometimes be blamed on subsidies… but that’s not what we’re talking about here).

But honestly, there’s something that no-one wants to admit, no-one wants to say, and no-one wants to hear in this country….

We have too many damn farmers.

By far.

Probably by more than half, at least for some crops.

In particular we have too many grain farmers. In even greater particular, we have far too many corn and wheat farmers.

We have a natural market for corn and wheat that would support… something like half… of the farmers that we have now.

All of those people who are only making money because of subsidies; we really don’t need them growing corn or wheat.

Either they need to grow something else, or they need to sell their land and stop being farmers.

Even the argument that it “keeps our food prices low” is false; because it actually keeps them higher most years. If there were no subsidies, the market would find its natural level of supply, demand, and price; and the resources inefficiently allocated to subsidized crops would simply be allocated elsewhere (and I’m not even going to get into the second order effects of this regime like obesity, HFCS vs. sugar pricing, ethanol etc…).

But we don’t want to hear it.

We are constantly being presented with images of the “struggling family farmer”… And have been for over 100 years.

Shouldn’t that tell you something?

There are plenty of very profitable and prosperous farmers in this country, and plenty of large farming corporations that do quite well…

And who are they?

They’re farmers that grow crops which don’t get subsidies, who have found ways to be economically efficient; or they are farm corporations who have found ways to extract the maximum amount of government benefits.

Again… shouldn’t that tell you something?

When a business is failing, that doesn’t tell you “we need to subsidize it”, it tells you we need to reduce its regulatory and tax burdens and operational restrictions (stop artificially reducing its competitiveness); or we need to let that business die.

Farming is no different from any other business. If it’s not competitive, we shouldn’t be encouraging people to do it (unless it’s of importance to national security, and thus can’t be outsourced or offshored; and even then that’s an iffy one, and we should still be encouraging competitiveness internally ) and we shouldn’t be rescuing or subsidizing it.

Why on earth have we been subsidizing these non-viable crops for 80 years?

Oh wait… I know… it’s because to get elected president, you need to win the majority of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio; and to be elected to congress (outside of a major urban constituency anyway) or win those states in the general election, you have to support subsidies for grain farming.

Right now, these farmers are in an equilibrium trap, where because of government subsidies they can just barely get by; but because of inefficiency, actual market conditions etc… they can’t get ahead

The way to deal with equilibrium traps, is to break out of them completely. You can’t do that by keeping on doing what put you in the trap to begin with; and they’ve been doing that for 80 years.

If we stopped subsidizing these crops, people would take huge losses in the first few years; particularly as their land prices fell dramatically. It would hurt. A few hundred thousand people would take a big hit…

An aside about numbers: there are about 2.3 million “farms” in the united states. 65% of all crops are produced by 9% of all farms (which farm 59% of the agricultural land), and 85% of all crops are produced by 15% of all farms.

Of the appx. 2.3 million “farms”, about 2.1 million are considered “family farms”. About 1.9 million of those farms are considered “small family farms”, which have gross revenues of less than $250,000 per year, and produce less than 15% of all crops. Of those, about 35%, produce about 9% of the total crops in this country and are generally considered viable. 40% are essentially “hobby” or “part time” farms that produce less than 3% of all crops per year. It’s the 25% or so of those 2 million farms, which only produce 3-4% of all crops, and which are basically non-viable, that are the biggest issue.

Oh and 10% of all farms receive 75% of all subsidies, for producing about 25% of all crops. Corn, wheat, cotton, rice, soybeans, dairy, peanuts, and sugar, make up 97% of subsidies. Corn and wheat alone make up 52%, cotton about 14%, rice and soybeans another 23%). The VAST majority of those subsidies go to large corporate feed grain farms in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, and Ohio, and to Cotton farms in Texas (Texas produces 30% of all cotton in the U.S., with Arkansas, California, Mississippi, and Georgia accounting for another 40%); NOT to small family farmers

And then, we would be better off as a nation; and THEY would be better off as individuals. They, and their children, would no longer be trapped into a just barely livable, just barely getting by, dependent on the government economic condition for decades. They would move to more productive more useful employment. They would be better off eventually, as would the country as a whole.

The problem? Many of them don’t want to. They WANT to be farmers, even though they KNOW it’s a bad business. They love being farmers. They’ve been farmers for generations in their family. It’s all they know, it’s what they’re passionate about, it’s part of their culture and they can’t see ever doing anything else.

Well… I want to be an Aerospace Engineer, and design and build airplanes; or even boats (many boat designers are also aerospace engineers. It’s a very similar field of study). It’s what I trained for, and I love it and am very passionate about it.

But it’s not viable for me.

There are more than enough airplane designers out there for the market as it exists today; so I can’t find employment as an airplane designer. The fact is, very few new airplanes are being designed.

Now, I’m the first to say that we should get the excessive regulatory burden out of the way of the aircraft industry, and if we did that it’s likely that more aircraft would be designed and more aerospace engineers could find jobs…

But would you say that just because I can’t find a job in the field I was educated in, that we should subsidize that field just so I could?

…Well… Sadly, some would… Or at least they would, if the field I was in was politically or socially favored… But anyone with any sense or integrity knows better.

We have romanticized the idea of the “family farmer” in this country for far too long.

The fact is, it is no longer economically viable, nor is it necessary, for many of these people to be farmers, and we should stop enabling the equilibrium trap constantly keep them locked into farming, but always on the edge of failing.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

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