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Recent Posts

Here are the 10 latest posts from EconLog.

EconLog November 19, 2018

How Is Immigration Like Nuclear Power?, by Bryan Caplan

Nuclear power has the ability to providecheap, renewable, safe, clean energy for all mankind.  But only 11% of global electricity comes from nuclear power.

Why is something so great so rare?

Because government strangles nuclear power with regulation.

Why do governments strangle it?

Because nuclear power is unpopular.

Why is it so unpopular?

First, innumeracy.  The gains of nuclear power vastly outweigh all the complaints put together, but the complaints are emotionally gripping.  Deaths from radiation are horrifying; vastly higher fatalities from coal are not.  Even nuclear accidents that kill zero people get worldwide media attention, fueling draconian populist regulation.

Second, spookiness.  Scientifically illiterate people can imagine endless far-fetched dangers of nuclear power.  And at risk of sounding elitist, almost everyone is scientifically illiterate.


[brief pause]


Immigration has the ability to double the wealth produced by all mankind.  But only 3% of people on Earth are migrants.

Why is something so great so rare?

Because government strangles immigration with regulation.

Why do governments strangle it?

Because immigration is unpopular.

Why is it so unpopular?

First, innumeracy.  The gains of immigration vastly outweigh all the complaints put together, but the complaints are emotionally gripping.  Deaths from immigrant crime are horrifying; vastly higher fatalities from native crime are not.  Even immigrant outrages that kill zero people get worldwide media attention, fueling draconian populist regulation.

Second, spookiness.  Economically illiterate people can imagine endless far-fetched dangers of immigration.  And at risk of sounding elitist, almost everyone is economically illiterate.




EconLog November 19, 2018

Liberty, Authority, and Giuliani, by Pierre Lemieux

A Newsweek story claims that Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and current lawyer of the U.S. President, has long-standing and suspicious ties to the Russian oligarchy, including with respect to money laundering. I don’t know if this is true or not. And let me add that money laundering laws, which did not exist half a century ago, certainly represent a strong advance of the Surveillance State and a general threat to individual liberty.

From this point of view of liberty, however, Giuliani’s career itself suggests something like “a long train of abuses.” His Stop-and-Frisk policy in New York City was arguably an assault on the Fourth Amendment. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in the 1980s, he waged a populist and politically-motivated witch-hunt against several Wall Street financiers. Most were not guilty of any real fraud, but the public took its soma. One result is that Wikipedia opines today (as of November 18, 2018) that Giuliani “prosecuted pivotal cases against the American Mafia and against corrupt corporate financiers.” On this witch-hunt, I wrote a little pamphlet titled In Defense of Modern Witches (Apologie des sorcières modernes, Paris, Belles Lettres, 1991).

EconLog November 18, 2018

Us and them, by Scott Sumner

I’m increasingly of the view that most of the great evils of human history result from the tendency of people to think in terms of “us and them”, instead of “all 7.3 billion of us.” That includes the past mistreatment of indigenous peoples, slaves, Jews, Roma, gays, landlords, capitalists, immigrants and many other groups. It’s the flaw in imperialism, racism, nationalism, theocracy, fascism, feudalism, communism and lots of other isms. Except utilitarianism, which treats everyone’s well being as having equal worth.

Consider the following intro to a recent Atlantic story:

Kevin Simmers is a former police sergeant in Hagerstown, Maryland. During his tenure as a narcotics officer, he aggressively pursued drug arrests—especially those related to heroin. “I believed my entire life that incarceration was the answer to this drug war,” Simmers says in a new documentary from The Atlantic.

Then his 18-year-old daughter, Brooke, became addicted to opioids.

EconLog November 18, 2018

You have them… Robots Don’t, by Garreth Bloor

Millions of jobs are going unfilled in the United States right now with shortages in the trades profession; blue collar jobs like plumbers, pipefitters and welders among others. The basic body movements required of mechanics and electricians, among others, simply cannot yet be replicated by machines. Some question if they ever will ever be eliminated entirely. At present and for the first time there are more jobs available than people out of work.

Author Jay Richards tackles assumptions around the future of workforce participation, with an optimistic view; new jobs will arise, while adaptiveness will ensure progress over the long-run. Throughout the book Richards takes a sharp and critical focus on what makes the human person unique – a factor missing in what accounts for overly extensive projections on the degree to which machines will in fact replace us; or were expected to replace us already. In his account, if you tell an Artificial Intelligence (AI) enthusiast computers aren’t conscious a response usually comes in one of two directions: either a rave about new technology no ones knows anything about – or denying humans are conscious at all. “Rather than claiming that a machine will become man, he demotes man to a machine.”

EconLog November 17, 2018

Wisdom from Mark Littlewood, by Alberto Mingardi

In the last issue of Economic Affairs, Mark Littlewood, the Director-General of the IEA in London, offers his blueprint for arguing a stronger case for free markets in the contemporary world. Mark quotes (approvingly!) Tony Benn, “every generation has to fight the same battles again and again for there is no final victory and no final defeat”. The so-called “battle of ideas”, a metaphor dear to Littlewood’s predecessor John Blundell, is never over. And our current circumstances may suggest that emphasizing this element of a certain political vision might be in order, to calibrate them better for our contemporary audiences.

Mark has three points:

First, market liberals need to be much more comfortable with embracing failure. Too often, opponents claim that we assume that markets allocate resources perfectly, and participants in the marketplace always make wise and rational decisions. This is a straw man. The case for free market doesn’t rely on such heroic premises…

Second, markets do not guarantee incorruptible behaviour…

Third, those advocating a free market economy need to rediscover – and reiterate – Friedrich von Hayek’s concept of a fatal conceit. In a capitalist economy, there will always be plenty of wrong-headed and morally dubious decision to point at. However, this must not be allowed to lead seamlessly to the conclusion that ‘neutral’, well-intentioned, brilliantly informed state central planning is the antidote.

In short, we need to be “more modest about what markets can be claimed to achieve and more brutal about the illusory benefits of the alternative”.

This goes very well with Arnold Kling’s brilliant description of Masonomics:

At the University of Chicago, economists lean to the right of the economics profession. They are known for saying, in effect, “Markets work well. Use the market.”

At MIT and other bastions of mainstream economics, most economists are to the left of center but to the right of the academic community as a whole. These economists are known for saying, in effect, “Markets fail. Use government.”

Masonomics says, “Markets fail. Use markets.”

Mark Littlewood is a brilliant communicator, who successfully managed an outstanding expansion at the IEA. So I’m glad he buys into this more ‘modest’ description of markets – which makes justice of all the hullabaloo of “market fundamentalism” and similar buzzwords. Still I wonder how that can be packaged to be attractive to a wider constituency.

The alternative view somehow suggests that, whenever a problem appears, a benevolent planner will be able to fix it. This is a bit childish, and I fear it works precisely because it is; it offers a simple sketch of a causal link to people who do not spend much time pondering this kind of issue and who instinctively tend to believe the private sector is self-interested and rotten. The view by which markets are imperfect and therefore we need them focuses indeed on the shortcomings of central planning, but requires a basic understanding of the fact that orders may be ‘spontaneous’, the product of human action and not of human design, and that knowledge can sometimes be better activated to the benefit of society through decentralized decision making. None of these things is easily digested by laypeople. Perhaps the case for the immorality and corruption of government is more easily understood because, pretty much like the case for socialism, it gives people a villain – though this may not suffice to convince people that markets work better.

I personally find the case for imperfect markets for imperfect human beings plausibile, appealing, and right. But I wonder if it can be sold at all, in a world of instant communications, political polarization and ever growing demand for quick and all powerful “problem solvers” (aka populism).


EconLog November 16, 2018

Freedom of the Press and of Speech: True and False, by David Henderson

Is freedom of the press a right or a privilege? Ted Olson thinks it’s a privilege.

Why CNN should have lost and Dennis Prager should lose.

I haven’t seen such a muddled discussion of freedom of speech and of the press in a long time. On the left, we have CNN and others claiming that freedom of the press means that Jim Acosta can’t legally have his White House press pass revoked. On the right, we have Dennis Prager claiming that by not showing some of his videos, various private firms are denying his freedom of speech.

Start with the CNN/Acosta issue. CNN’s lawyer Ted Olson says that there’s a First Amendment freedom of the press issue with the White House revoking Jim Acosta’s press pass. But even though he gets at least 4 minutes of this 6+ minute interview, he never says how it’s a First Amendment issue. His focus is on the importance of the First Amendment.

That’s not surprising. To argue that Acosta has a First Amendment right to be allowed a White House press pass, Olson would have to argue that everyone has such a right. The First Amendment, recall, is a recognition of people’s rights, not just of rights of major corporations. Just as the Fourth Amendment guarantees a right against unreasonable search and seizure, so the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of all us to speak, write, and publish. But nothing in it says that we have a right to enter the White House and sit in press briefings.

Guaranteeing such a right would be impossible. I used to write regularly for They are an on-line press. They contemplated applying for a White House press pass when they had a representative in Washington. If they had applied, should the White House have been required to grant it? I don’t think so.

And the danger of Trump appointee Judge Timothy J. Kelly’s decision today that Acosta must be allowed in is that it will turn a right into a privilege. Imagine that I applied for a White House pass so that I could cover the White House for We all know what would happen. If the White House replied at all, it would be with a big No. In other words, Acosta has a right that I don’t. But if he has a right that I don’t, then it’s not a right; it’s a privilege.

Nor does freedom of speech or of the press give a private actor an obligation to carry your content. That’s where Dennis Prager and Prager University are badly wrong. They claim that Google, which owns YouTube, is censoring by refusing to show some of their material. Now it’s true that Google is not even-handed. But is it censorship? Back in March, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh got it right. Here’s how the Hollywood Reporter put it:

Since the First Amendment free speech guarantee guards against abridgment by a government, the big question for U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh is whether YouTube has become the functional equivalent of a “public forum” run by a “state actor” requiring legal intervention over a constitutional violation.

Koh agrees with Google that it hasn’t been sufficiently alleged that YouTube is a state actor as opposed to a private party.

“Plaintiff does not point to any persuasive authority to support the notion that Defendants, by creating a ‘video-sharing website’ and subsequently restricting access to certain videos that are uploaded on that website, have somehow engaged in one of the ‘very few’ functions that were traditionally ‘exclusively reserved to the State,'” she writes. “Instead, Plaintiff emphasizes that Defendants hold YouTube out ‘as a public forum dedicated to freedom of expression to all’ and argues that ‘a private property owner who operates its property as a public forum for speech is subject to judicial scrutiny under the First Amendment.’”

By the way, from what I know of Dennis Prager, I like him. From what I know of Donald Trump—and of Jim Acosta, for that matter—I don’t. And Prager University did a great video of me on the minimum wage. So none of this is personal.


EconLog November 16, 2018

Extremism in the defense of subsidized liberty is a (conservative) vice, by Scott Sumner

I’ve recently done posts on America’s financial system as well as its health care system.  I view both systems as borderline disasters, and more particularly socialist disasters.  In my previous post, I lamented that the taxpayer now assumed so much risk from bank deposits that banks were encouraged to take excessive risks, leading to occasional financial crises.

In the post on health care, I discussed how the US government spent even more than European governments, but with far less to show for it.  But even the 8% of GDP spent on public health programs greatly understates the US government’s footprint.  The government also provides huge tax breaks for private health insurance, which greatly distorts decision-making (including my own personal decisions.)

Some conservatives don’t view tax breaks as “government spending”, because the money is returned to the public.  But in an economic sense, the following two programs are identical:

  1. A 30% flat rate, with no deductions, and a welfare program giving everyone $5000.

  2. A 30% flat rate tax, with a $5000 tax credit for each person.

While those two regimes are essentially identical, there are treated very differently in any statistical rankings of various countries.  In case #1, the $5000 welfare program is treated as government spending.  In that case, both tax revenue and government spending are considerably higher than in case #2.

EconLog November 15, 2018

Why I Seek Converts, by Bryan Caplan

I recently Tweeted:

I don’t want to crush, humiliate, frighten, silence, irritate, defeat, discredit, demoralize, delegitimize, depress, frustrate, or ostracize my intellectual opponents. I want to convert them and be friends.

— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) November 11, 2018

The first sentence won wide acclaim, but the second sentence provoked much criticism.  Why do I want to “convert” my intellectual opponents rather than learn from them?

EconLog November 15, 2018

Schrodinger’s Immigrant, by David Henderson

In a post this morning, Cafe Hayek’s Don Boudreaux points out the contradiction in opposing immigrants because they work and opposing them because they go on welfare, that is, don’t work.

Jon Murphy, a Ph.D. student at George Mason University, where Don teaches, and a frequent commenter on this site (as well as an Econlib Feature Article author) sums it up beautifully:

Schrodinger’s Immigrant: simultaneously stealing jobs and too lazy to work.

Of course, Jon’s reference is to Schrodinger’s cat. By the way, I wouldn’t have known about Schrodinger’s cat if not for my faithfully watching The Big Bang Theory. (Here’s the link: start at 2:40.) While I was a physics minor at the University of Winnipeg in the late 1960s, I don’t recall the issue coming up, although it might have.

EconLog November 14, 2018

Wisdom from Armen Alchian, by David Henderson

Public [government] ownership must be borne by all members of the public, and no member can divest himself of that ownership. Ownership of public property is not voluntary; it is compulsory as long as one is a member of the public. To call something “compulsory” usually is a good start toward condemning it.

This is an excerpt from a long report that Armen Alchian wrote for the RAND Corporation in 1961. It’s reprinted in The Collected Works of Armen A. Alchian, published by Liberty Fund in 2006. I’m working my way through over 1,500 pages of Armen’s work for a book review I’m writing for Liberty Fund. I remember telling Friedrich Hayek, in June 1975, after he had won the Nobel Prize the the previous year, that I thought Alchian deserved the Nobel Prize, and asking him what he thought. Hayek had his characteristic wince as he replied, “Two people who deserve the Nobel Prize, but won’t get it because they haven’t written enough, are Armen Alchian and Ronald Coase.” I had agreed that Armen hadn’t written enough. Now I don’t. Interestingly, he obviously didn’t care about where his work was published. Also, a number of pieces in it, including a number that are quite good, were previously unpublished.

Here are the 10 latest posts from EconTalk.

EconTalk November 19, 2018

A.J. Jacobs on Thanks a Thousand

Journalist and author A. J. Jacobs talks about his book, Thanks a Thousand, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Jacobs thanked a thousand different people who contributed to his morning cup of coffee. In this conversation, Jacobs talks about the power of gratitude and different ways we can express gratitude in everyday life. He and Roberts also explore the unintended web of cooperation that underlies almost every product we encounter in a modern economy.

EconTalk November 12, 2018

Julia Belluz on Epidemiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism

Science writer Julia Belluz of talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of epidemiology, nutrition, and the relationship between obesity and metabolism.

EconTalk November 5, 2018

Alan Lightman on Science, Spirituality, and Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

Author and Physicist Alan Lightman talks about his book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. This is a wide-ranging conversation on religion, science, transcendence, consciousness, impermanence, and whether matter is all that matters.

EconTalk October 29, 2018

Michael Munger on Sharing, Transaction Costs, and Tomorrow 3.0

Economist and author Michael Munger of Duke University talks about his book, Tomorrow 3.0, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Munger analyzes the rise of companies like Uber and AirBnB as an example of how technology lowers transactions costs. Users and providers can find each other more easily through their smartphones, increasing opportunity. Munger expects these costs to fall elsewhere and predicts an expansion of the sharing economy to a wide array of items in our daily lives.

EconTalk October 22, 2018

Ran Abramitzky on the Mystery of the Kibbutz

Economist and author Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University talks about his book, The Mystery of the Kibbutz, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Abramitzky traces the evolution of the kibbutz movement in Israel and how the kibbutz structure changed to cope with the modernization and development of the Israeli economy. The conversation includes a discussion of how the history of the kibbutz might help us to understand the appeal and challenges of the socialism and freedom.

EconTalk October 18, 2018

Kevin McKenna on Characters, Plot, and Themes of In the First Circle

In-the-First-Circle.jpg Russian Literature Professor Kevin McKenna of the University of Vermont talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the characters, plot, and themes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, In the First Circle. This is the second episode of the EconTalk book club discussing the book. The first episode–a discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s life and times–is available on EconTalk at Kevin McKenna on Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union, and In the First Circle.

EconTalk October 15, 2018

John Gray on the Seven Kinds of Atheism


Philosopher and author John Gray talks about his latest book, Seven Types of Atheism, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Gray argues that progress is an illusion and that most atheisms inherit, unknowingly, a religious belief in progress that is not justified. While Gray concedes that technological know-how and scientific knowledge improve over time, he argues that morality and political systems are cyclical and that there is no reason to be optimistic about the future.

EconTalk October 8, 2018

Neil Monnery on Hong Kong and the Architect of Prosperity

Neil Monnery, author of Architect of Prosperity, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book–a biography of John Cowperthwaite, the man often credited with the economic success of Hong Kong. Monnery describes the policies that Cowperthwaite championed and the role they played in the evolution of Hong Kong’s economy. How much those policies mattered is the focus of the conversation. Other topics include the relationship between Hong Kong and China and the irony of the challenges Hong Kong faced from U.S. and British protectionism.

EconTalk October 1, 2018

Noah Smith on Worker Compensation, Co-determination, and Market Power

Bloomberg Opinion columnist and economist Noah Smith talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about corporate control, wages, and monopoly power. Smith discusses the costs and benefits of co-determination–the idea of putting workers on corporate boards. The conversation then moves to a lively discussion of wages and monopoly power and how the American worker has been doing in recent years.

EconTalk September 24, 2018

Rodney Brooks on Artificial Intelligence

AI.jpgRodney Brooks, emeritus professor of robotics at MIT, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the future of robots and artificial intelligence. Brooks argues that we both under-appreciate and over-appreciate the impact of innovation. He applies this insight to the current state of driverless cars and other changes people are expecting to change our daily lives in radical ways. He also suggests that the challenges of developing truly intelligent robots and technologies will take much longer than people expect, giving human beings time to adapt to the effects. Plus a cameo from Isaac Newton.

Here are the 10 latest posts from CEE.

CEE September 18, 2018

Christopher Sims

Christopher Sims was awarded, along with Thomas Sargent, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The Nobel committee cited their “empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy.” The economists who spoke at the press conference announcing the award emphasized Sargent’s and Sims’ analysis of role of people’s expectations.

One of Sims’s earliest famous contributions was his work on money-income causality, which was cited by the Nobel committee. Money and income move together, but which causes which? Milton Friedman argued that changes in the money supply caused changes in income, noting that the supply of money often rises before income rises. Keynesians such as James Tobin argued that changes in income caused changes in the amount of money. Money seems to move first, but causality, said Tobin and others, still goes the other way: people hold more money when they expect income to rise in the future.

Which view is true? In 1972 Sims applied Clive Granger’s econometric test of causality. On Granger’s definition one variable is said to cause another variable if knowledge of the past values of the possibly causal variable helps to forecast the effect variable over and above the knowledge of the history of the effect variable itself. Implementing a test of this incremental predictability, Sims concluded “[T]he hypothesis that causality is unidirectional from money to income [Friedman’s view] agrees with the postwar U.S. data, whereas the hypothesis that causality is unidirectional from income to money [Tobin’s view] is rejected.”

CEE June 28, 2018

Gordon Tullock

Gordon Tullock, along with his colleague James M. Buchanan, was a founder of the School of Public Choice. Among his contributions to public choice were his study of bureaucracy, his early insights on rent seeking, his study of political revolutions, his analysis of dictatorships, and his analysis of incentives and outcomes in foreign policy. Tullock also contributed to the study of optimal organization of research, was a strong critic of common law, and did work on evolutionary biology. He was arguably one of the ten or so most influential economists of the last half of the twentieth century. Many economists believe that Tullock deserved to share Buchanan’s 1986 Nobel Prize or even deserved a Nobel Prize on his own.

One of Tullock’s early contributions to public choice was The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, co-authored with Buchanan in 1962. In that path-breaking book, the authors assume that people seek their own interests in the political system and then consider the results of various rules and political structures. One can think of their book as a political economist’s version of Montesquieu.

CEE February 4, 2018

Division of Labor

Division of labor combines specialization and the partition of a complex production task into several, or many, sub-tasks. Its importance in economics lies in the fact that a given number of workers can produce far more output using division of labor compared to the same of number of workers each working alone. Interestingly, this is true even if those working alone are expert artisans. The production increase has several causes. According to Adam Smith, these include increased dexterity from learning, innovations in tool design and use as the steps are defined more clearly, and savings in wasted motion changing from one task to another.

Though the scientific understanding of the importance of division of labor is comparatively recent, the effects can be seen in most of human history. It would seem that exchange can arise only from differences in taste or circumstance. But division of labor implies that this is not true. In fact, even a society of perfect clones would develop exchange, because specialization alone is enough to reward advances such as currency, accounting, and other features of market economies.

CEE February 4, 2018

Hoover’s Economic Policies

When it was all over, I once made a list of New Deal ventures begun during Hoover’s years as Secretary of Commerce and then as president. . . . The New Deal owed much to what he had begun.1 —FDR advisor Rexford G. Tugwell

Many historians, most of the general public, and even many economists think of Herbert Hoover, the president who preceded Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a defender of laissez-faire economic policy. According to this view, Hoover’s dogmatic commitment to small government led him to stand by and do nothing while the economy collapsed in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. The reality is quite different. Far from being a bystander, Hoover actively intervened in the economy, advocating and implementing polices that were quite similar to those that Franklin Roosevelt later implemented. Moreover, many of Hoover’s interventions, like those of his successor, caused the great depression to be “great”—that is, to last a long time.

Hoover’s early career

Hoover, a very successful mining engineer, thought that the engineer’s focus on efficiency could enable government to play a larger and more constructive role in the economy. In 1917, he became head of the wartime Food Administration, working to reduce American food consumption. Many Democrats, including FDR, saw him as a potential presidential candidate for their party in the 1920s. For most of the 1920s, Hoover was Secretary of Commerce under Republican Presidents Harding and Coolidge. As Commerce Secretary during the 1920-21 recession, Hoover convened conferences between government officials and business leaders as a way to use government to generate “cooperation” rather than individualistic competition. He particularly liked using the “cooperation” that was seen during wartime as an example to follow during economic crises. In contrast to Harding’s more genuine commitment to laissez-faire, Hoover began one 1921 conference with a call to “do something” rather than nothing. That conference ended with a call for more government planning to avoid future depressions, as well as using public works as a solution once they started.2 Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David Kennedy summarized Hoover’s work in the 1920-21 recession this way: “No previous administration had moved so purposefully and so creatively in the face of an economic downturn. Hoover had definitively made the point that government should not stand by idly when confronted with economic difficulty.”3 Harding, and later Coolidge, rejected most of Hoover’s ideas. This may well explain why the 1920-21 recession, as steep as it was, was fairly short, lasting 18 months.

Interestingly, though, in his role as Commerce Secretary, Hoover created a new government program called “Own Your Own Home,” which was designed to increase the level of homeownership. Hoover jawboned lenders and the construction industry to devote more resources to homeownership, and he argued for new rules that would allow federally chartered banks to do more residential lending. In 1927, Congress complied, and with this government stamp of approval and the resources made available by Federal Reserve expansionary policies through the decade, mortgage lending boomed. Not surprisingly, this program became part of the disaster of the depression, as bank failures dried up sources of funds, preventing the frequent refinancing that was common at the time, and high unemployment rates made the government-encouraged mortgages unaffordable. The result was a large increase in foreclosures.4

The Hoover presidency

Hoover did not stand idly by after the depression began. To fight the rapidly worsening depression, Hoover extended the size and scope of the federal government in six major areas: (1) federal spending, (2) agriculture, (3) wage policy, (4) immigration, (5) international trade, and (6) tax policy.

Consider federal government spending. (See Fiscal Policy.) Federal spending in the 1929 budget that Hoover inherited was $3.1 billion. He increased spending to $3.3 billion in 1930, $3.6 billion in 1931, and $4.7 billion and $4.6 billion in 1932 and 1933, respectively, a 48% increase over his four years. Because this was a period of deflation, the real increase in government spending was even larger: The real size of government spending in 1933 was almost double that of 1929.5 The budget deficits of 1931 and 1932 were 52.5% and 43.3% of total federal expenditures. No year between 1933 and 1941 under Roosevelt had a deficit that large.6 In short, Hoover was no defender of “austerity” and “budget cutting.”

Figure 1 

Shortly after the stock market crash in October 1929, Hoover extended federal control over agriculture by expanding the reach of the Federal Farm Board (FFB), which had been created a few months earlier.7 The idea behind the FFB was to make government-funded loans to farm cooperatives and create “stabilization corporations” to keep farm prices up and deal with surpluses. In other words, it was a cartel plan. That fall, Hoover pushed the FFB into full action, lending to farmers all over the country and otherwise subsidizing farming in an attempt to keep prices up. The plan failed miserably, as subsidies encouraged farmers to grow more, exacerbating surpluses and eventually driving prices way down. As more farms faced dire circumstances, Hoover proposed the further anti-market step of paying farmers not to grow.

On wages, Hoover revived the business-government conferences of his time at the Department of Commerce by summoning major business leaders to the White House several times that fall. He asked them to pledge not to reduce wages in the face of rising unemployment. Hoover believed, as did a number of intellectuals at the time, that high wages caused prosperity, even though the true causation is from capital accumulation to increased labor productivity to higher wages. He argued that if major firms cut wages, workers would not have the purchasing power they needed to buy the goods being produced. As most depressions involve falling prices, cutting wages to match falling prices would have kept purchasing power constant. What Hoover wanted amounted to an increase in real wages, as constant nominal wages would be able to purchase more goods at falling prices. Presumably out of fear of the White House or, perhaps, because it would keep the unions quiet, industrial leaders agreed to this proposal. The result was rapidly escalating unemployment, as firms quickly realized that they could not continue to employ as many workers when their output prices were falling and labor costs were constant.8

Of all of the government failures of the Hoover presidency—excluding the actions of the Federal Reserve between 1929 and 1932, over which he had little to no influence—his attempt to maintain wages was the most damaging. Had he truly believed in laissez-faire, Hoover would not have intervened in the private sector that way. Hoover’s high-wage policy was a clear example of his lack of confidence in the corrective forces of the market and his willingness to use governmental power to fight the depression.

Later in his presidency, Hoover did more than just jawbone to keep wages up. He signed two pieces of labor legislation that dramatically increased the role of government in propping up wages and giving monopoly protection to unions. In 1931, he signed the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandated that all federally funded or assisted construction projects pay the “prevailing wage” (i.e., the above market-clearing union wage). The result of this move was to close out non-union labor, especially immigrants and non-whites, and drive up costs to taxpayers. A year later, he signed the Norris-LaGuardia Act, whose five major provisions each enshrined special provisions for unions in the law, such as prohibiting judges from using injunctions to stop strikes and making union-free contracts unenforceable in federal courts.9 Hoover’s interventions into the labor market are further evidence of his rejection of laissez-faire.

Two other areas that Hoover intervened in aggressively were immigration and international trade. One of the lesser-known policy changes during his presidency was his near halt to immigration through an Executive Order in September 1930. His argument was that blocking immigration would preserve the jobs and wages of American citizens against competition from low-wage immigrants. Immigration fell to a mere 10 to 15% of the allowable quota of visas for the five-month period ending February 28, 1931. Once again, Hoover was unafraid to intervene in the economic decisions of the private sector by preventing the competitive forces of the global labor market from setting wages.10

Even those with only a casual knowledge of the Great Depression will be familiar with one of Hoover’s major policy mistakes—his promotion and signing of the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930. This law increased tariffs significantly on a wide variety of imported goods, creating the highest tariff rates in U.S. history. While economist Douglas Irwin has found that Smoot-Hawley’s effects were not as large as often thought, they still helped cause a decline in international trade, a decline that contributed to the worsening worldwide depression.

Most of these policies continued and many expanded throughout 1931, with the economy worsening each month. By the end of the year, Hoover decided that more drastic action was necessary, and on December 8, he addressed Congress and offered proposals that historian David Kennedy refers to as “Hoover’s second program, ” and that has also been called “The Hoover New Deal.”11 His proposals included:

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation to lend tax dollars to banks, firms and others institutions in need.

A Home Loan Bank to provide government help to the construction sector.

Congressional legalization of Hoover’s executive order that had blocked immigration.

Direct loans to state governments for spending on relief for the unemployed.

More aid to Federal Land Banks.

Creating a Public Works Administration that would both better coordinate Federal public works and expand them.

More vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws to end “destructive competition” in a variety of industries, as well as supporting work-sharing programs that would supposedly reduce unemployment.

On top of these spending proposals, most of which were approved in one form or another, Hoover proposed, and Congress approved, the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history. The Revenue Act of 1932 increased personal income taxes dramatically, but also brought back a variety of excise taxes that had been used during World War I. The higher income taxes involved an increase of the standard rate from a range of 1.5 to 5% to a range of 4 to 8%. On top of that increase, the Act placed a large surtax on higher-income earners, leading to a total tax rate of anywhere from 25 to 63%. The Act also raised the corporate income tax along with several taxes on other forms of income and wealth.

Whether or not Hoover’s prescriptions were the right medicine—and the evidence suggests that they were not—his programs were a fairly aggressive use of government to address the problems of the depression.12 These programs were hardly what one would expect from a man devoted to “laissez-faire” and accused of doing nothing while the depression worsened.

The views of contemporaries and modern historians

The myth of Hoover as a defender of laissez-faire persists, despite the fact that his contemporaries clearly understood that he made aggressive use of government to fight the recession. Indeed, Hoover’s own statements made clear that he recognized his aggressive use of intervention. The myth also persists in spite of the widespread recognition by modern historians that the Hoover presidency was anything but an era of laissez-faire.

According to Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, Hoover argued that balancing the budget was a mistake: “The President likened it to war times. He said in war times no one dreamed of balancing the budget. Fortunately we can borrow.”13 Hoover himself summarized his administration’s approach to the depression during a campaign speech in 1932:

We might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead, we met the situation with proposals to private business and the Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counter attack ever evolved in the history of the Republic. These programs, unparalleled in the history of depressions of any country and in any time, to care for distress, to provide employment, to aid agriculture, to maintain the financial stability of the country, to safeguard the savings of the people, to protect their homes, are not in the past tense—they are in action. . . . No government in Washington has hitherto considered that it held so broad a responsibility for leadership in such time.14

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but as the other evidence indicates, Hoover was giving an accurate portrayal of his presidency. Indeed, Hoover’s profligacy was so clear that Roosevelt attacked it during the 1932 Presidential campaign.

Roosevelt’s own advisors understood that much of what they created during the New Deal owed its origins to Hoover’s policies, going as far back as his time at the Commerce Department in the 1920s. Thus the quote at the start of this article by Rex Tugwell, one of the academics at the center of FDR’s “brains trust.” Another member of the brains trust, Raymond Moley, wrote of that period:

When we all burst into Washington . . . we found every essential idea [of the New Deal] enacted in the 100-day Congress in the Hoover administration itself. The essentials of the NRA [National Recovery Administration], the PWA [Public Works Administration], the emergency relief setup were all there. Even the AAA [Agricultural Adjustment Act] was known to the Department of Agriculture. Only the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] and the Securities Act was [sic] drawn from other sources. The RFC [Reconstruction Finance Corporation], probably the greatest recovery agency, was of course a Hoover measure, passed long before the inauguration.15

Decades later, Tugwell, writing to Moley, said of Hoover: “[W]e were too hard on a man who really invented most of the devices we used.”16 Members of Roosevelt’s inner circle would have every reason to disassociate themselves from the policies of their predecessor; yet these two men recognized Hoover’s role as the father of the New Deal quite clearly.

Nor is this point lost on contemporary historians. In his authoritative history of the Great Depression era, David Kennedy admiringly wrote that Hoover’s 1932 program of activist policies helped “lay the groundwork for a broader restructuring of government’s role in many other sectors of American life, a restructuring known as the New Deal.”17 In a later discussion of the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, Kennedy observed (emphasis added):

Roosevelt intended to preside over a government even more vigorously interventionist and directive than Hoover’s. . . . [I]f Roosevelt had a plan in early 1933 to effect economic recovery, it was difficult to distinguish from many of the measures that Hoover, even if sometimes grudgingly, had already adopted: aid for agriculture, promotion of industrial cooperation, support for the banks, and a balanced budget. Only the last was dubious. . . . FDR denounced Hoover’s budget deficits.18


Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, from Hoover’s own beliefs to his actions as president to the observations of his contemporaries and modern historians, the myth of Herbert Hoover’s presidency as an example of laissez-faire persists. Of all the presidents up to and including him, Herbert Hoover was one of the most active interveners in the economy.

About the Author

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University



This entry is adapted, with permission, from Steven Horwitz, “Herbert Hoover: Father of the New Deal,” Cato Institute Briefing Papers, No. 122, September 29, 2011, at:

As quoted in Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper Collins, 2007, p. 149.

Murray N. Rothbard, America’s Great Depression (1963; Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), p. 192.

David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 48.

See Steven Malanga, “Obsessive Housing Disorder,” City Journal, 19 (2), Spring 2009.

Federal government spending data can be found at:

See the data and discussion in Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. Cain, American Economic History, 7th ed., Boston: Pearson, 2007, p. 487. Hughes and Cain also note of those deficits, “The expenditures were in large part the doing of the outgoing Hoover administration.”

See Kennedy op. cit., pp. 43-44; Rothbard op. cit., p. 228; and Gene Smiley, Rethinking the Great Depression, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002, p. 13.

See Lee Ohanian, “What – or Who – Started the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic Theory 144, 2009, pp. 2310-2335.

Chuck Baird, “Freeing Labor Markets by Reforming Union Laws,” June 2011, Downsizing DC, Cato Institute, available at

See “White House Statement on Government Policies To Reduce Immigration” March 26, 1931, available at That statement opens with an explicit link between the immigration policy and unemployment: “President Hoover, to protect American workingmen from further competition for positions by new alien immigration during the existing conditions of employment, initiated action last September looking to a material reduction in the number of aliens entering this country.”

Kennedy op. cit., p. 83. The phrase “Hoover’s New Deal” is from the title of chapter 11 in Rothbard, op. cit..

Hoover’s higher tax rates backfired, as they further depressed income-earning activity, reducing the tax base, which in turn led to a fall in tax revenues for 1932.

As cited in Kennedy op. cit., p. 79.

Herbert Hoover, “Address Accepting the Republican Presidential Nomination,” August 11, 1932.

Raymond Moley, “Reappraising Hoover,” Newsweek, June 14, 1948, p. 100.

Letter from Rexford G. Tugwell to Raymond Moley, January 29, 1965, Raymond Moley Papers, “Speeches and Writings,” Box 245-49, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, as cited in Davis W. Houck, “Rhetoric as Currency: Herbert Hoover and the 1929 Stock Market Crash,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 3, 2000, p. 174.

Kennedy, op. cit., p. 83.

Kennedy, op. cit., p. 118.


CEE February 4, 2018

Wages and Working Conditions


CEOs of multinational corporations, exotic dancers, and children with lemonade stands have at least one thing in common. They all expect a return for their effort. Most workers get that return in a subtle and ever-changing combination of money wages and working conditions. This article describes how they changed for the typical U.S. worker during the twentieth century.


Working Conditions

Surely the single most fundamental working condition is the chance of death on the job. In every society workers are killed or injured in the process of production. While occupational deaths are comparatively rare overall in the United States today, they still occur with some regularity in ocean fishing, the construction of giant bridges and skyscrapers, and a few other activities.


For all United States workers the number of fatalities per dollar of real (inflation-adjusted) GNP dropped by 96 percent between 1900 and 1979. Back in 1900 half of all worker deaths occurred in two industries—coal mining and railroading. But between 1900 and 1979 fatality rates per ton of coal mined and per ton-mile of freight carried fell by 97 percent.


This spectacular change in worker safety resulted from a combination of forces that include safer production technologies, union demands, improved medical procedures and antibiotics, workmen’s compensation laws, and litigation. Ranking the individual importance of these factors is difficult and probably would mean little. Together, they reflected a growing conviction on the part of the American people that the economy was productive enough to afford such change. What’s more, the United States made far more progress in the workplace than it did in the hospital. Even though inflation-adjusted medical expenditures tripled from 1950 to 1970 and increased by 74 percent from 1975 to 1988, the nation’s death rate declined in neither period. But industry succeeded in lowering its death rate, both by spending to improve health on the job and by discovering, developing, and adopting ways to save lives.


Data for injuries are scarcer and less reliable, but they probably declined as well. Agriculture has one of the highest injury rates of any industry; the frequent cuts and bruises can become infected by the bacteria in barnyards and on animals. Moreover, work animals and machinery frequently injure farm workers. Since the proportion of farm workers in the total labor force fell from about 40 percent to 2 percent between 1900 and 1990, the U.S. worker injury rate would have fallen even if nothing else changed. The limited data on injuries in manufacturing also indicate a decline.


Another basic aspect of working conditions is exposure to the weather. In 1900 more than 80 percent of all workers farmed in open fields, maintained railroad rights of way, constructed or repaired buildings, or produced steel and chemicals. Their bosses may have been comfortably warm in the winter and cool in the summer, but the workers were not. A columnist of that era ironically described the good fortune of workers in Chicago steelworks, who could count on being warmed by the blast from the steel melt in freezing weather. Boys who pulled glass bottles from furnaces were similarly protected—when they didn’t get burned. By 1990, in contrast, more than 80 percent of the labor force worked in places warmed in the winter and cooled in the summer.


Hours of work for both men and women were shorter in the United States than in most other nations in 1900. Women in Africa and Asia still spent two hours a day pounding husks off wheat or rice for the family food. American women bought their flour and cornmeal, or the men hauled it home from the mill. Women, however, still typically worked from dawn to dusk, or even longer by the light of oil or kerosene lamps. Caring for sick children lengthened those hours further. Charlotte Gilman, an early feminist leader, declared that cooking and care of the kitchen alone took forty-two hours a week. Early budget studies are consistent with that estimate. Men, too, worked dawn to dusk on the farm, and in most nonfarm jobs (about 60 percent of the total), men worked ten hours a day, six days a week.


By 1981 (the latest date available), women’s kitchen work had been cut about twenty hours a week, according to national time-budget studies from Michigan’s Institute of Survey Research. That reduction came about because families bought more restaurant meals, more canned, frozen, and prepared foods, and acquired an arsenal of electric appliances. Women also spent fewer hours washing and ironing clothes and cleaning house. Fewer hours of work in the home had little impact on women’s labor force participation rate until the great increase after 1950.


Men’s work hours were cut in half during the twentieth century. That decline reflected a cut of more than twenty hours in the scheduled work week. It also reflected the fact that paid vacations—almost nonexistent in 1900—had spread, and paid holidays multiplied.


In addition, the percentage of the labor force in the worst jobs has declined dramatically. Common laborers in most societies face the most arduous, dangerous, and distasteful working conditions. Their share of the U.S. labor force fell from about 30 percent to 5 percent between 1900 and 1990. Thousands of men in 1900 spent their lives shoveling coal into furnaces to power steam engines. Less than 5 percent of factory power came from electric motors. By 1990 nearly all these furnaces, and men, had been replaced—first by mechanical stokers and then by oil burners and electric motors. Tens of thousands of other men in 1900 laid railroad track and ties, shifting them by brute force, or shoveled tons of coal and grain into gondola cars and ships’ holds. They too have given way to machines or now use heavy machinery to ease their toil.


The largest group of common laborers in 1900 was the men, women, and children who cultivated and harvested crops by hand (e.g., cotton, corn, beets, potatoes). Most blacks and many Asian and Mexican-American workers did so. These millions were eventually replaced by a much smaller group, generally using motorized equipment. New machinery also eased the lot of those who once spent their lives shoveling fertilizer, mixing cement, working in glue-works, carrying bundles of rags, waste paper, or finished clothing, and tanning hides.


Such tasks remain a miserable fact of life in many societies. But the expanding U.S. economy forced improvement as workers got the choice of better jobs on factory assembly lines, in warehouses, and in service establishments. Producers increasingly had to replace departing common labor with machinery. They substituted machinery for labor across the board. (Computer software even replaced some bank vice presidents.) But many more men who labored at difficult and boring jobs were replaced by machines tended by semiskilled workers. Between 1900 and 1990 the amount of capital equipment used by the typical American worked rose about 150 percent, taking all industries together.




Rock singers, movie stars, athletes, and CEOs stand at one end of the income distribution. At the other end are part-time workers and many of the unemployed. The differences in annual earnings only partly reflect hourly wages. They also reflect differences in how many hours a year workers spend on the job.


Thanks to increased income tax rates since 1936, today’s workers attempt to reduce taxes by converting their earnings into other, nontaxable forms of income. Why use after-tax income to pay for medical care if you can get it as an untaxed fringe benefit? Why pay for the full cost of lunch if the company can subsidize meals at work? The proliferation of such “receipts in kind” has made it increasingly difficult to make meaningful comparisons of the distribution of income over time or of earnings in different social and occupational groups.


Comparing money wages over time thus offers only a partial view of what has happened to worker incomes. But what do the simple overall figures for earnings by the typical worker (before tax and ignoring “in kind” allowances) show? Table 1 reports how the average wage for nonfarm workers rose during this century. By 1980 real earnings of American nonfarm workers were about four times as great as in 1900. Government taxes took away an increasing share of the worker’s paycheck. What remained, however, helped transform the American standard of living. In 1900 only a handful earned enough to enjoy such expensive luxuries as piped water, hot water, indoor toilets, electricity, and separate rooms for each child. But by 1990 workers’ earnings had made such items commonplace. Moreover, most Americans now have radios, TVs, automobiles, and medical care that no millionaire in 1900 could possibly have obtained.




| |

Nonfarm Employees Annual Earnings, 1900-80

| |

Real earnings (1914 dollars)


Real earnings (1914 dollars)

| | Year | Money Earnings When Employed (dollars) | After Deduction for Unemployment (dollars) | When Employed (dollars) | Consumer Price Index
(1914 = 100)
| Year | Money Earnings When Employed (dollars) | After Deduction for Unemployment (dollars) | When Employed (dollars) | Consumer Price Index
(1914 = 100)
| | 1900 | 483 | 523 | 573 | 84.3 | 1940 | 1,438 | 812 | 1,032 | 139.4 | | 1901 | 497 | 546 | 582 | 85.4 | 1941 | 1,593 | 931 | 1,088 | 146.4 | | 1902 | 528 | 583 | 612 | 86.3 | 1942 | 1,877 | 1,080 | 1,159 | 162.0 | | 1903 | 534 | 575 | 607 | 88.0 | 1943 | 2,190 | 1,239 | 1,273 | 172.0 | | 1904 | 538 | 555 | 606 | 88.8 | 1944 | 2,370 | 1,331 | 1,354 | 175.0 | | 1905 | 550 | 582 | 621 | 88.5 | 1945 | 2,460 | 1,338 | 1,375 | 179.0 | | 1906 | 566 | 618 | 627 | 90.2 | 1946 | 2,575 | 1,253 | 1,326 | 194.2 | | 1907 | 592 | 613 | 631 | 93.8 | 1947 | 2,802 | 1,194 | 1,262 | 222.1 | | 1908 | 577 | 545 | 631 | 91.5 | 1948 | 3,067 | 1,216 | 1,281 | 239.4 | | 1909 | 600 | 604 | 657 | 91.3 | 1949 | 3,088 | 1,190 | 1,303 | 237.0 | | | | 1910 | 634 | 608 | 669 | 94.7 | 1950 | 3,276 | 1,272 | 1,368 | 239.4 | | 1911 | 644 | 612 | 676 | 95.2 | 1951 | 3,560 | 1,317 | 1,378 | 258.3 | | 1912 | 657 | 619 | 676 | 97.2 | 1952 | 3,777 | 1,375 | 1,431 | 263.9 | | 1913 | 687 | 649 | 695 | 98.9 | 1953 | 3,986 | 1,442 | 1,499 | 265.9 | | 1914 | 696 | 613 | 696 | 100.0 | 1954 | 4,110 | 1,427 | 1,538 | 267.3 | | 1915 | 692 | 591 | 684 | 101.1 | 1955 | 4,318 | 1,529 | 1,621 | 266.3 | | 1916 | 760 | 649 | 699 | 108.7 | 1956 | 4,557 | 1,597 | 1,686 | 270.3 | | 1917 | 866 | 681 | 704 | 127.7 | 1957 | 4,764 | 1,608 | 1,702 | 279.9 | | 1918 | 1,063 | 694 | 709 | 150.0 | 1958 | 4,956 | 1,574 | 1,724 | 287.5 | | 1919 | 1,215 | 681 | 704 | 172.5 | 1959 | 5,217 | 1,674 | 1,800 | 289.8 | | | | 1920 | 1,426 | 672 | 714 | 199.7 | 1960 | 5,402 | 1,706 | 1,834 | 294.5 | | 1921 | 1,330 | 620 | 747 | 178.1 | 1961 | 5,584 | 1,719 | 1,877 | 297.5 | | 1922 | 1,289 | 688 | 772 | 166.9 | 1962 | 5,829 | 1,804 | 1,938 | 300.8 | | 1923 | 1,376 | 774 | 811 | 169.7 | 1963 | 6,045 | 1,847 | 1,986 | 304.4 | | 1924 | 1,396 | 754 | 820 | 170.3 | 1964 | 6,327 | 1,921 | 2,052 | 308.4 | | 1925 | 1,420 | 764 | 812 | 174.8 | 1965 | 6,535 | 1,968 | 2,083 | 313.7 | | 1926 | 1,452 | 801 | 824 | 176.2 | 1966 | 6,860 | 2,028 | 2,126 | 322.7 | | 1927 | 1,487 | 810 | 861 | 172.8 | 1967 | 7,156 | 2,058 | 2,155 | 332.0 | | 1928 | 1,490 | 816 | 872 | 170.9 | 1968 | 7,675 | 2,126 | 2,219 | 345.9 | | 1929 | 1,534 | 853 | 901 | 170.3 | 1969 | 8,277 | 2,165 | 2,257 | 364.5 | | | | 1930 | 1,495 | 773 | 901 | 166.0 | 1970 | 8,821 | 2,155 | 2,285 | 386.1 | | 1931 | 1,408 | 696 | 930 | 151.4 | 1971 | 9,423 | 2,181 | 2,340 | 402.7 | | 1932 | 1,249 | 585 | 918 | 135.8 | 1972 | 10,066 | 2,265 | 2,420 | 416.0 | | 1933 | 1,165 | 565 | 905 | 128.8 | 1973 | 10,767 | 2,303 | 2,437 | 441.9 | | 1934 | 1,199 | 607 | 901 | 133.1 | 1974 | 11,632 | 2,521 | 2,372 | 490.4 | | 1935 | 1,244 | 637 | 912 | 136.4 | 1975 | 12,702 | 2,148 | 2,373 | 535.2 | | 1936 | 1,296 | 701 | 940 | 137.8 | 1976 | 13,727 | 2,216 | 2,425 | 566.1 | | 1937 | 1,392 | 767 | 975 | 142.8 | 1977 | 14,743 | 2,256 | 2,447 | 602.6 | | 1938 | 1,370 | 705 | 978 | 140.1 | 1978 | 15,847 | 2,279 | 2,443 | 648.7 | | 1939 | 1,403 | 760 | 1,016 | 138.1 | 1979 | 17,183 | 2,229 | 2,381 | 721.8 | | | 1980 | 18,861 | 2,114 | 2,300 | 820.0 | |

SOURCE: Lebergott, 1984.



Labor Productivity

The fundamental cause of this increase in the standard of living was the increase in productivity. What caused that increase? The tremendous changes in Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore since World War II demonstrate how tenuous is the connection between productivity and such factors as sitting in classrooms, natural resources, previous history, or racial origins. Increased productivity depends more on national attitudes and on free markets, in the United States as in Hong Kong and Singapore.


Output per hour worked in the United States, which already led the world in 1900, tripled from 1900 to 1990. Companies competed away much of that cost savings via lower prices, thus benefiting consumers. (Nearly all of these consumers, of course, were in workers’ families.) Workers also benefited directly from higher wages on the job.


The U.S. record for working conditions and real wages reveals impressive and significant advances, greater than in many other nations. But the quest for still higher wages and for less effort and boredom shows no sign of halting.


Stanley Lebergott is an emeritus professor of economics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He was previously an economist with the U.S. Bureau of the Budget and the U.S. Department of Labor. He was a member of the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics in 1971 and president of the Economic History Association in 1984.


Further Reading

Goldin, Claudia. “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870-1920.” Journal of Economic History 41 (1980): 81-89.

Lebergott, Stanley. The American Economy: Income, Wealth, and Want. 1976.

Lebergott, Stanley. The Americans: An Economic Record. 1984.



CEE February 4, 2018

Unemployment Insurance


[Editor’s note: some of the data have changed since this article was written in 1992. The overall structure of the unemployment insurance, however, has remained intact.]


The United States unemployment insurance program is intended to offset income lost by workers who lose their jobs as a result of employer cutbacks. The program, launched by the Social Security Act of 1935, is the government’s single most important source of assistance to the jobless.


A second goal of the program is to counter the negative impacts on the national economy, and especially on local economies, of major layoffs, seasonal cutbacks, or a recession. Unemployment benefits help sustain the level of income and hence the demand for goods and services in areas hard hit by unemployment. In short, unemployment insurance supports consumer buying power.


Not all unemployed workers are eligible for unemployment insurance. In fact, from 1984 to 1989 the proportion of the unemployed receiving benefits was at or below 34 percent every year. Benefits are not paid to employees who quit their jobs voluntarily or are fired for cause. Nor are they paid to those who are just entering the labor force but cannot find a job, nor to reentrants to the labor force who are looking for work. In February 1991, 76 percent of the target population of “job losers”—those involuntarily laid off—received benefits.


The proportion of unemployed workers who receive benefits is always higher during recessions than during expansions. This is because during recessions a higher fraction of the unemployed are people who were laid off. By January 1991, 46 percent of total unemployed workers claimed unemployment benefits, the highest percentage for that month since 1983.


Under the joint federal-state program, most states pay a maximum of twenty-six weeks in benefits, starting after a one-week waiting period. A few extend the duration somewhat longer. These benefits replace about one-third of gross wages for people with average or below-average incomes. The average weekly benefit in 1991 was about $161. When a state’s unemployment is substantially above the national average, the program provides for up to an additional thirteen weeks of benefits. Five states were paying “extended benefits” in the winter of 1991, but this number approximately doubled by the end of April as the recession and unemployment worsened. The state and federal government share, approximately equally, the cost of extended benefits. During the eighties many states raised their “triggers”—the unemployment rate that must be reached—for extended benefits. As a result relatively few workers were eligible for extended benefits.


The federal government makes grants to the states for the administration of the unemployment insurance program. These grants exceeded $2 billion in fiscal 1991, ending September 30, 1991. The money helped pay the wages of about thirty-seven thousand state workers who administer the program and who dispense benefits from state unemployment insurance funds. In that fiscal year states collected about $16 billion in unemployment taxes from employers to cover the cost of the program; the federal government collected approximately $4.4 billion. Outlays on benefits were expected to run about $18.7 billion in fiscal 1991.


Federal law requires all state governments to impose a tax on employers of at least 0.8 percent on each employee’s first $7,000 of pay. The tax base exceeds $7,000 in thirty-six states, with a national average of about $8,500. The highest base is $21,300 in Alaska. Most states levy a higher tax rate on businesses that have higher layoffs. However, the tax rate cannot go below the minimum even for businesses that have no layoffs. Nor do states set the maximum high enough so that employers with high layoff rates generate enough tax revenues to pay all the benefits to the workers they lay off. The result is that workers and businesses in industries with low layoff rates subsidize workers and businesses in industries, such as construction, with high layoff rates. Harvard’s Martin Feldstein suggested in 1973 that this subsidization of layoffs would cause more layoffs. The evidence indicates that he was correct. Economist Robert Topel of the University of Chicago estimates that if employers could expect to repay (in taxes) the full value of unemployment benefits drawn by their laid-off workers, then the unemployment rate would fall by as much as 1 full point (e.g., from 6 percent of the labor force to 5 percent).


A basic tenet of economics is that when an activity is subsidized, people do more of it. Does unemployment insurance—a subsidy for being unemployed—increase unemployment by prompting the unemployed to delay their search for a new job or to search longer for a better position? Economists have found that it does. A 1990 study by Bruce D. Meyer, an economist at Northwestern University, found that a 10 percent boost in the “replacement ratio”—the proportion of after-tax work earnings replaced by unemployment benefits—causes unemployed people to extend their time without work by an average of 1.5 weeks. (During fiscal 1990 the average duration of benefits for the jobless was 13.6 weeks.)


Most people who receive unemployment insurance find a job or are recalled to work in the first several weeks. Meyer also found that among those who remain jobless for a longer period, the chance of a person on unemployment insurance going back to work increases rapidly as the time of benefit exhaustion approaches. Indeed, the chances of an unemployed person getting a job triples as the length of remaining benefits drops from six weeks to one week. Meyer suspects some of the jobless may have arranged to be recalled to previous work or to begin new work about the time their benefits expire. “If workers are bound to firms by implicit contracts, moving costs, specific human capital [education, experience, skills, etc.], or other reasons, firms have an incentive to base recall decisions on the length of UI [unemployment insurance] benefits,” noted Meyer in a study done for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Unionized firms tend to take greater advantage of this “layoff subsidy” than do non-union establishments. And not surprisingly, given the incentives, layoffs are more common for those eligible for unemployment benefits than for those not eligible. If benefits are extended beyond twenty-six weeks, the unemployed tend to stay out of work nearly a day longer, on average, for each week of the extension.


Lawrence H. Summers, chief economist at the World Bank, and chief economic adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, reaches similar conclusions. Summers, along with Harvard economist Kim B. Clark, found that unemployment insurance almost doubles the number of unemployment spells lasting more than three months, thereby encouraging long-term joblessness. Summers and Clark suggest that unemployment insurance benefits cause many of the long-term unemployed to have high “reservation wages.” Translation: to accept a job, these unemployed workers insist on getting a high wage, and if they aren’t offered that wage, they stay on unemployment insurance as long as possible.


Economists have proposed various reforms to reduce the adverse effects of unemployment while still assisting people who lose their jobs. One of the more modest reforms suggested has been to reduce the minimum tax rate on employers and raise the maximum tax rate, so that the taxes they pay more closely reflect their layoff rates. A more extreme proposal, made by Robert Topel, is to experience-rate individual workers so that workers with a history of long unemployment spells pay higher tax rates. The federal government has already adopted one reform suggested by economists across the ideological spectrum. The 1986 Tax Reform Act eliminates the tax bias in favor of unemployment insurance by taxing unemployment benefits just like other income.


David R. Francis is an economic journalist with the Christian Science Monitor.


Further Reading

Becker, Joseph M. Experience Rating in Unemployment Insurance: An Experiment in Competitive Socialism. 1972.

Feldstein, Martin. “The Economics of the New Unemployment.” Public Interest 33 (Fall 1973): 3-42.

Summers, Lawrence H. Understanding Unemployment. 1990.

Topel, Robert. “Unemployment and Unemployment Insurance.” Research in Labor Economics 7 (1986): 91-135.

Topel, Robert. “Financing Unemployment Insurance: History, Incentives, and Reform.” In Unemployment Insurance: The Second Half Century, edited by W. Lee Hansen and J. Byers. 1990.



CEE February 4, 2018

Third World Debt


[Editor’s note: this article was written in 1991.]


By the end of 1990 the world’s poor and developing countries owed more than $1.3 trillion to industrialized countries. Among the largest problem debtors were Brazil ($116 billion), Mexico ($97 billion), and Argentina ($61 billion). Of the total developing-country debt, roughly half is owed to private creditors, mainly commercial banks.


The rest consists of obligations to international lending organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and to governments and government agencies—export-import banks, for example. Of the private bank debt, the bulk has been incurred by middle-income countries, especially in Latin America. The world’s poorest countries, mostly in Africa and South Asia, were never able to borrow substantial sums from the private sector and most of their debts are to the IMF, World Bank, and other governments.


Third World debt grew dramatically during the seventies, when bankers were eager to lend money to developing countries. Although many Third World governments defaulted on their debts during the thirties, bankers had put that episode out of their minds by the seventies. The mood of the time is perhaps best captured in the famous proclamation by the Citibank chairman at the time, Walter Wriston, that lending to governments is safe banking because sovereign nations do not default on their debts.


The loan pyramid came crashing down in August 1982, when the Mexican government suddenly found itself unable to roll over its private debts (that is, borrow new funds to replace loans that were due) and was unprepared to quickly shift gears from being a net borrower to a net repayer. Soon after, a slew of other sovereign debtors sought rescheduling agreements, and the “debt crisis” was officially under way. Though experts do not really understand why the crisis started precisely when it did, its basic causes are clear. The sharp rise in world interest rates in the early eighties greatly increased the interest burden on debtor countries because most of their borrowings were indexed to short-term interest rates. At the same time, export receipts of developing countries suffered as commodity prices began to fall, reversing their rise of the seventies. More generally, sluggish growth in the industrialized countries made debt servicing much more difficult.


Of course, the debtors were not simply hapless victims of external market forces. The governments of many of the seventeen nations referred to as Highly Indebted Countries (HICs) made the situation worse by badly mismanaging their economies. In many countries during the seventies, commercial bank or World Bank loans quickly escaped through the back door in the form of private capital flight (see Capital Flight). As table 1 shows, capital assets that “fled” abroad from the HICs were 103 percent of long-term public and publicly guaranteed debt. Loans intended for infrastructure investment at home were rerouted to buy condominiums in Miami. In a few countries, most notably Brazil, capital flight was not severe. But a great deal of the loan money was spent internally on dubious large-scale, government-directed investment projects. Though well intentioned, the end result was the same: not enough money was invested in productive projects that could be used to service the debt.





| | Capital Flight
(in billions of 1987 dollars)

| | | Flight Capital Assets | As Percentage of Long-Term Public and Publicly Guaranteed Debt | | Argentina | $46 | 111% | | Bolivia | 2 | 178 | | Brazil | 31 | 46 | | Chile | 2 | 17 | | Colombia | 7 | 103 | | Ecuador | 7 | 115 | | Ivory Coast | 0 | 0 | | Mexico | 84 | 114 | | Morocco | 3 | 54 | | Nigeria | 20 | 136 | | Peru | 2 | 27 | | Philippines | 23 | 188 | | Uruguay | 4 | 159 | | Venezuela | 58 | 240 | | Yugoslavia | 6 | 79 | | | | Total | 295 | 103 | |

SOURCES: Flight Capital, Morgan Stanley as cited in The International Economy, July/August 1989. Debt, World Debt Tables, 1988-89 edition. Data refer to external debt to private creditors. Reprinted from Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 37.



Not all of the debtor countries were plagued by mismanagement. South Korea, considered by many to be a problem debtor at the onset of the debt crisis, maintained a strong export-oriented economy. The resulting growth in real GNP—averaging 9.8 percent per year between 1982 and 1988—allowed South Korea to make the largest debt repayments in the world in 1986 and 1987. Korea’s debt fell from $47 billion to $40 billion between the end of 1985 and the end of 1987.


But for most debtor countries, the eighties were a decade of economic stagnation. Loan renegotiations with bank committees and with government lenders became almost constant. While lenders frequently agreed to roll over a portion of interest due (thus increasing their loans), prospects for net new funds seemed to dry up for all but a few developing countries, located mostly in fast-growing Asia. In this context bankers and government officials began to consider many schemes for clearing away the developing-country debt problem.


In theory, loans by governments and by international lending organizations are senior to private debts—they must be repaid first. But private lenders are the ones who have been pressing to have their loans repaid. As a consequence, official creditors saw their share of problem-country debt double—to nearly half the total—during the first decade of the debt crisis.


Many Third World debtors, particularly in Latin America, chafe at being asked to pay down their large debts. Their leaders plead that debt is strangling their economies and that repayments are soaking away resources desperately needed to finance growth. Although these pleas evoke considerable sympathy from leaders of rich countries, opinions over what to do are widely divided.


A staggering range of “solutions” has been proposed. Some of the more ambitious plans would either force private creditors to forgive part of their debts or use large doses of taxpayer resources to sponsor a settlement, or both. Current official policy, which is based on the Brady Plan (after U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady), is for governments of industrialized countries to subsidize countries where there is scope for negotiating large-scale debt-reduction agreements with the private commercial banks. In principle, countries must also demonstrate the will to implement sound economic policies, both fiscal and monetary, to qualify. A small number of Brady Plan deals have been completed to date, the most notable being Mexico’s 1990 debt restructuring.


Toward the end of the eighties, a number of sovereign debtors began experimenting with so-called market-based debt-reduction schemes, in which countries repurchased their debts at a discount by paying cash or by giving creditors equity in domestic industries. On the surface these plans appear to hurt banks because debts are retired at a fraction of their full value. But a closer inspection reveals why the commercial banks responded so enthusiastically.


Consider the Bolivian buy-back of March 1988. When the Bolivian deal was first discussed in late 1986, Bolivia’s government had guaranteed $670 million in debt to commercial banks. In world secondary markets this debt traded at six cents on the dollar. That is, buyers of debt securities were willing to pay, and some sellers were willing to accept, only six cents per dollar of principal. Using funds that primarily were secretly donated by neutral third countries—rumored to include Spain, the Netherlands, and Brazil—Bolivia’s government spent $34 million in March 1988 to buy back $308 million worth of debt at eleven cents on the dollar. Eleven cents was also the price that prevailed for the remaining Bolivian debt immediately after the repurchase. At first glance the buy-back might seem a triumph, almost halving Bolivia’s debt. The fact that the price rose from six to eleven cents was interpreted by some observers as evidence that the deal had strengthened prospects for Bolivia’s economy.


A more sober assessment of the Bolivian buy-back reveals that commercial bank creditors probably reaped most of the benefit. Before the buy-back, banks expected to receive a total of $40.2 million (.06 × $670 million). After the buy-back, banks had collected $34 million and their expected future repayments were still $39.8 million (.11 × $362 million). How did creditors manage to reap such a large share of the benefits? Basically, when a country is as deep in hock as Bolivia was, creditors attach a far greater likelihood to partial repayment than to full repayment. Having the face value of the debt halved did little to reduce the banks’ bargaining leverage with Bolivia, and the chances that the canceled debt would have eventually been paid were low anyway. Similar problems can arise even in countries whose debt sells at much smaller discounts.


The fact that buy-backs tend to bid up debt prices presents difficulties for any plan in which funds taken from taxpayers in industrialized countries are used to promote debt restructurings that supposedly are for the sole benefit of people in the debtor countries. Banks will surely know of the additional resources available for repayment, and they will try to bargain for higher repayments and lower rollovers. The main focus of the Brady Plan is precisely to ensure that the lion’s share of officially donated funds reaches debtors. But the fact that debt prices have been stronger in countries that have implemented Brady Plans than in non-Brady Plan countries suggests that the effort to limit the gain for banks has been only partially successful.


Aside from the question of such “leakage” to private banks, there are serious equity concerns with any attempt to channel large quantities of aid relief to deal with private debt. Though poor by standards of Europe and the United States, countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina rank as middle-to upper-middle income in the broader world community. The average per capita income in the seventeen HICs was $1,430 in 1987. This compares with $470 in developing East Asia and $290 in South Asia. Even Bolivia, South America’s basket case, has twice the per capita income of India. On a need basis, therefore, Africa and South Asia are stronger candidates for aid.


Kenneth Rogoff is a professor of economics at Harvard University. He has served on the staff of the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve board and has been a visiting scholar at the World Bank.


Further Reading

Bulow, Jeremy, and Kenneth Rogoff. “The Buyback Boondoogle.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, no. 2 (1988): 675-98.

Bulow, Jeremy, and Kenneth Rogoff. “Cleaning Up Third-World Debt without Getting Taken to the Cleaners.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 4 (Winter 1990): 31-42.

World Bank. World Debt Tables: External Debt of Developing Countries. 1990-91 edition.



CEE February 4, 2018

Trucking Deregulation




The federal government has been regulating prices and competition in interstate transportation ever since Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to oversee the railroad industry in 1887. Truckers were brought under the control of the ICC in 1935 after persistent lobbying by state regulators, the ICC itself, and especially, the railroads, which had been losing business to trucking companies.


The Motor Carrier Act of 1935 required new truckers to seek a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” from the ICC. Truckers already operating in 1935 could automatically get certificates, but only if they documented their prior service, and the ICC was quite restrictive in interpreting proof of service. New trucking companies, on the other hand, found it extremely difficult to get certificates.


The law required motor carriers to file all rates—also called tariffs—with the ICC thirty days before they became effective. Anyone, including a competitor, was allowed to inspect the filed tariffs. If the proposed tariffs were protested by another carrier (such as a trucker, a regulated water carrier, or a railroad), the ICC normally suspended the rates pending an investigation of their legality. In 1948 Congress authorized truckers to fix rates in concert with one another when it enacted, over President Truman’s veto, the Reed-Bulwinkle Act, which exempted carriers from the antitrust laws.


From 1940 to 1980, new or expanded authority to transport goods was almost impossible to secure unless no one opposed an application. Even if the proposed service was not being offered by existing carriers, the ICC held that a certificated trucker who expressed a desire to carry the goods should be given the opportunity to do so; the new applicant was denied. The effect was to stifle competition from new carriers.


Purchasing the rights of an existing trucker became the only practical approach to entering a particular market. By the seventies the authority to carry certain goods on certain routes was selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because the commission disapproved of “trafficking” in rights, it was hostile to mergers and purchases and attempted to restrict authority as much as possible. The result was often bizarre. For example, a motor carrier with authority to travel from Cleveland to Buffalo that purchased another carrier or the carrier’s rights to go from Buffalo to Pittsburgh was required to carry goods destined for Pittsburgh through Buffalo, even though the direct route was considerably shorter. In some cases carriers had to go hundreds of miles out of their way, adding many hours or even days to the transport.


ICC regulation reduced competition and made trucking inefficient. Routes and the products that could be carried over them were narrowly specified. Truckers with authority to carry a product, such as tiles, from one city to another often lacked authority to haul anything on the return trip.


Regulation’s Costs


Studies showed that regulation increased costs and rates significantly. Not only were rates lower without regulation, but service quality, as judged by shippers, also was better. Products exempt from regulation moved at rates 20 to 40 percent below those for the same products subject to ICC controls. For example, regulated rates for carrying cooked poultry, compared to unregulated charges for fresh dressed poultry (a similar product), were nearly 50 percent higher. Comparisons between heavily regulated trucking in West Germany and the United States and unregulated motor carriage in Great Britain, together with lightly regulated trucking in Belgium and the Netherlands, showed that charges in the highly regulated countries were 75 percent higher than in the nations with freer markets.


A number of economists were critical of the regulation of motor carriers right from the beginning. James C. Nelson, in a series of articles starting in 1935, led the attack. Walter Adams, a liberal Democrat, followed with a major critique in American Economic Review. Professors John R. Meyer of Harvard, Merton J. Peck of Yale, John Stenason, and Charles Zwick authored a very influential book, The Economics of Competition in the Transportation Industries, published in 1959.


In 1962 President John Kennedy became the first president to send a transportation message to Congress recommending a reduction in the regulation of surface freight transportation. In November 1975 President Gerald Ford called for legislation to reduce trucking regulation. He followed that by appointing to the ICC several commissioners who favored competition. By the end of 1976, these commissioners were speaking out for a more competitive policy at the ICC, a position rarely articulated in the previous eight decades of transportation regulation.


President Jimmy Carter followed Ford’s lead by appointing strong deregulatory advocates and supporting legislation to reduce motor carrier regulation. After a series of ICC rulings that reduced federal oversight of trucking, and after the deregulation of the airline industry, Congress, spurred by the Carter administration, enacted the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. This act limited the ICC’s authority over trucking.


Both the Teamsters Union and the American Trucking Associations strongly opposed deregulation and successfully headed off efforts to eliminate all economic controls. Supporting deregulation was a coalition of shippers, consumer advocates including Ralph Nader, and liberals such as Senator Edward Kennedy. Probably the most significant factor in forcing Congress to act was that the ICC commissioners appointed by Ford and Carter were bent on deregulating the industry anyway. Either Congress had to act or the ICC would. Congress acted in order to codify some of the commission changes and to limit others.


The Motor Carrier Act (MCA) of 1980 only partially decontrolled trucking. But together with a liberal ICC, it substantially freed the industry. The MCA made it significantly easier for a trucker to secure a certificate of public convenience and necessity. The MCA also required the commission to eliminate most restrictions on commodities that could be carried, on the routes that motor carriers could use, and on the geographical region they could serve. The law authorized truckers to price freely within a “zone of reasonableness,” meaning that truckers could increase or decrease rates from current levels by 15 percent without challenge, and encouraged them to make independent rate filings with even larger price changes.


The Success of Deregulation


Deregulation has worked well. Between 1977, the year before the ICC started to decontrol the industry, and 1982, rates for truckload-size shipments fell about 25 percent in real, inflation-adjusted terms. The General Accounting Office found that rates charged by LTL (less-than-truckload) carriers had fallen as much as 10 to 20 percent, with some shippers reporting declines of as much as 40 percent. Revenue per truckloadton fell 22 percent from 1979 to 1986. A survey of shippers indicates that they believe service quality improved as well. Some 77 percent of surveyed shippers favored deregulation of trucking. Shippers reported that carriers were much more willing to negotiate rates and services than prior to deregulation. Truckers have experimented with new price and service options. They have restructured routes, reduced empty return hauls, and provided simplified rate structures.


In arguing against deregulation, the American Trucking Associations predicted that service would decline and that small communities would find it harder to get any service at all under the new regime. In fact, service to small communities has improved and complaints by shippers have declined. The ICC has reported that in 1975 and 1976 it handled 340 and 390 complaints, respectively, against truckers; in 1980 it had to deal with only 23 cases, and just 40 in 1981. A 1982 ICC study of the effect of partial decontrol on small cities and remote parts of the country found that service quality had either been improved or remained unaffected by deregulation. Increased competition has bolstered the willingness of trucking firms to go off-route to pick up or deliver freight.


Deregulation has also made it easier for nonunion workers to get jobs in the trucking industry. This new competition has sharply eroded the strength of the drivers’ union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Before deregulation ICC-regulated truckers paid unionized workers about 50 percent more than comparable workers in other industries. Although unionized drivers still are paid a premium, by 1985 unionized workers were only 28 percent of the trucking work force, down from around 60 percent in the late seventies.


The number of new firms has increased dramatically. By 1990 the total number of licensed carriers exceeded forty thousand, considerably more than double the number authorized in 1980. The ICC had also awarded nationwide authority to about five thousand freight carriers. The value of operating rights granted by the ICC, once worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when such authority was almost impossible to secure from the commission, has plummeted to close to zero now that operating rights are easy to obtain.


Intermodal carriage has surged sharply since 1980: from 1981 to 1986, it grew 70 percent. The ability of railroads and truckers to develop an extensive trailer-on-flatcar network is a direct result of the MCA and the Staggers Act (1980), which partially freed the railroads.


The motor carrier industry has made little use of the rate zone provision and instead has opted for independent filings, which have increased sharply. These independent filings have increased price competition. Such filings by definition are not agreed on through rate bureaus. Truckers have been able to slash rates mainly by improving efficiency—reducing empty backhauls, eliminating circuities, pricing flexibly, and reducing by about 10 percent the proportion of employees who are drivers and helpers. At the same time, it has cut the pay of such employees by over 10 percent relative to wages of workers in the economy generally. In other words, although wages of drivers and helpers are still considerably higher than wages of comparable workers in other industries, the differential has shrunk.




One of the economy’s major gains from trucking deregulation has been the substantial drop in the cost of holding and maintaining inventories. Because truckers are better able to offer on-time delivery service and more flexible service, manufacturers can order components just in time to be used and retailers can have them just in time to be sold. As a result inventories are leaner. Without the partial deregulation that resulted from the 1980 act, these changes would not have been possible. In 1981, inventories amounted to 14 percent of GNP; one study found that because of improved transportation services traceable to the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 and the Staggers Act, the total fell to 10.8 percent by 1987, for a saving of about $62 billion. A more conservative estimate by the Department of Transportation is that the gain to U.S. industry in shipping, merchandising, and inventories is between $38 and $56 billion per year.


Current Issues


Federal law still requires new carriers to apply for certificates of public convenience and necessity. All tariffs must be filed with the commission. Most states continue to enforce strict entry and price controls on intrastate carriers. These controls cause inefficiency. One result is that in some cases, shipping products from overseas is cheaper than shipping the same goods within the United States. Shipping blue jeans from El Paso, Texas, to Dallas, for example, costs about 40 percent more than shipping the identical jeans from Taiwan to Dallas.


The continuing obligation to file tariffs results in higher costs. Rates for shipping dog food, which are regulated, are 10 to 35 percent higher than the unregulated rates for other animal foods. Chicken, turkey, and fish TV dinners can be carried free of regulation, but a frozen dinner with a hamburger patty instead of a chicken leg requires trucking rates that are 20 to 25 percent higher. When the commission ruled that used beer bottles and kegs were exempt under the “used, empty shipping containers” provision, costs to haul the empties dropped 20 to 30 percent.


Even if the filing of tariffs did not lead to higher charges, the requirement adds to paperwork and confusion. For example, rates must be published for peanuts “roasted and salted in the shell,” but a trucker carrying peanuts “shelled, salted, not roasted or otherwise” is exempt from any need to file. Truckers must submit tariffs for carrying show horses but not exhibit horses. Motor carriers must list their prices with the ICC to carry railroad ties cut lengthwise, but not if they are cut crosswise!


Current law also authorizes truckers to collude on tariff increases in rate bureaus. In any other industry such agreements would violate the antitrust laws. Although any single carrier can file separate rates, a rate bureau’s filing for higher tariffs leads to pressures on all carriers to boost their prices.


Trucking deregulation is unfinished. According to one study, abolishing all remaining federal controls would save shippers about $28 billion per year. A Department of Transportation study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School estimated that abolishing state regulation would save another $5 billion to $12 billion.


Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Between 1985 and 1989 he was a member of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.


Further Reading

Moore, Thomas Gale. “Rail and Truck Reform: The Record So Far.” Regulation (November/December 1988): 57-62.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. International Conference. Road Transport Deregulation: Experience, Evaluation, Research. November 1988.

U.S. Congress, House. Committee on Government Operations. Consumer Cost of Continued State Motor Carrier Regulation. House Report 101-813, 101st Congress, 2d sess., October 5, 1990.

U.S. Congress, House. Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Subcommittee of Surface Transportation. Hearings on Economic Regulation of the Motor Carrier Industry. 100th Congress, 2d sess., March 16, 1988.

U.S. Department of Transportation. Moving America: New Directions, New Opportunities. A Statement of National Transportation Policy; Strategies for Action. February 1990.



CEE February 4, 2018

Third World Economic Development


[Editor’s note: this article was written in 1992.]


The development experiences of Third World countries since the fifties have been staggeringly diverse—and hence very informative. Forty years ago the developing countries looked a lot more like each other than they do today. Take India and South Korea. By any standards, both countries were extremely poor: India’s income per capita was about $150 (in 1980 dollars) and South Korea’s was about $350. Life expectancy was about forty years and fifty years respectively. In both countries roughly 70 percent of the people worked on the land, and farming accounted for 40 percent of national income. The two countries were so far behind the industrial world that it seemed nearly inconceivable that either could ever attain reasonable standards of living, let alone catch up.


If anything, India had the edge. Its savings rate was 12 percent of GNP while Korea’s was only 8 percent. India had natural resources. Its size gave its industries a huge domestic market as a platform for growth. Its former colonial masters, the British, left behind railways and other infrastructure that were good by Third World standards. The country had a competent judiciary and civil service, manned by a highly educated elite. Korea lacked all that. In the fifties the U.S. government thought it so unlikely that Korea would achieve any increase in living standards at all that its policy was to provide “sustaining aid” to stop them falling even further.


Less than forty years later—a short time in economic history—South Korea’s extraordinary success is taken for granted. By the end of the eighties, its per capita income (in the same 1980 dollars) had risen to $2,900, an increase of nearly 6 percent a year sustained over more than three decades. None of today’s rich countries, not even Japan, saw such a rapid transformation in the deep structure of their economies. In contrast, India’s income per capita grew from $150 to $230, a rise of about 1.5 percent a year, between 1950 and 1980. India is widely regarded as a development failure. Yet over the past few decades even India has achieved more progress than today’s rich countries did over similar periods and at comparable stages in their development.


This shows, first, that the setbacks the developing countries encountered in the eighties—high interest rates, debt-servicing difficulties, falling export prices—were an aberration, and that the currently fashionable pessimism about their future is greatly overdone. The superachievers of East Asia (South Korea and its fellow “dragons,” Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) are by no means the only developing countries that are actually developing. Many others have also grown at historically unprecedented rates over the past few decades. As a group, the developing countries—134 of them, as conventionally defined, accounting for roughly three-quarters of the world’s population—have indeed been catching up with the developed countries.


The comparison between India and South Korea shows something else. It no longer makes sense to talk of the developing countries as a homogeneous group. The East Asian dragons now have more in common with the industrial economies than with the poorest economies in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, these subgroups of developing countries have become so distinct that one might think they have nothing to teach each other, that because South Korea is so different from India, its experience can hardly be relevant. That is a mistake. The diversity of experience among today’s poor and not-so-poor countries does not defeat the task of analyzing what works and what doesn’t. In fact, it is what makes the task possible.


Lessons of Experience


The hallmark of economic policy in most of the Third World since the fifties has been the rejection of orthodox free-market economics. The countries that failed most spectacularly (India, nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, much of Latin America, the Soviet Union and its satellites) were the ones that rejected the orthodoxy most fervently. Their governments claimed that for one reason or another, free-market economics would not work for them. In contrast, the four dragons and, more recently, countries such as Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, and Thailand have achieved growth ranging from good to remarkable by following policies based largely on market economics.


Among the most important ideas in orthodox economics is that countries prosper through trade. In the sixties and seventies the dragons participated in a boom in world trade. Because the dragons succeeded as exporters, they had abundant foreign exchange with which to buy investment goods from abroad. Unlike most other developing countries, the dragons had price systems that worked fairly well. So they invested in the right things, in ways that reflected their comparative advantage in cheap, unskilled labor.


Some economists still dismiss the dragons as special cases, but for reasons I find specious. They argue that Hong Kong and Singapore are small (hitherto smallness had been regarded as a disadvantage in development); that they are former colonies with traditions of excellence in public administration (like India and many others); that they have been generously provided with foreign capital (like Latin America). These economists also argue that Taiwan and South Korea received generous foreign aid (like many other developing countries), and have even argued that their lack of natural resources was an advantage. What was most unusual about these countries, in fact, was a relatively market-friendly approach to economic policy.


The countries that failed, often guided by “experts” in the industrialized world, are the ones that gave only a small role, if any, to private enterprise and to prices that are unregulated by government. Government planners concentrated on broad aggregates such as investment, consumption, and savings. Their priority was investment—the more, the better, regardless of its quality.


Most governments also thought that their economies were inflexible and could not adjust to changing conditions. The export earnings of developing countries were regarded as fixed, for instance, and so was the import requirement for any given level of domestic production. The possibilities for substituting one good for another in response to a change in price were denied or ignored. The idea that workers respond to changes in incentives was likewise dismissed. This assumed lack of responsiveness led the planners to believe that prices, rather than providing signals for the allocation of resources, could serve other purposes instead. For instance, with direct controls they could be kept low to reduce inflation, or raised here and there to gather revenue for the government.


Taken to the limit, this “fixed-price” approach leads to regulation by input-output analysis. The idea is to tabulate the flow of primary, intermediate, and finished goods throughout the economy, on the assumption that each good requires inputs of other specific goods in fixed proportions. When all the cells in the table have been filled in, a government needs only to decide what it wants the economy to produce in order to know exactly what the country needs to import, good by good.


India went in for this sort of planning in a big way. More than a few of today’s leading free-market economists have worked within India’s planning system or have studied it in detail, and intimate contact with it leads them to one inescapable conclusion: government planning of the economy does not work. Professor Deepak Lal of London University, a leading proponent of market economics for the Third World, mentions his experience with India’s planning commission in his book The Poverty of Development Economics. He calls the antimarket approach favored in so many countries the “dirigiste dogma.”


From Peru to Ghana


In the noncommunist world, the most striking recent example of this dogma at work is Peru. When Alan Garcia’s government came to power in the summer of 1985, Peru was already in a bad way, thanks largely to high tariffs and other import barriers, restrictive labor-protection laws, extensive credit rationing, high taxes, powerful trade unions, and an extraordinarily elaborate system of regulations to control the private sector. One result was Peru’s justly celebrated black market, or “informal economy,” described by Hernando de Soto in his modern classic, The Other Path. The other result was great vulnerability to adverse economic events. The early eighties delivered several, including a world recession, high interest rates, a drying up of external finance, and declining commodity prices.


Garcia’s policy was based, he said, on two words: control and spend. After imposing price controls, he sharply increased public spending. The program succeeded at first. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew 9.5 percent in 1986 and 7 percent in 1987. But by the spring of 1988 inflation was running at 1,000 percent a year; by the end of the year it was 6,000 percent. After that, output and living standards collapsed. In 1990, the economy a wreck, Garcia was voted out of office.


The dirigiste dogma has proved equally damaging in Africa. Take Ghana. When it became independent in 1957, it was the richest country in the region, with the best-educated population. It was the world’s leading exporter of cocoa; it produced 10 percent of the world’s gold; it had diamonds, bauxite, and manganese, and a flourishing trade in mahogany. Its income per capita was almost exactly equal to South Korea’s at $490 (in 1980 dollars). By the early eighties, however, Korea’s income per capita had risen fourfold, while Ghana’s had actually fallen nearly 20 percent to $400 per head. Investment slumped from 20 percent of GDP in the fifties to 2 percent by 1982, and exports dropped from more than 30 percent of GDP to 4 percent.


The country’s leader at independence, Kwame Nkrumah, was a spokesman for the newly independent Africa. He said the region needed to develop its own style of government, suited to its special circumstances. He spent vast sums on megaprojects. As economic troubles mounted, he nationalized companies and followed with capital repression. Under his regime capital flew abroad, and people with skills and money did the same. The kleptocrats (government officials who steal large amounts) ran the country into the ground. In the early eighties a new government came to power and at last began to steer the economy along orthodox lines. Until then, Ghana had been to Africa what Peru is to Latin America: a distillation of everything that has gone wrong with the continent’s economies.


In the Third World, where so many people live off the land, agricultural development is crucial. Ghana provides a startling case study in how to wreck the farm sector. The means was the agricultural marketing board—a statutory monopoly that bought farmers’ crops at controlled prices and resold them either at home or abroad. The prices paid to farmers were kept artificially low, on the assumption that farmers ignored price signals.


Between 1963 and 1979 the price of consumer goods went up by a factor of twenty-two in Ghana. The price of cocoa in neighboring countries went up by a factor of thirty-six. But the price paid by the cocoa marketing board to Ghana’s farmers went up just sixfold. In real terms, therefore, the returns to cocoa farmers vanished. The country’s supposedly price-insensitive farmers responded by switching to production of other crops for subsistence, and exports of cocoa collapsed. Peru and Ghana are extreme cases, but they show in the starkest way that prices do matter in the the Third World and that rejecting market economics carries extremely high costs.


The essential elements of a development strategy based on orthodox economics are macroeconomic stability, foreign trade, and strictly limited intervention in the economy. With policies under these three headings, governments can foster enterprise and entrepreneurship, the irreplaceable engines of capitalist growth.


The Macroeconomic Foundation


Experience shows that high and unstable inflation can harm growth. A noninflationary macroeconomic policy is, therefore, a prerequisite for rapid development. Control of government borrowing is the crucial element in such a policy. When public borrowing is excessive, governments are soon obliged to finance it by printing money, and rising inflation then follows. That is why the conventional approach to stabilization (a term that covers steps to reduce an unsustainable trade deficit as well as anti-inflation policies) usually advocates lower public spending and/or higher taxes. The International Monetary Fund has long made programs of this sort a precondition for financial assistance to countries in distress.


These so-called austerity programs have aroused two sorts of controversy. First, some economists question whether big changes in fiscal policy are really needed. In Latin America, for example, some governments sought “heterodox” policies to reduce inflation without the recession that the orthodox approach almost always brings on. The heterodox approach argues that in high-inflation countries, the budget deficit is caused mainly by inflation, not the other way round. The argument is twofold. First, because there is a lag between when people earn income and when they must pay taxes on it, high inflation reduces real tax revenues. Second, inflation increases the nominal interest rate (and hence the budgetary cost of servicing past government debt).


Hence the heterodox logic: reduce inflation with direct controls on prices and incomes and a currency reform, and the budget deficit will shrink of its own accord. This method has been tried repeatedly in Brazil and Argentina, where brief success has generally given way to a worse mess than at the outset, and in Israel, where the results were more encouraging. Israel shows that the heterodox can work—that falling inflation does cut public borrowing. What matters is whether the deficit that remains after the heterodox measures are in place is low enough to be noninflationary. In practice, the remaining deficit is almost always too high, and the program fails. Countering inflation almost always requires a dose of austerity.


The second controversy over austerity concerns the costs of this remedy. Many economists argue that orthodox programs put too much of the burden on the poorest parts of society. To cut their budget deficits, governments can either raise taxes or cut spending. Raising more revenue—even if that could be done without harming incentives—is hard because of weak tax administration. So stabilization nearly always involves cuts in public spending. If the cuts fall on food subsidies and welfare spending, goes this argument, they hurt the most vulnerable.


This argument sounds plausible, but in many countries it is wrong. A study by Guy Pfeffermann of the World Bank shows that the beneficiaries of social spending in the developing countries are not the poor. First, more public spending of any sort means more public employment. Bureaucracies in developing countries do not give many jobs to the landless rural poor, to small street traders, to unskilled manual workers, or to the urban unemployed. They recruit from the middle classes, who are, therefore, the first to benefit from public spending.


They often are the second and third to benefit as well. In some countries subsidies have amounted to more than 10 percent of GDP. These mainly go toward making electricity, gasoline, housing, and credit artificially cheaper for consumers. Quite apart from the massive microeconomic damage that these price distortions cause, such subsidies do not reach the poor. Many of the poor do not live in houses, which greatly reduces their need for electricity, and most do not own cars. (Gasoline subsidies alone in Ecuador and Venezuela have been equivalent to several percentage points of GDP.) Although some of the poor would benefit from credit, subsidized credit is not aimed at them and makes the unsubsidized kind harder to get and a lot more expensive. Spending on education is also, as a rule, heavily biased toward the middle classes. In some developing countries, spending per capita on university education exceeds spending per capita on primary education by a factor of thirty. Many of the poor lack access to even the most basic primary education, while the universities remain the publicly funded preserve of the middle class. And in most developing countries the coverage of heavily subsidized social security systems is strongly skewed against the poor. In Brazil in 1984, only 8 percent of workers in the poorest broad sector of the economy (farming) were covered by a social security system. Nearly 80 percent of workers in the most prosperous sector (transport and communications) were covered.


By and large, the scope for cutting public spending in developing countries without hurting the poor is more than enough for stabilization to succeed. In some cases (subsidized credit, for example) a reduction in public spending would actually help the poor directly, even before the broader benefits of macroeconomic stability began to flow back. Admittedly, this is not much help in political terms. It is easy to neglect the poor. That is precisely why this vast system of subsidies does not help them. But the middle classes can shout loudly when the economic distortions that help them are taken away. So the political barriers to getting economic policy right are formidable.


The Gains from Trade


For its World Development Report in 1987, the World Bank classified forty-one developing countries according to their openness to trade since the sixties. It classed economies as either inward looking (exports were discouraged) or outward looking (exports were not discouraged), with a further division according to the strength of any trade bias. The World Bank then plotted these groups against a variety of economic indicators.


Growth in income per capita was highest in the strongly outward-looking economies and lowest in the strongly inward-looking ones. The same was true for growth in total GDP and in value added in manufacturing, and for the standard measure of the efficiency of investment. On all these criteria the moderately outward-looking countries also outperformed inward-looking economies, although by a smaller margin. The failure of a strong inward orientation to promote domestic manufacturing—not just exports of manufactures—is particularly striking. The whole point of looking inward had been to industrialize faster.


The three strongly outward-oriented countries in the World Bank’s report were Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. Taiwan would have been the fourth if it had been included in the sample, and would have reinforced the message. The four dragons, however, have been more diverse in their policies than is usually assumed. Hong Kong’s outward orientation is due to unalloyed free trade. The other three have been interventionist to varying degrees, using export incentives to offset the export-discouraging effects of domestic protection.


South Korea, by some measures the most interventionist dragon, is often cited as proof that intelligent dirigiste, rather than a broadly outward-looking trade policy, is the key to rapid development. This judgment is often based on the false premise that Korea has protected its domestic producers as much as if not more than the inward lookers have protected theirs, with the difference that it has then piled on a lot of incentives for exporters. This is incorrect. In reality, South Korea has had a moderate and declining degree of domestic protection with just enough export promotion to achieve broad neutrality in trade incentives.


Korea’s growth surge began in the mid-sixties. Policy began to change in the late fifties. At that time Korea’s government placed quantitative restrictions on almost all imports, but the restrictions were looser than in many other developing countries. The government began to provide export incentives to offset its protection for producers of import substitutes. At first this failed to work, perhaps because the currency was overvalued, leaving too great a bias against exports. In the early sixties the government dismantled its multiple exchange-rate system, devalued the currency, and (because devaluation helped exporters) reduced its export subsidies. These liberalizing reforms were the turning point. Exports began to grow rapidly.


In 1967 the government reformed its import control system, greatly reducing the number of imports subject to quotas and began to reduce its tariffs. So as the miracle proceeded in the late sixties and seventies, the background was not just outward orientation (domestic protection offset by export promotion), but a low average level of domestic protection, with relatively little variation in the rates of protection from one sector to another. Toward the end of the seventies, when Korea did increase its support for heavy industry, the economy began to run into trouble. Policymakers acknowledged their mistake and moved back toward liberalization.


The clear consensus among mainstream economists is that outward-looking trade policies are one of the keys to development. But why? The answer from orthodox economics is that trade allows countries to exploit their comparative advantage. Trade enables a country to consume a mix of goods that is different from the mix it produces—with prices in world markets acting as the mediator between the two. Conventional theory proves that trade, as a result, makes both partners unambiguously better off. So long as import barriers and other policies do not drive domestic prices too far away from world prices, market forces are enough to push production and consumption in the right direction. But trade does more than bring about the right mix of products. It also eliminates the inefficiencies in production caused by protection.


Protection may make some domestic producers monopolists or near monopolists, thus introducing an inefficiency directly (because monopolists exploit their market strength by producing less and charging more) and indirectly (because, lacking competition, they have no incentive to keep costs low).


Two of the world’s top trade specialists, Professors Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University and Anne Krueger of Duke University, have emphasized yet another source of inefficiency pervasive in developing and industrial countries alike: “rent-seeking,” or more generally, “directly unproductive profit-seeking.” These spring from the efforts of business to exploit or evade the distortions caused by protection. For instance, import licensing may drive a wedge between the official price of an intermediate good and the price that a domestic producer is willing to pay.


This “rent” is a potential source of profit for somebody. Resources will be spent in trying to corner the market in licenses, or in bribing the bureaucrats who decide which firms will get them, or in lobbying governments to alter the pattern of protection in ways that favor the lobbyists. Worst of all, resources will be spent in trying to win an increase in the overall level of protection. A study of Turkey (see Grais et al.) found that the costs of rent-seeking in the late seventies were between 5 percent and 10 percent of GDP. Because the study made no allowance for the effect of protection on domestic monopoly power, this is an under-estimate of the cost. A study by Joel Bergsman, which did take monopoly effects into account, found that the annual costs of protection were 7 percent of GDP in Brazil, 3 percent in Mexico, 6 percent in Pakistan, and 4 percent in the Philippines. Such results speak for themselves. The evidence shows that trade works; orthodox theory shows why.


Where to Intervene


It is often argued that all the dragons (except Hong Kong) have had highly interventionist governments. Even on the assumption that these interventions, by luck or judgment, left the economies with outward-looking trade regimes, this poses a question. Might their success be due to nothing more profound than the fact that good intervention is better than bad? It is not the extent of intervention that matters, the argument goes, but the skill with which it is done.


It is true that these countries, especially South Korea, have had interventionist governments. This they have in common with almost all developing countries. The difference is not only that they pursued an outward-looking approach to trade (broad lesson number one), but also that this approach molded the forms of intervention they undertook in the domestic economy (broad lesson number two). The net effect (broad lesson number three) was to leave the price system largely intact as a signaling device for the private sector.


More generally, an outward-looking approach to trade does not require laissez-faire (though laissez-faire does require an outward-looking approach to trade). The state has a vital role in development. Paradoxically, however, most of the Third World’s highly interventionist governments neglect this role because they are too busy doing things they should not.


Government has several vital jobs to do and no spare resources to waste on other things. The cost of an effective legal system, for instance, is public money well spent. This means countries need rules that define property rights, contracts, liability, bankruptcy, and so on (which most developing countries already have). It also means enforcing those rules effectively (which fewer manage to do). Spending on physical and social infrastructure is essential, for there are good (orthodox) reasons to think that the private sector will provide too little. Numerous studies have shown that the economic returns to spending on primary education, especially for girls, are extremely high. Governments need to do more in such areas, not less, though none of these tasks requires the government to be a monopolist.


Governments have done too little in the areas where they can do some good because they have spread themselves too thin and been far too ambitious in areas where intervention is, at best, unnecessary. Instead of building roads, schools, and village health centers, Third World governments have built prestigious airports, universities, and big-city hospitals. Instead of letting businesses compete, they have created state-run industries and sheltered their extraordinary inefficiencies from foreign and domestic competition.


Advocates of state intervention often claim to be realists. Markets are not perfect, they say, so governments have to step in, especially in developing countries. They are right up to a point. The price system never works perfectly, least of all in developing countries. But it is important to be realistic about governments, too. The past forty years of development experience have shown that no resource is in scarcer supply than good government, and that nothing market forces could devise has done as much harm in the Third World as bad government.


Two Myths


A common argument is that many developing countries will be condemned to economic stagnation, regardless of the economic policies their governments pursue, by two factors beyond their control: their insupportable debts and their lack of home-grown entrepreneurs. Both ideas are wrong.


First, consider debt. The costs of the debt crisis of the eighties have indeed been great. At the margin, foreign capital matters a lot—not just in quantitative terms, but because of the foreign expertise that often comes with it. But the problem of debt, serious though it is, is by no means an insuperable obstacle to growth in the Third World. Even in good times, foreign capital has financed only a small part of the investment undertaken in developing countries. Debt needs to be kept in perspective.


In its World Development Report 1989, the World Bank compiled data on financial balances for a sample of fourteen developing countries (some now “highly indebted,” others not) for which sufficiently detailed data were available. The figures suggest that the biggest source of capital, by far, in these economies during the seventies and eighties was household saving. This was equivalent, on average, to 13 percent of GDP in the countries in the sample. Businesses saved 9 percent of GDP. The domestic supply of capital—the sum of household saving and business saving—was 22 percent of GDP, while the inflow of foreign capital was only 2 percent of GDP.


After the debt myth comes the myth of the missing (especially African) entrepreneur. The idea that the Third World lacks the spirit of enterprise is laughable. Peasant farmers who switch to another crop in response to a change in their government’s marketing arrangements are entrepreneurs. So are the unregistered taxi and minibus operators who keep most Third World cities moving. So are street vendors, perambulating water vendors, money changers, and informal credit brokers. So are the growers of illegal crops such as coca, who in many countries are denied the opportunity of making a decent living by legal means. So are the smugglers of just about anything that do such a roaring trade across Africa’s borders, profiting from the massive price distortions that government policies create.


Entrepreneurship admittedly is partly a matter of skills—in choice of technique, in management, in finance, in the ability to read the label on a bag of fertilizer. Skills have to be learned, and in many developing countries they are in short supply. But this supply is not fixed. The success of the green revolution in India and elsewhere shows that farmers are willing to learn new skills when they can see an advantage in doing so. (The green revolution involved the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties that required different methods and more sophisticated inputs such as fertilizer and an assured water supply.)


To see what entrepreneurship in the Third World can achieve, consider the flowering of the garment export business in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. This started with a collaboration between Noorul Quader, a bureaucrat-turned-entrepreneur, and the Daewoo Company of South Korea. Quader’s new company, Desh, agreed to buy sewing machines from Daewoo and send workers to be trained in South Korea. Once Desh’s factory started up, Daewoo would advise on production and handle the marketing in return for royalties of 8 percent of sales. Daewoo did not lend to Desh or take any stake in the business. But it showed Desh how to design a bonded warehouse system, which the government agreed to authorize. This was crucial. In effect, it made garment exporting a special economic zone—an island of free trade within a highly protected economy.


At the end of 1979, Desh’s 130 trainees returned from South Korea with three Daewoo engineers to install the machines. Garment production began in April 1980 with 450 machines and 500 workers. In 1980 the company produced 43,000 shirts with a value of $56,000. By 1987 sales had risen to 2.3 million shirts and a value of $5.3 million—a growth rate of 92 percent a year.


Desh did so well that it canceled its collaboration agreement with Daewoo in June 1981, just eighteen months after the startup. It began to do its own marketing and bought its raw materials from other suppliers. It achieved most of its success on its own. Also, the company has suffered heavy defections of its Daewoo-trained staff. Of the initial batch of 130 who visited South Korea in 1980, 115 had left the company by 1987—to start their own garment-exporting businesses. From nothing in 1979, Bangladesh had seven hundred garment-export factories by 1985. They belonged to Desh, to Desh’s graduates, or to others following their example.


There is no lack of entrepreneurship in the Third World. To release this huge potential, governments first need to do much less. Above all, they must stop trying to micromanage the process of industrialization, whether through trade policy, industrial licensing, or direct control of state-owned enterprises. But they also need to do more. They must strive to keep public borrowing and inflation in check, while investing adequately in physical and nonphysical infrastructure.


In the early nineties, spurred by the collapse of the socialist model in Eastern Europe, a growing number of developing countries are trying to reorder their economic priorities in this way. If they persevere, the coming decades will be a time of unprecedented advance in the developing world.


Clive Crook is the deputy editor of The Economist.


Further Reading

Bergsman, Joel. “Commercial Policy, Allocative Efficiency and X-efficiency.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 88, no. 3 (August 1974): 409-33.

Crook, Clive. “The Third World.” The Economist, September 23, 1989.

Grais, W., et al. “A General Equilibrium Estimation of the Reduction of Tariffs and Quantitative Restrictions in Turkey in 1978.” In General Equilibrium and Trade Policy Modelling, edited by T. N. Srinivasan and J. Whalley. 1984.

Lal, Deepak. The Poverty of Development Economics. 1985.

Pfeffermann, Guy. “Public Expenditure in Latin America: Effects on Poverty.” World Bank discussion paper no. 5.

Soto, Hernando de. The Other Path. 1989.

World Bank. World Development Report 1987. 1987.

World Bank. World Development Report 1989. 1989.



CEE February 4, 2018

Research and Development


Research and development (R&D) is the creation of knowledge to be used in products or processes. Table 1 gives a summary overview of postwar U.S. R&D activity performed in industry. The first column gives privately financed R&D (PR&D) conducted in industry in billions of 1982 dollars. The second column gives the ratio of PR&D to investment in plant and equipment (P&E). The third column gives the share of federally financed R&D (GR&D) as a fraction of the total R&D in industry. State government and private nonprofit financing of basic scientific research that is part and parcel of teaching in colleges and university is not considered R&D. The only financing of research at universities and colleges that is considered R&D is R&D contracts to those institutions. Total university and college R&D in the sixties was 10 percent of the total R&D conducted in industry; in the eighties it was 13 percent.




| |

U.S. R&D, Decade Averages

| | Decade | Private
(billions of 1982 $)
| PR&D/P&E | Share Government R&D | |

| | 1950 | 8.84 | 0.06 | 0.49 | | 1960 | 18.95 | 0.09 | 0.54 | | 1970 | 27.29 | 0.09 | 0.37 | | 1980 | 47.00 | 0.11 | 0.32 | |



Two facts stand out in table 1. First, investment that takes the form of R&D is growing relative to investment in P&E. Investment in P&E is recognized as investment by the official economic measurements; investment in R&D is not so recognized. Second, the role of government R&D is falling in relative terms.


There are several important issues in the economic analysis of R&D:


  1. Is private R&D productive?


  1. Is government R&D productive?


  1. Is special government treatment for private producers of R&D justified?


  1. Why is some government R&D so successful, while other government R&D fails?


  1. Who benefits from U.S. R&D?


Is Private R&D Productive?


Beginning in the sixties, economists performed empirical tests confirming that investment in private R&D yields a positive return. This finding holds up for studies of R&D in general and in particular industries. Recent findings by Lichtenberg and Siegel reported an estimated rate of return of 35 percent for company-funded R&D. The older literature they surveyed reported an average rate of return of 29 percent. This is evidence of remarkable stability in the estimates of the rate of return to privately funded R&D. When Lichtenberg and Siegel decomposed R&D into basic and applied, they found that the rate of return to basic R&D was 134 percent, compared to the two older findings of 178 percent and 231 percent. When the rate of return, even after falling, is still in triple digits, one suspects underinvestment.


Is Government R&D Productive?


Econometric research almost never finds government R&D productive. Yet technical economists have long known about the remarkably high rate of return to agricultural GR&D. According to Robert Evenson, Paul Waggoner, and Vernon Ruttan, rates of return for government-financed agricultural R&D are consistently around 50 percent per annum. Ordinary people were able to see the efficacy of government-financed computers, electronics, and aviation in the Gulf War.


So why do broader studies find the opposite? One answer is as follows: Profit-maximizing companies use factors of production, whether they be labor, land, or R&D up to the point where their marginal value equals the marginal cost to the firm. But unlike wages paid to labor, the price that people pay to use government R&D is zero: one need only buy a technical journal to learn R&D results that cost millions to produce. Because companies pay zero for government R&D results, they use them up to the point where the marginal value equals zero. Economists looking for a positive marginal value of government R&D, therefore to find it. But all this means is that companies are using it a lot and that, while the marginal value of government R&D is zero, its total value is high.


There is a lively debate about whether government R&D enhances the supply of private R&D. The majority of economists, perhaps, hold that it does. Why would it? Because increasing the supply of one factor of production generally increases the marginal product of other factors. (More land, for example, makes a farm laborer more productive.) Similarly, more government R&D is likely to make private R&D more productive.


Is R&D Worthy of Special Treatment?


Knowledge epitomizes a public good. If someone produces knowledge, someone else can use it without paying for it. Therefore, the person who produced it will not be able to collect the full value of the knowledge produced. For this reason an unregulated, unsubsidized free market is likely to underproduce knowledge. As a result, most economists favor the creation of temporary monopolies through a patent system, such as the one provided for in the U.S. Constitution. With the prospect of a patent as a reward for innovation, people have more of an incentive to produce knowledge.


Need the government do more? Since some new knowledge is not patentable, perhaps special treatment is justified to encourage the provision of knowledge. The most dramatic case for special treatment is based on a famous argument made by Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter maintained that a monopoly—because it is able to garner more of the benefits to the industry from R&D (because a monopoly is the industry)—will have an incentive to invest more heavily in R&D than would a competitive industry. In economic jargon a monopoly can internalize more of the R&D benefits than a competitive industry can. Although Schumpeter himself did not argue for special treatment of R&D on this basis, the argument could be made. This consideration did not save the Bell system from breakup.


A much more modest argument—to give R&D tax credits—has been politically successful. But it is hard to tell whether the tax credit has been economically successful—that is, whether it has spurred private investment in R&D. One reason for not knowing the effect on R&D is that companies can get the tax credit simply by relabeling non-R&D expenditures as R&D. Nonetheless, the remarkably high rates of return to R&D that a wide range of studies report strongly suggests that there is underinvestment in R&D. Unfortunately, these studies do not allow one to suggest how to stimulate more R&D.


Why the Range of Government Experience?


If the experience with government R&D were uniformly wonderful or uniformly disastrous, students of R&D could offer easy guidance. However, the experience has been mixed. As mentioned, agricultural R&D and defense R&D in computers, electronics, and aviation have been remarkable successes. Balancing the accounts, one need only mention the supersonic transport, which was financed by British and French taxpayers, and the synfuels project, financed by U.S. taxpayers. The costs for each of these projects exceeded the benefits by billions of dollars. Yet making a list of winners and losers is somewhat beside the point when one of the winners, the computer, has changed the world.


This list of failures raises a question: if the government can pick winners in defense, why not elsewhere? It is important to note that in aircraft and electronic R&D, the Defense Department was the major customer for many years. This is in the context of a political decision not to match the buildup of the late Warsaw Pact man for man and tank for tank. Rather, the Defense Department was charged with matching the Warsaw Pact with higher-quality equipment. The competing branches of the U.S. armed services could be held politically accountable for their performance. The resulting incentives seem to have made the Defense Department very sensitive to how infant technologies could be developed to serve its clearly delineated mandate. Similarly, agricultural R&D has long enjoyed a politically symbiotic relationship with agricultural interest groups. When government agencies have incentives to be competent, they are competent.


But who monitors R&D done only for the “public good”? The usual answer is no one. Simple public choice theory suggests that government responds to incentives. When the performance of government agencies is monitored carefully, one expects very different results than when no one in particular is supposed to benefit from the R&D expenditures. Thus, there is no reason to believe that the success rate of defense and agricultural R&D could be replicated in other areas.


Who Benefits from U.S. R&D?


One difference between stocks of knowledge and stocks of physical capital is that stocks of knowledge can be shared. If I build a machine, it cannot produce for you unless it stops producing for me. If I learn something, this knowledge can produce for you and for me at the same time. If this is so, then the rest of the world should be a major beneficiary of U.S. R&D. Other countries can rent the knowledge, or even get it for free, without having to create it themselves. This suggests that a program of high-tech economic nationalism is automatically self-defeating. One can, with difficulty, block the export of a machine. But the export of knowledge is much harder to impede.


David M. Levy is an economics professor at George Mason University.


Further Reading

Evenson, Robert E., Paul E. Waggoner, and Vernon W. Ruttan. “Economic Benefits from Research: An Example from Agriculture.” Science 205 (1979): 1101-7.

Flamm, Kenneth. Targeting the Computer. 1987.

Levy, David M. “Estimating the Impact of Government R&D.” Economics Letters 32 (1990): 169-72.

Levy, David M. “Public Capital and International Labor Productivity.” Economics Letters 39 (1992): 365-68.

Lichtenberg, Frank R., and Donald Siegel. “The Impact of R&D Investment in Productivity.” Economic Inquiry 29 (1991): 203-29.

Nelson, Richard R., ed. Government and Technical Progress. 1982.



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Econlib November 5, 2018

Democracy and Its Discontents


Democracy today receives the general assent of humanity, yet it also suffers from infirmities that make others doubt its very survival. Is democracy mainly the political expression of the principle of individual sovereignty? Or is it rather characterised by the levelling of the rights and condition of the citizens? Or must it be understood as the expression of communal and national feelings?

As regards the procedural side of political arrangements, constitutions are increasingly seen as expressions of class struggle to be set aside as soon as a new popular coalition attains power. Representative democracy, whereby citizens delegate political decisions to deputies, senators, or presidents, is considered elitist. Referenda, which should help the people make their voice heard on questions of great import, often turn into plebiscites and become instruments of confrontation or even oppression. The separation of powers, devised as a barrier to stop precipitous decisions to satisfy short term opinion, is continually side-stepped by demagogues greedy for power.

If we look at the material rather than the formal content of politics, the picture is also dismal. The welfare state, adopted by so many nations after World War II, is a dream that can easily turn into a nightmare. The belief that the state should protect individuals ‘from cradle to grave’, if taken seriously, results in infringements of individual liberty. Art and science must be protected and financed by the state. Education should be principally delivered by the public administration. Health services should be universal and free at the point of service. The ‘precautionary principle’, especially as applied in the European Union, justifies growing regulation. In sum, democracies must try to foster the happiness and well-being of the population by any means at hand or at whatever cost.

My thesis is that the only way to save democracy from the contradictions that cause so much discontent is to take individual liberty as the basic principle and re-interpret the other two elements as subordinate to the principle of individuality.

The individual and democracy

Logically speaking, democracy is a corollary of individual sovereignty. Individualists who see individual freedom as the basis of a well-ordered society will be naturally led to defend the participation of citizens in public affairs. They will want their voice to be heard and their vote to count in communal questions that affect them.

However, classical liberals face two kinds of problems in the practice of democracy. One is that political decisions always have an element of imposition that can lead to the oppression of minorities. The other is that the complexity of political mechanisms allows small groups to exploit the democratic system to their own benefit.

The step from individual private action to collective democratic decision is not an easy one. How different it is to take decisions in the private sphere from decisions in the public field was well expressed by Milton and Rose Friedman in their book Free to Choose (1980)

The ballot box produces conformity without unanimity; the marketplace, unanimity without conformity. That is why it is so desirable to use the vote in as far as possible only for decisions where conformity is essential.

For more on these topics, “Ronald Coase, the Unexpected Economist”, by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, Oct. 7, 2013 and Externalities, by Bryan Caplan in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. See also “Lessons and Challenges in The Limits of Liberty, by Pierre Lemieux, Library of Economics and Liberty, Nov. 5, 2018.

Market choices and private contracts are fundamentally different from authoritative decisions and communal agreements. In family life, in personal friendships, and in the marketplace a special kind of unanimity reigns, unanimity ‘nemine discrepante‘, when two agree and the rest abstain. This is to say, in the private field, when two persons or two firms reach a free agreement to their mutual benefit, the rest of society abstains.1 Economists since John Stuart Mill and Arthur Pigou have over-insisted on the idea that all private agreements have ‘externalities’ that must be corrected. One should follow Ronald Coase instead in saying that so-called ‘market defects’ are optimal adaptations by individuals to defects of politics and institutions. As James Buchanan has remarked, the concept of externalities assumes that some authority outside those implied in an agreement can define what the optimal outcome should be. Rather, if those implied find defects in the result they will question the institutional framework in which they function.2

“The essence of politics is that the majority imposes its will on the minority in pursuance of a social objective.”

The essence of politics is that the majority imposes its will on the minority in pursuance of a social objective. Classical liberal constitutions must therefore agree to entrench the respect of human rights, the defence of private property, and the performance of contracts. However, there is always a remnant of questions that demand to be agreed upon by a majority, at least in matters of justice and defence and the taxation needed to finance them. Here is the origin of the defects of public action and of the danger that majority decisions result in the oppression or exploitation of minorities, and even in a populist tyranny.

Saving democracy from itself

What is to be done? We could try to change our electoral laws. Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress, for example, could be subject to term limits. Frequent referenda could be tried, along Swiss lines. And while we are at it, we could also decentralise power radically as among the cantons of Switzerland. Or rewrite our constitutions to move them away from the catalogues of rights without duties they have become. And reinforce the checks and balances on executive power that used to be their essence.

I am afraid I must express scepticism regarding these reforms. All electoral laws in their diversity are imperfect and changes satisfy few people. Referenda have been a force for good in Switzerland, a bearable process in Canada, and rather unsuccessful in California. Devolution is positive when not transformed into metaphysical nationalism. Even a Constitution like that of the United States, which appears as an immoveable bulwark of liberty, has changed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, by the Supreme Court following the moods of public opinion. Thus, I find Buchanan’s belief in constitutional reform and constitutional limitations perhaps a little naïve.

Three forces for freedom

Democracy plods on thanks to three powerful antitoxins. First, there seem to be automatic political stabilisers at work in the system. I find it striking that the size of the state in even the most interventionist countries is pulled back to an average of 40 or 50 percent of GDP when voters find that going beyond that seriously endangers growth. While still a large proportion of our yearly production, we must be thankful for small mercies: in the long run, competition between democracies with regard to personal freedom, economic progress, and scientific prowess strikes a chord with many voters. When it becomes evident that ‘liberal’ or ‘social democratic’ policies have become an obstacle to prosperity, there frequently arise movements in favour of free market policies. Such reactions against the drift towards the ‘dormant society’ of socialism took place in Britain with Margaret Thatcher, in the United States with Ronald Reagan, in New Zealand with economics ministers Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, in Poland thanks to Leszek Balcerowicz, and in Sweden under Carl Bildt. But for a person of democratic convictions and free market beliefs there are another two more powerful reasons for hope: international trade and technological discoveries.

See “The Bother with Brexit”, by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, Aug. 6, 2018.

The first is free trade. In a large country such as the United States or a sizeable area such as the European Union, international trade and migration will, despite the regulators, always be a force for competition. This is even truer of small countries whose size forces them necessarily to be open to the world. In both cases, international trade will be a potent antitoxin against coalitions of rent seekers. It is only in middle sized economies with a national market large enough for established firms to prosper that interest groups with political clout will be able to hold their ground against international competition. Anti-trust will be used as a fig leaf to cover their privy parts against prying eyes. In the same way, these protectionist countries will use international aid to cover up the harm caused to developing countries by their import restrictions. This is one of the reasons why people who defend a ‘hard Brexit’ would like to see Britain leave the European Union with no more ado and open its commercial borders unilaterally to all comers.

The second reason for hope is the immense development of the digital world. The new communication technologies, big data in the cloud, the growing abundance of open information, internet manufacturing, 3D printing, and so on, seem unstoppable. The balance of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction will be positive, despite the efforts of state authorities to control the internet and the people who use it.

Democracy can be learnt

I do not want to sound too pessimistic because it is an observable fact that democracy at higher stages of civilisation is less imperfect than in countries that are just beginning to learn the strange ceremonies of free speech, independent courts, private property, and respect for the dignity of individuals. I unashamedly hold it that it is better, as Karl Popper used to say, to be able to change your government without bloodshed: it is quite an advance in political mores to send your adversaries to the opposition benches rather than to shoot them at dawn, or condemn them to life imprisonment after a spate of torture. Voting is in itself a curious procedure that we have agreed to put in place of the more natural ideology expressed by the dictum that power comes out of the mouth of a gun.

For all its faults, democracy is better than other political arrangements. I would rather live in one of those rickety western commonwealths than in China or Russia, let alone Cuba. It takes a long time and much forbearance to acquire the habits of tolerance and of distaste for oppression, even of one’s political enemies. But these habits can be learnt. Experience and criticism can help countries avoid the worst blemishes of popular governance.

A precondition for the three forces I mentioned to succeed in purging democracy of its worst habits is never to cease in the effort of discovering of new ideas for progress and new arguments for liberty.


[1] A business deal such as the sale of a house results in the mutual benefit of the parties concerned, which in principle does not affect the rest of society. This is not to deny that such a contract has consequences for third parties, in so far as it (even if minimally) influences real estate prices. But it is a rule to be abided to, that the pecuniary effect of transactions should not be interfered with, because the information gathered in prices is necessary for the correct and rational behaviour of individuals.

[2] See James Buchanan (1984): “Rights, Efficiency, and Exchange: The Irrelevance of Transaction Cost.”

*This is a revised version of the paper I presented at the September/October Mont Pelerin Society General Meeting at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Pedro Schwartz is “Rafael del Pino” Research Professor of economics at Universidad Camilo José in Madrid. A member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Madrid, he is a frequent contributor to the European media on the current financial and social scene. He was a past President of the Mont Pelerin Society.

For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.


Econlib November 5, 2018

William Nordhaus versus the United Nations on Climate Change Economics


William Nordhaus was a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering work on the economics of climate change. On the day of the Nobel announcement, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) released a special report1 advising the governments of the world on various steps necessary to limit cumulative global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The major media coverage treated the two events as complementary.2 In fact, they are incompatible. Although Nordhaus favors a carbon tax to slow climate change, his own model shows that the UN’s target would make humanity poorer than doing nothing at all about climate change.

Econlib November 5, 2018

Re-Imagining the Economist’s Role in Policy

… if it is to be a contractarian recommendation, it must be addressed to the individuals whom it will affect. —Robert Sugden, The Community of Advantage

In his new book, economist Robert Sugden challenges the philosophical underpinnings of conventional economic policy analysis. He takes particular aim at the use of behavioral economics to justify paternalistic intervention, as advocated by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (co-authors of _Nudge), among others.

When writing an article for a professional journal, an economist often will include a section on “policy implications.” This falls within a tradition in neoclassical economics of trying to find policies that improve social welfare. Paul Samuelson and Abram Bergson went so far as to propose that economists think in terms of maximizing a social welfare function, meaning that we would aggregate the utility of all citizens and solve for the optimum. Although the project of calculating aggregate utility was found to be problematic, “welfare economics” still operates as if a social welfare function exists.

Econlib November 5, 2018

Lessons and Challenges in The Limits of Liberty


James Buchanan is not easy to categorize. Is he a libertarian? A classical liberal? A conservative? Or perhaps even a “liberal” in the modern American sense of “progressive” or “social democrat”? Is he an economist or a philosopher? It is paradoxical but not totally wrong to answer “all of the above,” so complex and rich is his contractarian theory of the state. His 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, has become a classic exposition of individualist contractarianism.

Buchanan was awarded the 1986 Nobel prize in economics for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited The Limits of Liberty as one of the two books in which he presents his “visionary approach.”

Buchanan repeatedly states he does not want to impose his own values, except for individualism as the starting point of his analysis. A “good society” cannot be “defined independently of the choices of its members, all members” (emphasis by Buchanan). “My approach,” he writes at the beginning of the book, “is profoundly individualistic, in an ontological-methodological sense” (emphasis in original); “[e]ach man counts for one, and that is that.” It follows that individual liberty is a value and that the social system should be based on unanimous consent. Any limit to liberty must thus be consented to by each and every individual.

Econlib October 1, 2018

Predictable Irrationality and the Crisis of 2008


A decade after the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, economists are still grappling with its nature and significance. An important recent contribution is A Crisis of Beliefs, by Nicola Gennaioli and Andrei Shleifer (henceforth GS).1 They tell the story this way (page 7):

Homebuyers were unrealistically optimistic about future home price growth. Investors in mortgages and in securities backed by these mortgages, including financial institutions, considered the possibility that home prices might fall but did not fully appreciate how much and what havoc those declines would wreak. And macroeconomic forecasters from both the private sector and the Federal Reserve did not, in forming their expectations, recognize the risks facing the U.S. financial sector and the economy as late as the summer of 2008… they did not fully appreciate tail risks until the Lehman collapse [the investment bank went bankrupt in September of 2008] laid them bare.

Econlib October 1, 2018

A Cure for Our Health Care Ills: The Supply Side


In our previous article, “A Cure for Our Health Care Ills,”1 we debunked some persistent myths and discussed some key regulatory, spending, and insurance changes on the demand side that would make health care more affordable while not cutting, and possibly increasing, quality. But the demand side is only half the story. Important reforms on the supply side would also make health care cheaper and more accessible. All of them involve some form of deregulation.

We often hear that governments in the United States should regulate health care more because free markets have made it more expensive than in other countries. It’s true that medical care in the United States is usually more expensive than in other countries, even after accounting for differences in wealth. But the cause is not the free market. For more than half a century, there hasn’t been a free market in health care because governments at both the federal and state levels have heavily regulated doctors, hospitals, and drugs. We propose abolishing virtually all of this regulation so that doctors’ and hospitals’ services and drugs would be more plentiful and cheaper.

Econlib October 1, 2018

Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism: A Still Timely Case Against Marx


Revisiting classic texts in economics normally needs no justification beyond the benefits that come from looking at old ideas through new eyes. As we learn and grow as readers, we see new things, are more skeptical of old things, and make connections that we never did before. Some of my favorite books in my collection are those with layers of marginal notes from the multiple passes I’ve made through the book. Socialism by Ludwig von Mises is an excellent example of a book for which multiple reads have been greatly beneficial. However, there’s one more reason why it’s an opportune time to take another look at Socialism. As it approaches its hundredth anniversary in 2022, it has fresh relevance in a world where socialism is making something of a comeback among young progressives.

The sheer length and breadth of Socialism makes it challenging to cover in a format like this, so one must pick and choose. In what follows, I will emphasize three areas the book covers. I will spend the most time on the economics of socialism and what the book has to say about the contemporary debate over the viability of various forms of socialism. But I also want to talk about two of the lesser known pieces of the book. One of those is the chapter on love and the family, where Mises was quite a bit ahead of his time in his analysis of the ways in which capitalism and liberalism had transformed marriage and the family. The other is the section on “social evolution,” in which he offers an alternative to the Marxian reading of history.

Econlib September 3, 2018

The Tyranny of the National Interest


Statements such as “public policy X is (or is not) in the national interest” are omnipresent. For example, Peter Navarro and Greg Autry claim that “some American CEOs” are acting against “our national interest.”1 In reality, the concept of national interest is, at best, meaningless.

At worst, the concept of national interest is a tool of tyranny because it justifies imposing the preferences of some individuals on others. Under the excuse of the national interest, protectionist wars and even real wars have been waged, and minorities allegedly not national enough have been oppressed. The national interest is used against both foreigners and fellow citizens.

The Public Interest

The national interest is simply the public interest where the public is the nation. So consider the more general concept of public interest. Economists have shown that in a society composed of individuals with different preferences, the public interest does not exist. In technical terms, if the preferences of all individuals are to count equally, a coherent “social welfare function” does not exist. As I previously showed,2 the political “we,” which is the subject of the public interest, is meaningless.

Econlib September 3, 2018

The Prophet of Google’s Doom


I believe the Google system of the world will fail, indeed be swept away in our time (and I am seventy-eight!). It will fail because its every major premise will fail. —George Gilder, Life After Google

Since the earliest days of the personal computer, George Gilder has been following the advice of one of his favorite computer scientists, Carver Mead, whose catch-phrase was, “Listen to the technology.” In his most recent book, what Gilder hopes he hears is the death knell of Google, which Gilder believes would herald greater freedom and economic growth.

Gilder believes that:

• Google’s idea of intelligence is too data-centric. Statistical analysis can only make rote predictions based on patterns found in the past. It cannot achieve creativity and surprise;
• Google’s technical architecture is too centralized. Soon, it will run out of computing power and bandwidth to be able to maintain its coverage of the world of digital media;
• Google and other Internet businesses are too insecure. While users struggle to recall passwords and get past security gates, hackers are able to steal millions of data records from centralized warehouses;
• Google’s business model is too socialist. Giving its products to consumers for free while relying on advertising serves to insulate Google from the price signals that markets use to guide economic activity.

Econlib September 3, 2018

The Plight of the Central Banker


“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one” The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan

The Bank of England has decided to increase the interest rate at which she lends money to commercial banks from a very low 0.50 percent to 0.75. Not a breath-taking rise but still a change from the policy of keeping the base rate at 0.5 or below since March 2008. The federal funds rate of the United States has been rising very slowly since the middle of 2015 and now is at 1.19; the U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman has signified his intention to keep it going up. This indicates that the various central banks are beginning to see a danger of inflation, now that the money pumped into the economies since the 2007 crash is finally beginning to enter circulation.

The reasons for raising the basic interest rate only slowly are two; that such changes must be explained and announced, so that the public adapts to the new circumstance with as little pain as possible; and that interest rates must be brought back to a level that rewards saving and allows industries such as life insurance and pensions to keep their long term engagements.

We do not really know why the financial economy of the western world failed so dismally in the three years from 2007 to 2010. Or was it to 2014? It was such a deep and long downturn that we now know it as ‘The Great Recession’. Many economists had thought central bankers and state treasuries knew by now how to manage the ups and downs of the economic cycle. After this grave recession, those wise men are under a cloud.1 During a visit to the London School of Economics, the Queen of England asked an economics professor an embarrassing question: “Why didn’t anybody see it coming?” The professor—let him stay unnamed—was left desperately looking for an answer.

“It is a feature of our modern economies that they go through repeated bouts of boom and bust. What causes this phenomenon is under dispute….”

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