Power & Market
The Red Robin chain of 570 restaurants has decided to eliminate busboys due to rising labor costs. Its business is mostly in western states several of which have raised the local minimum wage rate. Previously they eliminated the job of "expediter" who prepared plates in the kitchen due to rising labor costs. Clearly the labor force is losing jobs due to the increases in the minimum wage. However, also notice that the cook and wait staff are going to take on new responsibilities in terms of preparing plates and cleaning tables. This means that customers are also losing in terms of time, quality of service, cleanliness, and the visual appeal of their meals.
Writes James Bovard in USA Today:
The Justice Department was caught in another high-profile travesty last month that continues to reverberate through the western states. On Dec. 20, federal judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial in the case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and others after prosecutors were caught withholding massive amounts of evidence undermining federal charges. This is the latest in a long series of federal law enforcement debacles that have spurred vast distrust of Washington.
Bundy, a 71-year old Nevadan rancher, and his sons and supporters were involved in an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) beginning in 2014 stemming from decades of unpaid cattle grazing fees and restrictions. The Bundys have long claimed the feds were on a vendetta against them, and 3,300 pages of documents the Justice Department wrongfully concealed from their lawyers provides smoking guns that buttress their case.
A whistleblowing memo by BLM chief investigator Larry Wooten charges that BLM chose "the most intrusive, oppressive, large scale and militaristic trespass cattle (seizure) possible'' against Bundy. He also cited a "widespread pattern of bad judgment, lack of discipline, incredible bias, unprofessionalism and misconduct, as well as likely policy, ethical and legal violations" by BLM officials in the case. BLM agents even "bragged about roughing up Dave Bundy, grinding his face into the ground and Dave Bundy having little bits of gravel stuck in his face'' while he was videotaping federal agents. Wooten also stated that anti-Mormon prejudice pervaded BLM's crackdown.
The feds charged the Bundys with conspiracy in large part because the ranchers summoned militia to defend them after they claimed that FBI snipers had surrounded their ranch. Justice Department lawyers scoffed at this claim in prior trials involving the standoff but newly-released documents confirm that snipers were in place prior to the Bundy’s call for help.
The feds also belatedly turned over multiple threat assessments which revealed that the Bundys were not violent or dangerous, including an FBI analysis that concluded that BLM was "trying to provoke a conflict" with the Bundys. As an analysis in the left-leaning Intercept observed, federal missteps in this case “fueled longstanding perceptions among the right-wing groups and militias that the federal government is an underhanded institution that will stop at nothing to crush the little guy and cover up its own misdeeds.”
According to multiple sources, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to revoke the Obama-era Cole Memo, which directed federal law enforcement to respect states' marijuana legalization laws. Once revoked, federal prosecutors in states where marijuana has been legalized will independently decide how to enforce federal marijuana policy in their states. This could create chaos in the fast-growing cannabis business which has been creating large numbers of jobs and burgeoning tax revenues for state and local governments.
It is unclear how Mr. Sessions thinks that such a move would benefit Sessions or help him carry out his job, other than repealing an Obama-era rule might get him back into the graces of President Trump.
The only other option is that Session is supposed to help address the Opioid Crisis. He thinks that cannabis has somehow contributed to the crisis ala the Gateway Theory of drugs, which assumes that cannabis smokers will turn into heroin addicts. The Gateway Theory has long been debunked for many reasons. In fact, cannabis and cannabis legalization has actually reduced the crisis somewhat. Cannabis is now being successfully used to treat opioid addiction. In states that have legalized cannabis, the number of opioid overdose deaths have actually decreased.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how people react to a new crackdown on cannabis in states that have successfully repealed federal law and enjoy very positive results.
As the Austrian School has pointed out, the ultimate source of human poverty and failure lies in poor logic.
Here is an example from Forbes Magazine and a leading hedge fund investor who is also a major charitable donor genuinely devoted to helping humanity and the planet.
The editor of Forbes, Randall Lane, quotes Paul Tudor Jones, as follows:
There is no bigger threat to our democracy than wealth disparity. It is a story normally reserved for monarchies, dictatorships and plutocracies….We got into this pickle because over the past 40 years the corporate focus on profits took on manic proportions relative to other stakeholders such as employees, communities and the planet.
There are several things wrong with this logic. In the first place, a focus on profits is not at odds with a focus on employees, customers, communities, or the planet. Profit, properly defined, is the net present value of all future profits, that is, what you should be able to realize by selling that profit stream today. To maximize profit, therefore, one must take a long term view and seek to provide exemplary service over many, many years to employees, customers, communities, and the planet. What Paul Tudor Jones is describing is not profit maximization, but rather short term profit taking, which will actually reduce the net present value of all future profits. As Henry Hazlitt pointed out in Economics in One Lesson, real capitalism focuses on the long run, not just the short run, and considers all consumers, not just some.
The problem of course is that we have never had the benefit of real capitalism. Thanks to the interventions of government into the economy, and especially into the pricing system, we get crony capitalism instead. This is bound to happen in a monarchy or dictatorship. But, contra Mr. Jones, it is no less likely to happen in an American style democracy, as American history has shown. So long as government influences, manipulates, or controls prices, powerful special interests will strive to use the power of government to gain monopolies or other advantages. There are, however, certain periods in which government ( and in particular central bank) policy puts crony capitalism on steroids, with a resultant sharp increase in economic inequality, and that is what we are seeing today.
In 2015, the federal government (namely, the FCC) implemented new monopolistic regulations which it called "net neutrality." In 2017, the FCC then repealed some of these regulations. In the weeks and months preceding the repeal, various billionaires and other leftists hysterically predicted that the end of net neutrality would usher in a dystopia in which only the super rich could access the internet.
What they were really opposing, of course, was a return to the internet's status quo of 2015. And we all know what a living nighmare that was!
In reality, of course, internet access has grown continually over the past two decades in the absence of net neutrality, and has now become commonplace. Like most technologies, public access to this "luxury" has only grown over time.
This is how markets work, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out:
Thirty-five years ago there were no automobiles; twenty years ago the possession of such a vehicle was the sign of a particularly luxurious mode of living; today in the United States even the worker has his Ford. This is the course of economic history. The luxury of today is the necessity of tomorrow. Every advance first comes into being as the luxury of a few rich people, only to become, after a time, the indispensable necessity taken for granted by everyone. Luxury consumption provides industry with the stimulus to discover and introduce new, things. It is one of the dynamic factors in our economy. To it we owe the progressive innovations by which the standard of living of all strata of the population has been gradually raised.
In a recent column for Forbes, John Tamny takes note of this reality, examining how the left's alarmism over net neutrality has no basis in the actual experience of the marketplace:
In 2006 Ford Motor Company discontinued its Ford Taurus. At the time Saturday Night Live’s comedy writers described the Taurus (this is a slight paraphrase) as “the car for people who’ve given up." Eventually Ford brought back the automobile associated with average. Interesting there is that a $31,000 2018 Taurus has 4-wheel ABS, dual front side mounted airbags, front and rear head airbags, dusk-sensing headlights, a blind spot warning accident avoidance system, rear parking sensors and a rear-backup camera (to avoid dings), and a heated steering wheel. Electric seats are a given.
Back in 2006, only the higher-end suites at the Four Seasons in Austin, TX (the city's most luxurious hotel) had flat-screen televisions. The regular rooms still had the box-shaped version. But by 2015 flat-screen tvs were standard not just in rooms at the Four Seasons, but also in most any Motel 6.
Air travel? Those rich enough to fly used to travel with flip flops, but only in their bags. They dressed up for what was a rare luxury. Nowadays people walk on to planes in flip flops, shorts, tank tops, and other garments associated with highly casual dress. Flying is what we all do now.
All of this is a reminder of what readers of this column know well: “luxury” is an ephemeral concept. Today’s obscure bauble of the superrich is tomorrow’s common good. In a growing economy prices are falling all the time. They are because investment is the driver of growth, and investment is all about producing more for less.
What's also crucial when it comes to falling prices is the “venture buyer.” And while the truth about “venture buyers” may cause the heads of the overly sensitive to explode, venture buyers are rich. Often wildly rich. So rich that they can spend enormous sums on goods and services that aren’t broadly used, or understood. These buyers are crucial to progress because they can uniquely test the products put on the market by entrepreneurs and businesses. If they prove useful, great. If they’re duds, the rich are out substantial sums. That’s ok. Figure that they’re superrich.
Still, the goods and services deemed worthy by venture buyers act as a signal to the entrepreneurs and businesses, and the signal is clear: the innovators capable of mass-producing what superrich venture buyers uniquely enjoy will similarly become superrich themselves. There. It’s been said. Great wealth, the kind of wealth that causes inequality to soar, is frequently a function of entrepreneurs democratizing access to the goods and services formerly enjoyed by the rich alone.
There is no reason whatsoever to believe that access to the internet is going to diminish in the absence of a 2-year-old regulation that has been recently repealed. Experience suggests exactly the opposite.
Based on how frequently the subject came up with friends and families during the holidays, I have a feeling that the topic of cryptocurrencies will not be going away in 2018.
One question I see frequently raised in online Austrian circles is how Bitcoin and other crypto fit with Mises's regression thereom, and so I wanted to share a great blog post by Bob Murphy in 2014 on this topic to help clarify the subject for any interested readers:
It was necessary for Mises to come up with his regression theorem–which traced the purchasing power of money back to the time at which it was valued as a mere commodity in direct barter–in order to ensure that his application of subjective value theory didn’t set up an infinite regress. Since Mises was ultimately explaining today’s purchasing power of money by reference to observations of its purchasing power yesterday, it seemed that he was merely pushing back the problem one step, but not really explaining the value of money in a logically complete way. Yet Mises pointed out that it was not an infinite regress; once we reached the historical point at which the money good was used in direct exchange, then standard price theory took over and the regress stopped.
So, what relevance does this have to Bitcoin? The short answer: none whatsoever. There is no question that people today have a way of estimating the purchasing power of Bitcoin; they can look up the spot price online. If we object that the current price is largely dependent on yesterday’s price, then we start back with the regress. And where do we stop? In early 2009 when the first Bitcoin transactions were negotiated, including a pizza that sold for 10,000 BTC.
If Austrian economists want to say, “But those people had no basis for saying whether that pizza should have been 100 BTC or 1 million BTC!!” OK fair enough. But they did decide, somehow; those initial transactions provided a frame of reference that guided subsequent transactions involving bitcoins. If you want to argue that this odd origin means that subjective value theory can’t be applied to Bitcoin, OK, then so much the worse for subjective value theory.
People right now are exchanging bitcoins against “real” goods and services, and the sellers intend to use at least some of the acquired bitcoins to obtain other “real” goods and services down the road. There is no question that Bitcoin is currently a medium of exchange, though I would not christen it a money yet.
Some people concede that Bitcoin could exist temporarily, but that it would by its very nature be in a bubble with a fundamental value of zero. OK, but by the same token then, the US dollar has been in the same situation for 43 years, and the only reason this is in peril is that the authorities have been printing more dollars with reckless abandon (something that can’t happen under Bitcoin). So when people say, “Bitcoin will never last as money,” are they conceding that yes it might be the world’s reserve currency for a half century?
In conclusion, Ludwig von Mises’ regression theorem has nothing to say about the empirical question of whether Bitcoin will move beyond a medium of exchange and become a true money. If you think that subjective value theory somehow “proves” that a digital currency can never get off the ground because nobody would have any experience with which to evaluate it, then you are simply wrong; it happened in 2009.
Paul Waldman tries to defend the US Postal Services in this Twitter rant, but all he does is show the need for better economics education. He lists a bunch of things the post office does and deems it a "fricking marvel." Well, nobody disputes that the post office does home pickup and delivery, charges prices independent of distance, and provides services in small towns and low-income areas. The economic question is whether the post office should do these things -- or, more precisely, whether the value (to consumers) of the goods and services produced exceeds the opportunity cost of the resources used to produce them. That, as the Austrian economists have emphasized more vigorously than any other thinkers and writers, can only be determined on the market, in a system of private property and free prices.
Waldman has made the common error, which I've written about often in the context of government-funded science and technology, of confusing economic value and technological or engineering value. The former relates to economic well-being, the latter to the technical aspect of doing X, Y, or Z. The fact that something is produced or performed does not tell us whether the production or performance is valuable. When government is paying the bills (not to mention owning the property and, often, outlawing competition), there is no way to know.
Inspired by the recent interest in the film Darkest Hour and Netflix's The Crown, our friend C Jay Engel at Austrolibertarian was inspired to share the late great Ralph Raico's thoughts on Winston Churchill.
From his essay Rethinking Churchill:
When, in a very few years, the pundits start to pontificate on the great question: “Who was the Man of the Century?” there is little doubt that they will reach virtually instant consensus. Inevitably, the answer will be: Winston Churchill. Indeed, Professor Harry Jaffa has already informed us that Churchill was not only the Man of the Twentieth Century, but the Man of Many Centuries.
In a way, Churchill as Man of the Century will be appropriate. This has been the century of the State — of the rise and hypertrophic growth of the welfare-warfare state — and Churchill was from first to last a Man of the State, of the welfare state and of the warfare state. War, of course, was his lifelong passion; and, as an admiring historian has written: “Among his other claims to fame, Winston Churchill ranks as one of the founders of the welfare state.” Thus, while Churchill never had a principle he did not in the end betray, this does not mean that there was no slant to his actions, no systematic bias. There was, and that bias was towards lowering the barriers to state power.
Yet, in truth, Churchill never cared a great deal about domestic affairs, even welfarism, except as a means of attaining and keeping office. What he loved was power, and the opportunities power provided to live a life of drama and struggle and endless war.
There is a way of looking at Winston Churchill that is very tempting: that he was a deeply flawed creature, who was summoned at a critical moment to do battle with a uniquely appalling evil, and whose very flaws contributed to a glorious victory — in a way, like Merlin, in C.S. Lewis’s great Christian novel, That Hideous Strength. Such a judgment would, I believe, be superficial. A candid examination of his career, I suggest, yields a different conclusion: that, when all is said and done, Winston Churchill was a Man of Blood and a politico without principle, whose apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history.