Economics Explained — Part IV: Loose Ends and Finishing Touches

This is the fourth installment of a long post. I may revise it as I post later parts. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference. In Parts I, II, and III I necessarily omitted many topics that might seem relevant to the principles of economics and their application in the real world. I address a few of those topics in this coda.

Macroeconomics

Macroeconomic aggregates (e.g., aggregate demandaggregate supply) are essentially meaningless because they represent disparate phenomena.

Consider Chuck and Debbie, who discover that, together, they can have more clothing and more food if each specializes: Chuck in the manufacture of clothing, Debbie in the farming and cultivation of foodstuffs. Through voluntary exchange and bargaining, they find a jointly satisfactory balance of production and consumption. Chuck makes enough clothing to cover himself adequately, to keep some clothing on hand for emergencies, and to trade the balance to Debbie for food. Debbie does likewise with food. Both balance their production and consumption decisions against other considerations (e.g., the desire for leisure).

Chuck and Debbie’s respective decisions and actions are microeconomic; the sum of their decisions, macroeconomic. The microeconomic picture might look like this:

  • Chuck produces 10 units of clothing a week, 5 of which he trades to Debbie for 5 units of food a week, 4 of which he uses each week, and 1 of which he saves for an emergency.
  • Debbie, like Chuck, uses 4 units of clothing each week and saves 1 for an emergency.
  • Debbie produces 10 units of food a week, 5 of which she trades to Chuck for 5 units of clothing a week, 4 of which she consumes each week, and 1 of which she saves for an emergency.
  • Chuck, like Debbie, consumes 4 units of food each week and saves 1 for an emergency.

Given the microeconomic picture, it is trivial to depict the macroeconomic situation:

  • Gross weekly output = 10 units of clothing and 10 units of food
  • Weekly consumption = 8 units of clothing and 8 units of food
  • Weekly saving = 2 units of clothing and 2 units of food

You will note that the macroeconomic metrics add no useful information; they merely summarize the salient facts of Chuck and Debbie’s economic lives — though not the essential facts of their lives, which include (but are far from limited to) the degree of satisfaction that Chuck and Debbie derive from their consumption of food and clothing.

The customary way of getting around the aggregation problem is to sum the dollar values of microeconomic activity. But this simply masks the aggregation problem by assuming that it’s possible to add the marginal valuations (i.e., prices) of disparate products and services being bought and sold at disparate moments in time by disparate individuals and firms for disparate purposes. One might as well add two bananas to two apples and call the result four bapples.

The essential problem, as discussed in the next section, is that Chuck and Debbie derive different kinds and amounts of enjoyment from clothing and food, and that those different kinds and amounts of enjoyment cannot be summed in any meaningful way. If meaningful aggregation is impossible for Chuck and Debbie, how can it be possible for an economy that consists of millions of economic actors and an untold variety of goods and services? And how is it possible when technological change yields results like this?

Buffalo (NY) journalist and historian Steve Cichon has an article on the Trending Buffalo website (“Everything from 1991 Radio Shack ad I now do with my phone“) featuring a full-page Radio Shack ad from the Buffalo News on February 16, 1991 (see graphic above). Of the 15 electronics products featured in the Radio Shack ad, 13 of them can now be replaced with a $200 iPhone according to Steve’s analysis. The 13 Radio Shack items in the ad (all-weather personal stereo, AM/FM clock radio, headphones, calculator, computer, camcorder, cell phone, regular phone, CD player, CB radio, scanner, phone answering machine, and cassette recorder) would have cost a total of $3,055 in 1991, which is equivalent in today’s dollars to $5,225. Versus only $200 for an iPhone 5S.

In hours worked at the average wage, the 13 electronics items in 1991 would have had a “time cost” of 290.4 hours of work at the average hourly wage then of $10.52 (or 7.25 weeks or 36.3 days). Today, the $200 iPhone would have a “time cost” of fewer than 10 hours (9.82) of work at the average hourly wage today of $20.35, and just one day of work, plus a few extra hours.

The piece is six years old and out of date in its details. But it’s nevertheless representative of almost all goods that have been produced since the founding of the United States, and almost all means of production.

GDP, in other words, is nothing more than what it seems to be on the surface: an estimate of the dollar value of economic output. Even at that, it’s not susceptible of quantitative modeling. (See “Macroeconomic Modeling: A Case Study” at this post.) Nor can real economic output — as opposed to government spending — be pushed upward by government spending, as I explain at length here.

GDP is certainly not a measure of “social welfare”, as most economists will admit — but for the wrong reason. They point to the “intangibles” that aren’t counted in GDP, one of which is the actual amount of happiness that each person derives not only from things counted in GDP but from the many things that aren’t counted in it (e.g., marital happiness, the love of children for parents, the malaise that prevails in times of prolonged international strife). In admitting that much, economists hint at — but fail to mention — the deeper reason that GDP doesn’t measure social welfare is that there is no such thing.

I will explain the non-existence of social welfare after tackling its running-mate: social justice.

Social Justice

This discussion covers a lot of ground. Little of it fits within my strict definition of economics — the voluntary production and exchange of goods — but it bears directly on two important byproducts of economic activity: income and wealth.

Social welfare (discussed below) is the implicit desideratum of seekers of “social justice”. Thomas Sowell has a better term for it: cosmic justice.

The seekers of cosmic justice are not content to allow individuals to accomplish what they can, given their genes, their acquired traits, their parents’ wealth (or lack of it), where they were born, when they live, and so on. Rather, those who seek cosmic justice cling to the Rawlsian notion that no one “deserves” better “luck” than anyone else. (For a critique of John Rawls’s theory of economic and social justice, see this.)

But “deserves” and “luck” (like “greed”) are emotive, value-laden terms. Those terms suggest (as they are meant to) that there is some kind of great lottery in the sky, in which each of us participates, and that some of us hold winning tickets — which equally “deserving” others might just have well held, were it not for “luck.”

This is not what happens, of course. Humankind simply is varied in its genetic composition, personality traits, accumulated wealth, geographic distribution, etc. Consider a person who is born in the United States of brilliant, wealthy parents — and who inherits their brilliance, cultivates his inheritance (genetic and financial), and goes on to live a life of accomplishment and wealth, while doing no harm and great good to others. Such a person is neither more “lucky” nor less “deserving” than anyone else. He merely is who he is, and he does what he does. There is no question of desert or luck. (I address luck in this post and those linked to therein.)

Such reasoning does not dissuade those who seek cosmic justice. Many of the seekers are found among the “80 percent”, and it is their chosen lot to envy the other “20 percent”, that is, those persons whose brains, talent, money, and/or drive yield them a disproportionate — but not undeserved — degree of fortune, fame, and power. The influential seekers of cosmic justice are to be found among the  “20 percent”. It is they who use their wealth, fame, and position to enforce cosmic justice in the service (variously) of misplaced guilt, economic ignorance, and power-lust. (Altruism — another emotive, value-laden term — does not come into play, for reasons discussed here and here.)

Some combination of misplaced guilt, economic ignorance, and power-lust motivates our law-makers. (Their self-proclaimed “compassion” is bought on the cheap, with taxpayers’ money.) They accrue power by pandering to seekers of cosmic justice and parasites who seek to gain from efforts to attain it. Thus politicians have saddled us with progressive taxation, affirmative action, and a plethora of other disincentivizing, relationship-shattering, market-distorting policies. It is supremely ironic that those policies have made most of persons (including many parasites) far worse off than they would be if government were to get out of the cosmic-justice business.

As Anthony de Jasay writes in “Risk, Value, and Externality”,

Stripped of rhetoric, an act of social justice (a) deliberately increases the relative share … of the worse-off in total income, and (b) in achieving (a) it redresses part or all of an injustice…. This implies that some people being worse off than others is an injustice and that it must be redressed. However, redress can only be effected at the expense of the better-off; but it is not evident that they have committed the injustice in the first place. Consequently, nor is it clear why the better-off should be under an obligation to redress it….

There is the view, acknowledged by de Jasay, that the better-off are better off merely because of luck. But, as he points out,

Nature never stops throwing good luck at some and bad luck at others, no sooner are [social] injustices redressed than some people are again better off than others. An economy of voluntary exchanges is inherently inegalitarian…. Striving for social justice, then, turns out to be a ceaseless combat against luck, a striving for the unattainable, sterilized economy that has built-in mechanisms … for offsetting the misdeeds of Nature.

In fact, “social justice” not only penalizes but also minimizes and ostracizes the kinds of persons who have been mainly responsible for economic (and artistic and social) progress in the Western world, namely, straight, white, heterosexual males of European origin and descent — including, notably, Ashkenzi Jews. Many members of the aforementioned group are themselves advocates of “social justice”, which is just another indication that they are among the spoiled children of capitalism who have lost sight of what got them to where they are — and it wasn’t kow-towing to lunacies like “social justice”.

SOCIAL WELFARE

Some proponents of cosmic justice appeal to the notion of social welfare (even some economists, who should know better) . Their appeal rests on two mistaken beliefs:

  • There is such a thing as social welfare.
  • Transferring income and wealth from the richer to the poorer enhances social welfare because redistribution helps the poorer more than it hurts the richer.

Having disposed elsewhere of the second belief, I now address the first one. I begin with a question posed by Arnold Kling:

Does the usefulness of the concept of a social welfare function stand or fall on its mathematical properties?

My answer: One can write equations until kingdom come, but no equation can make one person’s happiness cancel another person’s unhappiness.

The notion of a social welfare function arises from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, which is best captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

From this facile philosophy (not Mill’s only one) grew the ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness and, then, to arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone (or at least everyone in England). Utilitarianism, as a philosophy, has gone the way of Communism: It is discredited but many people still cling to it, under other names.

Today’s usual name for utilitarianism is cost-benefit analysis. Governments often subject proposed projects and regulations (e.g., new highway construction, automobile safety requirements) to cost-benefit analysis. The theory of cost-benefit analysis is simple: If the expected benefits from a government project or regulation are greater than its expected costs, the project or regulation is economically justified.

Here is the problem with cost-benefit analysis — which is the problem with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit cannot be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs. In order to construct the freeway, the city must exercise its power of eminent domain and take residential and commercial property, paying “just compensation”, of course. But “just compensation” for a forced taking cannot be “just” — not when property is being wrenched from often-unwilling “sellers” at prices they would not accept voluntarily. Not when those “sellers” (or their lessees) must face the additional financial and psychic costs of relocating their homes and businesses, of losing (in some cases) decades-old connections with friends, neighbors, customers, and suppliers.

How can a supposedly rational economist, politician, pundit, or “liberal” imagine that the benefits accruing to some persons (commuters, welfare recipients, etc.) somehow cancel the losses of other persons (taxpayers, property owners, etc.)? To take a homely example, consider A who derives pleasure from causing great pain to B (a non-masochist) by punching him in the nose. A’s pleasure cannot cancel B’s pain.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis (utilitarianism) works, if not explcitly then implicitly. It is the spirit of utilitarianism (not to mention power-lust, arrogance, and ignorance) which enables politicians and bureaucrats throughout the land to impose their will upon us — to our lasting detriment.

Conclusion: Politics Trumps Economics

In sum, and despite all of the feel-good rhetoric to the contrary, the United States differs only in degree (but not in kind) from modern communism and socialism. It’s a “social democracy”, in which the demos (mob) dictates the economic (and social) order through its various political patrons. But the political patrons (including the affluent elites who play footsie with them) are in charge, make no mistake about it, and they freely demonize those segments of the demos which turn against them. They are able to do so because the franchise has been so extended (and will continue to be extended by untrammeled immigration) that they won’t run out of votes to advance their essential agenda, which is control of the social and economic affairs of all Americans.

Despite the advent of Donald Trump, and the lesson that it should have taught high-ranking politicos, most of them (regardless of party affiliation) remain wedded to the patronage system because it’s their path to power and riches.

What this all means, as I once explained to a very smart economist, is that politics trumps economics. Ignoring politics (and being ignorant of it) while trying to understand and explain economics is like ignoring the heart while trying to explain the circulatory system without which there is no life.

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