Capitalism – a meaningless concept in which we can believe

As one surfs the economic forums of Medium and other media one often sees the word “capitalism” in the headlines but mostly I ignore these items because the word’s definitions are generally so vague the word is meaningless.  Because capitalism is such a meaningless word it is something in which we can believe while ignoring a less pleasant reality.

When we study economics we can try for an honest understanding so we can solve problems and reduce human suffering or we can seek rationalizations for things which will make us rich in spite of exploiting others, destroying the environment and overusing scarce resources.  If I were the chief executive of a large corporation or a politician I would want the second approach to economics.  Guess who pays the salaries of most economists.  This blogger makes no money out of his study of economics, so he can take the first approach.

The main feature of the economic organization with which most of us are familiar is that a lot of it is based on legislation which restricts competition.  Patents, copyright, licensing and subsidies all work to restrict competition  and/or distort prices.  These are so pervasive that we cannot say we have competitive market economy.

The problem with a perfectly competitive economy is that it does not allow for profits.  Competition reduces profits until each firm makes wages and a return on investment but no profits.  If one wants profits one needs government to pass legislation to restrict competition and most current  governments are happy to oblige.  Once upon a time this blogger used to make pottery.  I suggested that in order to make a good living we should form the Canadian Potters Association and get the government to pass legislation that all the people in Canada should eat only from dishes make by members.  Other potters laughed but lots of other occupations have that legislation: teachers, doctors, lawyers, septic tank installers, most large corporations (patents and copyright), etc.

Like lots of other people I would like to see an economy with more equality and less exploitation.  I believe the best way to get it would be to have more competition.  To get there we should repeal or at least reduce copyright, patent and licensing legislation and drop all subsidies.

This would leave many people exposed to economic adjustments which often cause suffering. A guaranteed income scheme would be a better way of coping with these problems than restricting competition.

Equality: by command, by market or by sharing?

Are command economies the only way to achieve economic equity?  This question was asked recently on Reddit.  It illustrates a common misconception about market economies.  Also, this blogger thinks a discussion on types of economy should include sharing as practiced by some smaller tribal societies. Continue reading

Equality – the impossible dream

Charlie can’t breathe

The most evil of all people are those who believe they can force their religion, beliefs, values and will upon others.  There are evil people in all nations, religions and cultures.

Inequality is an issue that will probably never go away because it has traditionally been the natural order and because its solution, perfect competition,  is something few people will be able to accept.

Inequality was a feature of Roman and Medieval societies and probably of most historical large-scale civilizations.  To find true equality one would probably have to look to small tribal groups where everybody knew each other and were probably related.  (I suspect these groups had relationship problems in that lots of people didn’t speak to each other.)

In historical civilizations the elite depended upon the work of the peasants for their food and luxuries.  The challenge was to confiscate as much of the agricultural surplus as possible while leaving enough for subsistence.  Probably a factor in the calculations was the supply of workers.  If there was a shortage, the workers were able to retain a little more than when there was a good supply.

Inequality has historically been so much the norm that the general prosperity following  the industrial revolution should be considered an aberration. One of the things which has happened since the start of the industrial revolution has been  the exploitation of energy and mineral resources found in the earth’s crust.  The result has been a lot of prosperity which had to be shared with most of the population because the prosperity depended upon the labor of the working people.  Once again supply of workers was  a concern and generally  there was a shortage – until recently.  With a limited supply of labor the elite had to tolerate sharing some of the wealth.

In historical times the agricultural surplus was probably taken with the use of force or the threat of its use.    Since the industrial revolution the elite has discovered a less messy way of getting the greater share – legislation which restricts competition and allows for profits.  If we had perfect competition there would be no profits, we would have equality and the one percent would be just like the rest of us.  Licensing, copyrights, patents, health and safety regulations and tariffs all work to restrict competition.  If we did not have copyright Bill Gates would be just another programmer and we would all be using super great software. Recent prosperity has been so great leaving some for the rest of us was not an issue.

Other ways in which  the elite exploit us are  by the work ethic and debt.  So long as we believe in the divine nature of work we will continue to produce the profits which the elite need to maintain their fortunes.  So long as our money system is based on debt we will be chained to our employers.

It may be the golden age of prosperity is coming to an end.  We still have lots of mineral and energy resources but the most easily accessible have been taken.  It now takes more energy and effort to get at what is left and this limits the potential for future growth.

With the end of growth and a surplus of workers we are ripe for a return to historical inequality.where the elites take for themselves most of the agricultural surplus and leave a minimum for everybody else.  The difference is that we now have technology to replace workers.  This guy does not want to think about the implications of this.

It is my understanding that in some parts of the United States some local level governments are getting a significant part of their revenues from petty  fines enforced by police.  This source of revenue falls heaviest on poor people.  The justice of this program is questionable. Another source of revenue is called civil forfeiture where authorities confiscate the proceeds of crime even if there has been no conviction.  Once again this has potential for abuse and raises justice questions.   I am sad to report that my home province of British Columbia uses this process.

I have to wonder if these developments are part of increasing inequality and a return to inequality enforced with force in that they have a lot of potential for abuse of poor people and involve police.

This writer is pessimistic about the future.  To increase equality we will probably have to increase competition and introduce an income scheme.  These are controversial concepts although they will never come into being if we don’t talk about them.  In the meantime,   probably the best way for individuals to deal with inequality is to become a part of the minority  and one does that by taking advantage of legislation which restricts competition.

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

Corporate profits, taxation and the market economy

Firms avoiding the payment of income taxes are good for headlines, but if we had a truly competitive market economy, the taxation of corporate profits would not be an issue because there would be no profits to tax.

Some people think profits are a divine right for entrepreneurs and shareholders and others see them as evil.  I see them as an  indication of the extent to which our so-called market economy is not performing the way we like to believe it does.

In a market economy a firm making profits is a signal for others to get into that field.  Competition will then force prices down till an equilibrium is reached at which there are wages and a return on investment but no profits.

Generally, the owners of businesses want to limit competition to  make as much profit as they can.  The most effective way is to get governments to pass legislation which restricts competition.   Governments are usually willing.  It is an easy way to repay obligations to supporters.  Licensing, trade restrictions, subsidies, copyright and patents all restrict competition.  The result is that consumers pay more than they should and firms make profits.   During the recent golden age of prosperity most people didn’t notice but now that things are much tighter we are noticing growing inequality and the disappearance of the middle class.

I think there is a pattern here.  Firms get legislation to limit competition and when the profits become too much for people to accept the calls for reform result in regulations.  As corporations have more lobbying power than consumers the regulations, if anything, restrict competition even more.

As profits result from a lack of competition the extent to which firms make profits are an indication of the extent to which we do not have a market economy.

If we really believed in economic equality and if we really want to limit profits we would repeal legislation that restricts competition.

 

If you like this post you are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

Why stimulus spending is a bad idea

Sadly, stimulus spending as an economic cure may make things even worse than they are.   It probably will not provide the results its promoters want although it will likely lead to a more egalitarian but poorer economy because there is a possibility it would lead to some heavy-duty inflation.

The ideal way to deal with the economic crisis requires  a major change in economic thinking and values starting with the way in which money is created.  Some ideas are in my essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis.”  Of course this is not a realistic proposal. Its implementation would require a dictator with a strong and loyal military and this is contrary to my belief that decision-making should be made by individuals.

chovynz_Money_Bag_IconThat leaves austerity or stimulus.

The basic problem is that we have used up a big chunk of the easily accessible resource base.  There may be lots of energy and minerals left in  the surface  of the planet but they are so difficult and expensive to extract we cannot expect continued economic growth.

If this is a correct analysis then austerity will be forced upon us regardless of what we do.  The real challenge is to cope with austerity with a minimum of human suffering.   The problem with austerity as it is being promoted is the selfishness and meanness of those promoting it on the backs of people who are less fortunate.

But what about stimulus?  At least since Keynes, many economists have and continue to believe the way to get economic growth going is via government stimulus.

There is some evidence the depression of the 1930s was made worse because the banking authorities restricted the amount of money in the economy.   Once governments started spending (works and war) and the money supply was allowed to increase the depression came to an end.  This time  central  banks have been trying to stimulate the economy by creating more money to facilitate more economic activity.  It isn’t working  because the resource base won’t support more economic growth  although only a few people see that as the reason.

So what is likely to happen if the Keynesians get a turn at trying to solve the crisis.

There are two difficulties.

The first is that stimulus will be a transfer of purchasing power from those who now have it to others because the debts incurred will eventually be written off either by default or by inflation.  Cyprus isn’t the only country whose savers are likely to be hit.

The puzzle is why with all the quantitative easing and no matching growth in output we haven’t had inflation.  The answer:  there is anecdotal evidence that the banks and corporations are sitting on piles of cash presumably because they don’t  see profit opportunities.

Governments don’t worry about profits so if the money goes instead to governments for stimulus, it will be spent.  There will be more money chasing the same quantities of goods and services and prices are bound to go up.    Inflation provides an indiscriminate haircut to everyone with monetary savings or investments.  If it gets out of control a lot of people will lose their pensions or their fortunes.  It will solve the inequality about which many people have been worrying.  It would also be a neat revenge against those people who want austerity on the backs of poor people although a lot of innocent people would be hurt.

The second problem with stimulus is that if it succeeds in increasing the output of goods and services it will also use up more of the remaining mineral and energy resources and bring forward the timing of a major crash of civilization.  I would like the goal of economic policy to be to minimize overall  human suffering rather than to increase it.

I am not worried about an economic collapse for my own sake, but I do have six young grandchildren.   Perhaps we should post a job opening for a benevolent dictator.

The assumptions economists make

The assumptions economists make is the title of a book published in March of this year and for which a review is located here.  It sounds a little interesting so I have suggested it for purchase by our local library.  I’m not sure it is interesting enough to spend $25 for my own copy.

However, the title reminds me of my own struggles with the assumptions of perfect competition.  So here is a post from almost two years ago about the assumptions of perfect competition and how one could interpret them.

 

Perfect competition utopia

When I started studying economics and learned about perfect competition and its assumptions I thought it was totally unrealistic. I really enjoyed the joke about the economist who wanted to assume he had a can opener.

However, through the years I have come to see perfect competition as an utopia which provides guidelines for policy. I like the perfect competition model because it provides high efficiency, equality in that there are no profits, it works without economic growth and decision making is by individual consumers rather than governments.

One of the features of perfect competition is that there are no profits because if profits are being made in an industry others will enter that industry increasing competition and driving prices down until there are no more profits.

To get around this no profit feature business people lobby governments to pass legislation which restricts competition. For example, subsidies, some taxes, licensing, copyright and patent legislation all interfere with perfect competition.

To make our economy more competitive we should:

– Give subsidies to consumers rather than producers. This way prices will reflect true costs and buyers can make decisions according to their own values.

– Require producers to provide consumers will all relevant information about their products.

– Abolish patent and copyright legislation.

– Unilaterally abolish import and export tariffs.

Following is a summary of the assumptions for perfect competition.

The link for the website from which they were taken is http://tutor2u.net/economics/content/topics/competition/competition.htm

Assumptions behind a Perfectly Competitive Market

1. Many suppliers each with an insignificant share of the market “ this means that each firm is too small relative to the overall market to affect price via a change in its own supply “ each individual firm is assumed to be a price taker

2. An identical output produced by each firm “ in other words, the market supplies homogeneous or standardized products that are perfect substitutes for each other. Consumers perceive the products to be identical

3. Consumers have perfect information about the prices all sellers in the market charge “ so if some firms decide to charge a price higher than the ruling market price, there will be a large substitution effect away from this firm

4. All firms (industry participants and new entrants) are assumed to have equal access to resources (technology, other factor inputs) and improvements in production technologies achieved by one firm can spill-over to all the other suppliers in the market

5. There are assumed to be no barriers to entry & exit of firms in long run “ which means that the market is open to competition from new suppliers “ this affects the long run profits made by each firm in the industry. The long run equilibrium for a perfectly competitive market occurs when the marginal firm makes normal profit only in the long-term

6. No externalities in production and consumption so that there is no divergence between private and social costs and benefits.

How to increase economic equality

Here’s another prescription for getting the economy back on track, this one from Robert B. Reich, the former secretary of labor, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.”

The economy won’t really bounce back until America’s surge toward inequality is reversed.

I’m not certain this would restore us to the golden age of prosperity but it would certainly ease the human pain of the downturn.

One way to deal with inequality would be to try to move the economy closer to the perfect competition ideal because in perfect competition there are no profits and therefore everyone would be equal economically.

Here are some things we could do. (yeah, right)

– Basically rescind all economic legislation most of which works to restrict competition so that some people can make profits.

– Do away with patent and copyright legislation

– Give subsidies to consumers rather than producers.

– End most licensing requirements.

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