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.

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Payday loans, slavery and money creation

What is the marginal cost of making a payday loan? Or any other type of loan?  The answer to this question should help to answer a question about interest rates on loans raised in the Buttonwood column of The Economist, November 30, 2013 issue. What interest rates should lenders be allowed to charge?

Unfortunately loans and credit are complicated beyond simple economics because the making of loans is an instrument of exploitation even to the point of slavery and because credit is involved in how we create money.

Economic theory tells us that so long as there is competition the price of a product should be equal to the marginal cost of producing that product.  Therefore for loans the marginal cost would be the cost to the lender of acquiring the money to loan (i.e. the interest paid to the depositor of for payday lenders to their source of funds) plus the operating costs and the cost of loans written off.  The legitimate interest rate to charge on a loan should be easy to calculate and for banks we can compare the rates they pay on deposits and the rates they charge for loans.

It appears the need for credit is almost universal at least in large-scale economies.  I’m not sure about hunting and gathering groups which practice a sharing economy.  It appears there has always been a need for short-term lending of the type done by payday lenders.

The problem is that the making of loans can be an instrument of exploitation.  One of the quickest ways to get control over a person is to lend them some money.  In peasant societies people borrow to put on funerals and weddings and if they cannot repay they sometimes find themselves in slavery.

In our own society there are probably lots of people with dreams of doing something other than the daily employment but they are unable because of their debt load.  All this consumer debt works as an instrument of social control for the one percent.  So long as we are in debt we work to support their goals and interests rather than for our own.  If a person wants to be truly free one should try to live without  borrowing.

As for payday loans Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms Buttonwood says:

“Provided the terms of the loan are made clear, then it should be up to borrowers to decide whether to accept the costs involved. An interest rate is simply the price of money.”

Once again this is simple economics without the human factor.  For many people there are times when  it may not be easy “to decide whether to accept the costs involved.”

The other complication with lending is that our money supply is based on fractional reserve loans by financial institutions.  As money is essential for the exchange of goods and services it is also essential that we carry a debt load.  Says Buttonwood

“But businesses and consumers are positively encouraged to borrow. Indeed, when debt growth slows, as it has in recent years, an air of panic develops about how to get it going again.”

There are a number of problems with the fractional reserve method of creating money, most of which have been discussed elsewhere on this weblog and especially in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.”  Basically it is a Ponzi scheme which is urgently in need of reform.

The reform proposed in that essay, a national Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) should also help with the need for short-term credit.  It would be a lot less exploitive as no interest would be charged and control over the money supply would be in the hands of all people.  A national LETS system would transfer a lot of economic decision-making from bankers and governments to individuals.

There are consumer loans and there are business loans.  Loans are a transfer of purchasing power from one person  to another and interest is compensation for the transfer.  A LETS system  should take care of the need for short-term consumer  credit.  The compensation for business loans should come out of the profits in which case they should be considered equity.

Back to the question of caps on interest charged on payday loans.  Is it the role of government to prevent some of its citizens from exploiting others?  If yes, then governments should limit interest  rates  charged (marginal cost is a guideline) or find another way of creating money so that the need for short-term consumer credit is easily satisfied.

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.

Health care greed

This post was inspired by a rather long article on why health care in the United States is so expensive.

As I read the first section I was thinking that when it comes to greed some health care people make Wall Street bankers look like amateurs.  By my values the bankers are higher on the ethical ladder than some medical people because the bankers are conning people who are just as greedy.  Medical people are exploiting people when they are sick and at their most vulnerable.

metalmarious_Medicine_and_a_StethoscopeOne of the more interesting university courses I took was sociology of work in which the professor talked about the professional encounter.  We go to a professional when we are in a crisis situation and because the professional has specialized knowledge which can be used to get us out of the crisis.

This gives the professional a great deal of power over us and according to the article it appears some in the he medical profession take full advantage of it.

How do we protect ourselves from medical exploitation?  Normally I would say increase competition.  But one probably doesn’t want to take time to compare prices when having a heart attack.

 

To some extent we can choose a family doctor.  More competition would make this easier.  We might get a little more competition if health people were to be certified by associations rather than licensed by governments in that associations could certify more practitioners and more different types of practitioner.

Maybe the best way to protect ourselves is to live a healthy lifestyle – exercise, eat mostly healthy foods and practice defensive driving.  Even so it is hard to imagine anyone getting through life without interacting with the medical profession.

System D, the underground economy and competition

Just read an article on the web about the underground economy, also known as system D, which is probably more the case in the developing world than it is in Canada.  This follows reading a book chapter about London when Karl Marx lived there.

It sounds as if both of these are closer to the perfect competition model than anything I have experienced.  The difference is that Marx lived at the beginning of an age unprecedented prosperity and we are probably going into an era of decline.

The author of the article appears optimistic about the potential for System D and I find it attractive.  It appears to have a lot of vitality.

However I see at least two problems.  One is that if you work outside the law then there is potential for exploitation and dishonesty.

Another problem with System D is that when it is hit with a recession a lot of people will be out of work.  There is no potential for economic safety  mechanisms such as unemployment insurance.

It could well be that System D is a way to get around excessive government regulation of the economy most of which works to restrict competition.

Therefore we should aim for the best of both worlds.  Keep legislation which tries to prevent exploitation and provide a safety net and get rid of legislation which restricts competition.

(The book is Grand Pursuit, the Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar and was published this year.)

Agricultural surpluses, relationships and Occupy Wall Street

Here is a possible explanation for the Occupy Wall Street protests which are currently happening around the world.

For a relationship to be satisfactory there has to be a more or less equal two-way exchange.

However, there is no law that says relationships have to be satisfactory,  Furthermore, some people take advantage of others by exploiting or coercing them.

How do these observations apply in economics.

Throughout history there has been exploitation of some people by others.  Mostly this has involved agriculture and force.  The surplus has been taken.  Mostly enough has been left for the producers to just subsist.

Starting with the Industrial Revolution three things changed.

First the surplus started increasing so that more could be left for the producers.  Eventually during the recent years of prosperity  the surplus was so large that many people (especially in the industrial countries) could have a nice share of it.

Second, population levels (at least in the industrial countries) have been low relative to the opportunities for employment.  As wages are a function of supply and demand wages have been good and thus the surplus has been shared.

Third, those people who do the exploiting have discovered psychological ways of getting their hands on the riches of the world without using force.  These include legislation which restricts competition,  sneaky marketing, promoting the work ethic and emotional appeals such as to our greed.

To those of us who have been able to share the wealth it has not been clear that we have been exploited.

Once again, things are changing.  There is some evidence we are now using resources at an unsustainable rate and there is now more competition for the surplus.

As the above listed psychological instruments are still working the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer   and the Occupy Wall Street protests are spreading around the world.

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