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.

Paying the piper/economist and making economic decisions

He who pays the piper calls the tune. This applies to economists as well as musicians and explains why economists have so much difficulty coming to terms with the ideological aspects of their field.

This post was prompted by an article about whether economists are biased towards the free market or towards regulation.  This blogger would prefer to evaluate economies according to who makes decisions.

I get suspicious when I hear economists talk about the “free market”  because they usually mean something different to what I understand is a free market economy.  To me a free market economy is one based on the perfect competition model.  What we actually have is an economy where governments pass legislation to restrict competition.  Copyright, patents, licensing, tariffs, health and safety regulations all work to restrict competition and allow some people to make profits they would not get in a competitive economy.

Sometimes the profit making gets out of control and the way to deal with this is to introduce  regulations  rather than to return to more competition.  Therefore I figure the debate in this article is irrelevant.

What is relevant is who makes economic decisions.  If we had perfect competition most if not all decisions would be made by consumers who would vote with their spending decisions.  Unfortunately there are too many people in this world who like to make decisions for others.

One of the big things which influences decision making is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  In this process money is created when bankers make loans and as they get to decide who gets loans they have a say over what economic activity is  going to take place.  If we had a national exchange trading system as proposed in the essay “LETS to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog money would be created via payments to individuals who would then make decisions in their purchases or investments.

The fractional reserve system  also limits decision making in that many people, especially during their working years, carry a large debt load.  As most of us have to work to repay our debts, we are forced to support another person’s decisions.  And the work ethic adds a lot of support.

Governments also interfere with decision making by passing legislation which restricts competition and by accessing large amounts of created money.  This of course allows them to make economic decisions according to their values which don’t always agree with their citizens.

My view of how the economy works is less than consistent with conventional economic wisdom.  Readers will decide for themselves which view  they want to accept but I will point out that economists who don’t promote the conventional view probably don’t stand much chance of holding important high paying jobs.  People in power, industry or government, want to feel they are doing good and it is the role of economists to say what their employers want to hear and most economists are paid directly or indirectly by business or government.

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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.

Regulating business with competition

Generally we try to protect ourselves from the excesses of capitalism with regulations.  An alternative method may be to increase competition.

Capitalism is known for its disregard for health and safety concerns and for its excessive profits.  To deal with these problems we impose regulations on firms.  As people are good at getting around regulations the natural reaction is to increase the regulations.

An alternative approach would be to increase competition.

One of the myths of our economy is to equate competition and capitalism.  The reality is that capitalism depends upon governments passing legislation which limits competition.  Most economic legislation, while labeled as consumer protection, works to restrict competition.  For example, many manufactured items are subject to strict regulations as a safety thing. .  But these regulations tend to be set so that only large producers can comply.  This means that specialty manufacturers cannot afford to get started as the extra costs have to charged to a small production run.

Health and safety regulations, copyright and patent legislation and licensing requirements all work to limit competition.

Here in Canada we have a strong commitment to separation of church and state.  The result is that the provision of spiritual and religious services comes closer than anything else to the perfect competition model.  When people move into a new area they often go church shopping, even among churches of the same denomination. 

Churches are also the least regulated institutions in the country as their members look after that either by asking their ministers to leave or by leaving themselves.  (Ministers get fired for one of two reasons – they get into relationships their congregations consider inappropriate or they over stay their welcome.)    When the United Church of Canada decided to ordain and marry gays and lesbians a lot of people switched denominations.

This blogger figures  increasing competition in most if not all industries would do a lot to resolve the excesses of capitalism and reduce the need for regulations.

One of the requirements of perfect competition is that all participants have perfect knowledge.  Therefore the only regulation needed is that firms be required to publish all the information customers need to make good decisions.  This would require us to take responsibility for our own lives rather than expecting the government to look after us.

I realize this suggestion is a political can of worms as people don’t like to reveal secrets.  However with internet and smart phone technology more and more information will be easily available.  Rather than trying to increase regulations we should demand that this information be made generally available so that we as consumers can become the regulators – just like church goers.

 

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.

Capitalism, competition and profits

Capitalism is about profits but economic theory tells us price should equal the marginal cost which does not allow for any profit.  It could be there is a contradiction between what we say we believe and the way we actually behave.  Figuring this out may be a major step in understanding our economy.

Price should equal marginal cost, the cost of the last item produced, because profits will attract more producers into an industry until competition forces prices down to the marginal cost level.  For this theory to work there must be perfect competition.  Perfect competition requires easy entry into a business, a uniform product,  that no participant in the market be large enough to influence prices by limiting sales or purchases and that all participants in the market have full knowledge of the market.

In perfect competition there are no profits because competition will force prices down to breakeven point.

This would be great for customers but producers, believing they have a right to profits want to restrict competition.  As producers tend to have more power than consumers there are in our economy lots of restrictions on competition.  There  are many ways to restrict competition but probably the best is to get governments to pass legislation that interferes with the operation of a competitive market. Look at the four requirements for perfect competition in the second paragraph above for ideas how to restrict competition.  Some of the legislation which interferes is patent and copyright, tariffs, subsidies and licensing.

An advantage of legislation restricting competition is that the state and its legal system can be used to enforce it.

Sometimes definitions can be fuzzy and most definitions of capitalism fit this.  The definition of perfect competition (see second paragraph above) is more precise even if it appears unrealistic.  We have jokes about economists making assumptions.  It is not safe to assume that capitalism is perfect competition.

I think the perfect competition model is very useful in that it provides an ideal towards which we could be working.  It provides guidance for policy even though there are lots of forces working against that policy.

Whatever name we apply to our way of organizing our economy, it is important to understand that it is based on governments passing legislation to restrict 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.

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 the one per cent got to be rich

This week’s issue of The Economist has an article on the one per cent in the United States.

Here are two reasons why we have very rich people.

First, governments pass legislation which  interferes with the workings of competitive markets.  If markets were perfectly competitive there would be no profits and therefore no rich people.

For example, for there to be perfect competition it has to be easy for new firms to get into any industry and for that they must have knowledge of the technology.  Patent legislation, whatever the merits of intellectual property arguments, restricts competition and allows the patent holder to make profits that otherwise would not be available.

Other examples of legislation that restricts competition are copyright, licensing, regulations and trade restrictions.

Second, the reason bankers become rich is that they create money when they make loans.   This gives them a great deal of power in that they decide what projects go ahead and by whom.  It also provides them with opportunities to take cuts for themselves and they also get to charge interest on the money they have created.

So, if we want a more equal economy we should repeal some of the legislation which restricts competition and we should look for another way to create money.

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