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Lessons from the Richest Duck in the World by Robert Anthony Peters

Scrooge is an unlikely name for a hero. Since Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it has elicited thoughts of disagreeable skinflints. That all changed with Scrooge McDuck.

At first, Donald Duck’s Uncle Scrooge was quite Dickensian in character, but creator Carl Barks knew that a churlish miser would not sustain an audience’s sympathy. To really give this character legs (or wings), he would have to give him the kind of morals that resonate with readers.

It worked. Disney’s Duck universe has been popular for over 60 years. My generation enjoyed Duck Tales on TV. An older generation avidly read Uncle Scrooge comics, the first issue of which has Scrooge explaining how he earned his fortune: “I made it by being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties! And I made it square!”

Barks created a wealth of economic lessons through fables that are still enjoyed around the globe today.

A Modern-Day Aesop

Barks was born in rural Oregon to a farming family at the turn of the 20th century. Growing up, he had a hardscrabble existence. Due to several moves, living far from schools, and poor hearing from childhood measles, he had minimal education. He worked as a farmer, cowboy, swamper, railroad worker, printer, and more. His first gig as an illustrator was for a men’s humor magazine. In late 1935, he discovered an ad in the newspaper for Disney. Though the job offered only half his current pay, he decided to join the animation department and eventually the comic book publisher. Barks was a man who was willing to work hard, work well, and take a chance on great possibilities. The storytelling in these comics featured Barks’s strongly individualist outlook, his belief in the entrepreneur, and his optimism in markets resulting in human benefit.

Trade, Trade Again

Before Barks created Uncle Scrooge, he was already exploring the beneficial nature of trade in 1947’s “Maharajah Donald,” an issue of the Donald Duck comic book series, which featured Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The story begins with the boys cleaning out the garage at Donald’s behest, with the understanding that they could keep whatever he did not want. Predictably, he wanted all the things and was only willing to part with one stub of a pencil that’s “not worth a thing.” Less than thrilled, the boys keep it to trade for something else. They run into Piggy, who offers them a ball of string. Figuring it is not worse, they trade. As luck would have it, they run into a kid whose kite flying is limited by his length of string. Eager to get it really soaring, he trades them his knife for their string. One of the nephews feels a pang of guilt, but in short order, the other two chime in, “Don’t let it bother you” because “he’s happy!”

Eventually, they trade up to a pearl and decide to cash in. There happens to be a man in the jewelry store who was about to sail to India to obtain a pearl much like what they have in their hands. They exchange it for the steamboat ticket, which Donald promptly steals from them. Donald boards, the nephews stow away, and they arrive in India, only for Donald to run afoul of the local magistrate to the point of being fed to the royal tigers. While wracking their brains to find ways to save him, his nephews run over their list of assets: “We don’t know a soul we could ask for help … and we haven’t a cent for bribing the guards … we just can’t do something that is impossible.” But lo and behold, what do they spy next but an old stub of a pencil! To which the nephews declare, “We’re rich!” They then commence trading goods until they have acquired a creative solution to free their uncle from his predicament.

The story presents a cornucopia of economics lessons: subjective value, mutual gains from trade, and entrepreneurship. What better display of subjectivity than to have your life saved by the application of market exchange to a good that you considered worthless? Mutual gains are clear by the voluntary nature and perceived benefit of each party to the trade. (Most poignant is the Kirznerian alertness to the pencil and its use in trade.)

A Land without Greed

“Tralla La” is the tale of an exasperated Uncle Scrooge. Tired of being hounded for his wealth and time by charities, businessmen, and tax collectors, he finally snaps, telling Donald, “I want to go someplace where there is no money and wealth means nothing!” From his physician, he hears of the land of Tralla La, a land without gold, jewels, or money, deep in the Himalayas. Scrooge, Donald, and nephews set forth, and as they fly overhead, they see a land of abundance. The leader explains, “We Tralla Lallians have never known greed! Friendship is the thing we value most!”

All is serene until a farmer discovers a bottle cap that Scrooge had carelessly tossed out of the plane window. The honest peasant attempts to return it to Scrooge, who declines it, considering it worthless. Subjective value makes its appearance here, when the farmer and his fellow villagers invest this item with great desirability, leading to a bidding war that goes from 10 sheep to 20 and finally to a year’s yield of rice. When it is discovered that Scrooge has a case of bottles, all with caps, the Tralla Lallians attempt to purchase it, to no avail. Finally, the mob declares him a “meanie” and wants his taxes raised. The only solution to this problem is to call in an air strike — not of bombs, but bottle caps.

Even a humble bottle cap can spark desire because of its scarcity. Its price will be high if it is the only one around and perceived to have value. The results of “Helicopter Ben’s” strategy are on display here as well. Though the Federal Reserve may believe that it can make people wealthier by increasing the money supply, Uncle Scrooge knows that increasing the number of bottle caps will diminish their worth.

From Riches to Rags to Riches

Finally, and probably the most famous Uncle Scrooge story in economics circles, we have “A Financial Fable.” Beginning as a bucolic idyll, the story opens with  the entire Duck clan working the fields and tending the livestock. The nephews sing the praises of hard work while Donald complains, wanting money for nothing.

Scrooge investigates his new bank, a corn crib, hiding his money in plain sight. This may not have been his brightest idea: a cyclone whips through and takes all of his money, scattering it over the countryside. The nephews are distraught, but Scrooge simply replies, “If I stay here and tend to my beans and pumpkins, I’ll get it all back.”

Donald and the rest of the country quit their jobs and set off to “see the world.” Meanwhile, Scrooge and the boys continue to labor on their farm. With no one else working and nothing being produced, Donald and the rest of the world come straggling back. Scrooge is happy to feed them — at new market prices. Eggs are a million dollars apiece, cabbage is two million, and ham is a bargain at a cool trillion. With each purchase, the money from Scrooge’s corn crib trickles back and he becomes, yet again, the richest duck in the world.

With another “helicopter” scenario, we see the inflationary effects of a massive injection of money. We also get a glimpse into many aspects of wealth — how it is created, how it is maintained, and what happens when we redistribute in ways that are not related to market performance. Barks knew he was creating a morality tale of capitalism, admitting, “I’m sure the lesson I preached in this story of easy riches will get me in a cell in a Siberian gulag someday.”

Economic Tales

Economics is all around us — even in our comic books.

Now cable channel Disney XD has announced plans to relaunch Duck Tales in 2017. As long as the show sticks to the characters and stories inspired by the great Carl Barks, it will offer us plenty to enjoy — and economics lessons that are sure to fit the bill.

Robert Anthony Peters

Robert Anthony Peters is an actor, director, producer, and member of the FEE alumni advisory board.

The Hidden Costs of Tenure by Jonathon Anomaly

Conversations I’ve had with non-academics about university employment practices usually evoke surprise and skepticism. Most people have a hard time understanding the point of a system that makes it so difficult to dismiss faculty members who are not especially good at their job.

The recent motion in Wisconsin to remove state laws that protect teacher tenure has re-ignited the debate over providing special protections to teachers—protections that don’t apply to journalists, gardeners, or bloggers who are occasionally fired for expressing unpopular views.

In some ways, regulations that determine how university professors are hired and fired in the United States are analogous to the restrictive labor laws in Spain and Greece. By raising the cost of firing bad workers, they increase the relative cost of hiring good ones.

The consequence is persistent unemployment and low productivity in Greece and Spain. The consequences of our tenure system are the proliferation of poor teaching and arcane research in university departments that are immunized from market forces.

Those who pursue a career as a university professor are mostly incentivized to produce specialized work aimed at impressing people who may end up on their promotion committee rather than a wider audience.

In the sciences, this may be a good thing, since one’s peers are likely doing narrow but important work that uncovers the basic structure of the universe. But in the humanities and social sciences, it often leads to the pursuit of bizarre research that is inscrutable to outsiders and of little value even to scholars in related fields.

Another hidden effect of the tenure system is that it often sifts out the very people it is supposed to protect: those with unusual or unpopular ideas. The original justification for tenure was to protect teachers and scholars who hold unpopular views by making it difficult to fire them. But when tenure is the main game in town, the stakes associated with hiring a new faculty member are high, making departments risk-averse. Thus, in order to be considered for tenure-track jobs, candidates have strong reasons to conceal unpopular political beliefs and to pursue relatively conservative lines of research.

By “conservative” I do not mean politically conservative. Quite the opposite.

If most people in a department where you’ve applied are progressives, it is not likely that your allegiance to any non-progressive views will help your cause. Tenured faculty members who make those decisions are often unwilling to take a chance on somebody with eccentric or politically unpopular views, since when a tenure-track position is filled, the candidate who fills it will probably be a colleague for life.

This is not only unfair; it is contrary to the mission of most universities. Research by Professor Jonathan Haidt suggests that political bias negatively impacts the quality of research by stifling open debate. But it’s one of the unintended results of tenure.

Tenure can, of course, protect people with unpopular views. Consider Edward Wilson and Arthur Jensen, eminent scholars at Harvard and Berkeley who have argued, among other things, that different groups of human beings exhibit average differences in genetically-mediated characteristics, including general intelligence and impulse control. Tenure protected their careers, although it didn’t protect them from death threats and intimidation.

On the other hand, it is likely that many more controversial scholars will never be hired in the first place because those on the hiring committee are hostile to their ideas.

Tenure also makes it much harder to terminate faculty members. It was never supposed to be a guarantee that one will never be fired. According to the American Association of University Professors, tenure can be revoked if members of a department can demonstrate that a colleague exhibits incompetence, or engages in academic fraud or seriously immoral behavior.

But even when these things can be shown, it is often easier for faculty and administration to ignore the problem than to mount a costly battle to fire a colleague.

This is one reason many tenure-track jobs are being replaced with adjunct positions, which is a temporary fix for a deeper problem. In the long run, it is likely that the quality of student education and faculty research would increase under a system that offered faculty a greater diversity of contracts, reflecting a faculty member’s ongoing accomplishments, experience, and contributions to the university.

In effect, tenure is a barrier to entry in the academic job market that makes it difficult to replace poorly performing faculty with better alternatives. We should applaud rather than protest the recent decision of the Wisconsin legislature to force the University of Wisconsin to experiment with new ways of conducting the business of hiring and firing faculty.

This post first appeared at the John William Pope Center. 

Jonathan Anomaly

Should We Fear the Era of Driverless Cars or Embrace the Coming Age of Autopilot? by Will Tippens

Driving kills more than 30,000 Americans every year. Wrecks cause billions of dollars in damages. The average commuter spends nearly 40 hours a year stuck in traffic and almost five years just driving in general.

But there is light at the end of the traffic-jammed tunnel: the driverless car. Thanks to millions of dollars in driverless technology investment by tech giants like Google and Tesla, the era of road rage, drunk driving, and wasted hours behind the wheel could be left in a cloud of dust within the next two decades.

Despite the immense potential of self-driving vehicles, commentators are already dourly warning that such automation will produce undesirable effects. As political blogger Scott Santens warns,

Driverless vehicles are coming, and they are coming fast…. As close as 2025 — that is in a mere 10 years — our advancing state of technology will begin disrupting our economy in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Human labor is increasingly unnecessary and even economically unviable compared to machine labor.

The problem, Santens says, is that there are “over 10 million American workers and their families whose incomes depend entirely or at least partially on the incomes of truck drivers.” These professional drivers will face unemployment within the next two decades due to self-driving vehicles.

Does this argument sound familiar?

These same objections have sprung up at every major stage of technological innovation since the Industrial Revolution, from the textile-working Luddites destroying looming machines in the 1810s to taxi drivers in 2015 smashing Uber cars.

Many assume that any initial job loss accompanying new technology harms the economy and further impoverishes the most vulnerable, whether fast food workers or truck drivers. It’s true that losing a job can be an individual hardship, but are these same pundits ready to denounce the creation of the light bulb as an economic scourge because it put the candle makers out of business?

Just as blacksmithing dwindled with the decline of the horse-drawn buggy, economic demand for certain jobs waxes and wanes. Jobs arise and continue to exist for the sole reason of satisfying consumer demands, and the consumer’s demands are continuously evolving. Once gas heating devices became available, most people decided that indoor fires were dirtier, costlier, and less effective at heating and cooking, so they switched. While the change temporarily disadvantaged those in the chimney-sweeping business, the added value of the gas stove vastly improved the quality of life for everyone, chimney sweeps included.

There were no auto mechanics before the automobile and no web designers before the Internet. It is impossible to predict all the new employment opportunities a technology will create beforehand. Countless jobs exist today that were unthinkable in 1995 — and 20 years from now, people will be employed in ways we cannot yet begin to imagine, with the driverless car as a key catalyst.

The historical perspective doesn’t assuage the naysayers. If some jobs can go extinct, couldn’t all jobs go extinct?

Yes, every job we now know could someday disappear — but so what? Specific jobs may come and go, but that doesn’t mean we will ever see a day when labor is no longer demanded.

Economist David Ricardo demonstrated in 1817 that each person has a comparative advantage due to different opportunity costs. Each person is useful, and no matter how unskilled he or she may be, there will always be something that each person has a special advantage in producing. When this diversity of ability and interest is coupled with the infinite creativity of freely acting individuals, new opportunities will always arise, no matter how far technology advances.

Neither jobs nor labor are ends in themselves — they are mere means to the goal of wealth production. This does not mean that every person is concerned only with getting rich, but as Henry Hazlitt wrote in Economics in One Lesson, real wealth consists in what is produced and consumed: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in. It is railways and roads and motor cars; ships and planes and factories; schools and churches and theaters; pianos, paintings and hooks.

In other words, wealth is the ability to fulfill subjective human desires, whether that means having fresh fruit at your local grocery or being able to easily get from point A to point B. Labor is simply a means to these ends. Technology, in turn, allows labor to become far more efficient, resulting in more wealth diffused throughout society.

Everyone knows that using a bulldozer to dig a ditch in an hour is preferable to having a whole team of workers spend all day digging it by hand. The “surplus” workers are now available to do something else in which they can produce more highly valued goods and services.  Over time, in an increasingly specialized economy, productivity rises and individuals are able to better serve one another through mutually beneficial exchanges in the market. This ongoing process of capital accumulation is the key to all meaningful prosperity and the reason all of humanity has seen an unprecedented rise in wealth, living standards, leisure, and health in the past two centuries.

Technology is always uncertain going forward. Aldous Huxley warned in 1927 that jukeboxes would put live artists out of business. Time magazine predicted the computer would wreak economic chaos in the 1960s.

Today, on the cusp of one of the biggest innovations since the Internet, there is, predictably, similar opposition. But those who wring their hands at the prospect of the driverless car fail to see that its greatest potential lies not in reducing pollution and road deaths, nor in lowering fuel costs and insurance rates, but rather in its ability to liberate billions of hours of human potential that truckers, taxi drivers, and commuters now devote to focusing on the road.

No one can know exactly what the future will look like, but we know where we have been, and we know the principles of human flourishing that have guided us here.

If society is a car, trade is the engine — and technology is the gas. It drives itself. Enjoy the ride.

Will Tippens

Will Tippens is a recent law school graduate living in Memphis.

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Health Insurance Is Illegal by Warren C. Gibson

Health insurance is a crime. No, I’m not using a metaphor. I’m not saying it’s a mess, though it certainly is that. I’m saying it’s illegal to offer real health insurance in America. To see why, we need to understand what real insurance is and differentiate that from what we currently have.

Real insurance

Life is risky. When we pool our risks with others through insurance policies, we reduce the financial impact of unforeseen accidents or illness or premature death in return for a premium we willingly pay. I don’t regret the money I’ve spent on auto insurance during my first 55 years of driving, even though I’ve yet to file a claim.

Insurance originated among affinity groups such as churches or labor unions, but now most insurance is provided by large firms with economies of scale, some organized for profit and some not. Through trial and error, these companies have learned to reduce the problems of adverse selection and moral hazard to manageable levels.

A key word above is unforeseen.

If some circumstance is known, it’s not a risk and therefore cannot be the subject of genuine risk-pooling insurance. That’s why, prior to Obamacare, some insurance companies insisted that applicants share information about their physical condition. Those with preexisting conditions were turned down, invited to high-risk pools, or offered policies with higher premiums and higher deductibles.

Insurers are now forbidden to reject applicants due to preexisting conditions or to charge them higher rates.

They are also forbidden from charging different rates due to different health conditions — and from offering plans that exclude certain coverage items, many of which are not “unforeseen.”

In other words, it’s illegal to offer real health insurance.

Word games

Is all this just semantics? Not at all. What currently passes for health insurance in America is really just prepaid health care — on a kind of all-you-can-consume buffet card. The system is a series of cost-shifting schemes stitched together by various special interests. There is no price transparency. The resulting overconsumption makes premiums skyrocket, and health resources get misallocated relative to genuine wants and needs.

Lessons

Some lessons here are that genuine health insurance would offer enormous cost savings to ordinary people — and genuine benefits to policyholders. These plans would encourage thrift and consumer wisdom in health care planning,  while discouraging the overconsumption that makes prepaid health care unaffordable.

At this point, critics will object that private health insurance is a market failure because the refusal of unregulated private companies to insure preexisting conditions is a serious problem that can only be remedied by government coercion. The trouble with such claims is that no one knows what a real health insurance market would generate, particularly as the pre-Obamacare regime wasn’t anything close to being free.

What might a real, free-market health plan look like?

  • People would be able to buy less expensive plans from anywhere, particularly across state lines.
  • People would be able to buy catastrophic plans (real insurance) and set aside much more in tax-deferred medical savings accounts to use on out-of-pocket care.
  • People would very likely be able to buy noncancelable, portable policies to cover all unforeseen illnesses over the policyholder’s lifetime.
  • People would be able to leave costly coverage items off their policies — such as chiropractic or mental health — so that they could enjoy more affordable premiums.
  • People would not be encouraged by the tax code to get insurance through their employer.

What about babies born with serious conditions? Parents could buy policies to cover such problems prior to conception. What about parents whose genes predispose them to produce disabled offspring? They might have to pay more.

Of course, there will always be those who cannot or do not, for one reason or another, take such precautions. There is still a huge reservoir of charitable impulses and institutions in this country that could offer assistance. And these civil society organizations would be far more robust in a freer health care market.

The enemy of the good

Are these perfect solutions? By no means. Perfection is not possible, but market solutions compare very favorably to government solutions, especially over longer periods. Obamacare will continue to bring us unaccountable bureaucracies, shortages, rationing, discouraged doctors, and more.

Some imagine that prior to Obamacare, we had a free-market health insurance system, but the system was already severely hobbled by restrictions.

To name a few:

  • It was illegal to offer policies across state lines, which suppressed choices and increased prices, essentially cartelizing health insurance by state.
  • Employers were (and still are) given a tax break for providing health insurance (but not auto insurance) to their employees, reducing the incentive for covered employees to economize on health care while driving up prices for individual buyers. People stayed locked in jobs out of fear of losing health policies.
  • State regulators forbade policies that excluded certain coverage items, even if policyholders were amenable to such plans.
  • Many states made it illegal to price discriminate based on health status.
  • The law forbade associated health plans, which would allow organizations like churches or civic groups to pool risk and offer alternatives.
  • Medicaid and Medicare made up half of the health care system.

Of course, Obamacare fixed none of these problems.

Many voices are calling for the repeal of Obamacare, but few of those voices are offering the only solution that will work in the long term: complete separation of state and health care. That means no insurance regulation, no medical licensing, and ultimately, the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid, which threaten to wash future federal budgets in a sea of red ink.

Meanwhile, anything resembling real health insurance is illegal. And if you tried to offer it, they might throw you in jail.

Warren C. Gibson

Warren Gibson teaches engineering at Santa Clara University and economics at San Jose State University.

Los Angeles Pummels the Poor: A $15 an hour wage floor is a cruel and stupid policy by JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Does anyone on the Los Angeles City Council have a clue about what they have just done? It really is unclear whether reality matters in this legislative body. Rarely have we seen such jaw-dropping display of economic fallacy enacted into law.

The law under consideration here is a new wage floor of $15, phased in over five years. Why phased in? Why not do it now? Why not $30 or $150? Perhaps the implied reticence here illustrates just a bit of caution. Somewhere in the recesses of the councilors’ minds, they might have a lurking sense that there will be a price to pay for this.

Such doubt is wholly justified. Recall that the minimum wage was initially conceived as a method to exclude undesirables from the workforce. The hope, back in the time when eugenics was the rage, was that a wage floor would cause the “unemployable” to stop reproducing and die out in one generation.

Racism drove the policy, but it was hardly limited to that. The exterminationist ambition applied to anyone deemed unworthy of remunerative work.

“We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once and for all,” lamented the progressive economist Frank Taussig in his 1911 bookPrinciples of Economics. “What are the possibilities of employing at the prescribed wages all the healthy able-bodied who apply? The persons affected by such legislation would be those in the lowest economic and social group.”

Professor Taussig spoke for a generation of ruling-class intellectuals that had egregiously immoral visions of how to use government policy. But for all their evil intentions, at least they understood the basic economics of what they were doing. They knew what a wage floor excludes marginal workers, effectively dooming them to poverty — that’s precisely why they favored them.

Today, our situation seems reversed: an abundance of good intentions and a dearth of basic economic literacy. The mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, was elated at the decision: “We’re leading the country; we’re not going to wait for Washington to lift Americans out of poverty.”

Leading the country, maybe, but where is another question. This is a policy that will, over time, lock millions out of the workforce and forces many businesses to cut their payrolls. Machines to replace workers will come at a premium. The remaining workers will be expected to become much more productive. Potential new business will face a higher bar than ever. Many enterprises will close or move.

As for the existing unemployed, they can forget it. Seriously. In fact, it is rather interesting that in all the hooplah about this change, there’s not been one word about the existing unemployed (officially, 7.5% of the city’s workforce). It’s as if everyone intuitively knows the truth here: this law will not help them at all, at least not if they want to work in the legal economy.

The underground economy, which is already massive in Los Angeles, will grow larger. New informal enterprises will pop up everywhere, doing a cash-only business. The long, brawny arm of the state will not be powerful enough to stop it. Sneaking around and hiding from the law is already a way of life for millions. Look for this tendency to become the dominant way of work for millions more.

All of this will happen, and yet the proponents of the minimum wage will still be in denial, for their commitment to the belief that laws can make wealth is doctrinal and essentially unfalsifiable.

As for those who know better, business owners all over the city pleaded for the Council not to do this. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. The Council had already been bought and paid for by the labor unions and interests that represent the already employed in Los Angeles. Such union rolls do not include the poor, the unemployed, or even many of the 50% of workers in the city who work for less than $15. They represent the working-class bourgeoisie: people rich enough to devote themselves to politics but do not actually own or run businesses.

Will such unions be helped by this law? Perhaps, a bit — but at whose expense? Those who work outside union protection.

This is a revealing insight into why unions have been so passionate about pushing for the minimum wage at all levels. Here is the truth you won’t read in the papers: a higher wage floor helps cartelize the labor market in their favor.

You can understand this by reflecting on your own employment. Let’s say that you earn $50,000 for a task that could possibly done by others for $25,000, and those people are submitting resumes. This is your situation, and it potentially applies to a dozen people in your workplace.

Let’s say you have the opportunity to enact a new policy for the firm: no one can be hired for less than $50,000 a year. Would this policy be good for you? In a perverse way, it would. Suddenly, nobody else, no matter how deserving, could underbid you or threaten your job. It’s a cruel way to go about padding your wallet, but it might work for a time.

Now imagine pushing this policy out to an entire city or an entire country. This would create an economic structure that (however temporarily) serves the interests of the politically connected at the expense of everyone else.

It certainly would not create wealth. It would not help the poor as a whole. And it would do nothing to create a dynamic and competitive marketplace. It would institutionalize stasis and cause innovation to stall and die.

The terrible effects are many and cascading, and much of the damage will be unseen in the form of business not formed, laborers not hired, efficiencies not realized. This is what the government of Los Angeles has done. It is a self-inflicted wound, performed in the name of health and well-being.

The City Council is cheering. So are the unions. So are the ghosts of the eugenists of the past who first fantasized about a labor force populated only by the kinds of people they approved.

As for everyone else, they will face a tougher road than ever.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.

Israel Puts Price Controls on Books, Sales Plummet

A lesson on the terrible consequences of price controls comes from Israel this week, the Blaze reports:

A new Israeli law controlling the price of books and mandating guaranteed minimum compensation for writers has had the complete opposite effect of what lawmakers had intended. . . .

Under the new law’s dictates, any new book that’s been on the shelf 18 months or less may not be discounted. During the same time period, Israeli authors are guaranteed to earn a minimum of 8 percent of the price of the first 6,000 books sold and 10 percent of all subsequent books sold, the Jerusalem Post explained last year.

The results were swift and predictable:

Publishers told Haaretz that the law “has upset the entire literary food chain” with sales of new book titles down between 40 and 60 percent and down 20 percent for books overall. . . . Booksellers say they’ve experienced a 25 percent drop in children’s book sales in just one year, according to Channel 2.

The combination of price controls on books and minimum wages for authors has had pronounced effects on new, young, and unestablished writers:

Publishers have been hesitant to bank on new writers under the government mandate, because they don’t want to take the financial risk on books they’re not allowed to put on sale. And from a consumer perspective, those looking for new books are less likely to drop some $25 on the debut novel of a writer they’ve never heard of.

“Almost the only way for unknown writers to become popular is to put their first book on sale, even to give it for free if possible, to publicize their name and get their audience and eventually make money from their writing,” [Boaz] Arad said. Thus the new law has been particularly devastating on new authors who can’t get their work to the public.

Arad, chief of the Ayn Rand Center-Israel, said that the parliament blithely ignored the fates of similar laws in Europe, telling the Blaze, “It’s no surprise that we face a book market struggling and suffering and it’s the most unbecoming situation for the ‘People of the Book.’”

Good intentions fail to trump the laws of supply and demand once again.

To “protect” authors, the government has driven off readers.

Read more coverage of the story here.

Anything Peaceful

Anything Peaceful is FEE’s new online ideas marketplace, hosting original and aggregate content from across the Web.

Do You Have the Civil Disobedience App?

You might be downloading tomorrow’s law by MAX BORDERS…

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. 

 Henry David Thoreau

In the peer-to-peer revolution, the most important elections will happen outside the voting booth. And the most important laws won’t be written by lawmakers.

Consider this: The first time you hopped into a Lyft or an Uber, there was probably, at the very least, a legal gray area associated with that trip. And yet, in your bones, didn’t you think that what you were doing was just, even if it wasn’t yet clearly legal?

If you felt that way, I suspect you weren’t alone.

Today, ridesharing apps are operating in most major cities around the country. And municipalities are having to play catch-up because the people have built massive constituencies around these new services.

This is just one example of what Princeton political scientist James C. Scott calls “Irish democracy,” where people simply stop paying attention to some rule (or ruler) because it has outlived its usefulness.

One need not have an actual conspiracy to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy. More regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish Democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.

Now, let’s be clear: the right rules are good things. Laws are like our social operating system, and we need them. But we don’t need all of them, much less all of them to stick around forever. And like our operating systems, our laws need updating. Shouldn’t legal updates happen not by waiting around on politicians but in real time?

“But Max,” you might be thinking. “What about the rule of law? You have to change the law through legitimate processes.”

And that’s not unreasonable. After all, we don’t want mob rule, and we don’t want just anyone to be able to change the law willy-nilly — especially those laws that cover our basic rights and freedoms. There is an important distinction, however, between justice and law, one that’s never easy to unpack. But Henry David Thoreau said it well, when he wrote,

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

Today’s peer-to-peer civil disobedience is tomorrow’s emergent law.

In other words, the way the best law has always come about is not through a few wise rulers getting together and writing up statutes; rather, it emerges among people interacting with each other and wanting to avoid conflict. When peaceful people are engaging in peaceful activity, they want to keep it that way. And when people find new and creative ways to interact peacefully, old laws can be obstructions.

So as we engage in peer-to-peer civil disobedience, we are making choices that are leading to the emergence of new law, however slowly and clumsily it follows on. This is a beautiful process, because it requires not the permission of rulers, but rather the assent of peer communities. It is rather like democracy on steroids, except we don’t have to send our prayers up through the voting booth in November.

Legal theorist Bruce Benson calls this future law the “Law Merchant.” He describes matters thus:

A Law Merchant evolves whenever commerce emerges. Practices that facilitated emergence of commerce in medieval Europe were replayed in colonial America, and they are being replayed in Eastern Europe, Eastern Asia, Latin America, and cyberspace. Law Merchant arrangements also support “underground” economic activity when states constrain above-ground market development.

It might be a while before we evolve away from our outmoded system of sending politicians to capitals to make statutes. And the issue of lawmakers playing catch-up with emergent systems may be awkward and kludgy for a while. But when we think that the purpose of law is to help people interact peacefully, peer-to-peer civil disobedience might be a necessary ingredient in reweaving the law for the sake of human flourishing.

ABOUT MAX BORDERS

Max Borders is the editor of The Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

The Case Against Rent Control: Bad housing policy harms lower-income people most by Robert P. Murphy

To someone ignorant of economic reasoning, rent control seems like a great policy. It appears instantly to provide “affordable housing” to poor tenants, while the only apparent downside is a reduction in the income flowing to the fat-cat landlords, people who literally own buildings in major cities and who thus aren’t going to miss that money much. Who could object to such a policy?

First, we should define our terms. When a city government imposes rent control, it means the city makes it illegal for landlords to charge tenants rent above a ceiling price. Sometimes that price can vary, but only on specified factors. For the law to have any teeth — and for the politicians who passed it to curry favor with the public — the maximum rent-controlled price will be significantly lower than the free-market price.

The most obvious problem is that rent control immediately leads to a shortage of apartments, meaning that there are potential tenants who would love to move into a new place at the going (rent-controlled) rate, but they can’t find any vacancies. At a lower rental price, more tenants will try to rent apartment units, and at a higher rental price, landlords will try to rent out more apartment units. These two claims are specific instances of the law of demand and law of supply, respectively.

In an unhampered market, the equilibrium rental price occurs where supply equals demand, and the market rate for an apartment perfectly matches tenants with available units. If the government disrupts this equilibrium by setting a ceiling far below the market-clearing price, then it creates a shortage; that is, more people want to rent apartment units than landlords want to provide. If you’ve lived in a big city, you may have experienced firsthand how difficult it is to move into a new apartment; guides advise people to pay the high fee to a broker or even join a church because you have to “know somebody” to get a good deal. Rent control is why this pattern occurs. The difficulty isn’t due to apartments being a “big-ticket” item; new cars are expensive, too, but finding one doesn’t carry the stress of finding an apartment in Brooklyn. The difference is rent control.

Rent control reduces the supply of rental units through two different mechanisms. In the short run, where the physical number of apartment units is fixed, the imposition of rent control will reduce the quantity of units offered on the market. The owners will hold back some of the potential units, using them for storage or keeping them available for (say) out of town guests or kids returning from college for the summer. (If this sounds implausible, consider just how many people in a major city consider renting out spare bedrooms in their homes, as long as the price is right.)

In the long run, a permanent policy of rent control restricts the construction of new apartment buildings, because potential investors realize that their revenues on such projects will be artificially capped. Building a movie theater or shopping center is more attractive on the margin.

There are further, more insidious problems with rent control. With a long line of potential tenants eager to move in at the official ceiling price, landlords do not have much incentive to maintain the building. They don’t need to put on new coats of paint, change the light bulbs in the hallways, keep the elevator in working order, or get out of bed at 5:00 a.m. when a tenant complains that the water heater is busted. If there is a rash of robberies in and around the building, the owner won’t feel a financial motivation to install lights, cameras, buzz-in gates, a guard, or other (costly) measures to protect his customers. Furthermore, if a tenant falls behind on the rent, there is less incentive for the landlord to cut her some slack, because he knows he can replace her right away after eviction. In other words, all of the behavior we associate with the term “slumlord” is due to the government’s policy of rent control; it is not the “free market in action.”

In summary, if the goal is to provide affordable housing to lower-income tenants, rent control is a horrible policy. Rent control makes apartments cheaper for some tenants while making them infinitely expensive for others, because some people can no longer find a unit, period, even though they would have been able to at the higher, free-market rate. Furthermore, the people who remain in apartments — enjoying the lower rent —receive a much lower-quality product. Especially when left in place for decades, rent control leads to abusive landlords and can quite literally destroy large portions of a city’s housing.

20141014_RobertMurphyABOUT ROBERT P. MURPHY

Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from NYU. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism and The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Great Depression and the New Deal. He is also the Senior Economist with the Institute for Energy Research and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. You can find him at http://consultingbyrpm.com/

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is courtesy of FEE and Shutterstock.