Archive for January, 2017

Stuart Dreyfus on Richard Bellman, Dynamic Programming, Quants and Financial Engineering

Last week, looking for some information about the mathematician Richard Bellman who, among other feats and achievements, developed dynamic programming, I came across a film called the Bellman Equation which you can watch on the internet. It was written produced and narrated by Bellman’s grandson, Gabriel Bellman and features among others, Gabriel’s father (Bellman’s son), Gabriel’s aunt (Bellman’s daughter), Bellman’s first and second wives, and numerous friends and colleagues. You learn how brilliant, driven, arrogant, charming, and difficult Bellman was, and how he cast a shadow over the lives of his children and grandchildren. Aside from the stories about his life, his work on the atomic bomb in World War II, his meeting with Einstein when he was a young assistant professor at Princeton, his run-in  with the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at Los Alamos, and, as a result, with Joe McCarthy. And on top of all the family history, family dynamics, and psychological theorizing, you also get an interesting little account of the intuitive logic underlying the theory of dynamic programming. You can watch it for free with commercials on snagfilms.

But I especially wanted to draw attention to the brief appearance in the video of Bellman’s colleague at Rand Corporation in the 1950s, Stuart Dreyfus, with whom Bellman collaborated in developing the theory of dynamic programming, and with whom Bellman co-wrote Applied Dynamic Programming. At 14:17 into the film, one hears the voice of Stuart Dreyfus saying just before he comes into view on the screen:

The world is full of problems where what is required of the person making eh decision is not to just face a static situation and make one single decision, but to make a sequence of decisions as the situation evolves. If you stop to think about it, almost everything in the world falls in that category. So that is the kind of situation hat dynamic programming addressed. The principle on which it is based is such an intuitively obvious principle that it drives some mathematicians crazy, because it’s really kind of impossible to prove that it’s an intuitive principle, and pure mathematicians don’t like intuition.

Then a few moments later, Dreyfus continues:

So this principle of optimality is: why would you ever make a decision now which puts you into a position one step from now where you couldn’t do as well as [if you were in] some other position? Obviously, you would never do that if you knew the value of these other positions.

And a few moments after that:

The place that [dynamic programming] is used the most upsets me greatly — and I don’t know how Dick would feel — but that’s in the so-called “quants” doing so-called “financial engineering” that designed derivatives that brought down the financial system. That’s all dynamic programming mathematics basically. I have a feeling Dick would have thought that’s immoral. The financial world doesn’t produce any useful thing. It’s just like poker; it’s just a game. You’re taking money away from other people and getting yourself things. And to encourage our graduate students to learn how to apply dynamic programming in that area, I think is a sin.

Allowing for some hyperbole on Dreyfus’s part, I think he is making an important point, a point I’ve made before in several posts about finance. A great deal of the income earned by the financial industry does not represent real output; it represents trading based on gaining information advantages over trading partners. So the more money the financial industry makes from financial engineering, the more money someone else is losing to the financial industry, because every trade has two sides.

Not all trading has this characteristic. A lot of trading involves exchanges that are mutually beneficial, and middlemen that facilitate such trading are contributing to the welfare of society by improving the allocation of goods, services and resources. But trading that takes place in order to exploit an information advantage over a counter-party, and devoting resources to the creation of the information advantages that makes such trading profitable is socially wasteful. That is the intuitive principle insightfully grasped and articulated by Dreyfus.

As I have also pointed out in previous posts (e.g., here, here and here) the principle, intuitively grasped on some level, but not properly articulated or applied by people like Thorstein Veblen, was first correctly explicated by Jack Hirshleifer, who like Bellman and Dreyfus, worked for the Rand Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s, in his classic article “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity.”

Further Thoughts on Bitcoins, Fiat Moneys, and Network Effects

In a couple of tweets to me and J. P. Koning, William Luther pointed out, I think correctly, that the validity of the backward-induction argument in my previous post explaining why bitcoins, or any fiat currency not made acceptable for discharging tax obligations, cannot retain a positive value requires that there be a terminal date after which bitcoins or fiat currency will no longer be accepted in exchange be known with certainty.

 

But if the terminal date is unknown, the backward-induction argument doesn’t work, because everyone (or at least a sufficient number of people) may assume that there will always be someone else willing to accept their soon-to-be worthless holdings of fiat money in exchange for something valuable. Thus, without a certain terminal date, it is not logically necessary for the value of fiat money to fall to zero immediately, even though everyone realizes that,  at some undetermined future time, its value will fall to zero.

In short, the point is that if enough people think that they will be able to unload their holdings of a fundamentally worthless asset on someone more foolish than they are, a pyramid scheme need not collapse quickly, but may operate successfully for a long time. Uncertainty about the terminal date gives people an incentive to gamble on when the moment of truth will arrive. As long as enough people are willing to take the gamble, the pyramid won’t collapse, even if those people know that it sooner or later it will collapse.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the theory quite nicely in a short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which has inspired a philosophic literature concerning the backward induction argument that is known as the “bottle imp paradox,” (further references in the linked wikipedia entry) and the related related “unexpected hanging paradox,” and the “greater fool theory.”

Although Luther’s point is well-taken, it’s not clear to me that, at least on an informal level, my argument about fiat money is without relevance. Even though a zero value for fiat money is logically necessary, a positive value is not assured. The value of fiat money is indeterminate, and the risk of a collapse of value or a hyperinflation is, would indeed be a constant risk for a pure fiat money if there were no other factors, e.g., acceptability for discharging tax liabilities, operating else to support a positive value. Even if a positive value were maintained for a time, a collapse of value could occur quite suddenly; there could well be a tipping point at which a critical mass of people expecting the value to fall to zero could overwhelm the optimism of those expecting the value to remain remain positive causing a convergence of self-fulfilling expectations of a zero value.

But this is where network effects come into the picture to play a stabilizing role. If network effects are very strong, which they certainly are for a medium of exchange in any advanced market economy, there is a powerful lock-in for most people, because almost all transactions taking place in the economy are carried out by way of a direct or indirect transfer of the medium of exchange. Recontracting in terms of an alternative medium of exchange is not only costly for each individual, but would require an unraveling of the existing infrastructure for carrying out these transactions with little chance of replacing it with a new medium-of-exchange-network infrastructure.

Once transactors have been locked in to the existing medium-of-exchange-network infrastructure, the costs of abandoning the existing medium of exchange may be prohibitive, thereby preventing a switch from the existing medium of exchange, even though people realize that there is a high probability that the medium of exchange will eventually lose its value, the costs to each individual of opting out of the medium-of-exchange network being prohibitive as would be the transactions costs of arriving at a voluntary collective shift to some new medium of exchange.

However, it is possible that small countries whose economies are highly integrated with the economies of neighboring countries, are in a better position to switch from to an alternative currency if the likelihood that the currently used medium of exchange will become worthless increases. So the chances of seeing a sudden collapse of an existing medium of exchange are greater in small open economies than in large, relatively self-contained, economies.

Based on the above reasoning suggests the following preliminary conjecture: the probability that a fiat currency that is not acceptable for discharging tax liabilities could retain a positive value would depend on two factors: a) the strength of network effects, and b) the proportion of users of the existing medium of exchange that have occasion to use an alternative medium of exchange in carrying out their routine transactions.

Shilling for Bitcoins

Bitcoins have been on a wild ride these past several months. After the November 2013 crash which saw the value of bitcoins plummet from over $1000 a coin to less than $300 a coin in just over a year, bitcoins seem to stabilize in a fairly tight range between $250 and $350 until early November 2015 when the price started to climb gradually reaching $730 last July before a brief decline to less than $600 in August, when another sustained price rise commenced. The price rise accelerated in December, and bitcoin price broke the $1000 barrier early in January, reaching $1100 last week before plummeting to less than $800 (a loss of almost of a third in value). Bitcoins have again recovered, climbing back over $900, and now at about $890 as of this writing (11:22pm EST).

In earlier posts (e.g., here and here) I have suggested that bitcoins are a bubble phenomenon, because bitcoins have no fundamental value, their only use being a medium of exchange. Some people believe that all forms of paper or token money, unless associated with some sort of promise or expectation of convertibility into a real asset, are bubbles. The reason why privately issued inconvertible paper money is unlikely to have any value is that people would expect it eventually to have zero value in the future, inasmuch as no one would want to be stuck holding paper money when there is no one left to trade with. The rational expectation that the future value of paper money must go to zero implies, by the mathematical argument known as backward induction, that its value today must be zero. If its value today exceeds zero, then the violation of backward induction, must be termed as a bubble.

That at least is the theory. However, that theory of the worthlessness of paper money applies only to privately issued money, not to government issued money, because government issued money can be given a current value if the government accepts the paper money it issues as payment for tax liability. At peak periods when the public has a net liability to pay taxes to the government, the aggregate outstanding stock of money must have a real value at least as great as the net outstanding aggregate private-sector tax liability to the government.

So I was very interested today to read a post on NADAQ.com “Why Bitcoin Has Value” by David Perry, chief architect for BitcoinStore and author of the Bitcoin blog Coding in My Sleep. Perry deals intelligently with many of the issues that I have raised in my earlier posts, so it will be interesting to try to follow him as he tries to explain why Bitcoins really do have value.

To begin, we really need to understand why anything has value. Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction will often point out that in the end, the only things of real value are those that sustain and defend life. Perhaps they’re right on one level, but with the rise of civilized societies things got a bit more complex, because the things that sustain and defend those societies also gain a certain degree of value. It is in this context that all monies, Bitcoin included, gain their value. Since our societies rely heavily on trade and commerce, anything that facilitates the exchange of goods and services has some degree of value.

In case you missed it, there was a bit of a logical leap there. Things can be valuable either because we are willing to give up something in return for the services we derive from owning them or possessing them, or because we believe that we can exchange them to other people for things that we derive services from owning or possessing them. If something is valuable only because it facilitates trade, you run into the logical problem of backward induction. At some point, far into the future, there will be nobody left to trade with, so the medium of exchange won’t have any more value. Something like gold does have value today because it glitters and people are willing to give up something to be able to derive those glitter services. But a piece of paper? No glitter services from a piece of paper. Of course if the government prints the piece of paper, the piece of paper can serve as a get-out-of-jail card, which some people will be willing to pay a lot for. A bitcoin does not glitter and it won’t get you out of jail.

Imagine, for example, a pre-money marketplace where the barter system is king. Perhaps you’re a fisherman coming to market with the day’s catch and you’re looking to go home with some eggs. Unfortunately for you, the chicken farmer has no use for fish at the moment, so you need to arrange a complex series of exchanges to end up with something the egg seller actually wants. You’ll probably lose a percentage of your fish’s value with each trade, and you also must know the exchange rate of everything with respect to everything else. What a mess.

This is where money saves the day. By agreeing on one intermediate commodity, say, silver coins, two is the maximum number of exchanges anyone has to make. And there’s only one exchange rate for every other commodity that matters: its cost in silver coins.

In truth there is more complexity involved—some things, like your fish, would make very poor money indeed. Fish don’t stay good for very long, they’re not particularly divisible, and depending on the exchange rate, you might have to carry a truly absurd amount of them to make your day’s purchases.

On the other hand, silver coins have their inherent problems too, when traded on extremely large or extremely small scales. This is what is truly valuable about Bitcoin: It’s better money.

Again that same pesky old problem. Silver, like gold, provides services other than serving as money. It has a value independent of being a medium of exchange, so, at the margin, there are people out there who value it as much for its glitter or other real services as other people value it for its services as a medium of exchange. But the only series that a bitcoin provides is that someone out there expects somebody else to accept it in trade. Why makes that a sustainable value rather than a bubble? Just asking, but I’m still waiting for an answer.

It’s been a long time since those first “hard” monies were developed, and today we transact primarily with digital representations of paper currency. We imagine bank vaults filled with stacks of cash, but that’s almost never the case these days—most money exists merely as numbers in a database. There’s nothing wrong with this type of system, either; it works fantastically well in an age where physical presence during a transaction is not a given. The problem is that the system is aging and far too often plagued by incompetence or greed.

Every IT guy knows that from time to time you have to take a drastic step: throw the old system in the trash and build a new one from scratch. Old systems, such as our current monetary system, have been patched so many times they are no longer functioning as efficiently as they should.

We previously patched our problems with gold and silver by introducing paper banknotes. We patched further problems by removing the precious metal backing those banknotes, then patched them again and again to allow wire transfers, credit cards, debit cards, direct deposit and online billpay. All the cornerstones of modern life are just patches on this ancient system.

But what would you do if you had the chance to start over? What if you could make purely digital money based on modern technologies to solve modern needs? What if we didn’t need those dusty old systems or the people making absurd profits maintaining them? This is Bitcoin.

Am I missing something? Just what is the defect with the good old dollar that the Bitcoin is improving upon? This sounds like: “it’s better, cuz it’s newer.” That’s not an explanation; it’s just like saying: “it’s better, cuz I say it’s better.”

Bitcoin isn’t another patch, another layer of abstraction added on top of an aging and over-complex system. Bitcoin isn’t another bank or payment processor coming up with new ways to move old dollars. Bitcoin is instead a simple, elegant and modern replacement for the entire concept of money. It has value for exactly the same reason as the paper money in your wallet: It simplifies the exchange of goods and services, not in the antique setting of a barter system bazaar, but in the current setting of modern internet-enabled life.

“But that’s only why it’s useful,” I hear some of you saying. “Why does it actually have value?”

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying, and I’m still waiting for an answer.

The two-word answer is one most economists are familiar with: network effect. The network effect is a lovely piece of jargon that refers to the quite commonsense statement that networked products and services tend to have more value when more people use them. The most common example is the telephone. During its early days when few people had access to telephones their utility, and therefore their value, were minimal. Today practically everyone has a phone, so its utility and value is [sic] so high as to be unquestionable. In this way the value of Bitcoin is directly tied to the number of its users and the frequency of their use.

OK, I get that. Just one problem. The dollar has already internalized all those network effects. To get people to switch from dollars to bitcoins, bitcoins would have to offer transactions services that are spectacularly better than those provided by the dollar. What exactly are those spectacularly better transactions services that bitcoins are providing?

Of course Bitcoin’s value stemming from the network effect is not without its own unique difficulties. When the network is still relatively small, each new group’s entry or egress can create massive price fluctuations, resulting in huge profits for early adopters. Unfortunately, this makes Bitcoin look, on the surface, too good to be true—a bit like a Ponzi or pyramid scheme.

Ponzis and pyramids are distinct and different forms of fraud, but they share one thing in common: The first ones in make a lot of money while the last ones in foot the bill. Both feature initial “investors” being paid out directly from new investors’ money. The return is always too good to be true and the gains (for those who actually get gains) are exponential.

The huge increase in value (along with occasional huge drops in value) may be good for early investors, but they are fatal for an aspiring medium of exchange. What you want from a medium of exchange is not a rapidly increasing value, but a nearly (if not necessarily perfectly) stable value. There is no upper limit on the value of a bitcoin and no lower limit. So the bitcoin lacks any mechanism for ensure the stable value that is essential for a well-functioning medium of exchange.

Because Bitcoin’s value has risen so dramatically since its 2009 debut, it seems to fit this sort of a profile at first glance, but then so does every new technology. It’s just not normally the case that we get to invest in this sort of technology and profit as it’s adopted. Imagine being able to invest in the concept of email back in 1965 when some clever hacker at MIT found a way to use primitive multi-user computer systems to pass messages. It might have seemed like a silly waste then, but owning even a tiny percentage of the rights to email today would make one wealthy beyond imagining.

Technologies follow a known adoption curve, which tends to include a period of exponential rise. Bitcoin is no exception. Ponzis and pyramids both create value for their oldest investors by stealing from the new. There’s no economics involved—just theft.

Bitcoin creates value for the old investors and the new by splitting a finite currency supply more ways. That’s not trickery or theft, just good old-fashioned supply and demand at work—a basic and ancient economic principle applied to the world’s newest currency system.

The maximum number of bitcoins is bounded from above, meaning that if it ever did begin to internalize those network effects and the demand for bitcoins did rise, the increased demand would cause its value to skyrocket, which would undermine its suitability as a medium of exchange. The market capitalization of bitcoins hit an all-time high of $15 billion last week. The US monetary base is $3.5 trillion, which is about 230 times the market capitalization of bitcoins. I mean, get real. Bitcoins, by design, are incapable of ever becoming a widely adopted medium of exchange. So even if there were to be a collapse of the dollar — and that outcome may be beyond the capacity of even a Trump Presidency to achieve – it could not be the bitcoin that replaced it as the world’s dominant currency.

La Republique Constitutionelle, C’est Moi

In addition to being popular with the poorly educated, our President-elect also has a committed corps of  highly educated, scholarly supporters. One of the more notable of these is a scholarly type who, writing under the somewhat pretentious pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus” (hereinafter PDM), described the 2016 election as the Flight 93 Election, which seems an odd way to encourage voting for someone, inasmuch as the passengers on flight 93 could not have expected to survive their attack on their hijackers. By implication, a vote for PDM’s choice for President was a vote for national suicide. The suicide committed by the passengers on Flight 93 averted an even greater catastrophe, but what is the larger catastrophe averted by this act of national suicide? But I digress.

Without exactly addressing the peculiarity of the metaphor he used to frame the choice facing voters in 2016, PDM, in a subsequent response to critics, explained that his point was that, although the United States of America might continue to exist if Hillary Clinton were elected President, it would no longer be a Constitutional Republic. A Clinton election, PDM argued, would mean that the country would inevitably continue on its current irreversible path toward an Administrative State ruled by a cadre of faceless bureaucrats and experts unaccountable to the people or their elected representatives.

Thus, in PDM’s view, the outcome of the election has preserved the future of the US as a Constitutional Republic, though, as already noted, that interpretation seems to be belied by the metaphor with which PDM chose to frame the choice presented to voters. At any rate, PDM, while acknowledging that his chosen candidate was an imperfect standard bearer for the cause of Constitutional Republicanism, argued that, by speaking out against the policies of unrestricted immigration, free trade, and military interventionism pursued by all recent administrations, his preferred candidate was the last, best — indeed the only — hope for the preservation of our Constitutional Republic.

The transfer of power to the new administration has not yet taken place, but we have already seen evidence of the commitment of PEOTUS to Constitutional Republicanism. Of course to gauge the commitment, it may help to first have a general idea of the main characteristics of a Constitutional Republic, which we may summarize as follows:

  • The people are sovereign and exercise their sovereignty through a government of elected representatives.
  • The powers exercised by these representatives are limited by a basic law (the Constitution) defining the lawful powers that these representative may exercise.
  • The rights of the people are protected by a rule of law that allows the government to restrict or abridge the rights of citizens only by enacting laws consistent with the Constitution.

But before discussing the attachment of the PEOTUS to Constitutional Republicanism, I want to refer to a post I wrote about six months ago in which I discussed an extraordinary 20th century British politician whose influence, for better or worse, is still felt in Britain, a politician who, in opposing immigration by non-whites, including those already legally residing in Britain, and, in arguing for preserving England/Britain as a legally homogeneous ethnic nation, expressed almost 50 years ago many of the feelings and resentments now animating supporters of PDM’s preferred candidate for President in 2016. That politician was Enoch Powell.

Whatever one might think of Powell — and my own feelings about him are a mixture of admiration and revulsion — he had a genuine commitment to the ideals of personal liberty and the rule of law, though those ideals, as he himself acknowledged, did not rank at the top of his scale of values. I mention Powell in this context because, in criticizing the concept of “voluntary” wage-and-price guidelines to combat inflation – a popular idea in the 1960s and 1970s —  Powell brilliantly described these guidelines as the “rule of the threat of law,” meaning that the government forced coerced businesses and unions to comply with its wishes, not by enacting legislation, thereby requiring compliance by the force of law, but by making it understood, either by explicit statement or by implication, that failure to comply with the guidelines would result in the enactment of legislation requiring compliance under even more onerous terms. This method of achieving policy objectives, by coercing members of the public, not by law, but through open or veiled threats, is the antithesis of the rule of law; it aims at coercing members of the public – businesses and workers – to take actions against their best interests by threatening them with even more unpleasant consequences if they fail to comply with requests or demands of government officials that have no legal standing.

Interestingly, when queried about not having paid taxes in past years, and about having sold products in the US produced overseas, and about having employed foreign workers in domestic construction projects, the PEOTUS pointed out that, in not paying taxes, in selling products in the US produced overseas, and in employing foreign workers on domestic construction projects, he had been in full compliance with the laws of the United States, so that he was only pursuing his own economic self-interest as he, a US citizen, had every right to do. However, the PEOTUS apparently now finds it intolerable that private business firms should make economic decisions in the interests of their owners in the way that he, by his own admission, had done when he ran his own business.

Unless Carrier, GM, and Ford and other businesses do what the PEOTUS wants them to do, they will suffer retribution; non-compliant companies are threatened with a 35% tariff applied on products they manufacture abroad. It is one thing to impose a tariff on imported goods in general; it is quite another to impose a tariff selectively to punish companies for taking actions in the economic interests of their owners of which the PEOTUS disapproves. That is precisely the rule of the threat of law against which Enoch Powell eloquently and rightly warned.

This kind of trampling on the rule of law is not what one would expect to occur in a Constitutional Republic. And remember, that according to PDM, it was with a view to preserving our Constitution Republic that he decided whom to support for President in 2016. So one can’t help wondering if PDM now feels that he has now been vindicated. Perhaps . . . if his idea of a Constitutional Republic approximates the idea of the state held by King Louis XIV.

Wherein Hayek Agrees with DeLong that Just Because You’re Rich, It Doesn’t Mean You Deserve to Be

Recently Brad DeLong expounded on the extent to which the earnings that accrue to individuals do not correspond to the contributions total output that can be ascribed to the personal efforts of those individuals or the contributions made by resources owned by thoe people. Here’s DeLong:

Pascal Lamy: “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger…”

Perhaps in the end the problem is that people want to pretend that they are filling a valuable role in the societal division of labor, and are receiving no more than they earn–than they contribute.

But that is not the case. The value–the societal dividend–is in the accumulated knowledge of humanity and in the painfully constructed networks that make up our value chains.

A “contribution” theory of what a proper distribution of income might be can only be made coherent if there are constant returns to scale in the scarce, priced, owned factors of production. Only then can you divide the pile of resources by giving to each the marginal societal product of their work and of the resources that they own.

That, however, is not the world we live in.

In a world–like the one we live in–of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are those who are lucky–as Carrier’s workers in Indiana have been lucky in living near Carrier’s initial location. It’s not that their contribution to society is large or that their luck is replicable: if it were, they would not care (much) about the departure of Carrier because there would be another productive network that they could fit into a slot in.

All of this “what you deserve” language is tied up with some vague idea that you deserve what you contribute–that what your work adds to the pool of society’s resources is what you deserve.

This illusion is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed, and that the government can distribute it by supplementing (inadequate) market wages determined by your (low) societal marginal product, or by explicitly providing income support or services unconnected with work via social insurance. Instead, the government is supposed to, somehow, via clever redistribution, rearrange the pattern of market power in the economy so that the increasing-returns knowledge- and network-based societal dividend is predistributed in a relatively egalitarian way so that everybody can pretend that their income is just “to each according to his work”, and that they are not heirs and heiresses coupon clipping off of the societal capital of our predecessors’ accumulated knowledge and networks.

On top of this we add: Polanyian disruption of patterns of life–local communities, income levels, industrial specialization–that you believed you had a right to obtain or maintain, and a right to believe that you deserve. But in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation in their industrial specialization. In a market capitalist society, those survive only if they pass a market profitability test. And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power–the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly–and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.

And this ties itself up with regional issues: regional decline can come very quickly whenever a region finds that its key industries have, for whatever reason, lost the market power that diverted its previously substantial share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend into the coffers of its firms. The resources cannot be simply redeployed in other industries unless those two have market power to control the direction of a share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend. And so communities decline and die. And the social contract–which was supposed to have given you a right to a healthy community–is broken.

As I have said before, humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers.

We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.

It is, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being takers: that we are consuming more than we are contributing, and are in some way dependent on and recipients of the charity of others. It is also, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being saps: that others are laughing at us as they toil not yet consume what we have produced.

And it is on top of this evopsych propensity to be gift-exchange animals–what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”–we have built our complex economic division of labor. We construct property and market exchange–what Adam Smith called our natural propensity “to truck, barter, and exchange” to set and regulate expectations of what the fair, non-cheater non-sap terms of gift-exchange over time are.

We devise money as an institution as a substitute for the trust needed in a gift-exchange relationship, and we thus construct a largely-peaceful global 7.4B-strong highly-productive societal division of labor, built on:

  • assigning things to owners—who thus have both the responsibility for stewardship and the incentive to be good stewards…
  • very large-scale webs of win-win exchange… mediated and regulated by market prices…

There are enormous benefits to arranging things this way. As soon as we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with someone or something we will see again–perhaps often–it will automatically shade over into the friend zone. This is just who we are. And as soon as we think about entering into a gift-exchange relationship with someone, we think better of them. Thus a large and extended division of labor mediated by the market version of gift-exchange is a ver powerful creator of social harmony.

This is what the wise Albert Hirschman called the doux commerce thesis. People, as economists conceive them, are not “Hobbesians” focusing on their narrow personal self-interest, but rather “Lockeians”: believers in live-and-let live, respecting others and their spheres of autonomy, and eager to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships—both one-offs mediated by cash alone and longer-run ones as well.

In an economist’s imagination, people do not enter a butcher’s shop only when armed cap-a-pie and only with armed guards. They do not fear that the butcher will knock him unconscious, take his money, slaughter him, smoke him, and sell him as long pig.

Rather, there is a presumed underlying order of property and ownership that is largely self-enforcing, that requires only a “night watchman” to keep it stable and secure.

Yet to keep the fiction that we are all fairly playing the reciprocal game of gift exchange in a 7.4 billion-strong social network–that we are neither cheaters nor saps–we need to ignore that we are coupon clippers living off of our societal inheritance.

And to do this, we need to do more than (a) set up a framework for the production of stuff, (b) set up a framework for the distribution of stuff, and so (c) create a very dense reciprocal network of interdependencies to create and reinforce our belief that we are all one society.

We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as saps–people who are systematically and persistently taken advantage of by others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as, and are not moochers–people who systematically persistently take advantage of others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do this in the presence of a vast increasing-returns in the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend and in spite of the low societal marginal product of any one of us.

Thus we need to do this via clever redistribution rather than via explicit wage supplements or basic incomes or social insurance that robs people of the illusion that what they receive is what they have earned and what they are worth through their work.

Now I think it is an open question whether it is harder to do the job via predistribution, or to do the job via changing human perceptions to get everybody to understand that

  • no, none of us is worth what we are paid.
  • we are all living, to various extents, off of the dividends from our societal capital
  • those of us who are doing especially well are those of us who have managed to luck into situations in which we have market power–in which the resources we control are (a) scarce, (b) hard to replicate quickly, and (c) help produce things
  • that rich people have a serious jones for right now.

Compare with Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty volume 2, pp. 73-74

It has been argued persuasively that people will tolerate major inequalities of the material positions only if they believe that the different individuals get on the whole what they deserve, that they did in fact support the market order only because (and so long as) they thought that the differences of remuneration corresponded roughly to differences of merit, and that in consequence the maintenance of a free society presupposes the belief that some sort of “social justice” is being done. The market order, however, does not in fact owe its origin to such beliefs, or was originally justified in this manner. This order could develop, after its earlier beginnings had decayed during the middle ages and to some extent been destroyed by the restrictions imposed by authority, when a thousand years of vain efforts to discover substantively just prices or wages were abandoned and the late schoolmen recognized them to be empty formulae and taught instead that the prices determined by just conduct of the parties in the market, i.e., the competitive prices arrived at without fraud, monopoly and violence, was all that justice required. It was from this tradition that John Locke and his contemporaries derived the classical liberal conception of justice for which, as has been rightly said, it was only ‘the way in which competition was carried on, not its results’, that could be just or unjust.

It is unquestionably true that, particularly among those who were very successful in the market order, a belief in a much stronger moral justification of individual success developed, and that, long after the basic principles of such an order had been fully elaborated and approved by catholic moral philosophers, it had in the Anglo-Saxon world received strong support from Calvinist teaching.It certainly is important in the market order (or free enterprise society, misleadingly called ‘capitalism’) that the individuals believe that their well-being depends primarily on their own efforts and decisions. Indeed, few circumstances will do more to make a person energetic and efficient than the belief that it depends chiefly on him whether he will reach the goals he has set himself. For this reason this belief is often encouraged by education and governing opinion — it seems to me, generally much to the benefit of most of the members of society in which it prevails, who will owe many important material and moral improvements to persons guided by it. But it leads not doubt also to an exaggerated confidence in the truth of this generalization which to those who regard themselves (and perhaps are) equally able but have failed must appear as a bitter irony and severe provocation.

It is probably a misfortune that, especially in the USA, popular writers like Samuel Smiles and Horatio Alger, and later the sociologist W. G. Sumner, have defended free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving, and it bodes ill for the future of the market order that this seems to have become the only defence of it which is understood by the general public. That it has largely become the basis of the self-esteem of the businessman often gives him an air of self-righteousness which does not make him more popular. [If only!]

It is therefore a real dilemma to what extent we ought to encourage in the young a belief that when they really try they will succeed, or should rather emphasize that inevitably some unworthy will succeed and some worthy fail — whenever we ought to allow the views of those groups to prevail with whom the over-confidence in the appropriate reward of the able and industrious is strong and who in consequence will do much that benefits the rest, and whether without such partly erroneous beliefs the large number will tolerate actual differences in rewards which will be based only partly on achievement and partly on mere chance.

On Intellectual Scruples

Citing Jonathan Chait’s stinging takedown of a remarkably silly assertion by Larry Kudlow that it’s good to have a government run by the super-rich, because the super-rich, already satiated with wealth, are immune to the blandishments that might corrupt the merely rich or upper middle-class, Paul Krugman also skewers Kudlow for a deeper inconsistency in his world-view and that of other devotees of supply-side economics.

What Chait doesn’t note is the special irony of seeing this argument from Kudlow, or indeed any right-wing advocate of supply-side economics. Remember, their whole worldview is based around the claim that cutting taxes on rich people will work economic miracles, because of incentives: let a plutocrat keep more of an extra dollar in income, and he’ll innovate, create jobs, lead us to an earthly paradise in order to get that extra income.

To belabor what should be obvious: either the wealthy care about having more money or they don’t. If lower marginal tax rates are an incentive to produce more, the prospect of personal gain is an incentive to engage in corrupt practices. You can’t go all Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko on the importance of greed as a motivator while claiming that wealth insulates a man from temptation. . . .

But what’s more interesting and revealing, I think, is the way people like Kudlow for whom incentives are supposedly all suddenly say something completely different when it comes to conflicts of interest.

And this is telling us something significant: namely, that supply-side economic theory is and always was a sham. It was never about the incentives; it was just another excuse to make the rich richer.

I understand why Krugman is annoyed with Kudlow and other supply-siders. Kudlow is clearly being inconsistent. But Krugman forgets that he is a partisan advocate, so, like all advocates, he tailors his arguments to support the momentary interest and needs of the political party, and candidates, and causes with which he has aligned himself. And, like any advocate, he searches for whatever arguments he can find to support his side at a particular moment, without caring too much whether the argument he is making today is consistent with another that he made yesterday, or, for that matter, one he made 5 minutes ago. So it’s certainly fair to conclude that Kudlow doesn’t really understand what he is talking about, or that, lacking intellectual scruples, he will say whatever he thinks will advance the interests of his “team.”

But you can’t infer from Kudlow’s lack of intellectual scruples that everyone who favors reducing marginal tax rates is simply trying to make the super-rich even richer. There is a prima facie plausible argument to be made that reducing marginal tax rates would enhance economic efficiency. So the charge that everyone who advocates reducing marginal tax rates is doing so for venal and reprehensible motives just strikes me as, well, implausible.

I mean is it so hard to imagine that an intelligent person could believe that low marginal rates of taxation would promote economic efficiency and enhance productivity? Not for me at any rate, because I used to share that belief myself. If I hold a different view now than I used to, I don’t think it’s because I have become a better person than I used to be (though I hope I have); it’s because I now have serious doubts that low marginal rates of taxation are necessarily efficiency-enhancing. Those doubts result from my having realized that a lot of income — especially in the highest income brackets — is generated by activities whose private benefits greatly exceed their social benefits — the gains to some reflecting interpersonal transfers rather than increased output — so that low marginal income tax rates may, on balance, reduce overall economic efficiency.

Given the lack of research, or my lack of knowledge about the research, on the gaps between the private and social benefits from a lot of very highly remunerated activities, like various forms of financial trading and speculation, research and development aimed at creating intellectual property, and other forms of investment in winner-take-all activities and enterprises, I have no idea what the socially optimum marginal tax rate really is. I therefore have no definite position either for or against changing marginal tax rates.

But I do understand why someone with a perfectly innocent state of mind could believe that not only the super-rich, but even the least well-off members of society, could potentially benefit from reduced marginal tax rates. If you want to disprove or debunk that belief, the right way to do so is to explain what’s wrong with the straightforward — possibly simplistic — reasoning that says that lowering marginal tax rates enhances economic efficiency; it is not by asserting that such a belief could be held only out of venal motives.

As I said, I do understand, and share, Krugman’s frustration with Kudlow, but I still don’t believe that every supporter of low marginal tax rates is lacking in intellectual scruples. And not only is impugning the motives of everyone that disagrees with you unfair, it degrades an already low level of public discourse even further, and may not even be an effective rhetorical strategy.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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