DRI-191 for week of 3-15-15: More Ghastly than Beheadings! More Dangerous than Nuclear Proliferation! Its…Cheap Foreign Steel!

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

More Ghastly than Beheadings! More Dangerous than Nuclear Proliferation! Its…Cheap Foreign Steel!

The economic way to view news is as a product called information. Its value is enhanced by adding qualities that make it more desirable. One of these is danger. Humans react to threats and instinctively weigh the threat-potential of any problematic situation. That is why headlines of print newspapers, radio-news updates, TV evening-news broadcasts and Internet websites and blogs all focus disproportionately on dangers.

This obsession with danger does not jibe with the fact that human life expectancy had doubled over the last century and that violence has never been less threatening to mankind than today. Why do we suffer this cognitive dissonance? Our advanced state of knowledge allows us to identify and categorize threats that passed unrecognized for centuries. Today’s degraded journalistic product, more poorly written, edited and produced than formerly, plays on our neuroscientific weaknesses.

Economists are acutely sensitive to this phenomenon. Our profession made its bones by exposing the bogey of “the evil other” – foreign trade, foreign goods, foreign labor and foreign investment as ipso facto evil and threatening. Yet in spite of the best efforts of economists from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, there is no more dependable pejorative than “foreign” in public discourse. (The word “racist” is a contender for the title, but overuse has triggered a backlash among the public.)

Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised by this headline in The Wall Street Journal: “Ire Rises at China Over Glut of Steel” (03/16/2015, By Biman Mukerji in Hong Kong, John W. Miller in Pittsburgh and Chuin-Wei Yap in Beijing). Surprised, no; outraged, yes.

The Big Scare 

The alleged facts of the article seem deceptively straightforward. “China produces as much steel as the rest of the world combined – more than four times as much as the peak U.S. production in the 1970s.” Well, inasmuch as (a) the purpose of all economic activity is to produce goods for consumption; and (b) steel is a key input in producing countless consumption goods and capital goods, ranging from vehicles to buildings to weapons to cutlery to parts, this would seem to be cause for celebration rather than condemnation. Unfortunately…

“China’s massive steel-making engine, determined to keep humming as growth cools at home, is flooding the world with exports, spurring steel producers around the globe to seek government protection from falling prices. From the European Union to Korea and India, China’s excess metal supply is upending trade patterns and heating up turf battles among local steelmakers. In the U.S., the world’s second-biggest steel consumer, a fresh wave of layoffs is fueling appeals for tariffs. U.S. steel producers such as U.S. Steel Corp. and Nucor Corp. are starting to seek political support for trade action.”

Hmmm. Since this article occupies the place of honor on the world’s foremost financial publication, we expect it to be authoritative. China has a “massive steel-making engine” – well, that stands to reason, since it’s turning out as much steel as everybody else put together. It is “determined to keep humming.” The article’s three (!) authors characterize the Chinese steelmaking establishment as a machine, which seems apropos. They then endow the metaphoric machine with the human quality of determination – bad writing comes naturally to poor journalists.

This determination is linked with “cooling” growth. Well, the only cooling growth that Journal readers can be expected to infer at this point is the slowing of the Chinese government’s official rate of annual GDP growth from 7.5% to 7%. Leaving aside the fact that the rest of the industrialized world is pining for growth of this magnitude, the authors are not only mixing their metaphors but mixing their markets as well. The only growth directly relevant to the points raised here – exports by the Chinese and imports by the rest of the world – is growth in the steel market specifically. The status of the Chinese steel market is hardly common knowledge to the general public. (Later, the authors eventually get around to the steel market itself.)

So the determined machine is reacting to cooling growth by “flooding the world with exports,” throwing said world into turmoil. The authors don’t treat this as any sort of anomaly, so we’re apparently expected to nod our heads grimly at this unfolding danger. But why? What is credible about this story? And what is dangerous about it?

Those of us who remember the 1980s recall that the monster threatening the world economy then was Japan, the unstoppable industrial machine that was “flooding the world” with imports. (Yes, that’s right – the same Japan whose economy has been lying comatose for twenty years.) The term of art was “export-led growth.” Now these authors are telling us that massive exports are a reaction to weakness rather than a symptom of growth.

“Unstoppable” Japan suddenly stopped in its tracks. No country has ever ascended an economic throne based on its ability to subsidize the consumption of other nations. Nor has the world ever died of economic indigestion caused by too many imports produced by one country. The story told at the beginning of this article lacks any vestige of economic sense or credibility. It is pure journalistic scare-mongering. Nowhere do the authors employ the basic tools of international economic analysis. Instead, they employ the basic tools of scarifying yellow journalism.

The Oxymoron of “Dumping” 

The authors have set up their readers with a menacing specter described in threatening language. A menace must have victims. So the authors identify the victims. Victims must be saved, so the authors bring the savior into their story. Naturally, the savior is government.

The victims are “steel producers around the globe.” They are victimized by “falling prices.” The authors are well aware that they have a credibility problem here, since their readers are bound to wonder why they should view falling steel prices as a threat to them. As consumers, they see falling prices as a good thing. As prices fall, their real incomes rise. Falling prices allow consumers to buy more goods and services with their money incomes. Businesses buy steel. Falling steel prices allow businesses to buy more steel. So why are falling steel prices a threat?

Well, it turns out that falling steel prices are a threat to “chief executives of leading American steel producers,” who will “testify later this month at a Congressional Steel Caucus hearing.” This is “the prelude to launching at least one anti-dumping complaint with the International Trade Commission.” And what is “dumping?” “‘Dumping,’ or selling abroad below the cost of production to gain market share, is illegal under World Trade Organization law and is punishable with tariffs.”

After this operatic buildup, it turns out that the foreign threat to America spearheaded by a gigantic, menacing foreign power is… low prices. Really low prices. Visualize buying steel at Costco or Wal Mart.

Oh, no! Not that. Head for the bomb shelters! Break out the bug-out bags! Get ready to live off the grid!

The inherent implication of dumping is oxymoronic because the end-in-view behind all economic activity is consumption. A seller who sells for an abnormally low price is enhancing the buyer’s capability to consume, not damaging it. If anybody is “damaged” here, it is the seller, not the buyer. And that begs the question, why would a seller do something so foolish?

More often than not, proponents of the dumping thesis don’t take their case beyond the point of claiming damage to domestic import-competing firms. (The three Journal reporters make no attempt whatsoever to prove that the Chinese are selling below cost; they rely entirely on the allegation to pull their story’s freight.) Proponents rely on the economic ignorance of their audience. They paint an emotive picture of an economic world that functions like a giant Olympics. Each country is like a great big economic team, with its firms being the players. We are supposed to root for “our” firms, just as we root for our athletes in the Summer and Winter Olympics. After all, don’t those menacing firms threaten the jobs of “our” firms? Aren’t those jobs “ours?” Won’t that threaten “our” incomes, too?

This sports motif is way off base. U.S. producers and foreign producers have one thing in common – they both produce goods and services that we can consume, either now or in the future. And that gives them equal economic status as far as we are concerned. The ones “on our team” are the ones that produce the best products for our needs – period.

Wait a minute – what if the producers facing those low prices happen to be the ones employing us? Doesn’t that change the picture?

Yes, it does. In that case, we would be better off if our particular employer faced no foreign competition. But that doesn’t make a case for restricting or preventing foreign competition in general. Even people who lose their jobs owing to foreign competition faced by their employer may still gain more income from the lower prices brought by foreign competition in general than they lose by having to take another job at a lower income.

There’s another pertinent reason for not treating foreign firms as antagonistic to consumer interests. Foreign firms can, and do, locate in America and employ Americans to produce their products here. Years ago, Toyota was viewed as an interloper for daring to compete successfully with the “Big 3” U.S. automakers. Now the majority of Toyota automobiles sold in the U.S. are assembled on America soil in Toyota plants located here.

Predatory Pricing in International Markets

Dumping proponents have a last-ditch argument that they haul out when pressed with the behavioral contradictions stressed above. Sure, those foreign prices may be low now, import-competing producers warn darkly, but just wait until those devious foreigners succeed in driving all their competitors out of business. Then watch those prices zoom sky-high! The foreigners will have us in their monopoly clutches.

That loud groan you heard from the sidelines came from veteran economists, who would no sooner believe this than ask a zookeeper where to find the unicorns. The thesis summarized in the preceding paragraph is known as the “predatory pricing” hypothesis. The behavior was notoriously ascribed to John D. Rockefeller by the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell. It was famously disproved by the research of economist John McGee. And ever since, economists have stopped taking the concept seriously even in the limited market context of a single country.

But when propounded in the global context of international trade, the whole idea becomes truly laughable. Steel is a worldwide industry because its uses are so varied and numerous. A firm that employed this strategy would have to sacrifice trillions of dollars in order to reduce all its global rivals to insolvency. This would take years. These staggering losses would be accounted in current outflows. They would be weighed against putative gains that would begin sometime in the uncertain future – a fact that would make any lender blanch at the prospect of financing the venture.

As if the concept weren’t already absurd, what makes it completely ridiculous is the fact that even if it succeeded, it would still fail. The assets of all those firms wouldn’t vaporize; they could be bought up cheaply and held against the day when prices rose again. Firms like the American steel company Nucor have demonstrated the possibility of compact and efficient production, so competition would be sure to emerge whenever monopoly became a real prospect.

The likelihood of any commercial steel firm undertaking a global predatory-pricing scheme is nil. At this point, opponents of foreign trade are, in poker parlance, reduced to “a chip and a chair” in the debate. So they go all in on their last hand of cards.

How Do We Defend Against Government-Subsidized Foreign Trade?

Jiming Zou, analyst at Moody’s Investor Service, is the designated spokesman of last resort in the article. “Many Chinese steelmakers are government-owned or closely linked to local governments [and] major state-owned steelmakers continue to have their loans rolled over or refinanced.”

Ordinary commercial firms might cavil at the prospect of predatory pricing, but a government can’t go broke. After all, it can always print money. Or, in the case of the Chinese government, it can always “manipulate the currency” – another charge leveled against the Chinese with tiresome frequency. “The weakening renminbi was also a factor in encouraging exports,” contributed another Chinese analyst quoted by the Journal.

One would think that a government with the awesome powers attributed to China’s wouldn’t have to retrench in all the ways mentioned in the article – reduce spending, lower interest rates, and cut subsidies to state-owned firms including steel producers. Zou is doubtless correct that “given their important role as employers and providers of tax revenue, the mills are unlikely to close or cut production even if running losses,” but that cuts both ways. How can mills “provide tax revenue” if they’re running huge losses indefinitely?

There is no actual evidence that the Chinese government is behaving in the manner alleged; the evidence is all the other way. Indeed, the only actual recipients of long-term government subsidies to firms operating internationally are creatures of government like Airbus and Boeing – firms that produce most or all of their output for purchase by government and are quasi-public in nature, anyway. But that doesn’t silence the protectionist chorus. Government-subsidized foreign competition is their hole card and they’re playing it for all it’s worth.

The ultimate answer to the question “how do we defend against government-subsidized foreign trade?” is: We don’t. There’s no need to. If a foreign government is dead set on subsidizing American consumption, the only thing to do is let them.

If the Chinese government is enabling below-cost production and sale by its firms, it must be doing it with money. There are only three ways it can get money: taxation, borrowing or money creation. Taxation bleeds Chinese consumers directly; money creation does it indirectly via inflation. Borrowing does it, too, when the bill comes due at repayment time. So foreign exports to America subsidized by the foreign government benefit American consumers at the expense of foreign consumers. No government in the world can subsidize the world’s largest consumer nation for long. But the only thing more foolish than doing it is wasting money trying to prevent it.

What Does “Trade Protection” Accomplish?

Textbooks in international economics spell out in meticulous detail – using either carefully drawn diagrams or differential and integral calculus – the adverse effects of tariffs and quotas on consumers. Generally speaking, tariffs have the same effects on consumers as taxes in general – they drive a wedge between the price paid by the consumer and received by the seller, provide revenue to the government and create a “deadweight loss” of value that accrues to nobody. Quotas are, if anything, even more deleterious. (The relative harm depends on circumstances too complex to enumerate.)

This leads to a painfully obvious question: If tariffs hurt consumers in the import-competing country, why in the world do we penalize alleged misbehavior by exporters by imposing tariffs? This is analogous to imposing a fine on a convicted burglar along with a permanent tax on the victimized homeowner.

Viewed in this light, trade protection seems downright crazy. And in purely economic terms, it is. But in terms of political economy, we have left a crucial factor out of our reckoning. What about the import-competing producers? In the Wall Street Journal article, these are the complainants at the bar of the International Trade Commission. They are also the people economists have been observing ever since the days of Adam Smith in the late 18th century, bellied up at the government-subsidy bar.

In Smith’s day, the economic philosophy of Mercantilism reigned supreme. Specie – that is, gold and silver – was considered the repository of real wealth. By sending more goods abroad via export than returned in the form of imports, a nation could produce a net inflow of specie payments – or so the conventional thinking ran. This philosophy made it natural to favor local producers and inconvenience foreigners.

Today, the raison d’etre of the modern state is to take money from people in general and give it to particular blocs to create voting constituencies. This creates a ready-made case for trade protection. So what if it reduces the real wealth of the country – the goods and services available for consumption? It increases electoral prospects of the politicians responsible and appears to increase the real wealth of the beneficiary blocs, which is sufficient to for legislative purposes.

This is corruption, pure and simple. The authors of the Journal article present this corrupt process with a straight face because their aim is to present cheap Chinese steel as a danger to the American people. Thus, their aims dovetail perfectly with the corrupt aims of government.

And this explains the front-page article on the 03/16/2015 Wall Street Journal. It reflects the news value of posing a danger where none exists – that is, the corruption of journalism – combined with the corruption of the political process.

The “Effective Rate of Protection”

No doubt the more temperate readers will object to the harshness of this language. Surely “corruption” is too harsh a word to apply to the actions of legislators. They have a great big government to run. They must try to be fair to everybody. If everybody is not happy with their efforts, that is only to be expected, isn’t it? That doesn’t mean that legislators aren’t trying to be fair, does it?

Consider the economic concept known as the effective rate of protection. It is unknown to the general public, but is appears in every textbook on international economics. It arises from the conjunction of two facts: first, that a majority of goods and services are composed of raw materials, intermediate goods and final-stage (consumer) goods; and second, that governments have an irresistible impulse to levy taxes on goods that travel across international borders.

To keep things starkly simple and promote basic understanding, take the simplest kind of numerical example. Assume the existence of a fictional textile company. It takes a raw material, cotton, and spin, weaves and processes that cotton into a cloth that it sells commercially to its final consumers. This consumer cloth competes with the product of domestic producers as well as with cotton cloth produced by foreign textile producers. We assume that the prevailing world price of each unit of cloth is $1.00. We assume further that domestic producers obtain one textile unit’s worth of cotton for $.50 and add a further $.50 worth of value to the cloth by spinning, weaving and processing it into the cloth.

We have a basic commodity being produced globally by multiple firms, indicated the presence of competitive conditions. But legislators, perhaps possessing some exalted concept of fairness denied to the rabble, decide to impose a tariff on the importation of cotton. Not wishing to appear excessive or injudicious, the solons set this ad valorem tariff at 15%. Given the competitive nature of the industry, this will soon elevate the domestic price of textiles above the world price by the amount of the tariff; e.g., by $.15, to $1.15. Meanwhile, there is no tariff levied on cotton, the raw material. (Perhaps cotton is grown domestically and not imported into the country or, alternatively, perhaps cotton growers lack the political clout enjoyed by textile producers.)

The insight gained from the effective rate of protection begins with the realization that the net income of producers in general derives from the value they add to any raw materials and/or intermediate products they utilize in the production process. Initially, textile producers added $.50 worth of value for every unit of cotton cloth they produced. Imposition of the tariff allows the domestic textile price to rise from $1.00 to $1.15, which causes textile producers’ value added to rise from $.50 to $.65.

Legislators judiciously and benevolently decided that the proper amount of “protection” to give domestic textile producers from foreign competition was 15%. They announced this finding amid fanfare and solemnity. But it is wrong. The tariff has the explicit purpose of “protecting” the domestic industry, of giving it leeway it would not otherwise get under the supposedly harsh and unrelenting regime of global competition. But this tariff does not give domestic producers 15% worth of protection. $15 divided by $.50 – that is, the increase in value added divided by the original value added – is .30, or 30%. The effective rate of protection is double the size of the “nominal” (statutory) level of protection. In general, think of the statutory tariff rate as the surface appearance and the effective rate as the underlying truth.

Like oh-so-many economic principles, the effective rate of protection is a relatively simple concept that can be illustrated with simple examples, but that rapidly becomes complex in reality. Two complications need mention. When tariffs are also levied on raw materials and/or intermediate products, this affects the relationship between the effective and nominal rate of protection. The rule of thumb is that higher tariff rates on raw materials and intermediate goods relative to tariffs on final goods tend to lower effective rates of protection on the final goods – and vice-versa.

The other complication is the percentage of total value added comprised by the raw materials and intermediate goods prior to, and subsequent to, imposition of the tariff. This is a particularly knotty problem because tariffs affect prices faced by buyers, which in turn affect purchases, which in turn can change that percentage. When tariffs on final products exceed those on raw materials and intermediate goods – and this has usually been the case in American history – an increase in this percentage will increase the effective rate.

But for our immediate purposes, it is sufficient to realize that appearance does not equal reality where tariff rates are concerned. And this is the smoking gun in our indictment of the motives of legislators who promote tariffs and restrictive foreign-trade legislation.

 

Corrupt Legislators and Self-Interested Reporting are the Real Danger to America

In the U.S., the Commercial Code includes thousands of tariffs of widely varying sizes. These not only allow legislators to pose as saviors of numerous business constituent classes. They also allow them to lie about the degree of protection being provided, the real locus of the benefits and the reasons behind them.

Legislators claim that the size of tariff protection being provided is modest, both in absolute and relative terms. This is a lie. Effective rates of protection are higher than they appear for the reasons explained above. They unceasingly claim that foreign competitors behave “unfairly.” This is also a lie, because there is no objective standard by which to judge fairness in this context – there is only the economic standard of efficiency. Legislators deliberately create bogus standards of fairness to give themselves the excuse to provide benefits to constituent blocs – benefits that take money from the rest of us. International trade bodies are created to further the ends of domestic governments in this ongoing deception.

Readers should ask themselves how many times they have read the term “effective rate of protection” in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times of London, Barron’s, Forbes or any of the major financial publications. That is an index of the honesty and reputability of financial journalism today. The term was nowhere to be found in the Journal piece of 03/16/2015.

Instead, the three Journal authors busied themselves flacking for a few American steel companies. They showed bar graphs of increasing Chinese steel production and steel exports. They criticized the Chinese because the country’s steel production has “yet to slow in lockstep” with growth in demand for steel. They quoted self-styled experts on China’s supposed “problem [with] hold[ing] down exports” – without every explaining what rule or standard or economic principle of logic would require a nation to withhold exports from willing buyers. They cited year-over-year increases in exports between January, 2013, 2014 and 2015 as evidence of China’s guilt, along with the fact that the Chinese were on pace to export more steel than any other country “in this century.”

The reporters quoted the whining of a U.S. steel vice-president that demonstrating damage from Chinese exports is just “too difficult” to satisfy trade commissioners. Not content with this, they threw in complaints by an Indian steel executive and South Koreans as well. They neglect to tell their readers that Chinese, Indian and South Korean steels tend to be lower grades – a datum that helps to explain their lower prices. U.S. and Japanese steels tend to be higher grade, and that helps to explain why companies like Nucor have been able to keep prices and profit margins high for years. The authors cite one layoff at U.S. steel but forget to cite the recent article in their own Wall Street Journal lauding the history of Nucor, which has never laid off an employee despite the pressure of Chinese competition.

That same article quoted complaints by steel buyers in this country about the “competitive disadvantage” imposed by the higher-priced U.S. steel. Why are the complaints about cheap Chinese exports front-page news while the complaints about high-priced American steel buried in back pages – and not even mentioned by a subsequent banner article boasting input by no fewer than three Journal reporters? Why did the reporters forget to cite the benefits accruing to American steel users from low prices for steel imports? Don’t these reporters read their own newspaper? Or do they report only what comports with their own agenda?

DRI-183 for week of 12-7-14: Immigration and Economic Principles

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Immigration and Economic Principles

1776 marked the founding of a new nation and a new intellectual discipline. The Declaration of Independence announced the creation of a United States of America and proclaimed the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Founders – specifically, the Declaration’s author – relied heavily on Adam Smith for the intellectual underpinnings of their document.

Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, identified the purpose of all economic activity as consumption. Today, economists view consumption as the source of happiness. But in 1776, that notion was radical indeed. The reigning philosophy of government was mercantilism, which taught that government should accumulate gold (or specie generally) as a store of wealth by promoting the export of goods and discouraging imports. The resulting net inflow of gold would enrich the nation. Of course, even mercantilists knew that food was necessary to human survival – they coexisted with a primitive school of economists known as the physiocrats, who believed that land was the only source of economic value and agriculture the only productive economic activity.

Smith’s work began the tradition of modern economics by overturning both his fallacious predecessors. The mercantilists were wrong on two counts: they were wrong to stress exports at the expense of imports and wrong to imply that a “favorable” export surplus was a stable outcome. Imports are the beneficial part of international trade because they enhance consumption; exports are the cost of international trade because they connote a sacrifice of goods sent abroad to obtain imported goods for consumption. Even if an export surplus were to prevail temporarily, it could not persist. Building on the work of his contemporary David Hume, who developed the famous “price-specie flow model,” Smith pointed out that the net inflow of money (either gold or silver) resulting from the export surplus would raise domestic prices, causing exports to become less desirable to domestic residents and foreign imports to become more desirable.

Smith also pointed out that human labor created goods for consumption not only by working the land but in factories as well. His discussion of a pin factory is still studied today as a pioneering analysis of productivity.

Thus did the modern study of economics and international trade begin life together. International economics has stayed in the spotlight ever since. Currently immigration occupies center stage; President Obama has seized the political initiative from the Republicans by proposing to temporarily suspend enforcement of immigration laws against large numbers of undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately, the accidental historical precedence given to international economics has contributed to the misapprehension that this field of economics is sui generis. The truth is that international economics is subordinate to general economic theory. The truths of basic economics apply internationally as well as intranationally. In fact, most international issues would be clearer if they were reconfigured in intranational form. This applies just as strongly to immigration as it does to every other aspect of international economic theory.

Migration and Marginal Productivity

When students take their first economics course, the principle of marginal productivity is one of the first lessons they learn. But first things first. In the beginning, there is scarcity – and it is pervasive. The “economic problem” is the outgrowth of scarce resources and infinite wants. There is no end to the number of good things that the human imagination can dream up. Unfortunately, virtually all of those good things are created using “inputs” – human labor, natural resources and produced goods. Inputs are available in limited quantities; they are “scarce.” Consequently, the good things – “output” – are also scarce. The science of economics has devised a pure logic of choice enabling us to make the best use of scarce inputs in producing scarce output to satisfy unlimited human wants.

The principle of marginal productivity deals with input allocation. It says to allocate inputs so that all marginal productivities are equal. That sounds mind-blowingly simple, and it is. In practice, what it boils down to is that business managers – indeed, all of us, if you want to view each individual as their own manufacturer of happiness – are on the lookout for situations in which some inputs are highly productive. For example, we are all looking for jobs in which our own labor specialties are highly valued. If we are teachers, we keep a weather eye peeled for highly paid teaching vacancies. Movie actors flock to auditions for desirable parts. Computer programmers look for programming jobs that offer the highest salaries.

Input prices, such as the wages paid for human labor, reflect the productivity of the input at the margin. The more productive the input, the greater the demand by managers and the higher the price they are willing to pay it. The more people supply the input, the more sellers compete to offer input services and the lower the price will be, all other things equal.

Input supply and demand determine the market prices for all inputs, from human labor to land to capital goods. The principle of marginal productivity governs the productive allocation of inputs – it tells us whether it makes sense to use more or less of each input in producing the various outputs. It also tells us whether it is efficient to shift inputs between different outputs by using more labor to produce one good and less labor to produce another one.

When we talk about changing input amounts and shifting inputs, we are talking not just about one particular place and one particular point in time. We are also talking about different places at the same time and about different points in time as well. That is, it may also make sense to shift labor from one place to a different place. The same is true of natural resources and capital goods. We also shift input use from today into the future and vice-versa. Differences in input prices and productivities are the keys to these shifts, too.

Migration is one of the most fundamental examples of all economic adaptive response. Differences in input price and productivity between geographic regions create an opportunity for gain by input reallocation. Let us assume that low-skilled human labor is more productive in Kansas than in Missouri. This will tend to make wages for unskilled labor in Kansas above those in Missouri. The most practical response to this discrepancy is for unskilled labor to migrate from Missouri to Kansas. This will tend to lower wages of unskilled labor in Kansas and raise them in Missouri, thereby reducing the wage discrepancy in the two states. The migration will also tend to reduce the marginal productivity discrepancy in the two states by lowering marginal productivity for unskilled labor in Kansas and raising it in Missouri.

Migrations of this kind happen throughout the U.S. on a daily basis. Nobody thinks much about them, let alone takes measures to prevent them. But if I were to replace the word “Kansas” with the word “Texas” and the word “Missouri” with the word “Mexico,” the whole passage would suddenly become controversial and subject to debate. While intranational migration has occurred throughout American history without attracting unfavorable comment, international immigration has been heatedly debated since at least the 1920s.

Our discussion is the tipoff to the falsity of most of the debate. There is little economic difference between intranational migration and international immigration. The mere fact that the migratory movement crosses an international boundary does not invalidate it. It does not rob it of its economic value. Of course, it does change its superficial character. But that is all; the change is superficial only. The gain from immigration is the same as that from migration – more efficient use of scarce resources. It is one of the most basic, bedrock principles in economics.

Opportunity Cost and Comparative Advantage

The very first subject undertaken in the very first course in economics taken by college students is the subject of economic cost. What is special about economic cost, as opposed to (say) accounting cost? Economists view cost in a special way. Because all of us live our lives exchanging goods for money and vice versa, we are completely habituated to denominating prices and costs in monetary units. And that’s good, because it gives us a common denominator for valuing thousands of things whose heterogeneity would otherwise make comparative valuation a nightmare. Can you imagine a life in which we had to trade goods and services directly for other goods and services, without a medium of exchange to intermediate each transaction?

The thought sends shivers up and down your spine. But economists conceptually do just that when they explain microeconomic theory or, as it is sometimes called, price theory. That theory treats money prices only in relative or real form. A relative price reveals the implied sacrifice of one good involved in the purchase of one unit of another. For example, if the Px = $10 and the Py = $5, then the relative price of X (its real price) is the ratio of X’s price to Y’s price. That is, the purchase of one unit of good X implies the sacrifice of 2Y. While the money price of X is $10, its real price is 2Y. In a two-good world, this relative price is the opportunity cost of consuming X.

Why do economists go to all the trouble of jolting students out of their comfortable familiarity with monetary valuation and into the retrograde world of direct barter exchange? Not because barter trade has much practical application, certainly, although it does arise occasionally in special contexts. No, the purpose is expressed in an aphorism by the great 19th-century English economist John Stuart Mill, who characterized money as a veil that obscures but does not completely hide the underlying reality. That reality is that indirect monetary exchange substitutes for direct barter exchange, and this accounts for the concept of a relative or “real” price. When we pay money for goods we are really trading alternative consumption – specifically, the highest-valued alternative consumption purchase equal in monetary amount. This is a tipoff to the fact that the real value we derive from goods and services is the happiness they bring; money is merely a placeholder (or unit of account) that facilitates comparison and exchange.

We penetrate the monetary veil because it’s the only way to learn the underlying truths about opportunity cost and comparative advantage. In 1815, an English stockbroker named David Ricardo assumed Adam Smith’s mantel as the world’s leading economist by developing a revolutionary model of international trade. Ricardo’s model stipulated two hypothetical countries. He could just as well have called them “A” and “B,” but with an eye to the headlines of his day he called them “England” and “Portugal.” He specified two produced goods, wine and cloth, both produced using human labor. (He treated all labor hours as equivalent.) No chauvinist, he assumed that Portugal was capable of producing both goods using fewer labor hours than was England. He began by assuming a condition of autarky; that is, no international trade between the two countries. He also stipulated (arbitrary) price and production levels for both goods in each country.

Up to this point, Ricardo had done nothing remarkable by contemporary standards. But now he hit his audience with a thunderbolt. He asserted that opening up the two countries to international trade would benefit both of them by allowing them to consume more than each country could produce and consume in the absence of international trade.

First, Ricardo pointed out that the true economic cost of production for wine and cloth in each country was not the (unspecified) monetary cost of employing labor. It was not even the amount of labor hours used to produce each good. (Up to this point, classical economists such as Adam Smith had favored a ‘labor theory of value”; the value of any good was determined by the amount of labor required to produce it.) No, the true economic cost was the opportunity cost of production – except that Ricardo called it the “comparative cost.” Based on the labor coefficients of each good in each country, Ricardo calculated the opportunity cost of one unit of wine and cloth production in both England and Portugal.

And lo! The results shocked the world. In fact, they still do. Even though Portugal appeared to be the more efficient producer of both goods, it had a lower opportunity-cost of production for one good only – wine. Portugal was the more efficient wine producer because its opportunity-cost of production was lower than England’s.

The implications of this finding were – and are – world-shaking. England should specialize in its most efficient good, cloth, by producing more cloth than it did under autarky. Portugal should produce more wine than it did under autarky. (Actually, Ricardo’s model prescribed complete production specialization by each country, an artifact of the super-simplified assumptions built into his model.) Then the two countries should trade internationally – England should export cloth to Portugal in exchange for wine produced by Portugal, thus allowing both countries to consume both goods. The terms of trade should represent a ratio of prices intermediate to that existing under autarky.

Sure enough – Ricardo’s model generated a result in which both England and Portugal achieved consumption levels for wine and cloth that exceeded the possibilities open to them under autarky. At the time, this seemed to the general public like a magic trick. To some people today, it still does. Some people have never learned it and others refuse to believe what they learned. Then there are those who insist that Ricardo’s conclusions apply only in textbooks and not in reality, for a host of reasons.

There are two key insights behind Ricardo’s theory. The first is his notion of comparative cost. Modern economists have broken this term in two. They have modified the term “comparative cost” to “opportunity cost” in order to stress its alternative element. To bring out the comparative or relative element, they have devised the term “comparative advantage” to encompass situations like England’s in Ricardo’s theory. Despite being less productively efficient in both goods in the absolute sense, England nevertheless had a comparative production advantage in cloth because its opportunity-cost of production was lower.

But merely identifying the locus of comparative advantage is purely academic unless we act on it by specializing in production, which creates the extra output that allows us all to consume more by engaging in international trade. Thus, specialization and trade is the second key element in Ricardo’s theory.

Thus far in this section, we have said nothing whatever about immigration. But immigration is the proverbial elephant in the room. For thousands of years, civilization has been following this principle of specialization and trade according to comparative advantage. That is what we do when we grow up, go to school, get a job, work and earn money – then use the money to support our lifestyles. We did it for millennia without realizing what we were doing or why, like the character in Moliere’s play who had been speaking prose all his life without realizing it.

David Ricardo developed his theory in terms of international trade for the same reason that Adam Smith began the modern study of economics by focusing on international trade: that was where the action was in terms of money, public interest and government activity.

It is only very recently that economic textbooks have tentatively begun to point out that the same insight they have been flogging for centuries while teaching the theory of international trade is valid in intranational trade. In fact, this is exactly the insight that has accounted for human productivity since the days when human beings left their hunter-gatherer bands and formed individual families residing in villages, towns and cities.

And how does immigration fit into this implicit theory of everyday production, you ask? The answer would be too mundane to need mention were it not for the fact that so many people ferociously resist it even now. In order for specialization and trade according to comparative advantage and trade to work, people have to specialize in their comparative-advantage line of production, just as England and Portugal had to specialize in Ricardo’s model for those countries to realize the gains from international trade.

And they can’t very well specialize when they aren’t allowed to work at what they do best, can they? Yet Mexicans who are five times more productive working in Texas than in Mexico are nevertheless barred from working legally in the U.S.! The basic fundamental principles of markets are designed to achieve maximum productivity by assigning all of us to our highest-valued uses, where our marginal productivity is highest. And U.S. immigration laws allow people to move across international borders only according to their national origin, which has as much to do with their marginal productivity as the color of their eyes does.

Is this any way to run a railroad? Is it any wonder that the greatest economists, like Milton Friedman, constantly stress fundamental principles rather than niggling about esoteric mathematics or econometric models?

Cost Minimization

The standard microeconomic theory taught in college courses is divided into three subject areas: the theory of consumer demand, the theory of cost and production and the theory of marginal input productivity. The theory of cost and production is sometimes called “the theory of the firm” because its usual application is to business firms. That theory explains the optimal logic behind the production and sale of output to consumers by businesses.

A key principle of this theory is cost minimization. The theory of the firm assumes that the firm’s goal is profit maximization. (“Profit” might be viewed in instantaneous terms as the residual of total revenue from the sale of output minus all costs of production, including the opportunity cost of capital and/or the owner’s labor time, or it might be viewed intertemporally as the discounted present value of expected future net revenue.) The firm’s manager(s) will choose the rate of output that maximizes profit and will select the combination of inputs that minimizes the cost of producing that rate of output.

It goes without saying that the firm will purchase any quantity of (homogeneous) input at the lowest possible price. Alternatively, the firm will purchase the highest quality of any heterogeneous input at a given price.

Well, it’s supposed to go without saying, anyway. But when it comes to immigration, suddenly it’s a crime even to say it out loud. When employers want to hire foreign workers because they can pay lower wages than they are paying to domestic workers for the same work, that turns out to be illegal, or immoral, or fattening or otherwise verboten. But if this is not only allowable but even downright de rigeur in an intranational context, why should it be unthinkable in an international context?

Of course, the answer is that it shouldn’t. It is just as beneficial to minimize costs by hiring cheap foreign labor as it is to hire cheap domestic labor. It is just as beneficial to hire cheap labor from any source as it is to purchase cheap raw materials or cheap land or cheap machinery.

Did a reader respond by inquiring “beneficial for whom?” Well, the answer is “beneficial in the first instance for business owners, but beneficial in the long run for everybody, because lower costs ultimately are reflected in lower prices and everybody is a consumer – including all the owners of inputs who are paid the lowest prices.” We can’t always guarantee that every single person benefits from every efficient economic activity – such as immigration – more than they suffer from it. But that has to be true for most people – otherwise, how did civilization advance as it has over the millennia? How did the U.S. become the U.S.?

What About “Fiscal Cost” or “Net Job Creation” or …

We now know that the concept of free and open migration – whether inside the boundaries of a nation or across national boundaries – is fundamental to the efficiency of markets. It is inextricably interwoven into the fabric of our everyday lives, so much so that we take it completely for granted. Thus, when we protest against immigration by foreigners into our country we are engaging in the most blatant contradiction.

How many times have readers of this EconBrief previously seen this issue framed in these clear, straightforward terms? Chances are, the answer is: Zero. Instead, we are presented with a variety of alternative arguments against immigration.

For example, a fairly recent anti-immigration tactic is the “fiscal cost” scam. We are urged to restrict immigration – or ban it altogether – because it is unaffordable. Supposedly, immigrants cost the government more in various forms of transfer payments (welfare, Social Security, emergency medical and more) than they generate in receipts (various tax payments). Thus, on net balance they flunk the criterion of “fiscal cost.”

The non-economist might suppose that this is a key test of economic worthiness, perhaps tabulated quarterly or annually on every American by a government bureau and kept on file. What a laugh. Fiscal cost is a term made up by anti-immigrationists in order to discredit immigrants. The easiest way to appreciate this is to recall that half of the American population now pays no income tax. It has recently come to light that most Americans stack up even worse by the fiscal cost standard than do immigrants! This is hardly surprising; immigrants are not eligible for most forms of welfare and tend to be younger than the average American, so get less medical treatment than average as well. They are more entrepreneurial and tend to work harder, so are more productive as well. This follows because, far from being the tired, dispossessed, tempest-tossed, ragged poor of the Emma Lazarus poem, immigrants tend to have more initiative and smarts than the average person. They have to be better than average in order to contemplate traveling to another land, speaking a foreign language, coping with another culture and starting another life. The anti-immigration stereotype of a lazy bum who somehow runs the border gauntlet in order to live off the fat of the U.S. welfare state is a particularly egregious myth.

Calculating fiscal cost is no easy task. Why would a researcher engage in laborious calculations to produce estimates of aggregate effects whose meaning is so obscure? Actually, complexity and obscurity are what make concepts like fiscal cost attractive to anti-immigrationists. The last thing they want to do is join a debate on fundamental economic principles, where the issues are so straightforward and clear-cut. Why start a fight they are destined to lose? Instead, they want to pick a fight they can pretend to win because the public will not know how to judge it. We are so used to hearing economic issues outlined in complicated terms, so accustomed to watching with glazed eyes and hearing without comprehending that we fall back on our emotions rather than our reason.

Now the anti-immigrationists have us where they want us. The immigration debate takes us back to the days of pre-history, when mankind first began to break up the ancient bands and form families. Outsiders were looked upon with suspicion. Trade and specialization were forbidden; economic activity was geared to benefit the band, not the individual household. Today, the nation state has taken the place of the ancient hunter-gatherer band as the extended family. The state dispenses welfare benefits and rules over us with an iron fist. It wants to control economic activity for its benefit and the benefit of its acolytes. It inflames those ancient, instinctive antagonisms toward outsiders that still reside within the citizenry.

We can revert to the savage, instinctive atavism of mankind’s primitive past. Or we can embrace the reasoned productivity of freedom and free markets. The choice should be easy, for the record of history shows that markets have lifted mankind out of the muck and mire to the prosperity of today.

The last thing we should do is judge immigration by perusing the latest pseudo-study by a think-tank dedicating to obfuscating clear thought. The simplest, clearest, most basic of all economic principles tell us that immigration is vital to freedom and prosperity.

DRI-275 for week of 8-24-14: The Movie Law of Inverse Relevance

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Movie Law of Inverse Relevance

Beginning in the late 1940s and early 50s, more Hollywood movies were made to push a polemical agenda or send a political message. Prior to that, the major Hollywood studios followed “Mayer’s Maxim.” Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s boss Louis B. Mayer is credited with the dictum: “When I want to send a message, I’ll call Western Union.” Mayer objected to “message movies” because he didn’t think they were good box office.

This space has taken a different tack, objecting to Hollywood message movies a posteriori, doubting not their entertainment value but rather their veracity. The problem is that Hollywood producers, directors and screenwriters cannot keep their thumbs off the scales. Since reality stubbornly refuses to accommodate itself to their warped vision, they film their “true stories” by lying about the facts in order to satisfy the audience and themselves simultaneously. The problem is so endemic that the only safe approach is for viewers to assume that filmmakers are lying until proven otherwise.

This tempts us to the conclusion that truth and movies are mutually exclusive. We’re congenitally suspicious of entertainment-oriented Hollywood films. For example, we know that action movies defy the laws of physics and suspense movies end happily whereas real-life suspense often does not. If movies that advertise “This is a true story” are almost certainly lying to us, where can we hope to find a semblance of reality?

The surprising answer is that some of the most entertaining movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, movies made with no apparent thought for social relevance, occasionally offer stunningly accurate illustrations of history and economics. This forms the basis for an empirical dictum called the Movie Law of Inverse Relevance: The more entertaining the movie, the greater the likelihood of encountering truth within it; the more socially conscious the movie, the less likely it is to be true.

Boom Town: More Than Just Another Hollywood Potboiler

Oil has been the lifeblood of life on Earth for over a century. You’d never know it from depictions of the oil business on screen, which have tended to treat petroleum as a commodity freighted with tragedy and the oil business as populated by psychotics. Yet it was not ever thus.

The 1940 movie Boom Townwas one of the biggest box-office movies in the year after Hollywood’s legendary year of 1939. It starred Clark Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” and Spencer Tracy, winner to consecutive Best Actor Academy Awards in 1937 and 1938. The female lead, Claudette Colbert, had teamed with Gable in 1934’s It Happened One Night, the first film ever to win Academy Awards in the five major categories – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. This was their “reunion” film, long-awaited by movie audiences throughout America. As if this blockbuster combination of stars weren’t enough to assure the film’s success, they were joined by Hedy Lamarr, perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world, and Frank Morgan, a scene-stealing character actor and eventual Oscar nominee in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories.

The movie’s formidable assemblage of talent was enough to lure people into the theaters and keep them in their seats. But the script, by Gable’s favorite screenwriter, John Lee Mahin – based on a story by another Gable favorite, James Edward Grant – told more than the usual Hollywood tall tale. It told a true story of the oil business and the men who made it work – and a government that tried to torpedo it.

The Plot

The time is 1912. The place is a dusty Texas town called Burkburnett, which some spring rains have turned into a mudhole. Two men are crossing the muddy street from opposite directions on a narrow, rickety bridge of planks built from two-by-fours. They meet in the middle. The tall one (Gable) addresses the other (Tracy) as “Shorty” and cordially invites him to stand aside, knowing this would entail a side trip into the mud. This meets with a stony refusal. The two trade insults and the impasse is about to escalate into fisticuffs – then gunfire splits the air when a man flees the nearby saloon with a deputy sheriff in hot pursuit. The two men abandon their dignity and leap head-first into the mud rather than risk meeting a stray bullet.

Thus is born a famous friendship between “Big John” McMasters and “Square John” Sand. The two share more than a first name. They are both wildcat oil prospectors, freshly arrived in town thanks to the discovery of oil that has turned a tiny Texas fly-speck into a legendary boom town. They have both staked out a likely looking stretch of ground outside of town. They pool their meager assets and find they lack sufficient funds to purchase drilling equipment and supplies. McMasters allows Sand to choose the precise spot to “sput in” (drill) but promises to produce the necessary materiel. At his urging, the two stage a skit to deceive a local equipment dealer, Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan) into supplying the necessary stuff in exchange for a small share in their well which, they assure him confidently, is a sure thing to succeed.

The well fails. Sand reluctantly admits that McMasters’ choice of drilling location would have been better. Now the pair must raise their roll again – after first fleeing town one jump ahead of that same sheriff’s deputy whose bullets they had earlier dodged, one Harmony Jones (character actor Chill Wills). The film skillfully uses montage to concisely depict the succession of odd jobs and travails that eventually takes them back to Burkburnett. They have enough money to pay for tools and equipment now, but not enough to pay off the debt for their previous dry hole.

Undaunted, the two bluff their way past Luther Aldrich a second time. They’d be crazy to try the same routine on him again, wouldn’t they? This time they’ve really got a sure thing, and they’ll increase his stake as an incentive to agree to an ownership share against what they owe. Luther is imprudent enough to agree, but not completely crazy; he dispatches Harmony as a security guard over their claim to make sure they don’t run out on him a second time. McMasters gives Sand the naming rights over their claim and Sand chooses “Beautiful Betsy” in honor of the girl he left behind back East.

As the drilling progresses, the restless McMasters leaves Sand on duty at the rig one Saturday night and goes into town to relieve the monotony. He bumps into a proper Eastern girl (Claudette Colbert) who has journeyed to Burkburnett to meet a friend. She and McMasters experience the classic Hollywood “love at first sight” evening. By morning, they are married. Sand returns to their boarding house to break the news that their gusher has come in and the time-honored plot device of unknown identity unfolds – Colbert is Betsy Bartlett, the woman Sand is expecting to marry, while Sand is Betsy’s best-friend-who-she-doesn’t-feel-that-way-about. McMasters, in true Gable fashion, steps forward and invites Sand to take a poke at him. But Sand quietly asks Betsy if McMasters is the man she really wants. Upon verifying the truth, he calmly leaves the scene, implicitly giving the two his blessing. “Honey,” McMasters concludes admiringly, “that is a man.”

The movie’s next few minutes set the scene for the rest of the film. The audience learns that McMasters’ love for Betsy is true but equaled by his love of the chase and conquest. Betsy’s real rival is not other women but oil; women only tempt McMasters when he is tied down and prevented from exercising his talent for serial exploration and exploitation of oil. And Sand remains faithful to Betsy, his romantic ardor now sublimated into friendship. The movie resolves into the kind of romantic triangle that only Hollywood could dream up. McMasters and Sand make and lose a succession of fortunes and their friendship is broken and mended repeatedly. The cause of these episodes is Betsy; Sand will not allow McMasters to abuse Betsy’s love.

When McMasters meets the illegally lovely Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr), the two are drawn to each other. Vanmeer is a skilled business analyst who wants to acquire McMasters in a hostile takeover from his wife. Sand won’t permit it. He proposes marriage to Vanmeer and offers her lavish financial terms including a draconian divorce settlement that would enrich her. Astonished, she mutters, “I see. Greater love hath no man than…”

Eventually, the long-delayed fisticuffs between McMasters and Sand explode. The movie culminates in a battle over control of the oil business.

The plot summary highlights the entertainment value of Boom Town. It says nothing about the movie’s contributions to our understanding of history and economics.

Boom Townas History

There is no narrative or visual prelude assuring us that “this is a true story.” Nevertheless, there is no movie that tells the story of wildcat oil exploration and drilling in the early 20th century as vividly and truthfully as Boom Town. Burkburnett was a real Texas boom town where oil was discovered in 1912. The discovery turned the town upside down in just the manner portrayed in the movie.

How many movies shown today are as relevant to life today? The Burkburnett of 1912 is uncannily like parts of Texas and North Dakota today – scruffy, muddy, starved of infrastructure, crowded with roughnecks, troubled with petty crime but bursting at the seams with opportunity and unbridled vitality. Both today and a century ago, this was a frontier region – not in the geographic sense but in an economic sense. This was entrepreneurship at its most raw and visceral, not something out of business school.

Perhaps the most neglected feature of Boom Townis the role played by this scenic backdrop. The movie is so dominated by its multiple stars and impeccable supporting cast that the audience is unconscious of the background. We feel it acutely nonetheless. The critic James Shelley Hamilton wrote long ago of the elements that make up “the feet a movie walks on.” Boom Town owes its jaunty strut to its brilliantly observed picture of the life of an oil town, whether in Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, California or Central America.

Boom Town as Economic Theory and Logic

Boom Townshould be shown in university courses on economic history and theory. We could leaf diligently through reference sources like Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide or Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide without encountering another movie so rich in economic meaning.

The physical, geologic circumstances of petroleum evolution and extraction create an age-old problem of economic investment and consumption. In the movie’s final third, McMasters discovers that the refining of oil offers even more scope for entrepreneurial skill and profit than does exploration and production. Characteristically, he charges into the market full-bore, determined to risk going down in flames in order to become a leader. He forms a partnership with wily veteran Harry Compton (character actor Lionel Atwill). But when Sand and McMasters feud over the latter’s treatment of Betsy, Sand enlists Compton in an effort to break McMasters by double-crossing him. In retaliation, McMasters calls on his countless contacts among the country’s small wildcatters, persuading them to forsake the partnership of Compton and Sand and sell their oil to him instead.

McMasters uses an argument that must have seemed obscure to most movie audiences – and probably still does. But knowledgeable industry observers and economists will recognize within it a time-honored conundrum. “Sand will make you force-pump your wells,” he insists to the wildcatters. “Pretty soon you’ll be looking at dry holes. Go with me and I’ll keep you pumping years longer.” Hollywood was – and still is – famous for dishing out all manner of baloney in the service of its plots. But this wasn’t the usual nonsense.

According to orthodox geological theory, petroleum is created by fossilized deposits that crystallize in the ground over many millennia. These deposits eventually liquefy and congregate in underground reservoirs called “traps.” That term is particularly apt when the liquid is literally trapped within rocks like the shale or sandstone that now supplies much of the oil being produced in the northern United States and Canada. Oil exploration has traditionally consisted of the location, identification and confirmation of these traps.

But just locating oil isn’t enough; that’s just the beginning of the process. Getting the oil out of the ground was no picnic in the early 20th century. Drilling holes in the ground using percussive methods – e.g.; knocking holes with heavy machines – enables the oil to be reached and exhumed. Raising it to the surface isn’t like dropping a dipper in a pail of water lifting it to your lips. It takes great physical persuasion to accomplish. McMasters’ use of the term “force-pumping” referred to the practice of pumping compressed air down the drilling shaft to force the oil to the surface. This term involved a certain amount of time, trouble and danger. But the worst thing about it was the tradeoff it implied. Its use eventually made the trap unproductive – not because the oil was fully extracted but instead because the remaining oil could no longer be withdrawn from the ground. Given the technology currently in use, it was stuck there. We know it was there, or at least those in the know did. But it didn’t count as “reserves,” because “proven reserves” only consisted of oil that was actually extractable. Depending on particular circumstances, this might be anywhere from 30% to 60% of the original petroleum deposit in the trap.

These facts of geologic and economic life are particularly germane today. The U.S. economy today is getting a shot in the arm from oil exploration and production in Texas and North Dakota, not to mention the oil coming from our longtime leading supplier to the north, Canada. Strictly speaking, this oil comes not from “new” discoveries but from long-existing fields and rigs that only recently became economically useful. New techniques of “enhanced recovery” like horizontal drilling (over fifty years old but newly profitable) and “fracking” have given these sources a new lease on life – which aptly describes the effect the oil has had on the America economy.

The wildcatters McMasters and Sand fought over faced a classic economic dilemma. They could pump more oil now and a lot less later or pump somewhat less now and somewhat more in the future. Sand himself alludes to this in courtroom testimony by calling McMasters a “conservationist… although he didn’t know it.” We are taught – conditioned is a better word – to view “conservation” as a good thing, as the antonym of “waste.” That is simply not true, though. There is no inherent, technological logic of efficiency that allows us to prefer consumption in the future to consumption now; only human preferences and purposes can resolve this issue.

That is where the interest rate enters the picture. Interest rates balance the supply of saving funds and the demand for investment funds – that is, the desires of those who want to consume more in the future and those who want to produce things to be consumed in the future. In pure theory, there is an optimal rate of extraction for natural resources such as petroleum that depends on the level of interest rates. Relatively low interest rates suggest that people want to consume lots in the future and that we should economize on consumption now and concentrate on production for the future. High interest rates encourage current consumption and discourage saving and investment geared toward the future.

The movie presents conservation in a whole new lightas governed by economics. Boom Towndoesn’t present this relatively sophisticated analysis explicitly; it just treats McMasters as a hero for promoting “conservation.” The implications of this, however, are unprecedented.

For one thing, Sand suggests that McMasters is acting entirely in pursuit of his own profit, yet his actions promote the general interest. That is, he is providing an operational definition of Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand at work. Celebrations of Adam Smith in Hollywood movies occur roughly as often as Halley’s Comet visits our solar system. For another, conservation in the movies is practiced by environmentalists or mavericks or nut jobs that are portrayed as really smarter than successful people – but never by successful businessmen. In 1940 as today, businessmen weren’t allowed to act nobly or altruistically within the framework of a movie unless they were portrayed as deliberately scorning profit.

Compton matter-of-factly uses the antitrust laws as a tool to harm his competitor, McMasters, thus serving his own business advantage. When Compton (Atwill) muses, “I wonder what the federal government would say about McMasters’ activities…,” and we then witness McMasters’ trial for violating the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act, it is a seminal movie moment. It would be over twenty years before radical historian Gabriel Kolko would advance his famous theory of “regulatory capture,” which was eventually co-opted by the right wing as a key plank in its opposition to the regulatory state. Kolko’s research showed that the first great regulatory initiative, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887, was ushered in by the corporate railroad interests it ostensibly was created to regulate. The railroad business was beset by the age-old bugbear of industries with high fixed costs and low variable costs: price wars among competitors. The ICC cartelized the industry by raising prices and ending the price wars. Subsequent research has shown that antitrust enforcement has specialized in suppressing competition by concentrating on protecting competitors from competitive damage rather than safeguarding the competitive process itself.

McMasters successfully persuades wildcatters to forsake Compton and Sand in his favor. Yet his actions are criminalized as “monopolization.” It is true that orthodox economic theory describes a monopolist as one who “restricts” output in his own interest. But his ability to do that derives from restrictions on entry into the industry. The oil business is legendary for the absence of just those restrictions; indeed, that is what Boom Town is all about. Even the smallest wildcatter, whose fraction of total oil output is so tiny as to foreclose any influence on the market price of oil, still faces a problem of optimizing the time structure of oil extraction and sale. This problem is absent from orthodox theory only because that theory is timeless; it foolishly treats production and consumption as though occurring simultaneously in a single timeless instant.

In the event, the movie and the jury both vindicate McMasters by finding him innocent of monopolization. Unfortunately, he has spent so much money in his legal defense that he is now broke again, for what seems the umpteenth time. And this is yet another sophisticated economics lesson: somebody can be right and win in court, yet still be defeated by the magnitude of legal expenses.

Entertainment Wins Out in the End – as Usual

We are seemingly set up for a downbeat ending. But not in 1940, not when Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Claudette Colbert are heading the cast. At the fadeout, we find ourselves on a California hillside, overlooking a valley. McMasters, Betsy and Harmony and broke but happy, living out of a trailer and working the one small section of oil property that McMasters has left after his devastating brush with antitrust law. Who should come wandering over the hill but Luther Aldrich and John Sand? Aldrich has persuaded Sand to invest in the property as a devious scheme to reunite the old partners. Grudging at first, they spar over where the oil structure is located and where the rig will sput in. They turn their aggressive humor on their old target; Aldrich will naturally float them the tools and equipment in exchange for an ownership share in the property, in lieu of cash payment. “Oh, no!” Aldrich exclaims. “You two go broke on your own this time. There’s a dry hole in every foot of this place.”

As the background music score swells, the four principals stroll arm in arm toward the camera, grinning happily. “What’s the name of this sucker’s paradise?” demands Aldrich. “They named it after some old guy called Kettelman,” McMasters explains nonchalantly. “They call it ‘Kettleman Hills.'”

“Kettleman Hills?” Aldrich scoffs. “Doesn’t even sound like oil.”

The 1940 movie audience knew what today’s audience, for whom American history is a lost pastime, never learned. The gigantic Kettleman Hills discovery was one of the greatest oil booms of its day. McMasters, Sand, Aldrich and Betsy will soon be richer than ever. It’s happy-ending time for the cast of Boom Town.

The Moral

Metro Goldwyn Mayer never set out to make Boom Town a “relevant” movie, slake an executive’s social conscience or satisfy a star’s altruistic longings. If anybody associated with the project sensed its historical or economic uniqueness, it was a well-guarded secret. Its singular goal was entertainment, one that it fulfilled admirably.

The bleached bones of failed socially conscious and message movies litter the pages of Variety and other trade publications. The lies told by the numerous “true stories” and exposes await exposure by an investigator with the intestinal and anatomical fortitude for the job. Buried within the boundless entertainment of gems like Boom Town are the real lessons Hollywood can teach us about economic history and theory, freedom and free enterprise.

The relationship between socially relevant pretension and truth in movies is inverse. The more relevance, the less value; the less relevance and the more entertainment, the more truth.

DRI-305 for week of 3-17-13: What is Behind the New ‘Sharing Economy?’

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

What is Behind the New ‘Sharing Economy?’

The once-distinguished British weekly The Economist highlights a new Web-based economic phenomenon in a recent (03/9-15/2013) issue. The name assigned by the magazine to this activity is the “sharing economy” – a dreadful misnomer that conjures up images of 60s counterculture and communes. But however misnamed, the transactions it denotes are a sign that cannot be ignored.

In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith explained the growth of markets by citing man’s innate “propensity to truck, barter and exchange.” Ever since, these words have received both veneration and ridicule. Smith’s admirers saw in them a beautifully realized portrait of human nature. Opponents of free markets have scoffed. They long since rejected whatever validity Smith’s “higgling and haggling of the marketplace” might have had in favor of Thorstein Veblen’s picture of “shadowy figures moving in the background;” they see corporate power, not voluntary exchange, as the dominant motif in the market. Since 2008, the Left has pooh-poohed the notion of rational choice by citing the financial collapse as proof of the irrationality of crowds and the infeasibility of deregulated markets.

But now comes The Economist to point out that even as world financial markets were imploding, unregulated private markets were springing up to enrich the daily lives of billions of the world’s citizens. Alas, the magazine itself misses the significance of its own reporting.

The “Peer-to-Peer” Rental Market

Every night some 40,000 people around the world rent rooms from a service that operates throughout the world – 192 countries, 250,000 rooms in 30,000 cities. The customers choose their rooms and pay online. But the provider is not a commercial business chain like Hilton, Marriott or even Motel 6. Instead, a San Francisco-based firm called Airbnb matches up customers with rooms in homes owned by private individuals. The company has operated since 2008, attracting roughly 4 million customers. Room renters choose and pay for their rooms online.

This is perhaps the largest business in the “peer to peer” rental market. Individual consumers rent assets like beds, boats, and cars directly from other individuals rather than from businesses. The rationale for these practices is quite straightforward. You may wish to cut your automotive transportation costs by earning income from giving rides to people whose destinations coincide with yours. Or, viewing the same situation from the other side of the market, you may wish to cut your costs by paying a peer to chauffeur you to a common destination rather than calling a taxi or riding the bus.

Boat ownership is commonly likened to owning a hole in the water into which you pour money. One way to offset this outflow is to rent the use of the boat to peers. The intermediary and clearinghouse for all this activity is the World Wide Web.

Observing and noting this market is easier than pinning a descriptive label on it. The Economist calls it “the sharing economy.” This is surely wrongheaded, if only because we do not associate “sharing” with commercial transactions. Carpooling arrangements, for example, involve a spatial arrangement for the pooling of transportation services. Participants “share” a common space inside a single vehicle for the purpose of reducing joint transportation expenses. But each vehicle’s owner is commonly responsible for fuel purchases. Pooling equalizes travel responsibilities and costs among participants; the net exposure should be zero. The benefits are symmetrical, both in quantity and kind. This is sharing in a true, meaningful sense; the benefits are objectively equal and depend on the shared use.

Charity is another conventional form of benefit sharing. The owner of income or assets shares it (them) with others with no reciprocation except, perhaps, a “thank you.” The mutuality derives from the satisfaction gained through helping.

But the peer-to-peer market is simple commerce, unlike the genuine sharing examples just cited. There is an exchange of money for goods-or-services. The buyer gains the usual consumer surplus – the excess of the maximum price he or she would have been willing to pay over the price actually paid. The seller gains better utilization of existing capacity, whether the capital good is a personal automobile, spare bedroom or pleasure boat. Sellers are no more “sharing” than are taxi drivers, motel owners or charter-boat skippers. Indeed, a better descriptor would be the “utilization” or “capital-utilization” economy. Of course, this clinical language lacks the warm and fuzzy feel of “sharing” but it compensates in accuracy.

The Economist also tosses out the term “collaborative consumption,” which is just as inapropo as “sharing.” Fairness and full disclosure require noting that the terms “sharing economy” and “collaborative consumption” date back several years. They are particularly associated with left-wing authors like Rachel Botsman, whose communitarian views are hostile to capitalism and private property. But The Economist, of all publications, should know that private ownership is essential to the preservation and maintenance of capital goods, without which the peer-to-peer market would vanish into thin air.

Come to think of it, why not follow current buzzword practice and adopt digital vernacular, using The Economist‘s own phrasing? Call it the P2P market.

The Key Role of the Internet

Where has this new economy been all our lives? Did it take over a century for people to wake up to the possibility of using their cars as taxis or rental cars? Was there an epiphany, a la Bell and Watson, when a restaurant habitué decided he could pay his bill by ferrying his fellow diners back and forth for a fee?

Actually, P2P has been operating in the background all along. It ran on word-of-mouth or classified advertising, using referrals as its primary security. This guaranteed that its importance would remain marginal. It took the Internet to turn it into a $26 billion annual, growing enterprise.

First, the Internet gave P2P the reach it lacked heretofore, allowing sellers to reach an unlimited audience at extremely low cost. Second, the Internet provided the security necessary to both sides of the market. For example, taxi drivers lead a notoriously precarious existence at the mercy of their passengers. But insecurity runs in both directions when the driver is not a business owner or employee, operating a highly visible vehicle. On the Web, though, the platform fulfills the role otherwise played by the business in vouching for its representatives. Follow-up reviews and ratings ensure that bad trips are not repeated.

The surest sign that P2P really works is that commercial businesses want a piece of the action. The Economist reports that Avis, GM and Daimler have all acquired their own piece of P2P; e.g., acquired P2P assets or entered the market de novo. The magazine speculates that the acquisition may enable the parent to list its excess capacity-assets on the P2P firm’s website. This looks like a clear case of evolutionary adaptation rather than creative destruction; P2P does not rate to destroy its competing industries but rather to modify their operations for the better.

Last April, The Wall Street Journal reported on the hottest extension of P2P in the financial realm – P2P lending. For roughly a decade, at least two P2P firms – Prosper Loans and Lenders Club – have offered individuals a chance to lend directly to their peers. The loans are extended versions of the payday/high risk loan that has long been a staple of the low-income and pawn-loan credit market. These P2P loans have terms of up to five years and principal amounts ranging up to $25-35,000. They are unsecured and assigned a risk rating based on the borrower’s creditworthiness.

The success of these P2P firms has now attracted the attention of Wall Street. Fund managers have started funds organized along similar lines, offering investors the chance to pool investment capital into funds offering the same types of high-risk, unsecured loans. Risk spreading and high returns make these funds an attractive alternative to current low-yield, fixed-income investments. The high risk means that their fraction of the total portfolio should be low. Naturally, the increase in lending activity will improve terms and outcomes for borrowers.

Lessons Learned

Even if we accept that P2P is an adaptive rather than a disruptive force, this should not obscure the powerful message it conveys. The rise of P2P overturns the conventional thinking that had prevailed since the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing global recession. That dominant view has been that market participants do not act rationally. They act emotionally, even hysterically. They are stampeded by mob psychology and incapable of gauging their own interests. Without the wise guiding hand of government regulation, free markets will inevitably devolve into chaos.

To be sure, this view is itself hysterical. It offers no clue as to why or how regulators themselves escape the emotional distractions that sway market participants. It doesn’t explain how regulators regulate markets without actually substituting their own decisions for those of markets. It also doesn’t tell us how regulators are able to perceive the interests of market participants who (supposedly) cannot discern their own interests. Nonetheless, this regulatory view won out (essentially by default) in 2008-2009.

Every major regulatory agency in Washington – OSHA, EPA, FDA, SEC, FTC, DOT, DOE, FMCSA, et al – has presided over a reign of terror for the last four years. If federal-government regulation were the key to safety, America would now be the safest nation on Earth by far. There is no logical or empirical case for this regulatory full-court press, other than the fact that the Democrats won the last two Presidential elections and the Republicans did not. Still, asking Democrats not to regulate is like asking a horse not to eat hay.

P2P offers the perfect test case for the new conventional thinking. Here we have both supply and demand sides essentially pioneering a new market all by themselves. According to today’s party line, this is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. After all, taxi regulators in New York
City have spent decades warning consumers to beware of “gypsy [unregulated] taxicabs.” Riders might be placing themselves in the hands of robbers, rapists or even worse. Unfortunately, New York City hasn’t approved the issue of a single new taxi license (they are issued in the form of medallions) since World War II, so its citizens have conditioned themselves to ignore these admonitions. They actually want to get somewhere without waiting for a bus or walking. Well, if an unregulated commercial vehicle is this unsafe, just imagine how risky P2P must be!

No, according to The Economist, “the remarkable thing is how well the system usually works.” Then again, P2P “is a little like online shopping,” where “15 years ago…people were worried about security. But having made a successful purchase from, say, Amazon, they felt safe buying elsewhere.” And there was eBay, which began essentially as P2P and morphed into a vehicle for professional sellers.

Well, gol-l-l-l-l-e-e, Sgt. Carter, could it be that old Adam Smith was right – not just about mankind’s inherent affinity for trade but also about the self-adjusting character of mutually beneficial voluntary exchange? So it would seem.

Yet The Economist‘s liberal knee cannot help jerking towards regulation. “The main worry,” they declare gravely, “is regulatory uncertainty.” Yes, politicians in America have cast lascivious glances at Internet trade for years, longing to tax it under a guise of benevolent regulation. Since The Economist sails under the banner of …er, economics – where a tax discourages the taxed activity, creates a welfare burden and reduces the well-being of the taxed – it should come out forthrightly against Internet taxation, right?

Wrong. “People who rent out rooms should pay tax, of course [of course!], but they should not be regulated like a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The lighter rules that typically govern bed-and-breakfasts are more than adequate.” Mere readers – being only consumers, humble recipients of The Economist‘s sunbursts of illumination – needn’t expect any illuminating insight on why tighter regulation of Ritz-Carltons is either necessary or beneficial, because none is forthcoming. The editorial’s anonymous author has the wit to notice that incumbent taxi firms are even now mobilizing the forces of regulation to protect their monopoly position. But the magazine’s leftist editorial stance is so ossified that it cannot permit that admission without an accompanying qualification that “some rules need to be updated to protect consumers from harm.” Taxicab regulation is probably the most notorious textbook example of regulatory harm to consumers in the history of economics, but The Economist is bowing its knee to it. (Elsewhere, the magazine laments the absence of even more Keynesian stimulus spending policies to create jobs.)

This is an old story. A precursor to P2P sprang up in black communities throughout the U.S. during the early and mid-20th century. Taxicab service was often sparse in these areas, not merely because of racial discrimination but also because high crime posed serious risks to drivers. Taxi regulation typically prevented black taxicab companies from entering the market or expanding to meet demand. It became common practice for private individuals to frequent grocery stores, barber shops and other high-traffic areas in order to provide “car service.” This service consisted of informal, unmetered charges (sometimes on a flat-rate basis) in return for carriage to and from shoppers’ homes. Carrying of bags and escort duties were usually included in the service.

Researchers have applied the term “jitneys” to the unregistered, unlicensed vehicles used to provide this service. Research is conclusive on two points: Consumers benefitted unambiguously from the service, and jitneys were legally hounded by taxi and bus companies in their jurisdictions. They were made illegal because taxi and bus owners feared and resented the competition and loss of income that this low-cost alternative form of transportation inflicted on them. Amazingly, jitneys still survive today in inner-city America; they are the “missing link” connecting modern P2P with its ancestral forebears.

When the worst that The Economist can cite is that “an Airbnb user had her apartment trashed in 2011,” you can rest assured that today’s P2P system is working extraordinarily well. It is a measure of our times that even a single complaint instantly triggers the demand for more regulation. When abuses occur despite the presence of tight, heavy regulation – as in financial markets – it should be clear that regulation is the problem rather than the solution. When complaints are rare, it hardly suggests a need for regulation.

The word “regulation” itself has become a rhetorical refuge of first resort precisely because its meaning is so vague. There is no clear-cut theory of regulation to explain why it is necessary, exactly what it does or how it does it. To a bureaucrat, this may constitute a highly desirable sort of flexibility. But it is not conducive to favorable outcomes.

All the News That’s Fit to Decode

Readers of The Economist should probably be grateful that the magazine deigned to notice P2P at all. The fact that we have to hack our way through the magazine’s ideological bias and occupational ineptitude to glean any value from the article is a journalistic scandal. Still, these days students of economics have to take our good news where we find it and our sources as we find them.