Unfair Competition from Robotland

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This campaign season brings many complaints about “shipping jobs overseas.” Candidates promise to crack down on the offending corporations. American workers and the United States as a whole must compete on a slanted playing field against foreigners paid much below a dollar an hour. Moreover, the foreigners manipulate their currencies. They buy less from us than we from them, putting the US into a trade deficit (more exactly, a current-account deficit) costing us many billions of dollars a year. China, Japan, and Mexico count among the worst offenders. Free trade is fine, but only when it is fair.

In a similar but imaginary scenario, technology has advanced so far that “Robots” (in a stretched sense of the word) displace American workers at costs equivalent to Robot wages of 50 cents an hour. What is the difference between shipping jobs to Bangladesh and shipping jobs to Robotland? Well, Robotland does not have a balance of payments, so it cannot be accused of buying less from us than we from it, fleecing us of the difference. In the real world, automatic market mechanisms, if allowed to operate, forestall worrisome trade deficits and surpluses; and if the foreigners do make unbalanced sales to us, what can they do with the money? They acquire American bank accounts, securities, and properties, so supplying us with financial capital on advantageous terms.

What sense does the notion of one country competing with others have? Does it mean that international trade is a zero-sum game, with countries squabbling over shares in a fixed total of gains? On the contrary, international trade and advanced technology are alike in making desired goods more abundant. One country’s relatively low standard of living would trace to technological and entrepreneurial backwardness and perhaps to bad government. It would be absurd to blame its relative poverty on incompetent trade-policy negotiators.

One country’s relatively low standard of living would trace to technological and entrepreneurial backwardness and perhaps to bad government.

In the real world, conceivably, Robotland technology might displace many American workers, inviting Luddite arguments. I do not want to get into that issue here. I merely ask what the difference is between the scenarios of foreign competition and robots.

I wish that today’s vapid political debates could give way to ones with candidates testing one another’s policy-relevant understanding by posing questions like the one about robots. Other questions might be: How do your trade-policy proposals square with the principle of comparative advantage? What light might the absorption approach to balance-of-payments analysis shed on a connection between a trade deficit and a government budget deficit? In what sense is the Social Security trust fund a reassuring reality and in what sense a deceptive farce?

Unfortunately, such questions would not faze Donald Trump. He would respond with vicious personal insults and with reiterations of his own excellence. Anyway, allowing such questions could be entertaining. They might even enlighten some voters.




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I Hate When That Happens

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American manufacturing, once the principal source of American economic power, has become a pale shadow of the world-dominant competitor it was only 30 years ago. Although the productivity of American workers still vastly exceeds the worker productivity of all major manufacturing economies, America has become a laggard in the global marketplace. For decades many have bemoaned the descent of America's industrial power. Now they say that the decline has been the result of economic misfortune: globalization, technological advance, foreign competition, unions, and so forth.

The actual misfortune is that US economic policy has been formulated by feckless politicians in Washington DC. It's as if the nebbish Willie (from the “Willie and Frankie” sketches of Saturday Night Live fame) had been behind it all. Because Willie had no grasp of causality, his life was fraught with excruciating experiences, experiences of his own making. In one skit, he came up with a scheme to test mouse traps, only to discover that "the thing came down right on my tongue!" It was an accident, even though "after 40, 50 times, I . . . I . . . I couldn't even feel the cheese." With each painful incident (which included encounters with a meat thermometer, a ball-peen hammer, and a self-threading film projector), the baffled Willie sullenly whined, "I hate when that happens."

Since the turn of this century, 5.7 million American manufacturing jobs have been lost, and the US trade deficit has soared. According to a Council on Foreign Relations study, "between 2000 and 2012, the cumulative total of U.S. spending on imports of goods and services exceeded U.S. export earnings by $7.1 trillion dollars." For manufacturing workers and, for that matter, most Americans, there has been no recovery from the recession of 2008. Two of the Willies that deserve special thanks for this misfortune are former President Bill Clinton — for his role in causing the recession — and current President Barack Obama — for his role in causing the non-recovery.

Although the productivity of American workers still vastly exceeds the worker productivity of all major manufacturing economies, America has become a laggard in the global marketplace.

It's a safe bet that in none of the 542 speeches given since he left office (for which he has reaped $104.9 million) did Mr. Clinton mention how his policies caused the housing bubble and the financial crisis. These policies (deregulation of credit-default swaps, spurious use of the Community Reinvestment Act, and shenanigans with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, HUD, and other organizations, to name a few) were discussed here (“Sticking It To Wall Street”), and the following week, at Reason (“Clinton’s Legacy: The Financial and Housing Meltdown”). They set the stage for the recession that occurred seven years later, no doubt to Clinton's astonishment.

The Clinton legacy also included the unfortunate accidents that followed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), passed in 1993, and permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) for China, granted in 2000. Clinton expected NAFTA to increase US exports and therefore jobs (one million in five years, he promised). Instead, according to a recent Public Citizen report, "millions have suffered job loss, wage stagnation, and economic instability from NAFTA." The export of manufactured products from the US dwindled and the trade deficit with Mexico and Canada shot from $27 billion in 1993 to $177.2 billion today. And the economic chaos that engulfed Mexico prompted "a new wave of migration from Mexico."

Granted, Public Citizen is an anti-NAFTA advocacy group, but its claims are substantiated bytrustworthy sources — namely the US International Trade Commission (for the NAFTA trade deficit data, p. 7 of the report) and the Economic Policy Institute (for the job loss and wage decrease data, p. 8). Ironically, the immigration spike was caused by one of the few US export benefits from NAFTA. With NAFTA, Mexico eliminated its corn subsidy, but the US did not. Asa result, “seventy-five thousand Iowa farmers grew twice as much corn as three million Mexican farmers at half the cost." As subsidized U.S. corn flooded into Mexico, displaced Mexican farmers flooded into the US, greatly contributing to the surge of illegalimmigrants, from 4.8 million in 1993 to 11.7 million by 2012 (p. 22).

For manufacturing workers and, for that matter, most Americans, there has been no recovery from the recession of 2008.

NAFTA has paid off well for US corn farmers. American workers who, in the wake of the immigrant influx, lost their jobs or saw their wages shrink, have come up a little short. As have American taxpayers, who foot the bill for the subsidies awarded to corn industry cronies. This should not be confused with the bill from their cousins, the ethanol industry cronies, for subsidizing the ethanol scam — the ongoingenvironment-friendly fuel program, whose accidents include increasedair pollution, water contamination, soil erosion, andgreenhouse gas emissions, as well as increased prices for gasoline, automobiles, farmland, and food.

Clinton had loftier expectations in his efforts to help China gain World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. But instead of wielding American economic power to establish a level playing field for US industry, Clinton followed the wishes of Wall Street power, which did not extend to protecting US manufacturers from the mercantilist antics of brutal, authoritarian states such as China. As Robert Kuttner explained in “Playing Ourselves for Fools”:

In 1999, when China was negotiating its entry into the WTO, it was a lot weaker economically and financially, and the stench of the Tiananmen massacre still lingered, the U.S. had far more diplomatic leverage than the rather pitiful show of humility befitting a debtor nation displayed on President Barack Obama's recent maiden trip to Beijing. But as the memoirs of both Robert Rubin and Joseph Stiglitz confirm, that leverage was used mainly to gain access for U.S. banks and insurance companies to Chinese markets, not to require China to modify its system of predatory industrial mercantilism.

Clinton promised that China's admission to the WTO would provide the US with a vital trading partner who would change its ways and "play by the rules"; trade with China would "increase U.S. jobs and reduce our trade deficit." All the experts agreed. Then presidential candidate and fellow Willie, George W. Bush, agreed. "It is primarily U.S. exporters who will benefit," echoed the Cato Institute. It would be “a win-win result for both countries,” said Clinton, that could only "grow substantially with the new access to the Chinese market."

Alas, the tremendous US-China trade that ensued has, to date, resulted in the loss of 3.2 million American jobs, a US trade deficit with China of almost $500 billion (that grew from $100 billion in 2001), and, according to the New York Times (“Come On, China, Buy Our Stuff!”), American exporters are still waiting for the payoff. The main reason: currency manipulation by China's Central Bank makes American products more expensive to Chinese consumers. Furthermore, our trade deficit, which enables such manipulation, allows China to use its surplus of US dollars to purchase US Treasury bonds, which, in turn, enables the US government to plunge itself more deeply into debt (now at more than $18 trillion), with US taxpayers paying interest for the privilege.

Instead of wielding American economic power to establish a level playing field for US industry, President Clinton followed the wishes of Wall Street power.

American consumers have benefited, but foreign competitiveness has suffered. As a percentage of GDP, US manufacturing has shrunk from 14% in 2000 to about 11% today. According to a recent Economic Policy Institute study, of the 3.2 million jobs shed by our trade with China, 2.4 million were manufacturing jobs. Moreover, trade with low-wage countries such as China "has driven down wages for workers in U.S. manufacturing and reduced the wages and bargaining power of similar, non-college-educated workers [a pool of 100 million workers] throughout the economy."

Under Clinton's version of free trade, the outsourcing of American production, jobs, and technical expertise has flourished. To participate in such trade, observed Kuttner, many US manufacturing companies engage in

deals to shift their research, technology, and production offshore, sometimes in exchange for explicit subsidies for land, factories, research and development, and the implicit subsidy of low-wage and powerless workers and weak environmental or safety requirements. At other times, the terms of the deal are more stick than carrot: If you want to sell here, the companies are told, you must manufacture here. Or even worse, you can manufacture here but only for re-export to your own domestic market and not for local sale.

Describing Clinton’s legacy, the Huffington Post called him the "Outsourcer-in Chief," saying that

Manufacturers never emerged from the 2001 recession, which coincided with China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Between 2001 and 2009 the U.S. lost 42,400 factories and manufacturing employment dropped to 11.7 million, a loss of 32 percent of all manufacturing jobs.

But things are booming in China, which, thanks to US investment in the expansion and modernization of its manufacturing sector, has now surpassed the US as the world's leading exporter, and in our federal government, which now employs twice as many people as the entire American manufacturing industry — an industry to which Clinton could say, "The thing [WTO deal] came down right on my tongue!"

If Bill Clinton was the Outsourcer-in-Chief, then Barack Obama is the Regulator-in-Chief. With annual federal regulatory compliance costs now at an astounding $1.9 trillion, no one has done more to increase the cost, and decrease the desirability, of doing business in America than Mr. Obama. His regulatory obsession has exceeded that of George Bush, who, in eight years, increased regulatory costs by $318 billion. Obama has increased it by $708 billion, in only six years.

Unhindered by a timid Congress that has consigned its legislative powers to regulators, there's no telling how high Obama can drive regulatory costs during his final two years. But American manufacturing is doubly harassed by existing regulatory overreach, paying a staggering $20,000 per employee in annual compliance costs, compared with $10,000 for the average US firm. The cost is $35,000 per employee for small manufacturers (<50 employees), who, if they can't feel the cheese, can smell the pungent odor of our federal government.

The stagnation that began creeping into the economy under Bush is in full stride under Obama, with GDP growth averaging little more than 2% since he took office. Unconventional oil and gas production (i.e., fracking of oil and gas deposits, mostly on non-federal land) has been the only bright spot. Without fracking, even this tepid GDP growth would have been impossible. With fracking, says the Cato Institute, oil and gas prices have plummeted, increasing disposable income by $1,500 per household, 2.5 million jobs have been created, and a tax windfall of $100 billion has been garnered by government.

No one has done more to increase the cost, and decrease the desirability, of doing business in America than President Obama.

After almost seven years of stagnation, the US economy — with its shrinking middle class and its growing cohort of 55 million jobless working age adults, all desperate for a meaningful recovery from the recession of 2008 — has enthusiastically welcomed the fracking revolution. Mr. Obama's greeting has been less ardent. After almost seven years of tightening drilling regulations, his response has been to tighten fracking regulations, followed by more plans to tighten fracking regulations.

Existing regulations "are more than 30 years old, and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations,” explained Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Nor has the 40-year-old crude oil export ban, which is no longer needed, now that the US is flush with oil and gas. Free trade in US energy would help reduce our trade deficit, our national debt, and our dependence on foreign energy. Surging US oil production has been responsible for plummeting global oil prices, thereby improving our national security with respect to countries and terrorist organizations whose bellicosity depends exclusively on oil revenues. Additional production, therefore, would further enhance US security and would likely reduce the frequency with which thugs such as Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei embarrass our president.

Crudely Put,” an article that explains the folly of this archaic ban, alludes to Putin's crushing energy grip on Europe and the reason for America’s reluctance to export more energy. Last February, Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech Republic’s energy envoy, pleaded with "American policymakers to liberalise energy exports . . . to safeguard allies under pressure from Russia," and asked, "if freeing crude exports makes America richer, its allies stronger, its foes weaker and the world safer, what stands in the way?" Willie Obama's colossal green mousetrap, of course.

This from the man who promised shovel-ready jobs, then green jobs, and now brags about the low-income jobs created under his stifling reign.

Perhaps American manufacturers will have better luck with Mr. Obama's new free trade brainchild, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which gives him "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade deals with Pacific Rim countries. Covering the legislation's East Room signing ceremony, Politico's Sarah Wheaton noted its bipartisan support, usually a good sign. But the more telling sign, Wheaton indicated, may have been discerned by the pianist in the Grand Foyer, who played "understated renditions of the theme to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ songs depicting fantasy worlds undone by cynicism and lost innocence."

Reminiscent of Clinton's trade deal confidence, Mr. Obama stated that he was "absolutely convinced that these pieces of legislation are ultimately good for American workers." This from the man who promised shovel-ready jobs, then green jobs, and now brags about the low-income jobs created under his stifling reign — while middle-income manufacturing jobs languish.

Last November, Mr. Clinton conjectured, "NAFTA is still controversial but people will thank me for it in 20 years." He might as well have bit his lower lip and said, "after 40, 50 years, we  . . . we . . . we will feel the cheese." It will take much longer for American manufacturing to thank him for hustling China into the WTO. And who knows how long it will "ultimately" take for manufacturing workers to thank Obama for the trade deals that he hopes to negotiate — deals with trading partners who cannot be controlled by the $2 trillion regulatory mousetrap that punishes American manufacturers. It is a mousetrap with a spring force that Obama has increased by $708 billion. And, as the thing comes right down on his tongue, he orders costly new climate change regulations — to be paid for by US manufacturers, and ignored by their foreign competitors.

Federal trade and regulatory policy, not foreign competition and unions, is responsible for the decline of American manufacturing. Free trade, whose banner is routinely hoisted to adorn trade negotiations, exists only in the delusional minds of our hapless political leaders. Indeed, that American manufacturers must conform to inordinately higher standards (of trade, finance, health, safety, environment, etc.) than their foreign competitors is considered an achievement by the causality-challenged Obama. Green ideology, not economics or trade, is his forte. Officious regulation, not sound industrial policy, is his goal. As to the unfortunate accidents — chronic economic stagnation, declining household income, growing income inequality, immense pubic debt, enormous trade deficits, shrinking geopolitical power, and waning foreign competitiveness — that have befallen his presidency, he hates when that happens.




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Cuba and the Yanqui Dollar

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Now that the United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, the communist government is insisting that the US pay reparations for the gigantic economic losses allegedly caused by America’s long refusal to trade with the island state. Undoubtedly the Obama administration is hard at work figuring out how to provide disguised subsidies to the communist regime and to crony capitalists who would like to make money on “free trade” with the kleptocracy. “I feel very much at home here. . . . We wish each other well,” proclaimed John Kerry, at his August 14 lovefest in Havana. When American officials say things like that, communists and their capitalist shills hear cash registers starting to ring.

It’s highly unlikely that “reparations” will be openly paid. Nevertheless, the demand for reparations illustrates some of the global Left’s most mesmerizing fallacies. These fallacies have nothing to do with the interesting question of whether economic embargoes ever “work,” in the sense of penalizing those whom they’re supposed to penalize. That’s a matter for empirical research, which no ideologue can bear to do, except to “prove” some pre-existing notion. I’m talking about the perennial war of faith — faith in the state — against logic.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty.

Every communist state has initially justified itself as an economic enterprise. That’s the point of communism, isn’t it? It’s an economic philosophy designed to deliver economic prosperity. Soon, however, there comes a surprise. Who woulda thunk it — communism turns out to be economically disastrous! But, this having been established, the communist state doesn’t slink off to the side and wither, demoralized by its failure to do what it proposed to do. Instead, it loudly justifies itself on opposite principles — heroic endurance of poverty, disdainful rejection of the good life, the prosperous society.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty. For Cuban communists and their sympathizers around the world, and for many unthinking noncommunists as well, the United States is the one to blame. First the US was to blame for ruthlessly exploiting Cuba, by trading with it and investing in it; then, and still worse, the US was to blame for ruthlessly refusing to trade with it or invest in it.

It’s useless to say that you can’t have it both ways. Of course you can, if you refuse to think. In fact, if you’re an American leftist, you can even have it four ways: Cuba is prosperous; Cuba is impoverished; isolation from capitalism made Cuba prosperous; isolation from capitalism made Cuba poor. With these comforting thoughts packed away in all relevant heads, pity for Cuban communism and outrage over US imperialism can continue, with no reduction of self-righteousness. They will come in handy whenever the New York Times notices that post-embargo Cuba is cursed (like pre-embargo Cuba) with that worst of all evils, income Inequality. Again we will witness the catastrophic effects of exploitative free enterprise.




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Who’s on the Inside Track?

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It seems amazing that the mainstream media ignored a recent IMF report that now estimates that China’s economy will surpass that of America in five years. That’s right — China’s real GDP will exceed ours by 2016. This adds to the cloud already hanging over the U.S dollar — because of our twin habits of printing dollars like mad (pardon me, “quantitative easing”) and running massive deficits (pardon me, “investment spending”).

What is really stunning is that only a decade ago our economy was triple the size of China’s.

As the Chinese become dominant, questions arise. How will this authoritarian regime conduct itself vis a vis the other nations in the region? Will it look to expand its imperial reach? Will it look to exact revenge against Japan for past injustices? We can only guess, but given the treatment the Chinese have meted out to the hapless Tibetans, the explosive growth of China’s military, the cynical way China helped Pakistan (the archenemy of China’s perceived rival India) develop nuclear weapons, as well as the missiles to deliver them, and the way China uses North Korea as a thorn in the side of its perceived Pacific rivals Japan and the US — the future looks challenging.

I said that it “seems amazing” that the media hasn’t mentioned the surprising closeness of our economic eclipse by the Chinese. In truth, however, it is not amazing. The mainstream media is the cheerleading squad for the Obama regime, and the fact that China has made such strides is in great measure due to the extended recession and feeble recovery caused by Obama’s policies. Compare America’s persistently high unemployment and anemic growth in this economic recovery to the features of past recoveries, and you will be depressed by the difference.

America has retreated from classically liberal economic policies, even as China has used them to grow rapidly, even in the context of a corrupt political regime. For the results, we have only ourselves to blame.




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Is Greed the Problem with Capitalism?

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With the opening last fall of Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street, Americans were again subjected to Hollywood’s version of how the economic system works: big business is evil, and greed is at the heart of our economic problems. The original Wall Street movie was released during the Reagan administration — aperiod that initiated significant economic expansion.Nonetheless, the movie offered a stern warning about what to expect from greed run rampant. The villain of the story was Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the powerful head of a mergers and acquisitions firm. Toward the end of the movie Gekko makes a now-well-known speech about why “greed is good,” a speech that is meant to highlight the pro-capitalistarguments often made by businesses and free market advocates. Gekko tells a group of shareholders of a company he is trying to acquire that,

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, [for] knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

Of course, true to Hollywood form, in the end Gekko winds up implicated in a major fraud, thus revealing the true moral of the story, which is of course, that “greed is bad!”

Ironically, the current economic crisis has been an opportune time for Hollywood to make money by highlighting the immorality of greed (as in Money Never Sleeps). For many observers it was greed by the managers of financial institutions that led to easy loans with little to no down payments; greed by homeowners that led to purchases of houses they couldn’t afford; greed on Wall Street that led to the creation of such clever new financial instruments as mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps; greed by CEOs that led to corporate extravagances and ridiculously high executive compensation packages; and greed by consumers that led to excessive use of credit cards to buy things now, rather than waiting till they earned the money to pay for it.

Tom D’Antoni in the Huffington Post declared that “the concept that ‘Greed is Good,’ is dead. It rose to its despicable zenith in tandem with the rise of Reagan, and has been the guiding principle of industry, finance and government ever since. . . . Greed brought us to this place . . . unregulated, untrammeled, vicious greed. Greed has no morals or ethics. Greed has no regard for others. Greed feeds only the greedy and feeds on every thing and everyone within grasping distance.” John Steele Gordon, author of a book on financial history, wrote, “There is no doubt at all about how we got into this mess. … Greed, as it periodically does when traders and bankers forget the lessons of the past, clouded judgments.”

 

Religion and greed

The world’s religions almost unanimously contend that greed is wrong. Although not explicitly proscribed in the Ten Commandments, greed is implicated in their command not to covet one’s neighbor’s property or spouse. The Bible contends that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (Timothy 6:10). In the year 590, Pope Gregory declared greed to be one of the seven deadly sins, along with lust, pride, gluttony, sloth, envy, and wrath. Among the seven, greed is often considered one of the worst, if not the worst, mostly because greed can inspire many of the other sins.

In almost every major religious tradition, greed is condemned unequivocally. The Qu’ran states, “Anyone who is protected from his own stinginess, these are the successful ones.” (64:16) The Tao Te Ching states, “When there is no desire, all things are at peace” (Chapter 37). In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna declares, “There are three gates leading to this hell — lust, anger and greed. Every sane man should give these up, for they lead to the degradation of the soul” (16:21). Sulak Sivaraksa, a leading Buddhist writer, states that “Buddhism condemns greed, which can easily lead to aggression and hatred.”

We do not appeal to other peoples’ humanity when we seek our sustenance, but rather to their self-interest, or in this case their greed.

Reacting to the recent economic crisis, Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, attacked exploitative moneylenders who pursued "ruthless gain"; he urged banks not to "enrich themselves at their poor neighbours' expense." Pope Benedict, in his 2008 Christmas message, said, “If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart.” The Dalai Lama asked, “What is the real cause of this sort of economic crisis?” His answer: “Too much speculation and ultimately greed.”

 

Greed as a necessity

Greed is an easy target. It is not hard to convince most people that greed is the primary source of many of our economic woes. But is it really?

Stephen Pearlstein points out what many economists believe. He writes, “In a capitalist economy like ours, the basic premise is that everyone is motivated by a healthy dose of economic self-interest. . . . Without some measure of greed and the tension it brings to most economic transactions, capitalism wouldn't be as good as it is in allocating resources and spurring innovation.”

This is the central idea behind Adam Smith’s oft-quoted line about the butcher, the brewer, and the baker in The Wealth of Nations:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” (Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2)

Smith is arguing that the economic system provides for our wants and needs because, first and foremost, people are trying to help themselves, and they do so by producing and selling meat, beer, and bread to others. These market outcomes are not achieved because of charity. We do not appeal to other peoples’ humanity when we seek our sustenance, but rather to their self-interest, or in this case their greed.Nonetheless the modern economist’s acceptance of greed as a positive force in society has not been readily accepted, given centuries of moral teachings to the contrary.

 

Seeking a middle way

Is there a resolution to the greed paradox? Is greed evil? Is it a necessary evil? Is greed something that humankind should seek to eliminate, perhaps replacing it with altruism? Or is greed something so ingrained in the human psyche that there is no hope of eliminating it?

Perhaps we simply need to learn how to live with greed. Perhaps there is a middle way, a method of channeling greed in good rather than bad ways.

Aristotle argued that “virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6). It is the middle way that is the goal. Indeed, dictionary definitions of greed highlight not only self-interest but an “intense, selfish desire” (New Oxford American) or “an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than one needs or deserves” (American Heritage). Greed is usually not implicated if someone’s desires are average or if one achieves a moderate standard of living.

Religious writings sometimes take account of this. Thus, one hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad, states, "Eat what you want and dress up as you desire, as long as extravagance and pride do not mislead you” (Hadith as reported by Abd’allah ibn Abbas, 1:645). In Judaism too, one Midrashic interpretation asserts, “Were it not for the yetzer hara [the evil urge], a man would not build a house, take a wife, beget children, or engage in commerce” (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7).

There is no community or society in the world that fails to benefit from the voluntary exchanges and market activities that occur in abundance in everyday life.

Returning to the issue of our current financial crisis, some observers recognize that greed cannot be eliminated. Michael Lewis and David Einhorn of the New York Times write, “ ‘Greed’ doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. Greed was necessary but insufficient; in any case, we are as likely to eliminate greed from our national character, as we are lust and envy.” Robert Sidelsky writes that John Maynard Keynes “believed that material well being is a necessary condition of the good life, but that beyond a certain standard of comfort, its pursuit can produce corruption, both for the individual and for society.”

Steven Pearlstein suggests a different perspective, that greed may not be about the degree of desire, or how much one acquires, but about how one acquires wealth: “Even before they decided to give away most of their money, nobody seemed to begrudge Bill Gates or Warren Buffett their billions or criticize them for their ‘unbridled’ greed. That seems to have a lot to do with the fact that Gates and Buffett made their money on the basis of their own ingenuity, skill and hard work.”

 

Methods of satisfying greed

The American economist Henry George (1839–1897) is mostly famous for his theory of the Single Tax, but in his book Protection or Free Trade there is a passage that can help resolve some of the tension about greed and profit seeking: “Is it not true, as has been said, that the three great orders of society are ‘working-men, beggar-men, and thieves’?” (pp. 21–22).

Prima facie this passage may seem unremarkable, or at worst confusing: after all, what exactly is an “order of society?” But if we think about it carefully in light of the current discussion, it actually provides the seeds, or kernels, for understanding “greed.”

First, let’s recognize that what George has in mind are three primary ways in which people obtain benefits for themselves, or in other words “profit.” As I’ll argue, how a person ultimately judges profit-seeking activities and whether he views greed as good or bad will depend largely on which one of George’s “great orders” he believes to be most prominent in society. But first let’s discuss each of these profit acquisition methods, beginning with the last one, “thief.”

 

Thieves: involuntary transfers

One of the simplest methods a person can use to satisfy his greed for food, clothing, automobiles, cameras, computers, or the money to acquire these things is simply to take them away from someone else. Theft has been a part of life since the beginning of society, and it is likely to remain a part of society for a long time to come.

When the rightful owner of something has it stolen by another, the thief clearly benefits. He is now in possession of the valued item. The victim suffers a loss, since he does not possess and can no longer receive benefits from the product. The victim will surely feel that an injustice has occurred and will demand the return of the stolen property and the punishment of the perpetrator, if those responses are at all possible. But regardless of what happens afterward, theft involves a transfer of an item from a legitimate possessor to an illegitimate possessor, and the transfer always occurs involuntarily. Thus the term “involuntary transfer” offers a better moniker, especially because in many situations the transfers may technically not be considered theft, but will have similar characteristics.

Around the world societies evaluate outrighttheft in similar ways. It is generally considered bad, or wrong, or perhaps evil, with perhaps only a few exceptions tolerated. These exceptions are rare, and societies have put into place an elaborate system of laws that prohibit theft in a variety of situations while providing penalties for those found guilty of having violated these laws. Suffice to say that the acquisition of benefits by means of theft is unacceptable in all societies around the world. Although this is a seemingly obvious point, it forms the basis for most of the cry-outs about injustices around the world. In brief, people claim an injustice whenever they perceive that someone is getting “ripped off” in some way.

 

Beggar-men: voluntary transfers

The second of George’s orders of society — that is, another major way in which people acquire the goods and services that their greed desire — consists of those who are given the items voluntarily by someone else. A beggar stands on the street corner and solicits money from passersby. The money they give him represents a transfer of goods and services from the giver to the recipient. Although the giver loses, the money obtained by the beggar is not ill-gotten, in a traditional legal sense, because it has been given to him willingly; it is a voluntary transfer.

From the giver’s perspective this action is called charity and the action is held in high esteem in most societies in the world. Charity is not self-serving; it is in the service of others. It is not consideredharmful, but helpful. Charity is encouraged and promoted in all of the major religions. Some people, such as Mother Teresa, who have spent their lives giving to needy people, are respected or even beatified by their religious groups.

 

Working-men: voluntary exchange

The third order of society that George mentions is “working-men.” This is another method an individual can use to acquire the goods and services that his greed may inspire. Work generates an income that can be used to purchase consumption goods, but it is important to recognize the underlying process. Work in a commercial societyis an activity devoted to producing a good or service that someone else will wish to purchase; a product that is desirable. Through the free voluntary exchange of the product for money in the marketplace, a business generates the revenue that is used to pay its workers. That money, or income, is then used by the workers to purchase other goods and services produced by other workers. In the end, when you strip away the money part of the transactions, what is really taking place in market activity is the voluntary exchange of one good for another. And since both parties to a trade exchange their goods voluntarily, it must be that both benefit from the transaction, for if not, why trade?

Voluntary exchange is the cornerstone of the world’s economic prosperity. The very first lesson in Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the principle of the division of labor: productivity can increase as the production process becomes more specialized; that is, as labor or workers are divided into more specialized tasks. But the only way to take advantage of these benefits afterwards is through exchange. If you cannot exchange, there is no incentive for specialization.

We should never portray greed in general as good or bad, right or wrong, but as something that can be satisfied in either acceptable or unacceptable ways.

Based in part on this fundamental principle, economists have long supported the free market, which essentially means allowing free and voluntary exchanges, without social or governmental impediments. Indeed, societies everywhere generally accept and promote trade both within and beyond their borders. There is no community or society in the world that fails to benefit from the voluntary exchanges and market activities that occur in abundance in everyday life. To summarize: if greed inspires work that in turn inspires voluntary exchanges in the marketplace, then the outcome is mostly good for everyone involved.

 

Distinguishing “good” greed from “bad” greed

Greed can generate either good or bad outcomes, depending on which great order of society, or in other words which method, is involved in its satisfaction. If greed inspires a person to work long hours in a business providing valuable goods and services to others in order to satisfy the needs of himself and his family, then greed should be perfectly acceptable on pragmatic grounds. If greed inspires a person to innovate and create new products that others will desire in the market, then greed is good. In each of these cases greed is satisfied through voluntary exchange. However, if greed inspires a person to acquire what he desires by taking the rightful possessions of another person without that person’s consent, then greed is not good. In this case greed does not encourage useful behavior in the marketplace, but rather fear that one’s marketable goods will be appropriated by others. For similar reasons, greed is also wrong when it inspires someone to put roadblocks in the way of others who are trying to sell their products in the marketplace. In both these cases greed is satisfied by means of involuntary transfers and is rightly condemned. Yet if greed urges one to beg for food and clothing, or to seek the charitable contributions of others, and if those items are given voluntarily, then greed is satisfied in an acceptable manner; that is, a manner that has no deleterious effects on other people’s ability to benefit themselves by means of free exchange. The compassion of charitable people, helping those less fortunate, engaging in voluntary transfers, is clearly unobjectionable.

We should never portray greed in general as good or bad, right or wrong, but as something that can be satisfied in either acceptable or unacceptable ways. The distinguishing feature isn’t the presence of greed itself or even the intensity of the greed, but the way in which greed is satisfied. Following the suggestion of George’s great orders, the greed satisfied by a working man is commendable, the greed of a beggar-man is unfortunate but acceptable when necessary, and the greed satisfied by thievery is the primary source of injustice in the world.

 

Greed and the economic crisis

Many criticisms about greed’s role in the current economic crisis are really complaints about involuntary transfers. Hollywood and liberal Democrats look at the crisis and see injustice in the high salaries of CEOs, the comparativelylow wages paid to average workers, the excessive loans made to people who could not afford the homes they were buying, and the political clout of business insiders who got rules written on their behalf. But the reason people see injustice is mostly because they believe that someone is getting ripped off. It may be the consumer or the taxpayer or the low-paid worker at the company, but in any case, the perception is that one group is receiving less because someone else is receiving more.

Frequently these complaints are correct. Big business does sometimes engage in fraud. Consider the recent scandal involving Bernie Madoff. Madoff offered investors better than average returns largely by fabricating them in financial statements and by using the principal deposited by new investors to pay the returns of investors lucky enough to get out early. His setup was a classic Ponzi scheme that inevitably collapsed when too many people demanded their money back at the same time. Clearly Madoff was greedy — as were the investors who were looking for better returns than they had any reason to expect from an honest investment scheme. However, this case is a clear example of greed fueling involuntary transfers rather than valuable production and trade. The investors were led to believe that their money was wisely invested in companies making above average profit when in reality new investor money was transferred to exiting investors as needed. As long as deposits exceeded withdrawals the Ponzi scheme could continue.

Many other prominent examples of insider trading, accounting scams, and other shady dealings have been uncovered over the years and have resulted in prosecution and jail sentences. Yes, businesses may be exploitative. Cries of injustice by the general public rang out when huge bonuses were announced for executives at the financial firms that were bailed out by the government. After the billions of TARP dollars were transferred to these failing institutions, many of the banks were quickly out of trouble and the systemic crisis was averted. However, announcements that these same companies would pay millions of dollars in overdue bonuses to executives touched off a wave of indignation.

Many companies profit both by selling desirable goods and by taking advantage of involuntary transfers.

The source of the anger is obvious. In the midst of the crisis these institutions laid off a large portion of their work forces. Meanwhile, their overextended positions on loans, with effects multiplied by their own enormous size, contributed to the crisis. Since bonuses are typically made to reward good behavior, it seemed inappropriate for executives who were implicated in the crisis and were “saved” by a taxpayer-financed bailout to be able to walk away a few months later with hefty bonuses. Reward appeared to be disconnected from achievement. Most observers would contend that these companies were restored to profitability, not by the skill and hard work of executives producing a superior product for their customers, but by involuntary transfers from taxpayers. So again, there is a sense that involuntary transfers helped to satisfy the greed of a few individuals.

The key for high salaries to be viewed as equitable, or just, is that they are deserved. As mentioned earlier, relatively few people seem to begrudge the high salaries and enormous wealth of Bill Gates, or popular figures in sport. Their earnings are generally recognized as a result of the voluntary exchange process. These people earn money by providing valuable goods and services to others around the world.

Basketball stars seldom lobby to advance their interests, but big business often does, and this is a large source of complaints about greed. Robert Reich goes so far as to describe lobbying as political corruption:

“If we define political corruption as actions causing the public to lose confidence that politicians make decisions in the public's interest rather than in the special interest of those who give them financial support, the biggest corruption of our political process is entirely legal. It comes in the form of campaign contributions that would not be made were it not for implicit quid pro quos by politicians, bestowing favors of one sort or another on the contributors.”

But what sort of favors does he mean? He continues:

“The fights that actually preoccupy Congress day by day, which consume weeks or months of congressional staffers' time and which are often the most hotly contested by squadrons of Washington lobbyists and public-relations professionals, are typically contests between competing companies or competing sectors of an industry or, occasionally, competing industries. . . . Many of these battles (e.g. over health care reform) continue but have moved into the regulatory process, where different companies, sectors, and industries are seeking rules that advantage them and disadvantage their competitors.”

Reich is arguing that the business of government has become the provision of rules and regulations that favor some over others. In other words, he is describing a completely legal, but involuntary, transfer process promulgated by government. The winners are those who have the most clout among legislators. Often they are the ones (big business and big labor) who can offer the most in campaign contributions. The losers are either the less influential competitors, or the taxpayers who must provide funding for the subsidies provided, or the consumers who pay higher prices produced by taxes or regulations.

The same process of involuntary transfer appears in connection with financial sector reform. Again, greed is said to be the source of corruption, but it is just a smokescreen. People demand that something be done; they demand that government prevent financial crises, such as occurred in 2008. Unfortunately, no one quite knows how to do that. Nevertheless, lack of knowledge won’t prevent changes from being made. That’s because there are plenty of influential organizations standing in the wings with suggestions. While all of these suggestions will be presented as important to the national interest, the changes will be particularly helpful to the organizations themselves.

Even more likely is that good ideas for regulatory reform will be paired with ideas that serve particular corporate interests. This is one of the reasons that so many pieces of legislation are thousands of pages long these days: to buy political support, commonsensical reforms must be combined with favors for powerful interests. It is no wonder that, after decades of rule writing like this, our regulatory system is a twisted web that requires companies to hire huge teams of experts and consultants simply to untangle.

 

So is greed the problem with capitalism?

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans ought to find these examples of involuntary transfers equally objectionable. Confusion arises because of the focus on greed as the culprit. Critics of business and free markets see the greed that is satisfied through fraud and other involuntary transfers, and therefore condemn all efficientprofitseeking activities. But what about businesses that are making money and paying high salaries to their executives because of the desirable goods and services they are selling to their customers — doesn’t greed inspire their activities? And if we could stamp out greed from our psyches, wouldn’t we also be eliminating a motive that makes the modern economy work? Of course the answer is yes to those questions, which is why supporters of free markets are quick to condemn the “greed” arguments made by the Left.

One apparent problem is that many companies profit both by selling desirable goods and by taking advantage of involuntary transfers. The two activities are often confounded within the same business. For instance, executives at Enron perpetrated an accounting scam that prevented shareholders from knowing that the company was sinking deeply into the red, but at the same time the company provided valuable energy services to its customers. Although some portion of the riches made by Enron executives were fraudulent, some other portion was not. Similarly, some companies that use political influence to gain favorable regulatory treatment — treatment that effectively transfers money in their direction — simultaneously produce and sell legitimate products in the marketplace. Their high salaries and profits, no doubt sought and achieved by greed, are partly due to acceptable voluntary exchanges and partly due to objectionable involuntary transfers.

This confounding effect leads to many problems of interpretation. For example, high CEO salaries are often explained by using marginal productivity theory, according to which competition in the CEO market drives the prices for those positions to the levels observed. Under this interpretation, CEO salaries are the deserved share of production in a voluntary exchange market system and thus are acceptable. On the other hand, one could interpret high CEO salaries as the consequence of an exploitative process, in which CEOs are rewarded in the competitive market because they have effectively increased their companies’ shares of wealth by means of involuntary transfers from taxpayers or consumers. Since it is very difficult to measure which portion of a large company’s income is attributable to which kind of process, different interpretations are possible. However, here the disagreement is not about principle but about the interpretation of data.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the right lessons about greed and capitalism are unlikely to be found either in recent Hollywood productions (which indiscriminately condemn all products of greed) or in recent economic theory. For theory, it may be best to revert to the old classics: read Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments; read Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law; read Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom; read Henry George’s Protection or Free Trade.

In movies, the classics are also best. I mean, for example, a movie from 1954 entitled Executive Suite (starring William Holden and Frederic March). The film explores two different approaches to business; one based on reverence for the bottom line no matter what methods are used to achieve it; the other based on hard work, innovation, and the production of superior goods that the workers themselves can be proud of. By the end of the movie, the moral superiority of one over the other is obvious. The greed that inspires work, innovation, and pride (voluntary exchange) wins out over the greed that inspires fraud, blackmail, and accounting tricks (involuntary transfers).

We need to resurrect this understanding of business. We need to remember how aspiration, inspiration, and greed, appropriately directed, can create a workplace filled with well-treated, well-motivated workers striving to produce a superior product for their customers. Indeed, Hollywood can show us a way out of the current economic crisis; only it is not today’s Hollywood.

 

Works Cited

D’Antoni, Tom, “Finally the Death of Greed,” online at The Huffington Post, Dec. 11, 2008.

George, Henry (1949), Protection or Free Trade, Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York.

Gordon, John Steele, “Greed, Stupidity, Delusion — and Some More Greed,” online at the New York Times, Sept. 22, 2008.

Lewis, Michael, and David Einhorn, “The End of the Financial World as We Know It,” New York Times, Jan. 3, 2009.

Pearlstein, Steven, “Greed Is Fine. It's Stupidity That Hurts,” Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2008.

Reich, Robert, “Everyday Corruption,” The American Prospect, June 21, 2010.

Sivaraksa, Sulak, “Buddhism Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict,” an interview conducted in July 1993, published in the Tamil Times. Online at http://federalidea.com/focus/archives/112.

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