Openness to Creative Destruction Released Today

Art Diamond next to sign saying "Congratulations!".
My wife Jeanette decorated the mantelpiece to celebrate the publication of Openness. Our daughter Jenny, and dachshund Fritz, joined the celebration.

Today, June 3, 2019, is the official release date of my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a thoughtful presentation by Pete Boettke that contrasted the role of economist as scientist and as savior. He plausibly claimed that one of my mentors, George Stigler, defended the economist as scientist.

But as is true of many of us, Stigler was not always consistent. He sometimes said that whether you are a fireman or an incendiary, you need to know how fire works. And I generalize that if you want to be effective at saving the world, you need to know how the world works. Science as a method of tolerant inquiry, and not as a body of unquestionable doctrine, helps you to know how the world works.

So my immodest hope for Openness is both that it advances the science of economics, and that it helps to save the world.

PS: Openness can be purchased from Oxford University Press for 30% off using the discount code ASFLYQ6.

More Evidence for Stigler’s Capture Theory

(p. A15) WASHINGTON — Marilyn B. Tavenner, the former Obama administration official in charge of the rollout of, was chosen on Wednesday to be the top lobbyist for the nation’s health insurance industry.
Ms. Tavenner, who stepped down from her federal job in February, will become president and chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group whose members include Aetna, Anthem, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and many Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.
As the new voice for insurers, Ms. Tavenner will lead the industry in a time of tumultuous changes and challenges, including delicate negotiations with Congress over the future of the Affordable Care Act.
. . .
The board of America’s Health Insurance Plans unanimously elected Ms. Tavenner at a meeting here on Wednesday, according to Mark B. Ganz, the board chairman, who is also the chief executive of Cambia Health Solutions, based in Portland, Ore.
. . .
Mr. Ganz said that Ms. Tavenner had “the trust and respect of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.”
Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, described the selection in more negative terms. “While millions of Americans are still being hurt by Obamacare’s soaring costs and fewer choices,” he said, “Ms. Tavenner’s appointment shows how the law has created a cozy and profitable relationship for some.”

For the full story, see:
ROBERT PEAR. “Head of Obama’s Health Care Rollout to Lobby for Insurers.” The New York Times (Thurs., JULY 16, 2015): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date JULY 15, 2015.)

Nader Enlists Mises, Hayek, Friedman and Stigler in Critique of Crony Capitalism

(p. A9) Mr. Nader, the consumer crusader who ran for president to the left of Al Gore, is perhaps the last person one would expect to admire a libertarian critique of the corporate state. But in “Unstoppable” he respectfully describes the views of Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler and other free-market economists. He praises their distrust of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen who seek to put government power in the service of corporate profit.
Not that the Republican Party is always guided by such thinkers. Mr. Nader neatly describes how corporatist RINOs (Republican In Name Only) co-opt the party’s anti-statist crusaders. “The corporatist Republicans,” he writes, “let the libertarians and conservatives have the paper platforms . . . and then move into office, where they are quick to throw out a welcome mat for Big Business lobbyists with their slush funds.” He cites Adam Smith’s suspicion of regulations that benefit special interests: “Such restraints favor the privileged interests that want to entrench their economic advantages through the force of law.”
These are profound observations and ones that I saw play out while editing the Americas column for this newspaper in the 1980s and ’90s. Mercantilist Latin American businessmen who claimed to cheer market forces often thrived only because of their contacts in government. They reached out to the Journal’s editorial page as allies but were more socialist in practice than some of their left-wing enemies. Little did I suspect that a similar form of mercantilism, or corporate statism, would take root in the U.S. It is a pleasure to see Mr. Nader doing battle against such cozy arrangements.

For the full review, see:
DAVID ASMAN. “BOOKSHELF; Let’s Make a Deal; Ralph Nader’s latest crusade is against the convergence of big business and government power. Let’s hope he succeeds.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 18, 2014): A9.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 17, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Unstoppable’ by Ralph Nader; Ralph Nader’s latest crusade is against the convergence of big business and government power. Let’s hope he succeeds.”)

Book under review:
Nader, Ralph. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books, 2014.

Harry Reid Hires GE Employee to Be His Chief Tax Policy Advisor

The “Capture Theory” associated with scholars George Stigler and Gabriel Kolko says that government regulatory bodies tend to be captured by the companies that they are intended to regulate. Stigler and Kolko would not be surprised by the passage quoted below.

(p. B5) . . . on Jan. 25, Mr. Reid’s office announced that he had appointed Cathy Koch as chief adviser to the majority leader for tax and economic policy. The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. “Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,” the release says, “Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.”

It’s funny, though. The notice left something out. Because immediately before joining Mr. Reid’s office, Ms. Koch wasn’t in government. She was working for a large corporation.
Not just any corporation, but quite possibly the most influential company in America, and one that arguably stands to lose the most if there were any serious tax reform that closed corporate loopholes. Ms. Koch arrives at the senator’s office by way of General Electric.
Yes, General Electric, the company that paid almost no taxes in 2010. Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of G.E. — and, by extension, any big corporation.
Omitting her last job from the announcement must have merely been an oversight. By the way, no rules prevent Ms. Koch from meeting with G.E. or working on issues that would affect the company.

For the full story, see:
JESSE EISINGER, ProPublica. “A Revolving Door in Washington With Spin, but Less Visibility.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 21, 2013): B5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 20, 2013.)

Behavioral Economics Does Not Undermine Capitalism


Source of book image:

Daniel Kahneman first gained fame in economics through research with Tversky in which they showed that some of economists’ assumptions about human rationality do not always hold true.
Kahneman, whose discipline is psychology, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, sharing the prize with Vernon Smith. (Since the Prize is not normally awarded posthumously, Tversky was not a candidate.)
I have always thought that ultimately there should be only one unified science of human behavior—not claims that are “true” in economics and other claims that are “true” in psychology. (I even thought of minoring in psychology in college, before I realized that the price of minoring included taking time-intensive lab courses where you watched rats run through mazes.)
But I don’t think the implications of current work in behavioral economics are as clear as has often been asserted.
Some important results in economics do not depend on strong claims of rationality. For instance, the most important “law” in economics is the law of demand, and that law is due to human constraints more than to human rationality. Gary Becker, early in his career, wrote an interesting paper in which he showed that the law of demand could also be derived from habitual and random behavior. (I remember in conversation, George Stigler saying that he did not like this paper by Becker, because it did not hone closely to the rationality assumption that Stigler and Becker defended in their “De Gustibus” article.)
The latest book by Kahneman is rich and stimulating. It mainly consists of cataloging the names of, and evidence for, a host of biases and errors that humans make in thinking. But that does not mean we cannot choose to be more rational when it matters. Kahneman believes that there is a conscious System 2 that can over-ride the unconscious System 1. In fact, part of his motive for cataloging bias and irrationality is precisely so that we can be aware, and over-ride when it matters.
Sometimes it is claimed, as for instance in a Nova episode on PBS, that bias and irrationality were the main reasons for the financial crisis of 2008. I believe the more important causes were policy mistakes, like Clinton and Congress pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home loans to those who did not have the resources to repay them; and past government bailouts encouraging finance firms to take greater risks. And the length and depth of the crisis were increased by government stimulus and bailout programs. If instead, long-term cuts had been made in taxes, entrepreneurs would have had more of the resources they need to create start-ups that would have stimulated growth and reduced unemployment.
More broadly, aspects of behavioral economics mentioned, but not emphasized, by Kahneman, can actually strengthen the underpinnings for the case in favor of entrepreneurial capitalism. Entrepreneurs may be more successful when they are allowed to make use of informal knowledge that would not be classified as “rational” in the usual sense. (I discuss this some in my forthcoming paper, “The Epistemology of Entrepreneurship.”)
Still, there are some useful and important examples and discussions in Kahneman’s book. In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of these.

Book discussed:
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

The Becker article mentioned above is:
Becker, Gary S. “Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory.” Journal of Political Economy 70, no. 1 (Feb. 1962): 1-13.

The Stigler-Becker article mentioned above is:
Stigler, George J., and Gary S. Becker. “De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum.” American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (March 1977): 76-90.

At Apple Wozniak Was the Inventor, and Jobs Was the Entrepreneur


Source of book image:

iWoz is a fun read, with wild fluctuations in the significance of what is written. When Wozniak writes about the ingredients of inventiveness, it is significant. When he talks about his pranks, or his obsessions with certain number combinations, it is strange. (Maybe I just haven’t figured out the significance of Wozniak’s quirks—I once heard George Stigler say that even the mistakes of a great mind were worth pondering.)
In the next few weeks I’ll be quoting a few of the more significant passages.
An over-riding lesson from the book, is the extent to which both Wozniak and Jobs were necessary for the Apple achievement. Wozniak was a genius inventor, but he did not have the drive or the skills, or the judgment of the entrepreneur.
Schumpeter famously distinguished invention from innovation. Wozniak was the inventor, and Jobs was the innovator (aka, the entrepreneur).

Book discussed:
Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

Housing Crumbles Under Portugal’s Rent Control Laws

Stigler and Friedman’s only co-authored paper showed the flaws in rent controls. Although excellent, the paper apparently is seldom read in Portugal (or New York City).

(p. B3) LISBON — José Gago da Graça owns a Portuguese real estate company and has two identical apartments in the same building in the heart of Lisbon. One rents for €2,750 a month, the other for almost 40 times less, €75.

The discrepancy is a result of 100-year-old tenancy rules, which have frozen the rent of hundreds of thousands of tenants and protected them against eviction in Portugal. Mr. Gago da Graça has been in a lawsuit for a decade over the €75-a-month apartment, since his tenant died in 2000 and her son took over and refused to alter his mother’s contract, which dates to the 1960s.
“We’re the only country in Europe that doesn’t have a free housing market and that’s just amazing,” Mr. Gago da Graça said.
Rules like these, which economists also blame for contributing to Portugal’s private debt load, help explain why this nation of 11 million has followed Greece and Spain into investors’ line of fire.
. . .
The . . . rules helped protect tenants, but also led to a chronic shortage of rental housing. This, in turn, persuaded a new generation of Portuguese to tap recently into low interest rates and buy instead — often in new suburbs — thereby exacerbating the country’s mortgage debt and leaving Portugal with one of Europe’s lowest savings rates, of 7.5 percent.
“This system of controlled rents is a major problem for the Portuguese economy, but we will probably be waiting for a generational change to have room for institutional reform,” said Cristina Casalinho, chief economist of Banco BPI, a Portuguese bank. Beyond fueling housing credit, she added, the system “basically stops flexibility and mobility in the labor market because you can perhaps find a new job in another city but it will then be very difficult to rent a house there.”
. . .
“Nobody has had the political courage to change something like these rental laws and I don’t see the situation changing in the short term, even if I don’t think the Portuguese tend to react as dramatically as the Greeks,” said Salvador Posser, who runs a family-owned company renting out construction equipment.
Besides distorting pricing in the housing market, the tenancy rules have left physical scars. Portugal’s historic city centers are dotted with abandoned and crumbling houses that are either subject to a court dispute or have rental income that cannot cover repair and maintenance costs.
“This economic crisis is clearly keeping our very slow courts even more occupied because of the amount of conflict that it is creating between landlords and tenants,” said Menezes Leitão, a law professor and president of PLA, a property owners association.
Mr. Posser cited a recent estimate that 8 percent of the buildings in central Lisbon were deserted, in large part because of rent-related obstacles. In Porto, the second-largest city, less than 10 percent of inner-city housing is available for rent, which has helped shrink the population by a third over three decades.
“We’re still losing about 30 inhabitants a day,” said Rui Moreira, president of the Porto Commercial Association.

For the full story, see:
RAPHAEL MINDER. “Like Spain, Portugal Hopes to Make Cuts, but It Is Mired in Structural Weakness.” The New York Times (Fri., May 14, 2010): B3.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 13, 2010 and has the title “Portugal Follows Spain on Austerity Cuts.”)
(Note: ellipses added.)

The original source of the Friedman and Stigler article (in pamphlet form) was:
Friedman, Milton, and George J. Stigler. Roofs or Ceilings? The Current Housing Problem. Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1946.

Rent Control as a Form of “Hatred of the Bourgeois”

New York City is one of the few remaining cities that has rent control laws (aka “rent stabilization”). Economists view such laws as a version of price ceilings, and they generally argue that such laws reduce the incentives to build and maintain housing.
Libertarian philosophers would add that the laws also violate fundamental rights of property.

(p. 25) At its core, the fight involves a law allowing landlords to displace rent-stabilized tenants if the landlords will use the space as their primary residence. The Economakis family has prevailed, thus far, on the principle that the law applies even to a building this large. But the tenants continue to press the notion that given the scope of the proposed home — which calls for seven bathrooms, a gym and a library — the owners are just trying to clear them out so they can sell the building off to become so many market-rate condos.

Mr. Economakis insists his family would never have subjected itself to years of argument — and tens of thousands in legal bills — if they did not want to live there. He acknowledged that it is a lot of space, but said that having the place to themselves is also a matter of privacy. He said that the family long ago offered, as a halfway measure, to let the tenants in the five rear apartments stay, along with a couple on the first floor, and said he would happily sign a promise to turn over the profits to the existing tenants if he sold within 20 years.
“We really believe that, as owners, we have a right to live in the building,” he said.
. . .
Last year, the tenants staged a rally outside the building and some 400 people showed up. Mostly, they lodge their silent protest daily on their doors. Mr. Pultz has his evil eye, while his first-floor neighbor, Laura Zambrano, has one poster giving the dictionary definition of the word hubris and another quoting Flaubert:
“Two things sustain me. Love of literature and hatred of the bourgeois.”

For the full story, see:

MARC SANTORA. “Landlord’s Dream Confronts Rent-Stabilized Lives.” The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., June 15, 2008): 25.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Perhaps the most eloquent critique of rent control was penned in the only paper that Chicago Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and George Stigler ever wrote together (published as a pamphlet):
Friedman, Milton, and George J. Stigler. “Roofs or Ceilings? The Current Housing Problem.” Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1946.

The Role of the Irish Potato Famine in the Repeal of the Corn Laws

In one of his more famous, and outrageous, essays, George Stigler argued that economists do not matter, because changes in policy do not arise from changes in ideas, but from changing circumstances and special interests.
One of the cases that he briefly mentions is the repeal of the English Corn Laws that had restricted the importation of wheat (in England “corn” is what we call “wheat) into Britain. The usual account is that the free market arguments of Cobden and Bright made the difference.
The account quoted below, might be taken as support for Stigler’s position. But it might also be evidence for the more optimistic position of Stigler’s buddy, Milton Friedman. Friedman held that on major issues, economists’ policy proposals go ignored until some crisis occurs that sends the politicians looking for policy alternatives. (Friedman thought that this is what occurred in the case of his own proposal for floating exchange rates.)

(p. A23) THE feast of Ireland’s patron saint has always been an occasion for saluting the beautiful land “where the praties grow,” but it’s also a time to look again at the disaster that established around the world the Irish communities that today celebrate St. Patrick’s Day: the Great Potato Famine of 1845-6. In its wake, the Irish left the old country, with more than half a million settling in United States. The famine and the migrations changed Irish and American history, of course, but they drastically changed Britain too.
. . .
The first intimations of Ireland’s looming calamity reached the British government in August 1845. Although Britain was responsible for the social and economic iniquities which had made Ireland so susceptible, the government of the day deserves some credit for its efforts to avert mass starvation. There were political as well as logistical difficulties.
. . .
To Peel it was obvious that the Corn Laws would have to go, but his electorate of large landowners was vehemently opposed to their abolition. The Duke of Wellington, leader of the House of Lords, complained that Ireland’s “rotten potatoes have done it all — they put Peel in his damned fright.” Peel drew heavily on the news from Ireland as he urged Parliament to vote for abolition:
“Are you to hesitate in averting famine which may come, because it possibly may not come? Are you to look to and depend upon chance in such an extremity? Or, good God! are you to sit in cabinet, and consider and calculate how much diarrhea, and bloody flux, and dysentery, a people can bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?”
The bill abolishing the Corn Laws was passed in May 1846 in the House of Commons, with two-thirds of Peel’s party voting against it and the entire opposition voting in favor. A month later, Peel was out of office.
. . .
. . . Ireland’s famine, by ending the Corn Laws, prompted the beginning of the free trade that established the success of Britain’s industrial economy.

For the full commentary, see the article referenced immediately below, or see his forthcoming book Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History:

JOHN READER. “The Fungus That Conquered Europe.” The New York Times (Mon., March 17, 2008): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The Stigler essay mentioned above is:
Stigler, George J. “Do Economists Matter?” Southern Economic Journal 42, no. 3 (1976): 347-54.
(I will try to dig out a reference for the Friedman position when I have more time.)

The Importance of the City for Human Progress

I remember Stigler in his history of economic thought class, waxing eloquent about the wondrous idyllic life of the countryside, and then ending with a Stiglerian zinger; something like: ‘and where there is no idea to be found for miles and miles.’ (I believe, in his memoirs, that Stigler mentions that it is good for a great university to be located in a great city.)
Rosenberg and Birdzell attribute even greater importance to urban life:

(p. 78) The merchants were consigned to the towns, and the towns themselves were nonfeudal islands in a feudal world.

Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.