Outrun Change

We need to learn quickly to keep up with the massive change around us so we don't get run over. We need to outrun change.

Archive for the category “Economics”

Capitalism or fascism? Which economic system will better resolve the supply shortages?

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

How do we get enough of the respirators, personal protective equipment, and medicine we need to get through the COVID-19 pandemic?

Fascinating to watch the press conference Saturday 3/21/20 with various federal officials and members of the coronavirus task force.  Most fascinating feature was looking at the various comments and questions/answers from an economics perspective. Thought about Friday’s briefing as well.

Here is the difference in perspective I perceived: do we rely on capitalism or fascism as our model to get things done?

Underlying the comments from all the federal officials is the idea that the private sector can figure out how to provide everything we need.

The common thread underlying a huge portion of the questions from media is the idea that the federal government should tell which specific companies how much of which specific products to produce, specify they price they will charge, and provide the addresses for where to send each pallet of supplies.

In other words, should we use a capitalist model to provide goods we need or should we use the fascist model?

As a thumbnail description, in the fascist economic model the means of production are owned by the private sector but the central planning authority tells companies how much of which product to produce. In contrast, the next step away from freedom is communism, in which the means of production are owned by the government and a central planning agency decides how much of each specific product to produce.

Capitalism?

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Didn’t ever expect I’d personally experience Soviet Union and Venezuelan style grocery stores.

Chaika 3 (on redscale film) – Queue by Jaroslav A. Polak is in the public domain (CC0 1.0). Lines like this outside a grocery store were normative in the Soviet Union (except for the cell phone, obviously).

In the Soviet Union and Venezuela, grocery shopping involved/involves listening for rumors of which store got a shipment overnight, standing in line for hours, looking at lots of empty shelves, and going to the store daily to see if what you need might actually be on the shelf today.

If you have been awake the last seven days, you know that is what grocery shopping looks like in the U.S. today.

The difference between the Evil Empire and the worker’s paradise of Venezuela on one hand and the United States on the other hand is that the supply chain in the U.S. is still stocking the shelves and in a week or two or three will have them filled up.

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The 2010’s: best decade in history.

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Matt Ridley explains the best improvement in living standards for us humans over a single decade is the decade that ends today, 12/31/19.

(Cross-post from my other blog, Freedom is Moral.)

He explained his point from multiple directions on 12/21/19 in Spectator: We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.

A few of his points that caught my interest:

The rate of extreme poverty in the world has dropped from 60% when he was born to under 10% in this decade. If you ache to seek less people in dirt eating poverty that is a wonderful thing.

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Cost and time to cross the Atlantic has dropped by more than 90% in the last 500 years.

Columbus’ Ships. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Transatlantic travel time has dropped radically in the last 500 years.  Time to transit the Atlantic has dropped about 99% and cost has dropped about 95% by my calculations.

Let’s look at several data points for cost and time, then calculate one indicator of improved quality of life.

Human Progress provides fun data points on August 2, 2018 in their post, A Reminder of How Far Transatlantic Travel Has Come.

Update: An earlier post on November 27, 2015 discussed Time to cross the Atlantic – 500 year history.

Update: Added in travel time of Concorde at end of the post.

Columbus’ first trip

The 1492 trip by Christopher Columbus took two years of lobbying before the king and queen of Spain approved 2 million Spanish maravedis to fund the trip. A professor has calculated that would be comparable to about US$1,000,000 today.

The cost seems low to me. I’ll look at that more later.

Crew size was 87 according to this article. The accountant in me is driven to calculate the cost per crewman.  That would give an average cost of $11,494. I’ll round that to $11,500 and ignore any adjustment for several crew members who died on the trip.

His trip took two months, nine days, which I calculate at 70 days (30+31+9).

Mayflower

Mayflower. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

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Abundance of food today compared with routine scarcity of food earlier than 150 years ago.

Abundance of refrigerated fresh meet at your conveniently available grocery store. Not an option for anyone on the planet 200 years ago, to say nothing of the 10,000 years prior. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Johan Norberg describes the tremendous progress in the last several hundred years in so many areas, such as life expectancy, health, sanitation, liberty, education, and equality in his book Progress: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. Here are a few more tidbits I found fascinating.

Consider the scarcity of food in the past and the drop in cost to feed a family in the last 150 years.

Food

Look at just a few of the statistics on availability of food:

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Gross World Product over last 27,000 years

Gross World Product, according to Wikipedia is

the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world. Because imports and exports balance exactly when considering the whole world, this also equals the total global gross domestic product (GDP).

I got curious about the world-wide GDP after thinking about two previous posts:

What would happen if you multiplied the drastic increase in  population with the radical increase in per capita income? I made a feeble effort to multiple the two data sets and quickly realized that wouldn’t work. Poked around a bit on the ol’ internet thingie and found the answer at Wikipedia – gross world product is what I was looking for.

27,000 year time horizon – Check out the graph at top of this post for the estimated gross world product on a very long time horizon, specifically from estimates back in 25,000 B.C. through 2014 A.D.

Copyright notice:  Graphs in this post are based on data in an article titled “Gross world product” by Wikipedia, which is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.  As a result the following tables which are derived from this information are licensed for use by anyone under the same CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Any use of these graphs must in turn be distributed under the same license.

I will show the raw data at the end of this post.

With that 27,000 year time horizon, there is a radical turn in the 1900s, at which point the graph appears to goes from horizontal to straight up vertical.

That is too long of a time horizon to understand, so I broke it out into smaller blocks.

Last 2,000 years – To remove the many earlier millenniums of slow growth, time horizon was revised to 1 AD through now. Notice there is still a radical change in the 1900s. With the dramatic changes in the last 200 years, the line from earlier looks like it is flat, but it isn’t.

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Increase of income per person over last 200 years

Here is an approximation of annual per capita GDP from 1 AD through 1913:

I’ve long been amazed at the radical growth in per capita wealth over the last 200 years. That means since the Industrial Revolution.

Living in dirt-eating poverty as the normal way of life for essentially every person on the planet changed about 200 years ago, give or take.

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More economic and environmental fails from wind energy

Still about 4 or 5 miles away from the turbines. Many of the towers are visible from highway 2. Photo of wind turbines north of Tioga, N.D. by James Ulvog

The bad news from slicer-and-dicers just keeps rolling in.

  • Article describes lack of CO2 benefit while running up cost of electricity in Minnesota
  • Description of environmental cost of building a wind tower

10/15/17 – Powerline – “Green” Energy Fails Every Test – Minnesota is touted as a model of green energy. With around $15 billion poured into wind power, the state is a good example of the damage from green.

More wind is produced in spring and fall, which does not correlate to when more electricity is needed, which is summer and winter.

So how has that $15,000,000,000 dumped into bird chopping turbines turned out?

CO2 emissions from the state, according to a new study, have only declined slightly. The drop during 2 years was due to an accident that took a coal plant off-line. Other than that, the drop is CO2 has been minor; nothing like what was supposed to happen with all that wind power.

Main reason is wind is very unreliable. When those slice-and-dicers aren’t producing, the energy comes from backup coal plants. So when there is little wind and high demand in the summer and winter, where does the extra electricity come from?

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Venezuela continues to collapse

Oil platform in Venezuela. A view of what used to be and could have been now. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The bad news from Venezuela just doesn’t stop:

  • Protests have stopped because of lost hope
  • Professionals become prostitutes just to get enough food to keep the family life
  • Elections for state governors finally to be held on Sunday
  • Former executive of Brazilian construction company admits to paying $35 million to Venezuelan president’s election campaign
  • Guess on inflation rate for 2018 is over 2,300%

8/31/17 – Wall Street Journal – “Hope Is Gone” as Venezuelan Protesters Vanish From Streets – The protests have faded away. The ongoing massive arrests, torture of detainees, widespread human-rights abuses, and frequent shootings seem to have broken the protest movement. A number of senior leaders of the opposition have fled the country in fear for their life. Reports indicate 125 people have been killed and somewhere around 2000 have been wounded, with many of those people with permanent injuries.

One outside observer, who is safe because he is an American living in the United States, observers the president has gained effective control of the entire government. I think if we look at the typical definitions that makes him a dictator.

In the meantime the oppressed people of the country continue to scramble for food, trying to find enough so they don’t starve to death.

9/22/17 – Miami Herald – In Venezuela, they were teachers and doctors. To buy food, they became prostitutes. – A large portion of the prostitutes in Columbia are women who escaped Venezuela. Before transitioning to the world’s oldest profession, many of them were teachers, doctors, professional women. One brothel even has a petroleum engineer.

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Radical drop in cost of lighting as indicator of how much better our lives are today

From really expensive candles to cheap electricity for brighter light bulbs. What luxury we now have!  “Trip the Lights Fantastic” by Anne Worner is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One measure of how radically life has improved over the centuries is how much nighttime illumination can be purchased from a certain amount of labor.

For example, George Washington calculated that it cost him £5 a year to provide himself five hours of reading light every evening. That is the equivalent of about $1,000 today.

Imagine spending $83 a month to light only one lamp in your entire house.

We are amazingly rich today.

This insight provided by Human Progress on 2/15/17:  How the cost of light has fallen by a factor of 500,000.

Here are some reference points provided by the article:

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Rapid economic growth of the American colonies before the revolution.

Take a look at how rapidly the colonies developed over the many years in advance of the successful American revolution. Comments are from An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power by John Steel Gordon.

One part that is astounding to me is certain geographies were very conducive to a certain type of crop. That is why tobacco, or corn, or cotton, or fishing for cod thrived in certain areas.

Consider: export of tobacco from Virginia to England:

  • 1618 – 20,000#
  • 1622 – 60,000#
  • 1627 – 500,000 #
  • 1629 – 1,500,000#
  • 1638 – 3,000,000#

let’s look at the annual increase and compound rate of growth:

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Why has there been such astounding economic success in the United States?

How to illustrate the super-abundance produced in the U.S.? Perhaps this view of a corn field, knowing there are huge fields of corn for a hundred miles in every direction. “An Iowa Summer Carpet” by cwwycoff1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Why these is so much economic output in the U.S. is a valuable question because once you can explain why the U.S. has seen such powerful growth for such a long time, there is a possibility, remote though it may be, for others to have the same prosperity.

Each of us has to search for the answer by yourself. I suggest you seriously consider the first chapter of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power by John Steel Gordon if you want to get your arms around the answer.

It is not just that the US is a large country that goes from coast to coast.

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More explanations of virtual currencies and possible applications

bitcoin” by komersreal is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Several recent articles provide more background on Bitcoin and other blockchain tools. For your daily brain stretching:

  • Blockchain as a possible tool for fast and cheap international payments
  • China is working to restrict blockchain transactions
  • Central banks ponder issuing of their own virtual currencies
  • Tax status of blockchain transactions and the IRS is out fishing for tax evaders
  • Description of blockchain as being the internet of money, comparable to how the internet moves and stores information

8/28/17 – Journal of Accountancy – Blockchain opens new era for cross-border payments – Moving money from one country to another is time-consuming and costly. There are fees at both ends. It takes several days for the money to arrive. An error in one digit of the routing or account information means the transfer will go astray and take more time and money to locate.

Blockchain offers the opportunity to make international transfers near immediate and at a fraction of the cost.

For an illustration, picture a company paying international vendors. Or an international worker sending part of his paycheck back to his parents in his home country. Or a mission organization moving funds to its many field offices.

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Retail brick-and-mortar stores continue their slide

The near future for a lot of Sears stores. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

I read but did not keep track of a WSJ article describing e-commerce companies moving into otherwise dead shopping malls and converting them into fulfillment centers. Sounds like a good way to recycle vacated malls.

Some other articles on the deteriorating retail market. Also, an explanation why sales of vinyl records have slowed.

7/7/17 – USA Today – Sears to close 43 more stores as retail crisis continues – This is in addition to the 66 closings I mentioned on June 16, which is in addition to 180 announced since January 1st.  Article says this brings the year-to-date total to over 300. I obviously missed 20 recently that were mentioned in the article.

Article says J.C. Penny is closing 138 stores, Macy’s is closing 68, and Radio Shack has shuttered over 1,000 stores since Memorial Day.

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Venezuela continues moving toward dictatorship

Shipwreck standing on the beach with the sea in the background. Margarita Island. Venezuela. Photo courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

What little that remained of democracy in Venezuela continues to crumble.

8/4/17 –France 24 – Venezuela’s currency crumbles at dizzying speed – The value of the bolivar is shrinking fast.

On Thursday the bolivar dropped to 17,000 to 1 U.S. dollar.

The official exchange rate is 2,870:1.

The reporter interviewed an executive in a reinsurance business. That would be a professional level position. His salary is 800,000 bolivars a month. A year ago that was worth $200 and now it is worth $47.

Two pounds of rice costs 17,000 bolivars.

8/5/17 – Wall Street Journal – Venezuela’s New Assembly Fires Attorney General – Well, the slow-motion coup continues to roll forward.

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