Review – The First Tycoon

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

by T.J. Stiles, published 2010

How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.

But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.

How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!

[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”

Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.

Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.

There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!

I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.

The Open, Free Intellectual Environment Of The American University

A fellow investor friend of mine sent me an e-mail and suggested I read “What’s the point?” by UK fund manager Terry Smith. We were originally talking about Michael Burry’s commencement speech at UCLA [PDF] and the idea that one of the things that was so extraordinary about it is the way he unmasked the villains and the corruption and spoke the truth unapologetically in such a public forum. I had also, in an earlier e-mail, complained about my lack of interest in blogging, feeling frustrated lately at the nearly overwhelming volume of fallacious bullshit floating around the net that seems to deserve a response yet leaves me tired and bored out of my mind every time I attempt another mud wrestling fiasco.

I don’t know if my frustration inspired the link to Terry Smith or if it was simply the next step in the theme of telling it like it is or what, but that blog post got me thinking. I’ve long thought about giving it one last hurrah and then hanging up my hat. Because, seriously, what is the point? You can tell the truth a million times but if your opponent is bent on lies and deceit, nothing can be done. (Of course, Mises adopted the slogan, from Virgil, of “Tu ne cede malis”, but he’s a smarter man than I, with more energy, apparently.)

In light of this, I wanted to share three critical experiences I had in college during my sophomore, junior and senior years, respectively, which have stuck with me to this day and serve, subtlety and fundamentally, to color my view of the intellectual Opposition. I believe my experiences are not unique, although few people besides me may have had the required awareness to realize it, and as such where I went to school back then is not important to the story. This is not about an institution but rather the institution of the American academic system and its culture as it exists today, and likely has existed for awhile before now and probably longer still in the future.

I want to give some insight into why I find it hard not to be dismissive of many people who claim to think differently than me on various philosophical subjects.

I first became suspicious of my academic curriculum when I learned that microeconomics was not a prerequisite for macroeconomics. Rather than being treated as fundamental knowledge built upon and reexamined from a more global standpoint in macroeconomics, microeconomics was treated as a separate discipline entirely, which could be studied before, during, or after macroeconomics or even not at all (at least, if you weren’t concerned about getting an economics degree). Of course, numerous macroeconomic theories contradicted accepted wisdom taught in the microeconomics course, but no explanation was given as to the nature and source of these apparent contradictions, nor where it was in the economic causal chain that things stopped making micro-sense and started making macro-sense. There was simply a dichotomy in place and you were expected to accept it and move on.

In my second year I was excited to take a class with a professor teaching “international trade” (you know, the separate set of economic principles and rules that apply when two people exchange goods across imaginary political boundaries). Everyone I knew who had taken the class spoke highly of this professor as a competent and entertaining lecturer and said the material itself was quite fun. We spent a lot of time in that class studying the roles of quotas, tariffs and other government interference in the economy. It was really about political economy, not economics, because economics doesn’t change when you move stuff over imaginary lines.

But what rubbed me kind of raw in the class was when this beloved professor spoke quite approvingly of the idea, built into his theoretical examples in class, of providing “transfer payments” (read: violent redistributive extortion for special interest groups carried out by the government) to currently privileged groups who would be “hurt” by “free trade”. This professor advocated that paying these highwaymen off and reaping the benefits of freer trade was a good idea in the long run.

“Uh, question, professor– wouldn’t it be best to just have free trade, without a complicated system of quotas, tariffs and transfer payments to interest groups? Isn’t that most economically efficient? Why don’t we learn about that?” This question got a knowing smirk and a request to meet the good professor privately during office hours to discuss, as there simply wasn’t enough time in lecture to discuss such twaddle.

Dutifully, I scheduled some office hours time to meet with the beloved professor and discuss. Again, I posed the question to him, why are we paying these people off? Isn’t it better to let them figure out their own way to survive a competitive market place without getting welfare from everyone else? After all, they have no right to a certain income or position within the market place. Again, a knowing smirk as the professor launched into a short anecdote about how he once was full of piss and vinegar like I about these subjects. But the truth of the matter, he told me, was more complicated.

And then he, in so many words, spilled the beans– if “we” don’t bribe these special interest groups with redistributive social justice, they’ll get their pitchforks and their torches and elect another Hitler. That was it. That was why he doesn’t teach actual free trade economics in his course. That’s why he thinks transfer payments are good. That’s why he was for FDR’s New Deal and the Social Security scam. He saw it as the only thing standing between us, and Hitler.

I tried to make the point that if you fear totalitarianism, transfer payments are actually a step toward totalitarianism, not a step away. He responded by suggesting that granting these dictator-electors-in-the-wings a little welfare would create some kind of social anchor where we’d go no further toward socialism past that point, having bought the evildoers off. Never mind people tried to buy Hitler off and he just asked for more until he went to war. And never mind that the US government has had to move far, far beyond the New Deal since then to keep neo-Hitler at bay, according to his logic.

At this point, having no response to my observation of yet another contradiction, I was informed that office hours had suddenly come to an end (I’d only been there for thirty minutes and had scheduled an hour and I didn’t see anyone waiting in the hall for an audience) and that although he really enjoyed our conversation, he was going to have to ask me to come visit with him during the summer to continue the conversation. Of course he knew I was an out of state student who would be returning home during the summer so he was actually dodging his responsibility to make sense of his intellectual positions.

I left his office reeling in confusion and frustration. Here is a guy that my peers think is one of the best instructors the university has to offer, he is considered to be a thoughtful and intellectual person, etc. Yet, I come to find out he is teaching disingenuously. He is guilty of the “smuggled premise”, that is, his economic values taught in his class have nothing to do with sound economic reasoning but rather a personal, political belief that is never named nor mentioned which is thereby “smuggled” into the lessons. Instead of being honest and telling his students “I am teaching you a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make economic sense, because I think it makes political sense”, he carries out his pedagogical mission in such a way that he exploits his students ignorance and credulity.

Why can’t this professor just tell everyone what he really believes? Are we not old enough for the truth? Did we not pay for the truth? Do we not expect the truth?

To say I was disappointed by this experience would be an understatement. But I tried to put it behind me as I continued my economic studies.

During my third year, I had another run in with an economics professor, this time one teaching a “money and banking” course who had done some consulting for the Fed and who used as a textbook in his class the work of the notorious intellectual bungler, Frederic Mishkin. I raised a lot of challenges to the material which were poorly handled by the professor, but there is one in particular that will always stand out to me because of its zaniness. We were discussing the “money multiplier” of fractional reserve banking and how with a tiny base of reserves banks could pyramid large amounts of credit on top and lever up their balance sheets. I raised my hand and asked, “Doesn’t levering the balance sheet increase the risk of crisis for the bank and for the banking system?”

The professor acknowledged that, well, yes, it does, but it’s all done within the proscription of the FDIC guaranteeing everyone’s deposits and the Fed serving as lender of last resort to prevent a total collapse. Then I asked, “Well isn’t that crisis kind of inevitable when you create duration mismatch between funds that are borrowed short and lent long like this?” And the professor acknowledged, well, yes, it does, but again it’s all done under the keen watch of the overseer regulatory bodies, this time a little bit more apprehensive. And then I went for the F-word. I raised my hand, “But professor, isn’t it fraud to lend out people’s money that they think is being held for safe-keeping at the bank? Why not have the bank separate the two activities, safe-keeping and loan-brokering?”

There was a pause and he looked kind of startled. His skin color rose and his face contorted into a mixture of anger and glee, because now he had “figured me out” and knew my true motive. He exploded: “So I guess if it were up to you the banks wouldn’t make any money, huh?!”

A little shocked at his outburst, I stammered, “Well, no, of course not, I don’t really see what their profitability has to do with my question…” but he cut me off. “Yeah, I see what you’re trying to do. You don’t want the banks to make any money, do ya?! Well, it’s a nice ideal but it doesn’t work in the real world and if banks didn’t make any money, we wouldn’t have any banks and you wouldn’t want to live in a world without banks!” he growled, signaling that question time was over and it was time to get back to his brilliant lecture on fraud-based banking economics.

The episode was so instructive for me. So THAT’S what he’s about– shilling for fraudulent reserve banking, not trying to explore the truth of the matter. He neatly dodged my very simple, very honest inquiry of how we might live in a world without systemic banking risk, a world which would still allow profit opportunities for banking operations. Instead, he constructed a false dichotomy — systemic risk due to fraud, and profit; or no profit and no banks — and then browbeat me and anyone else in the class who was listening to avoid serious discussion of the principle. It suddenly put things into perspective for me. He wasn’t there to impart any real knowledge about the economy to me, he was there to be a hatchet man and paid minion for the banking establishment as it stands today. Wouldn’t want any bright-eyed college kids getting uppity and questioning the scam now, would we?

I really thought that would be the tops. But then I got to my Labor Economics class in my fourth year.

You might be wondering at this point, “Labor economics? Are you mad? Why did you take that course as an elective?” It would be a reasonable question, but the truth is that it was the least horrible option amongst what I had to choose from at the time. To say I went into it with low expectations is an understatement.

Those low expectations were met admirably on two separate occasions, which were not the only examples to choose from but simply the most illustrative.

My professorista had spent her entire life after high school in academia and government bureaucracies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I would be surprised if she ever held a part time job as a youngster in the private sector. She demonstrated zero familiarity with the reality of markets. One day she provided the class her argument for government intervention in the economy, which was based on the “paradox of capitalism”, this being that capitalism is SO efficient and SO productive, that it drives things down to the cost of “near 0” (not actually zero, because that’d obviously imply superabundance and the end of scarcity for that good or service) and therefore these things become “uneconomic” to produce and won’t be provided for under the profit system, which means if we want them government must provide them as a public good.

One example she gave of this was childcare services. Now, let’s ignore the “empirical” fact that there are numerous for-profit childcare services out there, right here and now, which would seem to undermine her argument completely. Let’s just think about this logically for a second.

So long as a given good does not have a cost of 0, it is not superabundant and it is an economizable resource. For example, air is not an economic good because it is superabundant. You can breathe as much air as you need and don’t have to think about what you’d give up to ensure your supply of air, it’s just there. It has a cost of 0. But if it has a cost above 0, it must be economized, something must be given up to get it. And if at a particular point in time firms are so numerous and efficient at supplying a good, such as childcare services, that they can’t make a profit, what will happen is that the least efficient firms of the bunch will consume their capital (by earning losses over and over again) and exit the marketplace. And when they do this, the level of profitability for remaining firms will rise because the lowered supply will result in the ability to charge higher prices.

And this dynamic will play out forever over the life of the industry so long as people value childcare services. There will be a constant competitive dynamic tending toward the “right” supply of childcare services because the least efficient providers will exit with losses. And this is “good” from the standpoint of anyone interested in participating in the economy because it means that those extraneous resources will flood into other, underserved industries where profitability is much higher, indicating a relatively more important use for the resources versus childcare. At no point will the market stop providing childcare services entirely, requiring a timely government intervention and provision of this service to correct a “market failure.”

Well, recognizing that as the hogwash it was, I raised my hand and began disputing the logic just as I did above. She was so dumbfounded that I had the temerity to question her transparently flawed reasoning that she began what could best be called “sputtering”, rolling her eyes and trying to form even one word in response as if she were having a seizure. Finally, she gave up and said, “Would anyone like to respond to that and explain why he is wrong?” About ten different hands shot up, eagerly, and she called on a young man who halfway turned around in his chair to straddle his view between me in the back and her approving glances in the front. He began, “Governments can and should correct market failures, which happen frequently. For example, while I was studying abroad in Ghana, the government provided public bus service to the village I was staying at because it wasn’t profitable for private businessmen…”

I stopped him right there and pointed out that the lack of profitability is part of the phenomenon I just described, and it suggests the wastefulness of bus service to a small African village. The class erupted with anger and indignation. This was so not politically correct to suggest some poor villagers in Africa didn’t merit a dedicated bus service just because it wasn’t profitable to provide it! This lecture hall had about one hundred students in it. Suddenly, they were a-chatter, half of them noisily discussing how outrageous my view was amongst themselves, the other half turned and shouting/arguing with me simultaneously while the young man with the bus service anecdote continued droning on. This went on for several minutes before the professorista tried to get control back over the class and insisted we finish up the lesson, but by then it was too late as class was over and everyone made for the exits.

It was at this point that as people filtered out a guy sitting a little in front and to the right of me turned around and said, “For what it’s worth, I agree with you,” and then grabbed his bag and walked out. I guess it was better than thinking the entire class was ready to lynch me, but he certainly didn’t feel the need to come to my rescue in the heat of the argument!

The other memorable moment from that class came right near the end of the semester. The Wall Street investment banks were beginning their meltdown and that particular morning Bear Stearns had failed, which was all over the news and which had greatly agitated the students as several had received offers of employment there at the conclusion of the semester which were now in jeopardy. The professorista sought to calm everyone’s nerves by saying that this was a limited event, contained to a specific firm with poor risk controls and the Fed and the regulatory agencies were all over it.

I raised my hand and pointed out that this was indicative of a systematic impending crisis, that the authorities were NOT in control as evidenced by the fact that it had happened, and that it would get a lot worse before it got any better. I suggested that this was the first of many failures to come.

“Would you like to bet on that?” she said, mischievously, expecting me to back down with the bravado.

“I already have!” I exclaimed, as I had taken a few minor positions in my brokerage account at the time (don’t worry, I didn’t make out like John Paulson).

“Well, we’ll see…” she said, trying to quiet me down.

Yes, we did, didn’t we? I never followed up with her to see what she thought of giving me a hard time about my prediction in class, or whether she was willing to confess she had had it all wrong, but I think it demonstrates again a clear blind spot in the mindset of mainstream academics who are responsible for instructing this country’s (and the world’s) future leaders and productive people about intellectual curiosity, academic honesty and the nature of reality.

How many parents are aware of this when they insist their children must go to college? How many have audited the value of their kid’s higher education and determined that the small fortune it takes to get them through a “better” private institution is worth it in the face of antics like what I’ve described above?

Silicon Valley’s Incoherent Idealism

A friend linked me to Why does Silicon Valley seem to love Democrats and dismiss the GOP? A Q&A with journalist Greg Ferenstein which contains an interesting summary of the philosophy of many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with regards to an ideal society and the role that government can play in bringing it about:

The high level elevator pitch is that Silicon Valley and, broadly, urbanized professionals, represent an entirely new political category — not libertarian, not Democrat, and not Republican. I argue that they are pro-capitalism and pro-government and their belief is that the government should be an investor in citizens to make them more educated, entrepreneurial and civic, rather than act as a regulator of the two parties.

[T]he internet was created by a government lab. Much of Silicon Valley is based on government funding, whether it be basic research or education or outreach for free trade the internet requires pretty substantial government involvement.

[T]hey are not fans of libertarians. Libertarians have threatened to cut funding for economic studies, basic research in the sciences, education. These things are absolutely crucial to emerging industries and governments roll [sic] in it.

[C]rucial to what is distinct between libertarians and valley folk that Silicon Valley’s ideology is pro-market but it is not pro-liberty. Liberty is not a value. They are highly, highly, collectivist. They believe that every single person has a positive obligation to society and the government can help people or coerce people or incentive into making a unique contribution.

Silicon Valley is all about inequity and unpredictability. They really believe that some people are much more productive or inventive than others. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is performance based funding, where they will encourage competition among schools and will give some schools more money than other.

If anyone wants to make best friends immediately with Silicon Valley, say you’re going to fix housing. It is a crisis out here; we’re talking about median rents over $4,000, people are getting evicted left and right, and it’s because the super-left progressive wing in San Francisco has basically made it impossible to build anything but single family homes, and it can take years to get anything approved. It is a regulation jungle.

What they want to do is they basically want everyone to live like they lived in college, where you get to play all day long, discover new things, you don’t have to work much, maybe you have a part time job and you just get to chill. The working phrase for this is automated luxury communism. And the way for automated luxury communism to work, and this is a real thing that could be happening within our lifetimes, is that robots replace most work and you just get a check from the government every month that allows you to spend as you want. And it comes from a very, very high tax on the relatively few workers who do have economic value.

When the Atlantic’s James Bennet asked Zuckerberg what his political ideology was, “are you a conservative or a Democrat”, he said, no I’m pro-knowledge economy. And the knowledge economy is a distinctly different beast. Boeing and the other things are also technology companies — missiles and planes. The act of creating information, and believing that information alone can be a solution is a distinct ideology. Most companies will not be information technology companies, and that is why it will remain a distinct way of life.

I will attempt to summarize this into a few key stances, the Silicon Valley philosophy is described by:

  • Pro-capitalism; competition will provide the best solution
  • Pro-government; government can improve people and outcomes by subsidizing the right activities rather than trying to control interactions and exchanges
  • Anti-libertarian; libertarians want to restrict the size and role of government which they see as critical to building the infrastructure and knowledge networks they view as critically important to society’s well-being
  • Anti-liberty; individuals have positive obligations to society to make it better and should not have the freedom to shirk their responsibility
  • Pro-collectivism; “We’re all in this together, play as a team”
  • Anti-egalitarian/pro-elitism; recognize the inherent differences in ability and talent and let competition raise society on the coat tails of the winner
  • Anti-scarcity; they believe economic scarcity is an artifact of technological constraints which are being removed by the march of progress
  • Pro-taxation; high levels of taxation are a leveler and generate resources for government to use to promote the well-being of society as a whole
  • Pro-housing; affordable housing is a fundamental human right and government should assist in providing it

Let’s look at some of these principles and the fundamental contradictions they represent.

First, pro-capitalism and pro-government are antagonistic ideas. Capitalism is a voluntary, competitive market resting on the institution of private property. Government is an involuntary, monopolistic institution resting on the institution of public property. If capitalism produces a competitive outcome where the best idea wins, government handicaps it by taking resources from these competitive winners and using them to subsidize the runners-up.

Libertarians are pro-capitalism. Libertarians believe in individual freedom derived from individual property rights. To be anti-libertarian is to be pro-government and anti-capitalism. Libertarians aren’t against infrastructure and knowledge networks– they’re against provisioning these things via government, that is, taxation and monopoly force. Why does it require violence to build a road, or a telecom network? What does it say about the true value of these things if that really were the only way to build them?

Anti-liberty means to be anti-capitalism. The competition of capitalism entails allowing people the liberty to pick their own valued ends and then to select the most efficient means they can think of to achieve those ends. If you are anti-liberty, then you are into telling people what ends they may or may not value and quest after. It also means you are for taking the resources, the scarce means, that they’d employ to chase those ends and forcing them to be happy watching them get used for something else.

Pro-collectivism is anti-capitalism. Competition entails differences amongst individuals, if “we’re all in this together” then there is no value to competition and no one to provide it. If everyone is on team A, there is no team B to face off against. You can have cooperation and competition existing simultaneously, but you can not have collectivism and competition existing simultaneously.

Anti-egalitarian/pro-elitism is pro-libertarian, anti-collectivist and pro-capitalist. If the best are allowed to shine, it means the worst are allowed to suffer what they will. Libertarians don’t believe in handicapping society’s most able or serving the “least common denominator”; they do not believe in sawing off the legs of the tall to create fairness for the midgets. If the midgets want to get stilts that’s fine, but let the tall slam dunk as much as they want. Being pro-elite and anti-egalitarian is decidedly not pro-collectivist because recognizing differences implies there is no “team” on which we all play.

Anti-scarcity is anti-capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t CREATE scarcity, it is a method of dealing with the reality of it. If scarcity doesn’t exist, there is no need for exchange or competition because everyone can have all they need without the help of anyone else. Anti-scarcity is actually anti-physics, too, because it implies that discrete material matter can occupy multiple segments of space-time simultaneously.

Pro-taxation is anti-capitalism and anti-elite/pro-egalitarian. “Leveling” social outcomes is another word for denying competition and the existence of meaningful differences between people, which is implied in anti-egalitarianism. Using taxation to steal what the most able create under the competitive dynamics of capitalism is to destroy the process of capital accumulation which leads to higher productivity economy-wide. Accumulated capital is a time saver, and saving time means doing more work and thus having more goods in the same amount of time. Being pro-taxation is pro-poverty because you’re making society poorer than it otherwise would be if capital could accumulate according to capitalist outcomes.

Pro-housing is actually pro-scarcity. If goods and services aren’t scarce, there is no need for government to subsidize their production or distribution, now is there?

This “ideology” is completely incoherent. It is so bafflingly confused, it almost makes you wonder if it is intentionally so to hide the real ideology. This ideology also isn’t new. What the Silicon Valley folks are advocating is crony capitalism, the vaunted “middle way” the eternal quest of social philosopher charlatans since time immemorial. What Silicon Valley wants is the right to innovate, compete and become wealthy for themselves, but then once they’ve gotten some for themselves, to put in place restrictions, controls and limits for everyone else that will protect their gains. Government is a tool for restricting competition and buying off people who might upset the apple cart, while using resources you’ve taken from other people to do it.

I think the Silicon Valley ideologues have innovated a non-solution to many non-problems. Here is a quick summary of what I think is a real solution to some of their perceived problems, which I will refer to simply as “the private property society”.

Democrats and Republicans claim to be on different sides of the issues, but the place where they align strongly is their shared belief in the necessity of violent interference in social affairs, that is, using government (a monopoly on violence) to achieve desired social ends. Anyone who shares the philosophy that government is a reasonable tool for solving social problems, especially economic problems, is ideologically aligned with the Democrats and the Republicans. The truly radical position is to recognize violent interference in social affairs as a moral and practical non-starter. You can not make people better by force.

For government to invest in one person, it must de-invest (tax) another. This is a zero sum game and in fact it’s likely worse because by definition every time the government takes from the original owner of a resource by taxation and gives to an arbitrary recipient it has selected a less-valued state of affairs; if this were not true, it would mean individuals were routinely engaging in exchanges they perceived to make them worse off and getting poorer and poorer each time they did so.

It is not the role of the government to build the internet, to provide education, to fund basic research in science, etc. The government has no objective way of knowing which of the many projects it might support are actually more valuable than the projects which would’ve been supported by freely chosen, voluntary exchanges amongst the individuals who would be taxed to provide what the government hands out.

Liberty IS a value, although not a value unto itself. Liberty is valuable specifically because of what liberty allows, for each person to pursue those plans he deems most beneficial to his well-being. Without liberty, individuals are forced to accede to the demands and the plans of government, and these demands and plans may not only be worse than the ones they had in mind, but against their very values and ideas of right and wrong.

It is true that people are unequal– unequal in their starting position in life and unequal in their ending position, for every person will die at a different time and place and under different circumstances. People have different abilities, and different means, and their abilities and means will change continually over the course of their lives. The question is not “How can we make people more equal?” but rather “Will people be allowed to be the primary determinant of those inevitable changes, or will they be forced to change according to the pattern of a will other than their own?” The inequality of life provides all the incentive, encouragement and reward necessary for the best to strive to be better, and the worst to do what they must. Nothing can be added to that equation without inadvertently taking something else away.

Housing is a particular problem in San Francisco and Silicon Valley because that part of the country is particularly in love with the promise and power of government. In a competitive market environment, scarcity results in higher prices; this is the “housing shortage” the Silicon Valley crowd is witnessing and experiencing. Normally, higher prices would incentivize an increased supply. Is it not profitable to build housing in the Bay Area? If it is profitable, why aren’t more investors/business people trying to take advantage by increasing the supply of housing? The fact that a problem that is normally solved by investor activity chasing profits is not only occurring, but getting worse and worse every day in the midst of one of the densest communities of super-investor/business people in the entire country suggests that housing in the Bay Area is not controlled by market forces but political forces. The solution is simple– get the political forces out of the way. Eliminate zoning restrictions, eliminate permitting, eliminate taxes on the sale of land and housing, etc. Let markets work.

Information and knowledge are not new to the economy. And knowledge is not valuable without the liberty to pursue what one has learned. Silicon Valley should be strongly aligned with the private property society and the liberty to employ valuable knowledge that comes with it. The fact that they are not raises my suspicion and concern.

Review – Asian Godfathers

Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia

by Joe Studwell, published 2007

Studwell’s “Asian Godfathers” examines the economic development of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Phillipines, which are “linked by powerful, unifying themes… similar historical legacies and a very particular relationship between political and economic power.” In so doing, it helps the reader understand curious facts such as how,

a small region that, concurrently, could not boast a single non-state corporation among the global top 500 [but] none the less accounted for a third of the wealthiest two dozen people on the planet.

The narrative of southeast Asia is that it is rapidly privatizing after a narrow-miss with communism and concentrated state-owned enterprise intervention throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s post-war period and this explains some of the fantastic personal fortunes of various “business families” in the area. But if these supposedly privatized economies can’t boast globally competitive businesses, how are these people managing to get so rich?

The three minor inquiries of this major inquiry are (pg. xii):

  1. why have secretive tycoons come to rule the economies of southeast Asia?
  2. what have they contributed to the region’s overall economic development?
  3. why are they still so powerful when the depth and potency of the Asian Financial Crisis — an event to whose origins they were central — appeared, to many observers, to be likely to emasculate them? (It did not.)

In searching for answers, the book explores several key themes (pg. xiii):

  • historical; the southeast Asian economy is the product of a relationship between political and economic power that developed in the colonial era and was sustained, with a different cast of characters, in the post-colonial era
  • mechanical; a political elite grants to members of an economic elite monopoly concessions, normally in domestic service industries, that enable the latter to extract enormous amounts of wealth, without a requirement to generate the technological capabilities, branded corporations and productivity gains that drive sustainable economic development
  • political; it was expedient for new indigenous political leaderships to nurture their own dependent class of, typically, non-indigenous tycoons who could siphon off economic rents, give a share to their political masters and not pose a threat to political power
  • economic; instead, growth came from a combination of small-scale entrepreneurs, many concentrated and around manufacturing, and a policy of renting out the local labor force to efficient multinational exporters
  • crisis; these arrangements seemed to work acceptably well until the July 1997 onset of the financial crisis
  • repetition; most of the institutional failings revealed by the crisis have not been tackled in the decades since the crisis broke and it remains unclear whether they will be [there could be another crash, as a result]

The introduction to “Asian Godfathers” is outstanding. It is one of the best, most coherent summaries of the major arguments of a comprehensive work such as this that I have come across, so it is worth quoting extensively from it before outlining and commenting on the rest of the book.

First, why is the book called “Asian Godfathers” (pg. xiv)?

The use of the term godfather in this book aims to reflect the traditions of paternalism, male power, aloofness and mystique that are absolutely part of the Asian tycoon story… a very romanticized myth…has grown up around southeast Asia’s tycoons [along with] sub-myths about race, culture, genetics, entrepreneurialism… the entire grounding of economic progress in the region since the end of colonialism.

The Asian tycoons are not just characters in the book, they are characters in real life and they have worked hard to consciously develop their public character themselves. And with regards to character, it is interesting to note that,

Most of Asia’s godfathers are ethnic Chinese.

This would seem to fit into the “historical” theme, as during the colonial period many of the ennobled members of the business community were part of the Chinese diaspora throughout southeast Asia and their relationships with indigenous and colonial governments were similar to the roles and functions which exist today between political and economic elites in the region due to the seeming “special” status a racial or ethnic outsider can obtain in such scenarios.

That being said, Studwell objectively rejects the idea that there is a “culture-centered explanation” for the success of (mostly) Chinese tycoons in southeast Asia, founded on three points:

  1. notions of a cultural imperative ignore historical context; arbitrary decisions made by former colonial powers have led to present-day coincidences, such as the high percentage of “subcontinental ancestry” individuals serving as lawyers and judges in Singapore or Malaysia
  2. the Chinese are non-homogeneous and the Chinese in southeast Asia are typical of the Chinese race in general; Chinese emigres were a self-selected group willing to take significant risks for chances at a brighter future, and they emigrated from geographically, culturally and linguistically different regions around China at different periods of time
  3. the Chinese emigration generally can not be conflated with the godfather phenomenon; while overseas Chinese enjoy above-average incomes in some places, there are also large populations of emigre Chinese who live in poverty similar to the indigenous populations

So does this mean culture and race mean nothing in explaining southeast Asian economic outcomes? Not quite. (pg. xix)

This book argues that these individuals are above all the economic products of the political environment in which they operate and that it is this same political environment that is preventing the region from achieving sustained economic progress. In a worst-case scenario, southeast Asia may be headed towards Latin America-style stagnation and inequality.

So, again, how do these people get so rich? Essentially, they are “asset traders”, trading assets from one political system (Asia) to another (the Western world/global market economy) and they get paid for arbitraging between the two in the form of rents.

Asian godfathers exploit political inefficiency for gain… their companies’ performance in terms of productivity typically lags behind that of the overall economies in which they operate… it is the smaller scale local businesses and the hard work and thrift of ordinary southeast Asians that have driven development.

Interestingly, this is the same argument that was made about the Chinese communist party in control of coastal trading cities and the inland rural entrepreneurs who were driving economic change in China that was put forth in “[amazon text=Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics&asin=0521898102]”. The state-connected actors get all the credit for “producing” measurable trade activity that their political obstructions necessitate, and the contribution of thrifty commercial operators in the domestic economy which are harder to measure and observe go without note despite being at the root of the phenomenon of “third world development” in these regions.

This is one of the central myths shattered by this book– that the mega-wealthy businessmen of southeast Asia are bootstrapped entrepreneurs operating in competitive markets and that Hong Kong and Singapore have grown because they are liberal, free market economies in a world of state intervention and control. The truth is almost exactly the opposite, with the individuals topping the “rich list” representing a group of crony capitalist concessionaires par excellence, and Hong Kong and Singapore in particular representing what happens when you channel large volumes of cash flow through controlled banking and finance regimes, regardless of wider economic or social principles.

This political economic arrangement is not new, and it is not even just colonial. As Studwell argues, it starts with migration pre-dating European control of the region and it relies upon an ancient

racial division of labor in which locals were the political entrepreneurs– focused on the maintenance of political power against indigenous rivals and, later, in partnership with European and American colonists — and outsiders who became economic, and as a corollary bureaucratic, entrepreneurs.

In a sense, there’s really nothing unique or extraordinary about these arrangements. From the dawn of time some groups in society have sought political control over others, which is to say, they seek to live at the expense of the productive people in society. The ancient trade economy resulted in migrant businessmen who proved to be capable administrators not only of their own affairs but also as hired tax farmers and local bureaucrats for the indigenous rulers. Over time, these two groups came more and more to rely upon one another, the businessmen on the rulers for explicit monopoly concessions in return for loyal service, and the rulers on the businessmen for a class of people who could actually get their hands dirty with revenue generation for the state while serving as convenient scapegoats or distractions for the frustrations of the local populace concerning their rule, when need be.

These political arrangements always result in poverty, suffering and gross economic inefficiency. In the case of countries where the governments overtly monopolize or nationalistically control real enterprises, there is the perennial problem of an artificially low supply resulting in artificially high prices. Combined with foreign trade controls which prevent competitive global exports from arriving in their markets, you have the set up for an extremely lucrative arrangement for these “godfather” types who bridge the gap between the inefficient, politically-controlled domestic markets and the efficient, competitive global market. The success of the “trade nations” of Hong Kong and Singapore, then, can be explained by political interference in the nearby local economies, not the absence of such interference in their own:

What is important about Hong Kong and Singapore is that they are archetypal city states — ‘port city states’ would be more precise. Since colonial inception they have offered tariff-free trade (with few or no questions asked about what is being traded) and have been places to park money (with few or no questions asked about where the money came from)… Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands… For as long as surrounding countries have imposed tariffs or quotas on trade in their efforts to fund government, Hong Kong and Singapore have profited from circumventing those restrictions.

In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, “Hong Kong’s immediate hinterland is Southern China… Singapore’s dominant hinterland… has long been Indonesia.” When was the last time you saw China or Indonesia show up on a list of globally competitive economies?

The reason Hong Kong and Singapore are such large financial centers, in particular, is that

Ethnic outsider tycoons who have profited from business concessions in surrounding countries have always sought to keep the funds offshore, fearing — with good reason — that they may one day be the victims of political change.

Perhaps overlooked by some,

Singapore… increased account secrecy provisions and changed trust laws in a manner designed to attract the kind of money Switzerland had dealt in… foreign private banks almost doubled between 2000 and 2006

And meanwhile, “to sustain its economy, Singapore is building casinos to attract corruption money from China.”

In conclusion, rather than proving the efficacy of free markets (which Hong Kong and Singapore largely do not have in terms of domestic industries), instead the experience of these island countries serves to prove

That a city state with a strategic deep water port in a region that has relatively higher levels of mismanagement, corruption and political uncertainty will prosper with little reference to official economic philosophy.

But what about the “godfathers” themselves? Surely they are talented businessmen in their own right despite the relatively uncompetitive markets in which they thrive?

Whether it is as a sop to the political class to help fool the local populace that it has options and opportunity, or it is a sop to their own egos to glory in a sense of achievement and capability that has not been earned, the godfathers’ public personas are men of meager means who rose through the ranks in short order to become industrial and financial titans in their adopted countries while the reality is that most came from already successful families with existing political connections that they enhanced, or, to the extent they were “penniless” before their rise, they certainly didn’t do it through hard work and sweat equity of their own but happened to be in the right place at the right time and got control of an early government concession which became the rocket engine to the top. Many godfathers of the present generation were war-time smugglers, gambling operators or even cooperators with occupying forces as southeast Asia changed hands back and forth during World War II. As Studwell observes,

whether Hong Kong has been ruled by British colonialism, Japanese imperialism or Chinese communism, it has always been managed through the same group of people.

According to one local observer and member of the monied class, “In one generation it is very difficult [to rise from rags to riches ] because it is not an open society.” And according to a local scholar, “I have yet to find a businessman who started as a coolie.” As such, the godfathers have a notorious reputation when it comes to expensive entertainment vices and

the rumors are legion and suggest a form of gambling that echoes that of Middle Eastern potentates — vast sums of money blown away by people who do not know its real value because they have not really earned it.

Nor are their social habits those of the hard-working middle-class bourgeoisie who cherish being part of their communities and maintaining stable, monogamous relationships with supportive spouses. Says one observer, “None of these people has social friends. They fuck a girl, shake off their horniness and then it’s back to work.” It appears to be the life of an addict and by another’s estimation, “If they don’t have a woman a day they can’t function.” The Asian godfathers are more Bill Clinton than Bill Gates, it seems.

Another important aspect of the godfather character is secrecy. While private businessmen are often protective of their trade secrets, customer relationships, technological know-how and tactical elements of their strategy, this is a different form of caginess. Says Studwell, “Most deals involve some element of government licensing or concession, things that both parties prefer to keep private.” The godfathers get special advantages from the government which, if known, ruin their reputations as self-made men, and the governments themselves want the mystique maintained so as to confuse the masses as to how they are controlled (and how they benefit by their arrangements with these business stars.)

And that secrecy is extremely valuable because

At the heart of the average godfather’s empire is a concession or license that gives rise to a monopoly or oligopoly activity… this non-competitive core cash flow, the river of molten gold that will keep him going through good times and bad

allows the godfathers to build their empires, and survive the inevitable setbacks and speed wobbles as uncompetitive pseudo-entrepreneurs jump head first into a bevy of unfamiliar industries and businesses and try to swim without the floaty wings of government assistance.

Though there are many such arrangements detailed in the book, the explanation of Hong Kong land development patterns on page 68 is worth quoting at length as a kind of summary of how these special arrangements serve to entrench a group of large scale crony capitalists:

The British administration set the scene for real estate oligopoly because it chose to depend heavily on land sales — all land was deemed “Crown land” until sold — to fund its budget. As Hong Kong grew in the post-Second Word War era, the government auctioned off development land in ever more expensive chunks: US$1 billion a pop for large plots by the mid 1990s. Anyone who acquired land in the secondary market that was not designated for building — agricultural acreage in the New Territories was targeted by the tycoon families behind Sun Hung Kai and Henderson in the 1970s and 1980s — had to pay a hefty upfront conversion premium before construction could begin. The effect was to rule out small players and persons without good connections to the large British banks. A government-commissioned 1996 report by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council found that three-quarters of new private residential housing was supplied by only ten developers between 1991 and 1994, and 55 per cent came from the four biggest developers. A separate look at profitability considered thirteen large residential developments. Margins were extraordinary, especially where conversion fees had been set by private tender on large lots of agricultural land. In such cases, the lowest return the Consumer Council found — as a percentage of total estimated development costs, including land — was 77 per cent. The highest was 364 per cent.

For everyone else in Hong Kong, the outsize cost of housing relative to all other living expenses is a constant complaint.

Middle class Hong Kongers, meanwhile, paid low nominal taxes but some of the world’s highest rents, or mortgage repayments, and apartment management fees equivalent to 13-15 per cent of rents.

Interestingly, Hong Kong locals see this as inevitable, not as a necessary outcome of a crony land development and ownership system, but as the necessary outcome of living on a small island! The argument is that there is only so much land, and they aren’t making more (nevermind landfill projects like the airport, ports, etc.)– somehow competition serves to lower prices in every other area of business but in Hong Kong real estate, no matter how tall you build the buildings, supply never improves and prices keep going up. They’re totally bought in on the godfather propaganda.

The whole system seems outrageous to an outsider, as Studwell describes

a graft-seeking culture among indigenous politicians. “They’re broke every week… feed your mouth, feed your prick. That is how they think.”

Yet,

while the south-east Asian system is corrupt, it is more efficient than ones that pertain in socitieies where the holders of power also seek to be exploiters of business rents.

Here he is referring to places like Africa and parts of the Middle East, but the metaphor could also be apt in looking historically at feudal Europe versus bourgeoisie Europe, where one of the primary political trends was the reduction of large landed estates into ever smaller, privately owned parcels controlled by individual land owners or small businessmen.

So, if the godfathers are not business geniuses, what are they and how do they manage to get anything done across their humongous and complicated business holdings? According to Studwell,

their activities are more like those of supercharged chairmen: setting strategy, deal making, hobnobbing, but ultimately leaving others to execute the substance as well as the detail of what they put in train

and it is their gweilo, or running dogs, who are the real business men in their organizations. Yet, even then these individuals are not as much businessmen as they are “enforcers”, with the top enforcer being more akin to “‘the chief slave’. This is the first person called when the godfather wants something done.” And these gweilo, like the godfathers themselves, are rarely members of the local populace but are instead drawn from “a globally traded management cadre” who graduate from top universities and can be found running large enterprises around the world.

The final piece of the puzzle is the godfathers’ relationship with capital markets. The first thing to note is that every godfather has his own affiliated bank, for example, “By the mid 1990s every major business [in Indonesia], and many lesser ones, had a captive bank.” Interestingly, even “different factions of the military had banks”! With control of a bank, godfathers can tap into cheap capital pools and then hand off social problems to the government in the event of a crisis such as the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

And while massive, cheap leverage is the favored form of financial fuel, the godfathers have also found unique ways to employ their legerdemain in the equity markets via that ever-so-wonderful technique of arbitrage. In fact, this explains the puzzling question of “why, despite heady economic growth, have long-term stock market returns in south-east Asia been so poor?” For example, Studwell notes that “Between the beginning of 1993 and the end of 2006, dollar returns in Thailand and the Philippines were actually negative; their stock markets destroyed capital.”

The answer is simple: “buying equities in south-east Asia is fundamentally about buying into the godfather business model”. And the godfather model contains the implicit query

why work hard to increase a company’s stock price and pay dividends when all the capital you need is available at a real interest rate close to zero per cent from a bank whose board you control?

From this standpoint, then, it should come as no surprise that

the eight largest conglomerates in the region exercise effective control over a quarter of all listed companies, while the top twenty-two conglomerates control one-third of listed vehicles.

What is, perhaps, surprising is how the godfathers have managed to profit even from running their listed companies into the ground. This was one of the most fascinating reveals in the book:

The game here was for tycoons to sell low-grade property assets into new corporate entities, back-load the debt repayments of the purchaser and list them with the story that dividends in year one would be a guide to future earnings.

The money used to finance this arrangement is often provided by their bank. And when the publicly-listed corporate structures verge on insolvency, the godfather’s private companies offer to repurchase the assets at pennies on the dollar. It is an outstanding bait-and-switch which allows them to swipe millions (billions?) along the way formerly belonging to “dumb money” mutual funds. In many instances of these IPO-to-privatize shenanigans “the boss himself would own only about 10 per cent of what he was selling, a powerful signal that the asset was overpriced.”

The 1990s leading up to the Asian Financial Crisis represented a kind of Golden Era of banking charlatanry for the godfathers where “Hong Kong, for instance, had negative real interest rates from the end of 1990 to the start of 1995”, which allowed for such inanities that “K. S. Lo, the real estate tycoon and elder brother of Vincent Lo, [telling a CSLA analyst] he would buy any property in Hong Kong sight unseen.” If that kind of anecdote isn’t revealing of the reality of the free market, competitive real estate economy in Hong Kong, nothing is.

Studwell has produced an outstanding and deeply-researched resource in “Asian Godfathers.” While my review focused on Hong Kong and Singapore, which are of particular interest to me personally, there is just as much detail here about Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Phillipines, as well as a variety of throwaway lines that come out of the mouths of the main characters and those forced to bask in their wake alike that are just too funny not to chuckle about. The great detail with which Studwell describes the machinations of the godfathers and the mass of damning evidence he provides that they not only do not operate in free economies but only exist because of the nature of southeast Asian government manipulation of regional economies is deeply satisfying to this reader and I am sure it will be refreshing to other curious minds as well.

This book is not a classic that can be read again and again with new insights about the human condition to appreciate every time, but it is an outstanding treatment in its specific area that I would strongly recommend to anybody curious to know more about southeast Asian political economy in general, and how crony capitalism works specifically, not just in these economies but around the globe because the formula is similar, if not identical. There are only so many ways to rip people off and it turns out it doesn’t require too much creativity. I plan to purchase and read a copy of Studwell’s How Asia Works in the future.

The Rape of Russia

During the 1990s, the countries of the former Soviet Union had a unique historical opportunity to move toward a competitive market economy based on private property rights. After decades of “experimenting” with various degrees of totalitarian socialism, this privatization moment would allow hundreds of millions of people to leap ahead in their standards of living and personal well being while fundamentally transforming their political and social relationships. Instead of an economic “miracle”, the privatization era was characterized by a new structure of cronyism wherein the formerly nationalized wealth of the Soviet Union came to be controlled by a small group of “oligarchs” and the people of the various countries were essentially politically repressed. The worst part is that this economic and political travesty took place with direct involvement by various Western and US-backed institutions and individuals, such as members of an elite advisory team from Harvard University. Below are several resources exploring the theory and experience of privatization in Russia and other former communist nations.

How Harvard Lost Russia [PDF]

We learn about the exploitation of the Russian privatization by members of the Harvard Institute for International Development. We learn a couple of interesting facts about the period: the HIID advisors were not doling out pure, fundamental free market theory about how to create a competitive market economy but instead helped to build a “managed” system directly modeled on the US and other crony systems; and, many of the advisors involved in the HIID project made direct investments in industries they were advising, for personal benefit, in direct contradiction to their employment contracts and the laws of the US and Russia at the time (ie, corruption). Deeply involved in the scandal and a close friend of many of the advisors directly involved, the infamous Larry Summers does not come out looking so good.

Two money quotes:

Judge Woodlock found that, while running the Harvard Institute for International Development’s advisory program in Russia in the early 1990s, Harvard economics professor Shleifer and attorney Ha had conspired to defraud the US government, engaged in self-dealing and violated conflict-of-interest regulations.

and,

Harvard University was in a unique position to exert a powerful influence. Post-Soviet Russia turned to the West for help in rebuilding its economy and filling the vacuum left by communism’s fall. In running Harvard’s Russia Project, Andrei Shleifer and Jonathan Hay had an opportunity to preach the importance of integrity, transparency and fairness in shaping a business culture, to work to enshrine those values in the country’s legal and financial infrastructure. Instead, their personal dealings sent a very different message.

This is a horrible tragedy for post-communist European societies, US and Russian foreign relations and for governance and culture in our own society as Shleifer paid a settlement but received no formal judicial sanction and maintained his tenure and social standing at Harvard and in the wider American economic community after playing the role of a miscreant carpetbagger.

Testimony of Anne Williamson Before the Committee on Banking and Financial Services of the United States House of Representatives, September 21, 1999

Anne Williamson explores “the question of the many billions in capital that fled Russia to Western shores via the Bank of New York and other Western banks.” Claiming that “property is the poor man’s ticket into the game of wealth creation” (a sentiment echoed in Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital) because “the rich… have their money and their friends to protect their holdings, while the poor must rely upon the law alone,” Williamson observes that Russian economist Larisa Piasheva, building on the theory of Austrian school economist Wilhelm Ropke, had designed a “cold turkey” privatization policy which would’ve invited direct foreign investment in Russia; instead, the Harvard cabal and other Western reformers created a weak, US taxpayer-supported voucher system that relied on Western bank lending and led to widescale corruption.

She makes the further claim that “Communism had evaporated by late 1987, the year in which the Russian people were allowed to hold convertible foreign currencies.” She condemns the entire, Western-organized privatization program as a sham and part of a known political formula:

Sell assistance programs on an alleged “free market” and “humanitarian” basis by awarding government grants to those academics who can be relied upon to supply the intellectual camouflage politicians and journalists then repeat ad nauseum to a distracted public, move the IMF and the World Bank to target, induce target to raise taxes, fine tune target’s central banking operations, encourage borrowing and debt creation through the target’s government and its national banks, allowing IMF lending to pay yields if necessary; induce target to privatize national property while building a flimsy, artificial “infrastructure” for an equities market good enough to attract high risk foreign investors. Once the target nation’s government flounders, step back and watch speculators assert discipline through a run on the target’s currency. The subsequent devaluation delivers, in turn, a flood of cheap imports to American manufacturers and producers.

The finishing touch on the swindle is to confiscate more money from G-7 citizens (the lion’s share from Americans) to pay for what is said to be an “essential” IMF bailout; thereby allowing Uncle Sam’s IMF minions to entrench themselves more deeply in the target government’s. Taxes are raised, the population struggles beneath indebtedness, government funding demands and the inevitable domestic inflation and devaluation delivers. Western neo-colonialists then bully the target over its rapidly compounding debt in order to extract yet more property. Once successful, the world’s insiders then turn around and deliver cheap shares from privatizations and initial public offerings into the maw of U.S. mutual funds and portfolio investors. US taxpayers get hit coming (foreign aid) and going (bailouts) and innocent foreigners’ property is finagled away either from, or on account of, inattentive and corrupt leaderships. The big winners are the world’s increasingly corrupt and cozy governing class, international bureaucracies and global banks.

We would be wise to remember her coronation of currency speculators as “the last disciplinarians in the world’s financial system.

Stanley Fischer’s role in piratizing Russia’s wealth

Reminding us of the dictum that “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”, Steve Sailer observes that during the Russian privatization,

Fischer was there at the creation. He had numerous chances to speak out publicly about what was going horribly wrong in a Russia that looked to him and his friends for advice.

When a person observes evil and does not speak out, particularly when he shares proximity to it, we have to question whether he is competent to recognize what he is looking at and whether he might be compromised in being a participant in it in some way.

Stanley Fischer is now the vice chairman of the US Federal Reserve System. He wields incredible power and influence over the US monetary system and economy, not to mention the world’s. The Sailer article explores his questionable judgment of the facts-on-the-ground in Russia, which he had a hand in, and his ethics in seeming to overlook the blatant corruption. The article helps us to remember that politicians of the present have a past, and that past is rarely flattering and seems to be easily forgotten. It also reiterates the theme that a golden opportunity to move Russia and other post-communist countries toward true free market thinking was squandered.

George Reisman’s Capitalism (PDF), pg. 290, “From Socialism to Capitalism: How to Privatize Communist Countries”

So, if corrupt self-dealing and crony managed economies are not the solution for privatizing former socialist regimes, how could it or should it be done? Luckily, there are real free market thinkers who have thought of possible solutions for reform. An extended section from George Reisman’s Capitalism lays out one such approach in detail. I have decided to quote it at length:

The advantages of private ownership of the means of production are so overwhelming that it is actually of secondary importance precisely who the initial private owners are and how their ownership is established. Whatever the specific method or methods of establishing private ownership of the means of production, the institution will function to the benefit of everyone—owners of the means of production and nonowners of the means of production alike. It will do so, however, only to the degree that the individual private owners possess full and secure rights of ownership.

The security of property rights means that the owners must be secure both against the possibility of any form of new confiscation by the state and against successful challenge to their ownership by other private individuals claiming to be the rightful owners. To understand the necessity of the security of property rights, the reader should imagine how his behavior would be affected if he were contemplating buying a home that he could not be certain would be his for very long. He would not be prepared to pay very much for it, and, after he bought it, he would not be prepared to put very much into it. Indeed, his incentive would probably be to let the house run down and even to sell off such things as the appliances for the sake of obtaining cash or other assets that would be more securely his. Without the security of property rights, the situation of all would-be owners of factories, farms, mines, and stores in the present-day socialist countries must be exactly the same. Such owners would be in essentially the same position as the state employees described earlier who were supposed to act as capitalists under “market socialism.” The absolute security of the owners’ property rights is essential if people are to be willing to pay proper prices for the various properties and then to stay on and improve them rather than milk them for whatever they can.

An essential aspect of the rights of ownership is the right freely to buy and sell property. This aspect of property rights is especially important in the transition from socialism to capitalism. The combinations of assets of the various enterprises of socialism and thus the combinations of assets of the enterprises that will initially exist under capitalism will almost certainly need radical change. It will be essential for the market to have the freedom literally to redefine all enterprises by changing the combinations of their assets. This means, there must be the freedom both to break up existing enterprises by selling off their assets in the manner of “corporate raiders” and to combine their assets through such devices as mergers and acquisitions.

As I say, these freedoms are essential. For a major foundation of the efficiency of capitalism—ironically, increasingly overlooked in the supposedly capitalist United States—is the ability to create business firms that possess the right combinations of assets. This ability is essential if firms are to be able to produce the right products by the most efficient methods. It must be present at all times, if the economic system is to be able to adjust to changing conditions. It is acutely necessary in the context of putting right the combinations of assets that a socialist government is likely to have thought appropriate for the various enterprises. It would be essential not only for such things as combining manufacturers with the right parts makers, and retail outlets with the appropriate warehouse facilities, but also for changing the uses made of all kinds of existing factories and land sites.

Nothing less than a radical overhaul of the entire apparatus of production inherited from socialism will be necessary if the economic system is to become efficient. Many factories will have to be closed and such of their assets as are still useable, devoted to production in different locations. Most other factories will have to undergo major changes in what they produce and the methods by which they produce. The output of innumerable factories will have to go to different users. The use that is made of innumerable land sites will have to change. All of this requires the freedom to buy and sell and to breakup and combine the assets of firms.

Along the same lines, the market would need the absolute freedom to hire and fire the managers of enterprises. This freedom too is necessary at all times and acutely necessary in the conditions of a transition from socialism to capitalism. Any managers inherited from socialism are likely to need replacement. Many of the initial managers under capitalism will also need replacement. To be effective, the transition from socialism to capitalism will need to be followed by a fall into obscurity of numerous former top managers and rise from obscurity of numerous new managers. Nothing must be allowed to impede the business takeovers and buyouts that are an essential part of this process.

In addition, of course, there must be the absolute freedom to hire and fire ordinary workers. Socialism is characterized by a massive misallocation of labor, just as it is characterized by massive misallocation of capital. This too must be put right if production is to become efficient.

A vital aspect of the transition from socialism to capitalism, that is implicit in all that has just been said and is clearly called for by the nature of capitalism, is the freedom of every enterprise to enter into the industry of every other enterprise, and, of course, the freedom of everybody to form new enterprises. In other words, the full freedom of competition must exist.

In the light of these requirements, the specific methods of establishing private ownership of the means of production can now be considered.

The simplest and most obvious method is that wherever former owners of property or their descendants are still alive, the properties should be returned to those from whom they were stolen, or to their descendants.

In Eastern Europe, this method is somewhat complicated by the fact that many of the private property owners who were dispossessed by the Communists were themselves beneficiaries of expropriations carried out not long before by the Nazis. Here the solution clearly is to return the properties to the earlier owners dispossessed by the Nazis, or to the descendants of those owners.

To the difficulty of settling claims as between two or more private claimants is added the fact that the method of returning property to former owners becomes less and less adequate, the longer is the period of time during which socialism has existed and the more ruthless were the means employed to establish socialism in the first place. This is because it becomes correspondingly more difficult to locate specific individuals with valid claims to ownership. (In many cases, everyone with a valid claim may simply have been murdered.) The major part of the problem, however, is the fact that as time has passed, numerous new plants and machines have been constructed, which no one can now claim on the basis of property rights existing before the establishment of socialism. These observations are particularly applicable to the former Soviet Union, where socialism existed for over seventy years and where over twenty million people were murdered by the Communist regime. The mass murders committed by the Nazis may pose a similar problem to the location of heirs.

In view of these facts, I propose three methods of privatization. First, as far as possible, property should be returned to those from whom it was stolen, or to their descendants. Second, in the case of agricultural land where it is not possible to locate former owners or their descendants, the land should be made the individual private property of those who now work it. That is, all the collective farms and state farms should be broken up into separate, individual private farms. Formulas could be devised allowing for differences in the amount of land individuals received based on differences in the time they had been compelled to work the land. Those who had suffered such forced labor for a longer period, would receive more of the land than those who had suffered it for a shorter period. Individuals who would otherwise receive parcels of land too small to farm might simply receive cash.

Third, in the case of all other property—factories, mines, shops, and so forth—the appropriate principle would be to place the assets on the open market for competitive bidding. Foreigners should be actively encouraged to participate in this bidding and, indeed, the bidding should be carried on in Western currencies and in gold. Foreigners should have the same full rights of ownership as citizens: they should be allowed to buy and sell property of all kinds, to form companies, and to remit dividend and interest payments to their own countries to whatever extent they wish.

Active foreign participation in the bidding creates the possibility of the average citizen of the socialist countries deriving an important immediate benefit from privatization. Namely, as the proceeds from the sale of assets came in, each individual citizen could receive his individual share of the proceeds—that is, the proceeds of the government’s sales could be divided up among the citizens. Thus, during the period of liquidation of state assets, the average citizen could receive one or more checks payable in Western currencies. He could use the proceeds to buy essential consumers’ goods that could be imported from the outside world because the means would be present to pay for those imports. This would help to tide him over during the difficult period of transition during which his country’s economic system was being reorganized and he was unemployed or not in a position to earn a significant amount by working. In this way, for the first and only time—in the process of its liquidation—collective ownership of the means of production would turn out to provide some actual benefit to the citizens: in the moment of its being liquidated for Western cash, it would enable them to obtain something of value to their lives.

It should be observed, incidentally, that the benefit to the average citizen would be the greater, the greater was the prospective security of property. Because to the extent that newly acquired property rights were expected to be upheld, the higher would be the prices that foreigners would be prepared to pay for the assets being offered for sale, and thus the greater would be the proceeds accruing to the average citizen of the formerly socialist country. Economic morality would be rewarded. (The ability of foreigners freely to remit dividends and interest payments is an important aspect of this morality and also an important foundation of the foreigners’ willingness to bid up the prices of the assets offered for sale, and thus of the ability of the average citizen of the formerly socialist country immediately to benefit from privatization.)

[…] Once the transition to capitalism was accomplished and the average citizen of the formerly socialist country was in a position to begin saving and investing on a significant scale, not only would he begin to accumulate capital within his own country, but the capital market of the entire world would be open to him, and he could invest abroad just as others had invested in his country. This is an aspect of what can be called capitalist internationalism.

In order to secure the best prices for assets being sold off, a corps of professional auctioneers and brokers should be employed, who would receive a commission based on a percentage of the sales proceeds.

The principle of distributing the proceeds from the sale of assets equally among the citizens could be modified to give greater compensation to victims of labor camps and survivors of those who have been murdered by the Communist regime. However, the primary compensation for such crimes should probably be left until after the transition to capitalism has been completed and it is thus possible to provide more substantial compensation.

There are, of course, other possible methods of establishing private property. One would be simply to make the various existing enterprises the private property of their present managements. Another would be to turn the various enterprises over to their present employees. Obviously, the two methods could be combined, with the present managers receiving a certain percentage of the ownership and the present employees a further percentage. To some extent, these methods are actually in use.

If, following the establishment of private property in these ways, there really was security of property and full rights to buy and sell assets and shares, to hire and fire managers and workers, and to compete in all branches of industry, these methods would ultimately be effective in establishing private ownership of the means of production. As time went on, all the necessary changes could take place, including changes in ownership, which would be effected by the market, and an efficient economic system would emerge. However, the appropriation of enterprises by their Communist-appointed managers will necessarily carry with it the taint of the old regime and all of its injustices, and is likely also to be accompanied by a continued large-scale ability to use political pull, based on previously established relationships with government officials. Thus, private ownership of the means of production begun in this way will be tainted by injustice, past and present, and by corresponding inefficiency. This would be a legitimate source of resentment and would constitute a potential threat to the continuation of such ownership.

Turning the ownership of each establishment over to the workers of that establishment would at best arbitrarily favor some workers over others. Those workers who happened to work in highly capital-intensive industries, such as electric-power production or steel making, would obtain ownership of far more capital than workers who happened to work in less capital-intensive industries, such as clothing factories and restaurants. The same point would apply within each industry, insofar as some plants were more modern and efficient than others. It is very pertinent, of course, that as the result of socialism’s protracted gross inefficiencies, the value of many factories and other productive establishments would turn out to be altogether nonexistent.

The problem of workers benefitting or failing to benefit by virtue of the accidental circumstances of where they worked would also exist in agriculture. The workers of collective farms with abundant, rich soil would receive more than the workers of collective farms with relatively meager, poor soil. In agriculture, however, apart from the return of former owners or their descendants, there does not appear to be an alternative to the workers’ coming to own the land. Of course, the workers on the relatively poorer lands could be given the option of sharing in the proceeds of the sale of other assets rather than accept land they had been forced to work.

To the extent that workplaces do become the property of the workers employed in them, it must be stressed that it is vital that the workers of each plant be free both to sell their ownership shares while keeping their jobs and to leave their jobs while keeping their shares. In this case, ownership and employment would eventually become almost entirely separate, as under capitalism. The ability to hold ownership and employment separately is essential for the free movement of capital and labor between industries. In its absence, workers would be reluctant to leave their employment, because they would then lose their capital, and they would be afraid to admit new workers into their firm or industry, because they would then have to correspondingly dilute their ownership. There would be no possibility of transferring capital from one industry to another, since the workers of the industry from which the capital came would simply lose it. Furthermore, the rapid separation of ownership and employment is necessary to overcome a bias that might otherwise exist against improvements in efficiency if workers as owners were in a position to reject improvements that might cost them their jobs.

Thus, at its worst, turning ownership over to the workers could mean a state of affairs in which the movement of labor and capital between the various branches of industry was made impossible. In addition, it could mean a situation in which the workers of each industry, by virtue of their possession of a monopoly on employment in their industry, were in a position to practice extortion on the rest of the economic system as the price of providing their services. Obviously, these are conditions which should be avoided at all costs.49

Provided that the essential requirements of security of property, the separation of employment and ownership, and the unrestricted freedoms to buy and sell, hire and fire, and compete, are observed, what remains is to accomplish the transition to private ownership as quickly as possible. Reasonable but strict time limits must be set for the location of former owners or their heirs, and it must be firmly established that thereafter no new claims will be heard on their account. This is an essential part of establishing the security of property. All of the assets in the hands of the state must likewise be disposed of within a strict time limit, so that no one in the market need labor under any uncertainty about what properties will be available and when and thus what plans he can and cannot make. This is essential to making the economic system as efficient as possible as soon as possible.

In the absence of the establishment of private ownership of the means of production, all other reform is meaningless. [emphasis added] For example, decontrolling prices without first establishing private ownership of the means of production and its corollary the freedom of competition, simply means giving arbitrary, monopolistic power to lesser government officials in charge of individual industries and enterprises. It is comparable to giving the postmaster general or the local postmaster the right to set postal rates. Without private ownership of the means of production, there can be no market economy or free market. Divorced from private ownership of the means of production, such notions are a contradiction in terms. Nor, of course, can there be lasting or meaningful reform in the political realm.

Conclusion

These articles are shared as evidence of several ideas:

  • Free markets haven’t been tried, not in Russia, not in the US
  • “Free markets” are a convenient and distracting cover term for what is actually corrupt crony systems because it confuses people who understand the value of free markets and it distracts those who hate them
  • “Economists” are often not economists but political agents, and many of them have flawed ethical frameworks
  • Harvard as an institution, specifically, has a record of questionable ethics with regards to the HIID’s involvement in the privatization of Russia
  • Modern US-Russian relations are a lot more complicated than Good, Liberty-Loving America vs. the Former Red Menace
  • Larry Summers is corrupt
  • Stanley Fischer is corrupt
  • The truth is complicated and unpopular and those who are scandalized by it have a strong incentive to cover it up, ignore it or forget about it