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.

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How Memes Get Twisted

I recently removed my read copy of TJ Stiles The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt from the shelf and paged through the introduction. I enjoyed the book both in the way it was written and in learning of the life and times of this esteemed capitalist and thought it might be nearing time for a re-read as I am certain that I would appreciate certain details differently now than when I first read the book almost 7 years ago.

One passage stood out to me right away as evidence in favor of this supposition because I do not remember it at all:

His strength of will was famous indeed. Vanderbilt had first amassed wealth as a competitor in the steamboat business, cutting fares against established lines until he forced his rivals to pay him to go away. The practice led the New York Times, a quarter of a century before his death, to introduce a new metaphor into the American vernacular by comparing him to the medieval robber barons who took a toll from all passing traffic on the Rhine.

I was floored re-reading this (well, as floored as I could be in the dim moments before bedtime). If you’ve heard the “robber barons” meme in contemporary discourse, its typically trotted out as a catch-all word to disparage a person who is extremely wealthy, implying perhaps to a criminal degree not in the sense that the wealth was acquired illegally, but that no one should be allowed to be so wealthy. This is the latest evolution in the use of the meme. Maybe even five years ago, the meme was used to mean a large corporation or wealthy person who was exerting undue influence in society, against the social mores of the Left, synonymous with “capitalist pig.” The tie to “robber barons” was the implication that there was something overtly political, and unfair, about the activities of a person or for-profit institution with so much wealth.

Going back still further, the meme seemed to be a muckraking term favored by the Progressives on their march, associating any type of large industrial scale as seedy, sinister and exploitative– not captains of industry, but robber barons who achieve their size and wealth not by solving the world’s problems, but by creating arbitrary opportunities to siphon off resources by gumming up the works.

But according to this quote from Stiles, the meme originated in Vanderbilt’s heyday (early to mid-1800s) to describe his actions, and the actions which inspired the response were not the actions of a monopolist or large-scale corporate monolith as has become fashionable, but the opposite! At this time, Vanderbilt was the scrappy upstart pestering the “established” businesses and giving them their first taste of competition, and he was being pilloried for this by the establishment press. Today, businesses and businessmen are attacked for raising prices, whereas Vanderbilt was being attacked for cutting them– finding cheaper ways to provide the same service just wasn’t the “gentlemanly” thing to do. We see here the origin of the meme is a lot closer to the “corporate raider” personality of the 1980s than the “corporate titan CEO” of the 1990s or 2000s.

 

Quotes – The Risk of Disruption

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

~Machiavelli

Review – Nintendo Magic

Nintendo Magic: Winning the Videogame Wars

by Osamu Inoue, published 2009, 2010 (translated from Japanese)

Two Nintendo legends no one seems to know about

The original Nintendo started out as a manufacturer of playing cards and other toys, games and trinkets near the end of the Shogunate era in Japan, but the modern company we know today which gave the world the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Game Boy, the Wii and characters like Mario & Luigi and Pokemon, was primarily shaped by four men: former president Hiroshi Yamauchi, lead designer Gunpei Yokoi, the firm’s first software designer Shigeru Miyamoto and the first “outside hire” executive and former software developer, Satoru Iwata.

A family member of the then privately-held Nintendo, Yamauchi took the presidency in 1949 when his grandfather passed away. He tried adding a number of different businesses (taxis, foodstuffs, copiers) to Nintendo in true conglomerate fashion, managing in one 12 year period to grow sales by a factor of 27 and operating profits by a factor of 37.

But his most influential mark on Nintendo’s business came with his fortuitous hiring of Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer, who would head up hardware development for Nintendo’s game division. It was this strategic decision to concentrate Nintendo’s efforts on game development that would lead to the modern purveyor of hardware and software known around the world today.

Hardware engineer Gunpei Yokoi is not a well-known name outside the world of hardcore Nintendo fandom, which is not altogether surprising because most Nintendo fans alive today were not users of some of his first toy gadgets such as the “Love Detector” and the “Game & Watch” handheld mini-game consoles. On the other hand, it’s a shock that the man’s reputation is not larger than it is because he essentially single-handedly created the company’s hardware development philosophy in the 1960s which has remained with it today and continues to influence Nintendo’s strategic vision within the video game industry.

That hardware philosophy was summed up by Nintendo’s first head of its hardware development section as “Lateral thinking with seasoned technology”. In concrete terms, it is the idea of using widely available, off-the-shelf technology that is unrelated to gaming in new and exciting ways of play, for example:

  • Yokoi’s “Love Detector” game, which used simple circuitry and electrical sensors to create an instrument that could supposedly detect romantic chemistry between two users when they held hands and held the machine
  • A blaster rifle toy that used common light-sensing equipment to deliver accuracy readings of the users target shots to the rifle, registering hits and points
  • More recently, the Nintendo “Wiimote” concept, which was simply the idea of repurposing the common household TV remote into a tool for play

Yokoi’s lasting impact on the hardware (and software) philosophy at Nintendo is best captured by current president Satoru Iwata who once said,

It’s not a matter of whether or not the tech is cutting egde, but whether or not people think it’s fun

Similarly, this focus on repurposing existing technology for fun rather than investing in brand new technology helps to explain why many of Nintendo’s systems have been knocked for their not-so-hardcore hardware (think non-HD Wii vs. HD-enabled Sony PS3 and Microsoft Xbox 360) but nonetheless became massive consumer hits– the focus was on fun, not flash.

The Wii particularly was the response to the failure of two systems which preceded it (Gamecube and N64), which were extremely technologically advanced for their era and which departed as swiftly from Yokoi’s philosophy as they posed monumental development challenges for software developers due to their complex, proprietary nature. Instead of creating yet another whizbang console, Nintendo decided that if Wii’s costs were kept down and developers were free to focus on things like a new, intuitive controller and built-in connectivity functions, fun and market success would follow.

Essentially, the game hardware is a commodity with zero barriers to entry. Anyone can have the latest, greatest technology if they’re willing to pay for it. There is no way to establish a competitive advantage on the basis for hardware sophistication alone. It must come from design, or, as Yokoi put it,

In videogames, these is always an easy way out if you don’t have any good ideas. That’s what the CPU competition and color competition are about

Nintendo’s two leading lights: Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto

Rounding out the Fantastic Four are Satoru Iwata, the company’s current president, and Shigeru Miyamoto, the star software developer.

Iwata came from relative privilege and studied computer programming in school. He had a passion for making and playing games from an early age. He joined a software developer, HAL Laboratory, early on. He successfully turned around the flagging HAL Lab before it was acquired by Nintendo.

Meanwhile, Miyamoto first came to fame through development of his Donkey Kong arcade game, which introduced the characters Donkey Kong and Mario and which was originally based off of Popeye until the IP could not be acquired for licensing. As a small boy he spent hours running around the hills, forests and mountains outside his home, which inspired many of his later game creations such as Pikmin, Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda, etc. He was the first designer Nintendo had ever hired. Miyamoto often utilizes his “Wife-o-meter” to help him understand how to make games that are more broadly appealing.

Miyamoto’s design ethic is best synthesized as populist-perfectionist:

When creating a game, Miyamoto will occasionally find employees from, say, general affairs who aren’t gamers and put a controller in their hands, looking over their shoulder and watching them play without saying anything

He creates game characters, game designs and immersive environments that appeal to everyone, not just the archetypical “hardcore gamer.” But this desire to serve a mass, unsophisticated audience does not mean that Miyamoto considers quality as an afterthought. Miyamoto will “polish [an idea] for years, if he has to, until it satisfies him” and “shelving an idea does not mean throwing it away. Those huge storehouses are full of precious treasure that will someday see the light of day.”

This is part of the value of Nintendo– they have many unrealized ideas waiting to be turned into hardware and games and the only thing preventing them from seeing the light of day is someone like Miyamoto who wants to make sure that when they eventually emerge into the light, they don’t just shine but sparkle.

And this thinking carries over to the company’s hardware efforts, as well. According to a lead engineer, the DS

had to work consistently after being dropped ten times from a height of 1.5 meters, higher than an adult’s breast pocket

Nintendo is “obsessed about the durability of their systems due to an overriding fear that a customer who gets upset over a broken system might never give them another chance.”

“Nintendo-ness”: how Nintendo competes by not competing

In 1999, then-president Yamauchi saw a crisis brewing for video game developers:

If we continue to pursue this kind of large-scale software development, costs will pile up and it will no longer be a viable business. The true nature of the videogame business is developing new kinds of fun and constantly working to achieve perfection

The solution was to adhere ever more closely to “Nintendo-ness”. Nintendo picks people with a “software orientation.”

“Nintendo-ness” is the company’s DNA, once someone has grasped Nintendo-ness, it is rare for them to leave the company. That tendency protects and strengthens the company’s lineage and makes employees feel at home

Manufacturing companies create hardware which are daily necessities, which compete based on being better, cheaper products. Nintendo is in an industry of fun and games, software, where polished content is the goal. Compare this to rival Sony, where hardware specs are key and the software is to follow.

According to Iwata,

Do something different from the other guy is deeply engrained in our DNA

Similarly, Nintendo-ness means delighting customers through creation of new experiences because

if you’re always following a mission statement, your customers are going to get bored with you

This way of thinking goes back to Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo for 50 years, according to Iwata:

He couldn’t stand making the same kind of toy the other guy was making, so whatever you showed him, you knew he was going to ask, ‘How is this different from what everybody else is doing?’

For some reason, Nintendo observers and critics don’t get this– why isn’t the company doing what everyone else is doing? Why are they making a console with a TV remote instead of HD graphics (the Wii)?

To Nintendo, the risk is in not trying these things and trying to do what everyone else does. Iwata sums it up nicely:

Creators only improve themselves by taking risks

Of course, not all risks are worth taking. Iwata as a representative of Nintendo’s strategic mind makes it clear that the company is keenly aware of its strategic and financial risks:

The things Nintendo does should be limited to the areas where we can display our greatest strengths. It’s because we’re good at throwing things away that we can fight these large battles using so few people. We can’t afford to diversify. We have overwhelmingly more ideas than we have people to implement them

For example, Nintendo considers the manufacturing of game consoles to be outside its purview, a “fabless” company.

Then there’s the reason for the huge amount of cash on the balance sheet:

The game platform business runs on momentum. When you fail, you can take serious damage. The risks are very high. And in that domain, Nintendo is making products that are totally unprecedented. Nobody can guarantee they won’t fail. One big failure and boom– you’re out two hundred, three hundred billion yen. In a business where a single flop can bankrupt you, you don’t want to be set up like that… To be completely honest, I don’t think that even now we have enough [savings]… That’s why IBM, or NEC, or any number of other companies are willing to go along with us. We’d never be able to do what we do without being cash-rich

That being said, Iwata has not been shy about his policy toward dividends and acquisitions. He has stated that assuming Nintendo’s savings continue to accumulate, passing 1.5T or 2T yen, a large merger or acquisition may become a possibility. Otherwise, excess capital will be distributed as dividends.

The next level

Nintendo’s philosophy is to avoid competition. It sees the hardware arms race as an irrelevant dead-end. The key is to create new ways to interact with game consoles and software that keeps game players on their toes and brings smiles to their faces. According to Iwata,

We’d like to avoid having players think they’ve gotten a game completely figured out

Thus, for Nintendo the next level logically is integration of  User-Generated Content into their software environments, which would have inexhaustible longevity. First they sought to increase the gaming population, now they’re looking at how to increase the game-creating population.

The company’s true enemy is boredom. Whatever surprise you create today becomes your enemy tomorrow.

In the end, Iwata says,

Our goal is always to make our customers glad. We’re a manufacturer of smiles

This is what the company calls “amusement fundamentalism” and it’s what sets them apart from their perceived competition, especially comparisons or criticisms aimed at the company in terms of how it stacks up against a company like Apple. To Iwata, this just doesn’t make sense:

We’re an amusement company and Apple’s a tech company

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

Why Do Former Presidents And Politicians Need “Jobs”? And How Do They Manage To Find Them In Silicon Valley?

I got a good chuckle out of this today, “Obama hints at a future in VC“:

“had I not gone into politics, I’d probably be starting some kind of business,” said Obama. “The skill set of starting my presidential campaigns—and building the kinds of teams that we did and marketing ideas—I think would be the same kinds of skills that I would enjoy exercising in the private sector. … The conversations I have with Silicon Valley and with venture capital pull together my interests in science and organization in a way I find really satisfying.”

The rest of the article contains quotes from VCs good-humoredly sniffing Obama’s jock strap and suggesting candidly that he would make an excellent high risk capital allocator. I don’t even need to provide examples of why these disclosures are a bunch of bald-faced lies. You can make up your own punchlines.

Instead, I am pondering the following: does something like this represent a sign of how crony Silicon Valley is and how dependent upon government privilege it is for the profit it generates? Or does it represent how pragmatic this community of businessmen is in co-opting the enemy that is continually placing new obstacles on its road to riches?

I am not sure I am comfortable with either reality but the latter has merit in that one could at least argue one is acting in self-defense, and that’s more noble than getting behind the guns and pointing them at competitors and customers as in the case of the former.

 

The Economics of Consumer Behavior

The following is an essay written for a monthly company newsletter in 2015:

While business books are helpful, I find reading books from a variety of intellectual disciplines helps me gain new perspectives on our industry and business. One of my favorite reads is called “Human Action” by a social philosopher named Ludwig von Mises. Recently, I was struck by the following passage as von Mises commented on what drives consumer behavior:

The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run [businesses]. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. For them nothing counts other than their own satisfaction. They do not care a whit for past merit and vested interests. If something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors.

Does this sound like our customers? Cheapest price? Changeable and unpredictable? Values their own satisfaction above all else? No loyalty? Keeping an eye on their pocketbook and not yours?

Of course it does! In fact, this well describes all customers, ours, those of our competition and even me and you as buyers of goods and services ourselves.

There’s a simple truth about customer service in a competitive market environment buried underneath this description of consumer behavior. That truth is that our customers have CHOICES. Not one of them has to do business with us. Not one of them has to be impressed by our prices, our commitment to their satisfaction, the quality of our effort or the consistency of our desire to please. If any one of these things does not manage to live up to their expectations, you can bet that our competitors will take notice and provide it to them instead.

But there is more to the story than consumer behavior and competition affecting our customer service, according to Ludwig von Mises:

The consumers determine ultimately not only the prices of the consumers’ goods, but no less the prices of all factors of production. They determine the income of every member of the market economy. The consumers, not the entrepreneurs, pay ultimately the wages earned by every worker… With every penny spent the consumers determine the direction of all production processes and the details of the organization of all business activities.

What this means is quite simple. When we adopt innovations or change aspects of how our businesses are organized, they are never changes made arbitrarily. Every change must in some way lead to improved customer satisfaction to enhance the desirability of our offering in the market or the effort is wasted.

When we change computer systems, or business processes, or pay plans, or job descriptions or prices, or anything, these new arrangements must meet the market test. If the changes don’t help us serve our customers better in some way they will not be sustainable. If they don’t help us to provide something better than what our competition can provide, we will find our customers going elsewhere.

It also means we have a responsibility to stay on our feet and try to improve our service offering every chance we get. As a team, we can come up with new processes, new cost structures, new service offerings, new conveniences, new methods of communication and new attitudes toward service that can keep our customers surprised and smiling. In other words, embracing the nature of change and competition in the marketplace can help us “to keep our customers, our customers” (and to help us gain new customers, too!)

Knowing all of this, what are some things you could do to improve the quality of service you and your team provide to our customers every day? And how will you react the next time someone tells you that we’ve got to make changes to better accommodate our customers’ needs? Taking care of our customers how they expect to be taken care of has to be at the center of why we do what we do. You can embrace it or you can resist it– but you can’t avoid it. Which will you choose?