Rent-Seeking Captains of Industry and Commerce give Capitalism a Bad Name
Once upon a time you lived, worked and died all within a short walk from each other. In feudalism people owned land and lived well. The landed aristocracy. And other people (the peasants) worked the land. But did not live as well as those who owned it. For it was back-breaking work for long hours with no respite except in death. For those who worked the land belonged to the land. Just as the trees and fields and rivers did. Peasants belonged to the land and the land belonged to the landowner. The peasants couldn’t leave. And they couldn’t work hard to provide a better life for their children. For they were bond to the land as their patents were. With no choice but to work the land like their parents did.
This was how life was before we started to use power to make our work easier. We had long been using animal power to do things we didn’t have the strength or the endurance to do. Such as pulling a plow. Or a wagon full of goods. Or to travel great distances more quickly than we could by walking. Harnessing the power of moving water changed all of that. For a river moves constantly. And when you place a waterwheel in moving water you can convert the linear motion of the water into rotational motion. This rotational motion could turn a main shaft running though a factory. Belts and pulleys could transfer this power to workstations throughout the factory floor. And these powered workstations could do far more work than a person could. Lumberjacks could transport logs down a river to a lumber mill. Where a waterwheel could spin a saw that made lumber out of those logs at such a rate that great cities could arise around these mills. Cities with other factories powered by waterwheels. And homes.
So it’s no surprise that our early cities grew up on rivers. Both for water power. And the ability to use them to ship bulk goods. Ship transport. Something even animals weren’t good at. It is in these cities that wealth and political power grew. Centers of industry and commerce. Creating great wealth for those who controlled the resources that made all of that possible. So another aristocracy grew. Rent-seeking captains of industry and commerce. Who give capitalism a bad name. Who use their political power to maximize their profits. And buy favors from those in power to protect their particular interests. Such as using the power of government to create monopolies for themselves. But advancing technology made that harder to do. Especially the steam engine. And the railroad.
The Steel and Heavy Manufacturing Industries required a Massive Infrastructure and Regionally Located Raw Materials
Control of rivers, ports and harbors provided a great opportunity to amass wealth at other people’s expense. For when economic activity centered on water it made land around that water very valuable. Which concentrated wealth and power on the rivers. Until the steam engine replaced the waterwheel. And the railroad provided a way to transport people and goods inland. So not only did cities grow up along the waterways they grew up along the rail lines. Those controlling these resources still had great wealth and power. But they also offered competition. And more economic liberty. For while there can only be one Tennessee River flowing through Chattanooga, Tennessee, there can be more than one railroad running through Chattanooga. Which made Chattanooga an important city to hold during the American Civil War. For there was a great rail junction in that city. Giving anyone who controlled the city access to any part of the Confederacy.
While the steam engine and railroad allowed industries to grow anywhere in the country some industries still clustered in regional areas. Such as the steel industry. It required three ingredients to make steel. Iron ore, coke (coal cooked into hard charcoal briquettes) and limestone. To make steel you use 6 parts iron ore, 2 parts coke and 1 part limestone. Iron ore was plentiful around Lake Superior. Because it takes a lot of iron ore and a lot of iron ore is located around Lake Superior the steel makers built their mills long the Great Lakes. In Milwaukee. Chicago. Gary. Detroit. Toledo. Cleveland. Or in places like Pittsburgh where coal and iron ore deposits surround the city. These cities made up the Manufacturing Belt. Places with access to bulk ore shipping (on Great Lakes freighter or river barge). And where the steel mills arose so did heavy industry that built things from that steel. From structural steel. To automobiles.
For a while these new industries dominated the economic landscape. Big, heavy industries that couldn’t move. Concentrating money and political power. Giving rise to organized labor. Who took advantage of the fact that these heavy industries could not move. Negotiating lucrative union contracts. With generous pay and benefits. Raising the price of steel and the things we made from steel. Like automobiles. Making the rank and file like rent-seekers of old. Looking to personally benefit from their near-monopoly conditions. Like those early captains of industry and commerce. Life was good for awhile for the rank and file. Who lived very well. And better than most American workers. Thanks to those monopoly-like conditions in these steel and heavy manufacturing industries. Allowing them to charge high prices for their goods to pay for those generous pay and benefits. As there was no competition. For the steel and heavy manufacturing industries required a massive infrastructure and an abundant supply of regionally located raw materials, making it very difficult for a new competitor to open for business. At least, in the United States.
High Costs and Low Efficiencies have shuttered most of America’s Steel Making Past
Foreign competition changed all that. And large ocean-going ships. So new industries in other countries with lower labor costs could manufacture these goods and ship them to the United States. And did. Challenging the monopoly-like conditions of the rent-seeking steel and heavy manufacturing industries. So the rent-seekers turned to government for protection. And got it. Import tariffs. Which raised the price of those imported goods to the higher price level of the domestic goods. Which did two things. Insulated the domestic manufacturers from market pressures allowing them to continue with the status quo. And forced the foreign manufacturers to find less costly and more efficient ways to make their goods to counter those import tariffs.
So what happened? Technology advanced in these industries overseas while they stagnated in the US. The US didn’t invest in new technologies like they did in the previous century to find better ways to do things. Because they didn’t have to. While the foreign competitors worked harder to find better ways to do things. Because they had to. As they weren’t insulated from market forces. The Japanese invested in robotics. Transforming their auto industry. Improving quality and lowering costs. Making their cars as good if not better than the Americans did. And selling them at a competitive price even with those import protections. So what did these US actions to protect the domestic manufacturers do? Changed the Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt.
The big steel cities in America are no more. High costs and low efficiencies have shuttered most of America’s steel making past. Gone is the era of the sprawling steel mill. Today it’s the minimill and continuous casting. Small and efficient steel mills with small labor forces that can make small batches. Thanks to their electric arc furnaces that are easy to turn on and off. Unlike the big blast furnaces that took a while to reach operating temperatures and when they did they didn’t shut them down for years. Making it difficult to adjust to falling demand. Like the minimills could. Which helped save the steel industry by finally adopted technology that allowed it to sell at market prices. Making it harder for the rent-seekers these days. But better for consumers. Because of this relentless march of technology. That allows us to continuously find better ways to do things.
Tags: animal power, capitalism, captains of industry and commerce, coke, factory, find better ways to do things, generous pay and benefits, Great Lakes, heavy industry, industry and commerce, Iron ore, Lake Superior, Limestone, Manufacturing Belt, monopolies, rail lines, railroad, rent-seeking, rotational motion, Rust Belt, ship transport, steam engine, steel, steel industry, water power, waterwheel, wealth and power
The New Economic Reality of Farming was that we needed Fewer Farmers in the Age of Mechanization
The Roaring Twenties was a decade of solid, real economic growth. The world modernized during the Twenties. Electric power, telephone, radio, motion pictures, air travel, etc. So much of what we take for granted today became a reality during the Roaring Twenties. But there was a downside. Farmers borrowed money to mechanize their farms. As farms mechanized they produced great crop yields. Bringing bumper crops to market. There was so much food brought to market that prices plummeted. Reducing farm incomes so much that they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to mechanize their farms. They defaulted. Causing banks to fail.
By the late Twenties all the European farmers who fought in World War I were back on the farm. And were feeding Europe again. So not only were the Americans producing bumper crops they were losing a large export market. Forcing farm prices down further. There were simply more farmers than the economy was demanding thanks to the new efficiencies in farming. But because there were so many farmers they were an important political constituency. They were still casting a lot of votes. So the politicians stepped in. With a complete disregard to economic principles. And tried to help the farmers. With rent-seeking policies.
The farmers were hurting. So they wanted to transfer some wealth from the masses to the farmers. As in rent-seeking. As opposed to profit-seeking. Instead of creating wealth (profit-seeking) they were transferring wealth (rent-seeking). And they did this with price supports. They raised the price of their crops above market value. Forcing Americans to make sacrifices in their lives so they could afford to pay higher food prices to help the farmers. So the farmers wouldn’t have to adjust to the new economic reality of farming. We need fewer farmers in the age of mechanization. But it just didn’t end with higher prices. The government would buy excess food grown by these ‘too many farmers’ and destroy it. Or pay farmers NOT to grow food. Then they took it up a notch. And slapped tariffs on imported food. Further raising the price of food.
In an Effort to raise Farming Prices the Rent-Seekers caused the Great Deflation of the Great Depression
Food tariffs were just one part of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. This act pretty much raised the tariff on everything the U.S. imported. Greatly increasing the cost of all imports. To protect the domestic producers from cheap foreign competition. But there was a problem with increasing the cost of all imports. It increased the price of whatever we built with those imports. So much so that when they were discussing this act in Congress businesses across America knew the boom of the Twenties would end. As did investors investing in these companies. So even before the bill became law it caused a huge stock selloff. Which led to the stock market crash of 1929.
At first the higher prices helped American businesses. Their revenue increased. Everyone thought the tariff act was a success. But as prices went up costs went up throughout the manufacturing pipeline. Prices grew so high that people stopped buying. Inventories accumulated so they cut production. And then laid people off en masse. Causing a great recession. Then further rent-seeking solutions (more governmental intervention into the free market) turned that recession into the Great Depression. What started out as a problem for overly efficient farmers turned into a national crisis. In an effort to raise farming prices they caused the great deflation of the Great Depression. As prices fell so did revenues. Making it very difficult to service debt. More people defaulted on their debt. And more banks failed.
When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act became law our trading partners answered in kind. Leading to a great trade war. So on top of everything else what limited export markets we had shut down as well. As the trade barriers went up economic activity decreased. David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage worked in reverse. Increasing opportunity costs. When international markets closed less efficient domestic industries took their place. Pulling resources from more efficient uses. Raising the cost of those resources. Adding these cost increases on top of the tariffs. Which further increased prices. And further lowered economic activity. Adding further woe onto the Great Depression.
The Medallion System dates back to the Medieval Guilds and Restricts Entry into the Cabbie Market
As the Great Depression languished on few people filled the streets of New York City (NYC). At least few people with money who had to go places. There were more cabs than people needed. Supply exceeded demand. Putting a downward pressure on taxi fares. And increasing the time a cabbie had to work to earn some decent money. Usually the market steps in and corrects such a situation. Forcing some cabbies out of the cabbie business. But not in NYC. There they used the power of government to address this surplus of supply. And introduced the medallion system.
This was the kind of rent seeking that dated back to those medieval guilds. The medallion restricted entry into the cabbie market. By limiting the number of cabs in NYC. Every cab (at least those who can pick up passengers who hail a cab at the curb) must have a medallion permanently affixed to their cab. Which they must purchase from the city. Or transfer from another cab. Currently, if you want to drive a taxi cab in NYC you better have some deep pockets. Or have the kind of credit that lets you get a very large mortgage. For the medallion system exists to this day. And that medallion may cost you close to a half million dollars.
If you ever wondered why it sometimes takes so long to hail a cab in NYC this is the reason. Rent-seeking. As in the medallion system. Which works just like tariffs. Reducing supply. And increasing prices for consumers. So the rent-seekers can use the power of government to transfer wealth. Instead of using innovation to create wealth. And bringing that wealth to the market place to trade. Instead they choose to take more wealth from the market place than they bring to it. With the help of government. And their rent-seeking policies. Thus reducing overall wealth in the economy. Which reduces economic activity. And does nothing to help lift an economy out of recession. Or out of a Great Depression.
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Wealth Creators Freely met and Made Trades they felt were Mutually Beneficial
The human race started as subsistence hunters and gatherers. Our ancestors spent all of their time hunting. And gathering. If they were successful they propagated our species. Making it possible for us to be here. If they weren’t their family tree was a barren one.
So that was life. A rather short and brutish life. Except that part about propagating the species. And we lived that way for some 2 million years. Eating. Fleeing. Fighting. And, of course, propagating. As we grew more intelligent we did a lot of things that ushered in the modern world. But perhaps the single greatest advancement that brought on the modern age was our evolution from hunters and gatherers to farmers. Everything followed from this. We learned to live together in cities. And we increased crop yields so much we created food surpluses. Which gave us time to do other things. It allowed the rise of artisans. A middle class. That built things and traded them for their food. These new goods helped produce more food. And the greater food production allowed more people to do other things. Creating a complex economy. Where people traveled to market with the things they created. And traded them for the things other people brought to market. We traded things of value for other things of value. Because these traders, these wealth creators, each created something of value.
These wealth creators freely met and made trades they felt were mutually beneficial. Each felt they came out a winner after their trade. For they each received something they valued more than what they traded away to get it. Which means going to the market was where to go to get valuable things. Which provided an incentive to make more things so you could take them to market. And trade for things you valued more. As everyone did this the overall wealth in the economy increased. People specialized. Focused on what they were good at. To produce as much as possible so they could trade for more. And because they specialized they improved quality. And used the available resources as efficiently as possible.
Rent-Seeking People took more Wealth from the Market than they Brought to It
There are many competing schools of economics. But if you go back to where it all began what you find is laissez faire free market capitalism. Where the profit incentive drove people to create wealth. Which they then traded for the things they didn’t make. Then things started to change. Some people didn’t want to work hard and innovate. And bring new things to market. What they wanted was influence. Privilege. And a rigged market. So they could get more in trade than the value of the things they produced for trade. One of the first vehicles used for this was the artisan guild.
In medieval Europe if you wanted to be a blacksmith you had to join a guild. If the guild accepted you a long apprenticeship awaited you. But the guilds denied more people entry than they allowed. Why? To limit competition. So blacksmiths could keep their prices high. At any given time a city, town or village had a very limited number of blacksmiths. The guild worked to keep it that way. For the last thing these blacksmiths wanted was other blacksmiths opening up shop. Putting more goods onto the market. And lowering prices. No, the guild wanted to fix prices above their market value by keeping would-be blacksmiths out of the trade.
The economic term for this is rent-seeking. Which is sort of the opposite of profit seeking. In profit-seeking people create wealth to trade (or to pay) for other wealth. They work hard to earn more so they can buy more. Both buyer and seller add wealth to the economy. Not so in rent-seeking. In rent-seeking you try to garner more wealth not by working harder but by using the power of government. By getting tariffs placed on foreign competition. By getting prices fixed above market prices. By getting onerous regulations enacted to hurt your competition. By restricting entrance into the industry thus limiting domestic competition. Such as the guilds did for those medieval blacksmiths. This interference into laissez faire free market capitalism reduced economic activity. Because rent-seeking people took more wealth from the market than they brought to it.
The Government caused the Great Depression by Favoring Rent-Seeking over Free Market Capitalism
Some say a better name for rent-seeking is privilege seeking. For that is what they are seeking. Special privilege so they don’t have to compete in the free market. For the cost of a little lobbying can remove the need for innovation. Maintaining the level of quality. Or satisfying customers. For if you have a government-imposed monopoly you don’t have to do any of those things because the people don’t have anywhere else to go.
Rent-seeking is rife in crony capitalism and state capitalism. Neither of which is true capitalism. These companies are granted monopolies (or near monopolies) by the government in exchange for political support. Which they can afford when they can sell their goods above market prices. They get rich. Their cronies in government get rich. But the consumers suffer. As they have to pay higher prices. Suffer poorer quality. And less innovation. Rent-seeking is common in the older industries. Particularly ones with strong unions. Who have negotiated costly wage and benefit packages. Which they can afford to pay until new innovation and new competition enters the market. Putting out a higher quality product at a lower price. Prices so low that an old firm saddled with a costly union wage and benefit package simply can’t sell at and pay their bills. So they go to government. And lobby for privilege.
What typically happens is that they delay the inevitable. All the protected industries in the U.S. have failed. Textile. Steel. Even the automobile (well, two of the Big Three have failed. Ford hasn’t). For when you take more wealth from the market than you bring to it you’re just transferring wealth. You’re not creating it. Which is a problem. Because you have to create wealth to increase economic activity. So when you protect an industry you’re just pulling wealth out of the private economy and transferring it to the rent-seekers. Who give so little in return. Which results in a decline of economic activity. And if it spreads enough it can and has caused recessions. Even a Great Depression. Such as when domestic industries lobbied government to enact the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Which launched an all-out trade war. All because the government favored rent-seeking over free market capitalism.
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