Learning Economics as a Way to Curb Resentment

I think one of the most important reasons to learn economics is that if it is done properly, it can help you extend your empathy. Also knowledge of economics, specifically that other’s gain is not your loss, consistently helps me curb my natural feelings of resentment.
I was standing in line to pay for my insulin, usually the lines are short because I could just pay at endocrinology, but policy change due to new ownership (PLA) everyone now had to stand in line together. I had debated bringing my cane as for me standing in line is… unpleasant and now faced with a snaking line I regretted being cane-less. About half way through, after putting in 15 or so minutes of grinding my teeth, suddenly there was a flurry of movement. A new line had opened up, but I had missed my chance. Surveying the victors of this sudden disequilibrium event, I noticed that a lot of the people now well ahead of me in line used to be behind me. My first instinct was to be upset at the perceived unfairness, but then I snapped myself out it, and realized that, those people who now have to wait less don’t make me have to wait more and in fact, the line in front of me had also appreciably shortened in the melee, besides how would a fairer way even work? The new line was actually beneficial for everyone, it would be silly to be mad about it. With this realization I felt better, thanking economic insights that make it easier to carry less resentment I slowly worked my way through the line, really regretting the absence of my cane.
After another 15 minutes of waiting in line, my legs nearing their threshold of endurance, it was my turn in line and… a Chinese man from far away came charging at me in the cashier booth, I am, I should mention the only foreigner that was at the hospital. My Chinese is far from perfect, very far in fact, but in this instance it proved ample enough to understand what he was saying. He was Chinese, he had been waiting in line, his legs hurt, and they were going to serve a foreigner before him? It was an uncomfortable situation for all involved, while at first the lady at the register tried her best to just ignore him, his mounting anger, his shrill piercing screaming were too much, she took his documents and started to process him. Anger was my first response, I had waited in line just like everyone else after all, my legs didn’t feel great either, and his characterization of me wasn’t overly kind. But soon the anger turned to pity: what must it be like to be such a man, so filled with resentment, lashing out, not even thinking of the discomfort of all of his fellow citizens whom he had just cut in line in front of. Even though he got his way, I couldn’t help imagine just how painful such an existence must be.
And once again I thanked economics.

King Midas and the True Nature of Money

I am going to tell you a famous story from Greek mythology that helps illuminate the truth of money.

King Midas one day saved the son of Dionysus, one of the major gods[1]. In order to show his thanks to the King, Dionysus offered to grant Midas a single wish. Midas, being covetous by nature, paused little before deciding that what he wanted to wish for was a golden touch. He asked the god to have everything he touches turn to gold. Dionysus warned the King to think twice before making the wish, but Midas was certain.  After a deep sigh Dionysus laid the boon upon the King and then departed. Overjoyed, Midas touched a flower in his vast garden and marveled as it became solid gold. He went around his mansion touching all that he could think of, transmuting all within his touch instantly from their plain materials into lustrous shimmering gold.

He called a great feast in order to celebrate his new found power. Before him on the table there laid the finest wines, meats, fruits, and assorted specialties from all around the kingdom. He touched his wine goblet which became golden, and with a beaming smile he made a toast to the immense fortune both he and his kingdom had to look forward to. Placing the goblet to his lips, however, revealed a horrible surprise: the second the wine touched his lips, it too, became transmuted into gold. Gold would not slake his thirst. He quickly grabbed for food, but anything that he laid his hands on became solid gold. Desperately he had a servant try to feed him directly, though to no avail—the second any substance touched his mouth, whether it be the sweetest grapes or the juiciest meat, it instantly became cold, tasteless gold. Gold would not satisfy his hunger.

He ran out into his garden to his favorite bench and sat down amongst the lifeless golden flowers, cursing his fate, thinking again and again of Dionysus’ warning. His daughter came to comfort her father, laying her hand on his shoulder in order to give him solace. In that moment she was transformed from a lovely sweet girl into an unspeaking, unfeeling golden statue.

At this, Midas broke down, and in between his sobs he implored Dionysus to come again and take away his golden burden. As the god had initially wished to bestow a blessing on King Midas, not a curse, he came to the King and told him to wash his hands in a nearby river to take away his power. Midas, following Dionysus’s instructions, immediately set off, and after finding the river, washed his hands. Gold came shimmering from his skin as he made contact with the flowing water, and once it had stopped, he ran back to his palace as fast as his legs would carry him. Much to his relief, his daughter was there to greet him when he returned, with the flowers of his garden once again swaying in the breeze.

There are many lessons that can be taken from this story. When I first learned it as a child, the morals of the story that were emphasized were about being careful what you wish for as well as the hazards of greed. These are good lessons to be sure, however, unfortunately, they are not very pertinent to this chapter. I did promise to relate the story to the true nature of money after all, didn’t I?

Let’s relate this story to the 5th point of thinking like an economist: “People Don’t Care about Money”. What is the use of the gold to Midas? Nothing. If you can only have money and nothing else, you will have a very poor life indeed. It is instead the things that money can buy, like the wine and the food that are of value. Having money without goods is like having the poker chips from a bankrupt casino.

But what if Midas had been a little wiser in his wish? For the below story, let us assume that like modern currency, gold is only used as money to avoid unnecessary complications.

Dionysus offers him a wish of his choice. Midas quickly says: “I want everything I touch to turn to gold!” Dionysus gives the king a skeptical look and replies: “everything?”
Midas, instantly realizing his mistake, he says: “oh no, that would be horrible, I couldn’t eat or drink! I might even accidently turn my lovely daughter into gold! How terrible that would have been! Instead, how about you grant me the ability to turn anything I desire into gold?”.
The god says: “sure, glad you caught that error!” Under his breath he mumbles: “though you still might consider taking an economics class.” “What was that last part?” The king asked, to which the God replied: “nothing, never mind, poof it is done.” Midas turned many things into gold and enjoyed a fine banquet of only the best food and wine with the company of his daughter that day.

This version of the story might at first look like a happy ending, but let us analyze it further. Question: how does the gold speed the craftsman’s work? The farmers’ growing of food? It is true that more gold will allow Midas to purchase more things, but where do those more things come from? Since the gold does not actually make it so that more can be produced, it must mean that, instead of changing how much is produced, it is changing who gets what is produced. In this case, Midas is getting more, which means less for people who are not Midas. Money is a claim to goods and services, an increase in the claims without a corresponding increase in goods and services means each of the claims are worth less. So in this instance, the new flood of gold will make it so that a given amount of gold will be able to exchange for less real products than from before. He is taking the real value he receives from the gold holders in his kingdom, and could have achieved the same result by taxing them without using magic wishes.

Midas is actually acting precisely in the same way as someone who counterfeits money. One might imagine as a result, silver might become a more valuable metal. Perhaps then he might think that he should have asked for the silver touch instead. Hopefully you understand why this would also be folly.

Imagine we go far back in time to when humans first started farming and we dropped several tons of gold onto the early farming villages. What would it have allowed them to do? Now imagine instead that we instead gave them the wheel thousands of years before its invention. Money may be what makes an individual rich, but real things are what make a society rich. Money is just a claim to some of societies real goods.

[1] Specifically the god of wine, revelry, and … well many other things.

Fun Trade Facts

The US gets only 8% of its oil from the Middle East

(consume about 2/5s from our own production)

The US imports only 2% of its steel from China.

(consume 2/3rds from our own production)

China only has a .7% trade “surplus” overall

The EU has the world’s highest trade surplus, and 8.4% unemployment

Imports are not actually subtracted from GDP, instead they are mistakenly counted in consumption or investment but since GDP stands for gross domestic product, they shouldn’t, so they are removed just to prevent GDP from being overstated.

Imports are the benefits of trade and exports are how you pay for them.

Trade deficits are basically like getting a loan, and don’t indicate robbery anymore than you borrowing money indicates robbery

Historically tariffs increase the trade deficit because demand for foreign currency falls(as it becomes less useful) appreciating the currency

Tariffs on raw productive inputs tend to hit employment of those working in industries using those inputs harder than it benefits makers of the input.

Since exports are linked to imports, and restriction on importing will lead to less exported as well.

Of Money

It is often said that money is the root of all evil. Let us then try to imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. Right now, every day, you interact with millions upon millions of people that are just as unaware of you as you are of them. The simplest product you could possibly imagine was created through an unimaginably vast and complex system of trade. Just try to imagine the most simple thing that you can, then ask, what is it made of? Is it made of wood? Where is the wood from? Who chopped down the wood, who made the breakfast of the person who chopped down the wood, who made the tools used to chop it down, what are those tools made of? Where were those materials mined, who created the mining machines, who mined the materials to make the machines to make the machines to mine the materials to make the equipment to chop down the wood? How did they get their breakfast? Who grew the food to make the ingredients, where did their equipment come from? As you can hopefully tell the complexity of such a system is functionally boundless.

In the modern globalized world, trade links us all in a great and tangled web. An invisible web that goes without our notice with each of the billions of nodes going about their day, consuming that which was produced by an army of strangers, and laboring to provide benefit to others, most likely others whose names, faces, and lives will always remain separate and unknown to them. Though our interactions with friends and family are governed by more than just narrow material interest (hopefully) the fact that we don’t typically give those who consume the fruits of our labors much thought, the fact that we don’t imagine the complex web behind every pencil, behind every meal, shows that when we are participating in markets, the welfare of our fellow man is far from our top concern.

Imagine someone who gets up every morning and spends 12 hours screwing chip x1231to board area v11 hundreds of times. What induces this person to work so feverishly at such a mundane task? Is he, with each screw imaging the smiling faces of happy customers whose Bluetooth will function correctly because he did his job? Or do you find it more likely that he wakes up every morning, dreading work but undergoing it for the sole purpose of acquiring resource tokens (aka money) to improve his own position and that of those close to him? In turn, the employer is willing to part with his own money, not because he enjoys seeing that worker’s smiling face each morning but instead because without the vital screw the phone would lose more money in lost sales than it costs to hire our intrepid phone assembly line worker. Each in the chain gives to each other something that is valuable to the receiver, not because of feelings of affection, but with regards to their own self interest.

It is even true that those who consume the fruit of your labors are very unlikely to be the same people from which you claim resources from. As a teacher, I am in the lucky position of being in direct contact with those former strangers that I find myself serving (students), but why should this matter to the Australian rancher I import my steak from? I contact him and let him know “Yeah the other day I worked with Xinling who you don’t know and will never meet on supply and demand, so please send me a nice section of rib-eye, thanks!”. The school pays me because the parents pay the school with the money they earn from  their varied labors for others that then pay them, a Chinese middleman then converts my RMB to AUS, trading with an Australian whom has an eye on acquiring something in China or intent to trade with another Australian who does, and then the rancher is finally paid in the currency others around him are willing to accept so that he can manage to gain a more valuable set of resources than the resources he invested into making the section of rib-eye. Delivery men and women then are given access to enough resources tokens such that they would prefer them over the additional leisure that not delivering the steak would have allowed for. A complex chain of events that culminates in my full stomach. That is the modern world, a bunch of strangers doing favors for other strangers that won’t be directly reciprocated. This is because they believe other strangers are also willing to accept the claims those strangers are giving them because those other strangers share in this vital belief.

The idea of such a system, of such a distant and cold link between you and the rest of the world, most likely strikes you as alien and perhaps a little disturbing. The fact that your way of life relies almost solely on those whose intentions towards you are selfish is something worth the occasional reflection.

But what then is the alternative? What alternate systems can we create if we cut the in innumerous lose threads that bind us? How could consumption and production be organized if we got rid of money?

Well… then things get a little complicated, how now can I induce people I don’t know to do work for me? Perhaps some people will still wish to do work, in fact, in a world of abolished money I am certain others would still seek to show their abilities, concerning themselves with the writing of books and poetry, of composing songs and sonnets, of sculpting and painting. (Art and self-expression are important things, but they aren’t the only things we want or need, in fact, the world already burgeons with more of these than any human could ever consume in a lifetime). But what about the hard and unpleasant jobs? How can you possibly get someone to devote themselves to performing a task like our assembly line worker without some way of increased betterment?

Let’s say you have a bike maker, why do we think he will make, of his own free and without incentives enough bikes? The types of bikes people want? That enough people will choose bike making? That all the important people who forged the components to make the bike will want to make enough, that all those who need to mine the materials necessary will choose this unpleasant labor for no reward and so on. You, a stranger, merely wanting something is a poor motivator to call others into action, especially when each individual faces an infinite sea of strangers filled with wants; the total of which would far exceed that which can be made even in the best of circumstances. No, the traditional pre money forms of cooperation are unfortunately limited to a smaller scale.

The production of the globalized world we have today would be well out of reach in such a world. The wide cooperation is what allows for us to have so much specialization, such that the items in our lives which in the past would have been dear, have often become so cheap as to border on the disposable. I can get  someone in Australia, a country of sprawling grasslands and therefore relatively cheap grass-fed beef to wake up in the morning and work partially to ensure my full stomach because I can do them a favor in return, or well, I can trade favors that others gave me for the rancher to collect from someone else, but I have no hope of doing so without this system of tradable favors. I might be able to convince my neighbor to help me at my farm, given I help him in his farm, but this is just a more direct form of trading favors, a more limited way, a way that is not different in essence to using money, but vastly poorer.
The Power and Limitations of Love

If the rule is instead “none shall be allowed to reciprocate that which they are given” so that production and consumption are totally divorced, and that at the same time, we are each perfectly free to pursue whatever endeavor we wish, well, I want you to really and truly imagine what such a world looks like, and how far our cooperation with each other could then extend. The world we have today can exist and function only because so many choose pursuits, that in and of themselves are not their first pick of most enjoyable activity, but are still of great value to others precisely because those others are willing to provide them with sufficient compensation. In a world devoid of reciprocity and devoid of force only unconditional love could provide a motivator to undergo unpleasant tasks to help others, such a thing we could only expect to regularly occur at the level of the family.

If I said that ten thousand people died in a famine how would you feel? What if I said it was one million? Or if I said forty million? Does it make any difference in the way you look feel, will one effect you, motivate you, four thousand times as much? If you have trouble with such large distinctions, as do we all, what makes you think even in the unlikely event that you wanted to, you would be capable of making daily decisions that reflected the best interests of everyone else?

On Force

Instead of letting people give to each other based on reciprocity, you could still perhaps manage larger scale cooperation of their efforts than just those very close to them. You could also motivate them to complete specific tasks with the threat of force. This is a model that could most likely work to some limited degree but suffers from some drawbacks. First of all, it hardly sounds like the Utopian vision those who decry money would wish to conjure. Instead of allowing people to be rewarded for choosing to labor for others, you instead punish those who do not follow the labors you put before them. Also, you also could not fully escape some level of reciprocity in such a system, as how could you motivate those who do the work of monitoring and punishing?

Even if those who choose the work for others had possession of both an incorruptible spirit and angelic benevolence(a very big if), they would find it a tall task to play Santa for the entire country. Determining who wants what, and how much they want it relative to others, who should, in the end, get what, and who should be responsible for producing what, this is well beyond a cleanly solvable logistical problem(see the use of knowledge in society by Hayek for more on this point).

On Reciprocity Without Money

In the end, though, these are the three forces that can bring others to work for each other: altruism, force, and reciprocity. To have a big complex voluntary world, the system must ultimately be based on reciprocity.

You could imagine that instead of money we, went more direct and had a tradable favor system, where people wrote down the tasks they would be willing to complete, or the goods they are willing to trade and these pieces of paper could be traded to each other. So you as a farmer might trade food IOU’s (I owe you) for farming equipment, and the person selling this farming equipment, might claim some of that IOU themselves and trade the rest to others who have things he wants and want food. The central problem with such a system is that it while being a little more manageable and allowing for easier trade than having no trade, it still restricts you to trading within the group of people whom could track down the IOU’s of. What tends to happen in such a system is that people come across a good that they expect others to want and as a result are willing to trade for that good, even if they have no use for it themselves, this is essentially a commodity currency. If instead people had general “favor tokens” that they traded with each other, to show how big a favor the other person did for them, and you need to trade enough of these tokens to get someone to voluntarily agree to a trade, then congratulations, you have money.

Back to Money
Anyway, the point is you can’t leave the world of money, because without money it is too hard to make cooperation work on a complex worldwide scale. But if the nature of money is something so core to being human, reciprocity, why does anyone think that it is a bad thing?

Well, money gets a bad rap partially because people don’t understand what it really does, what it really allows. Long descriptions of favor-trading are unlikely to raise ire quite the same way as when people discuss money and markets more generally. While we might be distrustful of others if we know their motives to be selfish, I do not believe that this by itself is enough to create the level of animosity people show towards trade. If the essence of trade is always pure voluntary reciprocalness, as we have thus far discussed, it would most likely be easier to convince people of its merits. The world, however, is a more complicated place than that. The following are some of the possible problems people can have with such a system.

Sometimes Outcomes Are Not Ideal

Sometimes people will accumulate favors, not by doing favors for others, but instead by tricking people into thinking they will receive favors that they will not receive, like someone getting others involved in scams, or selling fake goods that quickly break. This is fraud and it is a reason money isn’t equal to reciprocity.

Sometimes people will accumulate favors, by simply taking them from others, either through stealth, the unofficial use of force, or even in some cases the official use of force. They can also print favor tokens lowering the value of favor tokens, counterfeiting, an indirect way of stealing. More cases that someone acquires favors without any actual reciprocity.

Sometimes people possess very little ability to do valuable favors for others, other times through luck, skill, hard-work, circumstance, or most likely some combination of all of them; people can gain with relatively little time, vast sums of favors. This can lead to vast differences in how well people can live, and given that there is less benefit to a person for additional favors the more favors that they have, we might be argue that it would be an improvement to use force to redistribute earned favors from those with many to those with few, or taking some of those earned favors to ensure that everyone is guaranteed some basic favors will be performed for them.

Sometimes people are in a dire situation and the only favors they can perform to stay alive or to help their family are things we find too degrading or too demeaning.

Sometimes a person amassed a great number of favors, giving command of these favors to children or relatives that themselves contributed little to nothing for the world.

Sometimes people agree to do favors for someone else, but the favor that they do causes harm to people outside of the agreement.

Sometimes even though a favor might be valuable, no one wants to do it because since the benefit is too widespread, those providing it would be unable to reap the rewards of their actions.

You could argue that a focus on collecting favors from others can lead people to become too obsessed with interacting in the large weak web, driven by avarice, ignoring the closer tighter connections that one may argue life is truly about. Indeed Adam Smith often considered the father of economics shared this concern to a large degree.

Indeed you could also argue that for those who amass the greatest number of such favors, that they will spend much of these favors to get others to do the things that have little to no direct benefit to themselves, but instead, to get others to labor in order to display just how many favors they command to others. This of course leading to a vast number of wasteful displays where those with the most attempt to outdo each other with their wastefulness.

As I hope the above illustrates, this model of favor-trading is indeed far from perfect for the estimation of most, and there can be many potential improvements made to it. However, I hope that I have also managed to convince you of the importance of this system in fostering large-scale cooperation. One can argue more or less about how flawed the system is, and how far force should be applied to change the outcomes of this system. (just please remember that the system of force is also far from perfect, at a minimum, please recall that those in charge of creating the rules and enforcing them are fundamentally the same as the aforementioned favor traders).