“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
Digital technology is reinventing our whole world, in service of you and me. It’s free enterprise on steroids. It’s bypassing the gatekeepers and empowering each of us to invent our own civilization for ourselves, according to our own specifications.
The promise of the future is nothing short of spectacular — provided that those who lack the imagination to see the potential here don’t get their way. Sadly but predictably, some of the biggest barriers to a bright future are capitalists themselves who fear the future.
A good example is the current hysteria over 3-dimensional printing. This technology has moved with incredible speed from the realm of science fiction to the real world, seemingly in a matter of months. You can get such printers today for as low as $400. These printers allow objects to be transported digitally, and literally printed into existence right before your very eyes.
It’s like a miracle! It could change everything we think we know about the transport of physical objects. Rather than sending crates and boats around the world, in the future we will only send lightweight digits. The potential for bypassing monopolies and entrenched interests is spectacular
But here is what Andrew Myers reported in Wired Magazine last week:
Last winter, Thomas Valenty bought a MakerBot — an inexpensive 3-D printer that lets you quickly create plastic objects. His brother had some Imperial Guards from the tabletop game Warhammer, so Valenty decided to design a couple of his own Warhammer-style figurines: a two-legged war mecha and a tank.
He tweaked the designs for a week until he was happy. “I put a lot of work into them,” he says. Then he posted the files for free downloading on Thingiverse, a site that lets you share instructions for printing 3-D objects. Soon other fans were outputting their own copies.
Until the lawyers showed up.
Games Workshop, the UK-based firm that makes Warhammer, noticed Valenty’s work and sent Thingiverse a takedown notice, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Thingiverse removed the files, and Valenty suddenly became an unwilling combatant in the next digital war: the fight over copying physical objects.
There we have it. The American Chamber of Commerce — the supposed defender of free enterprise — is in a meltdown panic, determined to either crush 3-D printing in its crib or, at least, to make sure it doesn’t grow past its toddler period.
In the 1940s, Joseph Schumpeter said that the capitalists would ultimately destroy capitalism by insisting that their existing profitability models perpetuate themselves in the face of change. He said that the capitalist class would eventually lose its taste for innovation and insist on government rules that brought it to an end, in the interest of protecting business elites.
An example: when music and books starting going digital, there was a outcry. How will authors and musicians survive this onslaught?
The truth is that there was no onslaught. It was a windfall for consumers that turned into the greatest boon for music and literature ever. Today we see how this is working, and not only working but there are more authors and musicians making money today than ever before. My best example: the Laissez Faire Club.
The methods could never have been anticipated in advance. Some give away their content and sell their performances. Some have found interesting new methods of distributing content behind pay walls that are affordable and convenient. Authors are starting to self publish through fantastic numbers of venues.
I’ve been touring museums lately, and I’ve begun to realize something important about the long process of technological improvement. Through our long history of improvement, every upgrade and every shift from old to new inspired panic. The biggest panic typically comes from the producers themselves who resent the way the market process destabilizes their business model.
It was said that the radio would end live performance. No one would learn music anymore. Everything would be performed one time, and recorded for all time, and that would be the end.
Of course that didn’t happen. Then there was another panic when records came out, on the belief that this would destroy radio. Then tapes were next and everyone predicted doom for recorded music since music could be so easily duplicated (“Home Taping is Killing Music”). It was the same with digital music: surely this would be the death of all music!
And think back to the mass ownership of books in the 19th century. Many people predicted that these would destroy new authors because people would just buy books by old authors that were cheap and affordable. New authors would starve and no one would write anymore.
There is a pattern here. Every new technology that becomes profitable causes people to scream about the plight of existing producers. Then it turns out over time that the sector itself thrives as never before but in ways that no one really expected.
The great secret of the market economy is that it embodies a long-run tendency to dissipate profits under existing production and distribution methods. This is how competition works. This is how competition not only inspires improvement but makes it unavoidable. And this is one reason that so many capitalists hate capitalism.
The process goes like this. The new thing comes along and it earns high profits. Then the copycats come along and do the same thing cheaper and better, robbing the first producer of the monopoly status. Profits eventually fall to zero and then something even better has to come along to attract new business, earn new profits, elicit new copycats, and the whole thing starts all over again.
I’ve never understood why leftists complain about profits going to capitalists. In a vibrant market economy, profits are the temporary exception to the rule. They accrue only to the most innovative and efficient firms, the ones that serve the consumer best, and the gains are never permanent. As soon as the company loses its edge, entrepreneurial profit vanishes.
Under free market competition, writes Ludwig von Mises, the trajectory of existing production and distribution models is always to reduce profits to zero. For those who want to hang on to profits, there can be no rest. New and improved must be an everyday experience. There must be a ceaseless striving to serve consumers in ways that are ever more excellent.
This is why business is always running to government for protection. Kill this crazy new technology! Stop these imports! Raise the costs on the competition! Give us a patent so that we can clobber the other guys! Impose antitrust law! Protect me with a copyright! Regulate the newcomers out of existence! Give us a bailout!
Aside from this, there is a public fear of the new. Otherwise, people would not find the self-interested protests of the existing establishment to be persuasive.
Here is a striking fact about the human mind: we have great difficulty imagining solutions that have yet to present themselves. It doesn’t matter how often the market resolves seemingly intractable problems, we still can’t become accustomed to this reality. Our minds think in terms of existing conditions, and then we predict all kinds of doom. We too often fail to consistently expect the unexpected.
This poses a serious problem for the market economy, which is all about the ability of the system to inspire discovery of new ideas and new solutions to prevailing the problems. The problems posed by change are obvious enough; but the solutions are “crowd sourced” and emerge from places, people, and institutions that cannot be seen in advance.
Capitalism is not for wimps who don’t want to improve. If you want guaranteed profits for the few rather than prosperity and abundance for the many, socialism and fascism really are better systems.
The push to stop market progress won’t work in the end, of course. Technology eventually mows down its forces of resistance. The mercantilists can only delay but never finally suppress the human longing for a better life.