A great technology solves a problem that we didn’t know we had. It makes us aware of deprivations we didn’t know existed until we discover the new thing. Once discovered, we can’t go back.People in the 1950s, for example, never missed the smart phone. They were pleased to have a phone at all. But today, […]
Fifty years after the 1929 crash, a group of money managers and investment thinkers put together a collection of essays looking back at that experience. The result was a distillation of some pretty fine investment wisdom. Timely, I think, to review now.One of the contributors was Arthur Zeikel, then with Merrill Lynch. The title of […]
Although the mainstream media have turned its attention away from the wreckage of Obamacare, don’t think for a second that all is well.As the politicos in D.C. focus their attention on the midterm elections in November, now is a great time to study, prepare, and seek out the most affordable, accessible, and highest quality options […]
Turn on the tube and economic ignorance seems to be everywhere. There is constant shilling for more government. Business is demonized. Man is said to be trashing the environment. “Workers and women are oppressed” is the constant mantra.And members of the clueless media nod their heads in unison.Only John Stossel has provided the fresh air […]
In early July 1944, delegates from 44 countries gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. A three-week summit took place, at which a new system was agreed to regulate the international monetary and financial order after the Second World War.The U.S. was already the world’s commercial powerhouse, having eclipsed the British […]
In the minds of many people around the world, including in the United States, the term “capitalism” carries the idea of unfairness, exploitation, undeserved privilege and power, and immoral profit making. What is often difficult to get people to understand is that this misplaced conception of “capitalism” has nothing to do with real free markets […]
Some people are saying it is just what the doctor ordered. Others are saying that the cure is worse than the disease.The Affordable Care Act? Reengagement in Iraq? Tea Party bullying in the GOP?Not this time. Just as protracted in the corridors of Congress and the White House is the debate over the proposed reform […]
In 2012, money mandarins running the European Union chose stagnation over restructuring. Here’s a consequence of that choice: expectations for a self-sustaining economic recovery keep getting crushed.Two years ago, European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi promised to do “whatever it takes” to hold the eurozone together. He bluffed nervous investors into believing in a […]
People jacked up about income inequality can find a new hobby. The 1% are victims of a doomsday machine, and the countdown is ticking. Machine, thy name is “family.”This came to mind as I was reading a preview of Columbia Professor Andrew Ang’s forthcoming, must-read book on Asset Management. Ang is that oxymoron, an exciting […]
It might sound like the latest new product from Apple, but IPAB is actually the newest major legal challenge to Obamacare.Recently, a three-judge panel in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard arguments about the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, a 15-member panel created by the Affordable Care Act and empowered […]
Americans have come to believe that the IRS and the income tax are inevitable parts of our lives. After all, most everyone alive today has lived his entire life under federal income taxation.It wasn’t always that way. For some 125 years, the American people lived without having any tax imposed upon their income.The obvious question […]
Here’s a fun fact: Although we all hate the U.S. dollar, as it continues to hemorrhage wealth, its foothold as the world’s reserve currency isn’t going to disappear overnight.A Russian gas deal with China won’t change that — as we’ll highlight below.But before we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s dive into a story that’s right […]
Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously used the term “forgotten man” in a 1932 speech to describe those at the bottom of the economic pyramid who, he felt, government should aid.But the originator of the phrase “forgotten man” had a whole different meaning in mind. He aimed to expose the seeming good intentions of government to reveal […]
The Keynesian disaster recovery plan has been to lower rates, force people to take more risk in search of yield, and entice others to borrow and spend and, magically, more jobs will be created. If people won’t buy stocks, central banks will.Back in 2011, Ben Bernanke, when asked if QE2 was driving up stock prices, […]
I want to share some insight and give you a front-row seat to America’s next big shale play.Let’s get to it…Over the past 10 years, the U.S. has turned the ship around, quite literally.We’ve gone from a country that was expecting to import massive amounts of oil and gas — to a country that’s sitting […]
Whatever your views on the role of government, one thing is clear: There will be no way to pay for it if the economy doesn’t grow. And I’m not talking by a measly percentage point or two. If we can’t find our way back to 5% annual economic growth or above soon, America’s accumulated federal […]
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumer prices are rising at a 2.1% annual rate. This suggests to us that the current stock market boom will die with a bang, rather than a whimper.Fed economists say they don’t think inflation rates are rising. They think the most recent reading is a fluke. But why […]
Politicians love raising the minimum wage because they don’t have to ask voters to pay more in taxes. They just dump the costs onto shop owners. But they don’t act like politicians and go into debt to pretend like they have all the money in the world. They face real world situations. And sometimes that means replacing workers with more affordable options...
Regulation is supposed to keep you safe and make the economy function smoothly. At least that’s what they tell you in the news. But there’s another cost to regulation. One that you won’t hear about unless you have to deal with directly. And for the people in the economy who do, they’re the ones who have to pay the final cost.
The experts will tell you the recession is over, but they’re only torturing the data to hide the truth. The economy never recovered from the downturn it experienced. But the downturn happened in 2000, not 2008. The country’s been in the middle of a 14 year recession and hardly anyone knows the truth.
Every time Bitcoin crashes, it winds up at a price greater than it’s previous high. Yet the experts still call it a currency fad that will fade away. But a little over a year since it really took up, the digital currency is still going strong, and is once again seeing its price rise. But is there another reason why people are buying Bitcoins.
All paper currency has a shelf life. It could be 5 years or 500 years, but at some point, the value of any paper currency eventually reaches zero. That's why, for centuries, people have turned to one shiny metal to safeguard their personal store of wealth. And, as Jim Rickards explains, you still have that option. Read on...
According to some estimates, one man - whose name you're probably not familiar with - has saved over a billion lives. Who is he? And how has he influenced the current crop of innovators? Josh Grasmick explains...
It’s a destructive cycle that comes around everytime your politicians ask you to take to the polls. The government’s meddling creates unexpected problems that eventually overshadow the planners’ original intentions. But that only leads the way for even more interventions.
Politicians love inflation. It’s a way to pay for the government’s debts without upsetting the public by raising taxes, or their special interests by cutting government. So they’ll flood the economy with easy money and eat away at your savings. But that’s only part of the story...
You can count the number of people who went to jail over the 2008 financial crisis on one hand. Which is strange considering the U.S. loves to put people away in jail. But as one author discovered in his most recent book, having the right connections and a big enough bank account, can protect you from even the worst crimes.
Obama recently claimed this was the “Decade of the Brain”. But it not the first time the government made that promise. The last time they did it, they wasted millions of your tax dollars. Now they’re back for round two. But this time, their failure could mean more than squandered money. It could mean making Alzheimer’s even worse for those who suffer from it.
Finally, my obsession comes to an end.
For a full week, I’ve thought about not much else besides the economic concept of “marginal utility.” It has consumed me completely. I’ve come to realize how much it pervades my thinking about virtually everything.
I first heard about the notion in college, but one book revived the whole topic for me. It is Philip Wicksteed’s The Common Sense of Political Economy. It’s a book that makes economic logic real in our lives.
The Common Sense of Political Economy is an excellent example of a rediscovered classic — a book of profound importance in its time that came to be lost in the shuffle for no good reason. I read it for the first time only recently, and the importance of the book overwhelmed me. Here is a treatise on economics written at the dawn of the discovery of the great principle of modern economics: marginal utility.
It is as mighty and significant as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action, and like these books, it is not just a dusty old tome, but one that speaks directly to the great issues of our time.
This is why I’m thrilled that Laissez Faire Books is the publisher of this new edition, the first modern edition with American spellings, correct graph placements, cleaned-up citations, and perfect navigation. Also, a great teacher of modern economics has written a great introduction to it. He is Peter Boettke of George Mason University. He writes as if the author is an old friend and the ideas he is discussing are at the front of his mind always.
Wicksteed’s clarity exceeds any other presentation I’ve read, mainly because it is not a translation, but in English originally. Wicksteed’s enthusiasm, even love, for the topic itself is obvious on every page. He is like a tour guide in a great castle who turns on lights in room after room and proceeds to explain everything in each room with precision and excitement. The reader can detect this in his prose.
Why does he put the phrase common sense in the title? There are two meanings. He sought to bring a certain unity to the opinions and debates within economics at the time. The principle of marginal utility had been written about and taught for several decades. It was the great discovery within economic theory of the last half of the 19th century, but was only then becoming the full consensus of the science itself. Wicksteed sought to make the marginalist way of thinking the “common” way.
The second way he uses the term is to capture the effect of marginalist thinking on the human mind. Once you get the principle, the functioning of the world becomes clearer to you. What was previously mysterious now seems rather obvious. What had previously baffled you now seems perfectly clear. The marginalist way of thinking becomes, in the most colloquial use of the phrase, “common sense.”
Wicksteed writes with the passion of a hobbyist (he was actually a Unitarian minister in “real life”), but with a precision that exceeded all the professional economists of his time. It still stands as the most elaborate, detailed, and extensive exposition of the idea ever written.
If you stick with his argument from beginning to end, your thinking will be permanently affected. You will see marginal utility all around, in every economic action. It will provide new ways of thinking of prices, resources, and human behavior. You will have an impenetrable edifice against the fallacy of thinking of the value of whole classes of goods and services, and instead will see value as exclusively attached to the incremental choice of the acting person.
What is marginalism? It is the notion that economic value extends from the incremental choice one unit at a time. Why does this matter?
Let me give the nearest example at hand. I have a cup of coffee in front of me. I made it with my Keurig coffee maker. Each Keurig cup costs 50 cents. Is that too much or too little? On the one hand, it is crazy expensive. I could pay $4 for a full can of coffee and make probably 40 cups, paying only 10 cents per cup.
Why don’t I do this? Because my choice is made at the margin. I’m not evaluating a whole stock of a good. I’m making my value judgments on just the one cup of coffee that I want to drink right now. This is the relevant unit, not some abstraction concerning how much coffee is at the store or on the ships coming from Africa or the whole stock of coffee growing in plantations all over the world. What matters to me in making the choice of whether the coffee is “worth it” is the cup right in front of me.
The classic puzzle that marginal utility sought to solve was this: Why are diamonds so much more valuable in the market than water, even though water is obviously more necessary for life? Just on the face of it, shouldn’t it be the reverse? Marginalism solves the issue. The choice for one or the other is made on the incremental unit, not on anyone’s opinion on the value of the whole class of goods.
From the point of view of human choice, water is usually far more plentiful and available than diamonds, whereas diamonds are much less so and, therefore, have a much higher value per unit. The situation could reverse itself in a different social context. A man dying of thirst in the desert will pay far more for water than diamonds. This is how prices come to be: The choice at the moment of decision-making for or against the increment of what is available right now.
Marginal utility theory solves many other seeming mysteries. Why are movies that cost tens of millions of dollars to make available for download for only a few bucks or even for free, while video games that might cost only a few thousand dollars to make priced $50 and $100? The answer is that the user is not making judgments based on the cost of production, but only on the use value of one unit to him or her at the point of decision making.
Marginalism helps explain wage puzzles too. Why do plumbers make so much more money than baby sitters, even though baby sitters are guarding and protecting human lives and plumbers are only unstopping drains? The baby sitter might indeed have great total utility to society, but the market makes judgments on the margin. Baby-sitting services are much easier to come by, whereas plumbing services are relatively scarcer. Consumers do not care about total utility; they care about obtaining the service in the one instance in which they need it. That decision is what determines the price.
This insight further addresses wage issues that would otherwise mystify people. Why does a basketball star, who would seem to provide nothing necessary to human life, make so much more money than a reading teacher, who is teaching a crucial skill? Again, it is not the total utility of the task that matters for economics, but the utility of the incremental choice of the acting person.
Why, on holidays, are restaurants open but banks closed, when surely banking provides a more unique service to society and anyone can cook stuff at home anytime? The answer is that restaurants make higher profits on the margin on holidays, when people want to go out to eat, whereas the banks have discovered that their profit margins are best served by opening when people tend to do their banking, which is not on holidays.
Marginalism helps illuminate many other economic concepts, such as opportunity cost (the real cost of anything is the thing you give up to get it), subjective value (economic value resides in the human mind, not the physical good), diminishing marginal utility (the more of each additional unit you buy, the less you are willing to pay for it), and the relationship of cost and price (the cost of a good never dictates its market prices; indeed, the reverse is true). It provides insight in nearly every aspect of human behavior.
Once you begin to think about the margin, the scales truly do fall from your eyes.
You will notice the book is gigantic. But it is also a joy to read, because Wicksteed’s own enthusiasm is infectious. Maybe you will be like me and truly come to admire and genuinely like the man behind the prose. I appreciate his spirit of discovery and exposition. It’s absolutely marvelous that he can speak to us again, a full century and two years after his masterpiece first came out. It’s a big, but worthy task to go on this tour of economic reality with him. Marginalism will become your “common-sense” way of viewing the world when you’ve finished.