Thursday, October 31, 2013

Random Thoughts on Halloween

Imagine the kids collecting themselves at home tonight, comparing their booty, and in the mix of treats, you find some home-made caramels or rice crispy treats, or some such.  How would you react?  I think many prudent parents would throw them out, these days.  Even accepting that there is nothing to the fear mongering about needles in apples or poisoned candies, do we know what the ingredients are in those treats?  Do we know if the kitchen was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected?  No, the prudent parent in this day and age says, "You can only eat candy that was produced and sealed up thousands of miles away, by some portion of hundreds of workers, anonymous to you, working solely in their own self interest for the purpose of earning wages or a profit." (edit:  Well, probably not in those exact words....)

In our private lives, when it comes to things most precious to us, we become extremists in our esteem for Adam Smith's cold and calculating butcher, brewer, and baker.


I was working on some complex excel spreadsheets this morning that I have created in order to interpret the Eurodollar futures market.  As I do every day, I input the day's range of settled prices across contracts, and hit that magic little button labeled "Solver".  Excel performed calculations in a few seconds that would have taken me days to do by hand, maybe weeks, and spit out an interpretation, per my specifications.  This program has easily provided me with $10,000s of consumer surplus.  Over my life, it will likely provide consumer surplus in the millions of dollars.  The producer surplus captured by Bill Gates and the other owners of Microsoft can't be more than $20 or $30.  The imbalance there is cosmic.  Bill Gates should be pissed.  I should be embarrassed to accept a deal with such overwhelmingly unfair terms.

Yet, the absurdity of the situation is even more outrageous than that, as there are many who claim that it is Mr. Gates' claim on that paltry $30 profit that is unjust - and capitalism is blamed for the imbalance that appears by comparing Mr. Gate's accumulation of $30 gains to the lack of profits claimed by some people who happened not to engage in the mutually beneficial trade shared by Mr. Gates and me.

I can agree that a complex web of network effects and a certain amount of luck in the timing and process of developing computer standardization might have made Mr. Gate's profits larger than they might otherwise have been, in a sort of winner-takes-all business context.  But, the irony, of course, is that the relatively unfettered process of competitive production is what brought Mr. Gate's large take down by orders of magnitude lower than the benefit to consumers like me.  And, the process that allows us to imagine a world without Mr. Gates, that ends up with a very similar product at a very similar price, with someone else pocketing the producer surplus, is a process uniquely created through the redundant, anarchic, and competitive landscape of the capitalist market system.

The infamous strawman of perfectly competitive markets that many suppose underlies the defense of markets is only within the grasp of our imagination because actual markets come so close to achieving it.

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